Pros: Custom Acoustics
For anyone who has read any of my previous reviews on the KRK-KNS 8400, Shure SRH-940, Sennheiser HD448 or Sennheiser PX360, this beginning piece may seem redundant to you. However, I think it is important to include. I like to start off by giving the reader a tidbit about my previous audio experience in an effort to put my words into a useful perspective and empower them as a consumer. Describing my history gives the reader the ability to place a personal value on my impressions and best utilize the information. With that piece said I hope you enjoy the following and also find it useful.
I’ve appreciated good sound since a relatively young age, and I have my family to blame for it. I was raised in a household with parents who had a passion for home theater. Once I started going to school and hearing stuff from other people—and grew older—I began to realize I had been spoiled. As a result, my standards have been set a little higher and I find my tolerance for low-fi reproduction lower than most. Naturally I got into car audio once I started driving. I started joining communities like this one, testing and swapping out gear while eventually moving into DIY projects which resulted in a system I still use today. As the years went on, I then ventured into home audio and landed myself a system through hard work that I am once again proud of and probably won’t modify for some time. I now find myself in the land of headphones, with just as much curiosity as I had when venturing into the other niches of audio. I find myself building on my knowledge and experience. Now on to what you came to this page for: the Torque Audio t103z
I have been given the privilege to review a pre-production model for the t103z from a new startup audio company, Torque Audio. Unique to what this unit offers is the ability to adjust the sound to the user's preference. This seems to be becoming a more popular trend among headphones lately... with the Beyer Custom One and AKG K267 coming to mind. Torque Audio seems to have approached the idea differently, and in my opinion, more effectively. The t103z has small filter like pieces which unscrew from the main unit so they can be swapped out. Torque Audio calls these "TorqueValves", each of which are tuned differently. The t103z comes with 3 different TorqueValves (Red - Reference; Yellow - Deep Valve; Black - Clear Valve) and Torque Audio has expressed that more TorqueValves will be released later on. For the sake of this review, I will be addressing the comfort, durability, sound quality of the included TorqueValves.
Comfort: Look, I'll be straightforward about one thing: I tend to have a bias against buds. I can't seem to ever get them to fit right and I never find myself preferring them to a full size set for anything other than convenience. The one exception for me has been the Shure SE535, because that unit fits securely without causing pain, isolates superbly, and sounds pretty impressive. So take that for what it is involving my comments on the comfort of the t103z. As is the case with just about any bud, I had to play around with all of the included tips to find out which ones fit best. Torque Audio includes a small, medium, and large version of a standard tapered cone shaped tip as well as a double flanged tip. I couldn't get any of the standard tips to feel right or stay in very securely. I ended up going with the double flanged set, which was strange for me as I usually find those tips useless with other earbuds. For whatever reason, those were the tips for me with this particular set. Since fit is everything for buds (regarding sound quality too), all of my notes from here on out involve the use of this particular tip. Honestly, the t103z doesn't feel so bad in my ear. I don't start to have any sort of ear canal irritation or pain until roughly the hour and a half or 2 hour mark--in which case a 10 minute break or so would remedy the situation. They aren't the lightest buds I've tried by any measure, but the cable and inline volume controls don't feel heavy on the ears at all. Speaking of the cable, Torque Audio did a really good job to make sure it isn't microphonic. It's a flat style cable that splits in a fixed location into a Y at the inline remote. As far as I can tell, there are zero microphonic issues, which is a huge plus for those of us that like to strategically run cable. Anyways, to stay on task... the buds might be adequate comfort wise but they do not fit that securely, at least for me. This will of course vary from person to person, but in any situation where I am moving quickly in different directions I find myself having the re-secure them. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend them for highly active situations, but I'll take the comfort they offer in relatively low motion activities like riding the bus or walking. Overall, considering my experience with other buds, these do a pretty good job but still have some classic earbud issues.
