Pros: Neutral, accurate sound; great highs and solid lows; nicely integrated sound; scales wonderfully; wide soundstage; fantastic customer service
Cons: Mid range hump; less depth than width in soundstage
Click here for the marketing info. No need for me to retype what’s already available.
Most of my music—and all of my audition music—is 44.1/16 ALAC rips from CD performed by XLD. Playback for this review is as follows:
MBP – iTunes – Wireworld Starlight 7 USB – ALO Audio The International – CTMs
MBP – Audirvana latest version – Starlight 7 USB – International – CTMs
iPhone – Apple camera adapter - Starlight 7 USB – International – CTMs
iPhone – CTMs
All of the above + Shure 535 (with Oyaide HPE-SE silver cables + Knowles 1000 ohm “brown” dampers)
All of the above + DHC ALO Balanced Adapter – Alpha Primes
MBP – Audirvana – Starlight 7 USB – International (line out) – vintage Great American Sound Thalia Pre – vintage Great American Sound Son of Ampzilla – Triangle Altea ESW loudspeakers
Ordering, Fit & Finish
As my first set of CIEMs, I don’t have a comparison for objectively evaluating the fit and finish. I just have my eyes, ears, and my prior experience with IEMs, most recently Shure 535s with Comply small tips. So take all of this with a grain of salt, and what follows is probably more useful for folks considering their first custom fit order.
Handling the CT-500 Elites in my hands, I find them smooth to the touch. No rough edges, nothing suggesting that the last set of hands to touch them at the factory was going to send them out the door with a significant imperfection. CTM allows for different canal, shell, and faceplate colors—although not as many options as other CIEM manufacturers. I opted for a light translucent blue for the canals and shells, and a darker translucent blue for the faceplate. Had them drop the logo for one of my old favorite artists, Aphex Twin, on top in black. I wanted subtlety, and CTM spoke with me by phone after receiving the high-res image via email. I don’t like to be a shill for a company, and after explaining my wishes by phone, CTM pulled off exactly what I wanted.
I’ll digress for a second here and talk about the customer experience. I first came across CTM at the 2014 RMAF CanJam. I was on the search for CIEMs, so completing the CanJam SHaG competition to visit a ton of vendors pushed me to audition lots of stuff I might have otherwise passed by. Two CIEM vendors really impressed me: Noble, and CTM. Both were very accommodating, ready to answer questions, and asking for impressions and opinions. While I liked the K8 and K10s a bit better for their overall presentation, the CT-500 Elite was “close enough” to my desired qualities at the price I could afford. I met Cesar at CTM’s booth and he was amazingly helpful. Answered questions, encouraged me to try the entire line to get a sense of the house sound, and let me go back and forth repeatedly testing out their different offerings. I had impressions made before I arrived at CanJam, so I left them with Cesar and agreed to follow up after the conference to finalize my design.
The next week, I contacted CTM and worked with Sandra to finish the order, and it was another great experience. Sandra asked questions to make sure she understood what I wanted for design, offered opinions on the final product based on their experience, and was very pleasant to work with on the phone and email. Very responsive to email. Together, Cesar and Sandra made the experience easy. And although I didn’t make payment at CanJam, Cesar and Sandra still honored their free-shipping offer for CanJam orders.
When I received my order about four weeks later, the unboxing was uneventful. A card wrapper around a nice hard plastic Pelican 1010 micro-case, my CIEMs inside a CTM logoed felt bag along with a cleaning tool and silver-colored cables. While I like how roomy the case is, I think CTM could create some sort of attachment that keeps the cleaning tool secure in the case; I’ve accidentally dropped it a couple times while opening the case. Tiny complaint, but if you plan to keep the cleaning tool in the case, be sure to open carefully lest you lose it. The case came with my initials and last name stamped into the clear case clasp—a nice and subtle detail in keeping with my design for the CIEMs.
As to finish again, there’s a slight bit of bubbling around the openings in the ear canal—bubbling or roughness—that’s unsightly only if you’re looking closely. Otherwise, it’s like sliding silk in my ears. Took my impressions with a bite block and the fit is effortless. No discomfort going in like with my Shures. And once in, the CT-500 Elites stay in, never moving while drinking coffee, smoking a lonsdale, or gaping in awe at the sound quality.
Isolation & Microphonics
Sound isolation is great. Very little gets through from the outside. Annoys the hell out of my wife when she wants to get my attention and can’t if I’m not looking directly at her. Enough said there.
The 4-ft silver-colored copper litz cable has minimal microphonics, but man do I hate how prone this cable is to tangling. This is the case with lots of stock cables, but compared to my Oiyade HPC-SE replacement cables for my Shures, which are more substantial and coated with a nice red rubber, the stock CTM cables become a rats nest of tangles pretty quickly.
Specifications & Sound Quality
Specifications here (below the marketing stuff).
