CanJam Singapore 2018 – A Study in Portable Audio

9

AAW

Kicking off the round-up is an in-ear manufacturer born and raised in the cityscapes of Singapore. Advanced Acousticwerkes are renowned in the local scene for their value-oriented products, innovative hybrid designs and exquisite reshell work. Kevin Wang of AAW, to my surprise, brought four retuned variants of their previously-released models – including their flagship 8-plus-1-hybrid W900. All four monitors introduced a new house sound for AAW; one focused on top-end extension, upper-treble sparkle and smoothness in clarity. Along with those, he also brought an IEM developed in collaboration with Shozy, known as the POLA. It’s marketed as one of the first electret-dynamic hybrids available on the market, equipped with a fully-3D-printed metal-and-plastic shell.

AAW A1D: The A1D is AAW’s entry-level piece comprised of a single dynamic driver. Now, I’m an absolute sucker for bang-for-the-buck IEMs that perform way beyond their price range, and the A1D is exactly that. Enforcing AAW’s newfound focus on treble extension and air, the A1D comes equipped with a thick, atmospheric and impactful bass, counterbalanced by a sparkly, smooth and open top-end. Expected of a single-DD configuration, the A1D comes equipped with a scooped lower-midrange, but sufficient warmth from the bass richens the vocal region with a moderate amount of heft. However, because of its upper-treble lift, instruments remain more articulative in nature. Tone lies more on the neutral side with a palpable touch of warmth, but the lack of vocal focus makes the A1D more suitable for instrument-driven genres – like prog rock, electronica and even jazz to some degree. Regardless, the A1D is a fantastic all-rounder at its price, and sets a precedent for AAW’s succeeding efforts beyond here.

AAW A3H: The A3H is the IEM that drew the most attention – bar the POLA – at their booth, and for good reason. The A3H is yet another bang-for-the-buck release from AAW, pricing its clear, open and airy signature at a mere S$499. Despite its DD-fuelled low-end, the A3H is rather conservative when it comes to sheer bass impact. It has an upper-bass-focused low-end that makes it more of a melodious supporting player, while its sub-bass and mid-bass regions remain relatively linear. Though, with that said, bass notes come through with excellent authority – more so than on the A1D and A2H – so it’s certainly a case of quality over quantity.

The midrange again shows progression in resolution and clarity. The A3H performs admirably in cleanliness, detail retrieval and air. While it is articulation-focused, instruments never come across as harsh, sibilant or coarse. Vocals are forwardly-placed, open-sounding, yet borders just on the edge of smoothness; evoking the openness and air that have made brands like Jomo and 64Audio forces to be reckoned with. And, clearly, that’s a prize awarded to the A3H’s treble. Admirably extended with a lift in the upper-treble, it oozes clarity and headroom with zero aggression. Again, as was the case in the 64Audio line, its overall tone is on the brighter side of neutral. But, its DD-fuelled upper bass admirably keeps it down-to-earth, and completes a clear, airy and articulative signature that’ll keep AAW busy for the foreseeable future.

AAW W900: Now admittedly, I’ve had an extremely rocky relationship with the W900 – I find it absolutely lovely in balance and technical performance, except for an egregious lower-treble peak that – to me – spoils its entire signature. It strangely makes hi-hats the loudest sound in every mix, and I couldn’t bring myself to love it – no matter how hard I genuinely tried. So, when Kevin Wang told me they’ve made adjustments to their flagship, my interest was instantaneously piqued. What I heard immediately after, somehow left me even more perplexed. Instead of toning down the lower-treble peak to construct a more linear frequency response as well as a natural timbre, the W900 now has an upper-treble lift to compensate for its 10-12 kHz peak.

I must give the new W900 credit for executing this lift with beautiful smoothness. It’s an almost Tia-like response with a gorgeous amount of openness and air. But, as a result, the W900’s general treble region now sounds louder than the rest of the mix. The DD-powered bass still gives it a touch of richness, but listening to prog rock – for example – was a strange experience; cymbal crashes became more prominent than the lead guitars themselves. Now, I must admit that this wasn’t a unanimous opinion. A couple individuals I spoke to, who enjoy brighter signatures, liked what the W900 had to offer in clarity and air. Personally, I think it has an audience in enthusiasts of – say – the U18t or the Tia Fourte. But, they’re gonna have to release those gosh darn treble filters sooner or later to fully win me over.

AAW POLA: And now, we get to the star of the show. The POLA is an electret-dynamic hybrid that seeks to achieve both technological innovation and value for money. At the currently tentative price of 600-800 USD, the POLA is one impressive performer. The mid-bass is the engine of the POLA’s signature. Apart from bolstering the impact that dynamic drivers have become renowned for, the driver’s warmth contributes a lot of body to the POLA’s overall presentation. It’s an IEM filled with thick, almost-larger-than-life instruments within a present and engaging soundscape. Vocals are presented with great linearity; showcasing admirable coherence despite the unique driver configuration.

