Preview information available:
Proguard P2+1 custom in-ear monitor
Dream Earz aud-8X custom in-ear monitor
Lime Ears LE3 & LE3b custom in-ear monitor
Sneak peek bass ratings for select CIEMs
Custom Art Music One custom in-ear monitor
Dunu DC4 with Stage 93 93SPEC cable
EarSonics S-EM6 universal custom in-ear monitor
The previews below are my thoughts on custom in-ear monitors under review. Material will be updated as time permits and by request. Please note that the sound summaries are all preliminary, and while they should stand, there may be changes between what is posted here and the final review in both content and grammar. Please feel free to ask questions here or on head-fi.
ProGuard P2+1 Custom In-Ear Monitor:
Preliminary sound summary:
The P2+1 has a stage monitor sound tuning, with a forward presentation that puts you on stage with the musicians. The sound is a bit on the thicker side, which has been the case with just about every musician’s tuned IEM/CIEM I have heard. Even with the thickness, there is a nice clarity in the midrange, however it isn’t as clear as the brighter sounding CIEMs such as the Ambient Monitors AM4 pro. Bass is present and has good power and rumble, besting the other BA CIEMs I have heard in the price range (up to the $565 aud-5X). The coherence across the frequency spectrum is excellent and imaging is quite good with good detailing for the price point.
The overall size is not small, but it isn’t the biggest, with more depth and height than width. The upper midrange is forward, at least with higher end sources, which really accentuates details, but the thickness gives body and richness to the presentation so it doesn’t seem analytical. While both male and female vocals sound true to tone for the most part, female vocals are rendered better and are quite good.
The P2+1 does OK with my Clip+, but from my iPhone 5 and higher impedance sources such as the Nova don’t sound great. Moving up the amp ranks does pay dividends in improving the finer performance attributes of the P2+1.
vs. EarSonics SM64 universal IEM: The P2+1 is more reminiscent of the SM3 from a presentation standpoint as the entire presentation is more up-close and personal, placing you with the performers while the SM64 puts some space between the you and the presentation. Soundstage size is similar as is imaging despite the difference in presentation. The P2+1 is smoother and conveys more detail across the spectrum, and the detail is easier to hear in large part due to the sound signature. The P2+1 is more coherent across the frequency spectrum while the SM64 is a bit more transparent. Dynamics are slightly better with the P2+1, but note capability in the midrange and bass is slightly better with the SM64. The P2+1 is more forgiving.
The bass of the two is presented differently as the P2+1 is more up-front. While quantity and quality aren’t too far off, the P2+1 is has more headroom and punch while the SM64 is a bit warmer. Moving up the spectrum, the SM64 is thicker which leads to less clarity than the P2+1. The midrange of the two is presented very differently with the P2+1 putting you on stage and recreating more intimate instrument details while the SM64’s more laid-back presentation provides a bit better overall presentation experience. The upper midrange is divergent as the P2+1 is brighter, which adds to the clarity advantage and accentuates the up-close presentation vs. the laid-back SM64. Treble of the P2+1 is well integrated and quite balanced within the sound signature while the SM64 treble sounds a bit boosted relative to the upper mids in contrast to the P2+1. The P2+1 is overall more refined and smoother, especially in the treble.
While similarly priced, the sound signatures are quite different making this more of an either/or choice, or a compliment. The P2+1 puts you on stage with the performance with a very well integrated presentation and nice smoothness while the SM64’s comparatively laid-back presentation gives an organic, natural presentation from a listening standpoint.
I use the P2+1 to burn in my Whiplash TWag Gold V2 OM cable, and the combination is quite nice, improving overall performance such as detail levels, imaging, instrument separation, and taking the performance when paired with my iPhone up quite a bit.
Preliminary sound summary:
The aud-8X is a very dynamic, punchy, and impactful CIEM with a relatively neutral presentation that leans on the thicker side of the spectrum. Since it is thicker than say the NT-6 and LCM-5, the 8X isn’t quite as clear, but adds more warmth and richness to the presentation. The overall quality is quite good for the price, offering one of the better price/performance ratios available. One thing I notice when comparing with other CIEMs that are similarly priced, such as the LE3 and Alclair RSM is that the 8X has fantastic dynamics, which are similar to $1K+ CIEMs. To be continued…
vs. Alclair RCM: The 8X and RCM are fairly similar in sound signature, but the RCM sounds clearer, thinner, and brighter in comparison with the richer, thicker, and more powerful sounding 8X. Soundstage presentation is quite close with the 8X having a bit better width to the presentation while the RSM has a bit better depth, but both perform well. Imaging, focus, and clarity are close, but the RSM outperforms the 8X, while the 8X has better dynamics, speed, and a bit more detail. Coherence and transparency are very similar and while the 8X has a more natural decay, the RSM has a more natural attack. The RSM is more forgiving of thicker recordings while the 8X is more forgiving in the treble region.
