DISCLAIMER: Warbler Audio provided me with the Prelude in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. The review is as follows.

Warbler Audio is a Turkish in-ear manufacturer, relatively unknown until their sky-rocket to stardom throughout the back end of 2017. Finally making their debut in a review written by our very own jelt2359, it wasn’t long before talk of their premiere product – the Prelude – spread like wildfire. It ranked 4th overall on flinkenick’s Ranking the Stars TOTL shootout, and quickly became a favourite amongst midrange enthusiasts worldwide – all the result of six years in R&D and one, exceptionally-tuned balanced-armature driver. To revisit the Prelude’s long and arduous birth; you can read Jason’s interview with the company here. But history aside, the Prelude has been impactful for a reason: A fusion of vintage sensibilities and modern technique, resulting in an IEM that captures both methodical skill and timbral beauty.

Warbler Audio Prelude

  • Driver count: One balanced-armature driver
  • Impedance: N/A
  • Sensitivity: N/A
  • Key feature(s) (if any): N/A
  • Available form factor(s): Custom acrylic IEM
  • Price: $1099
  • Website: www.warbleraudio.net

Build and Accessories

Warbler Audio’s Prelude arrives in a Peli 1010 case alongside a Linum BaX cable, cleaning tool and desiccant. Like I’ve expressed before, this is the bare minimum as far as packaging and accessories are concerned. I attribute the lack of flair to Warbler Audio’s infancy. But, considering the impressive build quality they’ve achieved with their debut, I’d love to see them apply the same discipline towards visual presentation. Branding has become as important as ever nowadays, with many companies worldwide offering spare cases, soft pouches, microfibre cloths, etc. I appreciate Warbler Audio’s immense focus towards sound, but presentation is something much worth considering down the line.

Despite their workmanlike approach towards packaging, Warbler Audio have certainly flexed their muscles in build. My Prelude is an exceptionally-crafted piece; bested only by a select few in my collection. Apart from the multitude of colours available on their webpage, Warbler Audio allow customers to pick from a wide variety of woods among other miscellaneous materials – such as the one on their Instagram page here. I opted for Padauk wood faceplates and glittered black shells, topped off with Warbler Audio’s sterling silver logo; a gorgeous combo if I may say so myself. The only knack I have with regards to build is a lack of symmetry between the left and right units, but that could be attributed to the quality of my ear impressions. Plus, I can hardly call it a fault if fit and finish are perfect either way.

Presentation

The Prelude is devoted to tonal accuracy, comprised of elements which – above all – exist to form a linear and organic signature. To this end, the Prelude compromises. Its stage is neither the widest nor deepest you’ll find (impressive nonetheless for a single-BA in-ear). But surprisingly, it hardly ever feels claustrophobic. Separation and layering impress, bolstered by a clean background. So, its intimacy translates to richness and musicality once you acclimate to its size. Despite the Prelude’s warm air (as a result of modest treble extension), its single-driver config allows for an even, coherent response – imbuing the Prelude’s soundstage with well-placed-and-resolved instruments fanned throughout.

Balance is truly the Prelude’s forte. The Warbler IEM provides just enough of everything to achieve an even-handed response; compensating for transparency by ensuring no frequency range ever masks another – an aspect eschewed nowadays in favour of extra sparkle or impact. But because of this devotion towards organicity, the Prelude represents the antithesis of pushing details in your face. It wilfully places its focus on other aspects; the tone of the bass instead of rumble, the melodiousness of the upper-mids instead of transparency, the speed of the treble instead of the clarity or edge. This will appeal to listeners who appreciate tone, realism and unity, but it’ll also repel those searching for the pinnacle of openness and air. Crowd pleaser it is not, but its beauty is undeniable; life-like, defined and smooth.

Bass

Despite the Prelude’s reputation as a midrange maestro, the merits of its tuning truly begin here – one of the most tonally correct and life-like bass regions I have ever heard. Rather than any single superlative trait, it’s an outstanding mix of segregation, resolution, pace and timbre. No matter the genre or track, the Prelude consistently outputs dense, meaty and well-resolved punches, which then decay naturally into the in-ear’s black background like a heart beat; realistic in pace, fibrously textured and organic in timbre. Much like the treble we’ll explore soon, the Prelude balances impact with decay; lingering just enough to convey palpable weight and proper texture. So, instruments here are full-bodied, dense and warm, but always defined and never intrusive; present, but neither bloomed nor congested.

