In recent years, the audiophile hobby has become considerably more affordable for beginners, attracting many more people to the fold. This is because of the rapid growth and global spread of ‘Chi-Fi'; entry-level IEMs from China look and sound pretty good, and don't cost too much either. The emergence of good portable DACs has also largely covered for the lack of 3.5mm sockets on modern smartphones, making it possible to set up a decent portable audiophile kit on a budget.
I've had a chance to test many Chi-Fi products, the latest of which is the CCA PLA13. Priced at Rs. 3,999 in India, the CCA PLA13 has planar magnetic drivers — something unique to products in this price segment — which promise great sound quality. Is this the best audiophile-grade wired IEM you can buy for less than Rs. 5,000 right now? Find out in this review.
The code-like alphanumeric naming of the CCA PLA13 fits in rather well with the general look and feel of the earphones, which arguably pulls off the transparent aesthetic a bit better than the Nothing Ear 1 (Review). With big plastic earpieces and a glossy dark-shaded exterior, the CCA PLA13 feels solid and looks great. The backs of the earpieces are rather easy to look through, while the fronts have small ‘windows' that let you look into the innards, specifically the planar magnetic drivers.
Other interesting design aspects include the bass vents, transparent cable, and the long extension for the ear tips that gives the CCA PLA13 a secure in-canal fit. The cable looks good, has a microphone and one-button remote, and is detachable and replaceable, with standard 0.75mm two-pin connectors to plug into the earpieces, and a 3.5mm plug for the source device or DAC. Unfortunately the cable is quite tangle-prone, but is well insulated to minimise cable noise.
While the fit of large IEMs tends to often be tricky, the CCA PLA13 is quite easy to put on and take off, although the earphones themselves are a bit heavy. The ear hooks on the included 1.2m cable are quite well made, and stayed securely in place around my ears while the earpieces were worn.
The CCA PLA13 has 13.2mm planar magnetic drivers, with a frequency response range of 20-20,000Hz, an impedance rating of around 16 Ohms, and a sensitivity rating of around 100dB. The impedance rating makes it easy enough to drive the earphones even with ordinary source devices such as a laptop or smartphone, but pairing the CCA PLA13 with even a basic portable DAC can make a significant difference in the listening experience.
When it comes to personal audio, the concept of tuning is vastly underrated, and the effort that goes into tuning can make even ordinary hardware sound better than more expensive but poorly-tuned kit. However, that doesn't take away from what superior equipment brings to the table, especially when paired with careful tuning of its own. While the CCA PLA13 may not be as impressively set up as the much more affordable (and dynamic driver-powered) Moondrop Chu, it manages to deliver expectedly better performance on the whole, thanks to its excellent planar magnetic drivers.
For my review, HeadphoneZone (the distributor for CCA in India) provided me with the iFi Go Link DAC/Amp, which paired well with the earphones and helped draw a bit more power and drive, apart from making it possible to plug directly into both, iOS and Android smartphones, as source devices.
This made the overall setup fairly compact and portable, so this is something that you can explore if you're looking for a good on-the-go audiophile setup. I did also connect the CCA PLA13 directly to my laptop occasionally for this review, with notable differences in the loudness and how the sound felt at roughly equivalent volume levels on different devices. The DAC made it possible for the earphones to sound louder without any audible harshness in the sound, so the PLA13 definitely benefits from having the best possible input signal.
Listening to Pasilda by Afro Medusa, the CCA PLA13 provided an immersive and lively sound from the get-go, with decent performance across the frequency range. While there was a fair amount of attack and drive in the low-end, the bass didn't feel quite as impactful and deep as on the more affordable Moondrop Chu, even if the lows sounded a bit more detailed, and seemed to extend just a bit lower. Indeed, it's an arguably more refined approach to the bass, and one that better agrees with the philosophy of audiophile listening.
With the faster and more varied Fake Awake by Andy Moor, the responsiveness of the mid-range and highs on the CCA PLA13 were better highlighted. Sharpness and detail in even the higher bass frequencies was noticeable, providing impressive detail levels across the track without the sub-bass overpowering the rest of the track through too much attack. On the whole, it's a reasonably balanced approach to the sound, highlighting detail and perception, and steering clear of any obvious biases.
The one variant of the CCA PLA13 sold in India has a microphone and single-button remote, so you can use it as a hands-free headset or recording device with compatible source devices. This functionality works reasonably well if you need it, although this does come across as somewhat dated and inconvenient in the age of wireless audio.
Many would argue that the type of driver isn't all that important, and there are cases where even the humble dynamic driver sounds excellent, such as the Rs. 14,990 Sennheiser IE 200. That said, the idea of having technically superior planar magnetic drivers on a budget IEM is appealing, and the CCA PLA13 delivers a fun listening experience that is focused on detail and refinement.
While there are plenty of options for a starter audiophile, the CCA PLA13 is a relatively inexpensive wired IEM headset that might be worth considering if you have a budget of around Rs. 5,000. You should ideally pair it with a decent budget DAC for best results, but it's easy enough to just plug in and get going, if you already have a good source device with a 3.5mm socket.
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