Unlike some of the wonderful grizzled, veteran reviewers we have on Head-Fi who have listened to dozens of CIEMs, this is, in fact, my first pair. As such, I cannot eloquently compare on the subtle differences the C4 has to so-and-so other CIEM.
However, what I can do is describe the process behind getting a CIEM from Frogbeats, advice from my own personal experience from start to finish and explain why I am, frankly, tickled pink with my purchase of the C4.
I like to talk/write and am quite long-winded. If you’d like to skip directly to my impressions of the build quality/sound, simply Ctrl+F and type in “#”.
Introduction/About the Reviewer
My journey into the world of headphones started about 7 years ago, when my cousin got me a pair of Audio-Technica SJ3s as a gift when I complained about my budget earphones and the lack of isolation they provided. While the SJ3s were relatively inexpensive, the immediate improvement I heard out of my music files was drastic and made me want to hear how much better things could get.
Thus began my climb up the Audio-Technica line over the next few years. After the M50s, I jumped off the ATH ship for the Sennheiser 598, which satisfied me throughout much of my college life. Upon graduation, I landed a fairly good job and with my spare income, began purchasing various brands of headphones and going to headphone meets to listen to even more.
This past year has been a whirlwind experience for me, as I’ve heard the best companies such as Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Audeze, Grado and Stax have to offer (Still working on the Beyers, HiFiMAN and several other brands of interest), all in an effort to learn more about my own preferences. My efforts seem to have paid off handsomely; I’ve upgraded to a setup my ears are currently at peace with, and should be done with my headphone purchasing frenzy for a while.
Just a few months ago, I finally decided it might be worth investing into earphones. Working for an airlines company and having access to the flight benefits that come with it have made a somewhat active traveler out of me.
Two characteristics my headphones all possess have caused me significant dissatisfaction in recent trips of mine:
1. The bulkiness of carrying headphones around – I generally travel light with a single carry-on luggage piece and a messenger bag on my person. The dimensions of the headphones are responsible for making them an unwieldy fit in my bag; this makes it difficult for me to store other necessary items. As an alternative, I sometimes wear them around my neck, but this can be tiring and the size/clamp of the headphone can make them uncomfortable to don in such a fashion.
2. It’s so hot! – I don’t always travel with others. Even when I do, there are often hours in the day where I like to stroll around, take in my surroundings and really appreciate where I am. In such cases, music is perhaps the only companion I welcome. Unfortunately, when headphones are the intermediary, music can be a fickle friend. What should be a pleasant sunny stroll around the Alamo enriched by wonderful songs turns into a sweat fest – the headphones get heated, and my ears feel like they’re being slow-roasted.
I ended up purchasing the Heir Audio 4.Ai and was quite surprised at how good they sounded. They did a lot right at a mid-tier headphone price and didn’t require fancy add-ons to do it. I thought my foray into the IEM field might end there, but shortly afterwards LFF reviewed a custom in-ear monitor extremely favorably. Read here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/629467/review-the-frogbeats-c4-an-explosively-good-custom-in-ear-monitor-seriously
Owning and enjoying his Paradox headphones (they sound damn good!) coupled with an inherent interest in the CIEM field (earphones that fit only the user sounds really neat as a premise) drove me to contact David, the owner of Frogbeats. He was justifiably thrilled at the wonderful praise LFF heaped on his product, and was very helpful; after countless questions on my end and a bit of haggling on the price point, I was in line for my first pair of CIEMs.
I was hesitant about whether CIEMs were right for me because of the horror stories I’ve heard from bad fits – bad ear impressions seem to be one of the leading causes of dissatisfaction. I didn’t want to go to any ordinary audiologist. I wanted to go to an experienced one that had done impressions for CIEMs before that would know exactly what they were doing. I wound up looking up quite a few CIEM manufacturer websites that had “approved” audiologists that they listed on their sites. I ended up calling one up that was located near me and asking for her credentials in the field. It turns out that not only has she done many, many CIEM impressions before, but she was actually a CIEM owner herself!
This relieved my fears, and I went in to her office with Frogbeats’ instructions in hand. I ended up paying $50 for the molds (a pretty standard price from what I’ve heard), and an additional $25 to get my ears completely cleaned out. Not that my ears were particularly dirty, mind you, this was more for my peace of mind to make sure I was doing things as “right” as possible. Do remember to factor in this cost to the cost of any CIEM. I sent pictures of my impressions to David from several angles, and he confirmed that they were good to go. I packed them in the mail, and off they went to the UK! This was probably the most nerve-wracking and worrisome part of the entire process. I would strongly suggest spending a significant amount of effort/time/whatever it takes to make sure this part is done flawlessly. If you are an American buyer, Frogbeats being in the UK will mean significant lead time and substantial shipping costs at your expense, even if the remolding is free of charge.
