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Are (High-end) Custom IEMs Overrated?  

post #1 of 467
Thread Starter 

EDIT (2nd June 2011)At the time I started this thread two years ago most customs were $850+. These days one can get customs that are a lot cheaper. How good are they? I've no idea. Most reports of the JH5, for instance, say they are very good. But, you still face a low re-sale value if you decide to sell your customs, the prospect of needing re-fits, a visit to an audiologist (or two as in my case), extra shipping costs, and living outside the US can make things a lot more expensive not just because of much higher shipping costs but often added (high) import duty & taxes.

 

Also, two years ago most top-tier universals only came with fixed cables. Nowadays there are plenty of excellent sounding universals - and not all top-tiers - that come with detachable cables: UM2, UM3X, EX1000, IE8, TF10, SE535, SE425 (even the $100 SE215!), etc. Only a few weeks ago I purchased the best universal IEM I've ever heard, the Sony MDR-EX1000, and it is the only universal to be 100% equal SQ-wise to my $850 custom Westone ES3X.

 

So, my comments below made 2 years ago still stand.

 

---------------

 

Am I the only one on Head-fi who finds statements about customs' fit, isolation & SQ to be somewhat exaggerated? While I agree isolation is probably best achieved with customs, I'm not so sure about the fit (read comfort) and SQ.

Many years ago I had the Sony EX71s and found them extraordinarily comfortable, only a little less so than my current Sony EX90s and my previous UE Super.fi 5 v2, W3s & SE530s. My other current universal IEMs, the UM3Xs, have that little extra edge comfort-wise over all the rest. My ES3Xs are VERY comfortable - unfortunately I had to have 3 re-fits (4 sets!) - but I wouldn't go as far as saying they are much more comfortable than the Universal IEMs I've had. In fact, my UM3Xs are probably just as comfortable as my $850 (+ $50 ear impressions + shipping) ES3Xs.

Time and time again I've read on so many threads here that customs provide unparalleled fit and isolation, 'WAY' better than Universal IEMs. I might agree on the isolation front, but to say 'WAY better' is DEFINITELY an exaggeration, I think.

Seems to me these days everyone is getting on the customs bandwagon, specially with lower priced custom IEM's, and no wonder, I think, after so many things I see written in these very forums. I own the ES3Xs and find them FANTASTIC in comfort, isolation & SQ. And,to ME, they were worth the admittedly very high price because for the SQ they provide, though they certainly do NOT provide twice+ the SQ of my $350 UM3Xs - NOT by a very, very long shot, maybe 10-15% at most

I honestly think that for most people the UM3X (or a similar type of IEM) is a better investment than expensive (or even inexpensive - read $300-$400) customs. One obvious advantage is you can sell your second-hand Universal IEMs, specially the more sought-after types, whereas a set of customs has no re-sale value.

Also, these days companies like Unique Melody are offering to turn Universal IEMs into customs for a very reasonable price, even adding extra drivers - already some people have reported great results, but I still have my doubts about these in comparison to top-tier Universal IEMs

You mustn't forget that for customs you have to get (and often pay extra for) ear impressions, send them in, and then have a fairly good chance of needing a re-fit, or two, or more (possibly adding to the overall cost), and even maybe a second set of ear impressions (like me) and perhaps a few years down the line needing to have your customs done all over again, or simply 'wanting' to upgrade to the latest new toy around.

I've spent 7 months in head-fi and in the last few months the amount of custom IEM's talk / threads has increased dramatically. I honestly think that for A LOT of head-fiers, and specially for new (and easily 'wowed' younger) inexperienced members the UM3X, ATH-CK100, W3, IE8, UE triple.fi 10, SE530 and others are an excellent choice and much better value than customs in the end - hey, these Universals are already $250 - $400!!


Edited by music_4321 - 6/2/11 at 8:47am
post #2 of 467
i have the sleek CT6 customs and for their price, they are so far better than any universal i have tried (many which cost more than the sleek)
post #3 of 467
If you think the difference of custom and high end universal IEM is not that big to justify the extra cost to spend in order to get marginal benefit, that would be the same case for some middle level IEM(PFE& Qjay) and high end IEM.

