Lark Studio LSIV (Custom) Review: all about that bass

Pros: Big warm booty-ful bass, easy to enjoy sound signature, excellent build quality, perfect fit, nice cable

Cons: compressed soundstage, uneven upper mids and lower treble, could use more treble extension, a legit travel case would be nice

List Price: $441 (Lark Studio), £369 (Audio Concierge)

Product Website: http://lark-studios.com/

Lark Studio LSIV (Custom)

Rating Disclaimer: ratings are subjective. Audio quality and value do not mean the same thing across all prices. A headphone with a 5 rating on audio at $5 does not have equivalent sound quality as a 5 rating at $500. Likewise, value at $5 is not the same as value at $5000 dollars.

Introduction

Lark Studio was formed by a couple audio-fanatics from Heir audio’s labs. They’ve got a good deal of experience in the industry but only got Lark Studio up in running in the last couple of years. Their first release was the splendidly rich LSX [link here]. The goal of that product was to get people’s attention, and it did. There’s a sprinkling of impressed reviewers all over the interwebs and it has basically wide-spread acclaim.

The topic of this review, the LSIV, is the second offering from Lark Studios. It’s designed to be the entry level into their suite of IEMs with a rumoured 12 balanced armature unit in development.

Usability: Form & Function

Unboxing

The LSIV comes in an identical box to that of the LSX, with a similar component outlay. As these are custom, they don’t come with a menagerie of eartips. For full details of the unboxing experience, a look at the LSX review shows them here, with one exception, there are no eartips (of course). I’ll let the pictures do the talking below.

The unboxing experience left me with mixed feelings. Here is what I would do instead:

  • Ditch the amp stacking bands, branded faux suede bag, and the jewelry box.
  • Include a small water tight hard travel case
  • Make the box more compact. This may save the company on shipping.
  • Put accessories inside the small travel case

Aesthetics and build quality

The aesthetics on these are excellent. I went for the half-wood red flame gold flake design, and it came out exactly as I hoped (design 33 in their gallery), but I added their bird logo. One thing I’d like to see is mirrored bird emblems, because symmetry is cool. Something to add to the quiver of design arrows for Lark Studio in the future. Lark Studio doesn’t have a list of custom design options, another thing to add in the future, but they do have some nice pictures in their gallery that give you an idea of what they can do. Audio Concierge also has a Build-Your-Own Bespoke designer that Lark Studio should steal, but it doesn’t include my flaming gold flake half-wood design.

From a build quality perspective, the LSIV does not have the slightly indented insertion points for the 2-pin cable that I recommend to all manufacturers (as can be seen in the picture above). It’s a simple change that makes 2-pin cables much more resistant to breakage. Instead of depending on the thin brass pins to hold up, you depend on the structure of the IEM and the plastic body of the 2-pin termination to hold up. Betting on the whole IEM not breaking is a safer bet than betting on brass pins not breaking. I recommended this to them when I did my LSX review several months before receiving the LSX. I’m sad that they didn’t listen. They aren’t the only ones not to listen on this front. Big manufacturers like Noble used to not have this indent, but they’ve come around. Lark Studio needs to do the same. In other build elements, the acrylic is nicely poured with a perfect comfort-based fit for my ears.

Ergonomics

They are custom, so the ergonomics are good. Isolation is massively good on these as they’ve done a great job on the fit. These isolate more than my Wavaya IEMs, which were made from the same set of impressions. I think this is down to the acrylic material of the LSIV. The WAVAYAs are slightly more comfortable, with less sweating and wax, which is also down to ceramic material of the WAVAYAs.

Audio quality

The LSIV is down with bass body. It’s got loads of it that really sounds great with hip-hop and bass heavy tracks. When I want to get down with some Big Poppa or Tupac, these got that Old Skool booty wag going on. When listening to other kinds of music these sound great, in isolation, it’s a sound that is generally approachable. These have thick lower mids and some forward elements in the upper mids. This makes the mids come across congested in some places and strident in others. At most times, these sound nice and very approachable in the mids. The overall sound is forward with limited stage depth. Stage height is good, but width is limited. The engaging bass and smooth treble make these an easy to enjoy IEM, but a quite coloured IEM. I tend towards a more neutral-bright presentation, and these are not that. They do have some energy in the lower treble, but they lack some in air which makes the other emphasised points in the frequency response stand out more. I enjoy listening to these in isolation, but when compared to other IEMs, some technical performance aspects of the IEMs become more apparent (I did more comparisons than are here, but didn’t write them up). I preferred the Wavaya Tria Live!, but the Lear Skylark at a couple hundred dollars less is also very competitive sonically (comparison to come in a later review).

