Synopsis: The Heir Audio 8.A is the flagship custom-fit in-ear monitor (ciem) from Dr. John Moulton at Heir Audio. It's tuned for a supremely warm, rich sound. This very well designed ciem manages to combine this lush sound with excellent precision and clarity. The bass is very well extended into the sub-bass with a lot of well-controlled mid-bass for a fun sound. The midrange is quite warm with a thick resonance to notes, while still maintaining clarity. The treble is very precise and non-fatiguing. It avoids sibilance while shining beautifully and has excellent extension. Everything comes together nicely for an organic, engaging sound. The Heir Audio 8.A is very well crafted. It both looks and sounds great.
Introduction: Dr. John Moulton is an audiologist with a love of making beautifully crafted custom in-ear monitors. He's displayed his work on head-fi and discussed his philosophy on engineering ciems there as well. These discussions and images drew a lot of attention and many people (including me) wrote him about the possibility of making ciems for sale to audiophiles. He's made that happen with Heir Audio. You can see the work he has done on his facebook page (click) or on the Heir Audio website (click).
I have the dynamic driver ciem Future Sonics MG6Pro Ear Monitor, which I'm very happy with. I was curious about what a top-tier balanced armature based ciem would sound like. You can read about the different types of drivers (the transducers which produce the sound in an earphone) here (click). However, I was disappointed by one of the options out there when I had a chance to listen. Dr. Moulton's superior technical expertise combined with his artistic craftsmanship made him seem like the perfect person to work with. I knew I wanted the best he had to offer--his flagship ciem, the 8.A.
Disclaimer: I think it’s important to be open and up-front about the way one has received the product reviewed, so everyone can be clear about any underlying motives which might bias the review. Right now, there is a promotional price of $1099 for the 8.A which will go up to $1299 in the future. I received a discount from John for being one of the first to purchase an 8.A in exchange for losing a year off the warranty and losing the excellent resale and remold feature, which I'll talk about below. I also couldn't choose the appearance of the custom, which is a big concession. In addition, I agreed to contribute to the Heir Audio appreciation thread here on head-fi. So much for that. My review will be my honest take on the 8.A and my usual approach is that a good review gives you a well-rounded take so you have reasons not to choose it as well as reason you might choose to buy it for yourself.
Customer Service: This is a huge part of a custom fit in-ear monitor as each one is molded to your unique set of ears. Bad customer service can sour the whole experience and several big name ciem companies have fallen down on this. On the other hand, excellent customer service can be a wonderful thing, becoming a relationship that lasts and greatly adds to the value of your purchase as you are truly in good hands. Dr. Moulton is off to a great start, I'd say, in terms of good intentions and responsiveness. I'll be frank: I am a difficult customer. I ask a lot of questions, I complain and I generally am a pain in the rear end. John handled my questions excellently and he was very responsive. I also spoke with another of his colleagues and she was great as well.
However, I will say that that the folks at Heir Audio are new at this and sometimes it shows a bit. Things didn't go as smoothly as I would like when it came to shipping to and from China. I spent extra money to use FedEx and I'm glad I did because they were on top of things when Chinese Customs decided to throw a wrench in the works. Heir Audio dropped the ball a bit and weren't as clear and informed as they should have been, forgetting to give me a phone number which apparently Chinese Customs needed, things like that which will get much better quickly with a little more experience. I want to emphasize that they did their best to take care of things--the key point is that they care. Overall, it was a very good customer service experience and I think it will be even better for people who follow after me.
One other thing: Apparently I have small ears and 8 drivers need a fair bit of space. John worked with me and my customs stick out a few extra mm to accommodate the extra space needed. That is an example of excellent customer service.
Warranty and Owner Transfer Service: The warranty is 2-years, which is very good, but it's the owner transfer service which is the exciting part. The problem people sometimes have with custom iems is that if you don't like what you've bought, it's hard to sell them. The next person has to have them remolded to fit their ear, which means going to an audiologist for earmolds and then having someone remold the ciems--and there's no guaranty that the remolded customs will sound like the originals if done by a third party! Here's where John's awesome service comes in. With Heir Audio (and the warranty card--hold onto that!) you can transfer ownership to another person. John will take the new owner's earmolds and he himself will remold the custom iems, testing and tuning it himself for perfect sound--AND he gives the new person a 1-year warranty. You can read about it here (click). It's excellent and should greatly increase the resale value of the ciems. Not that you'll want to sell them if you're smart about the knowing the sound signature you want. The info below should give you what you need to make a good decision if you take the time to understand the sound you want.
The 8.A: The 8.A has 8 balanced armature drivers. It might be useful to contrast the 8.A's set up with that of another 8-driver custom, the Jh16. The Jh16 uses two double-driver armatures for the bass--for a total of four. These two doubles are called the DTEC and each of the four TEC drivers is rather small. Dr. Moulton uses a much larger driver for the bass, called a CI. This driver has a much larger frequency range--and John uses TWO of these larger drivers. In addition, he uses a unique damper to give this extra bass capability and range an extra measure of control. For the mids and treble, the JH16 uses a Sonion brand double armature for the mids and a double armature DWFK for the treble, giving a total of 8. Dr. Moulton, on the other hand, uses a double armature TWFK for the midrange, another TWFK for the treble and yet another TWFK to handle the upper treble--giving a total of 8 drivers well distributed to handle each part of the frequency range with power and perfect control. There are three sound tubes for bass, midrange and treble, all perfectly done.
These drivers, acoustic filters and crossovers (a 4-way design) are housed in a typical closed acrylic shell. What is not so typical is the craftsmanship with which John makes them.