Like UM3X is not going to persuade everyone that it is equivalent to threefold quality as PFE. I think each step up to next level is most likely 20-30% gain for performance. As long as urge for audiophile to pursue high quality persists, manufacturers can easily exploit this to get as much as profit they can get from us
post #4 of 467
Quote:
Originally Posted by music_4321 View Post
I own the ES3X'S and find them FANTASTIC in comfort, isolation & SQ. And,to ME, they were worth the admittedly very high price because of the SQ they provide, though they certainly do NOT provide twice+ the SQ of my $350 UM3X's - NOT by a very very long shot, maybe 15-20%.
Is that not typical of most Head-Fier's progression to better audio?
post #5 of 467
my $0.02

With customs you know you are nearly at the top, less temptation to upgraditis as compared to universal IEMs, where you know that customs, although not justifying the price difference, just sounds better.
post #6 of 467
I really appreciate posts like this.

From my perspective, what you've said is consistent with the inferences I've made by trying to find a impartial analysis of the experience of customs. It's a very specialized product.

I think that the average head-fier is probably not best served by going the custom route. In a forum environment like this one, those who invest in the top of the food chain usually have a disproportionate influence on the buying decisions of the average user. They're usually the most experienced and prolific posters.

On the topic of isolation, I always found it curious how customs users would say that they offered improved isolation. I tend to use foamies with my IEM's. You either have isolation or you don't, there isn't that much middle ground. So the concept of greater isolation via customs always struck me as something of a logical fallacy.

The issue of re-sale value is so HUGE. Almost all of the gear here on head-fi can be resold for 90% of what you paid to buy it. In reality, even with expensive gear, really, you're only renting it. I think that this specific problem with customs may change over the next while with the re-molding process becoming available, but it's still an issue.

The topic of re-fits is a touchy one for me. I can't help but feel that I would start to feel awkward if I were having to send a pair of customs back for multiple re-fits. Not the first time I did it, but after the first time, I would almost start to feel guilty or as though I was rapidly losing the goodwill of the company I purchased them from. It shouldn't be that way, and I don't believe the companies themselves probably do anything to cause buyers to feel guilty in that way, but I could see the issue becoming very tiresome very quickly.

It's not to say that customs are a bad option. I think for a specific niche of users, they're the best way to go. I suspect I probably am even in that niche myself, even though I don't own a pair. But I think that niche is probably much smaller than what it represents in reality- meaning that fewer people are probably 'right' for customs than actually have made the decision to purchase them as a result of the forum.

One other issue you didn't mention, but that I feel also factors in, is the rapid change of technology with IEM's. When I first started out here, the UE10pro's were pretty much the only game in town. But if I were someone who had just bought the UE10's, let's say, and now I was reading about the JH13, which by any measure will probably be significantly better...well, given the re-sale issue, I'd be kinda annoyed.

Anyways, just wanted to comment on this thread because music _4321 has been an excellent reviewer. Also because I gave him some grief in an earlier thread about some of these issues around the difficulty of presenting custom reviews in a realistic manner for the average head-fier. It's rare that someone is capable of seeing that their own usage might not be typical of the average prospective buyer. It's always: more expensive is better. thanks again-
post #7 of 467
I find that with most things, you must pay a huge premium to get that last 10-15% of performance. Never owned a custom IEM, but it does not surprise me that this rule holds true with IEMs, as it does with speakers, televisions, computers, food, etc...
post #8 of 467
I don't find customs to offer more isolation. The ER-4P still offers the most isolation out of any IEM I've tried so far. The comfort with a custom IEM however is on a completely different level. Foam tips with universals are nice, but a good custom pretty much completely disappears, or at least it should if the fit is right.

The pricing does reflect the law of diminishing marginal returns, and you will pay as much to get that last 10% as you do to get the first 90%. However from a price/performance standpoint I think customs offer a lot more bang for the buck than a universal IEM with a portable amp. Of course you also have the issue of resale value, which adds a lot to the price of these things, but they are a premium good to begin with and if price is that much of a concern then you really aren't the target market.

