(all pictures can be clicked to open full sized version)
Custom IEMs these days come in all shapes and sizes. With literally dozens of manufacturers out there, one can choose from any number of configurations – acrylic or silicone, full shell or canal-sized, armature or dynamic driver (or combination of the two), single driver all the way up to 8 drivers per side, under $200 to well over $1000. And that’s not even counting the appearance options which can be anything from a single solid or translucent color to detailed custom artwork or even exotic faceplates in wood, carbon fiber, brushed aluminum, glow in the dark… the possibilities seem endless. All these options are of course great news for the custom IEM purchaser, who now has more choices than ever before.
One difficult thing in all these options is the task of figuring out which model is the best fit for your needs. I’ve long wondered why industry pioneer Jerry Harvey chose to name his designs the way he did. In the beginning, there weren’t all that many options, but somehow Westone (arguably the “original” custom company) has evolved into using reasonable model names like ES1, ES2, ES5, etc. Mr. Harvey on the other hand seems to prefer an arbitrary numbering system and that practice has spread to a multitude of custom IEM firms. How is one to know the differences between the Ultimate Ears UE4 and UE5? Both are dual driver models but one costs $200 more than the other. How about the older UE7 and UE10 models? Both are 2-way triple driver designs with dual low frequency drivers and a single driver for highs. The UE10 was recently retired from the lineup but for years I wondered what the differences were (and if I had made the wrong choice when I ordered the UE10). Mr. Harvey moved on to found JH Audio and the confusion continued: JH7, JH10, and JH10X3 are all triple driver models priced within $100 of each other. If we dig into the descriptions it seems that the JH7 is for live performers, JH10 is extremely neutral, and the JH10X3 is…. well, “versatile and accurate” due to its 3-way crossover. Whatever that means. Are you starting to see the confusion here? About the only one that makes some sense to me is the JH16, because that’s the total number of drivers used in the design.
Jerry Harvey is certainly not the only one using this tactic. Unique Melody has their Marvel, Mage, Merlin, Miracle series (and the Aero which somehow defies the naming convention). Other companies choose to simply use number of drivers as the model designator – see 1964 Ears with their 1964-T (for Triple) and 1964-Q (for Quad), or Heir Audio with the 3.A, 4.A, 6.A, and 8.A. This makes more sense to me, though it still necessitates investigation as to how each model is tuned.
I mention all this because I’ve found one company who has come up with a novel method of making this process easier - Lear. HERE
is a link to their website which is thankfully done in clear English.The company originally launched in 2008 based out of mainland China, and ownership was eventually transferred to their Hong Kong distributor Forever Source Digital. Early products included universal IEMs and portable amps. As of last year the company has ventured into customs in a big way with a total of 9 different models, all distinct from one another. That’s the largest active line-up I can think of at the moment of any custom IEM company, which is very impressive for an initial offering.
The Lear method of categorizing customs is simple: first, choose how many drivers you want – one, two, or three, with higher numbers having better performance across the board. From there each choice breaks down into three different tuning categories: Bass, Crystal Clear, or Flat. So for example a single driver model can be had as the LCM-1F (short for Lear Custom Monitor I assume) for neutral performance, LCM-1B for bass emphasis, or LCM-1C for treble emphasis. This series remains for the two and three driver models. The method seems so simple yet so effective that I’m surprised nobody else has thought of it.
It would be easy to start with three main designs and tune the sub-categories for flavor simply with acoustic dampers or crossover tricks. But I confirmed with Lear that each model is in fact a unique design with its own specific drivers, though I’m sure they also tune the whole design in every possible way (including dampers, crossovers, sound tube diameter, and even placement of the drivers within the shell, all of which makes a dramatic difference in overall sound). So an LCM-2F really is a completely different product than an LCM-2C. How refreshing. I’m not opposed to the way other companies choose their names, and I certainly do enjoy my other customs like the Earproof Atom or the Unique Melody Merlin. It’s just that I find the Lear naming method to be the most logical and descriptive (if perhaps not the most catchy).
Pricing for the models is listed in HKD which as of today roughly translates to the following, including shipping to most any location on the planet:
Single driver models: $275
Dual driver models: $405
Triple driver models: $535
Those place Lear somewhere in the midrange of custom IEM houses in terms of pricing. 1964 Ears is cheaper and UM is roughly similar, while UE, Westone, and JH are the same for dual driver models but significantly more expensive for the triples.
