I’ve never made a secret of being a huge fan of in-ear monitors – for being out-and-about there’s simply nothing that beats the isolation, portability, and sound quality of a good IEM. Of course the custom-molded stage monitor has been the holy grail of in-ears for as long as I can remember but, until very recently, my wallet and I have been lucky enough to avoid venturing into customs, citing mostly their high initial cost and low resale value compared to most universals. Enter 1964EARS – a Portland, Oregon-based customs manufacturer with offerings priced to compete with many high-end universal earphones. When the staff were nice enough to offer me a discount if I would add the 1964-T to my IEM review thread, the deal was sealed – 1964 trips would become my first venture into customs. Instead of simply adding the earphones to my review thread, however, I thought it would be handy to write a longer piece outlining the process of getting customs in detail for those not familiar with it.
After informing 1964 that I would be buying the Triples, I set about finding an audiologist in the area to get some reasonably-priced impressions taken. I started with the phone book but soon discovered that audiologists with more molding experience – namely those found in the Westone, Ultimate Ears, and ACS directories – generally charge less for a set of impressions. I settled on a local Westone partner who agreed to stay open on a Saturday for me and charged a reasonable $20 per ear for impressions. The whole process took maybe 25 minutes, at the end of which I received a pair of fresh impressions made out of a silicone compound and utilizing cotton dams, as requested by 1964. Those worried about getting their ears filled with silicone gunk can breathe easy – I am very sensitive to pressure changes in my ears and the process was only slightly uncomfortable at its worst.
Had I been buying a set of Westone customs, my impressions would have been shipped off for free. With 1964, I had to pay my own postage, but aside from the audiologist visit that was the only additional cost I incurred – 1964 picked up the tab for return shipping. I did not pay extra for requesting a custom color, either – though a wide (and still-expanding) selection of colors is already offered by 1964 ears, I asked them to do a ‘red wine’ hue and sent them a picture of what I meant. It’s quite amazing how well they were able to match the color from a single photo – just like red wine, the IEMs appear dark red under natural light and more of a dark magenta with fluorescent light sources. The true color lies somewhere between the two extremes shown in the photos taken by 1964EARS and myself. I keep my camera’s color balance off-neutral on purpose so my pictures are slightly biased away from showing red hues.
Photo I sent in:
Design, Build Quality, & Accessories
There’s not much to be said about the design of the 1964-T – they look like most other customs. At the heart are twin Sonion 2015 armatures, used for the lows and mids, and a smaller treble driver I can’t identify. Interestingly, the larger of the two bores in the nozzle is used for the tweeter while the smaller bore leads to the twin 2015s. Molding quality is adequate – there are bubbles here and there and the finish around the cable socket and nozzle bores isn’t quite up there with what I’ve seen of Unique Melody molds but really, I don’t intend on looking at my customs with a magnifying glass and flashlight more than once or twice a day.
Like all 1964EARS customs, the 1964-T utilizes a Westone Elite Series cable with a standard Westone socket – good news for anyone who’s ever used a Westone earphone. The cable can be ordered in either of the two lengths (48” or 64”) and any of four colors – white, clear, beige, and black – and a recessed socket is available on request. In addition, 1964EARS earphones all come with the standard 1964 artwork, though it can be excluded by request. Custom artwork and carbon-fiber faceplates cost extra.
The reverse side of the earphones features the owner’s initials, the model of the earphones, and the serial number (in blue on the left monitor and red on the right). Aside from the cable the package contains a waterproof carrying case complete with an engraved 1964EARS logo as well as the serial number of the unit and the owner’s full name. Other accessories include a ¼” adapter, carabiner, shirt clip, and cleaning tool. For a set of customs I wouldn’t expect much more in terms of accessories, though I think a cleaning cloth would have been a nice touch.
