Pros: Real bass energy, non-fatiguing treble,
Cons: Stage monitor tuning won't be for everyone
Synopsis: The Future Sonics MG6Pro Ear Monitor is an excellent sounding custom earphone tuned for a supremely natural sound. The overall sound is very smooth, extended in bass and treble, and very well balanced by the clear midrange. The excellent reproduction of vocal and instrumental timbre, combined with superior soundstage and sense of stereo imagining are also standouts. Using a single dynamic driver which can cover the entire frequency spectrum without the need for crossovers gives the MG6PRO Ear Monitor a coherency which adds to the naturalness of its presentation. The bass deserves special mention for its control and its effortless extension down to the sub-bass frequencies. Additionally, the 13mm dynamic driver can move the air against our ears in a way balanced armatures cannot—this leads to better bass energy as we “feel” bass as much as we hear it. The amount of bass can also be adjusted to anyone’s taste by a changeable system of vents which allow the driver more or less airflow.
Introduction: I’ve always really been drawn to earphones that feature a dynamic driver (also known as a moving-coil). These are basically like the speakers in one’s home stereo, only smaller. When I looked around for a custom-fit earphone, however, I noticed that almost every company uses balanced armatures, a technology used in hearing aids. One company, however, has been offering a dynamic driver custom in-ear monitors on stage for years. In fact, Future Sonics has been doing it so long they trademarked the term “Ear Monitor” and the owner, Marty Garcia, was the first to put custom in-ear monitors on stage, back in 1985. The fact that Future Sonics used a dynamic driver and the length of experience made me curious. Even more curious was the fact that while they are well-known in professional music circles for supplying Ear Monitors over the years to bands like The Grateful Dead, U2, Reba McEntire, Justin Timberlake, etc., they aren’t so well known in audiophile circles.
History and Background: When I had a chance to speak to Marty Garcia, the owner, and David Gray, director of operations, it was clear that the use of a dynamic driver in their custom earphone was the result of careful thought. While every other custom earphone manufacturer that I am aware of buys their transducers from outside manufacturers, Future Sonics engineers their own. The new for 2010 MG6Pro is a proprietary driver designed and made by Future Sonics. The history as I understand it from talking to Mr. Garcia is that he experimented with using balanced armature transducers multi-armature designs with crossovers. He consulted for Shure on their early designs and politely parted ways when he decided that a single dynamic driver was the way to go. He feels that a single dynamic driver has a number of advantages: It can cover the frequency spectrum by itself, it gives a coherent sound free from any artifacts from a multi-transducer approach and, very importantly, it moves the air that we can feel as well as hear for a more real sounding bass with living energy. Interestingly, when I spoke to K.W.Karth, who designed Monster Cable’s Turbine earphone, he gave many of the same reasons that Monster Cable went with dynamic drivers in their universal fit line of in-ear monitors.
Disclaimer: I think it’s important to be open and up-front about the way one has received the product reviewed, so everyone can be clear about any underlying motives which might bias the review. Now, the usual price for these is $898. As for me, I paid for mine, however I did receive a small discount. I had just missed out on a one-time sale on Ear Monitors in celebration of Future Sonics’ 25th anniversary. They were kind enough to offer me a discount that ended up coming to $50 (a slightly larger discount minus the extra I paid going to a Future Sonics’ recommended audiologist on Mr. Garcia’s request). I’m happy for it, of course, but the opinions below will be my best attempts to honestly convey how these earphones sound.
Customer Service: Custom in-ear monitors take a lot of care. Throughout the process, I’ve really been struck by how important the custom service of the company you work with can be. Future Sonics deserves a lot of credit for the very high level of customer service they’ve provided. The fact that the owner of the company made time to really discuss his product and the philosophy behind it on several occasions speaks to how Future Sonics treats its customers. All my concerns (and I am a high-maintenance customer, so this is a lot of random concerns) have been graciously answered in over 60 emails…and counting! They have really gone the extra mile and treated me like the rock star most of their other customers are. Consider this as part of the disclaimer when I say that the excellent customer service and the way Future Sonics has gone out of their way again and again to make sure I was completely happy is certainly a part of the reason my experience has been so positive.
One of the first steps in getting a custom in-ear monitor is a trip to an experienced audiologist to make ear impressions which will be used to make an earphone which fits your unique ears perfectly. I went to Andrew Resnick, a Manhattan audiologist and Future Sonics dealer. He was professional and had a lot of experience in making ear impressions for musicians’ Ear Monitors. I won’t say that this means I haven’t needed adjustments to make the fit of my MG6PRO Ear Monitors perfect, but I think it has helped to start with a good set of impressions.
The MG6Pro: This is a custom in-ear monitor with a 13mm dynamic driver at its heart. My understanding is that Future Sonics released the MG6 early in 2010 to audio professionals and field tested it. They took that feedback and improved the driver further, with the MG6Pro coming out a few months after.
