Synopsis: The Aurisonics AS-2 is a high-end custom-fit in-ear stage monitor with a lively, rich sound. It has a unique, crossover-free design that allows its 15mm dynamic driver and two special balanced armatures to work together seamlessly. With an adjustable bass port system, the AS-2 provides a real bass energy in just the amount you want. Combined with a lush midrange and an accurate, non-fatiguing treble to balance it, the AS-2’s focus on an organic, live feel to music will make it a hit with both musicians on stage and music lovers at home.
Introduction: Aurisonics entered the high-end professional stage and portable audio scene with a bang. Innovative designs (the very first of which was nominated for a TEC award last year), continual evolution and an openness to input from pro musicians and audiophiles alike, have made it a company to watch. In particular, many of us have been watching for the AS-2, Aurisonics’ flagship earphone. With the AS-2 custom-fit in-ear monitor (ciem) and the universal-fit ASG-2 rolling out, I knew I had to hear the best Aurisonics has to offer.
Aurisonics and its founder: Dale Lott may have just recently founded Aurisonics, but he has a long history in professional audio. With experience making high-end audio designs for military, aerospace (!) and professional sports applications as well as stage designs for professional musicians, Dale is way more than your typical audio engineer. He offered his expertise to some of the popular high-end audio companies and when they let the opportunity slip through their fingers, he opened up their his own company. Boy, are they going to be sorry! He’s bringing his experience to his in-ear monitor designs and the results are very interesting.
Before we start looking at the AS-2, there are some things that you need to know:
Custom Fitting: For a custom fit in-ear monitor, first you need to get the right fit. The process, as many of you know, involves going to an audiologist to make a set of impressions of your unique ears. Getting a perfect fit with a custom monitor is the key to getting the best sound, the best comfort and the best isolation. Your fit will be only as good as your set of impressions, so it’s very important to work with an audiologist who has experience specifically taking ear impressions for pro musicians’ stage monitors. Do not cheap out here, you will pay for it later! You deserve the best and it will save a lot of trouble. My advice is that the audiologist should use a 1” bite block—this holds open your mouth as the impressions are made. This is necessary because as you open your jaw to sing (or yawn, I suppose, it’s your music), the shape of your ear canal changes. Try to relax your jaw as much as possible during the process as that effects the ear canal as well. Because each set of ears is unique, keep in mind that it’s a process that has the potential for an imperfect fit, either for sound or comfort. If that’s the case, contact the manufacturer (Dale, in this case) immediately. Don’t come here to whine, I can only offer sarcastic comments, whereas Dale will actually help you. That leads me to the next topic:
Customer Service: Because we’re dealing with custom-fit design and no one has ears quite like yours, customer service is a huge consideration with ciems. It’s very, very important. Many companies have dropped the ball here, some catastrophically, some just by being run by people who don’t get customer service. Fortunately, Dale is a completely stand-up guy and Aurisonics has already shown itself to have excellent customer service in the year and half it’s been around. While there are always, and I do mean always, issues that will come up, Dale has your back and he will work with you and he will take care of you. What more can I say? Let's go to the AS-2:
We’ll start with the price: It’s $800 and it competes with ciems that run hundreds of dollars more.
The AS-2 I'm reviewing is a review sample.
Design: The AS-2 is innovative in a number of ways. This starts with the drivers that actually produce the sound. Typically, customs use balanced armatures in multiple sets and have crossovers to divide which part of the music is produced by each armature. This often leads to a particular, artificially separated sort of sound. The TWFK family of dual armatures used for treble or midrange and treble in many ciems also has a slightly artificial sound due to a spike in its sound signature at around 5khz. Bass is as much felt as heard and armatures in a sealed earpiece also do not to produce the air-moving quality that allows us to have a sensation of feeling this real bass energy.
Dale overcame these issues one by one: First, by using a large 15mm dynamic driver that’s more like a miniature speaker for real bass. There is an adjustable bass port so each person can dial in the amount of bass they want. Next, for added treble performance, he combined this driver with two new, special armatures which have a more natural sound than the TWFK armatures. Finally, the way he combined these two driver types is also unique as he did it in a crossover free design, giving the AS-2 an organic soundstage that gives a much more live music feel.
He didn't stop there:
For better fit and comfort, the part of the AS-2 that goes into your ear canals has a special coating over the acrylic.
The socket where the removable cable meets the earpiece is one of the most likely places to fail on a ciem. Dale has a special reinforced semi-recessed socket design for greater reliability.
The faceplate has a unique design for reliability and easy servicing.
There are some patents pending on all this!
Take a look at my poorly-taken pictures (really, they do not do the AS-2 justice):
I have the black, stealth faceplates. For your AS-2 you can choose a different look entirely if you like.
The big round 15mm dynamic driver is easily seen.
You can just make out the two special armatures below it.
My ear is for display purposes only and does not come with the AS-2.
Isolation: Isolation is the amount of outside noise blocked out by the earphone. Some people will want less isolation so they can be aware of the outside world for safety and other reasons (being aware when people are trying to talk to you, etc.). Many people will want more isolation because then they can focus on their music and at lower volumes. The AS-2 has moderate isolation with the vents open which can become quite good if you close the vents. With the vents open, there is wind noise, so if you go outside, you may want to close the vents which will eliminate it.
The Sound: I used the lovely Apex Glacier DAC/amp to drive my AS-2 for this review with high quality sound files on my beloved ol’ 5.5th gen ipod.
