Pros: Beautiful craftsmanship, phenomenal bass reproduction, smooth clean highs, warm spacious mids, big accurate soundstage
Cons: Needs a good source to capture the full potential, bass might be too much for some people
I posted a few pictures elsewhere, but now I’m making a dedicated thread about it. The topic is Heir Audio: a newly launched, high-end custom IEM company.
Some of you may recall HeadFi user FullCircle, aka The Wizard, posting pictures of his beautiful custom creations a while back. His real name is Dr. John Moulton and he’s a Doctor of Audiology. His posts around here were just for fun, to show off his beautiful custom work. I contacted him and practically begged him to let me buy his services. He refused at first, and we took the discussion to email (since selling things in a commercial capacity is not allowed unless you have Member of the Trade status).
After much chatting (and pleading) I eventually convinced him to reshell one of my older customs. I had some LiveWires Trips that were not a perfect fit any longer, though I still loved the sound. I was also sick of the proprietary cable attachment system. I told Dr. Moulton that I was willing to pay whatever it took to make a custom woody for me. We went back and forth dozens of times, discussing wood choices and color options, and eventually it was decided. I sent my LiveWires along with some new impressions and basically forgot about the matter.
A short while later, I received a package in the mail. What I found inside blew me away. I had high expectations based on what I had seen of his other creations, but the finished product I had in hand completely stunned me. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Beautiful right? That’s real bamboo inlay, hand-crafted. A huge improvement over the original clear shell with solid black faceplate, the 3-way triple driver LiveWires Trips now sound about as good as they look. Almost. Also notice the traditional cable socket – no more swiveling connector. I’m exceedingly pleased with the way they turned out.
It was at this point that Dr. Moulton shared some information with me – rather than doing this as a hobby when he wasn’t busy with “real” audiology work, he was about to make it his full time gig. The company – Heir Audio, a division of Micro-DSP Technology. Click on the names to visit their respective websites.
Based on what I had seen from the reshell, I wanted more. Through our extensive communication I had developed a trust in Dr. John so I figured I’d go all the way – I ordered the top of the line Heir Audio 8.A customs. This is a 4-way 8-driver design consisting of dual low, dual mid, dual high, and dual super-high drivers. This time I went with a real carbon fiber faceplate on a red shell. Once again the results look incredible.
Triple-bore design, one slightly smaller than the other two.
Carbon fiber has red in it, or maybe has spaces for the red shell to show through.
Hard to capture how good they look.... real life=wow!
Since we don't want the carbon fiber being covered up, the Heir Audio "crown" logo was put into the top section. It is shiny silver, looks great, and again was hard to capture in a picture.
I’m excited to be able to introduce this new company here. I find the story of a HeadFi member and music enthusiast going “pro” to be really inspiring. I have talked to Dr. John about becoming a Member of the Trade here, and he is very open to the idea, but not quite yet. He figures he has several months of non-stop work to do before he will have some spare time to return to the forums. By then I hope there are a bunch more happy users around here. Apparently I am not the first person to place an order – Dr. John has already sold multiple sets of his various designs to customers from all over the world.
As you can see on the website, Heir Audio has a full line of models to choose from. Their lowest model is the 3.A triple driver at $350. Next comes the 4.A quad driver at $450. After that is the six driver 6.A at $899, and finally the flagship 8.A at $1099. These are introductory prices and at some point will be going up (regular prices listed under each model).
You might be thinking that those prices seem kind of high. It’s true that many of the custom IEM companies we’ve seen launch in the last few years have been focused more on the lower-mid section of the market. Heir Audio is taking a different approach. Their products are unabashedly high-end. They use top quality Vishay resistors and AVX Oxicap capacitors. Build quality rivals, and possibly exceeds, the best I’ve ever seen. And of course there are the custom faceplate options. Woody plates are called the “Timbre Line” and are a $150 option. For the money you can choose from Amboyna Burl, Coconut, Bamboo, Afzelia Burl, or Siamese Rosewood. Timbre Line upgrades also get an extended 2 year warranty, a personalized case, and 2 year storage of your impressions (in acrylic so they will never shrink). Reshells start at a reasonable $180 for “standard” work and increase accordingly with carbon fiber or wood upgrades.