One key point about these customs is that their dynamic drivers are very durable and much more easy to service than armature-based customs, which tend to be more delicate. You can also upgrade your MG6Pro Ear Monitors whenever the next generation comes out for a fraction of the price of a new monitor! Think about that, it’s a great feature.
A second point is that the 13mm driver doesn't require extra room for crossovers, additional drivers, etc. I have small ears and the MG6Pro was no problem at all in terms of fit.
Another interesting thing about these is that while the outer shell is acrylic, but it’s not an all-acrylic design! A dynamic driver requires special positioning and so they use a second, proprietary, material inside to properly seat the driver. This second material is full of tiny bubbles and that gives a clear acrylic MG6Pro Ear Monitor an interesting look (of course, it can also come in many different colors, even in a chrome finish).
Another interesting feature is the system of Low-Frequency Vents (LFVs). In order to move the air for living bass energy, a dynamic driver needs to breathe. The 4 LFVs are little tiny interchangeable plugs with a hole (the vent) in them. They vary from a smaller hole to a medium hole to a larger hole, or no hole at all. One can easily be removed and another size vent used in its place. Each larger size brings up the sub-bass presence and energy up a bit. It also effects isolation, which I’ll discuss next.
Isolation: This, like the bass, is dependent on the Low-Frequency Vents. Using the LFV which closes off the vent, one achieves what I imagine is the exactly the same isolation as any other acrylic custom monitor. This is very good isolation indeed. With LFVs which allow air to pass, there is a loss of a few decibels of isolation, but the isolation is still reasonable, depending on your needs. Going out into a wind-tunnel of a chilly winter day with the MG6Pro and the medium size opening LVFs, there was decent isolation, but there was wind noise as well. You gain something in sound for any loss, though, so it all depends on your situation. I like to use the medium sized vents and have no problem using it on the subway, but then, my isolation needs aren’t so great. If I needed more isolation, I might use the LFV which seals the vent entirely, for maximum outside noise reduction. One could also very easily place a bit of foam (it's easy to buy replacement foam for cheap earbuds/earphones) in a vent and adjust the bass and isolation perfectly to one's liking.
The Sound: The head audio engineer for the Country Music Awards told me (yes, I emailed him and asked what he thought) that Future Sonics Ear Monitors offered “true reference quality sound”, in his opinion. I’m not a professional audio engineer, but I can definitely hear where he’s coming from.
The overall sound signature is natural, balanced and engaging.
What natural means to me is that the MG6Pro doesn’t sound colored or boosted to me anywhere in its frequency range. It also refers to the superior timbre—that hard to define but easy to recognize ability to convey the true-to-life sound of all the richness and subtle resonance of an instrument such as the human voice or a violin. I think that these qualities are part of what the senior audio engineer I politely pestered was talking about.
Balanced means to me that I don’t hear a certain frequency range coming ahead of any other, generally speaking. With the LFVs, this can change a little according to one’s taste, as I’ll mention below. Other earphones may be tuned with a very forward midrange, or a boosted extra-bright treble or a mid-bass hump to give beats extra bounce—the MG6Pro has none of these, to my ears. I think people who want a colored (“fun”) sound won’t necessarily find that the MG6Pro is for them. It’s just a matter of knowing what kind of sound you are looking for and matching your preference to the earphone you buy.
And that brings me to the last adjective, engaging. These are professional reference and stage monitors and very smooth at every frequency, but they can really rock and I often find myself listening for longer and enjoying my music more.
Treble: This is a stage monitor in its tuning, so the treble is non-sibilant and non-fatiguing. The treble is well-extended, and nicely shines and sparkles. It’s very accurate and both violins and female vocalists, as well as cymbals, chimes, etc. all come alive with a good recording and the MG6Pro. However, it’s not the sharp, bright treble of a lot of earphones, so perhaps some people might say it’s not as bright at first. I spoke to Marty Garcia about how some people found his Atrios (universal-fit earphone) line a bit dark. From his own work as professional audio engineer and working with professional music clientele, he felt that it was better to give a natural treble than one he thought was artificially boosted. I can say the MG6Pro has a great natural treble with presence and sparkle. Lovers of treble on the edgy bright side may wish to look elsewhere.
Mid-range: The mids of the MG6Pro really let the music sing without getting in the way. Whenever I try to describe them, I try listening to some music…and end up listening and listening… So, I think I can say first that they are not recessed, nor are they overly forward. It’s not a thin-sounding earphone by any stretch, but notes aren’t overly thick nor does the decay overstay its welcome. They are quite well-detailed, but not artificially analytical. I think you can see why I keep coming back to natural and balanced as descriptions.