Again, this is because of a linear transition between the mid- and upper-bass. Both work in tandem to ensure the transitions between impact and decay are as seamless as possible, and it’s constantly impressive. However, an element noticeably missing here is sub-bass extension. The Prelude’s low-end lacks a true, visceral grunt. Now, minimal sub-bass may benefit exclusively in genres like indie-folk, classical or lounge jazz, but it’s a sensation sorely missed in more synthetic music. Timbre is something the Prelude slaves to perfect, and justly so, bass tone is impressively realistic. Although it lacks the physicality required to fully replicate an upright bass, the instrument’s warm and woody shades are left fully intact. Rich, heart-y and gossamer, this is a bass response that lacks neither charm nor personality. It won’t win over any bassheads any time soon, but its musical, melodic presentation is a beauty to behold.

Midrange

Arguably the most esoteric element of music, Warbler Audio does not disappoint. A hump exists throughout the Prelude’s vocal range, manifesting in the form of dense bodies you can feel throughout the stage. Instruments are solidly founded and physically present, paired with an organic tone that colours them to a realistic hue; lightly warm yet melodious. An elegance constantly underlies its delivery – resulting in a mid-centric presentation that’s neither honky nor forced. So, midrange focus does not translate to an overt forwardness. Instead, the Prelude maintains great linearity between the bass and treble, which – in turn – imbues it with solidity, resolution and a seductive timbre throughout.

The Prelude boasts full-bodied and well-articulated notes. Instead of relying on the upper-treble, the upper-midrange becomes key in preventing instruments from sounding dull or veiled. Like how lemon juice wakes up a pasta dish, a lift along 2-3kHz adds this liveliness to vocals and instruments alike. Lead guitars are crunchy, fuzzy and warm, and vocalists are as gruff and chesty as they are clear and sweet. This is finished with a 5kHz dip for smoothness over clarity. Adhering to more classic sensibilities, the Prelude relies on linearity, density and speed to form its midrange; powerful, vibrant and soulful, if not spotlessly clean. Ultimately, a sweeping emotional response is what the Prelude was made to achieve, and its gorgeous, humane midrange has done just that; an instant classic in presence, authority and organicity.

Treble

Despite minimal extension, the Prelude’s treble is exemplary in smoothness, tone and speed. A lower-treble dip renders it pleasingly rounded; feathered in nature. And yet, the pace at which treble notes appear and disappear prevents any congestion or sluggishness from appearing; maintaining a sense of attack at all times. The Prelude’s rise into the middle-treble draws clarity, but contrast between notes and the black background is merely okay. Regardless, the Prelude’s highs maintain coherence; with no egregious peaks for extra sizzle. From the evenness between crash and sizzle in cymbal hits, to the extremely satisfying snap! of snare drums, this is a top-end as clear as it is cautiously subtle.

In timbre, the Prelude reliably delivers. A warm tinge affects vocals and instruments alike – defined by how seductively and easily they come across despite compromises in clarity and air. So, instruments are neither artificially bright nor overtly crisp. Done improperly, this may lead to a dark image, a congested midrange or a boomy bass, but the Prelude never buckles – relying on speed to deliver detail in the most graceful way possible. But again, Warbler’s top-end is not a crowd-pleaser. Enthusiasts looking for ultimate sparkle and cleanliness will leave dissatisfied with the Prelude’s more laid-back approach. But, if you can appreciate treble as more than just a detail dispenser – rather, as deserved of tonal appreciation as any other – the Prelude’s top-end will impress; a rare mating of timbral elegance and technical aplomb.

Select Comparisons

Empire Ears Phantom

The Phantom is an in-ear tuned with similar principles in mind: Equal balance between tonal accuracy and technical performance. So, the two share quite a few similarities; particularly in priority and presentation. Both IEMs could be considered mid-centric, but the Phantom has superior balance across the band. This is because of the latter’s greatly superior extension; creating a stronger foundation in the sub-bass, as well as a larger, more breathable stage up top.

The Phantom’s low-end is technically stronger by a significant margin. Excellent extension imbues it with a masculine grunt, as well as stronger physicality. Bass lines feel satisfying whilst maintaining an organic tone, while the Prelude focuses on hearing the bass. Amongst their BA brethren, both monitors display excellent texture and resolution. Because of the added sub-bass content, the Phantom’s bass is thicker and heftier, whilst the Prelude’s has a clearer sense of articulation – and decays a tad faster as well – to compensate for its light touch; more thwack than thump.

