Minerva Mi-3: These two are relatively close in frequency response, but the presentations are different as the Mi-3 projects the soundstage giving you a ‘further in the audience’ feel vs. the more up-front Reference. The Mi-3 is smoother and has a thicker note through the midrange and treble in comparison with the Reference, which leads to the Reference having a clearer presentation. While soundstage width is about the same for these two but the Reference has more depth, better instrument outline and separation, however the Mi-3 has better across the head coherence leading to slightly better imaging. The Reference is more detailed and has more speed, but does not sound thin in comparison and actually has more warmth in the bottom end.
The Reference has a bit more warmth in the mid-bass region, and as the bass gets deeper, the quantity advantage of the Reference improves due to roll off of the Mi-3, which is much more amp dependent in the bass region. In the sub-bass region the Reference has more rumble and up through the mid-bass the Reference also has more texture and detail. The midrange presentation is fairly similar, except where you are in relation to the singer/stage. The thicker Mi-3 has a very natural tonality and in comparison, the Reference sounds a bit on the brighter side of natural (not neutral) with more upper midrange. Detail, clarity, and quality of the midrange is a bit better with the Reference, but given the differences, these two are close. Treble continues where the upper mids left off, with the Reference having more treble, but the treble sound more natural and detailed, although the Mi-3 has smoother treble that is easier on the ears with poorly mastered tracks.
These two are close, but the choice will come down to a thicker, more projected performance that is engaging and totally non-fatiguing vs. a bit brighter and clearer presentation with a more traditional presentation. The Reference beats the Mi-3 in clarity, punch, speed, and detail while the Mi-3 is smoother with better in-head coherence. It is also important to note that the Mi-3 is a more difficult load to drive and will need an amp or powerful player to sound its best. Both do things well, and in my listening tests, each was preferred over the other depending on the track and source.
Dream Earz aud-5X: There is an immediately noticeable difference in the amount of low end oomph between these two as well as the more mid-forward presentation of the 5X. The 5X has a slightly smoother presentation, however it also is more detailed and transparent. Clarity goes to the Reference as the midrange of the 5X is thick in comparison. Soundstage space is close between these two, however the 5X has more depth with better imaging while the Reference offers a bit better instrument separation. Speed is similar between the two, however the Reference does sound a bit faster due to the thicker midrange presentation of the 5X.
With 3 drivers for the bass, the 5X has more enhancement and capability, which can be thunderous in comparison. While the Reference doesn’t lack bass and extends all the way down, the 5X makes the Reference sound bass light. Warmth between the two is similar as is overall bass detail and texturing. The midrange of these two diverges quite a bit as the 5X is thicker and more forward while still having a bit better depth, giving a much different feel. Clarity in the midrange is more apparent with the Reference, but the 5X recreates more instrument detail. The upper midrange of the 5X is more prominent, but the Reference has more treble emphasis with a bit more smoothness. The Reference has nice extension and the 5X extends just a bit further.
With a punchier, brighter, more bass heavy, and mid-forward presentation, the 5X has a very exciting sound. In contrast, the Reference has a more balanced, flat presentation that closer to a reference sound. Technically the 5X outperforms the Reference, but the 5X midrange thickness can be a turn off at times, especially in direct comparison.
Fabs Fabulous Earphones: The Reference offers a more spacious and laid back presentation compared with the mid-forward Fabs, which have a bit more air. Clarity levels are slightly better with the Fabs due to the up-front midrange as instrument detail levels are similar, but the soundstage space is better defined by the Fabs with more depth to the presentation, even though it is not as wide. While instrument detail is similar, the Reference presents slightly more spatial queues within the soundstage despite better instrument separation by the Fabs. Speed and transparency are about the same while the Reference has a slight lead in dynamics.
Both have a flat bass response but the Reference has a good deal more rumble and a more depth, which is likely due, at least in part, to the half shell of the Fabs not utilizing bone conduction. Other than the rumble, both are similar with excellent texturing and nice detail. Warmth is close, but the Reference does have a warmer tilt to the sound signature. The midrange presentation is fairly different, but the quality is very similar and both have their strengths, such as imaging with the Fabs or resolution with the Reference. In the treble region, the Fabs has a bit more forward treble presentation and have a more treble focus, and while both sound fairly natural, the Reference has a more natural decay in the treble region along with an overall better quality.
