The Headphone List was founded by ljokerl and average_joe, the two pioneers of iem reviewing and early contributors to the community. Long before I became familiar with Head-Fi, I’d been redirected there many times after searching for a review of some lower tier model. And more often than not, it was to ljokerl’s massive list. I became familiar with that thread long before I even understood what Head-Fi was.
After I got hooked on iems, as many of my fellow brethren here an unsuspecting victim of the powerful allure of this hobby and this forum in specific, I started dreaming away with average_joe’s TOTL reviews and ciem list. His list introduced us to many top performing ciems, while laying the groundwork for analytical reviewing with an emphasis on technical performance.
Once I started dabbling in high-end ciems and became an aspiring reviewer myself, jelt2359 made his debut on THL with his fantastic shootout of 8 flagship ciems, combining a thoroughly enjoyable writing style with precise descriptions – many loyal followers have been waiting for part 2 to start, including myself (and it soon will!).
I’ve been writing for THL myself now for a while, so I feel the time has come for my full initiation: a list of my own. For my list, I’ll be comparing 16 flagship iems including some of the most popular iems – present and past. A mix of some all time classics, recent rising stars, and some promising outsiders.
The Headphone List: we might not do headphones, we sure as hell do lists.
In alphabetical order:
-1964 Audio A18 Tzar
-Advanced AcousticWerkes W900
-Custom Art 8.2
-Empire Ears Zeus-XR ADEL
-Lime Ears Aether
-Perfect Seal Deca
-Rhapsodio Galaxy V2
Ideally, you want to paint a picture of how an iem sounds by focusing on objective and quantifiable properties. But unfortunately, there’s no going around the subjective component of judging a signature. The moment you start to judge an iem, a subjective bias comes into play. Different listeners have different preferences, and it’s very difficult to transcend your own bias when you’re scoring. This is the main reason I personally have a strong preference for not using any scores in my regular reviews.
As much as I’d like to think I’m judging a signature objectively, it’s important as a reader to keep your own preference in mind as the description is always more important than a score. Since there are many different aspects of say a midrange (warmth, density, clarity, speed, forwardness), it’s possible to arrive at a higher (or lower score) from multiple directions. For instance a midrange can be highly detailed and tonally accurate, or simply be powerful, lush, and emotional. All I can do is go into detail as to why I assigned a certain score. However, as a baseline I will explain what I find important in different aspects of a signature, as well as provide a description of the objective characteristics I score.
But sound isn’t all subjective – only a preference for a certain signature is. An iem also consists of objective, quantifiable properties that can be ranked. Examples are resolution, stage dimensions, separation, imaging, as well as tonal accuracy. So we can say that there are both subjective as well as objective properties that come into play. In fact, if I need to give a ‘preamble’ about my personal preference as a background for my scoring, I’d say I value strong technical properties over signature. It doesn’t matter so much if an iem has a warm or bright signature, what matters if it has good separation, stage dimensions, imaging, and especially resolution.
As we will see, the final score consists for a great deal on objective characteristics. So while I can’t deny there is some subjective bias in play, there are equally many objective properties that can separate an iem’s performance. So it’s very well possible that one iem can be technically superior to the other, even though it doesn’t match one’s preference. For example, say you have a $50 V-shaped iem, and a $1000 midcentric one. Even though Tim prefers a V-shaped signature, he should agree with John that the $1000 is objectively better; it might have a better stage, a fuller sound, as well as higher resolution. Unless Tim’s very stubborn of course (we all know that one guy), or there’s something very wrong with the expensive one.
Bass plays a powerful role in a signature. It contributes for a great deal to the sense of rhythm and liveliness of the music. It provides power to the presentation, an overall sense of dynamism. But it also makes the sound full and engaging; an enhanced mid-bass will often result in thicker notes. I personally like my bass a little bit north from neutral. I like a bass that has some power, which I can feel. However, an enhanced or loose bass presentation adds warmth to the presentation, and too much of it affects the airiness of the stage, and can affect the transparency. In addition, both the sub- and mid-bass play an important in the stage dimensions. A powerful bass might sound dynamic, it can also tighten the stage. So what we’re looking for, is a bass presentation that is punchy and provides dynamism to the music, has a resolved mid-bass, but also has a high amount of control and balance between the sub- and mid-bass, as it shouldn’t affect the airiness of the stage.