David quoted a 3-5 week lead time. My C4s took slightly over 5 weeks of production time, and had the luck to be stuck in customs for a short period of time as well. David has assured me that Frogbeats has since taken measures to ensure orders are processed within the acceptable time frame. As of the time of this posting, Frogbeats is offering a 20% discount off the retail price. If you, dear buyer, have the financial means and do not need the savings, I would strongly recommend taking that discount and applying it to a rush order. This gets you the CIEMs within an extremely quick time frame without all of the hassles I experienced.
One area of great concern to me was the customer service after the initial order placement. I am very much used to excellent customer service, in the headphone world as well as in other industries. I expect rapid responses to email inquiries, and for the responses to completely address any questions the email contains. I believe that in this day and age, many industries are very much a customer-centric world. This holds especially true for smaller companies that just starting up; negative first impressions from first-movers may as well be the kiss of death that keeps away prospective customers in the days to come.
Frogbeats’ replies were indeed very helpful and always fully answered my question, but I recall there were two incidents where it took a week or more to receive an answer to a question I had. Once, a question I had was never responded to. And this was after attempting to use several means (David’s personal email, Frogbeats’ “Contact Us” email) in an effort to get ahold of a customer representative. David would eventually get back to me and apologize for the long response times, and I can understand occasional slips. However, to experience the same delays several times in a single transaction was very unpleasant. To be fair, I can also understand Frogbeats being incredibly busy with the influx of orders they’ve gotten since Luis’ review. I am but one single data point, and perhaps I was just the unfortunate outlier as compared to the other customers who received prompt responses. It is my hope that this is an issue on Frogbeats’ to-do list that will be addressed as soon as possible.
#Get to the Important Stuff!
I’m not sure whether to attribute it to the audiologist I went to and/or Frogbeats, but the fit is perfect. Comfort is exquisite, to the point where it doesn’t feel like there’s anything in my ears. The great seal leads to incredible isolation, making it excellent for portable use in loud environments; I have been guilty of missing a few phone calls at work despite the phone being two feet away from me. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I purchased a CIEM.
The cable provided is your typical stock-looking cable, but has an interesting tweak – compared to all of the other cables I have used, the Y-splitter on this one is located much closer to the pins. This means there’ll be less swaying of the cables from the Y-splitter upwards as you move around with the CIEMs on. It’s a little thing, but one I can appreciate.
The Frogbeats are very pleasing to the eyes as well. I chose a purple black color for my left shell and dark red for the right shell and couldn’t be happier with the way they turned out. Of interest perhaps is the difference in serial number engravings on the two shells – on the red, it was colorless whereas on the purple, blue text was used. I wonder if you can state your preferences on the serialization engravings? It could be a question worth asking for potential buyers if you like one of the options over the other.
Nothing fancy: IPhone 5 -> C4 | Sansa Clip+ Rockboxed -> C4 | Cowon J3 -> C4
Main Test Albums:
DBSK – Best Selection 2010
IU – Growing Up
Joshua Radin – Simple Times
Linkin Park – Meteora
Lupe Fiasco – The Cool
Nobuo Uematsu - Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
SNSD – The Entire Discography
Stevie Hoang – All Night Long
Story of the Year – Page Avenue
Supercell – Today is a Beautiful Day
The Spill Canvas – No Really, I’m Fine
Thrice - Vheissu
I didn’t try the C4 with anything fancy – I want to hear how they’ll sound with the stuff I actually intend to pair them with every day. While I have plans to pick up a high end DAP in the future, the inexpensive players above are what I used to evaluate the C4. I also didn’t use a lot of audiophile recorded music for my testing, but instead opted to go with albums I really enjoy and that I’m familiar with. I’m happy to report that they sounded fantastic!
I am used to the soundstage and detail of excellent headphones, and all of the offerings I’ve heard in the IEM category before the C4 fell short of my hopes/expectations. Whenever I went from the Paradox/HD 800s to IEMs, the degradation in my enjoyment of the music and that immersive feeling I look for when I listen to music was significant. I felt like I wasn’t getting the full experience, and thought it was just something I would have to accept when it came to IEMs.
