64 Audio A18t ($2999)
With the s revision, 64 Audio have given the A18 a smoother, more even-handed and less excitable tonality. As you might expect, then, the bulk of those changes are up high. This A18s dampens most of the t‘s sizzle-y, jumpy transients and sits them in line with the warmth of the bass and low-mids, which – the latter, especially – tend to lie a smidgeon back on the Tzar. Of course, that’s up to taste as well. Those who found the A18t perfectly balanced may conversely find this s‘s highs a bit relaxed, so do keep that in mind. The A18s’s fuller, meatier presentation lends a richer, heavier, more rounded tone to instruments, and its transients will come off the slightest bit more muted as well. Snare drums, for example, will seem more thump-y on the s, while the buzz of the snare wires cut more on the t. And, the same goes for stick taps on the skin.
With that said, this A18s isn’t an in-ear that’s dull or veiled either. Again, its balance is achieved with immense resolution, layering and texture. In fact, it exceeds the Tzar on its lower-midrange. Violas, toms, male vocals and the leftmost keys of the piano, for example, are much better realised on the s; more rounded, fleshed-out and three-dimensional. Then, they have stronger dynamic range as well. Those instruments hit with more impact, so energy is spread out more evenly in its mix and never top-heavy. Which is better will ultimately come down to taste: Sizzle and cut, or evenness and body. When it comes to space, the A18t, with its treble presence, comes out on top in raw air; carving out its images with clean, sharp lines and leaving its stage pristine. The s is capable of just as much openness and stability, but not as clinically as the t. In terms of depth, you’ll hear a more even stereo spread out of the s. Instruments are lined-up evenly across the horizontal plane with nothing leaping out. The t‘s tend to be less even because of its excitable transients. But, it wins in sheer width.
And, lastly, where the implementation of LID in the A18s is concerned, I frankly didn’t find too much of a difference in the use cases I tested. Whether on my Yamaha CL5 console or my AVIOM monitoring mixer, I couldn’t discern any significant differences between the two beyond the changes in tuning I described in the paragraphs above. I wasn’t able to audition any high-impedance audio players, but the ones I have here showed the same results. Now, that could easily be because my test cases weren’t extreme enough in terms of impedance. I didn’t plug it into a wireless mic pack, for example. So, to me, as long as your sources aren’t terrible electrically, the exclusion of LID on the A18t doesn’t make it any less viable for pro use than the s. But, its inclusion on the s still makes it the more ideal stage in-ear; on the off-chance it’s ever needed.
64 Audio tia Fourté Noir ($3799)
Comparing 64’s custom and universal flagships, it is immediately apparent that this Fourté is the flashier, more coloured, more exaggerated-sounding in-ear monitor. It’s significantly more present in the extremes than the A18s, which makes it seem w-shaped by comparison. And, that added contrast gives the Noir loads more energy and punch to its delivery too. Listening to Dimas Pradipta’s 9 Range Road, you’ll get a ton more sparkle out of the cymbals and hi-hats, and this Fourté’s dynamic driver gifts the kick drum a more palpable thwack as well. At the same time, though, this punchiness – especially with the Noir’s relatively more recessed low-mids – can begin to wear on the ear over time; not fatigue, per se, but it may start to lose impact. The A18s balanced, less flashy delivery makes a more even listen, and it’s appreciable for longer too.
Spatially, the Fourté Noir has the edge to my ears. The stage it throws out spans a touch wider and deeper; a result of its elevated upper-treble and more recessed low-mids. But, the clearest advantage it has to me is stage height. Instruments span taller, which further contributes to the Noir’s more theatrical, immersive tone. And, topping it all off is an emphasis on air, again, courtesy of the high-treble lift. This also gives the Noir cleaner separation, along with a greater physicality – tactility – to its instruments. The A18s, though expansive in its own right, does have the more focused, intimate, reined-in timbre by comparison. Its instruments are more linear and controlled. And, it doesn’t push transients as hard either. Tori Kelly’s voice on her cover of Drake’s Time Flies, for example, shows a nice balance between her articulation – plosives and s sounds – and the richer hues to her voice too. They’re audibly further apart on the Noir; the peaks in her vocals pushed up quite a bit. So, it’s two renditions that are TOTL-tier all the same; the airy, dynamic Noir and the smooth, natural A18s.