For this review I chose the LCM-2B since it is apparently the most popular model in the entire lineup. I can see why this would be – dual driver models have traditionally hit the sweet spot for price/performance. In my experience, single driver armature designs just can’t deliver the full spectrum as well as I’d like, though some of them manage to sound reasonably good. But the dual driver segment is where things can really start sounding great, and the price is still fairly easy to stomach. The “bass-enhanced” version is kind of an obvious choice – all things being equal, many people tend to prefer warmth over neutrality or brightness. Not everyone of course, but I’d say a larger portion.
Lear uses acrylic only for their shells and offers a wide variety of colors. One can also choose artwork, from simple engraving to complex color printwork (which costs extra). I kept things pretty basic and went for translucent orange for the right ear, and translucent yellow for the left. Both sides have the Lear branding engraved on them. I’m exceedingly pleased with the way they turned out – but I’ll discuss that further in the next section.
Internally, I can see that Lear uses a rather large armature driver for the lows, and a rather medium to small driver for the mids/highs. It appears that Lear has sanded off the model numbers on all four drivers so I can only speculate what they might be. The size appears roughly equal to the combo of Knowles Acoustics CI and ED drivers. That’s a winning combo that has been successfully used in several other designs, though of course Lear could be using any number of other variants from Knowles or Sonion. Both units are placed up close near the canal portion of the shell. Crossover components are attached to the rear of the larger driver. Each driver has an acoustic damper placed deep in the canal at the beginning of the sound tube. I think they are of the green 1500 ohm variety but it is hard to see well enough to be sure. Lear uses a dual bore design so each driver gets a separate sound tube that exits into the ear.
So far this design doesn’t seem too different from numerous other dual driver customs I’ve encountered. But then comes something unique – the cable. Lear does use what seems to be the standard “Westone style” two pin connector that most companies use. But the cable itself is completely different from the usual braided model supplied with customs from Westone, 1964 Ears, JH Audio, UM, Heir, and most others. This cable starts with a 45 degree angle 1/8” plug and has a smooth finish throughout. The cinch and the plugs appear to have been hand made in small batches, and if I was shown this cable out of context I would assume it was an entry level aftermarket cable selling for maybe $50-100. It’s really a nice cable though there is one aspect which could be controversial: a complete lack of memory wire or any alternative method for securing the cable behind your ears. I didn’t have any issues once I learned to tighten the cinch under my chin, but I could see this being somewhat of an annoyance. Then again I know a few people who actively dislike the memory wire on typical cables so it could be considered a benefit for them. Contrary to my original thinking, the cable is interchangeable with standard Westone style models.
The specs on the LCM-2B are worth mentioning:
Frequency response: 20-16kHz
Impedance : 10 ohm @1000 Hz
Sensitivity : 116dB
The 116dB sensitivity is on the high side but not unheard of among custom IEMs. And Lear lists the same 20-16kHz response for all of their models, so I’m not sure if that part is significant. The main thing to notice here is the 10 ohm impedance rating at 1kHz. That seems like a low number – lower than my UM Merlin (12 ohms) which is the lowest I recall seeing. But anyone familiar with balanced armatures and especially multi-BA designs with crossover networks, know how wild their impedance curves can be. See a few example pics here:
So while the impedance at 1kHz is 10 ohms, it is likely to be significantly different at other frequencies. This is important when we consider that most portable devices have output impedances significantly higher than 1. I’ve seen measurements of various iPod Touch and Classic models and most are somewhere around 6 ohms. This means there is a very real chance of altered frequency response due to impedance interactions, at least around 1kHz where we know the damping factor is nowhere near high enough. To make matters worse, many of these portable devices have non-linear output impedances as well, rising significantly as they drop below 100Hz. What does all this mean in context of the Lear LCM-2B? Basically it means that portable devices aren’t generally the best sources to use when driving these customs. Using a dedicated amp is no guarantee either – many desktop and portable units have output Z of 5 or 10 ohms, which is just not low enough. Ideally you want something rated at less than 1 ohm. That applies to headphone amps across the board but the effects are more obvious with the LCM-2B than any other IEM I’ve experienced.
Interestingly, all of the other Lear models have stated impedances of 40+ ohms. So the LCM-2B may be the only model that has such stringent requirements.
