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FiR Audio Xe6: The Great Frontier

Listening notes

Since this is a deep-dive review of Xe6, it won’t be complete without some detailed listening notes from my many sessions with it. Consider these stream of consciousness thoughts that I wrote down while listening, then tidied up to be legible enough to read and understand. Hopefully you’ll get some idea of what I’m hearing by reading the notes while listening along.

Note: all listening done with the HiBy RS8 as source, using low gain, and a maximum volume of 40/100. Xe6 is extremely easy to drive, so be careful when connecting it to more powerful sources.

Xe6 with…indie/pop

Lana Del Rey – Video Games. Xe6’s thickness is apparent from the first note. The electric piano intro sequence feels like it’s being played in a reverb room. And then, Lana starts singing and her sweet, emotive voice is as raw and beautiful as I know it to be, presented clearly and completely unveiled by the low notes. Xe6 does a great job with the first of the sub-bass ‘drops’ at 2:22, which can be felt as much as it’s heard, and all the while Lana’s hypnotic voice remains the centerpiece. Some of the lesser elements are pushed out to the extremities, but they’re still there. Xe6 can be quite intense, and this rather laidback track is a good example of how that intensity manifests in music with a strong, defined bassline. 

The Shins – New Slang. In contrast to Lana’s bold intro, the tambourine and guitar intro to The Shin’s now-famous New Slang is rich and detailed without overpowering the stage, even though some of the lower-range guitar plucks have that characteristic Xe6 fullness to them. The male lead vocals are a little less forward, partially swallowed up by the lower midrange elevation would be my guess. 

There’s something about the dynamic swings Xe6 is capable of that makes this type of head-bobbing melody even more so, and it’s all I can do to type while nodding like a bounce toy. This is a great track to demonstrate the quality of dynamic driver bass in a song without drums – it sets up the foundations against which all the sparklier notes and vocals contrast, resulting in an utterly engaging presentation as good as I’ve ever heard it. 

Xe6 with…Americana

Brandi Carlile – The Story. The first thing I listen for in this track is the purity of Brandi’s opening vocals, and Xe6 doesn’t disappoint. There is a touch of bloom from the accompanying guitars, but it doesn’t make Brandi any less distinct. The second check on the list is kick drum impact, and Xe6 does a great job here too, the suckout of air from the drums clearly felt along with the texture of the drum hits. 

When the instrumental melee begins mid-track, it is quite a bit thicker than I’m used to, and while every element is there, there seems to be quite a bit of warm air between the instruments. Going back to the simpler vocal passages is a relief from the thickness, but at the same time, as the song progresses, the warmth becomes more enveloping and comfortable. There are no hard edges here, but no smearing either. It’s the sonic equivalent of lump-free porridge of the tastiest kind.      

Whitehorse – Dear Irony. Xe6 flexes some of its technical muscles with this track, throwing up an obviously wide and deep stage with the very first left channel guitar plucks in the intro, followed up by excellent separation of the female and male lead vocals, imaged precisely one behind the other. The vocals are contrasted against a thick bassline, which is very well done here, but does obscure some of the deeper sub-bass drums in the background. 

What’s most important, though, is how emotionally the lyrics are delivered, and herein lies Xe6’s strength, its ability to subtly emote despite the sometimes overwhelmingly full sound. Vocals are absolutely clean – not a hint of grain or sibilance – and this is key to keeping the focus where it should be. 

Xe6 with…modern classical/cinematic

John Barry – The Buffalo Hunt (from Dances with Wolves). This is one of my all-time favourite pieces of modern classical cinematic scores, and The Buffalo Hunt is one of its highlights. What’s most impressive is how well Xe6 resolves the wide dynamic range, strings, toms and horns. Spread across a vast stage, every subtle cue is easy to pick out, and there’s not one element that dominates the others. 

Xe6’s thickness is also a non-issue, with instruments sounding ‘correct’, full of texture, with accurate timbre. There’s definitely some warmth infused into an otherwise colder production, but this elevates and improves it in my opinion.

Lisa Gerrard – Now We Are Free (from Gladiator). A masterpiece film topped by a masterpiece soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and his muse, Lisa Gerrard. The goosebumps appeared for me just as soon as Lisa started singing, which is more than I can say for many IEMs I’ve heard this incredibly emotional track with. 

For me that’s not just because her voice sounds so pure, but because the power of the deep, dynamic bass notes, subtle string cues, deep stage and gentle, quivering backing track all combine to take me right back to the powerful, tragic and inspirational scene where I first heard this music. It’s transcendent as much as it is perfectly presented.  

Xe6 with…singer-songwriter/folk

Eva Cassidy – Songbird. Is there a more iconic song than this to represent the genre, I wonder? The question for me before I pressed play was how much Xe6’s penchant for thick-set guitar plucks would interfere with Eva’s angelic voice and soft backing vocals. The answer, thankfully, is not at all. Yes, the guitars are prominent, but so is Xe6’s ability to forward-project female vocals. 