Balanced armatures are developing very quickly, and a custom fit is necessary to really unlock their potential. Good custom IEMs are already rivaling top-tier full-size cans in performance, and their potential is not yet maxed out. I think we will see some absolutely amazing IEMs in the next 5-10 years or so that will completely redefine the way we look at headphones.
post #9 of 467
I just ordered the ES3X. The 2 main reasons I ordered is my quest for better sound in an IEM. The other reason is because I can afford them. Having said that, I won't be buying another set of customs until I am truly convinced there is a significant jump in technology to justify its purchase. 6 drivers per side is not in my view a significant jump. A significant change in sound or soundstage for yet to be available armature would be.
How can I justify buying a BMW 7 series if a Honda Civic is as reliable for much less price?
I certainly agree that many reviewers present such an exultant of view of their customs to the point of generating a sort of cult following for every post they write. I think impartial or even negative reviews are more informative.
Amplifiers for IEMs are also greatly exaggerated. Yes they help but not in the amount described in some reviews.
Overly positive reviews should be generated with a grain of salt as they can be misleading.
post #10 of 467
I have no experience with main-stream high-end IEMs such as W3, UM3X, SE530, and IE8 but I have owned/tried Klipsch Custom 3, Atrio M5, SCL4, ER4P and IE7. Now I have custom IEM, C3 from Alienears (hearyourself.com). SQ wise, my custom IEM is comparable to Klipsch and ER4P and better than others I have mentioned above, but this is very personal opinion. However, I am confident to say that custom IEM gives me much much better isolation AND comfort. I have tried many different tips for universal IEMs but I think they are not comparable (comfort and isolation wise) to custom IEM. I feel almost no pressure with custom IEM.

Well, it is not fair comparison anyway since I never had experience with more high-end universal IEM, but I don't see how they are going to give me better isolation and comfort compared to the custom IEM. On the other hand, I believe that the high-end universal IEM can produce better sound compared to same or similar priced custom IEMs.
post #11 of 467
I don't feel the potential problem is with the law of diminishing returns with customs. Most of us are aware that there's a big premium on achieving "the last 10-20% of sound quality" in any domain of audio.

No one can tell someone else whether a product is worth it for them.

That being said, there is a finality involved in the purchase of customs that should engender a special kind of responsibility on the part of reviewers. Someone might well be able to afford a particular pair of customs, but that doesn't mean they can afford to make a mistake in judgment on the basis of poor information.

Paradoxically, I feel as though I've observed a less critical tone to a lot of high-end custom reviews. I think it's partly attributable to owners personal process of rationalizing their purchase, given that there is no ultimate recourse should they prove unhappy. Maybe I'm wrong on that...I dunno.

Quote:
Originally Posted by gilency View Post
I just ordered the ES3X. The 2 main reasons I ordered is my quest for better sound in an IEM. The other reason is because I can afford them. Having said that, I won't be buying another set of customs until I am truly convinced there is a significant jump in technology to justify its purchase. 6 drivers per side is not in my view a significant jump. A significant change in sound or soundstage for yet to be available armature would be.
How can I justify buying a BMW 7 series if a Honda Civic is as reliable for much less price?
I certainly agree that many reviewers present such an exultant of view of their customs to the point of generating a sort of cult following for every post they write. I think impartial or even negative reviews are more informative.
Amplifiers for IEMs are also greatly exaggerated. Yes they help but not in the amount described in some reviews.
Overly positive reviews should be generated with a grain of salt as they can be misleading.

I'm curious about what would represent a significant development or change in technology for you, if not a six-driver IEM?

For me, the JH13 is almost the definition of such a change or potential improvement. Maybe the integration of armature and dynamic drivers would represent the type of quantum leap you're suggesting?
post #12 of 467
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by roy_jones View Post
I really appreciate posts like this.

From my perspective, what you've said is consistent with the inferences I've made by trying to find a impartial analysis of the experience of customs. It's a very specialized product.