From the growl of the low-end, to the chestiness of the lower-midrange, to the clarity of the upper-midrange, instruments exist with great completeness – equipped with a clean, neutral tone and complemented with tons of detail from the upper-treble lift. The electret driver greatly impresses here, rendering generous volumes of air and sparkle without a harsh note in sight. The POLA is steeped in headroom, creating a charming sense of openness and clarity that manufacturers like Lime Ears build their name on. It doesn’t render the most precisely placed images, but bodily resolution is above-average for its estimated price range and stage organisation is admirable despite its generous note size. With the POLA, AAW have on their hands an addictively engaging IEM that’s guilt-free, versatile and competitively priced. Add to that the POLA’s 3D-printed body (which will be more polished by the time production begins) and you have yourself one heck of a package.

DITA

NOTE: Prior to an edit made on the 27th of June 2018, the Fealty and Fidelity impressions in this section of the article were mistakenly the other way around. Ambiguous labelling on the units as well as human error led to this mistake, which has since been rectified to match the sound impressions to the correct IEM. I sincerely apologise for any inconveniences caused.

DITA Audio is another Singaporean manufacturer particularly renowned for their efforts in single-dynamic-driver IEMs. Their previous releases include the more musically-inclined Answer and Truth IEMs, their technically-proficient flagship Dream, as well as two upgrade cables made in collaboration with industry veteran Van Den Hul. DITA brought along all five of these products to CanJam, along with two prototype models: The Fealty and the Fidelity. These IEMs sound like they were made to bridge the gap between the Answer and the Dream; offering admirable technical performance plus an engaging sonic palate.

DITA Fidelity: The Fidelity is the more clinical-sounding of the two. Because of an attenuated lower-midrange and a lifted lower-treble, the Fidelity is a sonic cousin to the Dream in how its presentation relies on clarity and articulation. As a result, its notes are thinner than what I’d call natural, but sufficient warmth from an upper-bass bias and upper-midrange control prevent it from sounding overtly clinical. Unlike the Dream, the Fidelity has an airier bass response. Instead of the former’s sub-bass focus, the latter has a melodic upper-bass that imbues a lighter tone onto its low-end. Again, vocals and instruments are technically sound, coming equipped with great clarity, headroom and air.

The presence region is definitely lifted, but sibilance is kept to an absolute minimum by way of admirable control. The Fidelity has peaks in the lower-and-upper-treble, adding solidity in hi-hats, cymbals, etc. This also causes the its brighter overall tonality, as well as the sense of air that surrounds each note. The Fidelity lacks the flagship Dream’s theatrical and precisely-resolved soundstage, but it compensates for its lack of depth with a superior sense of engagement. Instruments and vocals sound larger here, and they don’t sound as peaky either. The Fidelity is a great effort from DITA – crafting a mean, lean, detailed machine that’s forgiving enough to be versatile. Although I do prefer the Fealty in overall tonal balance, the Fidelity is a great technical performer that brings the Dream’s finesse to more modest ground.

DITA Fealty: The Fealty is the weightier, heftier and more fun-sounding of the two. Although it still has DITA’s signature emphasis on clarity and air, the Fealty is more forgiving than both the Fidelity and the Dream, due to a more-controlled lower-treble peak and a richer bass. The Fealty’s low-end is more mid-bass focused, which gives the IEM fuller notes and greater impact. Dynamics are more emphasised here than on the Fidelity, but vocal presence benefits from an upper-midrange bump. This accentuation located around the presence region boosts vocal vibrancy, while the elevated mid-bass counteracts it admirably well.

Instruments sound less shouty due to a better balance between the lower-and-upper-midrange, and the soundstage benefits as a result. One of the Fealty’s greatest strengths is imaging precision. Although – again – not as strong as the Dream, it’s capable of great left-right separation and centre focus. The Fealty is more roomy and inviting than the Fidelity, while the latter is more engaging. The general treble region is lifted as per usual with DITA, but it bolsters the Fealty’s technical performance. Extension is about the same between the two prototypes, but the Fealty benefits from greater linearity. This trait is crucial for the its black background, natural decay and richer tone. It still errs towards bright, but it’s well-balanced nonetheless; musical and technically-inclined all throughout.

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About Author

Church-boy by day and audio-obsessee by night, Daniel Lesmana’s world revolves around the rhythms and melodies we lovingly call: Music. When he’s not behind a console mixing live for a congregation of thousands, engineering records in a studio environment, or making noise behind a drum set, you’ll find him on his laptop analysing audio gear with fervor and glee. Now a specialist in custom IEMs, cables and full-sized headphones, he’s looking to bring his unique sensibilities - as both an enthusiast and a professional - into the reviewer’s space; a place where no man has gone before.