While these two have similar strengths and trade slight wins in many categories, the Reference overall is a little superior technically. The Fabs have a more forward and brighter performance as well as a half-shell design that is ultra convenient while the Reference offers better extension, more sub-bass, and higher quality treble. If you listen primarily to acoustic music, either is a good choice, however if you love to concentrate on vocals, the Fabs mid-focus and musical presentation give it the nod. Classical music is done quite well with the Fabs due to the soundstage presentation, however the Reference is more versatile in the genres it does well with.
Thousand Sound TS842: These two bring out the worst in each other when compared directly, emphasizing the mid-recessed sound and quicker, sharper notes of the TS842 while the Reference has what seems to be a strong upper-midrange emphasis. Of course, both sound very good when not making this comparison. The presentation of the Reference is more 3D with better imaging leading to better transparency and a better sense of space. While the Reference offers better clarity, the TS842 has more detail and presents those details in an easier to hear way. Instrument separation and black space is presented similarly. There isn’t a big difference in speed, but the Reference does have a slight advantage in bass speed while the TS842 has a slight advantage in mid/treble speed.
Both are neutral in the bass region, however the TS842 has much more sub-bass capability even though the texturing and control aren’t too far from a BA presentation. With more mid-bass presence the Reference has a warmer and richer presentation. The largest divergence between these two is in the midrange as the Reference has a nice balance that is not too laid back and not too forward while the TS842 midrange is laid back to the point of being recessed, which can lead to a somewhat hollow sound to the midrange in comparison. Detail levels are about the same in the midrange and the shorter note of the TS842 makes it easier to hear the details even though the Reference images better and has better clarity. Treble of the TS842 is sharper and there is a bit more quantity than that of the Reference. While the TS842 has nice detail in the treble, the Reference treble is a strong point with excellent decay, giving a smoother yet detailed and realistic presentation.
Recreating the presentation in different ways, these two have different strengths and will appease different people. The TS842 is good for those that like a TF10 sound signature, want plenty of sub-bass rumble, and/or want to easily hear all the instrument details. The Reference is superior for acoustic music due to the better imaging and instrument placement as well as more natural decay and a bit warmer and thicker presentation.
M-Fidelity SA-12: While the Reference is on the warmer side compared with several CIEMs but the SA-12 gives a slight bit warmer overall presentation, which the Starkey gets quite right. The mids of the SA-12 are just a bit more forward yet integrated very well into the rest of the spectrum, which when combined with the imaging makes the SA-12 sound a bit more cohesive and transparent. However, the Reference does offer better clarity by a bit as well as a more focused presentation with better instrument separation and instrument definition. The discrepancy between loud and quite parts of the music is greater with the Reference since the SA-12 doesn’t have the dynamic range of the Reference, which is really only noticeable in direct comparison and not usually something that is an issue. In regards to soundstage presentation, the Reference is larger overall with better depth and height, but the differences aren’t huge. Due to the note thickness, the Reference does sound a bit faster with fast tracks and is more revealing of poorly recorded tracks as the SA-12 smoothes over the issues, giving little hint of their presence.
One would think that the bass from a 2-way incorporating a TWFK would fall far behind a 3-way design with a dedicated, much larger woofer, but for some reason the SA-12 holds its ground with most music. Sure, it doesn’t rumble like the Reference, nor does it have the depth, or even the impact, but the ability to output nearly as much bass, even with bass heavy tracks is impressive. The Reference does offer a bit better bass control when there is a lot of bass and while both offer warmth, the slightly thicker note of the SA-12 along with the lower quantity of treble make the presentation warmer. Having a more mid-forward presentation, the SA-12 offers good imaging and decent depth; vocal details are present quite well as the SA-12 brings all details to the forefront while the Reference has better layering and presentation depth. The treble of the SA-12, while not missing, is not nearly as bright as the Reference. Both have decent extension and sound good, but the note decay of the Reference is superior to the SA-12, giving it a more natural note presentation.