I think that the average head-fier is probably not best served by going the custom route. In a forum environment like this one, those who invest in the top of the food chain usually have a disproportionate influence on the buying decisions of the average user. They're usually the most experienced and prolific posters.

On the topic of isolation, I always found it curious how customs users would say that they offered improved isolation. I tend to use foamies with my IEM's. You either have isolation or you don't, there isn't that much middle ground. So the concept of greater isolation via customs always struck me as something of a logical fallacy.

The issue of re-sale value is so HUGE. Almost all of the gear here on head-fi can be resold for 90% of what you paid to buy it. In reality, even with expensive gear, really, you're only renting it. I think that this specific problem with customs may change over the next while with the re-molding process becoming available, but it's still an issue.

The topic of re-fits is a touchy one for me. I can't help but feel that I would start to feel awkward if I were having to send a pair of customs back for multiple re-fits. Not the first time I did it, but after the first time, I would almost start to feel guilty or as though I was rapidly losing the goodwill of the company I purchased them from. It shouldn't be that way, and I don't believe the companies themselves probably do anything to cause buyers to feel guilty in that way, but I could see the issue becoming very tiresome very quickly.

It's not to say that customs are a bad option. I think for a specific niche of users, they're the best way to go. I suspect I probably am even in that niche myself, even though I don't own a pair. But I think that niche is probably much smaller than what it represents in reality- meaning that fewer people are probably 'right' for customs than actually have made the decision to purchase them as a result of the forum.

One other issue you didn't mention, but that I feel also factors in, is the rapid change of technology with IEM's. When I first started out here, the UE10pro's were pretty much the only game in town. But if I were someone who had just bought the UE10's, let's say, and now I was reading about the JH13, which by any measure will probably be significantly better...well, given the re-sale issue, I'd be kinda annoyed.

Anyways, just wanted to comment on this thread because music _4321 has been an excellent reviewer. Also because I gave him some grief in an earlier thread about some of these issues around the difficulty of presenting custom reviews in a realistic manner for the average head-fier. It's rare that someone is capable of seeing that their own usage might not be typical of the average prospective buyer. It's always: more expensive is better. thanks again-
Thanks for your kind words.

Quote:
Originally Posted by catscratch View Post
I don't find customs to offer more isolation. The ER-4P still offers the most isolation out of any IEM I've tried so far. The comfort with a custom IEM however is on a completely different level. Foam tips with universals are nice, but a good custom pretty much completely disappears, or at least it should if the fit is right.

The pricing does reflect the law of diminishing marginal returns, and you will pay as much to get that last 10% as you do to get the first 90%. However from a price/performance standpoint I think customs offer a lot more bang for the buck than a universal IEM with a portable amp. Of course you also have the issue of resale value, which adds a lot to the price of these things, but they are a premium good to begin with and if price is that much of a concern then you really aren't the target market.

Balanced armatures are developing very quickly, and a custom fit is necessary to really unlock their potential. Good custom IEMs are already rivaling top-tier full-size cans in performance, and their potential is not yet maxed out. I think we will see some absolutely amazing IEMs in the next 5-10 years or so that will completely redefine the way we look at headphones.
I wish more people were made aware of the bolded text.

Quote:
Originally Posted by gilency View Post
I just ordered the ES3X. The 2 main reasons I ordered is my quest for better sound in an IEM. The other reason is because I can afford them. Having said that, I won't be buying another set of customs until I am truly convinced there is a significant jump in technology to justify its purchase. 6 drivers per side is not in my view a significant jump. A significant change in sound or soundstage for yet to be available armature would be.
How can I justify buying a BMW 7 series if a Honda Civic is as reliable for much less price?
I certainly agree that many reviewers present such an exultant of view of their customs to the point of generating a sort of cult following for every post they write. I think impartial or even negative reviews are more informative.
Amplifiers for IEMs are also greatly exaggerated. Yes they help but not in the amount described in some reviews.
Overly positive reviews should be generated with a grain of salt as they can be misleading.
Totally share your amp comments - I basically had the same experience, where I never even got that 5-10% improvement SQ-wise after reading so many comments on amps AND LOD's.