The midrange is the foundation of the music, as most instruments are positioned in this range. It consists of the lower, center and upper midrange. A midrange can have very different and sometimes conflicting qualities, so it’s hard to classify the perfect midrange. However, a midrange should have appropriate size, i.e. not be too distant or recessed. Notes can be either thick or thin, and each has their advantage. A thicker average note production will give the sound more body, make guitar and vocals sound more impressive. However, it shouldn’t color the sound too much. Leaner notes in turn might sound more accurate without the added coloration (for instance with respect to string instruments), but can also aid in the overall separation, as they take up less space in the stage and effectively give other notes more room to breath.
Ideally, the midrange should be slightly warm for it to have a natural tone, without overly coloring the sound. This will allow vocals to be reproduced with more emotion. Vocals shouldn’t sound thin. This doesn’t only refer to their size, but also their density. If the upper midrange or lower treble is too prominent with respect to the center midrange, a vocal will sound vague, a so-called ‘phone call voice’ as a friend of mine always accurately describes it. When a singer sings, you want to feel the power coming from deep within the lungs; you need to be able to feel the sound being reproduced from the throat, and the air being released from the mouth. You want to be able to picture the singer in front of you.
Similarly, the upper midrange can either sound thick or thin, or bright or uncolored. Again, there are different approaches than can all sound right in their own way. The upper midrange is also where sensitivity starts to come into play, as some listeners might be sensitive to brightness or harshness. Personally, I don’t mind a slightly brighter upper midrange. This can give string instruments and acoustic as well as electric guitars more shimmer and sparkle. I also listen to a good deal of melody-based electronic music, which also works better with a bit of brightness here.
The treble is an area where sensitivity comes even more into play, and divides groups of listeners. Sensitive listeners will have a strong preference for a non-fatuiging treble, while others might value the clarity and sparkle of a brighter presentation. I have no particular sensitivities here, and can handle brighter signatures without any problems. I don’t consciously experience fatigue. A preference for a brighter or smoother treble is subjective, which can’t be scored. Treble can also be thick or thin, with each having its advantage. A thicker treble might be more engaging, but it shouldn’t lack definition. A thinner treble might be better articulated, more refined and detailed, but it can also just be thin without being particularly resolved. Another objective trait is its tonality; a treble should have a natural and realistic tone, sounding similar to how actual cymbals or drums sound. A brighter treble might have more detail and definition; it shouldn’t come at the cost of its tonal accuracy.
The treble is a very important area, because it has such profound effect on the presentation. The 7 – 10 KHz region is incremental for clarity, how clearly notes are articulated, imaging, the perception of overall detail, as well as sparkle. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance with tonal accuracy, and overdoing it can result in a negative tradeoff. But one of the most important aspects of a treble is arguably its extension. Treble extension is a bit of a misunderstood concept on the forum. People often associate treble extension with a certain amount of sparkle, as if the treble ‘reaches’ to a certain point in tonality so to speak. But a treble tuning is really determined by the amount of prominence in the 7 – 10 KHz region, and 98% of the iems have a treble roll-off around 9-10 KHz. So both bright and warm iems will have a similar treble extension (or roll-off) around 10 KHz, but differ in their tuning and tonality based on the 7 – 10 KHz region.
Treble extension refers to how far the treble goes before rolling off; as mentioned, this is usually around 9-10 KHz, but there are iems that manage to extend up to 15 KHz or even further before rolling off. This doesn’t directly affect the tonality, but technical aspects like stage airiness, overall resolution, transparency, treble definition etc. Once you know how to hear it, you can hear roughly how far a treble extends based on the presentation of the music. However, the score of the treble will mostly relate to its tone, definition and detail.