There are so many options that I could not hope to cover them all. The Heir Audio website features an interactive order form so you can build your own hypothetical order and get price estimates. The good thing about the 8.A is that it currently includes your choice of Timbre Line or carbon fiber upgrades at no extra charge. I was initially interested in the 6.A but with upgrades it came very close to the 8.A price, so I figured I’d go all the way.
This will eventually turn into a review and impression thread. I’ll post my in depth thoughts about the 8.A, and hopefully some other customers will show up and discuss their models as well. In the limited time I’ve spent with the 8.A I can easily say it has a world class sound. I’m excited to hear other impressions as well. We’ve seen audiologists enter the custom IEM world (LiveWires, Kozee) with good designs but limited business skills. I’m happy to see that Dr. John has aligned himself with a larger company (Micro-DSP) that has the staff and resources to give quality service. The “one-man show” type operation is great for a small business, but once HeadFiers start showing up they can easily get overwhelmed. Heir Audio seems well equipped to handle that sort of situation. At this point see great potential for them to become a big player in the custom IEM game, right alongside JH Audio, Westone, Ultimate Ears, and Unique Melody.
More to come soon.
Since the above basically tells the story of Heir Audio and how I came to own their flagship 8.A model, I’m going to move forward by posting my impressions. Kunlun has also written an excellent review of the 8.A which I will link to at the end of this post. He and I haven’t always agreed in the past, but I respect his opinions, and in this case we seem to hear the same things. Between his review and browsing the Heir Audio website, it should be easy to get all the info you could want about warranty, pricing, options, etc. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time duplicating efforts here. I will post a few highlights which I feel are significant and worth mentioning again:
- Extreme build quality – possibly the best I’ve ever seen based on my small sample of two. The hand-carved wood faceplates are just spectacular looking, and the acrylic parts are about as clear and smooth as I’ve ever seen on a custom. The carbon fiber is also very nice; I’ve got real carbon fiber faceplates on my 1964 Ears customs which look great, but Heir is just on another level. Bottom line – these are the best customs you can buy, from an appearance standpoint.
- Responsive customer service – Dr. John Moulton has gone out of his way in our exchanges to communicate his doctorate level expertise in layman’s terms that I can understand. We have gone back and forth dozens and dozens of times, day and night, over the course of several months. This is beyond what I consider good customer service. Ordering customs will never be as straight forward as ordering standard IEMs. It just isn’t possible. But I have every confidence in Heir Audio, and the experiences others have had with them point in the same direction.
- Unique designs – Dr. Moulton doesn’t seem to follow the usual routes with his custom creations. For example, his most neutral design, the 4.A, is a quad design with dual bass drivers, single mid, single high. That configuration is normally used by other brands as a bass heavy model. Or consider the 8.A with an even distribution of dual lows, dual mids, dual highs, dual super highs. That would normally be considered a balanced offering, but Heir uses it for a more fun, musical sound. So it seems that Dr. Moulton is not just doing the same things that other companies do, but rather he starts with a design goal and uses whatever configuration of drivers will get him there, however unconventional it may seem. I like that. He also uses a few tricks which I believe are unique to him, and will be discussed later.
- Warranty – Heir offers a standard 30 day refit and 1 year warranty as a base-line. That part is in line with industry standards. On the higher models (6.A and 8.A) it extends the warranty to 2 years. That is also in line with others such as Unique Melody, for flagship models. Where Heir Audio deviates from others is their Ownership Transfer Service. This comes standard with the 6.A and 8.A and can be added to the other models for $70. With this service, if you ever needed to sell your Heir customs for any reason, the new owner would be entitled to a complete inspection and remold for just $70. This is much cheaper than even the cheapest remold services from other companies, and it includes full testing to ensure that the new owner gets just as good of a product as if they had ordered brand new. This adds value to the 2nd hand Heir Audio custom, and therefore adds value to the original purchase.