Note that the AS-2 is absurdly easy to drive. There always seem to be people who want high-end ciems but don’t want to use an amp that has the power to drive them properly. This is like buying a Ferrari and then putting cheap low-octane gas and flabby little tires on it. The AS-2 is perfect for people like this as it sounds great even out of an ipod. It’ll sound a bit better with a small portable amp, of which the Apex Glacier is one of several examples, but it’s quite easy to drive. For getting the very best performance, particularly with healthy, lower volume listening, consider an amp for your high-end custom in-ear monitor and better tires and gas for your Ferrari…
Overall: The AS-2 excels at conveying the experience of being in a room where live music is playing. The overall focus is definitely on the total sound coming together in the room and rocking you. There is good detail there and excellent imaging in a very nice soundstage that lets you know where every musician is the room, but this is secondary. This is a very dynamic driver style sound—even though it’s a hybrid with special balanced armatures along for the show (and it is a show with the AS-2), the no-crossover design leads to a very organic, very coherent sound. If this is what you are looking for, you’ve found it with the AS-2.
This is a stage monitor by design and tuning and that means a few things you should know when considering the AS-2: You should expect a slight lift in the vocal range to bring male and female singers just a little forward and bring music alive. Although everyone has their preferences (and some recordings will sounding better with a given tuning), I find this small lift in the tuning makes a big difference for an enjoyable listening experience. Without it, an initially great sounding earphone will start to lose its luster for me over time.
The second thing you’ll often hear in a stage monitor is a non-fatiguing treble. A non-fatiguing treble should still be able to sparkle, but it should also avoid spikes in the frequency response that lead to sibilance or a screechy sound. This stage monitor sound is just how the AS-2’s treble is tuned. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear overly bright or harsh high-pitched sounds in your music, just that the AS-2 won’t be contributing to that harshness coming from your recording or player/amp. Keep in mind, some people actually prefer a raspy or piercing treble as these can give the illusion of added clarity (as the listener goes deaf…). You won’t find that here, for which I’m thankful!
The final thing that a stage monitor will often have, but not always, is a bit of extra bass for drummers and bass players. The adjustable bass in the AS-2 goes way past 11, so it’s got this angle covered. I’d recommend keeping the bass vent mostly closed as just a little opening is all most people will need. Bassheads, however, (you know who you are) will be very happy letting the big 15mm dynamic driver breathe.
Treble: The AS-2 has a lovely, smooth, accurate treble. As I mentioned, it’s non-fatiguing, and doesn’t add any sibilance harshness or glare to what’s there in the recording or added by your player/amp. I tried out a few recordings I know that are particularly bright and the AS-2 gives you that brightness with a bit of the piercing glare polished down for you. I like the accuracy combined with a smooth sound. It’s very nice for long listening sessions and the AS-2 lends itself to losing yourself in the music.
Perhaps it’s the special armatures used but the treble has great timbre for a ciem—the life-like reproduction of subtle resonances in voice and instrument that rings true to the listener’s ear. It’s simply superior to balanced armature based custom iems using the popular TWFK family of dual-armatures (which is many of them). Cymbal crashes sound great and natural, for example. The AS-2’s treble manages to give a detailed sound subsumed within the lush sound that the AS-2 seems to naturally flood the ear with due to the big 15mm dynamic driver. We’re not looking at an analytic or cold treble here, but one that brings immediacy and presence to your music. It isn’t recessed but nicely balances the power of the midrange and bass. Female voices sing out clearly in the rich mix of sound.
Midrange: These mids are rich, warm and they really bring music alive. While the AS-2 can easily keep up with fast music, it adds a thick, full, powerful sound to guitars, bass and strings. Male voices are resonant and clear as well. Other earphones may end up sounding dry and a little dull to you after you experience the AS-2. Interestingly, I found the bass vent also gives a little added flavor to the mids. You can open up the adjustable bass vent more for an extra helping of this resonance in the lower registers or keep the bass vent only open a small amount for just a little added juice to the lower midrange which is quite nice.
Bass: The AS-2 gives you what bass sounds like. Real bass is felt as much as heard and for that you need a vented shell design for your earphone so air can move. I’ve heard audio engineers talk about how air movement with a vent shell earphone is important for ear drum and listening fatigue as well, but I can’t speak to that except to say I think the AS-2 lets you experience it for yourself. The AS-2 is qualitatively different from the typical closed shell balanced armature ciems out there in terms of bass. You are getting something that even the most bassy balanced armature earphone lacks. If you want that, you’ve come to the right place. If you don’t, well, you can close the bass vent entirely and…you’ve still come to the right place! The vent system means you can really choose what you want and you can go from a very polite bass all the way to bass that powerfully booms.
There is truly exceptional, superior sub-bass extension with the AS-2. The mid-bass is plentiful. I love bass and I needed to dial the AS-2’s adjustable vent down to just a little open. Dale himself told me he keeps his around ¼ of the way open—and that’s still a very good amount of bass! At that level, it's nicely controlled and has a great heft to it. If you go more than that...well you'll get more!
Just to be clear: If you close the bass vent entirely, you get very polite bass which is still present but stands a little behind the midrange—perfect for people who don’t want a bassy earphone. So, the AS-2 with the vent system is quite a versatile earphone.
Conclusion: The AS-2 is a professional stage monitor with a very lively, organic sound where each part of the music comes together and rocks. There is great bass energy, rich mids and treble that sings while never shouting. Although the detail is all there for you, the AS-2 is for living the music, not picking it apart. Music just seems to flood your ear at every volume with the AS-2 and you can’t help but be moved. It’s an excellent ciem for those who are looking for the sound it so richly provides and I think it will be very popular both on stage and at home.
Edited by Kunlun - 11/17/13 at 10:55am