Fit & Comfort
The 1964-T being my first custom monitor, I was unsure of what to expect from the fit. The most obvious contrast to universal earphones is the lack of ‘suction’ created by the soft tips of most universals. Putting the customs in requires a bit of getting used to but the twisting motion eventually becomes second nature, though I still wouldn’t recommend custom monitors to those who avoid over-the-ear universals because routing the cables takes too long. There’s no obvious sensation of a ‘seal’ but I’ve been using IEMs long enough to know when the fit is right. For those who aren’t so sure the Sensaphonics Seal Test might be of use. The acrylic shells are hard but not in the least uncomfortable – sometimes I am aware of them and other times I forget they’re in my ears at all. Obviously fit will always depend on the quality of the initial molds and maybe a bit of luck but I can’t imagine a properly-fitting custom being uncomfortable. Naturally, 1964 offers a 30-day fit guarantee, which should be taken advantage of if the customs remain even a tiny bit uncomfortable after a break-in period.
Isolation & Microphonics
The isolation provided by the fitted acrylic shells is excellent, though it may not seem so at first. The passive attenuation is slightly below what the higher-end Etymotic earphones are capable of with foam or tri-flange tips but higher than the ergonomic monitors from Westone and EarSonics. Microphonics are pretty much nonexistent, as is the case with all monitors fitted with Westone cables. The included shirt clip and cable cinch should still be used if the 1964-T was to be exercised in but for day-to-day use I don’t find myself bothering with either.
Note: Most of my listening was done using my trusty iBasso D10 and the FLAC copy of my audio library. For the record, the 1964-T is extremely revealing of poor source material and scales up very well with better sources. My Cowon J3 is quite sufficient, of course, but the 1964-T doesn’t quite compete with my full-size setup until I bring in the D10.
Having no other experience in the realm of customs, I can only offer comparisons to the modest crop of ‘top-tier’ universals that I’ve reviewed, but I imagine that the majority of Head-Fiers going for customs have sampled at least some of what the high-end universal market has to offer before deciding to take the plunge. For reference, all of those reviews can be found in my multi-IEM review thread.
I ordered the 1964-T blindly, knowing nothing of its signature other than that it had less bass than the 1964-Q; that and the fact that two-way crossovers have always seemed sufficient to me in terms of covering the entire frequency spectrum - earphones such as the Fischer Audio DBA-02 are a testament to that. Those who have been following my IEM review thread or individual reviews have probably figured out that my preference leans towards leaner and brighter sound signatures – within reason, of course. The 1964-T, however, is neither lean nor thick, bright nor dark. It possesses one of the more neutral signatures I’ve heard out of an IEM which, I suppose, is the idea behind a stage monitor.
The bass is tight and controlled. Sub-bass roll-off is minimal and strongly reminds of the Fischer-Audio DBA-02. The slight mid-bass lift is hardly notable - for the most part, the low end of 1964-T sounds quite flat and level. In terms of impact and bass weight the 1964-T falls below earphones such as the EarSonics SM3 and Westone 3 but slightly above the Westone 2 and DBA-02 – around the level of a TripleFi 10 and more than adequate for my tastes. Next to bassier dynamic-driver earphones, the 1964-T suffers from no lack of texture or detail but the grunt isn’t really there. Those looking for a custom to match the bottom end of dynamic-driver sets such as the Sennheiser IE8 wand Monster MD will want to look elsewhere – perhaps at the 1964-Q. Despite barely keeping up with the UE TF10 in bass quantity, the 1964-T offers a more satisfying overall experience – its bass is simply more fleshed-out, more tactile. Texturing is better, individual notes are more resolved, and attack and decay times are more natural. The bass of the 1964-T is pretty much what one would expect from a very good armature-based earphone, much like that of the EarSonics SM3 but with slightly more clarity and bit less ‘viscosity’ and softness.