- Size – Heir Audio is a new arrival in the world of custom IEMs. But their parent company, Micro-DSP, has been around for 12 years. It’s a fairly large international company with lots of resources. What that means is that Heir Audio is less likely to have some of the usual problems associated with small business startups. Folks who have been around here for a while should be able to think of one or more examples of this sort of situation. When you have a sort of “one man show” operation, things can easily get backed up or worse. Heir Audio comes right out of the gate looking more like Ultimate Ears or Westone rather than LiveWires or FreQ.
The big question – how does the 8.A sound? And nearly as important - how does it compare to some of the other high-end customs out there? I intend to answer both of those questions in a rather more focused approach compared to my usual long-winded ramblings. I’ve already discussed a bit of this in a few places so pardon me if some of this seems repetitive.
Associated gear used to evaluate the Heir 8.A
Source: JF Digital HDM-03S music server, Rocoo-D Power Edition, Sansa Clip+, iPad2 with CLAS
DAC: Anedio D1, Violectric V800, Yulong Sabre D18, Kao Audio UD2C-HP
AMP: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, TCG T-Box, Audinst AMP-HP
Cables: stock, Beat Audio Cronus, Beat Audio Supreme Rose
I burned in the 8.A with music for well over 100 hours prior to doing any serious listening. Music ranged from 320k mp3 and MOG, to 24-bit/192kHz lossless, and everything in between.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in threads and PMs – the 8.A is not a neutral sounding IEM. It has a big, bold sound that is geared more towards overall musical enjoyment rather than strict accuracy. That’s not to imply that it goes completely overboard, but rather that strict neutrality is not the main focus. I’ve heard from people who seem under the impression that a flagship headphone (especially IEMs) needs to be perfectly flat, balanced, and neutral, to the point of being potentially bland. I don’t know where that idea came from. Yes, there are some quality neutral IEMs out there such as the ER4S, UM Miracle, and UE Reference Monitor. But other flagships like the UE-18, UM Merlin, JH16, and ES5 are not strictly neutral. And that’s okay, because we all hear differently (literally!) and we all have different preferences for what we like to hear.
The bass is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why someone would be attracted to the 8.A: it sounds phenomenal. It goes deep, and hits very hard, but still has plenty of control. I’ve owned many of the top custom IEM over the past few years and I have to say – this is the best sounding “bass-heavy” type sound I’ve yet heard from a balanced armature IEM. The Unique Melody Miracle also has excellent bass reproduction but it is much less prominent in the mix, so the comparison doesn’t work. The UM Merlin has “big bass” similar to the 8.A but it uses a vented dynamic driver to achieve that. I wasn’t sure how the 8.A would possibly be able to keep up, but somehow it does.
Dr. Moulton tells me the key to getting these results is a combination of careful driver selection as well as very specific construction. He uses three separate tubes to carry sound from the drivers to your ear. One is dedicated to the mids, one combines the highs and super highs, and the last one is for the lows. As you can see in the pictures, one of the three bores is smaller than the others. This is the one that carries low frequencies, and the sound tube has an internal diameter of less than 1 millimeter. Dr. Moulton says this allows for a more controlled bass response. This design appears on the 8.A and 6.A models but not the 4.A and 3.A designs. The downside to this tiny tube is that it could more easily become clogged with wax. For this reason, Heir builds these models with a sort of concave tip, which is more easily shown than explained (see the pictures please). In practice I find that the small bore does collect a bit of wax but with regular cleaning it is not an issue.
I don’t find the bass to be overbearing in the least, but it certainly is a personal preference as to how much might be “too much”. There is a generous amount of midbass here as well – not bloated or stepping on the mids at all, but still a bit more present than something like an LCD-2. This warmth sounded pleasing on all types of music, from classic rock to bass heavy electro, without messing up vocal or acoustic performances. It’s a sound that I think many people would really enjoy. But certainly if your preferences lean towards, well, lean, then the 8.A might seem a bit overwhelming.
Mids on the 8.A are somewhat different from a lot of the high end customs I’ve encountered. They have what I’d almost call a “full-sized headphone” style presentation. This is a phenomenon I’ve mentioned before, but allow me to explain: to me, IEMs tend to sound more immediate, more connected to your brain in all aspects of the sound, but especially in the mids. In contrast, full-sized headphones have more distance between the driver and your ear, both literally and figuratively. This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a slight difference that I feel is inherent to the way each type interacts with the auditory system. It’s a minor thing and some people may think I’m crazy for spending so much time bothering with it.