There are a few companies out there who have set the benchmark for high quality customs in my experience. The first was Unique Melody with their flawless crystal clear shells. Then along came Heir Audio and matched UM while adding exotic goodies like hand carved wooden faceplates and colorful carbon fiber, as only a true artist could do. I know it is difficult to judge the entire company based off a single example, but if my set of LCMs are any indication, Lear deserves a spot right up there with the best. They have a very smooth polish similar to my UM Merlins and are completely free of any cloudiness or bubbles. Even the formation of the tips and sound bores is very precise. That’s not to say other companies don’t do a good job too – I’ve had good results with 1964 Ears, Westone, UE, JH Audio, and others. But Lear, UM, and Heir just seem to be on a higher level. As we’ve seen recently with UM, build quality yesterday is no guarantee of build quality today or tomorrow. It’s a constant struggle to maintain a reputation by delivering each new build just as good as the last. From what I read, UM has been having a bit of a lapse in quality lately, though I’m confident they can pick themselves back up to their former position. But based on my LCM-2B and the pictures on their website, Lear is right up there in quality. It certainly helps that my Lear customs fit extremely well without any need for adjustments. Clearly this is just as much due to my impressions as anything else, but the workmanship of the company plays a role as well.
The package from Lear is about what I’d expect from a product like this, though the presentation is nicely done. The whole thing arrives in a medium sized tin storage container which looks as if it might contain a small loaf of delicious bread. Open the top and we find a foam insert with custom slots made for the IEMs themselves as well as the typical hardshell storage case. Inside that case we find the cable and a cleaning tool. There is also a user manual which is roughly similar to one of the variants that UM has used in the past. Again, none of this is outstanding in terms of functionality, but it does enhance the initial unboxing experience. The storage tin reminds me of the red faux leather box used by UM – novel but ultimately not very useful. At least Lear also included a regular case as well.
Here is the equipment used in evaluating the Lear LCM-2B. You’ll notice that I used quite a lot of sources, including many DACs that have integrated headphone amps. I’ll explain later.
Source: JF Digital HDM-03S music server, Acer Aspire One laptop, Lexicon RT20 universal player
DAC: Anedio D2, Violectric V800, Audiotrak DR.DAC2 DX Muses Edition, Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11, Yulong Sabre D18, Yulong D100 MKII, KAO Audio UD2C-HP
Amp: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Matrix M-Stage, Yulong A100
Portable: Sansa Fuze, Sansa Clip+, iPod 5G (all using Rockbox), QLS QA350, TCG Tbox, Audinst AMP-HP
Music used was a wide range of genres, mostly stored in FLAC format – everything from 16-bit/44.1kHz CD quality to 24/192 hi-res. Cables by Signal Cable, power conditioning by Furman, burn in done for almost a week straight prior to serious listening.
I’ll be honest – my first impression of the LCM-2B was not very positive. I plugged it in to my Rockboxed iPod 5G and the resulting sound was something I’d expect maybe from a $40 IEM using a dynamic driver… but not a $400 custom. Bass was huge but loose and hazy, mids were totally sucked out, and highs were annoyingly glassy. Thankfully I had been somewhat prepared for this due to my awareness of the potential impedance issue. Next I tried my Sansa Clip+ which has a much more reasonable 1 ohm output impedance. This combination was far better – lows tightened up quite a bit, mids made their way forward into the mix, and highs smoothed out to some degree. But I was still hoping there was more improvement to be had. So far the LCM-2B was reminding me of my Westone AC2 – an interesting sound but far from my favorite choice.
To cut right to the chase I moved straight to the top of the chain (in my experience) for IEM listening – JF Digital HDM-03S music server sending very low jitter signals to the new Anedio D2 DAC with integrated headphone amp (which is improved over the already stellar amp in the Anedio D1, my prior reference unit). The output impedance on the D2 is 0.035 ohms from 20-20kHz, thus no chance whatsoever of impedance related mismatches. If I was ever going to hear what the LCM-2B was capable of, this would be the way to do it. Finally I heard what I was hoping for: Big bass that remains well controlled, mids that sound natural and do not fatigue, and highs featuring a bit of sizzle without going too far overboard. One might say these are a nicely done implementation of the fun, “U shaped” sound signature - often attempted with varying degrees of success, but rarely done to my liking.
Bass on the 2B is solid and certainly a focal point in the mix. Yet these are not quite the basshead customs I had thought they might be. Bass hits hard and has enough extra presence where classic rock, often recorded a bit on the thin side by todays standards, gets some extra oomph. At the same time bass heavy electronic music or hip-hop does not become overbearing (assuming it’s a decently recorded/mixed track, which a lot of hip-hop is not). Without having heard the other variants, I’d say that if the Bass model sounds like this, the Flat model should be extremely neutral and the Clear model would likely be too thin for my tastes. But that’s just speculation.
To give you an idea of the bass quantity here, the 2B has more bass than the 1964-T, LiveWires Trips, Earproof Atom, Westone ES3X, UE4pro, UE TF10, and Westone UM3X. It has less bass quantity than the Heir 8.A, UM Merlin, UE11pro, Westone AC2, or the Monster Turbine Coppers. Someone looking for an extreme basshead sound could possibly find them a bit short, and someone looking for a more neutral sound might conceivably find them to be a bit much. As I said – the U shape is hard to do right because everyone has their own thoughts on how much is enough.
