Tralucent Audio: Ref 1.
The Ref 1 is the second major IEM release from Tralucent Audio. On first glance it appears to be the same hybrid design (dynamic driver + 2 balanced armatures working in unison) as their first offering, the 1plus2, but a quick listing of the features shows that to not be the case. Apart from relatively smaller tweaks, the major change in design comes from the replacement of the standard dynamic with an isobaric setup. A typical isobaric design consists of two drivers placed together in an enclosure. These drivers are positioned either front to front, back to front, or back to back within the larger enclosure.
When I heard this, I assumed it would make for interesting possibilities. I just didn't guess how different the sound would be.
- Yes, there is driver flex on insertion. It's bothersome while it happens, but it's something that is only of concern when you see it...like Tom Cruise's asymmetrical face.
- The cable pin/earpiece situation is still unresolved. I would not personally advise you to leave your Ref 1 hanging around your neck. You may look down to find your neck accessory to be $1600 less valuable. Yes, Gavin has suggested a glue solution, but I don't feel it's adequate for an item as pricey as this. I know things take time, but a couple of tweaks to the housing and cable design could solve the problem.
- The driver flex belies the fact that this is still an open IEM. It has the isolation of a HD600 or HD800. Thes are not the IEMs you're looking for...if you want isolation.
The majority of critical listening will be done using the Fiio X5 connected to my computer as a DAC through to the Tralucent T1 as the amp via the X5's Line Out. The Ref 1 is equipped with the new straight connector Silver&Gold cable option, and I've dressed it with the Ortofon tips. This Ref 1 is a loaner set from a friend, so it has been run through its paces before it got to me. I'll assume it no longer needs to be broken in, even though I'm more or less agnostic about the whole burn in thing.
Feist - Limit to your Love
Kendrick Lamar - Don't Kill My Vibe
Die Zauberflöte: II. Akt, 29. Auftritt. Duette Papageno, Weib: "Pa - Pa - Pa" (Rene Jacobs)
Silent Knight - Versailles
I listened to several more songs, but these had specific elements that I feels would test the Ref 1's capabilities.
There are two types of IEMs when it comes to sound. Those that immediately strike you with one or more tuning features, and those that sneak up on you with their technical prowess. The Ref 1 is definitely in the first group.
The proverbial elephant in the room here is the bass. It is indeed elephant-like in size and weight. I was genuinely surprised by the quantity of the bass, and the sheer thickness of the sound.
I'm a huge fan of the 1plus2's bass. It's close to my golden ratio of mid-bass versus sub-bass. It's nimble. It's hard-hitting when necessary, but almost never obstructs anything. It's highly textured. It feels like pure unbridled teenage energy. The Ref 1's low end is almost none of these things. It's simply too much bass, IMO. I also feel like it loses a lot of texture in the process. As a result of the size there is also an issue with coloration in the lower mids, where the mid bass bleeds further up. To add some scale to things, the Ref 1 dwarfs the ASG-2.5 when it comes to bass quantity. The ASG-2.5 on the low bass settings is both tighter and lighter than the Ref 1 by quite a margin.
Up to the midrange, the Ref 1 manages to retain great presence despite the bass quantity. However, I notice something quite interesting about the upper mids. To my ears, the Ref 1 is highly boosted in the upper midrange, to the point where it introduces this strange tonality and some level of graininess. It is somewhat reminiscent of the very first version of the the ASG-1. Just like boosted bass can warm the sound of an IEM, boosted upper mids can impart a radio-like tonality to the rest of the mids. This is the case with the Ref 1. It can be appealing in certain instances, but more often than not I find it off-putting, especially when going back and forth with an IEM that is not so boosted. I think it was tuned this way to balance out the quantity of the bass, but it appears to have had some side effects.
Treble wise, the Ref 1 is without fault. It is smooth, extended, and very life-like. Treble has never been an issue for the Tralucent family.
On to the positives
The Ref 1 continues the Tralucent tradition of being extraordinarily spacious. It does not quite have the spatial prowess of the 1plus2 because of the sheer size of the bass, but it still is proficient in width and depth. Forward projection is not its strong suit though.
The Ref 1 is also never short for detail. I can't use the superlatives like "hearing things I've never heard before" but details in the mids and highs certainly shine through.
All in all, I'm not sure what to think about the Ref 1. On some tracks, it's an experience. On others, it makes me raise my eyebrows and wonder what Gavin was thinking. Perhaps it was the result of the influence of the FitEar customs he has owned. It almost seems like the polar opposite of the 1plus2, which can be good or bad depending on your perspective. I'm among the people who thinks the 1plus2 only needed a few tweaks to flesh out the mids slightly. But I am only one data point in the scheme of things. As always, YMMV.