The point I’m making is that these mids have character. I wouldn’t call them forward or in-your-face, nor are they recessed. It’s almost hard to explain. There is just an abundance of energy, with everything being warm yet smooth, and at the same time being casual in the mix. They won’t demand your attention. It’s like the mids are saying “I’ll just be over here sounding awesome, if anyone is interested”. This is one area where a poor source will really affect the 8.A sound signature. When I use my Android-based phone with MOG, the mids come across as somewhat lazy or detached. Switching to the iPad, which I consider a better source than my phone, things improve, and it only gets better as you move up the chain.
Highs are ultra-smooth, with great extension, and a sense of ease that few IEMs or headphones can match. This was the first custom IEM I’ve heard with dedicated super-high frequency drivers in addition to the standard high drivers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this type of setup. Surprisingly, it really didn’t seem to have a big impact on the quantity of highs, but rather the overall airiness and ease of delivery. I’ve speculated that the super-high drivers allow the regular high drivers to focus on a smaller range, rather than attempt the full 20kHz spread, which is what allows them to sound so smooth and well focused. This is just a theory and I could be way off – but the results are the same no matter how it is being accomplished.
My first assumption was that I’d be getting some seriously sharp, sparkly highs, considering the 4 drivers involved. That isn’t the sound that Heir audio was going for. The 8.A does have great extension, with plenty of clarity and detail. But above all it is smooth, to the point where listener fatigue is only possible with the most heinous of recordings.
The 8.A is one of the highest scaling customs out there, but not in the usual analytical fashion. It has a tendency to make the most of whatever source you pair it with. Starting with a Sansa Clip+, then moving up to an iPad/CLAS/portable amp system, then going all the way up to a multi-thousand dollar desktop rig, the 8.A just keeps on getting better. They can be somewhat underwhelming when played from a basic DAP with low quality pop music and such. The mids seem a little too distant and the bass isn’t the tightest. They aren’t terrible, but you may question where your $1100 went. But this is true of most upper level customs I’ve tried. Give the 8.A something a little nicer to work with, and it will really start to shine.
Soundstage is really incredible when played with a decent source and quality music. It’s among the most expansive and accurate soundstage reproduction I’ve yet heard in a custom IEM. I can clearly distinguish the width and depth of the performance venue. The whole thing is just a bit less intimate than some others – again, the unique “full-size headphone” style presentation.
Notice that word being singular rather than plural? There is really only one custom IEM that I own which demands comparison to the 8.A – the Unique Melody Merlin. The JH16pro is a direct competitor, and Kunlun already posted his thoughts on that. And the Westone ES5 could possibly be an alternative, though it has somewhat of a different focus (specifically with bass presentation). I haven’t heard the ES5 so I can’t comment other than to say I highly respect Westone and their designs.
I do need to explain my situation with the Merlin – the version I have is a prototype design, which has somewhat lighter bass compared to the final design (which I’ve also heard). It is still a bassy IEM overall but not as extreme as the Merlin. But I spent a good deal of time with the final tuned version, and still have my listening notes. When I talk about the Merlin here, I’m referring to the final version rather than my prototype.
The Merlin and the 8.A have very different presentations overall, yet there are some individual aspects which are quite similar. Starting with the bass – both have big, fun, extremely hard hitting bass which really dominates the presentation. The Merlin has less midbass, which draws attention to the deepest part of the bass impact. Sometimes this is more accurate sounding. Other times I appreciate the Heir presentation as it warms up tracks which could otherwise be a bit dull. Both models have plenty of texture and articulation on the lows, on par with some of the best headphones I’ve ever heard.
I’ve had people ask if the Merlin sound more “real” or speaker-like since the dynamic driver and vented shell can actually push air. The answer is both yes and no.
When you focus on just a single low note or bass drum strike (this is made easier by finding a song where there isn’t much going on – perhaps the intro or breakdown section of some dubstep or other electro type music), the Merlin does seem more lifelike. It gives the effect of pressurizing your ear, and in that way could be said to have more accurate timbre. The 8.A sounds great in this area, but can’t quite match the Merlin.