I’ve included some specific musical impressions on sample tracks below. The following are general comments.
I chose the CT-500 Elites over the more expensive WLS-5 five-driver because of the voicing. The CT-500 Elites were more neutral, where the WLS-5s showed a kind of mid-bass emphasis for vocals and guitar that didn’t sit as well with me. Using a sine sweep, I still detect a touch too much of a mid-bass hump for me in the CT-500 Elites, and the very top of the register can get a little tinny and bright. None of it is overbearing, but my ears needed to adjust to these eccentricities.
These are very musical little CIEMs. The attention to crossover tuning is apparent; I never feel like drivers are fighting one another aggressively in rendering anything challenging.
Highs – fast. Faster than any other IEMs I’ve auditioned, at least from recollection. They’re well-integrated into the overall sound, though, but at times when the Shures would feel dampened in the highs, the CT-500 Elites let everything from cymbals on a mono recording to digital synth highs come through clean and fast. Although the top of the range can get a little hot at times (mentioned previously), when the volume is at a comfortable listening level the highs are sonorously present and controlled.
Mids – Much of my music is electronic; that is, synths, and often without vocals. Mids have never been a huge focus of my listening, so save for a very deep collection of Durutti Column, I don’t have strong familiarity with different quality mids presentations. As mentioned previously, there’s a slight hump in the mids, but it’s never jarring. Just noticeable if I’m listening critically and putting all my attention on the mids. For regular listening, where I’m just trying to lose myself in the music, they’re fine: warm, full, fleshy and all-scotched-up when I’m playing something by Norah Jones, all lush when it’s Nina Simone. I’m sure that those whose music collection is full of vocal-heavy tracks, lots of acoustic guitar and/or orchestral music will have lots of opinions about the CT-500 Elite's mids, but for me they’re fine. Not the high point of the CT-500 Elites, but definitely well integrated into the overall sound.
Lows – YES! Accurate, deep bass. If the Noble K8s and K10s had the best-presented bass I heard at CanJam, the CT-500 Elites were a very close second. If I had to boil the difference down to some quality, it would be warmth: Noble bass was nice, warm, enveloping, while the CT-500 Elites were clear, well defined, and tuned to a slightly dry monitor presentation. In terms of accuracy, I’d probably give the gold star to the CT-500 Elites over the Nobles, but in terms of general listening and enjoyment, the Noble bass is more present and fun. It’s like the difference that a separate powered sub brings to an otherwise fantastic 2-ch rig. I can’t feel the sub-bass of certain recordings with the CT-500 Elites the way I could with the K10s, but I can hear it and I know from comparison to my Alpha Primes and 2-ch rig that the CT-500 Elites are dead-on accurate.
Wide vs. Deep – one of the more subjective characterizations I’ll make about the CT-500 Elites is that in terms of spatial placement of sounds and overall soundstage, they’re better at going wide than going deep. Specifically, the CT-500 Elites are great at creating great space between the left and right channel, placing specific instruments at varying spots on an imaginary line running straight out of the center of the ear and extending left and right. They’re less adept at varying the placement forward and/or behind that line; I can still hear that depth placement, but it’s not as strong as its ability to place sounds farther out and closer in on a straight line. Some of this is definitely source/DAC-dependent, and I hear more depth when working in the ALO International over running simply straight out of the iPhone. The Noble K10 definitely won out in this category—both in depth and width of sound stage. My Shures don’t come close to either, but the CTMs definitely have the edge on the Shures in this category.
Having spent about a two months with these, I’m mightily impressed. Nice, neutral, great highs and lows, and a seamless integration of all the drivers as far as my ear can hear. The CT-500 Elites aren’t for bassheads, nor are they for people looking for an overly colored or fun presentation. They’re clean, accurate, and pair well with a basic rig, or with a combination of external DAC and amp. With the right source and amplification (see below), they are outstanding all-around performers with great value.
Post-script: observations on scaling
As a holiday present to myself, I decided to upgrade my source to an AK240, and add in Double Helix Cables Symbiote SP4 8-wire OCC silver litz cables, terminated balanced into 2.5 TRRS plug, for my CT-500 Elites. After a few weeks, I have a few thoughts about these upgrades on the performance of the CT-500 Elites.
AK240: well, duh—this was a marked improvement over what I was using previously. Probably the thing most gained was spatial depth. The AK240 has ample power by itself to drive the hell out of the CT-500 Elites, and adding in the ALO International as a balanced amp brings out a more revealing character in the CT-500 Elites. It’s more power than the CIEMs need, but the added resolution, depth, and presence of the soundstage is a solid step beyond the iPhone-ALO combination, and quite a bit ahead of CT-500 Elites with just the iPhone. The CT-500 Elites really shine with this source…but that’s kind of a given.