Resolution, clarity, detail retrieval, and tonal accuracy
High resolution is somewhat of a ‘holy grail’ for some listeners (including myself), as well as manufacturers. It is one of the most important properties to define the quality of the reproduction of individual tones, as well as the combined picture of the music. It is also one of the most misunderstood terms. More often than not, the term resolution is uses synonymously for detail retrieval, or in other words ‘clarity’. But there’s a very important distinction between resolution and clarity. Resolution refers primarily to the definition of individual instruments; high resolution is ‘high definition’ so to speak. With greater resolution, instruments will be more clearly defined, which accordingly will affect both separation and detail retrieval. But these are indirect side effects so to speak, rather than the main goal. Resolution results from a combination between the tonal balance and treble extension, with a prominent role for the latter. Clarity on the other hand simply results from brightening the signature by boosting the treble, and is primarily the result of enhanced treble. The primary goal of clarity is usually to enhance detail retrieval; it’s more of a direct route. So a monitor can offer a high amount of detail based on clarity, while still having low resolution. On the other hand, a monitor can have high resolution while still having a warmer or darker signature.
As an example, try to picture (or google) the painting styles of Rembrandt and Picasso. Rembrandt was renowned for playing with light, and painted dark but highly detailed images. The details don’t shout at you, but upon closer inspection, you marvel at the portrayal of individual faces and objects. This can be considered an analogy for high resolution. Picasso on the other hand used simple lines and bright colors. The picture doesn’t change much whether you’re in the back of the room or up close. In this case you can say there is a lot of clarity, although it isn’t particularly highly resolved.
The distinction is important, because boosting clarity is somewhat of a shortcut for detail retrieval. The music might sound detailed, it can come at the cost of tonal accuracy; the naturalness of the presentation. In addition, boosting the treble often results in cutting off lower harmonics (the lingering after effects of a note, such as when the chord of electric guitar is struck). So while it might appear more resolving, there is a loss of information. As we will see, a lot of the top performers when it comes to resolution have a midcentric signature, in order to maintain a natural tonality. The reason that manufacturers will often boost clarity rather than resolution, is because it is proven very difficult to improve treble extension. The common standard for iems is a sharp treble rolloff around 10 KHz, due to the inherent properties of the drivers.
Clarity can be viewed as a subjective trait of a signature. Some people prefer a brighter presentation, while others might prefer a warmer or smoother presentation. Therefore, it isn’t a technical characteristic, while resolution is. Higher resolution is per definition always an improvement, as it is independent of a signature; both V-shaped as well as midcentric iems can have high or low resolution. In addition, while a preference for signature is subjective, tonal accuracy isn’t; it’s an objective quality that refers to how accurate different instruments are portrayed, compared to how actual instruments sound. It is of course intimately related to signature.
Soundstage dimensions, separation and imaging
The reason I always start with ‘presentation’ in my reviews, is to create a visual representation of how an item sounds, so the reader can picture how an iem reproduces the music. This starts with the stage dimensions, the outer lines that determine the visual field wherein the music is presented. The mid-bass presentation and warmth contribute to the stage airiness, that together with the stage dimensions plays a crucial role for separation. But the forwardness of the midrange, the thickness of the notes and their resolution, all equally contribute to create a visual image of how the music is presented, and how well it can be heard as a coherent and refined formation.
A soundstage is audiovisual space wherein the music is presented, consisting of width, depth and height. Soundstage width is the easiest discernible feature, and therefore it is naturally the most popular. While the role of depth is a little bit less obvious, it arguably plays a greater role in the instrument positioning and separation. In an average track, the vocal is presented in the centre of a stage, flanked by guitars towards the front and the side, the most prominent elements of a band. A wider stage allows these main instruments to be positioned further apart. But more often than not, a track consists of many minor elements that are positioned behind the key players. If a stage is too tight and lacks depth, these finer details are obscured by the main elements. More depth in the presentation results in better layering of these different rows.