With a canal only shell and warm, forgiving sound that is non-fatiguing the SA-12 is perfect for on the go and causal listening while the Reference offers a brighter sound that works better for hearing what is going on in a song. Personally, I use the SA-12 as my workout IEM (mainly due to the canal only design) while the Reference would get more use at home for critical listening. Both are very good in their own respective ways for the price and both deserve consideration depending on what you are looking for.
Wan Xuan (Beat Audio) i9pro: With quite a bit more bass and space than the brighter, more balanced Reference, the i9pro with FST technology is geared for fun compared with the studio worthy Reference. The i9pro spaciousness is due to the FST technology, which does come with some cons in addition to the pros. The comparison of the sound stages is not typical since the shapes are different, with the i9pro having more of a rectangular stage size while the Reference has a more typical oval. The Reference has close to the same depth right in front of you, but the i9pro has better depth further to the left and right, creating a different and most of the time larger sense of space.
Detail levels are close with the Reference edging out the i9pro, however the clarity of the Reference is a good deal better mainly due to the note presentation, which has a faster attack. Notes are smoother with the i9pro, but there is a difference in presentation style between the balanced armature and dynamic drivers, being a slower yet more textured presentation with the dynamic driver while the BA is more etched and precise but not lacking in proper decay time.
The additional bass weight of the i9pro produces a fuller and warmer sound with quite a bit more ability to rumble in the sub-bass department compared with the Reference. But, the Reference is more accurate and controlled in the bass region, giving a cleaner reproduction. The midrange has more similarities than differences, but the i9pro does have a bit more forward presentation with a little less detail due to the more liquid note. The treble presentation of the Treble note decay is fairly similar, however the Reference is brighter with better extension and air resulting in a more natural and believable tonal quality and overall recreation.
With a balanced and very neutral presentation that has excellent attack and decay characteristics approaching that of the dynamic driver i9pro, the Reference is a great option for those that want a balanced sound. For those preferring a very spacious and bass oriented presentation that is fun and enjoyable, the i9pro will deliver. The i9pro does have a vent that lowers isolation compared with the Reference, so take that into consideration, however those coming from a dynamic driver universal IEM should experience better isolation with the i9pro. These two are for different purposes, while they are both technically very close in performance, the sound preferences you want should be the determining factor.
Logitech Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor (IERM): The IERM was designed to be the ultimate reference monitor (or at least the Ultimate Ears reference monitor!), so this comparison is warranted considering the namesake of the Reference and both use 3 BA drivers in a 3-way configuration. The IERM is brighter with a rougher, more analytical sound and better clarity as well as being much more revealing of poor quality tracks; i.e. much less forgiving. This leads to a much more enjoyable presentation with low quality tracks, even though there are hints of the poor quality. The Reference has a bit more note thickness in general although the IERM can sustain notes as well as the Reference. While both offer great imaging and depth, but the Reference has a bit better focus within the soundstage except in the very center. Both have similar proportions to the soundstage but the IERM can present a larger space when the track calls for it. The IERM has a good deal more resolution and instrument detail across the spectrum.
Bass is close between these two with the IERM having a slight advantage in the deep bass rumble even though the Reference has better deep bass extension, however the Reference has more warmth from more mid-bass. The midrange of the Reference has a little more thickness and richness while the IERM has a slight bit more forward presentation in the midrange while the upper midrange of the IERM is more pronounced and pulled even more forward, increasing the clarity and detail retrieval. With large differences in the treble region, the IERM is much brighter than the Reference and also much more analytical and unforgiving vs. the more liquid and natural sounding Reference. The treble of the IERM can be unpleasant to my ears depending on the track while the Reference is very musical.
After comparing these two, the IERM, it is apparent that the IERM is a recording engineers tool, pointing out all the issues with a track while the Reference is excellent for the audiophile that wants neutrality. If you want an analytical and judging CIEM, the IERM is it, but for half the price the Reference can be used for similar purposes, however with limitations for that purpose.
