This was the stall I most wanted to spend time at over the course of the weekend, after becoming a recent convert to the Acoustune “house sound” with the acquisition of one of their older models (the HS1503al) off another Head-Fi’er on eBay recently. For the uninitiated, Acoustune are a Japanese brand that specialise in uniquely industrial looking single dynamic drivers. They use a medical material called Myrinx for the driver diaphragm, which they claim gives a coherent and uniquely emotional sound, with higher resolution and a wider frequency range than conventional DD materials. They match this with a two-part IEM body consisting of a frame and a central “tuning chamber”, made out of solid metal. The team at Acoustune use different materials for the chamber to alter the overall tuning.
The first two models I listened to were their current production models, the HS1650cu and the HS1670ss – the two letters at the end of the model name denotes the material the main tuning chamber is made of (in this case, “cu” for copper and “ss” for stainless steel). Both models share an identical physical build (apart from the material of the central chamber), with the differences in tuning coming exclusively from the different sonic properties of that central chamber. If you have never seen an Acoustune product before, this is a perfect example of industrial design, looking unlike anything else currently on the market. Despite the unusual angles and edges on the exterior, the inside face of the IEM is very well judged, with smooth and rounded edges on all the major contact points with the surface of the ear and a very ergonomic fit. in fact, the Acoustune models fit me about as well as any universal IEM I have owned, with the nozzle angle and shallow insertion depth working very well with my cavernous ears.
Both models share a similar “core” sound, with some subtle sonic differences. The core is based around a powerful low end response,detailed and emotive vocal performance and a dash of sparkle up top. This is a classic “Japanese V” style tuning, which isn’t neutral but can come across as pretty natural depending on the type of music you listen to.
Starting with the HS1650cu (herein referred to just as the 1650), this is the “bassier” of the two current models in the range. It sports a well defined V, with prominent sub and mid bass, a clean and detailed mid section and some crispness and extension in the treble to keep the sound feeling open. The first thing that struck me about the 1650 was the size of the sound, with it sharing some of the traits I adore about the CA Atlas, presenting a large sonic image in the ear. This isn’t as bassy as the Atlas, but it can definitely push out some seriously textured rumble when required, so straddles the line between bass boosted and “bass head lite” in terms of quantity. It slams with authority, and adds a good sense of weight and substance to more orchestral tracks like “Palladio” or some of my film soundtrack music. This is a deep, bombastic sound, with a genuine sub bass rumble you can feel. Texture and control is good, with a pretty quick decay for a dynamic driver – not quite BA fast, but definitely feels tight rather than sloppy.
Moving up to the mids, these are a step back from the bass and treble, but carry a lot of fine detail for the price bracket these IEMs are in. To put it into context, they won’t be the MOST detailed in-ears you will hear at a similar price, but they don’t leave you feeling robbed of any clarity in a recording, presenting just enough texture with vocals and instrumentation to capture the nuance of the recordings. They also do a very good job of portraying the emotion in vocal performances – it’s a tuning trick the old Final Audio series were masters at, and Acoustune seem to have drunk from the same well there, mixing edge with weight and smoothness to give an IEM that is genuinely moving with tracks like “Run” by Leona Lewis. There is a slight sweetness to both male and female vocals, which also translates onto acoustic guitar, giving a very musical sort of tonality to some singer-songwriter tunes. There is a slight emphasis to my ears on the female vocalists, indicating a slight push as the mids go up. Rock guitar carries a good edge of crispness and crunch, sitting nicely on top of the bass and sounding crisp and raw.
Treble is boosted, but not overly so, with a healthy dose of sparkle and air but nothing too hot. Cymbals crash and splash with emphasis, providing a nice counterpoint to the sonic weight underneath. Overall, a very enjoyable and musical tuning, with plenty of weight to instrumentation and a lot of energy across the board.
Next up was the HS1670ss. This is the more detail oriented model of the current range, with emphasis tilted slightly more towards midrange and treble and slightly less emphasis on bass. Note that this doesn’t actually mean no bass – it is a common theme that all of the Acoustune models pack a decent wallop down low, so despite being the treble tilted model, this thing is still comfortably north of neutral in the lower end of the soundscape. It hits with power, but presents a slightly less bombastic and thinner sound than its sibling 1650. There is a slightly more etched feel to the midrange, with the edge of notes carrying more bite and attack, not having quite as much depth or weight to the individual notes. Detail is not an issue for these IEMs, with the slightly leaner tonality and capability of the driver giving a more obvious edge in terms of clarity for the 1670 over the more “musical” 1650.