9 Comments

  1. Adrian Hoe on

    Hi Deezel

    Thanks for your impressions of the event. Im interested in your impressions of the retuned aaw w900. From the sounds of it, the changes have not fixed the treble timbre and have made the signature brighter and more treble focused overall. Would that be fair? Aaw are saying that the retuning improves the soundstage and treble detail.

    I have an opportunity to purchase the w900 for a good price but wondering whether to get the retuned version or the original. I have heard the w500 (which i liked alot – particularly its bass impact and stage width although found it a little artificial sounding), but i understand they are quite different tunings. I also liked the texture and body of the bass on the ax3.

    Even though its not quite your cup of tea, do u prefer the retuned or original w900? I prefer slightly warm, natural sound with the great bass texture and body of the other aaw models.

    Thanks
    Adrian

  2. Adrian Hoe on

    Hi Deezel

    Thanks for your impressions of the event. Im interested in your impressions of the retuned aaw w900. From the sounds of it, the changes have not fixed the treble timbre and have made the signature brighter and more treble focused overall?

    I have an opportunity to purchase the w900 for a good price but wondering whether to get the retuned version or the original. I have heard the w500 (which i liked alot – particularly its bass impact and stage width but also found it a little artificial sounding), but i understand they are quite different tunings. I also liked the texture and body of the bass on the ax3.

    Thanks
    Adrian

    • Deezel on

      Hi Adrian,

      The retuned W900 is more treble-focused overall, but that shouldn’t be read as an exacerbation of the the original W900’s problems. The old W900 had a lower-treble spike that was very clearly out of place compared to the rest of the frequency response. With the upper-treble lift, the general treble region is now accentuated, but it’s more linear and – therefore – more realistic. It’s still not natural in terms of tone – and the IEM’s whole tonal balance is now brighter as a result – but the increased coherence makes it at least neutral to the ear.

      In my opinion, the new W900 is a better buy than the original. The original is fatiguing because of its incoherence, while the new one fairs better in terms of linearity. The neutral tone is definitely in the vein of 64Audio’s U18Tzar or Jomo Audio’s house sound, but it’s surely a more-easily-liked signature than the original had.

      Hope this helps!

      Cheers,
      Daniel

      • Adrian Hoe on

        Hi Daniel

        That makes sense. Buying iems blind is always a little unnerving. Thanks very much for your clear and quick response!

        Cheers
        Adrian

  3. MartinJoura on

    Hi All im rookie here. Good article! Thx! Thx!

  4. Surya Pratama Wijaya on

    Hi deezel, thanks for replying.

    How would the n8t and sound writer compare to the A18 tzar. I was looking top midrange and treble performance, clean speration and layering and also slightly boosted but accurate bass. I listen to pop, edm and acoustic covers both male and female vocals mostly. An i am looking for a custom.

    Recommendations deeply appreciated.

    Btw how is the ergonomics and pliability of the wires of saladin and 1950s say compared to the latest from effect audio and plussound.

    Best Regards,
    Surya

    • Deezel on

      Hi Surya,

      The entire Soundwriter write-up is a comparison against the U18t; unfortunately I can’t get any more specific without an extended listen between the two. The N8t is a much warmer, richer and bodied IEM than the U18t. The U18t is cleaner and clearer, while the N8t has a bold, voluminous bass, a butter-y midrange and a more controlled treble. It looks like what you’re looking for is an emphasis on technical performance, with moderate body from the bass, so for your preferences, I’d recommend the Soundwriter.

      All of PWAudio’s are as pliant and ergonomic as Effect Audio and PlusSound’s offerings. The only aspect in which they differ is in the feel or touch of the insulation; EA and PS’s insulations are softer to the touch. But, in usability alone, they’re pretty equal. The 1950s’ insulation was still pre-production, so I can’t comment.

  5. Surya on

    Hi deezel,
    Thanks for you excellent coverage of canjam SG. Could you rate your top three fav iems and top three fav cables. Just to sum up your overall expwriences during Can jam.

    Thanks

    Best Regards,
    Surya

    • Deezel on

      Hi Surya,

      Thanks so much for your kind words! My top three IEMs there in terms of overall performance and personal preference were the N8t, the Soundwriter and the Vision Ears Erlkonig. But, the three most surprisingly impressive (especially in terms of value-for-money) were the AAW A3H, the Jomo Type X and a tie between the FIBAE ME and Model X.

      Cable-wise, my top three were the Saladin+, the Janus D and the 1950s. I love the Saladin+ for its warm, bodied and natural tone, mated with great imaging and stage stability. The Janus D isn’t as warm as the Saladin+ in tone, but it does have a natural timbre balanced skilfully with strong technical performance and finesse in its note release. The 1950s is absolutely a cost-no-object item, but its open stage, colourless tone and bass performance have made it an almost must-have for me. I’ve honestly never heard the Phantom sound as good.

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