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Review of custom in-ear head sets: Sleek Audio Kleer wireless versus UE10 wired

post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 
This is a rather long post, and covers some ground familiar to those with experience trying to get the best audio quality out of an iPod, iPhone, or other portable audio device. But since it covers my experience with high-end custom in-ear headsets, including the new Sleek Audio customs, I thought my experience and evaluations might be beneficial to those who are considering and investment in custom in-ear head sets.

Last May, frustrated by poor sound quality of the standard earbud head sets for my iPod Classic, I ordered a pair of custom in-ear Ultimate Ear 10 head sets. I was headed off on a 3-week trip through France, Spain, and Morocco, and the UEs arrived just in time for me to put them to the test in the variety of challenging conditions that face all of us when we travel with portable music players and head sets: airplanes, trains, cars, hotels, walks, workouts on bikes and in the gym, and all the other sources of noise and inconvenience that comprise both the quality of the audio and ease of traveling with your own music.

The UE10s totally changed my experiences with music on-the-go. First, the quality of the sound was extraordinary, better then even the top of the line over-the-ear head sets I had at home. Second, the passive noise cancellation benefits were beyond what I had imagined possible, and far, far superior to the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones I had traveled with in the past. In fact, on airplanes and other noisy environments the Bose headphones sounded pathetic in comparison to the UE10s, and the passive noise cancellation of the UE10s was so good that I could hear almost nothing in the way of jet engine or cabin noise.

So the UE10s were a big winner, with almost nothing to fault expect the very high cost (almost $1,000) and the inconvenience of the wires to connect them to the iPod, a particular annoyance and problem on airplanes, working out in the gym, or any other situation where I had to move around a lot, which for me is most of the time.

The only wireless solution available at the time was Bluetooth, and from the perspective of audio quality, that proved to be a serious compromise. Aside from the problem of using Bluetooth with an iPod Classic, which does not have Bluetooth at all (iPhones and iPod Touches do have Bluetooth, but not A2DP Bluetooth, so they are useless for wireless music), the degradation in the audio quality of music transmitted over Bluetooth is a serious problem. Although I was able to use an iCombi AP 21 Bluetooth adapter/transmitter on the iPod to transmit my music to the UE10s (which I plugged into a Jabra A2DP Bluetooth receiver). I was seriously disappointed with the loss of music quality.

I should note that all of my iPod music files are in Apple’s lossless codec, with provides CD quality music output. MP3 and other lossy codecs, on the other hand, result in serious compromises in music audio quality. But having “CD quality” tracks on your iPod means nothing if you have a poor quality headset or are using Bluetooth. I’m often amazed at the posts I see on the various blogs and other sites from people who claim that they can’t hear much of a difference between the sound quality of MP3 files and lossless files, or between Bluetooth and wired. The only thing I can imagine is that these people have seriously damaged their hearing by listening to crappy music played at ear-shattering volumes. While we’re all familiar with damage that excessive volume does to a person’s hearing, I’m convinced that listening to bad music also seriously diminishes a person’s capacity to hear: to discern the nuances, dynamic range, and tonal diversity represented in the best music.

So in my quest for the highest quality musical reproduction I concluded that I was stuck using the UE10s wired into my iPod player with lossless music files, and I decided that I’d have to suffer the inconvenience of always being wired into the iPod until a better solution came along.

That solution arrived about a week ago. When doing one of my frequent Internet searches for a wireless solution, I found a number of links to the Kleer Semiconductor web site (Kleer | CD-Quality Digital Wireless Audio Technology). Kleer had just announced development of a wifi solution for music transmission that promised sound quality the equivalent of CDs. Kleer, in fact, had already developed alliances with a number of audio product vendors who were implementing use of the new Kleer wireless technology in their products. Everything I read about the Kleer technology from those who had tested it indicated that it lived up Kleer’s claims for CD quality music.

The Kleer web site listed a number of these manufacturers. One was Sleek Audio (https://store.sleek-audio.com). I went to the Sleek audio web site immediately and found that they were already selling custom in-ear head sets designed to work with the Kleer wireless technology.

Eureka! I had what I had longed for, and for a price less than a third of the UE10s I had invested in only 4 or 5 months before. So I put in an immediate order for a set of Sleek’s custom in-ear head sets and the Kleer-based Sleek Wireless Accessory needed to use the custom head sets without wires.

This long-winded history leads to the purpose of this post: a comparative critique of the Sleek Custom in ear head sets and the UE10s and the wireless and wired uses of the Sleek head sets.
Before describing the results of the test, let me first describe how I set it up.