Here are mine, made of wood and horn, a very classy and stylish look.
An in-ear view, the picture doesn't do the organic quality of the horn justice.
(my ear is for display purposes only and is not included with purchase of the 8.A)
Craftsmanship and Build Quality: Outstanding. There's very little more to say, these are simply very well made and done with an industry leading level of skill and care.
Isolation: Good, these will have the same isolation as any other closed-shell acrylic ciems.
Sound: This is a fun sound with extra mid-bass and a quite warm midrange done with excellent control. The overall sound is quite warm, lush and smooth with excellent extension above and below. There is no brightness or harshness to speak of, although the treble can still sing appropriately to the recording. While John has told me he has tuned for a mild V-shape which dips a bit at about 500hz (which is a common tuning for a lot of headphones) for a fun sound free from any muddiness, I don't hear a recessed or de-emphasized midrange, on the contrary, the warmth of the presentation gives the mid-range instruments and voices a richness with no loss of clarity that many people will love. The combination of a very lush sound which still has excellent detail (without putting it at the expense of musicality) is perhaps the keynote of the 8.A.
One aspect to the sound I'd like to mention is the coherency. This is the ability of an earphone to depict all the instruments and voices in a piece of music as each playing one together as part of greater whole. The 8.A does this well, depicting good instrument separation while providing a holistic sound. When done poorly, such as the Jh16, it can sound as though each instrument was artificially mixed in separately, giving a fake hyper-separation to the sound, which some people may prefer if they don't like how live music sounds. The 8.A avoids this and a rich cohesive sound which give everything its proper place and ties it all together nicely. Complex, fast music is handled effortlessly with great smoothness by the 8.A.
The sense of a space in a recording, the soundstage, is good for a closed-shell BA-based ciem. I would say that the 8.A does very well in comparison with similar closed acrylic shell ciems.
Treble: The 8.A is the ultimate in a non-fatiguing, very well controlled treble. It's very, very smooth and definitely not like those hyper-bright and glaring treble presentations found in some earphones. Some people might want a treble that has an exciting "bite" to it or a lot of energy, you won't find unnatural brightness here. What you will find is a treble that is very well balanced, has a nice presence and sparkles and sings appropriately in a piece of music with superior extension and very good detail. You could listen for hours and never grow tired of the way soprano voices, violins, etc. are portrayed. I will say that the TWFK driver and its relatives don't do perfectly with the realistic reproduction of some subtle resonances in instruments and voices (timbre). Cymbals are a particular issue, as they can be hard to reproduce accurately for many headphones. The Jh16 was poor at this, and the 8.A has a related driver with the same issue. However, the 8.A does better--perhaps due to Dr. Moulton's skill at tuning and the better coherency of the 8.A. On the other hand, voices, flutes and violins sound great. I'd say it's a minor weak area, which you may not notice (and it's probably on par with many top-tier BA based ciems), but those who want the very best timbre may look elsewhere.
Midrange: If you like a thick, quite warm midrange that you can just wallow in, this is the earphone for you. This is a tuning that gives strings, guitars and voices that extra helping of richness to make them even more euphonic. The achievement here is that the 8.A manages this while still providing excellent detail and clarity. The added warmth is fun but it's something that isn't for everyone. People may want things a little more natural for the sound of pianos, for example. In particular, those who want a dryly detailed colder presentation won't care for the warmth, but many people crave a lush sound and it's truly well done on the 8.A.
Bass: Oh yes, the bass. There is a lot of well-controlled mid-bass here, ready to go. There is a lot of sub-bass here as well as the 8.A has excellent bass extension. Here's where those two large bass drivers and their special acoustic filter really are glorious. There is great detail and color in the bass of the 8.A, it is simply superb. You really have to hear it. Bass-heads will love it and audiophiles who don't mind their bass north of neutral but still very well controlled will love it as well.
Music Genres: The 8.A rocks with, well, rock. Some may want more treble energy, but the 8.A's treble handles the strum and thrash of music with such fun and smoothness that I think it works well. Electronica and trance are immersive and the 8.A gives a greatly textured sound that still comes together for the right atmosphere. Dupstep has met its match with the great sub-bass. Classical symphonies are done well as the warm and bass come with a degree of control and balance and detail which works to bring out the feeling in the music, although recordings that already warm may be quite a few degrees north of neutral with the 8.A. Jazz, solo instruments and string quartets often do very well with the warmth accentuating their resonance and a treble that sings. I would say archival recordings tend to sound phenomenal with the 8.A. Old Miles Davis recordings have met their perfect earphone. A less warm earphone with a bit more treble energy can sound a little more naturally lively with some of these genres, but the way the 8.A's smoothly euphonic tuning, detail and dynamic, powerful yet controlled sound can be compelling with just about everything.
In Conclusion: The Heir Audio 8.A has a beautiful warm, rich sound that compromises nothing in terms of detail and clarity. The warmth and bass definitely have a perfectly controlled something extra added to give music more, while the treble is a marvel of non-fatiguing, smoothly singing extension to match. It all comes together very nicely and it's a sound that will suit many people, but it's not for everyone. Some will want a less warm or lush presentation, or a brighter treble. That's okay, John has other ciems with different tuning! No seriously, Heir Audio has a full line of customs. For those who want what the 8.A offers, though, you won't find anything more capable and the 8.A makes some of the competition look outdated. For incredible craftsmanship, great customer service and a lush sound that just gives more and more enjoyment with each hour, look no further than the 8.A.
Edited by Kunlun - 10/2/12 at 6:05pm