DHC cables: as I had hoped, the mids cleared up a bit with the silver litz cables. Tenor and alto voices have a cleaner edge to them, acoustic guitars more pluck and attack, drums a faster decay and tighter snap. The highs, interesting, didn’t get any hotter or brighter, and the bass remains very solid. Could the mids still be clearer? Yes, but the silver litz really made an improvement here. If you buy the CT-500 Elites, I definitely recommend experimenting with a high-quality after-market or custom cable.
New Order – Fine Time. NO is my favorite band of all time, full stop. Every fan of NO is slavishly devoted to one album and one song as being the very best thing NO ever put out. For me, it’s the lead-off single from 1989’s Technique, “Fine Time.” This is the sound of early Detroit techno finding its way into the sound of a British band redefining dance music for the pop world. “Fine Time” blisters from the end of the first four bars, pounding with an unmistakable bass beat that undergirds the rest of the track. The stereo imaging on this track is fantastic, as is the crisp synth and digital percussion engineering and mixing. It is my go-to test for clarity, l-to-r balance, and nut-rumbling bass.
My 535s render it well, if a touch flat compared to my 2-ch rig. The song was mixed as if in a vacuum—no air whatsoever—and the sound has always been compressed to my ears when listening to phones of any kind. The Shures show some grain in the highs, flabby lows, and no dimension.
The CTMs add a bit more depth to the image. The “mixed in a vacuum” sound was the sound of the Hacienda in Manchester, the club co-owned by the band and their label, Factory Records. Club sound requires clean, precision mixing in order to render sounds with clarity at 140+ decibels—to keep from getting too muddy. Where the Shures render the sealed mixing as if piped in through straws, the CTMs come closer to replicating the resonance that “Fine Time” has when played at club volumes. Oh, the bass also rumbles the nuts, too, with the CTMs.
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Strange Meadow Lark. Unlike most people my age, I didn’t first hear Brubeck’s easy west coast jazz piano through a Woody Allen movie soundtrack or a Mad Men promo. My dad was a huge fan of Brubeck; my earliest musical memories include listening to the legendary Time Out on vinyl…often on a slow Saturday while my parents cleaned the house, worked on projects, etc. Most people know “Take Five” but I’ve always been drawn to “Strange Meadow Lark”’s lengthy and laconic piano opening. All the solos are fantastic on this track, but I hear more air and depth in this track than on anything else on Time Out. So, depth of stage, instrument placement, and little slivers of silence are what I look for with this piece.
Shures do a nice job with l-to-r separation and a fair job of placement. Regardless of whether you’re listening to this in the original mono, the later issued stereo, or my current go-to Sony K2HD version, Joe Morello’s trap work never really stays in the left channel. The Shures throw the sound out a bit, and Brubeck’s piano always sounds very natural if slightly weak in the lower registers. The Shures stand out when Paul Desmond’s light, lilting sax line comes sauntering in at the 2:10 mark; a little harsh at times with Paul’s higher notes, but you can hear every breath he takes before commencing a run. Lovely.
The CTMs present a more resonant piano intro by Brubeck—if also showing a bit more of the background from the original tapes. It’s so revealing. If the Shures rendered Paul Desmond’s every breath, the CTMs project Paul’s delicate reed control and phrasing. Joe Morello’s snare is a little crisper, his brush beat more restrained and delicate. Eugene Wright’s bass strumming is so, so light and well defined.
Ulrich Schnauss – Goodbye. One of the shining stars of the so-called electro-shoegaze movement of recent years, Schnauss actually has more in common with synth masters like Brian Eno and Flood on the one hand, and the New Romantics on the other. Do his albums often evoke the feedback and fuzziness of Lush and Slowdive at full-tilt? Yes, but his musical influences run much farther afield, and it’s in that sense that one comes to appreciate the amazing complexity of his engineering and sound layering. When he plays live, house engineers soon learn the compress the hell out of his feed, because if they don’t they’re going to be buying five figures of new gear; his music is dense and dynamic, and it will throw even the best amps into thermal meltdown within minutes. “Goodbye”, from the album of the same name, is redolent with mountains of thick Kurzweil synthy goodness, complex bass structures, and an achingly heartbreaking set of vocals ghosted deep in the background.
"Goodbye" kills the Shures. Muddy, confused stereo image, terribly claustrophobic. Oh, it’s still a pretty song, but it’s just a simulacrum.
The CTMs are also really challenged by “Goodbye.” The most telling part of the track is the build to apex that begins around the 3:30 mark, where a kind of contrapuntal convergence happens—the bassline syncs with the multi-layered synths and vocals and new soprano and sub-bass themes enter and a new leitmotif launches. The CTMs struggle under the complexity, getting grainy in the highs and the shimmering cymbals. I’ve come across only a few rigs that can render it well, and the CTMs come close…but no banana. What I can say in their favor, though, is that you can crank them up on this track with good amplification and the graininess surprisingly doesn’t bleed much. These CIEMs can handle a nice amount of power before they start to get unwieldy.