First, I selected music tracks that would test the full extremes of the sonic capabilities of the devices. Since I listen only to classical music, jazz, and some time-proven popular artists, I used the follow music in my tests: Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 130; Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony, “Titan”; Paul Desmond, Pure Paul Desmond; Oscar Peterson, The Essential Oscar Peterson; Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark; Bob Marley, Keep on Moving; Alex De Grassi, The Water Garden.

Over the pst several days, I alternatively listed to each piece of music with the UE10s, the Sleeks wired, and the Sleeks with wireless. And I listened in the variety of circumstances typical for portable audio: driving in the car, working out in the gym, walking the dog, and just sitting and enjoying the music. Here are my impressions.

First, the Sleek versus the UE 10s. I could detect no major differences in sonic quality. Since the UE 10s have "three precision balanced armatures with an integrated passive crossover circuit board" you might expect them to sound much better than the single driver Sleeks. Not the case. In fact, after much listening I concluded that the Sleeks almost equal to the UE 10s, providing a rich sonic experience with great depth and clarity, revealing as much of the hidden sonic quality of the music as the UE10s.

Like the UE10s, the Sleeks have a very flat response, with consistent quality from the deepest base through the highest highs. As noted, clarity and tone quality is superb. All of the normally hidden sounds I hear with the UE10s (for example, the players breathing at each pause in the Beethoven strong quartet or Alex De Grassi’s finger sqeaks, slides, harmonics on the guitar) were equally present with the Sleeks. Conclusion: the Sleeks are an extraordinary value and you’d be wasting money to spend another $600 on the UE 10s. And forget earbuds – even the most expensive ones can’t match the quality of the Sleek custom in-ear head set. And nothing – not the over-hyped Bose products or any other noise canceling headphones can compare to the quality of the passive noise-cancelling pay-off of custom in-ear head sets like the Sleek and UE 10s.

The quality and value of the Sleeks probably has much to do with the fact that they were designed by audiologists who are experts in the complexities of hearing and the ear, not audio engineers. Understanding how the ear processes sound would seem to be a real advantage in the design of custom in-ear head sets, and that’s where the Sleek expertise shines. The Sleek driver is custom built to Sleek’s specifications and can be tuned by Sleek to the owner’s tastes. I requested a flat response across the spectrum, but they can be tuned for more bass or treble, whatever.

Sleek Audio evolved from a hearing aid company owned by Jason Krywko and is father, and these guys are audiologists with extraordinary experience with the ear and the complications of hearing. Their expertise comes through clearly in the Sleeks.

Next, plugged in versus wireless: Having been disappointed by Bluetooth, this test amazed and surprised me. The Kleer wireless technology the drives the Sleek Wireless Accessory lived up to all the claims, and I was not able to hear any differences. In fact, I think in a blindfold test no one would know whether they were listening to a wireless device or one plugged in. I tried all the music described without any detectible difference in sonic quality. My advice is to forget A2DP Bluetooth and switch to the Sleek Wireless Accessory (or other Kleer-based wireless device) as soon as you can. When it comes to wireless music, the Kleer technology will make Bluetooth a thing of the past, I’m sure.

If you been disappointed that Apple has not put A2DP Bluetooth on the iPod or iPhone, don’t fret – you can now forget about Bluetooth on your iPod and jump right to Sleek. The Sleek wireless transmitter plugs into the earbud/headphone outlet on the iPod and iPhone and transmit a flawless, CD quality signal to the Sleek Wireless Accessory to which the Sleek head sets are attached. The music quality is unsurpassed, equal to or better then the most expensive audiophile over-the-ear headphones money can buy. Forget Bose, forget Koss, and all of the other high priced name-brand headphones. A Sleek custom in-ear head set with the Sleek Wireless Accessory takes head sets to a whole new level of sonic quality and wireless convenience. If you can spring for the $450 or so the gear will cost and the additional $50 for an audiologist to make an impression of your ear canals, do it. You’ll be utterly amazed at the quality of the sound your iPod can produce with this hardware and Apple lossless codec music files. Believe me, if you have the $ this is worth every penny.