In terms of shape, it feels like a very shallow V shape, with a noticeable but slight push in the bass and some very bright treble up top. Resolution is again good, with the ghost notes on the drum intro to “Dubai Blues” by Chickenfoot and the shadow vocal line that appears underneath the main vocal in “Hold Back The River” by James Bay both coming through clean, and with a hint more ease than the warmer cu-based model.
The 1670 still has that classic DD impact, and presents another energetic and moving sound, although not quite as emotionally engaging for my tastes as its younger brother. As with the 1650, the cable and build are impeccable – if there is another IEM firm that includes cables of this quality (and number of cores!) with their sub-$1k models I haven’t come across them yet. The key differentiator for me between the two models apart from the bass weight is the treble, with the 1670 sporting a very emphasised sense of sparkle in the high notes in compared to the lively but in comparison more subdued 1650 model.
Looking at positioning and technicalities, “Thriller” presents the directional cues for the opening footsteps with both depth and width, but the intro seems almost gossamer thin compared to the 1650. “Why So Serious” is handled well too, with a big enough bass to be impressive (despite being the “lesser” of the two monitors), and it picks up the gentle ticking after the sub bass drop in the track almost as well as the Trinity Brass, which is impressive. (Note – almost isn’t the same as does, before anyone takes too much offence). Overall, the 1670ss is a very good technical IEM for the price, and carries a lot of nice tuning choices, but just feels a little too sterile in comparison to the “lesser brother” the 1650 in direct comparison.
The two new models awaiting release are iterative upgrades on both the current ones. I spent a bit of time with the 1655cu, and in all honesty I thought it was a notable but only slight improvement on the 1650. It’s effectively more of the same, but with just a hair more refinement in the fine detail, and a dip in the upper bass/lower mids transition to highlight a bit more texture and detailing. It really is splitting hairs between them, and I liked the 1650 so much I purchased it, so that should tell you all you need to know about these. I think they are both extremely close in tuning and performance (based on a 10 minute listen, so don’t take that as gospel).
Ditto for the 1670ss replacement – it provides a little more of what the 1670 is good at, but doesn’t reinvent the tuning wheel there. For me, the 1650 sits perfectly at the intersection of value, technical ability and musicality – for those wanting the latest and greatest, the new models will definitely show an improvement, but fall firmly into the diminishing returns bracket so will be down to individual taste how far up the tree you want to go.
Overall, I think this was my favourite table of the whole show, and a welcome addition to the Canjam UK roster.
The Fiio table was pretty packed every time I walked past, as they chose Canjam London to debut three (!) new items – an upgraded desktop amp (the K5 Pro), a “Pro” version of the recently launched M11 DAP and a new balanced Bluetooth dongle. I didn’t manage to check out the amp or dongle, but did manage to grab a brief amount of time with a few other things on the stall.
First up was the Fiio FH7 – this is their latest flagship IEM model, sporting a big beryllium dynamic driver and four balanced armatures. It has an all metal build in a pretty distinctive shape, and some premium cabling and accessories. Didn’t spend long with these – my initial takeaway was of a smooth, cohesive sounding hybrid with nice bass extension. It didn’t strike me as being hugely detailed on my brief listen, but still sounded resolving enough for the price. I suspect there is more detail there than I initially gave it credit for, but the smooth warmth of the tuning doesn’t push it particularly forward into the ear. The sound felt dense, and had good width but not a huge amount of depth with tracks like “Thriller”.
The only thing I picked up that could have raised a few alarm bells with longer listening was a slight sharpness/push in the lower treble to my ears. Definitely a decent IEM, and will be one I look out for in future for a much longer listen so I can make a proper impression of in my mind.