Bass: I was surprised by just how well mannered and controlled the bass on these was while still giving that moving-air living bass energy that I wanted. It’s very well detailed and layered. The bass doesn’t have a mid-bass hump and doesn’t intrude on the midrange. It does, however, extend down all the way past human perception. Marty Garcia mentioned that Ear Monitors are intentionally engineered to give bass down to 10hz (where we can’t really hear it) because he feels that the feeling of the air against our ears at that vibration still adds something meaningful. I have to say that I have experienced what he means, it’s really something interesting and there is a life and a dimension of space added to the bass somewhere deep in that sub-bass range. Further, I can also say that there really is something to this moving air quality that is part of our perception of bass. This is one of the key things that sets the MG6Pro apart from armature-based customs as they don’t move the air. When I use my fingers to plug the MG6Pro’s vents while listening, the effect is immediate and tangible—I feel a slight but noticeable pressure in my ears from the driver moving air! It’s also not recommended, but I did it for science.
On to the Low Frequency Vents: With the LFV which seals the vent entirely, the air cannot fully move and the sub-bass takes a step back. It’s very well controlled and still quite muscular when the song calls for it, but sounds to my ears politely as though it allows the mids, and treble to take the lead forward. This is probably many audiophiles’ idea of balance and they will love this sound. The isolation is also the greatest with this LFV.
The small opening LFV lets the driver breath and the sub-bass takes on that added dimension of life and comes up a little, with a loss of some isolation. The sense of space and soundstage also increases. The bass quantity is equal with the midrange to my ears and things will be just right for many listeners.
The medium opening, well, this is my favorite at the moment and I would say it’s pretty great as the sub-bass comes up by a decibel or so, yet still balanced.
Even at the largest opening LFV, the bass is well controlled, but it’s presence and space have increased. I could see this LFV being very nice for stage use. Lovers of bass will like this setting as well, although I would not say it’s overmuch to my ears.
Music genres: I tend to listen to classical and Indian classical music, both types of music that require excellent timbre, good levels of detail while remaining natural-sounding and excellent extension in the bass and treble. Anyone who thinks that classical music lacks bass has never heard a timpani or double bass in a symphony! The MG6Pro handles these music types very well, sounding coherent yet with the spaciousness to avoid any congestion. Every part of the orchestra sounds clear, even as they are all playing together. Stereo imaging, the out-of-the-head sense that each musician is playing in a different space, is excellent. I was happy to note that the non-sibilant treble could also extend high and sparkle with piccolo trills, chimes and sopranos hitting the highest of notes. String quartets sound lovely, solo piano, too. Jazz is another genre the MG6Pro does very well with, unsurprisingly. Indian classical music presents a special challenge in terms of very, very fast drumming (the tabla's treble drum) and a variable-pitch precise low frequency (the tabla's bass drum) combined with micro-tonal precision in the melodic instruments--such as the famous sitar--which have a number of strings resonating sympathetically underneath the main melodic ones. All this leads to music with a lot of very subtle and complex tonal colors which stretch the frequency spectrum from base to very high treble and go from very slow to very, very fast. It's a challenge for any earphone and the MG6Pro handles this hard-to-produce music superbly and just like I've heard it live in concert. And that's really saying something.
I also listened to some fast trance and some Norwegian death metal to see if the MG6pro could keep up. While they aren’t my cup of tea music genres, the MG6Pro is clearly completely at home with trance, its spaciousness is unreal for this music. In fact, I would say that the MG6Pro are fanstatic earphones for trance. It has the speed for the death metal, every hoarse shout and growl was…you know, I really need to talk to the guy who recommended that…However, a person who listens mainly to death metal with a lot of heavy distortion may not appreciate the truly excellent reproduction of guitars and voices this earphoes has. In that case, perhaps a different custom with a multi-armature design (most other brands) might be an option.
For a bit of rock I listened to one of my favorite drummers, Thomas Pridgen, and a few tracks from the band he used to be with, The Mars Volta. The MG6Pro captures his drumming very nicely and I’m happy to report that his cymbals sound perfectly real, which is something that many earphone can't reproduce nearly as well.
There really isn’t a type of music I could see causing a problem for these earphones. That’s what you expect at this level. It’s nice to confirm, though.
In Conclusion: I think these custom in-ear monitors have a lot to recommend them for professional or audiophile use. They certainly deserve more attention from audiophiles as they have a high quality sound with excellent customer service. The MG6Pro reproduces music in a realistic and natural-sounding way that puts even much more expensive custom earphones to shame in direct comparison. The way they can be upgraded to the next generation driver for a fraction of the cost of a new custom, their durability and ease of repair and the way the bass quantity can be adjusted make them a very strong choice. Certainly those who come from dynamic driver earphones or headphones should think about the MG6Pro Ear Monitor, as well as those wanting a balanced, natural sound at every part of the frequency range. Those who like a very bright or a colored sound or if isolation is more important than sound quality might wish to look at other options.
Update! Three years later (!!!), I'm still very happy with my MG6Pro!