In terms of quality, the bass is quite good but not the best I’ve heard. At $400 I wouldn’t expect it to be so. Most of the time I was very pleased with the impact, texture, and overall realism it had. Once in a while I spotted a bit of looseness or lack of control. Nothing terrible, just enough to remind the listener that they aren’t using a flagship $1k custom IEM. I did appreciate how the lows stayed segmented away from the mids rather than creeping in and causing bloat. That’s a common mistake that bass heavy IEMs have and I’m glad Lear was able to avoid it so well.
Mids on the 2B are interesting, as well as difficult to describe. There is a bit of distance in the presentation – vocalists sound pushed back on stage just a bit, like they are back among the ranks of their bandmates rather than out in front. It is not a dramatic effect and vocals are still very enjoyable. I played a few of my favorite vocal test albums, all very well done recordings available in hi-res format: The Persuasions Sing U2, Cantos de Agua Dulce by Marta Gomez, Ink by Livingston Taylor, Lay Me Down by Nancy Bryan… male and female voices alike sounded clear and natural, with good timbre and plenty of distinction in the mix. Yet they aren’t sticking out there in the same way that more forward headphones or IEMs make them sound. Another favorite of mine is the hi-res version of River: The Joni Letters, by Herbie Hancock with plenty of guest artists on board. The title track has Corinne Bailey Rae putting her own unique spin on this classic Joni Mitchell song. The 2B handles her voice well enough to where she is convincingly there in the room with me, and I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the presentation. As someone who regularly listens to customs and full sized headphones costing several times the price of the 2B, I am pleased with its abilities to render vocals.
Highs are as I mentioned prior: there is a bit of emphasis to bring out the sparkle and shimmer, but it remains subdued enough to not cause annoyance or fatigue. Just as it was with the bass, the emphasis is there but is not overwhelming. Bad recordings can show some sibilance though, which is unavoidable if we are to hear the full sparkle and airiness on good recordings. In this area the 2B reminds me somewhat of the LiveWires Trips and Westone ES3X. All of these sound wonderfully crisp and clear most of the time but can become shrill in certain instances. Blame it on the music or the wrong source equipment/amplification, but once a good match is achieved then it performs admirably.
Overall detail retrieval is about what I’d call average for this class. Meaning it is not hair raising like the Earproof Atom but not as bland as the UE4pro. The focus is clearly on dynamics and musicality rather than background minutiae in the mix. Yet it will still show recording quality well enough – the original recording of the track “Sober Driver” by Dengue Fever, appearing on their album Venus On Earth, sounded clearly inferior to the redone version that shows up on In the Ley Lines, which was recorded and released as part of B&W’s Society of Sound series.
If detail retrieval is just average for the class, soundstage and imaging are somewhat above the norm. Width is about what I would expect but there is some extra layering and depth which exceeds what I’ve heard from most dual driver models. Added to the lively bass and treble response, this makes for a very engaging, almost “live” presentation that is very enjoyable to listen to.
It wouldn’t be fair to hold the LCM-2B to the standards of my more expensive customs like the UM Merlin or Heir 8.A, as those cost considerably more. So I chose a few models that go for roughly similar prices in order to even the odds. Keep in mind that this “entry-level” class of custom IEMs is extremely competitive – practically every brand has a very capable offering in this category.
The dual driver Earproof Atom goes for roughly $525. It’s different in that it is only available in silicone and also uses a small form factor design that hides itself in the ear canal. In my review I described the Atom as sort of a junior version of the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor. It is clear, neutral, and precise to a fault. The LCM-2B is very different sounding. If I had to call it a junior version of anything, I would choose the excellent 8.A flagship from Heir Audio. The 2B obviously doesn’t have the technical abilities as that masterpiece but it does have the same general feel of musicality. The 2B has significantly more bass than the Atom, while the Atom has the edge in tightness and exactitude. Mids on the 2B are more relaxed and spaced back in the mix. Highs are more pronounced with the 2B though not quite as extended. The Atom has a more “in your face” approach with an intimate soundstage presentation. The 2B is more spacious and distant.
Despite being very different in sound, these two models are probably more alike than any of my other customs in one aspect – difficulty to drive. They both sound disappointingly poor out of a standard portable device, and both come to life when paired with higher end source/amplification than one would expect for a dual driver IEM. It’s a somewhat unlikely practice for a $400-$500 custom to demand top notch source quality but that’s just the way it is with these two.