Empire Ears ODIN ($3399)
Against Empire Ears’ ODIN, the A18s comes off fuller, especially across the mid- and upper-bass. The ODIN almost carves a space there for its upper-mids to sit and breathe, while the A18s lifts this area to meet its upper-mids. Spatially, it gives the ODIN more open air, and its instruments sit further apart because of it too. Whereas, the A18s allows its instruments – especially lower down the range – to play more of a role. Instruments like contra basses, toms or baritone saxophones come alive on the A18s with a lot of their harmonics intact. Whereas, the ODIN can feel a tad more compressed on those sounds. The A18s also has the more even upper-to-lower-mid balance as a result, while the ODIN perceivably focuses on the former. Though, if you happen to be someone who prefers a high-mid emphasis, the opposite could be true for you.
In terms of separating nuances, the ODIN’s roomier stage makes doing so easier. Each instrument has more air or space around them. Though, the A18s’s excellent top-end extension (and, presumably, apex technology) allows it to keep pace admirably too. In terms of resolution, I feel the A18s’s more present lower-half lends it the edge there. Discerning details from male vocals or the kick drum takes less effort. But, if you’re one to gauge resolution on cleanliness, tidiness and air, then the ODIN would be more your cup-of-tea. The ODIN also sports the wider stage with slightly stronger stereo spread. It’s got this lightly exaggerated, hi-fi feel to its presentation that’ll serve genres like classical nicely. Whereas, the A18s’s is more matter-of-fact and studio-like; ideal for professional work. Finally, in coherence, I feel the A18s is the more uniform, uncoloured of the two; again, ideal for pro work. The ODIN sports a couple audible dips and peaks for its grand, vivid sig.
FiR Audio M5 ($2799)
FiR Audio’s M5 is an IEM that – like the A18s – arrives at a balanced, neutral tonality. But, in many ways, it also represents the inverse of the s‘s sonic priorities. While the A18 puts energy and flair second to body and linearity, the M5 compacts, tightens and contrasts its instruments for an incredibly explosive, punchy presentation. It dips its lower-mids to heighten the contrast between its lows and its mids-and-highs. This gifts the M5’s bass – a DD-fuelled one, no less – its own pocket to operate in, so it’s able to shine more in the mix. Whereas, a potential issue I cited earlier with this A18s is that the lows are so well-entwined with its low-mids, that it can’t pop as a star player. But, where it benefits the A18s is its instruments are fuller – more organic – in tone, and better-founded. So, it’ll ultimately depend on what you want out of your monitor.
Moving up to their high-mids, the M5 exhibits a lot more presence. Instruments come off brighter and more vibrant, and sounds like trumpets, female vocals and electric guitars will have a stronger attack – a more direct form of projection – to them as well. The brass section on Snarky Puppy’s Shofukan will sound brighter and, perhaps, a bit more shouty. And, the rhythm guitar on David Benoit’s Drive Time will better cut through that mix as well, in addition to lending the lead piano a lighter, less organic tone. This means those tracks will end up livelier on the M5, while this A18s will come off more even-handed and reserved. And, this is further echoed in the low-treble. The M5’s energy across 5-7kHz gives it a crisp, sizzle-y edge. On one hand, trebleheads will find tons of instant gratification with the M5’s clarity and cut. But, on the other, those looking for a top-end that gets out of the way for analysing stems or making choices in EQ will find the A18s’s more ideal.
Spatially, the M5’s much brighter highs give it a greater sense of openness and air. The A18s isn’t far off in terms of width and depth, but it does get edged out in height. The M5’s more reserved lower-midrange hands it tighter notes and – thus – cleaner separation. You’ll get more space between notes. So, though both in-ears retrieve similar amounts of detail, it’ll probably be a tad easier to catch those subtler nuances on the M5. Again, the compromise there is timbre, with the A18s displaying the more collected, linear and organic one of the two. So, as always, your preference and use-case will be key.
JH Audio Layla ($2725)
NOTE: The Layla I’ve used for this comparison is the latest version with JH Audio’s 7-pin connector and Acoustic Sound Chamber.