Matchability

I tested the LSIV on both my Questyle QP2R and my LGV30 and didn’t note hiss or frequency distortions in frequency response on either. When playing on the Soundaware M2Pro the treble got a little bit extra treble crunch along with a touch of improvement in mids definition, but that is down to the tuning of the player; it didn’t cause any impedance related changes in the frequency response.

Comparisons

Comparisons were made using the Questyle QP2R in high bias. Volume matching was done using white noise and an SPL meter with a homemade coupler. Where any perceived variance in volume levels was observed, measurements were repeated. For the comparisons below, this was not a problem.

Headphone Cable SE/Balanced Gain Volume ~SPL
Lark Studio LSIV Stock SE Medium 70 78.4
WAVAYA Tria Live! Stealthsonics U9 Stock Cable SE Medium 68 78.2

Lark Studio LSIV ($449) vs. WAVAYA Tria Live! ($490)

Build and feature comparison

The LSIV has nice looking build quality, but after doing a lot of head to head time on the comfort of the acrylic of the LSIV vs. the ceramic of the WAVAYA Tria Live!, ceramic is just more comfortable for long-term wearing. The ceramic adjusts to body temperature better, so doesn’t feel overly warm in the ear and there are definite differences in the amount of earwax I produce when I wear the ceramic in-ear of the WAVAYA Tria Live!. The Tria Live! produces way less earwax and therefore needs less maintenance. The LSIV feels a touch sticky in comparison to the Tria Live! after fairly short use. As observed with the WAVAYA Octa, there is a little bit of hardness to feel of the ceramic earpiece that I do feel, so it’s a balancing act of temperature, earwax, sweating and Newtonian physics (for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction). The force exerted by my ears on the Tria Live! is reflected back when it meets the Tria Live! as less force is absorbed by the harder material. Others probably won’t notice this as I have ears that are probably a bit hypersensitive to touch. The accessories of the Tria Live! are better. It comes with the option to get a tour-proof Linum BaX cable (take that free option), and it comes with a Florentine leather travel case of a very high standard of construction. The LSIV doesn’t come with a travel case, it comes with a small jewellery box that isn’t made to take any impacts or be exposed to inclement weather. The other LSIV accessories are not exciting. The amp stacking bands feel out of date, and the airline adaptor and 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor don’t much fit what most users will need. It’s a 15Ω IEM, and most will play it out of a portable source and most airlines are moving to in seat displays with 3.5mm headphone outs or you using your own devices to tap into plane systems. The accessories are potentially useful, but I’d rather have a useable travel case that I know I’ll need if taking these on the road or in the air.

Sound

For my listening comparison between the WAVAYA Tria Live! and the Lark Studio LSIV, I used the stock cable from the Stealthsonics U9, which is made by Null Audio, for the Tria Live!. I tried the LSIV cable on the Tria Live! and couldn’t really tell the difference between that and the U9 stock cable. I didn’t use the 2-pin Plastics One cable included by default with the Tria Live! as I didn’t like the sound of the cable. The included cable with the LSIV is better than the Plastics One cable.

The Notorious B.I.G. – Me & My Bitch (24-96 Vinyl Rip) has some deep bass rumble, some slam, and midbass texture. The LSIV plays well to the hip-hop scheme with dynamic driver kind of slam on the bass drum and good depth and volume on the bass guitar. Soundstage isn’t wide, or particularly deep on this track, but the scene is set well. The tenor of the LSIV is a perfect match for the stylings of Biggie Smalls. The Tria Live! has a further back presentation with a little more relative energy in the strings. The bass texture is still good, but the quantity isn’t really hip-hop; it’s a neutral kind of flavour. The LSIV has a bit of a W-shaped sound with a bit more emphasis on Biggie’s vocals but without the level of string articulation as on the Tria Live!. I think the LSIV probably has a bit of a treble dip that makes the mids and upper mids sound thicker. The stage depth and width impression are superior on the Tria Live! but on this hip-hop track I’m missing the impact and immediacy of the LSIV. For hip-hop, the LSIV fits better. The Tria Live! does have far superior depth and width on the stage, though.