The other item I got to spend about 10 minutes with was the M11Pro. In design and build, this is practically identical to the M11, just sporting a slightly more “stealth” paint job and finish, and the word “Pro” emblazoned on the bottom corner. In terms of sonics, it was also pretty close to the M11 – the only discernable difference straight off the bat was that the output is slightly lower in volume than the M11 for the same volume setting on high gain (using the Acoustune HS1503al to test). Not a huge difference to my ears, apart from a slightly blacker and cleaner background – hiss also seems to be lower (or pretty much non existent) on the Pro model. User experience was identical to the original version, so I would need some serious testing time to discern the differences between the two amp/DAC sections, which I didn’t have time for at Canjam. Will be interested to see what the reviewers and measurers make of the differences – from reading various things online, the AK4497 is supposed to be a cooler more analytical DAC than the more “fun” 4493 chips used in the original M11, and the THX amp has better technical performance but a clean and transparent nature. If I had to guess, this would make the Pro version a little colder and more revealing or technical in comparison to the original model, but as mentioned, I didn’t have the time to check that theory in any great detail.
I called by the Cardas stand specifically to check out the Cardas A8 30th Anniversary Edition, as I was a big fan of the sound of the original A8, which was one of the first few IEMs I ever wrote up for review.
The anniversary edition is a beautiful looking IEM design, ditching the blue rubberised coating of the original for an anodised black finish over the solid brass shells. The A8 seemed to fit well with foams, in fact better than I remember the original staying in place. The cable is fixed but has an excellent look and feel, and seems lighter than the original, which may have something to do with the better fit this time around.
in terms of sonics, the anniversary edition puts out exactly the same sound as I remember from the original A8 – beefy, solid in the mid and sub bass with plenty of physical impact. Finer detail in tracks like “Why So Serious” are hidden for quite a long time compared to some of the newer DD models I tested like the Acoustunes and the oBravo Cupid, so I don’t think the ultra-linear driver in the A8 is the most detailed DD in this price bracket. It does add a fatness to the low end sound, however, with the drop in “Freak On A Leash” by Korn sounding pretty huge and chunky in the ear.
Overall, this is an L-shaped signature, with smooth and clean highs without a huge amount of sparkle. There isn’t a huge soundstage, but the A8 does present the stage with good depth, and a feeling of physical solidity to the notes that is difficult to replicate. These are IEMs for people who like their signature bassy, smooth and weighty (just like the earbuds).
I spent a few different sessions at the 64 Audio table, which was manned by a variety of bodies from their US headquarters (including one of the Belonozhko siblings Vlad) and the ever-present Oscar from Hifiheadphones, who have just finished inking a deal to become a UK distributor of 64 Audio products. This was one of the tables I really wanted to spend some time at – I have been nonplussed by some of their products in the past, but was a big fan of their original basshead model the U8, and wanted to see if I could find an equivalent in the new range.
The first model available was the U12t – this is a 12 driver all-BA model with one trademark TIA open BA to add the distinctive high end that 64 are becoming known for. The first thing that stuck me was the detail, which was immediately noticeable in any of the tracks I tried. The shell design was a solid metal build, but using the shape from the existing acrylic universals (including the ultra long nozzle) to give a great fit in my ears with the recommended foam tips. Isolation was decent with the attached M20 module (which is part of their APEX pressure relief technology that is built in to every model now) – as this is effectively a vent in the shell, they won’t block out quite as much noise as a sealed all-BA IEM, though.
Kicking off some demo tracks, I noticed a nice solidity and pulse to the opening bass on “Palladio”, with the clicking sound easily discernable. Crisp, open feel to the sound. Soundstage in every large, pushing out of the head in all directions – you would expect this due to the way the APEX technology works, but it’s still refreshing to hear every time I try a 64 Audio model. The their notable thing that struck me was how each individual note seems to feel “controlled” – don’t really know any other way to describe it. The IEM also gives a good sense of texture, present my James Bay test tracks with a deeply textured vocal. It isn’t the most liquid or organic, but gives a deeply well-grained feel rather than a smooth and honeyed style of presentation. It leans more towards dry than liquid, but does carry some warmth from the bass. In terms of quantity, bass is definitely present, but not at basshead levels. This isn’t as famously bassy as its predecessor the U12 (or the U8).
Playing “Thriller”, there is a really good sense of positional cues and a massive headspace to present the intro in. Opening synth sounds are extremely delicate and crisp, but don’t feel lacking in body. Switching up to some of my more usual fare, there is an edge to rock music that cuts through the warmth – this is not the thickest presentation you will ever hear, but it does add a cutting edge to guitar transients and distortion guitar work, giving plenty of bite and attack to my favourite Slash and Sons Of Apollo tunes.
