Introduction

While nothing quite makes headlines like $3,000 flagships and 20-driver custom IEMs, the latest instalment of A First Look dares posit something even more tantalising to the eye: Monitors that don’t break the bank, but still pack a mean punch. Here’re my early impressions of 2019’s most promising budget beasts, featuring Rhapsodio, TP Audio, Astrotec and BGVP.

Page 1: Rhapsodio Orla
Page 2: TP Audio Aurora
Page 3: Astrotec Lyra Nature
Page 4: BGVP DM7


Rhapsodio Orla

The Orla is Rhapsodio’s latest entry-level unit; one of my picks for Best in Show at CanJam Singapore 2019. I was mightily impressed by its warm, buttery timbre, as well as the tasteful doses of sparkle and clarity scattered throughout. When I found out afterwards that it cost no more than $300, I knew I had to spotlight it on THL. Like most of Sammy’s creations, the Orla sports a single diaphragm as its engine, giving it its weighty, meaty sound and generous technical performance.

Technical Specifications

  • Driver count: One dynamic driver
  • Impedance: 32Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 96dB @ 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): Proprietary dynamic driver
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal acrylic IEMs
  • Price: $300
  • Website: www.facebook.com/rhapsodiohk

Sound Impressions

The Orla has a warm, rich and full-bodied timbre. Immediately, what’s most alluring is its unified, coherent, wall-of-sound signature. It’s highly musical, intimate and immersive, giving you an in-the-middle-of-the-band experience, especially with ensembles like Incognito, Soul II Soul or The Fearless Flyers. It’s driven by a thick low-end with a fat, radiant warmth. But, as long as your music isn’t too busy or too fast, the Orla is able to maintain composure very well. With any of the three bands above, for example, each instrument has a wonderful weight to them without being cloy, gelatinous or congested.

The Orla’s low-end is thick with a dark, bellowing timbre. A mid-bass lift gives great presence in the mix, so instruments always have a full foundation. Whether it’s the electric guitars on Mark Lettieri’s Slant or the keys and horns on Michael Bublé’s Fever, they’re always full-bodied, substantial and big-sounding. Now, what this fat low-end isn’t particularly good at is maximising nuance and texture. With your kick drums and bass guitars, the wetness or bloom of the lows can mask those tinier textures and impede layering a tad. But, for a bass that’s more fun than function, the Orla certainly delivers.

Following the Orla’s rich, heavy-set low-end is a vibrant, intimate and resonant midrange. The upper-mids sit in line with the lows, complementing those warm, husky foundations with sweet, right-in-the-ear projection. Returning to Fever, when the strings, horns, bass and kick drum all come in on the same accent, no one oversteps or overshadows the other. This balance, interplay and coherence between the midrange and the low-end is truly what sells the Orla’s unified musicality. It trades in being the leanest, cleanest midrange in the world for heaps of engagement and an organic, rounded tone.

The Orla’s top-end serves its role with great subtlety, integrating itself perfectly with the rest of the frequency response without overdoing crispness or sparkle. The low-treble has sufficient energy and articulation to cut through the mix with ease, further adding to the punch of those horn accents on Fever. Cymbals and hi-hats sound clear, yet delicate at the same time. Treble notes have body, as well as a slight softness. But, attack is maintained at all times; never dull, flaccid or rolled-off. Those who like their treble may find the Orla a bit stingy on quantity. But, in quality, it’s pleasingly life-like.

Page 1: Rhapsodio Orla
Page 2: TP Audio Aurora
Page 3: Astrotec Lyra Nature
Page 4: BGVP DM7

TP Audio Aurora

Tingpod Audio (or TP Audio for short) is one of the more exciting newcomers to the CIEM industry. First introduced to me by Singapore’s Euphoria Audio, what initially struck me about Tingpod was the extraordinary level of polish I saw in their photographs, 3D renders and packaging; far more luxurious than any company in their infancy had any right to be. After further impressing me by 3D-printing my in-ears from digital STL impressions, I now have in my hands TP Audio’s single-driver Aurora – one of the most well-packaged-and-built IEMs I’ve seen yet with a smooth, organic and yet clear sound.

Technical Specifications

  • Driver count: One balanced-armature driver
  • Impedance: 5.8Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 118dB @ 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): N/A
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal acrylic IEMs
  • Price: $350
  • Website: www.tingpodaudio.com

Sound Impressions

TP Audio’s Aurora possesses a smooth, unassuming, well-balanced signature. Its laid-back and forgiving profile largely comes from a treble response that rolls off around 8kHz or so, resulting in resolution that may not punch too far above its price range. Nevertheless, the Aurora performs fairly capably in stereo separation and stage expansion. The image it puts out fills the head comfortably and stably too, which is commendable given the single-BA config. Its even tonal mix allows it to work well with a variety of genres too. While those yearning for a crisp, airy sound won’t find their ideal sig realised in the Aurora, the presence, musicality and clarity it does bring to the table should definitely be commended.