When I’m listening to Pixies – Where is My Mind? (DSD64) I’m listening for the soaring female vocal in the intro and for the depth of the tiny male background vocals. The WAVAYA Tria Live! gets good extension on the soaring female vocal, but it doesn’t quite soar like I’ve heard on my top in-ears. In contrast, the LSIV is louder sounding with an aggressive, in your face presentation. When it comes to volume on the female vocal, it gets louder, and it has a slight bit more extension. However, the LSIV doesn’t present the female vocal in a balanced manner with more weight given to the centre of the note rather than letting the upper harmonics fully breathe. The WAVAYA Tria Live! has more delicacy to the female vocal. The LSIV sound stage is small with little depth and small width. The bass guitar is pushed forward, as is the drum-kit, with the bass slightly ahead of Black Francis’s vocal. The tiny male background vocal is pretty much swallowed by other elements and gets lost in the mix. The Tria Live! performs better, overall, on this track, unless what you are looking for is big drums and big chugging bass. The LSIV delivers big bass and drum power.

The limited stage of the LSIV really stands out on Wilco – Jesus, etc. (16/44). The sound never really gets outside of the ears and depth is basically just not there. It’s a microscope slide’s worth of depth. The bass is forward of Jeff Tweedy’s vocal. The female vocal is just behind Jeff, whereas it should be further back. Violins have a forward presence and a thickening of the notes due to emphasis on the lower part of their tonal range rather than the airier more delicate part, as does the tapping percussion. The bass is omnipresent on the LSIV on this track. From a performance perspective on this track the WAVAYA Tria Live! has much better mids, with good clarity and an overall balanced presentation. Instruments sound like they have room to breathe with their full harmonic structure and timbre intact. Slide guitar sounds much more natural, as do plucked strings on the Tria Live!; the LSIV has a similar kind of emphasis to violins on the slide guitar with more weight given to the lower parts of the sonic structure and less attention paid to the timbral elements up high in the treble. The compact staging on the LSIV and forward presentation of certain frequencies kind of crushes more delicate elements. The WAVAYA Tria Live! just beats the hell out of the LSIV on this one to my ear.

My overall verdict is that the WAVAYA Tria Live! is a better overall sonic performer, with better ergonomics and accessories. For $50 more and made in Cyprus, I think the Tria Live! is also better value. If you like impact and hip-hop is your favourite genre, the LSIV will probably fit your likes better. When I’m listening to Biggie or Aesop Rock, I make sure to have it handy. The LSIV is my hip-hop IEM now.

Lark Studio LSIV custom vs. LSIV universal (same price)

Build and feature comparison

As these were arranged as a sample for coordinating tours of the LSX and LSIV, I decided to compare them when I briefly had both versions in house. The universal has a smaller shell made of the same acrylic resin with good ergonomics. It doesn’t have the same level of isolation as the custom, which is expected. The universal’s small size in ear will work with most ears, but they do not include eartips that go down to Spinfit’s XS size, which loses the advantage of that small in-ear size out of the box, but is easily remediable. I suggest that they should include XS eartips in their collection of tips.

Sound

To sum, the bass is bigger in the custom edition, which means that the universal has a slightly more balanced sound. Bass on the universal is still forward, but not as forward as the custom. Because the universal can also do tip rolling this means that slightly different sonic preferences can be catered to. For me, the LSIV are still a specialist IEM rather than an all-rounder, but I think the universal has more potential for all-rounder use for a wider swath of the listening population.

Specifications

Specifications  
Price $441 (£369) (same price custom and universal)
Driver type 4 balanced armature (1 Low + 1 Mid + 1 High + 1 Super Tweeter)
Frequency response 20Hz to 20kHz
Impedance 15Ω
Construction Acrylic resin in custom or pseudo-custom universal shells all with custom design available
Weight 30g
Accessories 2-pin silver-plated copper cable with over-sized Velcro cable wrap, amp stacking bands, faux leather pouch, jewelry box, airline adaptor, 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor, polishing cloth

Acknowledgment

The Lark Studio LSIV was provided free-of-charge by Lark Studio. I have received no compensation for this review. All thoughts in this review are my personal opinion.

Conclusions

The Lark Studio LSIV is a specialist IEM for me. It’s specialty is genres and artists where big bass is better bass. For this, it is a favourite within my line-up of IEMs. However, its limited sound stage and particular inflection points in its tuning leave me wanting in other musical genres. For someone looking for a first custom IEM who is coming from a more consumer (that is, bass heavy) sound, this will appeal, especially when they find out how much these isolate in places like the London Underground. From a value-based perspective, I think there are better sounding IEMs in it’s price bracket in universals, but that it is a good value for a 4-driver custom IEM at only $441. If you have trouble with universal fit or want more isolation and like a bass-led sound, this is a good choice.

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