Going back to the bass, there is pretty good depth and presence, with a strong punch to snare drums. Detail and clarity in the low end is good too, with the ghost snare drum notes on “Dubai Blues” by Chickenfoot being presented cleanly and easily audible in the mix. “Why So Serious?” builds nicely, with a solid sub bass rumble – deep extension is not a problem for these drivers. This should be more than enough rumble for all but the most ardent basshead, with the U12t just leaving that final bit of physical impact compared to a dynamic driver unit. The U12t also picks up the ticking clock after the bass drop almost as quickly as the estat models I have heard this weekend, with the TIA driver showing its prowess well.
Separation is high level, the U12t coping well with heavily stacked gospel choruses like “Down In Mississippi” by Mavis Staples, layering the vocals neatly on top of each other but not blurring them together. “Give Me Some Light” by Matt Andersen sounds as good as it has all weekend, the U12t drawing a line between textural dryness and the inherent warmth of the track to present something that is both musical and revealing.
Listening out for some acoustic guitar, the opening licks on “Shallow” by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga practically “pops” on these IEMs, with both sets of vocals sounding clear and emotive, if (again) a little on the dry side. Chris Stapleton sounds dry and raspy, with plenty of trademark grit in his voice but just enough roundness to the delivery to avoid sharpness or sibilance.
There would have been more notes, but unfortunately the U12t was a very popular IEM. It was also an IEM I spent more time drifting into with the music than sitting there taking notes on, which should tell you something about how much I enjoyed them. Definitely an enjoyable and suitably high-end listening experience.
Next up was the Fourte Noir – in comparison to the U12t, this is a richer and darker sound straight off the bat. It feels more organic, but noticeably darker, as the name implies. Notes feel lusher and thicker. Vocals still cut through, but notes carry more substantial weight, with less emphasis on the edges.
Listening to some of the same tracks, “Palladio” sounds cavernously deep, but the additional bass over the U12t actually makes the clicking sound in the opening bars harder to hear, so this is possible a little less revealing in certain frequency ranges due to the increased low end presence. I didn’t get to spend much time with the Noir, but it struck me as a rich, organic, “right” sounding IEM. There was no glare or harshness to speak of, and a very musical timbre and tone to everything. Definitely not the cheapest thing you will ever hear, with a price tag approaching $4000 – is it worth it? For me personally, probably not, but if you have the money I’d say it is definitely one of the strong contenders for the current TOTOTL crown (Top of the TOTL).
The N8t was the other IEM I was really looking forward to hearing on the 64 booth, as I was a big fan of the original 8 driver model. initial impression was of a similar sound to the Fourte Noir in some aspects, with a warmer darker texture compared to the U12t. The N8t is definitely not as organic sounding as the Noir, and actually has a surprisingly similar level of bass quantity. It lacks a little air in comparison to the U12t, with highs sounding smooth and a little subdued. It was also a little harder to drive than the Noir, so whatever they are packing in there needs a bit more juice to get up to a decent SPL.
Compared to the other two IEMs above, the detail level is slightly lower on the N8t. Bass impact is solid (as you would expect), with a good physicality to bass and snare drum. There is absolutely bags of texture in the bass, but still plenty of liquidity. I’m interested to note that this doesn’t actually feel quite like a basshead level IEM in terms of sheer quantity, but it is definitely a very “bass capable” one. The sound feels big but due to the darkness, soundstage doesn’t feel as vast add the other models, feeling more closed in. Overall takeaway – good, but nothing special.
The last model in the lineup I tried was the U18t – if I had to sum it up in three words: detail detail detail. Sticking with the low end to start, the U18t has a nice amount of bass presence, managing a decent amount of thrum with “Why So Serious?”. It isn’t at the level of the DD models, but it isn’t anaemic either. Snare drum hits snap with energy, and it adds a cutting edge to the music that is almost jagged at times. These things spit out serious edge and definition, sacrificing some of the weight and organic tonality of the Fourte for something altogether leaner and more taut.
Everything is presented with clean space around it, with exemplary separation and layering of sound. On “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel, you can practically see the acoustic bass guitar strings vibrate as the track kicks off. It lacks a little liquidity, giving the bass a dry and almost powdery texture, but packing loads into the detailing of each note as a trade-off. This is not a sound you can relax into, this is more of a critical listening experience, demanding engagement from the listener.