Despite what its driver config may suggest, the Aurora’s low-end is anything but anaemic. Instruments are supported by a healthy amount of bass presence, giving the Aurora a thicker profile and a warmer tone. The mid-bass is particularly strong. So, if you’re concerned the Aurora won’t be able to fill out your favourite pop or rock tracks, worry not. Listening to Snarky Puppy’s Go, which starts out with a solo bass line, the guitar sounds incredibly bold, punchy and thick. While it won’t have the sub-bass presence required to satisfyingly reproduce EDM, it should round out the bottom of any other genre quite nicely. And, despite the boldness of the lows, enough speed is there to minimise bleed as much as possible.

The Aurora’s midrange is rich, vibrant and surprisingly well-realised. There’s resolution and solidity especially to the mids that gives instruments a convincing, weighty presence. Lead melodies don’t sound wishy-washy, nor drowned out by the low-end. There’s a liveliness to them that contrasts against the thickness of the lows nicely. The midrange is also rather wet-sounding in timbre, because of the treble taper. That plus the rich, energetic and intimate positioning of the upper-midrange makes instruments like pianos and violins sound gorgeously natural, smooth, radiant and realistic. The mids are Aurora’s forte, giving tracks like David Benoit’s Vernazza both an authentic vintage feel and a vibrant, resolving tone.

The Aurora’s top-end is laid-back, thick-sounding and rather soft in attack, due to the lack of any elevations past 6kHz or so. Apart from a low-treble peak that gives instruments some energy and punch, the Aurora isn’t one to doll out massive amounts of crispness, air or sparkle. Nevertheless, spatial performance is again quite impressive. There’s a stability and cleanliness to the Aurora’s image that never gives way to claustrophobia, congestion or mid-bass bleed. Although thicker than neutral, instruments always have a strict order to them. Despite the slightly blunted transient attack, timbre is also sufficiently clear, and the tone is natural as well – a top-end that gives you just enough in every regard for your money.

Page 1: Rhapsodio Orla
Page 2: TP Audio Aurora
Page 3: Astrotec Lyra Nature
Page 4: BGVP DM7

Astrotec Lyra Nature

Astrotec is a manufacturer well-renowned for their genre-defining earbuds; revolutionising the once-looked-down-upon, humble canalphone with exquisite packaging and build, unique diaphragm designs and superb sonics. THL has reviewed their products previous times in the past, but this Lyra Nature is my first encounter with the brand. And, from the classy box, to the premium accessories, to the top-flight build and clear, resolving sound, what a first impression they’ve made!

Technical Specifications

  • Driver count: One dynamic driver
  • Impedance: 32Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 110dB @ 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): N/A
  • Available form factor(s): All-metal earbuds
  • Price: $169
  • Website: www.astrotecglobal.com

Sound Impressions

The Lyra Nature possesses a gorgeously smooth, warm tone with heaps of clarity, openness and air. Its form factor and open-backed design serves dividends in spatial performance, offering an image that’s clearly more headphone-like than anything else. While a fully-sealed in-ear monitor may find these sorts of signatures impeded by muddiness, dullness or congestion, the Lyra Nature sounds outstandingly open and airy despite its warm, smooth, euphonic instruments. And, they’re imaged precisely as well with strong stereo separation, background blackness and layering. Paired with an ultra wide, tall stage, the Lyra Nature is like a cinema screen for the ears; airily vast and resolving, yet warmly intimate too.

Given the Lyra Nature’s earbud design, one shouldn’t expect huge amounts of lows. Accordingly, it’s neither the heaviest nor the fullest bass in the world. Bass guitars and kick drums certainly sound airier, lighter and higher-pitched than they should. Impressively though, the Lyra Nature’s low-end maintains an admirable amount of presence. It fills out any mix’s bottom-end capably, serving as a foundation for the instruments and as a contrast to the airy top-end above. It’s a bud that manages to never come across hollow, thin or top-heavy, which is a massive achievement. While it isn’t (and never was meant to be) in the ballpark of EDM-ready, the presence, punch and warmth the Lyra’s bass does bring is exemplary.