EarSonics SM3: When I first bought the SM3 it was $435 direct from France, so the price I paid isn’t vastly different from the Reference, although they can be purchased for less now. This comparison is for a sanity check for the quality of the Reference as both are 3 driver, 3-way designs. The SM3 s warmer, thicker, and richer with more bass enhancement and a darker presentation, giving up clarity and sounding a bit on the thick and sloppy side in comparison. There is better focus with the Reference due to better instrument separation and clarity. Detail levels of the Reference are higher for individual instruments and are better defined within the soundstage, however the SM3 does resolve the space between instruments better, giving a better recreation of ambiance. The SM3 is more mid-forward and has a smaller overall space than the Reference, however the depth of the presentation between the two is close.
These two are very different as the SM3 is rich, thick, warm, and can sound overly thick in comparison with the Reference, which offers better clarity, instrument detail, and clarity, sounding more natural overall. Technically the Reference is superior by a decent margin showing off the price difference and custom fit.
Volume performance: The Reference has decent low volume performance, but at very low volumes the bas driver doesn’t really kick resulting in a flatter presentation. At moderate and above volume the Reference offers the full power and glory of the presentation, not having any issues at the loudest level I want to listen at for even a short period of time.
Sound Summary: The Reference offers a very balanced sound with a hint of warmth and natural sounding note decay presented in a coherent way across the frequency spectrum. Bass is flat and extended with a good weight to it. The neutral midrange is well integrated with the bass and treble, and isn’t laid back nor forward overall while there is a slight, well integrated upper midrange bump that helps create class leading clarity. With a natural decay, the treble is well done and gives instruments the decay they should have, resulting in a realistic presentation.
Dynamics and speed are very good as the Reference can keep pace with any music, but the transparency is a bit below the average due to the center of the soundstage having less definition and coherence. Space is presented with good proportions and better than average size. While not overly forgiving, the Reference does smooth over some of the issues with poorly mastered tracks. Overall, the Reference offers a combination of a great balance and capability for the price.
Portable Sources, DAPs
Clip+: When paired with the Clip+ the overall sound is very good, not giving up much to better sources. There is a bit less soundstage width and depth compared with the iPhone 4S but more detail/resolution. The bass has more weight and extends a little further while the overall sound is more dynamic than the iPhone 4S. The combination is musical and great for on the go. 7/10
iPhone 4S: The strength of the 4S is the soundstage, which is spacious and deep with good imaging, however the overall sound is not quite as dynamic and punchy compared with the Clip+. Using a iPhone with the Reference won’t bring ou the full potential, but it is not bad considering the convenience of something you are already carrying around with you. 6/10
iPad 2: The iPad 2 presentation is the same as the iPhone 4S, but the soundstage space is a cleaner with a slight bit more depth to the presentation. Overall the rest of the presentation is very similar, warranting the same score. 6/10
RoCoo Power: The RoCoo Power is not a great match for the Reference as the bass is lacking and the deep bass is non-existent while the overall presentation is bright and sounds tonally off, making the pleasing warmish and musical sound turn analytical and harsh. 1/10
801 (GAME card): The ability to resolve more detail is realized with the 801, but the differences are not quite as large as with many other higher end CIEMs. Bass is deeper and more impactful and there is better imaging along with more depth to the presentation with a cleaner and clearer soundstage, but the differences aren’t overly large. The presentation hugely different from the iPhone 4S, and not that large of a step up. 8/10.
Portable Sources, DAPs with Amps
iPhone 4S with i.Fuzen HP-1: The i.Fuzen pulls the midrange back a bit and expands the soundstage while tightening up the bass on bass heavy tracks compared with the HPO. This give the i.Fuzen a spatial advantage that, depending on the track, can change the sound from music playing to music being presented to you. The tonality changes a bit between the HPO and i.Fuzen, having less upper midrange emphasis resulting in a more natural and less fatiguing sound, not that the Reference is fatiguing. Overall, the improvements, while at times subtle, can be significant with well recorded tracks, especially acoustic music. 7/10
iPhone 4S via Silver Dragon LOD -> Surprisingly small difference between the 4S and the 801 when using an amp.