From the bass we move on to the midrange – a clean and crisp affair overflowing with texture and microdetail. The 1964-T is the first earphone I’ve heard that nearly matches the CK10 and DBA-02 on both counts without sounding thin or even lean. It’s always been my opinion that high levels of texture are antithetical to what we commonly perceive as ‘smoothness’, and the 1964-T really isn’t a smooth earphone on that count. Thickness and articulation of note are both very impressive, falling closer to the healthy median of the Klipsch Custom 3 and Westone 2 than the thick-and-smooth SM3/UM3X or the leaner W3/CK10/DBA-02 crop. The 1964-T sounds tactile and well-weighted but not overly ‘creamy’. There is just a hint of warmth carried over from the bass but none of the ‘veil’ commonly attributed to such tonal characteristics. Although the mids are not particularly forward, I have no need to strain to pick out fine detail or tonal intricacies – my Triple.Fi 10 sounds both thinner and more smoothed-over, almost glossy, in comparison. Indeed, the entire signature of the 1964-T is somewhat laid-back, with a low end that is a half-step more forward than the midrange and treble, and yet no one frequency range is lacking in the least. Those looking for a forward, overly lush, liquid, or falsely sweet midrange will probably be best off looking somewhere else – the 1964-T adds nothing to the original recording. What you get is an earphone that’s slightly dry in sonic character but every little bit of information is there.
Not unlike the midrange, the treble is accurate and slightly laid-back. Crispness, clarity, and detail are all up there with the better universal earphones. Those looking for brightness or sparkle will be sorely disappointed – the 1964-T is pretty close to being completely neutral – but when it comes to technical proficiency the single treble driver performs beautifully. Neither sibilance nor harshness is an issue, unless of course sibilance is already present in the source material. Like the midrange, the treble is smooth and even on the whole but not ‘smoothed-over’ when examined more closely. In contrast to the 3-way EarSonics SM3, the treble of the 1964 triples never really sounds lacking in emphasis and always remains relatively hard-edged when it comes to presenting detail. Those looking for a softened treble presentation would probably be better off with the Ortofon earphones or one of the high-end dynamics (RE262 or Monster MD). My personal tastes lean in the opposite direction and I find the 1964-T just aggressive enough to keep my attention.
Lastly we come to the presentation – perhaps the one aspect of the 1964-T’s sound least in-line with my expectations. For some reason I expected it to either be either thick, creamy, and mid-forward, like the UM3X, or spacious and airy, like the CK10, but the truth lies somewhere in-between. The soundstage of the 1964-T is above average in size but has neither the intimacy of the UM3X nor the wide-open feel of the CK10. A few months ago I would have been disappointed, but as I recently outlined in my EarSonics SM3 review, a stage of this size makes sense for an armature-based earphone. As I said in the SM3 write-up, a massive stage works (more or less) for something like the Sennheiser IE8, with its huge bass and immense dynamic presence, but an armature-based earphone would sound thinner trying to fill all of that space. In addition, the soundstage of the IE8 has an ‘inner limit’, meaning that it seems to start some distance away from the listener, but the ability to accurately portray intimacy is one of the necessary hallmarks of a good stage monitor. The 1964-T can indeed sound quite intimate, though not in the eerie centered-yet-enveloping way the SM3 can, but tends to spread things out more evenly across its stage. The stage is wider than it is tall or deep and the space is elliptical in nature, as is the case with most in-ears. The good, though not Monster MD-good, dynamics allow the 1964-T to portray distance as well as direction accurately and imaging is almost on par with what the thinner-sounding CK10 is capable of. Instrumental separation and layering are both good without sounding excessive, stopping short of what the Westone UM3X can achieve. On the whole, I don’t feel that the presentation of the 1964-T is necessarily better than that of most high-end universals but it does provides its own – very coherent – flavor.
The 1964-T currently runs $400 plus the cost of shipping, customization, and impressions. For most, the base model will end up running just over $450 – a price lower than that of some top-tier universals. For that you get the fit and isolation of a custom earphone, not to mention the build quality and customization options that come with venturing into customs territory. I won’t say that the 1964-T is better than every universal I’ve ever heard in every aspect of its signature, but as a total package it is very proficient. Is it the earphone for everyone? Not exactly. The 1964-T has a sound signature – as do all universals and, I imagine, all customs – and that signature may not be to everyone’s liking. Moreover, the sound signature of a custom cannot be modified with alternate tips or a different insertion angle as it can with universal earphones. A set of customs is also not as easy to walk away from – to return or re-sell – and not quite as simple to live with day-to-day. Once the 1964-T is in my ears, however, all of these considerations simply melt away. Even when driven by a low-cost portable player, it is still on par with my favourite universal IEMs and, in my opinion, well worth the price of admission.
Edited by ljokerl - 12/10/11 at 2:47pm