Once again, not a hint of grain or sibilance, and when Eva hits the high notes, they’re so sweet that the tragedy of her passing can feel overwhelming. I really like how the accompanying shakers, and even the subtle strings in the deep background are clearly heard, but unlike some overtly technical IEMs that compartmentalize the sounds – impressive as that may be – they’re presented here as an even more impressively cohesive and musical whole. 

Jim Croce – Time In A Bottle. What is it with me and tragic singer/songwriters? This is a simple recording that’s not so simple to reproduce well. It’s a thinner, colder recording that can sound harsh with some IEMs, but with Xe6 it’s nothing but smooth, detailed and completely captivating. Jim’s vocals take a small step back to the guitars in the left and right channels, but that’s a good thing as his voice can sound overly forward on this track. Xe6 makes it feel like I’m sitting in a room with Jim, guitars strumming to either side, and him just out of reach, as if foreshadowing what comes next so soon after this recording was made. Beautiful and sad, and Xe6 captures both so well.

Xe6 with…Classic Rock

Def Leppard – Love Bites. My personal pick from an album full of personal picks, Def Leppard’s Love Bites is lifted directly from the soundtrack of my youth. When I listened to it on endless repeat as a teenager, however, I wasn’t using such resolving and sophisticated gear. Xe6, with all its resolving power, takes me back to that time, because its smoothness, warmth and relaxed, rounded treble combine to tone down many of the harsher edges from this less-than-perfect, often too-bright recording. 

What’s left is perfectly centered vocals, bouncy bass drums and guitars with crunch that I can enjoy without wincing. Cymbals and splashes are liquid-smooth, just as I like them, and the vocals have some added fullness to them too. Most importantly, the groove is absolutely on point. Brilliant stuff. 

Bon Jovi – Runaway. As a teen I used to bounce between Def Leppard and Bon Jovi as my two anthemic ‘rock’ bands of the 80s and early 90s, and to this day they’re about as heavy as I like my music, with very few exceptions. There’s something about Xe6’s ability to fill out the rather meek bass drums of these older recordings too that takes me right back to when I used to blast these tracks on a 2-channel system with much bigger drivers. 

I also like that there’s no harshness in the guitars, and Xe6 easily keeps up with the pace of the drumming and riffing in this classic track without any smearing or overlap. I can only think that those who prefer more grunge might find this presentation a bit too polite, but for me, it doesn’t get any better. In fact, I think Xe6’s thicker sound is probably better with these older recordings, before compression and the loudness wars took over the music industry. 

Xe6 with…electronic/dance

Ilan Bluestone – Will We Remain. This is a newer track in my test library and a genre that is quickly becoming more than just a passing interest. I’ve never been into the dance/trance scene at all, but it’s music that I can lose myself in for hours – thankfully without the accompanying crush of gyrating, sweaty humans around me. Leaving real instruments behind makes it easier on the IEM for sure from a tonal perspective, but puts added emphasis on technical performance. 

This is where Xe6 earns its stripes as a top-of-the-line performer. Every sonic nuance is important here, and the interplay between the different sounds on Xe6’s massive stage is captivating. This track in particular pushes Xe6 to the limit at both ends, with some very tight, taught bass notes followed by airy, spritely treble notes that need to be precisely imaged but not too forward or energetic. Xe6 pulls off this balance without breaking a sweat.

Armin van Buuren – Intense (featuring Miri Ben Ari). I keep going back to this track for its combination of modern classical and electronic elements, and also one of the few non-vocal electronic tracks I use to test gear. The beauty of Miri Ben Ari’s violin strings is always a highlight, and Xe6 absolutely nails the texture, timbre and realism here. The deep bass of the double-drop makes a perfect contrast with the strings, before the electronic elements and dance groove take over. 

Xe6 manages to not only keep pace, but completely avoid any smearing. Sub-bass isn’t the deepest I’ve heard with this track, but the lower levels of midbass in the track help keep the performance clean and bloom-free. Once again, Xe6’s speed, dynamic contrast, imaging and resolution are on full display here, with Kinetic Bass taking care of the groove. 

In summary. I’ve limited my notes to music I know well and the genres I mostly listen to. Of course, there’s so much more that I couldn’t include, and that goes for my own library, never mind the stuff I don’t ever listen to. Regardless of the music you listen to, one thing’s for sure: you can expect Xe6 to add colour, even though the way it does it isn’t always what you’d expect. 

If you’re looking for a ‘reference’ tuning, this is not an IEM for you. But even if you’re looking for something fun and wild, Xe6 won’t always be that either. It really depends on how its tonality intersects with what you’re playing, and that’s what makes Xe6 such an exciting listen in many ways – you never quite know what you’re going to get. 

Continue to select comparisons…

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Guy Lerner

Guy Lerner

An avid photographer and writer 'in real life', Guy's passion for music and technology created the perfect storm for his love of portable audio. When he's not playing with the latest and greatest head-fi gear, he prefers to spend time away from the hobby with his two (almost) grown kids and wife in the breathtaking city of Cape Town, and traveling around his native South Africa.

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