The AC2 is actually fairly similar to the LCM-2B in most aspects. But the Westone model goes farther to the extreme. Bass is bigger, mids seem more recessed in relation to the rest of the sound, and highs are crispier. If the Lear offers a “U shaped” sound sig, it is a lower case u, while Westone is upper case with an exclamation point at the end. The Lear offering is certainly a more “safe” sound that I think would be appreciated by more people. I’m a bit torn myself. I much prefer the Lear upper mids and highs, as they are far less sibilant with many songs. But I do appreciate the way the AC2 goes all out with the bass, and it doesn’t lose its composure down there as the Lear is occasionally known to do. In the end I have to say that I would reach for the Lear more often than the Westone, though the latter does have moments of brilliance with certain recordings. Both of these are right around the same price so it’s quite an accomplishment for a new company to the custom game to beat one of the original players.
The AS-1b is a $600 custom. But if I close the adjustable bass port and ambient vent, the sealed result equates to the basic AS-1 model which goes for $400. So that’s a more fair comparison. I’m still getting a handle on the Aurisonics sound which is very mid-forward, owing to their stage monitor intentions. The massive 15mm dynamic driver is capable of cleaner and better low frequency reproduction than the armature driver used by Lear. In terms of specific tuning though the Lear has more forward bass, which is made to seem even more pronounced with the notched mids. The AS-1b has the opposite effect – bass is large and hits extremely deep but those forward mids steal some of the spotlight. The Lear model does seem to have more high frequency extension. Most of the time this was welcome, though certain music favored the smoother Aurisonics approach. Like the comparison above with the Earproof Atom, these are two excellent but extremely different sounds, and user preference would dictate which one is a better match for any given customer.
I’m adding this special section which I don’t normally do, in order to help explain what works and what doesn’t. I tried the following equipment and found it to work well with the LCM-2B. Some of these are dedicated amps and others are all in one DAC/amp units or portable DAPs:
Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
Yulong D100 MKII
KAO Audio UD2C-HP
JF Digital HDM-03S music server (front panel headphone jack)
Audiotrak DR.DAC2 DX Muses Edition
The following devices did not sound great with the LCM-2B:
Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2
In the middle:
Sansa Fuze and Clip+
As you can see, most of the devices that match well tend to be on the expensive side while the poor matches are more likely budget gear. Most of this is simply a matter of output impedance – anything under 1 ohm should be suitable, and anything over 2 ohms is probably too high. My Svetlana tube amp is on the verge of sounding great, but the mids are slightly too thin, so I suspect it is right on the edge of being low enough when using the Low Z setting. Unfortunately many devices (DAPs, laptop and soundcard headphone jacks, plenty of dedicated headphone amps too) don’t specify their output impedance. It’s something you generally want on the low side anyway, but for this particular IEM it is absolutely essential.
The Lear LCM-2B is somewhat unremarkable in a way. It doesn’t have the best low frequency response I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t have the best extension up top, or the best overall detail levels, or the best anything really. Its strength lies in the fun, muscular sound signature, rich layering, and overall flattering presentation. Again, this is the type of thing that is easy to do wrong, to tip the balance slightly too far in either direction and thus ruin the result. For my tastes, the Lear LCM-2B hits a sweet spot which I don’t believe is matched by any of its numerous competitors. And for that it deserves praise despite not excelling in any one particular category.
The competition is very strong in this area. One can get a number of dual driver models from established competitors like Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, and Westone, and some triple driver models even dip down into this range. The LCM-2B is not one of those designs that absolutely blows the competition away. But I think we have entered a time where the market no longer allows for that to happen, or at least not as often as it once did. There are too many worthy contenders making great products, and only a small handful of them can climb to the top – where they will only remain for a short time before someone else comes along and knocks them down. Still, the LCM-2B performs very admirably. It is among the best dual driver customs I’ve encountered. It outperforms any universal IEM I can think of unless we move to insane prices like the AKG K3003. It expertly blends accuracy and musicality in a unique way that no other custom IEM I’ve heard short of the flagship Heir 8.A has managed to do. For that it earns an easy recommendation from me, and warrants some serious consideration.
Reading this back, I realize that it ends up sounding a little negative. To put it in more positive terms – if I had to choose a $400 custom IEM, the LCM-2B would be among the very few choices at the top of my list. I’d choose it over the dual driver models I’ve heard from Westone, LiveWires, and Ultimate Ears, and would seriously consider it over some of the triple driver competition as well. That’s very impressive for a debut product. If you are looking for a fun, musical sound signature that tends to make most recordings sound great, and if you have the proper source with low output impedance, the LCM-2B is an excellent choice.
Edited by project86 - 4/23/12 at 9:27pm