While the bass is quite similar, the 8X has a slight bit more emphasis down low along with more capability. Although both are capable performers the 8X sounds more effortless and capable with bass heavy music such as EDM. Neither are warm, nor cold as they both take a neutral approach, but the 8X is slightly thicker in note and that carries up to the midrange, which is more forward with the 8X while having more emphasis on the lower midrange. The thickness of the 8X leads to a cleaner presentation from the RCM. Moving up to the upper midrange, the 8X has a bit of a matching emphasis just like on the lower midrange, and the RCM also has a bit of a boost, although in comparison with the midrange, it is more emphasized. Treble of the 8X sounds more realistic with a longer and more natural decay as the RCM sounded a bit sharp in comparison.
These two both bring a relatively neutral sound signature, but with different flavors. The 8X is thicker, conveying a sense of power the clearer RSM doesn’t despite the capable bass. If you want a brighter sound, the RSM will fill the bill while the 8X has a richer presentation. The RSM gives a more convincing midrange presentation while the 8X is more convincing in the bass and treble regions.
ACS T1 Live!: Upon first listen, these two sound quite similar, just with the 8X having a slightly brighter tonal balance. The T1 has a more laid back presentation, and vary from quite similar to a decent size difference depending on the track, although the T1 focuses the soundstage better than the 8X. Clarity favors the T1, although not by too much, and the T1 sounds a bit more tonally accurate to go with better transparency and coherence. The 8X is more dynamic, resolving, articulates more instrument detail, and is faster. While the 8X note attack and decay is good, the T1 has a more organic sound and sustains notes longer than the 8X in general. The T1 is more forgiving.
Bass quantity of the 8X is slightly higher than the T1, however the 8X has much more capability in the form of dynamics and deep bass rumble and reverb. The warmth is similar between the two. Even though the 8X presents the mids in a more up-front way, the midrange isn’t quite as clean or clear as the T1, but not due to resolution, detail, or instrument separation, but due to the overall focus of the soundstage as the T1 focuses better. You can hear details easier with the 8X, but in direct comparison the cleanliness of the T1 gives a better sense of realism. The trebles are the most divergent as the 8X is brighter and the notes are a bit thinner, resulting in a more prevalent and detailed sound that is less forgiving. The T1’s treble would work for longer and more casual listening for most people.
While these two have similar frequency responses and balances, the 8X is more resolving and punches really hard, giving bass heavy tracks a huge kick and keeping up with fast tracks. The dynamics of the 8X are really top notch and the presentation is exciting. The T1 on the other hand has a more organic presentation that doesn’t offer quite the speed or punch, but has a relaxing and natural feel to the sound for long term listening enjoyment.
Lime Ears LE3 vs. Lime Ears LE3B: The bass version of the LE3 (LE3B) is has a different tonality and slightly different presentation to it compared with the regular LE3, as the regular LE3 is slightly brighter and overall clearer. Soundstage presentation is similar in size and space, but the presentation is slightly different, with the LE3b being a bit more mid-forward and having slightly less presentation depth and a bit less width while the LE3 has slightly more focus within the presentation. Transparency is similar, but the LE3 has better coherence across the frequency spectrum, specifically from the midrange on up. Detail levels, resolution, and note capability are similar between the two, but the LE3b sounds more dynamic due to the additional bass punch and slightly faster bass attack speed, even though the bass note sustainment is equivalent. The LE3 is more forgiving even though it is slightly brighter due to a treble peak with the LE3b.
The LE3b is obviously more bass enhanced than the LE3, providing a boost throughout the entire lower spectrum in comparison. The LE3 still has good extension and ability to sustain notes, but since there is less emphasis, there is less overall sustainment. The midranges are close and similar, but the LE3b has a bit more mid-forward presentation in comparison even if the upper midrange isn’t as prominent as with the LE3. The tonality of vocals is a bit more throaty with the LE3b, which sounds more natural with male vocals while the LE3 sounds more realistic with female vocals. While the LE3 is slightly brighter than the LE3b, there is a peak in the LE3b treble that isn’t present with the LE3 resulting in the LE3 upper midrange through treble region sounding more natural and even from top to bottom.