Quote:
Originally Posted by hifidk View Post
I have no experience with main-stream high-end IEMs such as W3, UM3X, SE530, and IE8 but I have owned/tried Klipsch Custom 3, Atrio M5, SCL4, ER4P and IE7. Now I have custom IEM, C3 from Alienears (hearyourself.com). SQ wise, my custom IEM is comparable to Klipsch and ER4P and better than others I have mentioned above, but this is very personal opinion. However, I am confident to say that custom IEM gives me much much better isolation AND comfort. I have tried many different tips for universal IEMs but I think they are not comparable (comfort and isolation wise) to custom IEM. I feel almost no pressure with custom IEM.

Well, it is not fair comparison anyway since I never had experience with more high-end universal IEM, but I don't see how they are going to give me better isolation and comfort compared to the custom IEM. On the other hand, I believe that the high-end universal IEM can produce better sound compared to same or similar priced custom IEMs.
Yes, believe me when I say the comfort level of the UM3X is simply astonishing - the W3 was very good (in my case) but the UM3X is a marked improvement on the W3 (and SE530)
post #13 of 467
I believe some good points have been raised, and I'll continue them.

1) Several custom companies offer refunds if you don't like the product. That helps minimize the issue of "I have a lot of time/effort/money in these and there's nothing I can do about it so I have to like them". You could theoretically try Livewires, return them, try Alien Ears, return them, and finally go all the way with the more expensive ones. That's assuming you were not satisfied with either of the first options. A big problem around here (and in audio in general) is the "grass is always greener" syndrome. Some are always chasing something better, even if it ends up just being different instead of better. If that is you, then stay away from customs. Maybe examine how long you have stuck with an IEM that you felt was very very good. If it wasn't very long before you moved on to something potentially better, then customs likely aren't for you.


2) Comfort is very subjective. Our ear canals are all very different. My right has a bit more curve than my left, which (according to my audiologist) explains why some IEMs feel better in one or the other ear, but never both at the same time. As a result, I can't listen for hours at a time like some of you can. The OP doesn't seem to have this problem so customs offer no benefit to him.

In the end, customs remind me of in-wall speakers. They are certainly not for everyone, but they have a place in the market. They are less useful to resell (impossible for customs unless remolding is possible, possible but still a hassle for in-wall speakers). There are way less choices. They are impossible to properly audition in your particular ear or wall. I used to swap speakers in my theater room a lot. When in-walls became necessary, I went with some nice ones (Triad Gold series) and have no regrets.
post #14 of 467
Quote:
Originally Posted by project86 View Post
2) Comfort is very subjective. Our ear canals are all very different. My right has a bit more curve than my left, which (according to my audiologist) explains why some IEMs feel better in one or the other ear, but never both at the same time. As a result, I can't listen for hours at a time like some of you can. The OP doesn't seem to have this problem so customs offer no benefit to him.
I have the same issues, my ear canals are very difficult to fit for universal IEMs. I tried everything, different manufacturers, different tips, mismatched tips.. finally, I went the custom tips for IEM route. Ultimately decided to try full custom IEMs a couple years ago. I broke down and bought a pair of Westone ES2. I think it was a great purchase simply due to the money I saved leaving the IEM of the week club, and how much more durable they are regarding breakage of flimsy cables or housings. My enjoyment simply went through the roof.

For me the choice was obvious, less so for others. I thought about upgrading to another manufacturer (UE) once or twice but knew the custom version of the Westone 3 was coming and waited for it to arrive. I'm glad I did its fantastic - Is it vastly superior to the universal UM3X? I can say (for me) unequivocally, it is.
post #15 of 467
Has anyone heard of a company that takes universal iems and turns them to ... well refit universal iems? I think I've heard of a case where UE took an old pair and because the owner's ears changed, they were able to remold their customs to better fit their "new ears". Or at least it seems like this is what companies may do if you don't get a good fit the first time around. Come to think of it, what exactly do companies do when you don't get a good initial fit? Do they ask you what's the problem? What do they really do?
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