Chris Stapleton sounds gravelly and raw, but the U18t comes a little too close to harsh for me on “Whiskey And You”, the push in the midrange adding a sharp emphasis to the poorly recorded vocals in this track. The U18t is pretty unforgiving in this respect, and will happily highlight any sub standard recordings you play through it with its merciless analysis.
Treble is crisp and pure, and lives up to everything you read about it, so there isn’t much more I can add. Overall, this monitor is technically impressive but just a little too analytical for my own personal preferences.
What surprised me most about my trip through the various models (apart from the range of different sounds 64 Audio has) was that my favourite model out of all the ones listened to would be the U12t. It doesn’t have the sheer tonal beauty of the Noir, but there was something about the blend of openness and substance that just made me enjoy everything I listened to it – this was definitely in my top 5 most enjoyable IEMs at the 2019 show.
Another manufacturer I was keen to hear on the weekend was Vision Ears. These German based CIEM specialists have been making a pretty big splash in the high-end sector recently with the release of their first ever universal, the eye-wateringly priced Erlkonig. They have also joined the growing number of manufacturers on the e-stat train with their newest tribrid model, the Elysium.
I tried the Erlkonig first. This is a 13-driver all balanced armature model, with four switchable tunings (changed by taking off the faceplate and adjusting a small screw on the main IEM body. It also has a SOLID SILVER shell, with four solid silver faceplates to choose from as well. The Erlkonig also has the most ornate (and biggest) presentation box and accessory loadout I’ve seen on any headphone product ever – the thing looks like a jeweller’s shop window display. Just beautiful.
Getting on to the sound, I tried the Erlkonig out on the maximum bass setting first (setting 1) – initial impression is of a warm and clear sound, not overly crisp but carrying plenty of “analogue resolution”. Vocals sound smooth and velvety, with an average note weight, and a slight sweetness to female vocals. Bass is definitely north of neutral but not excessively weighty, contributing to a slight warmth in the overall sound.
Running through my test tracks, “Whiskey And You” sounds like old vinyl, with a rich tonality and an almost romantic tint to Stapleton’s voice. Harshness is totally absent on this track, with everything pushing through the ears with utter smoothness. This tuning seems to suit warm bluesy numbers like the latest Matt Andersen album very well, giving enough bass depth to really warm up the sound without drowning the clarity in the process.
After an initial dalliance, I moved on to the “recommended” setting by Amin @ Vision Ears, which is setting 2 (balanced). The Erlkonig retains most of its warmth in this configuration, but gains a notable increase in clarity in the vocal registers. This setting feels less sinfully rich than the full-fat bass version, but better balanced as a result, with the same sort of analogue tonality but more palpable sir between the notes.
Detail is easier to pick out in the second setting, but this still isn’t an overly aggressive presentation of micro detail. There is plenty of top tier resolution and refinement in the sound, but it doesn’t scream into the foreground, being content to sit further back.
Overall shape of the tuning is fairly natural, with a balanced midrange and a dash of sparkle and emphasis towards the top end of the sound. This is not an IEM that is overly bright, but if definitely is not lacking in air either. If anything, it leans almost towards the Campfire Audio house style of “warmly detailed”, with a resolution and clarity that is achieved through technical proficiency of the underlying design rather than artificial peaks in the tuning. A very rich and enjoyable sounding IEM, with a natural resolution that creeps up on you but can most likely rival a lot of the the other top tier contenders out there (from my initial listen, anyway – I’m unlikely to ever have enough cash to buy one and find out for certain, no matter how much I’d like to!).
Moving on to the Elysium, this is a far harder to drive model, requiring a lot more volume notches on the M11 to get to a listenable output. That is unsurprising given the fact that it uses e-stat treble drivers, as pretty much every manufacturer pointed out various technical difficulties they had to get past when using these in their hybrid designs, mostly around volume of output. In terms of actual design, it is a triple hybrid, with a balanced armature bass section, a dynamic driver covering the midrange and dual-estat tweeters. This is an unusual configuration, with only the Lola from JH Audio to my knowledge using a DD setup for mids in a hybrid design to date.