On the flip side, the 8.A (when taken as a whole) is better as a total package when it comes to simulating the bass aspect of a live performance. I often feel the illusion of a chest-pounding, physical response taking place when listening to the 8.A at high volume. It’s as if the 8.A convinces my body it should be feeling something and it starts to feel like it actually happens. It’s really an immersive experience, unlike any IEM I’ve ever encountered. Note that I did use the word “illusion” – obviously there is no room pressurization taking place, and no real vibrations through the body. It’s purely a mental thing.
I find it difficult to explain the differences I’m getting at. It definitely has more to do with the entire presentation of each model rather than strictly the lows. It’s a matter of Micro versus Macro listening, with the UM winning on the former and Heir dominating the latter.
Mids are quite different in presentation. Though more relaxed than the Miracle, Merlin is still more forward than the 8.A. It presents vocals as more up front and present. The 8.A places them further back into the mix, though they remain similarly detailed and lifelike. Both models are very smooth with little to no sibilance where possible. If you were determined use specific music and equipment to get them to sound harsh, the Merlin would get there quicker, but neither should have issues with that under most circumstances.
Highs on the Merlin are more sharp and distinct than the 8.A. This could be better or worse depending on your source, amplification, music, and preferences. I don’t mean to imply that the 8.A is dull or rolled off in any way – it isn’t. But the focus on the 8.A is on smoothness, while the focus on the Merlin is more towards ultimate detail retrieval. Both are still very smooth and both are still detailed, but each has its own specialty.
Soundstage – here the Merlin is still champ. I assume it is the vented aspect that does this, but who knows? The result is that the Merlin is more spacious sounding from left to right, though the 8.A perhaps matches it in depth and layering. The venting of course means less isolation, so it’s a bit of a trade off.
Which one do I prefer? They are both amazing performers and both deserve serious consideration. Ultimately I like the 8.A more but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one, depending your preferences. The Merlin is cheaper, has a larger soundstage presentation, renders vocals in a more forward manner, has a focus on the lowest bass with less midbass, and has more “crispness” to upper mids and highs. If any of that appeals to you, consider the Merlins. If my earlier description of the 8.A sounds more to your liking, then the choice is obvious.
This was an interesting comparison to do – there are similarities between them, yet the differences are very large. I’d start by listening to the Merlin, then switch to the 8.A and it would sound terrible. Where did the mids go? What’s with all the midbass? After a while though, it would start to sound really great. Eventually I’d switch back to the Merlin, and now it would sound terrible! Why are those singers so far in front of the band? Why does every sound seem like an isolated event, independent of the rest of the performance? Eventually it would start to sound good again, as my brain adjusted. But then I’d switch back to the 8.A…. and the whole thing would repeat.
The Heir 8.A is currently my favorite custom IEM. With a big, bold sound that is very easy to listen to, it distinguishes itself sonically from all of my other IEMs. With top shelf construction and customization options from a true artist, it distinguishes itself visually as well. That Heir Audio could come out of the gate with such a strong offering is a testament to the experience Dr. Moulton has – this may be a new company but he certainly isn’t new to the game (he’s even designed IEMs for other companies in China, an activity which I assume he’ll discontinue now that Heir has launched).
Is the 8.A the ultimate custom for everyone? Of course not. No headphone or IEM can cater to all tastes. But the 8.A makes a convincing statement for those interested in a more musical sound. Assuming this is the signature you are going for, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the sound. And the external design and workmanship sets a new benchmark for aesthetic appeal. I’ve described the 8.A as “world class” on several occasions and I find that to be more true each time I listen to them.
Inspired by the quality of the 8.A, I’ve decided to pick up the 6.A as well. I’m finalizing the order now, going for the Amboyna Burl faceplate with an amber or light brown shell. I’ll post my impressions of that once I have some time logged.
And now for some more eye candy:
Note that I'm using a Beat Audio cable here. Stock cable is Westone/JH style
Notice how the carbon fiber has red accents which change based on the light
Lots of drivers in there