Durability: Overall I'd give these guys a good prognosis on longevity. The flat-style cable is of a decent gauge and really only gets flimsy at the output of the inline volume control. The termination at the driver is well coated with a silicon like substance which feels quite secure when I tug them out of my ears. The driver enclosure is made of hard plastic and metal--at least I think metal, which goes to speak of the quality. The TorqueValves are solid pieces and should survive the inevitable dropping. The screw-in mechanism is tight nit and secure. Overall I'd say the build quality and durability is quite noteworthy and maybe even outdoes itself a bit for this price tier.
Sound Quality: This is likely the part of the review you care the most about. If you've read my past reviews, you'll know that I separate my subjective analysis of the sound into the three logical parts: the highs, mids, and lows. Since this IEM offers 3 TorqueValves that all offer a unique sound, this section will be a little bit difference from my past reviews. You'll see a highs/mids/lows section for each TorqueValve and a quick sentence or two summing up how it all ties together for that particular TorqueValve. Keep in mind that these are subjective impressions that are all done with the double flange tips. Also worth noting: since many users at this price tier will likely want to utilize these IEMs straight from a standard DAP, I will be driving them from a 160 GB iPod Classic and nothing more. That fact is something you enthusiasts who read this should most definitely keep in mind. I felt the iPod Classic is a nice "control" if you will.
REFERENCE VALVE (RED)
Highs: After listening to several tracks on other headphones and audio equipment and then switching to these, the first thought that immediately comes to mind with the Reference Valve in the highs is "controlled". The extension is indeed lacking as a result, but the highs are certainly polite which can be a plus. If my highs are not neutral, I would much rather have them err on the polite/controlled side than the shrill side--even if at the cost of some treble extension and energy. Energetic highs almost always lead to listener's fatigue in my experience. There is nothing razor sharp in accuracy or tone with the high frequencies... but let's be honest, how often do you really analyze the high notes all that closely? If you answered "frequently", then this TorqueValve may not be for you. For those of you who had an extra cup of coffee today and are listening to jams at 250+ beats per minute (yea we've all had those moments) this is not an ideal setup. On the contrary, there is nothing offensive about the highs and nothing that sounds particularly unnatural either. This leads to a decent experience when you're doing much calmer activities such as indoor household duties. I might like a little more sparkle on my strings, but I know plenty of people who would not complain--or may even prefer-- what these offer in the high notes. Symbols are reserved and echo dissipates quickly. I'd say the highs match well with tracks that do not rely on a lot of musical information in the upper frequencies and with warmer tracks. If you're going to pick a John to listen to, I recommend Mayer over Coltrane because of how this TorqueValve handles the highs
Mids: Okay, I might get a little picky here. The mid ranges are a little dry. They do not sound recessed in any way, just a bit dull. That isn't to say everything isn't well articulated however. Without the high frequencies getting in the way, the detail level in the upper mid range is actually pretty solid. Layers of instrumentation and vocalists are easily separated. Low mid ranges are not interrupted by the low frequencies and are also decently detailed. I do not think the frequency curve as a whole is U shaped, but the mid range frequencies themselves might be a bit U shaped. I can hear upper and lower midrange just a bit more clearly than the dead-center mids. I generally prefer a little more mid-forward presentation and these are not that. I'm also definitely pretty picky with my mid range. I really recognize a place for these mids though. I hate to toss the word neutral around, since it might be one of the most abused words on head-fi... the mids really do feel neutral in terms of stage positioning. What I mean by this is that the mids are not recessed/take to the back stage, nor are they the center of attention and upfront. My perception of dryness may be a result of my tendency to own mid-forward equipment and I think the aforementioned perception is a good indicator that the presence of the mids sits somewhere potentially more natural. The mids are not dark by any standard that I am familiar with and they're certainly not forward. If middle ground was Torque's aim with this TorqueValve, congrats. It is achieved here, maybe at the cost of some lushness. Lush mids have their own associated costs though... like loss of separation and potentially soundstage/details. The imaging in this frequency range is well enough for an IEM and soundstaging is classic left/right IEM stereo (meaning I have nothing really to say about it either way).