The Elysium is more neutral in tuning than the Erlkonig, with a fairly flat shape, sporting a neutral bass and heavier treble emphasis than the Erlkonig. Detail is more pronounced across the board than the silver monster, with an almost effortless resolution in the upper end of the spectrum. Note weight is somewhere between light and medium, presenting voices with texture but not a huge amount of body. Layering and separation are top tier again, with plenty of dark space between the notes and a good lateral spread in terms of soundstage width. This is still a musical tuning, but he with a very light touch – probably not for the bass lovers out there. It still has the trademark VE sweetness in the vocals and a healthy dose of sparkle in the high end, though.
Bass extension is decent, but as mentioned is fairly light in quantity, giving just a slight tickle in the ear with “Why So Serious?”. The e-stat tweeter picks up the ticking clock sound in this track very early, joining the Trinity Brass from Jomo in picking this out as quickly as anything else I’ve heard at Canjam over the two days.
Overall, this is a beautiful looking (and fitting) IEM, and one that implements the electrostatic high end very well. Like the Erlkonig, this comes at a high price (c. $3000 I believe) – again, if money is no object then the Elysium is a pretty interesting choice if you like your sound more neutral, but in terms of cost and value, I think it may struggle in a straight comparison with the Jomo Trinity models.
The EE stand was one of the most over-subscribed in the entire show, with a constant stream of people waiting to try out the various goodies on display. It was also one of the most undermanned, with the usual Vang clan attendees (Jack and Dean) over at another convention in Thailand (if I remember correctly). They left the stall in the capable hands of the ever smiling Josh, who managed to spin multiple demo sets of IEMs, take sales orders, change cables AND do ear impressions, all with a grin on his face and some first class banter to go along with it. Josh – it was a genuine pleasure to meet you, and glad to see another EE employee who obviously loves what they do!
Special mention should also go to Devon from EE, who very kindly arranged together an order for two engraved Pandora cases processed in double quick time and on the plane with Josh to avoid the $75 US-UK shipping fees – sorry for making you use the last of your smiley face tape, but the cases were worth it!
Getting on to the IEMs, the first one of the new range I got to hear was the Valkyrie, which marks Empire’s entry into the tribrid arms race. initial thoughts are that this is a fairly balanced sound, trending toward W shaped on my brief listen. in terms of design, there is a surprisingly plentiful bass provided by the W9 subwoofer dynamic driver, a balanced armature midrange and a single electrostatic treble driver using Empire’s proprietary EIVEC technology. As for actual physical design, the Valkyrie uses Empire’s latest “pseudo-custom” universal shell design, and achieves an excellent fit in my ears, with the shells feeling light and very comfortable.
The sound is roughly neutral in note weight, with slightly more heft in the low low end of the sound due to the subwoofer, but slightly less emphasis further up through the midrange until you get to the highs. The overall tonality is somewhat bright due to the top end, without a huge amount of warmth but balanced a bit by the solid low end underpinnings provided by the W9. Stage position is somewhere between neutral and intimate, placing you a few rows back from centre stage.
Kicking off the tester tunes, “Palladio” comes through as very textured, and the click at the start is very clearly audible. Violins feel sharp and almost vinegary in emphasis, pushing forward with lots of texture and an aggressive edge to the individual notes. This is a bright and energetic monitor, pushing lots of detail and decibels in the higher ranges, and leaning more to clean and analytical than warm or organic. Guitar is crunchy and lean, with plenty of bite. This doesn’t have the heft of some of the other monsters in the EE range so won’t hit you with sheer weight in your favourite chugging rock tracks, but rather tried to capture you with an almost fizzing edge to your favourite riff, buzzing in the ear.
Bass extension is excellent and suitably bottomless, the driver making mincemeat of both the deep bass vibes of “Get Lucky” and the sub bass resonance of “Why So Serious?”. There is a serious physical punch to the bass, and again the estat tweeter picks up the ticking clock quicker than an all BA setup would.
Overall, this is a crisp and clear sounding IEM, with plenty of treble and a sub bass capability that adds physical presence without warming the sound. It isn’t an out and out detail monster in comparison to the absolute TOTL IEMs in the EE and other ranges, but it doesn’t short change the listener on that front either. If you like your sound cold and clean with plenty of bass, this tribrid should tick all the boxes. Impressive.
