Rhapsodio Galaxy V2 ($1450)
The Rhapsodio Galaxy and Warbler Prelude, two iems that couldn’t be anymore different. And in a literal way, they are almost exact opposites: the Prelude is tuned with a midrange bump up until a 5 KHz dip, the Galaxy on the other hand, being defined by its 5 KHz peak. It stems from different philosophies. The Galaxy is tuned with maximum emphasis on the articulation of a note. Besides a resulting crispness in its sound, it conveys an extraordinary amount of detail – its primary purpose. This isn’t the smoothest sound however, and its somewhat thin vocal presentation leave’s one wanting. The Prelude however is not only velvet for your ears, its warm and full-bodied vocals are class-leading.
Similarly, the structure of their stage is vastly different. The Galaxy’s stage is wider, as well as airier. Its greater top-end extension helps here. While the Prelude’s stage isn’t as wide, it is deeper, while its layering is better. In addition, its background is blacker. As a result, the Prelude creates a more stable image, and its separation is better.
The Galaxy’s bass is almost better in every aspect, with not only deeper low-end extension, but greater sub-bass rumble, as well as more clarity in its impact. It’s both a technically proficient, as well as fun bass. the Prelude on the other hand severely misses that low-end extension and raw impact. Almost better in every aspect, because the Prelude’s bass has important strengths of its own: the tone of its mid-bass, and its coherency with the midrange. The Prelude is the audiophile bass to listen to; the Galaxy on the other hand, the more engaging bass to feel.
The Galaxy arguably has the best bass of the shootout. Its midrange on the other hand, is on the other edge. It sounds clear, but lean. As a result of its 5 KHz peak, its instruments sound articulated, but brighter in tone. Similarly, its vocals are laidback. And in contrast to the Prelude, it isn’t always the smoothest upper midrange to listen to. The Prelude’s midrange on the other hand is warmer, with greater body. Similarly, its vocals are the exact opposite; slightly forward and dense. Its instruments are smooth, and their timbre accurate.
The same pattern continues in the treble. The Galaxy’s brighter treble results in a more articulated sound, and accordingly, a more upfront detail presentation. The Prelude’s warmer treble however isn’t only smoother, it’s more accurate in tone. A more inviting treble, and gentle on the ears. It’s decay is quicker, and it’s definition is slightly greater. A more refined treble. The Galaxy’s extension however is greater, resulting in an overall cleaner sound, and higher resolution.
Ultimate Ears UE18+ ($1500)
The UE18+ on the other hand, dips in the same pond as the Prelude – tuned for tone, both are warm, smooth, and fall in the class of natural-sounding iems. Monitors with a warmer tuning, and very coherent signatures. As such, they both lend themselves for the same type of listener or mood, and will similarly excel for vocal- and instrument-based easy listening music. But even so, there are differences throughout their signature that define their individual character.
For starters, the UE18+’ stage is significantly wider, although it isn’t as deep. The Prelude constructs a cube-sized stage with greater depth, contrasting the UE18+’ classic stage. As a result of the warmer tone, neither stage is particularly airy. However, the Prelude’s betters the UE18+ in terms of separation, as a result of its better layering ability, and more precise imaging. It’s instrument positioning is just slightly more precise, resulting in a more organized stage.
Both iems present a warm, natural-sounding bass, coherent within the signature – but as variations of neutral, neither will appeal to the bass-enthused. The UE18+ has the better sub-bass extension, although it doesn’t serve a great deal of impact. But its kick drums form a nice addition in the background, and can steadily be felt. The Prelude in turn has a nice bit of mid-bass prominence, but it lacks sub-bass extension and impact. Its tone however is truer than the UE18+; the better mid-bass for bass lines.
Both their bass tunings fall in the audiophile category, with a focus on tone and coherency, over impact. Something similar can be said for their midranges, as this truly is a spectacular face-off in terms of timbre, smoothness, and vocal presentation, with both leading the lineup. Both fend for top position when it comes to vocals, but have their own strong suit. The UE18+ is all about fine detail, a realistic representation of the vocal from up close, as well as incredible balance throughout the vocal range. The Prelude in term produces a denser, rounder vocal; one that eludes raw power, with greater depth behind the vocal. In addition, their transparency is greater.
Similarly, their signature results from an attenuated lower treble region, in order to create a warmer, and more natural sound. And in both cases the warmer treble timbre sounds smooth and accurate. However, the Prelude’s treble has the better definition and speed, resulting in a more articulated and detailed treble. The UE18+’s treble lacks some of the Prelude’s finesse; but on the other hand, it has the greater extension.
Sound analysis at the deepest level, is understanding the construction of a single note: its tone and body, its resolution, and the smoothness of its note release, to grasp a few. The Prelude was tuned with an almost Spartan philosophy to get these core principles right. It’s a rich presentation of a note, with a warm and accurate timbre. Add an incredibly smooth articulation, and the result is an audiophile’s definition of an almost perfect note. But technical talk, doesn’t mean technical sound. More than anything, this is a deeply emotional iem. It’s warm, pleasing, and inviting.
Every shootout is bound to have at least one controversy, and the Prelude is destined to be mine. For the Prelude has great strengths, but equally important, are its weaknesses – the airiness of its stage, and sub-bass extension. Similarly, its warmer than neutral tone might not be universally appealing. Appreciation for the Prelude is a possibility, but certainly not a given. It’s up to each listener to decide where their own priorities lie. For many people, the pros won’t outweigh the cons. I can foresee many people listening to the Prelude for the first time, thinking “I don’t get it, it sounds ok and all, but is this it..?” Those people aren’t wrong. Much like the Maestro V2, this is a tuning made to sound right, rather than spectacular.
It’s a tuning for audiophiles obsessing over the finest tuning intricacies, how a note should or shouldn’t sound. For a certain ‘correctness’ in a tuning, where a note’s definition, body, and most of all timbre, comes first. The Prelude won’t offer the same level of excitement the W900 or A18 can, with their thunderous bass and impressively wide stage. But it’s an iem I always come back to, and has served as a benchmark – regardless of its price or driver count. I’ve had it for over a year, and I think it’s earned a place in the top 5. But if you ever try one and don’t believe me, listen to a Chris Isaak track first; the warmth and depth in his voice, the beautiful sound of that Gibson electric guitar, and the tone of the bass guitar. And only judge me after.
+Naturalness and timbre