Lows: The bass notes are also very controlled. I'd even say they are recessed a bit, at least in the sub 100Hz region. The junction of the mid range and the mid bass seems relatively linear to my ears, but at some point near the sub bass region there is most certainly a roll off. It isn't a cliff by any means, but it is noticeable. This might be an effort by Torque to preserve the lower mid range and to minimize the well-known bass bleed. Don't read that as a recessed mid bass however. I think the mid bass sounds pretty natural and not emphasized as heard quite often in IEMs and closed headphones. Sub bass notes are much more tonal than impactful, and the lack of extension does make the bass sound like "one-note" bass at times. I'm probably being too harsh here, but I do not think this TorqueValve reproduces bass levels that are neutral, at least at the sub bass level. I do enjoy the mid bass control very much and its seamless yet distinct separation from the mid ranges. Overall, not enough extension... but really dodged the "smeary low mids/mid bass" bullet.
Bottom Line: After going back and reading my notes, I realized I described a very clinical sound overall. To me it sounds like I am complaining a bit about a clinical sound coming from an audio device dubbed as "Reference". Reference should sound clinical to some degree, so maybe Torque hit the nail on the head with this TorqueValve. I like natural sound with some mid forwardness and these are definitely not my TorqueValve of choice--but they most certainly have their place as a well rounder. It is a decently flat sound with a noted lack of extension at both ends. For the price tier, the sound this TorqueValve offers is adequate
DEEP VALVE (YELLOW)
Highs: The balance of the overall spectrum has shifted and this seems to give the effect that the highs have tamed even more. Upon listening more closely, I have realized that this is not the case and that there are likely some psychoacoustics at play here. Symbols have the same bite (or lack thereof) and the same polite nature is portrayed. Since little to no effect is experienced when isolating the highs, I'll refer you to above, under the reference valve section, for my thoughts on the highs.
Mids: Unlike the highs, the mid ranges do take on a new form; they lose some grain and gain some cream. The mids seems to have gained a semi-silky nature albeit are capped off with a bit of veil. It makes the overall presentation darker and I think this is what initially made me think the highs were sounding different. As a whole, the interaction of the highs with the mids is different. The definition in the upper mids is less clear but somehow the added smoothness is very welcome. I'd almost sacrifice a little upper midrange dexterity or the added smoothness here. The mids lose that dry character I was describing earlier and despite the subtle veil really gain character. The mids take a step back, and even though I said earlier I like forward mids I really like how they interact as a whole with this TorqueValve. As expected, the low mids take in a little more life and the distinct separation found with the red valve between the bass and low mids takes a hit. Everything in the low mids is bigger (and slower). I want to emphasize that the difference in the mid range presentation is NOT subtle. It truly sounds like a different IEM because of this change, even with the similar representation of the high notes. The new mids almost make this IEM feel more comfortable, as silly as it sounds. Not perfect by any means, but it reminded me of just how dry the mids in the red valve are.
Lows: The bass notes are a lot rounder than before. This adds a lot of warmth to the overall character and sound presentation. This is a complete 180 degree turn from the previous valve, which I described as having some bass extension/presentation issues. The extra weight does well here and the "one-note" feeling is better managed here. I hear a few more layers to the low notes and everything just sounds slicker down low--bass guitar and electronic bass. Mid bass is ballooned a bit as expected and is less punchy and more rounded. Again, this adds warmth to the overall tone which blends pretty well with the new creamy mid range. This change is not as drastic as the midrange in overall tone, but once again the change is NOT subtle. The character of the bass is different... better layered, better extended and just bigger (which isn't always a plus but a nice option). I think it is important to note that it isn't a very tight bass, but rather a slick and warm bass. This will still not meet bass-head standards, which is a plus in my personal book.
Bottom Line: I straight up like this valve better, and I don't generally favor bass. I know this is supposed to be the bassy valve, but my ears really heard the biggest difference in the mid range. The added cream (or maybe just the loss of the dryness?) really made this a pleasurable listening experience. Very warm and weighty overall. Songs requiring speedy and impactful bass should still be treated with something a little different perhaps, but just about everything else sounds fine! The characteristics of the controlled highs with very subtle graininess is still retained, but it matches so much better with the other two spectrums in this TorqueValve.