Next up was the Wraith, which is the new flagship level replacement for the legendary Zeus. Initial impression place as sounding something like the Zeus as well, just with more bass. Quantity definitely feels boosted over the snappy but not hugely present low end in the Zeus, but is still a classic restrained BA style bass rather than fat and chunky. Playing “Why So Serious?”, the drop builds nicely up to 3:30, but the actual sub bass tickle is subtle to faint when it does actually reach down low, with passable extension but not much presence.
Soundstage feels curiously flat, almost two dimensional in places compared to the Valkyrie. It almost seems like it slopes downwards in height towards the edges on some tracks, but lacks a little something I can’t put my finger on on others. It is possible that it is actually revealing deficiencies with the recording of some of my tunes, but for whatever reason, this isn’t a sound I was able to fully “click” with on my short audition.
Moving up through the range, there is a sense of warmth and smoothness in the mids, counterpointed with a sharp spike somewhere in the upper mids that manifests itself for me in a little shoutiness in tracks like “Give Me Some Light” by Matt Andersen. There is no harshness with my usual Chris Stapleton tracks, however, with the Wraith handling the vocals with finesse.
“Thriller” again brings that feeling of flatness to mind, losing a little depth and coming through quite sharply. The stage feels a little disjointed, lacking the holographic presentation of some of their other models. There seems to be plenty of potential here, and resolution and technicalities are all there, but for whatever reason, this model just didn’t click with me with the stock cable.
Switching to the Ares II+ copper cable (as suggested by Josh on the stand after a brief chat), there was a notable change in tonality, bringing the Wraith more into line with what I was expecting. Bass and mids felt a little more coherent, and the subtle alteration of the sound just seems to make more sense to me sonically. This is a model I’d love to hear again with my Zeus-XR in tow, and one I’d like to have a decent amount of time with to decide exactly what is going on with the soundstage. As mentioned, the potential seems to be huge, but the jury is definitely out on this one for me based on my brief 10 mins.
While I was there, I had to have a listen to my previous favourite from their previous ranges, the Nemesis, a five driver hybrid with two DD subwoofers and three balanced armatures in a 7-way crossover. As it turns out, this still seems to be my favourite IEM from the current range. It does hiss slightly with the M11 (which the new models don’t seem to) but nothing too concerning. It is also less sensitive than the Wraith, requiring more oomph to get moving.
Vocals are pushed forward and carry a nice edge, with a good conveyance of emotion. Detail is decent but not mind blowing for the price bracket, with good clarity despite the heavy bass thump. Soundstage is oval, feeling more wide than deep on tracks like “Thriller”. The bass on “Give Me Some Light” sounds insanely textured and warm, giving a deep thump in the ear, but still allowing the faint jangle of acoustic guitar through in the background. Dual W9 subwoofers rock. For more details on this IEM, see my notes from Canjam 2018!
The only other model I checked out this year was the Vantage – this is a triple hybrid with very rumbly bass and a tuning that is designed to sound like an old tube amp. Kicking off with “Why So Serious?”, there is SERIOUS bass at the 3:30 mark, the Vantage vibrating my fillings and chest cavity almost as much as the bass cannon Nemesis did. With regards to shape, the monitor has a slightly warm L-shaped sound, with a rich tube-like tonality, but pretty decent resolution, all things considered. This is a good fun sounding IEM in the middle of the EE range, but suffers a bit for being a sort of “minister without portfolio” in the X-series: probably too expensive for the mid-fi crowd and too far down the pecking order for the bigger spending audiophile. Definitely a unique tuning in the current EE lineup.
The Meccaudio stand had the biggest array of cheap and ultra-expensive cables I’ve seen at a Canjam exhibit before. I didn’t have much time to stop there sadly, but did get to check out one of the models. Unfortunately someone had moved the name tag for the model I tried, and the very helpful rep couldn’t really explain what it was in the short time I had, so I am going to call it the “Unnamed IEM” (possibly their ME06), which was retailing around the £500 mark on the day. This had a warm and smooth sound, with a slight veil in the midrange and treble. In all honesty, it felt pretty light on detail for £500, but the shell was impressively small for a pseudo-custom design and looks absolutely fantastic, with a swirled matte finish. This was a middle of the road tuning with a nice bass bump (looks like a DD port) on the shell, but was unfortunately unable to confirm. Not bad, but nothing particularly noteworthy about this IEM either.
