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The Custom-Molded Chronicles: My Journey Through The World of CIEMs --- A Retrospective

post #1 of 33
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This is a retrospective narrative of my continuing journey through the world of CIEMs.

 

It’ll be interwoven with more conventional sound impressions and technical analyses of the products that I've bought or tried over this past year, but will mainly be a qualitative reflection of my audio experiences. I will take creative liberties and shout obvious biases; my words are not those of an impartial reviewer, but of a fellow enthusiast wading through the many choices offered to us.

 

Separated into six differently-themed chapters, I plan to publish each section when it is finished, hopefully sooner than later. As the section themes may be subject to change, I will currently only list the titles of the first two.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 
Prologue
Chapter 1: Year of the DragonCustom
Chapter 2: Heir to the Custom-Molded Crown (Working Title)
Chapter 3: Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking Glass
Chapter 4: TBA
Chapter 5: TBA
Chapter 6: TBA

Edited by tomscy2000 - 2/28/13 at 11:49pm
post #2 of 33
Thread Starter 

Prologue

 

Custom in-ear monitors used to be just the tools of musicians and recording engineers. More recently, they were the playthings of hedge fund managers cum audiophiles. Just a few years ago, most high-end customs were out of reach for the majority of head-fiers. No more. For the world of portable audio, 2012 has clearly been the year of the custom. Never before have so many new options cropped up and at such affordable prices.

 

I have the privilege of living in Asia, and have had the opportunity to explore the world of customs from the perspective of the east. Traditionally, perhaps because of world events of the past century, people here have looked westward for their audio needs (and most other things as well). Globalization has been a transformative phenomenon, however, and it has prompted people all across the globe to look inward and examine what they can offer the world. Never more has this been seen in portable audio. Much of the impetus for this recent trend of affordable CIEMs has been spearheaded by Chinese companies, whose geographical locale makes it easy to source critical parts and whose job markets are in no lack of skilled manual technicians and electrical engineers. Perhaps more importantly, Asian demand for high-end audio products has risen in the last few years, driven by the ever-increasing number of wealthy individuals in China, and an upwardly mobile middle-class rising to prominence throughout the region.

 

As the symbol of the ultimate in high-end portable audio, custom in-ear monitors represent a segment of the market not yet saturated, and punctuated by relative ease of entry. Any person with sufficient skills in electronics, adequate training in ear anatomy and audiology, and the right business acumen can enter as a player. Redoubled efforts to further expand the segment from the professional to the consumer have given audiophiles more choice than ever before; we now have affordable options from not only China but all around the world as well.


Edited by tomscy2000 - 12/2/12 at 6:39pm
post #3 of 33
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Chapter 1: The Year of the DragonCustom

 

Most auspiciously, our story begins at the turn of the Chinese New Year in 2012, as the sinocentric world was celebrating the coming of the year of the dragon. Heir Audio had just established itself within the belly of the central kingdom in Chengdu, not more than a few months prior. Sitting idly in a transit warehouse of the Sichuan Province postal service was a pair of silicone impressions awaiting transformation into a 4.A --- my 4.A. Meanwhile, I was boarding a plane in Terminal 1 of Taoyuan International Airport.

 

The pregnant lady seated two rows in front of me had been gently rubbing her belly; the dragon baby gestating inside of her was clearly in its third trimester. Undoubtedly, this was the baby destined to bring their family glory and riches. The entire cabin seemed to be wrapped in an undertone of gold and red, whilst “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” echoed across the aisles.

 

With the Financial Times sitting on my lap, I pulled out my TDK BA200 to ready myself for the plane ride. After some fiddling with its flat cables, I promptly inserted it into my ear, and in lieu of the drone of the airplane engines now blocked away by silicone, stories of grandiose listening rooms in the homes of semi-retired investment bankers cropped up in my head. Lost in my own thoughts, I faintly heard the cabin stewardesses say something about returning the seat trays back to their upright position as I buckled my seat belt in preparation for takeoff. Before long, I was to land in the pearl of the orient --- Hong Kong.

 

Taiwan is not far from Hong Kong; a short, 90-minute trip was all our little Boeing 737 needed to take us across the South China Sea. The tall ceilings of Hong Kong International Airport were ever refreshing as I bought my Octopus card for the tram commute to Kowloon. I speak and understand nary a word of Cantonese, so I was lucky this little port city had been a British colony for the last century and a half. Buying things was smooth and easy, despite my getting a taste of the characteristic brusqueness that the Cantonese are infamous for. Before long, I reached the focal point of most tourist visits to Hong Kong --- Victoria Harbour.