Arrow 12HE: Not as clean sounding as the other amps, the 12HE adds a bit to the warmth, but not much. With a wider presentation than the other amps except the Stepdance, the 12HE gives a nice sense of space to many recordings, although the depth and imaging aren’t the best. The weakest areas of the 12HE with the Reference are the deep bass and treble, with a roll off in the lower registers and a harshness in the treble that isn’t there with the other amps. 5/10
Pico Slim: The Pico Slim offers nice transparency and doesn’t brighten the presentation all that much, as the amp can tend to do, but it accentuates the detail in the treble, adding layers that are hard to hear with the other amps. While the soundstage isn’t all that expansive, the coherence and imaging are very good, making the PS very listenable with the Reference. 7/10
Stepdance: With the most expansive presentation with the Reference, the Stepdance sounds very good overall, however I was surprised the bass wasn’t more pronounced. Overall, the sound is smooth yet detailed and portrays a sense of effortlessness. 7.5/10
uHA-120: With a neutral sound
Neco V2: Great low end punch and dynamics, only second to the Cruise in those aspects, the V2 shows it can perform with more expensive amps. Overall the soundstage size is in line with the majority of the amps, giving the V2 an overall lead vs most other amps. 8/10
Cruise: The best deep bass, best dynamics, and cleanest sound of the amps give the combination with the Reference very enjoyable, however there is a slight amount of hiss which does detract from the sound a bit. 0.5 was subtracted from the score due to hiss. 8.5/10
EHP-O2: Starting with the low-end, the O2 outperforms the similarly priced V2 and adds a more spacious presentation as well. The midrange regions are quite similar between the two, but the treble is a slight bit cleaner on the V2. Not quite as punchy and dynamic as the V2, but not bad. 8.5/10
HUD-MX1 (OPA1611): The MX1 sounds OK, but not as lively as with many other sources including the iPhone to an amp or the Clip+, but especially something such as the D1. There is a low volume imbalance that further takes away from the sound. 4/10
D1: Everything sounds more accurate, precise, and lively but with a great smoothness and refinement with the D1, however there isn’t much improvement in detail over the MX1. Control is much better, however along with great bass punch and improved weight. This is the best the Reference has sounded, however the improvements aren’t necessarily worth the cost increase. 10/10
Source Summary: The Reference is not too difficult to drive and lower end sources realize nearly all the detail and space available, but improving the amp section does result in a tighter, better controlled sound. Adding an amp to your existing source such as an iPhone or Fuze will result in as good of an experience, if not better than upgrading to an expensive DAC.
The Alclair Reference provides a balanced yet musical presentation that offers an impressively flat presentation with class leading clarity at a relatively affordable price of $399. Bass rumble is good for a balanced armature driver with extension down to 20 Hz, providing good texturing and control. The midrange is neither forward nor laid back with good spatial recreation; however the cohesion of the presentation is a bit below standard due to less definition in the center of the soundstage. Note thickness sounds very natural with very good attack and decay, especially in the treble region, standing out amongst its peers for the natural presentation.
The Reference can be used as just that, a reference as it has the flattest, most neutral sound that I have heard in the price range. It is, however, not quite as bright as the other ‘reference’ CIEMs, which do cost double+ and are and revealing of poor masters. Audio enthusiasts and audiophiles that are looking for a balanced, neutral sound with good capabilities that won’t break the bank should take a look at the Reference as Alclair has done an excellent job of combining musicality with reference sound, making the Reference very versatile and enjoyable.
– Class leading clarity
– Excellent note decay that is consistent throughout the frequency spectrum resulting in a rich yet detailed presentation that is very natural sounding, especially in the treble
– The center of the soundstage presentation isn’t as well defined as the rest of the spectrum, resulting in a less than perfect across the head cohesion of the soundstage that is typical for IEMs. This is not a large issue and I needed to specifically listen for it.
Page 1: Overview, specifications, and sound description