I can’t conclude this review without praise for the extraordinary customer service provided by Sleek Audio. I placed my order for the custom in-ear head sets and wireless accessory on a Sunday night and called on the following Monday morning to discuss having the ear impressions made. I was connected to Jason and he told me they could use my UE10s for the impressions – in other words, he saved me another trip to an audiologist. I FedExed my UE10s to Sleek on Monday night and they were FedExed back to me by Sleek on Wednesday. Friday, the new Sleek head sets and wireless accessory were waiting for me when I arrived home, and the head sets fit my in my ears perfectly. Jason called me a few times during the week to discuss how I wanted the head sets set up (color, sonic tuning, placement of jack connection). All in all it was an exceptional customer experience, as good as it gets.
post #2 of 23
Good review, enjoyed the read.
post #3 of 23
Thread Starter 
Since I said nothing about battery life in my post, let me assure you that it performs as advertised, or better. I'm been listening non-stop today since about 10 am, and when I finally shut down at 5 pm both the Sleek iPod wireless adapter and the Wireless Accessory were still going strong.
post #4 of 23
Nice review. You might want to know that UE10 actually has triple drives in a three-ways crossover configuration.
post #5 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ClieOS View Post
Nice review. You might want to know that UE10 actually has triple drives in a three-ways crossover configuration.
I stand corrected, and I've fixed it on the original post. Thanks for setting me straight.
post #6 of 23
It seems that I'm not alone in believing that single driver units can perform on par and in some cases better some a lot more expensive multi-drivers ones.

Other very good ones are the Klipschs Images, both, the 5 and the 10...very nice tiny monsters...
post #7 of 23
More for less, won't you say so?
post #8 of 23
Thanks for the writeup, nice to see the SA6 stacks up well against high end IEMs even in wireless mode.
post #9 of 23
I would like to hear about the practicalities of the receiver if you have any opinions. Is it much of a burden having the exra hardware behind your neck? Does it get in the way of clothing etc?
post #10 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by bernado View Post
I would like to hear about the practicalities of the receiver if you have any opinions. Is it much of a burden having the exra hardware behind your neck? Does it get in the way of clothing etc?
I was concerned about that, but after several days of steady use, and even from the first use, I don't even notice that the receiver was hanging behind my neck/head. I set mine up so it had minimum slack, and I've used in in a variety of situations, including several workouts at the gym. It was not a problem at all.
post #11 of 23
artsci, nice review!

It comes as no surprise to me, as I've stated in the past I sometimes prefer my SA6 to the UE11. The importance of the number of drivers is a complete fallacy.
post #12 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by EyeAmEye View Post
artsci, nice review!

It comes as no surprise to me, as I've stated in the past I sometimes prefer my SA6 to the UE11. The importance of the number of drivers is a complete fallacy.
The only thing I'm concerned about in my review (or any other, including those of audio experts), is individual hearing differences. If you've read Oliver Sack's Musicophilia, you're well aware of the enormous differences between human beings in the way music is heard and perceived, and there's almost no objective way to account for those differences, particularly because so many differences are psychological.

On the other hand, I do believe I have a rather sensitive ear. But I will readily concede that there may be others who will be able to hear a real difference between the Sleek customs and the UE10s, and a single driver or multiple drivers. I'm not one of them.

We also have to always discount what I would call the "price" effect -- because you paid a lot more money for something you're naturally inclined to believe that it's better even though it may not be. I don't think I have that problem. I bought the UE10s believing all the reviews that touted their audio superiority. Based on my experience, I suspect that those reviews were somewhat tainted by the "price effect."
post #13 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by artsci View Post
The only thing I'm concerned about in my review (or any other, including those of audio experts), is individual hearing differences. If you've read Oliver Sack's Musicophilia, you're well aware of the enormous differences between human beings in the way music is heard and perceived, and there's almost no objective way to account for those differences, particularly because so many differences are psychological.

On the other hand, I do believe I have a rather sensitive ear. But I will readily concede that there may be others who will be able to hear a real difference between the Sleek customs and the UE10s, and a single driver or multiple drivers. I'm not one of them.

We also have to always discount what I would call the "price" effect -- because you paid a lot more money for something you're naturally inclined to believe that it's better even though it may not be. I don't think I have that problem. I bought the UE10s believing all the reviews that touted their audio superiority. Based on my experience, I suspect that those reviews were somewhat tainted by the "price effect."

No way to account for hearing differences, but your review is honest and detailed enough for any reader to possibly weed out whether or not they might like the SA6 themselves, and that is what is important.
post #14 of 23
Thanks for the review, it pushed me off the fence to order the Custom Wireless.
post #15 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Audio Addict View Post
Thanks for the review, it pushed me off the fence to order the Custom Wireless.
You won't regret it. I've got them on my head all the time. It's like taking an outstanding sound system with you wherever you go.
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