Pitting this against my old favorite, the 64Audio U12 ($1,599, Review HERE), the first thing which stands out is the loss of vibrancy and clarity. The U12 is much warmer, and thicker, but this comes at a cost. Fourté’s mids are phenomenally transparent, with a level of detail and resolution that U12 pales before. You feel that immediately. There’s a wooly impression when comparing against such clarity. U12 is one of the warmest IEMs in the TOTL category, and while Fourté is nowhere near as warm, it does not come off cold or analytical. But there is so much weight in U12’s mid range, that Fourté can feel light. This is really only felt when switching from one to the other. After just a few short minutes of listening to tia Fourté, you hear there really is nothing thin or hollow about it’s mids. Vocals are utterly naked with Fourté, and they seem to be quite clothed with U12. The U12 is lush, and sinfully smooth. Fourté renders as though they are literally there in the same room as you. Frightfully realistic.
The U12’s bass is hard to beat. It’s hands-down the closest I’ve heard any Balanced Armature setup come to mimicking a good dynamic driver. Sadly for U12, tia Fourté packs just such a weapon for its low-end. Fourté’s bass delves deeper and strikes with more visceral impact… in spite of U12’s greater quantity. Indeed, U12 has significantly more bass, a sort of ever-present bass that enriches everything, adding tremendous warmth. Its mid-bass, especially, is good and fat. But this carries with it the consequence of bass-bleed, which clouds the vocals. Fourté wields a much cleaner sub-section, with no noticeable bleed. It’s also shockingly quick and articulate, which is more commonly the province of good BA drivers. U12 actually sounds slower and looser in comparison. And Fourté, somehow, manages better resolution and texturing. I know! It’s bizarre!
Nothing quite separates these two IEMs more than their take on treble. Yet oddly enough, they both execute their highs in such a manner that you may need some time to adjust to it before you fall for them completely. They come at it from opposite extremes, though. U12 is hushed in the high frequencies, mixing them lower in volume than any other part of the spectrum. Whereas tia Fourté is rather aggressive up top. I haven’t seen a graph, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the treble is given a little more volume than the rest. Certainly parts of it must. U12 possesses profoundly smooth, non-fatiguing treble. It’s warm and laid-back, with no real sparkle to speak of. tia Fourté sparkles better than any IEM out there. There’s nothing laid-back about it, either; it has serious energy that makes everything pop. Yet both earphones do share nice extension, though Fourté reaches much higher. The tia drivers kill U12 with detail, which doesn’t utilize its standard BAs as wisely as other TOTLs. U12 lacks a lot of air when listened against Fourté, who sounds so big and open, and has such great light up top that every note is under its own spotlight.
Soundstage goes to Fourté: It’s a little wider, much taller, and unfair in its representation of depth. And since U12 is one of the very best in this category, what Fourté accomplishes is no mean feat. Both are very, very good at imaging, but Fourté has superior separation and layering. It renders the space between elements so much better than U12. The major contributing factor to this is tia Fourté’s impossibly high resolution. It’s quite a few steps above the U12. As is transparency. Fourté is simply so far ahead of the game in this regard the comparison feels like a sham.
Noble Audio Kaiser Encore ($1,850, Review HERE) is a kindred spirit to Fourté. In fact, I think of tia Fourté as Encore Ultra. Everything Encore does, Fourté does better. Encore’s mids are super detailed, wildly transparent, and anything but thick. Fourté has greater detail, is more transparent, and even airier. They’re both vivid and remarkably natural, but Fourté explodes with superior energy, sounding more vibrant. Encore has a little extra note weight and feels more grounded because of it. Whereas Fourté seems unable to do anything but soar through the heavens. While this is glorious, it does lack a certain tangibility.
Bass is tuned the same between these two, with leaner mid-bass and good, deep sub-bass. Encore is fast, detailed and textured… and so is Fourté. However, Fourté owns the Dynamic Driver, and therefore the more impactful, natural quality. In truth, due to the way it’s tuned, Fourté’s Dynamic Drive is more like a Balanced Armature than most hybrids I’ve heard. So the difference between these two IEMs is less than one might expect.
Treble is again tuned the same. It gives brightness, air, and great detail. The linear extension is very much alike. Both are capable of irritating those who fear treble, but are not inherently harsh. The main difference is found in Fourté’s tia-High Driver. That shit takes what Encore is doing and goes f**king pro. Those highs open up and breathe like no other IEM; they shimmer and decay in a freer, more effervescent fashion. It’s like being led, floor by floor, to the top of a grand building by the eccentric owner. The madcap display thus far has thoroughly wowed you, only to learn you have yet to see the penthouse. Indeed, the frivolities have only just begun.
As for soundstage, Encore is one of the widest performers on the market. Its depth is pretty good, but height is not a goal here. Fourté is a little wider, significantly deeper, and oh so very tall. The resulting sound is just bigger… bigger in every way. Imaging is about the same, both possessing serious gift. Yet because of Fourté’s depth, you can place an object with even greater accuracy along that axis. Resolution… Encore is really f**king good. Fourté is a step above. The same is true for transparency. Encore was the most transparent earphone I’d experienced, until Fourté blew it out of the water. Again, I’m exaggerating. They are quite close. But there’s no denying which is better.
I’m borrowing the Empire Ears Zeus XR ($2,399) from a friend. subguy812 over on Head-Fi was kind enough to loan his universals to me for the purpose of this comparison.
Right off the bat, I’m struck by how little bass these have. And I thought Encore and Fourté were a little light down below for my tastes. Even using the X setting, which is the warmer, more vibrant configuration, Zeus’s bass fails to bring a smile to my face. When listening to Black Sabbath’s fist album, the bass is jacked up to a quantity that sounds pretty good, yet still doesn’t do anything truly special. This is that unapologetic Balanced Armature Bass: Fast and textured, but soft, and lacking visceral attack. The exact opposite of Fourté’s Dynamic. To my ears, I’m hearing more mid-bass than sub-bass. In fact, I’m hearing very little sub-bass. It’s there… a bit. Enough to get some low rumbles. But I’m not feeling it like I should.
Zeus is known for its mid-forward “special” vocals. I can understand why. They have remarkable note weight and definition, though aren’t enormous on the stage. Maybe that’s because the stage itself is more intimate than any of the other IEMs mentioned in this review. Zeus’s vocals are warmer than Fourté’s, and less transparent. Zeus sounds more physical, while Fourté tends towards the ethereal. It’s like Zeus brings the music to you, while Fourté lifts you up into the heavens. They both feel like you’re there, just through vastly different philosophies. Zeus has good air in the mids, but Fourté outdoes it with ease.
Zeus’s treble is warmer than Fourté’s. There’s very little brightness to it. It’s rather natural. Extension is most excellent, though not quite on tia level. There’s great air and realistic sparkle and decay. Fourté is brighter, more energetic, but less organic. Zeus is detailed and revealing, but Fourté pops more and has better vibrancy. The highs on Zeus give you a darker, warmer presentation. Oddly enough, this makes for less blackness in the background compared to Fourté.
Soundstage is quite a bit smaller on all axes, staying well within the bounds of your human head. More intimate, less grand. Imaging, like in all the TOTL IEM’s I’ve talked about, is the very example of perfection. Resolution and transparency are indeed wonderful, but I would give the edge to Encore, with Fourté outpacing them both. Where Zeus really gives Fourté a run for its money is layering and dimensionality. Zeus renders a marvelous 3D image, better than just about any other… except Fourté, who honestly takes it that extra mile further.