My final visit of the weekend was to another super-busy manufacturer, the Noble Audio table. This was manned by the very personable Jim Moulton (brother of the Wizard) and two other very friendly Noble-ites, and I had some very interesting conversations with him while I was testing out their models.
The model I really wanted to hear was their new tribrid flagship, the Khan. This uses three drivers, but instead of using an e-stat tweeter setup for the top end, Noble are using a piezoelectric tweeter, which is bonded to the single dynamic driver that covers the lows. Mids are provided by a set of BA drivers to make up the trifecta. It isn’t the first IEM I’ve tried with e ceramic tweeter (the IMR R1 and R1Z models both have a similar high end provision), but it’s nice to see this as the first three-driver system using ceramic tech.
In terms of sound,, the Khan has a similar overall style of tuning to the EE Valkyrie, with a sharpness to the edge of high notes and an overall neutral-ish sound with a sub bass push. Again, there is an emphasis in the treble that marks it out as a notably bright IEM – lovers of dark and rolled off high ends should probably look elsewhere!
The weight of notes is average to light, with lots of texture but quite a bit of harshness on tracks like “Whiskey And You”. It isn’t actually physically unpleasant, but this is not an IEM that forgives badly recorded music or hides imperfections behind a veil of warmth. On the flip side of that, there is a crispness and clarity to the presentation that is engaging, with the Khan sounding very alive and animated with most of my music library. “Give Me Some Light” sounds full and quite rich, with a sense of air in the top end of the track that cuts through the warmth that is usually presented, but still retaining the decent bass anchor to the track. “Down In Mississippi” by Mavis Staples also starts off cool and airy, showing plenty of technical capability.
“Palladio” isn’t the deepest or most powerful rendition I’ve ever heard, but it does render the fine detail well, and pays particular emphasis to the tone of the violin, pushing that forward in the stage to give it main billing. This is a fast sounding IEM, with notes decaying crisply and plenty of speed in more busy sections of the track. The treble feels sharp but not overcooked, giving them bite and edge without drawing blood in the eardrum.
Sub bass extension from the DD is good, with a little more weight than the mid bass to my ears. “Why So Serious?” is dealt with well, with the piezo tweeter keeping pace pretty well with the e-stats in terms of detail extraction and subtle nuances when the ticking clocks resurface. As I made the mistake of mentioning to the Noble guys (who were very understanding when I explained what I actually meant), this isn’t my preferred tuning, but it is well executed and pretty coherent in terms of what it is trying to achieve. I actually found myself enjoying this IEM a lot more than I thought I would, and found it pretty good in the main. I think some of the harshness could be down to the implementation of the ceramic driver, so if they could either tame that slightly in the next iteration (or just remove it), I could definitely be interested in Noble’s future hybrid offerings.
The other IEM I tried on the stand was the old flagship the K10 Encore, just to compare the two top models. in direct comparison, the K10E actually seemed to have a little more bass, but not a huge amount, handled the Batman track with just a little more substance. The overall tuning is a little more in line with what I typically enjoy, and the fit of the classic Noble universal shell was good with their foam tips and memory-wire earguides. The IEM is nicely balanced, with not a huge amount of divergence I can hear in terms of detail retrieval compared to the Khan. It is definitely more forgiving with Chris Stapleton, smoothing out some of the grittiness in his poorly recorded debut album in comparison to the much more raw feel of the Khan. As a quick snapshot, I think Khan is the more immediately impressive IEM, but the Encore would probably be my choice for longer term listening.
This was a great year for IEMs, with multiple manufacturers showing their new electrostatic-powered high end models, and plenty of innovation and quality in the mid-fi bracket as well. The audiophile market in the UK is pretty small, so the opportunity to hear what each big name in the IEM world had cooking (and the opportunity to find out a lot of them are really making big strides forward) was awesome.
My top 5 favourite models from the show, in no particular order:
Acoustune – HS1655 (although I purchased the 1650!)
oBravo – Cupid (a serious entry in the sub £300 market in terms of both build and sound quality)
64 Audio – U12t (superbly airy sound with good substance and plenty of detail – Fourte Noir gets an honourable mention)
Jomo Audio – Trinity Brass Black (just a beautiful, musical sound)
Empire Ears – Valkyrie (bright and bassy, an unusual combo)