So a soundstage should not only be wide, it should also provide enough depth. In addition, there’s an interplay between the average note thickness and the stage dimensions. If an iem has thicker notes, the stage will be relatively more crowded. So it’s possible for an iem with a smaller stage to offer better separation than an iems with a larger stage but thicker notes. The scoring of imaging simply refers to how accurately you can position individuals in space. The scoring of stage dimensions relies on the effectual dimensions, and the combination with the average note thickness will largely determine the score of separation.
I will use my two sources for sound analysis, the Lotoo Paw Gold and RWAK380 copper.
The Lotoo Paw Gold vs. RWAK380cu (adaptation from Lotoo Paw Gold review).
The AK380cu has an uncolored signature, and shines in its neutrality. It combines a clear, transparent sound with a slightly warm, mid-centric signature. There’s a certain naturalness to its tonality that makes it sound musical, by simply sounding true. It immediately impresses with its soundstage and imaging. The stage is spacious; both wider and deeper than the LPG. But its especially the airiness of the stage that makes it such a delight, allowing a far more effortless separation than the LPG, which by comparison feels a bit more confined in its space.
The LPG is without a doubt the ‘king of resolution’ in its class, but the AK presents resolution in a more natural way. Because it has an even tonal balance, it preserves lower harmonics better for a more detailed and nuanced sound. The LPG also has great midrange resolution, but its focus is more on the articulation of the core of the tone due to its lift in the mid/upper treble, and in doing so, the traces of the note are less apparent. Basically, the reverberation of a chord, the vibrato in an electric guitar or violin, the AK presents such nuances more clearly.
The LPG on the other hand is more forward in its presentation, more stimulating. The bass, midrange and treble is all upfront, creating a dynamic sound with thick notes. Its tone in the upper midrange and treble is brighter. While the AK380’s bass is tight and highly resolving, it doesn’t match the LPG in overall quantity, at least not in its standard configuration. Send it over to Vinnie for the Red Wine modification, and the bass gains in power, hitting with more authority, while having a more natural texture. Due to the fuller bass presentation, the AK creates thicker notes coming closer to the LPG’s full-bodied presentation than in its standard configuration. The AK is smoother and certainly more refined, but it won’t quite shout at you like the LPG can
While the AK’s overall timbre has a certain naturalness, the upper midrange of the LPG shines and sparkles, even though it is more colored. When I listen to an electric guitar, I want to hear it soar, while a violin or acoustic guitar should shine and sparkle. The LPG does just that, even though it is a little rough around the edges compared to the AK. When it comes to the treble, the LPG’s is more prominent and thicker; its presence adds to the liveliness of the presentation. While it is exciting, it is a bit on the brighter side. But the AK’s treble is just something else. With greater resolution, it is more articulate, quicker, and better defined. The regular AK380’s treble keeps it a bit on the safe side, but RW’s mod opens it up just a little more for a more natural and clearer sound.
Matching – pros and cons:
More often than not an iem will sound great on either player, but there are occasions where an iem will sound pretty bad with one compared to the other. The LPG works well with iems that have leaner notes, or have a warm or mid-centric signature. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t pair well with brighter iems as well, but the AK matches better with iems that have a tendency to sound clinical, dry or harsh. A second difference is that the LPG matches suboptimally with iems that have an intimate stage, while the AK opens them up. Finally, the LPG drives iems better that need to be driven with power – a recent example is Campfire Audio’s new Vega.
FIDUE A91 SIRIUS GIVEAWAY
I was provided with a sample of the Fidue Sirius for this review. I won’t be able to listen to it for the next half a year at least, and after that chances are I’ll be reviewing other iems. So I’ve decided I’ll give away my Sirius to the first person that correctly predicts the outcome of the top 5 of the shootout. The Sirius is a hybrid with a 1+4 configuration that retails at $899.
As you might have noticed, I still have to announce the last few iems for various reasons. What I can say, is that the last won’t be fillers; each one of them will be very exciting, and a challenger for a podium position. I will announce them soon when circumstances allow it.
Everyone can only make one prediction, other than that there are no other requirements. I will ship the Sirius worldwide at my own cost. The challenge starts when the last iem is announced, and bets can be placed up until the first review is posted!
THE SHOOTOUT WILL BEGIN EARLY 2017.