For our last stop, we come full circle – back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Kumitate Lab should be no stranger to anyone who’s read my recently-debuted interview series An Inner View – where I speak intimately with CEO Ryosuke Ito about the company. Below are my impressions of their breakout models, the hybrid KL-REF with adjustable bass and the KL-Lakh.
Kumitate Lab KL-REF: The KL-REF is a neutral-sounding piece that – as its name suggests – is viable as a studio piece, but with quirks that separates it from other reference in-ears. Energy along 5 and 10kHz add great articulation and air, but the REF dips around 8-9kHz to ensure smoothness. It also adds a feathery quality to the treble that prevents it from becoming overtly hot or brittle. But, this prevents it from sounding perfectly linear to me without brief adjustment.
Despite this, the balance it maintains with the rest of the range is impressive. The mids are balanced and uncoloured with laid-back delivery. Instruments are generally presented with a matter-of-fact-ness that’ll work well in the studio, but may be perceived as dull for audiophiles. Additionally, the bass at default makes its presence known by extension, rather than quantity. Solidity and texture both impress with a slight sub-bass bias, but the warmth it imparts onto the image is neutral. Nevertheless, it’s a bass that never underwhelms in terms of quality – as technical performance is exemplary.
With the bass dial set to full, frequencies below 300Hz receive a healthy boost. In Gallant’s Cave Me In, the sub-bass fills the stage, positioning itself parallel with – if not a hair above – the lead vocal. It alters the bass to act more as a melodic instrument, rather than a foundational element. But even here, impact won’t be sufficient to please bassheads. I see it more as a means to help engineers mix low-end as things like the Fletcher-Munson curve or fatigue come into play.
Nevertheless, in every setting, the REF is most impressive in spatial performance. The stage it posits is large and evenly-expanded. Instruments evenly line the perimeter of the stage, allowing the listener to a bird’s-eye-esque view of the track – almost like you’re viewing it through a 24-70mm camera lens. Height is outstanding, as instruments are spread evenly along all three axes; ensuring consistent audibility throughout. This is the REF’s undisputed key to the studio.
Kumitate Lab KL-Lakh: The KL-Lakh is an energetic, detail-driven IEM maintaining elements of both the REF and the NEXT 5 series. While the first sounds that jump when listening to the Lakh are its prominent 12kHz peak and a lifted 100-200Hz region, both are paired with unlikely partners: A vast and deep soundscape, and a laid-back upper-midrange.
It’s neither a dynamic, v-shaped response, nor a saturated bombard of instruments. Rather it borrows elements of the latter to energise hi-hats, cymbals and bass drops, but transplants them onto a linear, reference-style midrange and an open stage. The result is perhaps the most realistic and undramatised representation of a “rock” IEM I’ve heard yet. Again, like the REF, spatial coherence and imaging precision are both outstanding, and tone is relatively realistic as well.
Despite what may sound like timbral schizophrenia, the elements at play work surprisingly well together with excellent coherence throughout. This is because the Lakh is a unique-sounding piece blessed with high technical foundations, most at home with genres like rock and EDM. For those who want both the energy those genres can provide, as well as the tonal realism that several other in-ears geared towards them have yet to deliver, the Lakh is truly one-of-a-kind.
Although this isn’t an e-earphone item, I thought, “What better way to close off an article semi-celebrating the wealth of Japanese portable audio, than with a titan like Sony?” On my last day in Japan, I visited Sony’s flagship store in Osaka. Although they hadn’t yet exhibited the highly-anticipated IER-Z1R as I had hoped, I managed to try something arguably more interesting: The latest in Sony’s exclusive Just Ear CIEM line: The XJE-MH/WM1 designed for the WM1A and WM1Z!
Sony Just Ear XJE-MH/WM1: The WM1 is a 1+1 hybrid. Immediately, it impresses in tonal balance and transparency. It carries a lightly warm, uncoloured, natural tone ideal for a studio scenario – whether mixing or mastering. This is further bolstered by extension on both ends, allowing resolution and definition to remain high despite average transient attack.
There’s healthy articulation from the lower-treble – 6-7kHz perhaps – but the upper-treble remains wisely laid-back. Full authority is maintained by way of extension. Instruments are neither veiled, nor dulled, nor congested. Each track is given space for analysis, but not so much so that tonal accuracy is lost. This is also the result of withdrawn upper-mids.
Melody is neutrally positioned, similar to another mastering maestro – JHAudio’s Layla. But like the KL-REF, audiophiles who prefer more vibrant vocals may find this presentation unexciting. The bass is clearly dynamically-driven. It’s a touch above neutral, but remains well-balanced against the rest of the range, and adds just enough harmonic content to bind everything together without excessive warmth. Extension is impressive, but sub-bass content is placed closer to neutral.
Hip-hop tracks like Eminem’s Lucky You won’t ever be skull-rattlingly visceral, but this was done – again – to maintain balance with the rest of the ensemble. This is the perfect amount of bass for my preferences for mixing and mastering. And, despite the slight laid-backed-ness of the sub-bass, linearity and coherence are both left perfectly intact. The bass performs like a singular unit with excellent definition – rumble just happens to be placed a touch behind in the mix.
Spatially, coherence is its most impressive aspect. Everything sounds evenly arranged and balanced with zero awkward imaging. But, in terms of headroom and size, it’s not far above average for a flagship. FAudio’s Major and the Layla both expand further, but each with their own set of compromises. At the end of the day, the WM1 is an excellent reference piece for professional work, which I hope will find its way towards more international waters within the near future.