Both flagships from 64 Audio and JH Audio have immensely resolving, spacious and precise-sounding signatures. There’s little to separate them in terms of stage expansion, stereo spread, image stability and overall fidelity. The only difference I’d note spatially would be the Layla is wider and more out-of-head, while the A18s shows stronger depth. And, the Layla’s diagonals (10 and 2 o’clock) are more tangible too, while the A18s trades with its tighter notes and its cleaner separation.
The bulk of their discrepancies lie in timbre and tone, the most apparent of which are in the highs. This Layla has greater presence between 7-10kHz than the A18s, which gives its transients a brighter, shouty-er tonality. Now, to be clear, this is only limited to tonality (or colour). The Layla isn’t any sharper or crisper-sounding than the A18s, because of their similar upper-treble content. Instead, what this contrast does is add a splash – a sheen – to cymbals, hi-hats and other s sounds. It can do wonders for realism on songs like The W.I.M. Trio’s Save It For The End. But, it’s also prone to brittleness or glare with tracks like Charlie Puth’s Done For Me. By comparison, the A18s’s treble is finer and tighter; more slight. It’s crisp, yet unassuming and relaxed, so you’re able to glean gobs of texture and detail out of hats and rides without fear of wincing.
Moving down to the midrange, this Layla also has a fair amount of body and weight to it. But, it’s emphasised more so in the lower-mids, which gives instruments a richer, wetter note. The A18s’s centre-mid focus means its instruments have a drier timbre by comparison, but it also means snare drums, trombones, male vocals and the like will have greater power and impact; more of an oomph to them. In the upper-mids, both monitors dip, so you’ll have a slightly darker – less zingy – hue to female vocals and violins. And, lastly, down low, the Layla comes out the more powerful of the two. It’s musclier, most especially in the sub-bass. This A18s, though it keeps up nicely, can’t quite match its sheer depth, vigour and verve.
Vision Ears ELYSIUM (€2900)
Vision Ears’ ELYSIUM is an in-ear that’s more like the A18t than the A18s. While it aims for a similar sort of neutral-natural tonality, it shares the former’s penchant for air, sparkle and space between instruments, rather than the latter’s focus on midrange body and weight. Instruments are lighter, snappier and tighter-sounding here. And, they have crisper edges to them too, courtesy of good 5kHz presence. By comparison, the A18s’s top-end isn’t as pronounced, and its transients are more level-headed – unexcited – overall. On Bruno Major’s Old Soul, for example, the ELYSIUM will highlight and sharpen lip-smacks and the ticks of the hi-hat, while the A18s will emphasise the roundedness of Bruno’s vocals; full and bulbous.
Delving further into specifics, the ELYSIUM and A18s’s deviations begin down low. The latter is significantly more present here with warmer, fatter, bolder-sounding bass notes, while the former comes across tighter and quicker. But, it doesn’t lag behind too much in physicality, because of its slight sub-bass lift. This contrast extends to the lower- and centre-mids as well, where the A18s is fuller and chestier. The ELYSIUM’s slight dip here makes its instruments sound lighter, daintier and further away (from both each other and the listener). That means it has greater perceived stage depth, but it isn’t as full and hearty in tone as the A18s. Snare drums, for example, will have a crisper clang on the ELYSIUM, and a more solid thud on the A18s. This comes from the highs too, where the ELYSIUM is brighter – glitzier – and the A18s is more organic.
There’s no ease in reinterpreting a classic, and doing so is as likely to attract success as it is to cause outcry. To many, I’m sure, the last thing 64 Audio’s revered A18t needed was a tonal redo, let alone one that involved cutting back on some of its signature sizzle. But, in a testament to the years Vitality and his team have put into their craft, I believe 64 Audio have achieved their best-possible scenario with this A18s: A fully-toned, richly-textured and near-seamlessly-linear IEM with as much an affinity for detail retrieval, precision imaging and stage expansion as the original Tzar had. While it isn’t as apt a separator, nor do its transients have that quick, hard edge to them, it is a compromise, at the end of the day, for marked growth in colourlessness, headroom, midrange quality and refinement; trade-offs mixing engineers like myself would be elated to take. The A18s is as much a top aid for any performing pro, as it is the ideal for warm, hi-fi, audiophile listening.