The LE3 and LE3b provide two different flavors, both with their own strengths. The LE3 is more neutral and natural due to a more even frequency response from top to bottom, yet is still very capable. The LE3b has a richer and more exciting presentation with great performance given the price range. I would choose the LE3 for female vocals and most acoustic music while I would choose the LE3b for male vocals and electronic music. Two very capable choices for a good price.
The LE3 is now available with a switch that allows changing between the regular and bass sound signatures.
Preview of bass ratings for select CIEMs. The score in the CIEM table is calculated from many different performance aspects of each unit. The below table is a preview of two of those factors, bass quality and bass note sustainment, called rumble.
|Spiral Ear||SE 5-way Reference||$1,650||95||96|
|Ultimate Ears||Personal Reference Monitor||$1,999||98||60|
|JH Audio||JH16 Pro||$1,149||97||91|
|Ultimate Ears||In-Ear Reference Monitor||$999||70||50|
|Ambient Acoustics||AM4 pro||$499||75||70|
|Wan Xuan (Beat Audio)||wx i9pro||$619||60||98|
Custom Art Music One review preview (review is still a work in progress)
Disclaimer: My review is done in a comparative way using similarly priced IEMs and/or CIEMs for perspective and to determine performance. In this review I try to accurately portray the product under review, presenting strengths and weaknesses, the sound signature, characteristics, and technical performance as opposed to providing flowery dialog of performance without perspective. My ultimate goal is to enable you to make an informed decision about what product is right for you. Take the review as a critical look at the product and not a sales pitch or marketing fluff. I believe gear should be selected based on the sound signature you want and/or the specific use, not solely on technical performance or unsubstantiated hype. Here are some quick references for more information: My review technique, Thoughts on reading a review, Custom IEM information
The Music One received 100+ hours of burn in as is customary before I do my serious listening.
Bass: Being a single balanced armature driver, the bass isn’t expected to compete with dynamic driver earphones, or multi-BA earphones, and it doesn’t. What you do get is quite good bass for a single BA driver CIEM. The bass gives a sense of depth and power, even if it ultimately falls short of providing that power, it still lets you know there is something there while most single BA IEMs I have heard don’t recreate any of the sensation. What is there is warm and liquid, not possessing too much detail, but never leaving a sense of lack. There is plenty of bass for many tracks that aren’t bass heavy with pounding, reverberant bass. Given the price, the bass is very well done.
Midrange: While I would say there is a very nice balance to the Music One, the midrange is the focus of the sound, and it has a nice blend between thickness and clarity. Comparing with the similarly priced ER4S, the Music One presents with more detail and yet also is more musical. The midrange is on the mid-forward side and the presentation space isn’t extremely large, at least unless the FSM-02 V2 amp is used, which really synergizes will with the Music One. Integration from top to bottom of the frequency spectrum is well done, and the overall midrange performance is excellent.
Treble: The balance of the treble with the rest of the spectrum is excellent, as the Music One is brighter than the SM64, except in the upper-most registers, and not quite as bright as the ER4S. This is combined with a note decay that very natural, providing a much more musical experience than the typical analytical experience of BA drivers in this price range. Again, well done!
Presentation: Balance and musical come to mind when I listen to the Music One. The balance across the frequency spectrum and the coherence are both very good, excellent in fact. Sure, the presentation is a bit on the mid-forward side, but there is still a nice balance both above and below the midrange that allow the headphone to stand back and let the music take over. It does this in a bit of a different way than usual as the Music One isn’t the most transparent headphone I have heard, but the balance and combination of balance and excellent note decay deliver exceptional results.
While the soundstage presentation isn’t the largest, it is well proportioned and when paired with a synergistic amp, can impress. The weaknesses come with very fast music and/or complex tracks. While the Music One isn’t slow, it doesn’t have the dynamics and impact of a faster presentation of many of the more analytical presentations I have heard, although all at higher price points. Complex tracks can become a bit more simplistic that more expensive products, but at least they don’t really get congested. Still, given the price and looking at the positives, the Music One has a presentation that competes with the big boys from a musicality standpoint.