CLEAR VALVE (BLACK)
Highs: Any grain that was in the highs is gone for the most part. The highs gain some energy here but retain the soft qualities found in the other two TorqueValves. I was honestly expecting a little more grain and potential harshness as a result, but even with some of the more symbol heavy tracks I tried I couldn't get this TorqueValve to misbehave. Instead, symbols sound more crisp than before. Surprisingly, the added dB in the high frequencies did not harm the previously capable separation between the upper mid ranges and the high frequencies. This intersection is boosted but not smeared. I give a big thumbs up to the added energy without any real acoustical costs to my ears. Perceived clarity is up and grain is mostly gone. I have nothing but positive things to say about what this TorqueValve delivers in the high frequencies
Mids: The previously mentioned veil and creaminess are gone now. What has surfaced in the mid ranges in this TorqueValve is not as grainy as in the red valve however. The mids sound a bit more reedy now and definitely more forward--which as you know by now is a plus in my book. It complements the higher energy upper frequencies very well to add a lot of energy overall to the presentation. Once again, there is nothing subtle about the changes in the midrange from the other two TorqueValves. This is the only one of the three that brings the mids forward and makes detail retrieval undoubtedly easier. Whether you consider this an actual increase in detail level is a topic up for debate on many threads in this forum, and that is where I will leave it. Just know that the high frequencies are elevated and the midranges are brought front and center while the tone of each is cleaned up quite nicely when compared to the red valve. Because of this, the clear valve is easily my favorite of the bunch.
Bass: So... you just read that the highs and mids are boosted, the lows must be left in the dust? I'm not entirely sure how, but the I feel like there is more bass levels in this TorqueValve when compared to the reference (I'm beginning to see the usefulness of the reference valve). There is nothing clinical about its presentation. It is definitely a step backward in dB from the Deep Valve and it loses almost all of its roundedness. The bass moves toward a more snappy timbre with layers when the music calls for it. The bass is a lot tighter than in the previous two TorqueValves but still not any faster. It loses a lot of warmth as a result. Overall, the bass layers are existent and the separation from the low mids returns to capable levels.
Bottom Line: This is hands down my favorite TorqueValve of the bunch. It brings a lot of life to the music and fills in a lot of what I thought was missing from the Reference Valve without overly coloring the timbre like the Deep Valve does. The timbre is very natural to my ears all while sounding less clinical than the Reference Valve. I know that valve has its place, but it isn't really for pleasure listening in my opinion. The truth doesn't always have to be presented brutally and I think the Clear Valve gives a hint of character to the natural yet clinical sound that the Reference Valve presented.
In a Nutshell: I think at the price point Torque is shooting for (at least when I last talked with them over a month ago) is around the 200 mark. There is certainly some stiff competition in this tier, but nothing at this level that I have heard of or experienced offers the flexibility of changing the sound easily this effectively and drastically. The technology is implemented very cleverly and with very solid acoustic results. You'd essentially be paying 200 dollars for 3 different headphones, and I know many of us are guilty of having multiple sets of IEMs/headphones to cater to all of our listening moods. With the t103z, you get some pretty different characters to suit more than a few of your listening preferences and needs. The fit is a bit unique as the bud needs to be inserted at a bit of an anteriorly pointed angle, but once it is in the right position the comfort is fine. At 200 dollars for a case and three headphones essentially, you're getting a deal in my opinion. No it is not a giant killer and yes it will have flaws in the sonic presentation but I think it is competent at the 200 dollar tier and offers a ton of flexibility. I seriously recommend trying these out if you're constantly finding yourself reaching for a different headphone every time you sit down for a listening session, or if you're one of those people that travel and can never decide which headphone you want to leave the house with. This is an acoustic toy for the indecisive and light packing audio enthusiast as an all-in-one solution. The t103z is the swiss army knife for the casual audio enthusiast. With more TorqueValves likely on the way at the time of the release of this headphone, the ability for the owner to expand their arsenal will only increase. I hope to stay in touch with Torque Audio and review new TorqueValves and products as they arrive to keep this community updated. I hope you found this review useful, and feel free to contact me with questions about the product and I will do my best to answer them for you.