The Lyra Nature’s midrange has an exceptionally gorgeous timbre; wet-sounding, vibrant, open and clear. Instruments like acoustic guitars and pianos sound wonderfully pristine. The synthesisers that open Javo Berrera’s Arrival showcase this quality beautifully. Because of the Lyra’s open-backed design – and subsequently lighter bass response – the mids have tons of room in the mix to breathe too; radiating in a speaker-like way. And, with the earbud’s upper-mid tilt, the Lyra is extremely well-suited for more stripped-back arrangements with female vocals, like Tori Kelly’s Sorry Would Go A Long Way or Carly Rae Jepsen’s All That. Wet, airy and light, this is a midrange soothing and engaging in equal measure.

Up top, the Lyra Nature is vibrant, effortless and smooth. Again, the Lyra’s relatively light lows means the treble doesn’t have to work extra hard to cut through. As a result, Astrotec gets away with having highs that are both organically thick-sounding and pristinely clear. At the same time, it’s not entirely free of its own colourations. There’s a slight low-treble peak around 6kHz for articulation that may not play nice with certain source or track pairings. But otherwise, it’s a clear and pure-sounding top-end that remains smooth into the highest registers. Dave Weckl’s cymbal and hi-hat work on ‘Dis Kinda Place with Oz Ezzeldin is gorgeously natural and pristine; a great showcase for a thoughtfully-executed top-end.

Page 1: Rhapsodio Orla
Page 2: TP Audio Aurora
Page 3: Astrotec Lyra Nature
Page 4: BGVP DM7

BGVP DM7

BGVP has been one of the community’s most recent head-turners, offering IEMs with high driver counts at tantalisingly low prices. Their DM6 in-ear monitors were a runaway hit amongst head-fi’ers across the globe, and they’ve now come out with its successor: The DM7 – armed with six balanced armatures per side and a clear, light and yet smooth sound.

Technical Specifications

  • Driver count: Six balanced-armature drivers
  • Impedance: 13.5Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 115dB @ 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): N/A
  • Available form factor(s): Universal acrylic IEMs
  • Price: $299
  • Website: www.bgvp-hifi.com; www.linsoul.com

Sound Impressions

BGVP’s DM7 is a lively, well-balanced in-ear monitor that draws its energy from the upper-mids and low-treble; a bright-sounding monitor that nevertheless remains smooth due to an absence of peaks past 10kHz. As a result, its transient response isn’t necessarily the sharpest, nor is its timbre overtly crisp. But, on the other hand, it allows its vibrance and energy to exist without overtly irking those who may prefer their cymbals smooth and feathered. In conjunction with a slightly more neutral bass response, the DM7 comes across airy, open and clean with lots of air between its images. So, if your ideal sig is open and clear with smoothness intact, and you don’t mind a slightly brighter tone, the DM7 is for you.

The DM7’s bass response as a whole sits behind its upper-registers, which gives it its spacey soundscape. But, it hovers above neutral too, which adds a necessary contrast to the top-end and prevents the DM7 from ever sounding hollow or anaemic. The low-end is tilted toward the mid-bass for punch and warmth, but they extend very nicely into the subs for palpable rumble as well. Now, it still has all the nimbleness of a balanced armature, so it won’t quite shake like a DD can. But, this benefits the lows in terms of clarity and headroom; sounding clean, refined and open at all times. The region then dips as it enters the upper-bass and low-mids, so it’s a tight bass that’s more rhythmic than it is melodic or warm.

The DM7’s midrange is vibrant and light with an emphasis on the upper-mids. Instruments have a reediness that doesn’t come across entirely accurate. But, they do have a vibrance to them that never ceases to sound musical. Fortunately too, BGVP have tempered the mids to sound neither too thin nor honky. So, despite the slightly coloured tone, instruments still maintain a sense of realism. In addition, the DM7 also possesses fair headroom and imaging precision. Instruments breathe effortlessly despite the energy they bring, and they’re positioned pretty accurately too. While resolution leaves something to be desired, decent stereo separation and stability sells a sufficiently convincing surround sound experience.

Up top, BGVP’s DM7 boasts both clarity and smoothness; a colouration that may not have worked on its own, but fares surprisingly well with the rest of the DM7’s frequency response. While bright and clean signatures typically come with a crisp, hard-edged treble response, the DM7’s upper registers instead possess a smooth, rounded and full-bodied timbre. Cymbals, hi-hats and snare drums have a modesty to them that dares not pierce, etch or crackle. Treble-heads may find it lacking, but those who want their clarity smooth too will find this mighty appealing. While it isn’t the most transparent in the world, how well it balances against both itself and the rest of the DM7 makes it a successful top-end in my book.

Page 1: Rhapsodio Orla
Page 2: TP Audio Aurora
Page 3: Astrotec Lyra Nature
Page 4: BGVP DM7