And so I was exceptionally pleased to find that I could go from full size headphones to the C4s and be perfectly content with what my ears heard. I will emphasize that the soundstage is a strong point of the C4; the width is wonderful but the depth is incredible – depth has been the problem with most of the mid-tier IEMs I’ve tried and the reason for lacking realism. The C4 delivers wonderfully and provides me with that feeling of immersion I so crave.
Detail is precise yet forgiving. The C4 made it through orchestral pieces from Final Fantasy without muddying the instruments together, and yet made (most, barring those that clipped) recordings as low quality as 128 kbps a delightful revisit.
Don’t giggle excitedly and figure headphones are obsolete though. If you expect the C4 to match the massive soundstage and hyper-detail of the HD 800, you’re going to be in for a letdown. However, at their price point (~$850-$900 on sale right now for a new pair with zero customization IF you factor in the cost of impressions + shipping), while I imagine it’s difficult for most folks to call them a “value” buy, they come at an excellent price/quality ratio.
A full sound? Check.
Very much impressed, considering the C4 is the neutral CIEM offering in Frogbeats’ offerings. I am quite curious about how the C5 model sound with further emphasis on the lower end, as it’s honestly hard to imagine it getting much better. Lupe Fiasco’s Go Go Gadget Flow sounded amazing. The lows are the reason why the soundstage depth so impressed me, as the bass in the song hits deep and with authority. It’s the most lifelike experience I’ve had from an IEM by a mile.
A lot of the Korean pop music I listen to isn’t exactly well recorded, and “suffers” from an emphasized lower end. If the headphone/IEM doesn’t make a smooth transition from lows to mids, this makes the music sound muddy. Happy to report that this was not the case with the C4! IU’s Every Sweety Day, which is one of the songs that needs that cleanness to sound its best, was a very satisfying listen.
Anything that doesn’t have a wonderful midrange is not on my to-own list. I will be the first to admit that by “wonderful”, I don’t necessarily mean neutral – I still think the HD 598 has the most magical midrange that I’ve heard to date, as the coloration makes female vocals an intimate and engaging experience. This preference of mine gave me a slight pause when the C4 was advertised to be a neutral CIEM, as the Heir Audio 4.Ai had the same claim. In my review of the 4.Ai, I praised them for doing a lot right, but to my ears “the ‘richness’ of a song [was] not always there. Even if the sound produced is the right tone in the right amount, there’s something lacking that keeps me as a listener from feeling fulfilled.”
Thanks to measurements taken by members of the community, I was able to compare the FR graphs of the 4.Ai and C4, and saw that there was a similar looking dip in the 3.5-4 kHz range. This led me to worry that the C4 would have that same, slightly lackluster sound in the midrange that prevented me from full enjoying the 4.Ai.
My worries turned out to be unfounded. The midrange on the C4 is a delight, as mid-dependent songs from Joshua Radin, The Spill Canvas, and Supercell all sounded great to my ears. Vocals across genres were a pleasure.
I am slightly sensitive to bright headphones, but I’ve seen members on the board that are much more so. As perhaps a point of reference, the stock HD 800 out of the O2/ODAC sounds sharp to my ears, but I have no problem wearing them for hours on end without feeling particularly strained. At this point in my audio journey, I must confess that I’m still lacking in experience to judge what exceptionally neutral highs sound like. Most of the headphones I’ve had the joy of listening to were either significantly recessed in the highs or noticeably emphasized.
The C4 certainly is not either of the two, so it definitely falls within the neutral-ish range. I haven’t heard any sibilance and have not experienced fatigue. Thrice’s A Song for Milly Michaelson is the song I generally listen to for shimmer and airyness, and the track sounds brilliant. It’s a song that I’ve heard countless times that, when done well, causes me to reminiscence on the first time I saw the movie The Boy Who Could Fly. The C4 delivered; as the track began to play, my eyes closed, and I listened to the song with a smile on my face.
I am completely satisfied with my purchase. The “Wow” factor I’ve had listening to the C4 for the past few days has only been equaled by two other experiences in my audio journey thus far.
For me, it was absolutely worth what I paid. Hopefully, this review helps some of those people who are on the fence about the purchase but are uncertain whether or not to pull the trigger! With the current 20% discount, now is an excellent time to buy something in the Frogbeats lineup.
Hopefully the review was an enjoyable read! Questions are welcomed.
EDIT: Update on shipping back the C4 and a FANTASTIC audiologist in the Dallas area: http://www.head-fi.org/t/641884/frogbeats-c4-review-an-incredible-first-experience-in-the-ciem-world/15#post_9067075