In the midrange, the Prelude’s presents a lighter, wispier image, though both monitors share a warm and melodious tone. The Phantom has a fuller lower-midrange, which renders harmonic overtones more clearly; adding meat to vocals and instruments alike. The Prelude’s presentation is more effortless and smooth, while the Phantom’s 6kHz peak gives it a slightly tense bite. Though because the Prelude has an upper-mid-bias, vocal delivery gains excellent refinement, while the Phantom’s finesse gives it the edge in transparency and resolution. Finally, the Prelude’s lighter bass gives it a greater sense of speed, whereas the Phantom’s midrange is almost showcase-like; prevalent, well-defined and organic.

The treble is where the Phantom – once again – displays its technical prowess. Superior extension constructs a larger, blacker and more stable stage, where sonic images are better defined and precisely placed. The Prelude  – despite its warm air – displays admirable organisation and separation, but the Phantom’s stronger background gives it a more breathable ambience; less intimate yet equally engaging. The Phantom peaks at 6kHz, while the Prelude’s lies closer towards 8kHz. This gives the latter a tizzy-er and more feathered edge, while the former articulates in a more rounded, transparent and clear fashion. But, the Phantom is more prone to stridence with subpar material and/or pairings.

Avara Custom AV2

The AV2 is another mid-centric, for vocals IEM. Its accentuated, full and linear midrange invites density, organicity and refinement within its vocal presentation; resulting in notes that feel complete, well-textured and natural in tone. Like the Prelude, the AV2 maintains an intimate stage, as well as a bias for width over depth. Superior treble extension gives the AV2 greater stability, as well as a blacker background. As a result, the AV2 is slightly more transparent. But, the Prelude’s superior balance overall (i.e. coherence or linearity) endows it with stronger separation and stage organisation.

The AV2’s low-end extends further than the Prelude’s; displaying decent sub-bass presence and greater physicality. However, when it comes to resolution, tonal balance and pace, the Prelude comes out on top. Excellent speed articulates each of the Prelude’s throbs with excellent clarity, with sufficient decay to accurately portray timbre and texture. So, this presentation sounds more multi-faceted. The AV2 has a darker bass; more foundational than melodic. It’s the more satisfying bass with synthetic music, while the Prelude portrays bass instruments with striking realism.

The AV2’s midrange – like the Prelude’s – is dense, meaty and rich. However, a fuller lower-midrange highlights its chesty qualities. Vocals and instruments alike sound more gruff and forwardly-placed, while the Prelude’s delivery is sweeter by comparison. This extra zing gives the Prelude a clearer tone, while the AV2’s 7kHz peak gives it more bite. Both monitors possess a 5-6kHz dip; more obviously on the AV2. As a result, it articulates in a smoother manner. But when paired with the 7kHz peak, it sounds slightly less coherent – more diffuse – compared to the Prelude. The Warbler Audio premier delivers its instruments as a cohesive whole, while the AV2 compromises this (slightly) for clarity and edge.

Both the AV2 and the Prelude share a relatively linear treble. Though, the AV2 has a slight lift towards the upper-treble, which gives its top-end a more neutral tone. Both IEMs maintain warmth in the midrange, but this lift gives the AV2 an increased sensation of space and air. The Avara Custom IEM also has the edge in treble extension, better defining the dimensions of its stage. However, the Prelude’s superior coherence maintains a greater sense of refinement, as well as a more realistic timbre. Instruments are less aggressive (even though they’re already smooth on the AV2), yet the Prelude resolves them with greater effect – a result of its evenness across the band and the black background it brings with it.

Verdict

The Warbler Audio Prelude represents a devoted pursuit towards smoothness, realism and refinement; a true outlier in the age of sparkle, dazzle and pizzazz. Its tonal triumphs aren’t without technical shortcomings. But where it counts, the Prelude has in spades. Linearity, power, texture and pace are the four cornerstones that uphold the Prelude’s natural timbre with great aplomb. Sheer transparency and detail will never take top billing, but sheer musical intent has never been so clear. Those capable of appreciating the warm, vibrant hues of yesteryear will fall entranced by what the Turkish bird has to offer: A strong, sultry and soulful representation of what music could – and should – feel like.