Etymotic ER4S: With a similar price* and both using single balanced armatures, the ER4S and M1 are true competitors. The ER4S has a more laid back presentation than the M1, which gives a bit of a focus to the midrange in comparison as well as better depth of presentation, providing a more enveloping sound. Instrument separation and placement of the M1 are a bit better than the ER4S, but the two biggest differences between the competitors is the note decay and bass presentation. The M1 presents notes in a more natural way with a longer decay when necessary along with a larger difference between loud and quiet notes within the presentation. The bass presentation, as well as the treble presentation, is affected most by this note decay difference as the M1 is more reverberant and powerful sounding in comparison with the brighter and more analytical ER4S. The more natural note decay of the M1 leads to better transparency and tonality while only slightly trailing in clarity to the ER4S.
Bass depth and power are more prominent with the M1, being able to provide a somewhat convincing bass experience, especially when compared with the ER4S. The difference in warmth can be significant depending upon the track, and the entire bass region is more capable of adjusting to thicker presentations on the M1. The midrange of the M1 is more musical while being a bit more forward, and the difference in presentation leads to the M1 being more musical in comparison to a presentation that seems more sterile and analytical. The brighter ER4S is also harsher and less forgiving in the treble region due to a quicker note decay, which doesn’t recreate the shimmy or slow decay of some instruments, especially in comparison with the M1.
The ER4S and Music one are both capable performers, but the M1 presents music in a more organic, realistic, and musical way. The ER4S is great for music analysis, but is limited due to the quickness of the note decay.
* Aside from the additional cost and process of getting a custom IEM made vs. just buying the universal fit ER4S, but I need to use foam, which will add cost over the lifetime of ER4S use.
Alclair Reference: While pricing isn’t too close, it is closer the closest in price of any of my current CIEMs. The Reference was designed with the name in mind and immediately it has a more analytical nature to it with a more laid back, spacious presentation and better kick down low. What the M1 does is present in a more organic, smoother way that simply sounds more musical. Technically, the Reference has a larger space with better instrument separation and is more detailed with better articulation of that detail. Transparency, dynamics, clarity are better with the Reference, but the M1 is more coherent and forgiving of poor tracks.
While the M1 isn’t lacking bass, the difference between the two is fairly large as the Reference has more punch and depth to go along with more warmth. The midrange of the M1 is much more closed in yet more coherent, and while it doesn’t sound as open, it does sound quite smooth and enjoyable. The upper treble is similar, although the M1 is a bit more up-front while the treble of the Reference is slightly more prominent. Quality wise, the M1 treble smoothness and note decay are more musical vs. the analytical and more detailed Reference.
Not really competitors due to price points, these two offer different benefits with the M1 offering an organic, musical experience while the Reference is more detailed and analytical with better technical capabilities.
Dunu DC4 with Stage 93 93SPEC cable: The first thing noted when comparing the 93SPEC cable with the DC4 stock cable was the change to the tonal balance, as the DC4 sound changed to a more well-rounded, open, and brighter sounding CIEM. Using the stock cable, the DC4 is more bass heavy and thicker with the bass presented more up-close and forward than when the SPEC cable was used, which balances vocals better, making them more prominent and forward. The overall presentation with the SPEC cable is more 3D, details are easier to discern from the added clarity, there is better instrument separation, and the overall level of refinement is improved. Unless you really want the added bass, the SPEC cable is a worthwhile upgrade for the DC4.
EarSonics S-EM6 universal fit custom in-ear monitor
The EarSonics S-EM6 is the universal fit version of EarSonics’ flagship EM6. The sound has the typical EarSonics characteristics, which are smooth, warm, rich, and organic. Physically, they fit my ears fine with aftermarket tips, but the supplied bi-flange tips hurt after some time, so I am now using triple-flange. The sound hasn’t changed too much between the different ear tips, but I do need to try more tips to make sure I am getting the best sound from the S-EM6.
A quick comparison between the S-EM6 and the AKG K3003 with the reference ports resulted in sound signature shock as they are very different from each other. The S-EM6 sounds rather dark in comparison while the K3003 sounds artificially boosted at both ends of the spectrum and not as refined, smooth, or refined. The more mid-forward S-EM6 is also more spacious overall, at least if by a bit.
The S-EM6 is an enjoyable earphone if you don’t mind a warm sound signature that, while not lacking treble extension, doesn’t have all that much quantity. In comparison with the aud-8X, the S-EM6 is also darker and richer, but the differences aren’t as large as between the S-EM6 and K3003. Overall, the refinement of the S-EM6 is superior to the aud-8X.
So far, the S-EM6 is performing at a high level worthy of a top-tier universal fit IEM, but I still need to compare it with the likes of the FitEar To Go! 334 among others, and I feel I should tip-roll more to ensure I am getting the best sound from them.