 

The Peninsula Hotel was lovely. Throngs of people, composed of both tourists and the local elite, queued up for high tea in its lobby. Amidst the waiters hoisting crumpets and macaroons was a small string orchestra, one of the many creature comforts afforded to hotel guests beyond a cup of Earl Grey. I could get used to this, I thought to myself. However, I was searching for a different type of opulence --- one not found in the lap of luxury. I thus had to make my way away from the gilded lights of Tsim Sha Tsui and to the narrow, crowded streets of Mong Kok.

 

Peek-A-Boo on the MTR

On the Hong Kong MTR subway system. Perhaps he too is an audiophile.

 

Stairway to Mong Kok

Coming out of the Mong Kok MTR Station

 

Armed only with an address that I’d hastily scribbled onto a wrinkled piece of paper in my left hand, I searched for my target. I’d anticipated searching for much longer, and perhaps with the aid of geosynchronous satellites, but within minutes I had found Jaben Hong Kong. Not that it appeared as though it was easy to find --- it was tucked away in a miniscule crevice between the thousands of nondescript tech stores and “tech” stores lining the streets. The elevator delivering me to its front door was likewise claustrophobic. When I walked inside, however, it was surprisingly larger than what I’d expected. I thought it was going to be a hole in the wall, but instead it was like walking into Platform 9 3/4. The store manager greeted me. Derek was a bespectacled man with an easy smile and a contagious laugh who made it easy to explain the purpose for my fated sojourn to one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Knowing a tempted man when he saw one, he flashed his trademark grin and slyly laid out each of the demo molds they had available for audition on the counter in front of me. One by one, he took the little acrylic bits out of their respective plastic tubs, flashed me another smile, and walked away. I didn’t know whether to be happy or fearful; I could’ve sworn I felt something trembling in my coat pocket.

 

I had to give myself a minute. Thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment were right in front of me, served up like Whoppers in a Burger King. So these were the things I’d put on top of a pedestal all this time? Amorphous shells of dinky acrylic and tiny little metal boxes? I’d set myself up for disappointment, I told myself. And I almost proved myself right on the first try, as the JH13 struck me as the earphone equivalent of Kristen Stewart. While it definitely was the most detailed-sounding thing I’d ever heard since I last donned an HD800 a few months ago, I was expecting at least Taylor Lautner. Enough said. The JH16 was a little more like it; the low end had the grunt of the wolf man, while the upper registers sparkled like Robert Pattinson in the sunlight. Despite the improvement, I was unable to shake feelings of pulselessness and paresthesia with JH Audio customs in my ear. Pangs of doubt swelled up beneath me.

 

Despite the unimpressive beginning to my CIEM experience, I told myself I had to give them another chance; surely, customs had to have more substance than vapid vampires. Sure enough, the third one was the charm, and the FitEar was a trinity of threes --- three drivers, three receivers, and a three-way crossover, wrapped up in an all-business clear shell. The little-known Japanese outfit from Keita Suyama had yet to blow up on Head-Fi at this time; there were maybe one or two official reviews and its high prices drew little love from the FOTM peanut gallery. The 333 was a revelation, however. I’d heard each of the universal triple driver IEMs before; never could I have imagined that three drivers could deliver this amount of enjoyment. To me, it was everything the JH13 wasn’t --- full of life and dynamism yet, still delivering accuracy in spades. The JH13 seemed to deliver more detail, but despite this competency, had as much of a heartbeat as Edward Cullen. It wasn’t just my closet Nipponophile ways speaking to me; I was convinced this was the most well-rounded earphone I’d ever heard. If Jerry Harvey was to portable audio as Stephanie Meyer was to teenage novellas, then Suyama-san was J.R. Tolkien.

 

I spent the rest of the time with the 333 to allow customs to redeem themselves in my heart. There was hope for me yet. I wanted to stay longer, forever if at all possible, but the experience was cut short. I also needed to heed my temporary job of being a tourist. Interrupting my aural bliss was a phone call from my parents; they'd finished their Earl Grey and were calling me back so that we could get across the harbour to climb Victoria Peak. After only a half hour or so of titillation from CIEMs, I thanked Derek and left Jaben. Luckily, it was long enough, as I left filled with alacrity; after all, I was to be entering the year of the custom.


Edited by tomscy2000 - 12/2/12 at 6:53pm
post #4 of 33
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Reserved for Chapter 2: Heir to the Custom-Molded Crown (Working Title)


Edited by tomscy2000 - 12/2/12 at 6:52pm
post #5 of 33
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Reserved for Chapter 3

post #6 of 33
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Reserved for Chapter 4

post #7 of 33
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Reserved for Chapter 5

post #8 of 33
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Reserved for Chapter 6

post #9 of 33

Sounds interesting! Subbed.

post #10 of 33

looks like this is gonna be an epic thread :) will be following through!

post #11 of 33

Subscribed

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Subscribed

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Ditto

post #14 of 33

What a tease. I guess I'll have to sub.

post #15 of 33

Heheh, it is finally here, have been so excited for this! ONE HUGE SUBSCRIPTION!

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