TOTL 3-Driver Hybrid Wars
AKG K3003 - Aurisonics ASG-2 - Sony XBA-H3
These three IEMs represent very different price points, with differing target audiences, and different value propositions. The K3003 stands as one of the very first hybrid design iems to grace the market, coming in for an (at the time) eye-watering price for a universal IEM. As with most things on Head-Fi, it nearly immediately created camps with opposing views on its performance and value. Some say it's the best IEM they've ever heard, while some call it a turd. Naturally, I'm excited to finally hear it for myself.
Featured next is the Sony XBA-H3, the latest flagship effort from one of the biggest names in the business. Like with the K3003, there have been aggressive supporters and detractors of this iem. One this is for certain though...it's certainly a far cry in tonality from the company's previous flasghip, the EX1000.
In this thread is a pretty solid the ASG-2, so I won't say too much more here.
All iems are quite impressive in the hand. They all carry the impression that some thought went into their designs, as all are very solidly built and are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. No small shop iem aesthetics here. I have to hand it to the K3003 for being the most minimalist, elegant, and modern design. The "i" version does have a reported weak point though, as the remote has been prone to failure on a few sets. Just something to watch out for. Speaking of remotes, the XBA-H3 ships with two cables, one with a remote and another without. I'll be using the non-remote version for this write-up. All IEMs are pretty comfortable, but I'm not sure I'd wear the Frankenstein-ish XBA-H3 out in public.
I honestly don't think I could conjure a better image of the K3003's sound signature than what Soundfreaq did here:
Originally Posted by SoundFreaq
The K3003 is in the dead of winter. All the greenery is gone, and replaced by trunks and branches of trees everywhere. Fresh, pure snow has been falling lightly for days, and a complete blanket of snow covers the ground and tree branches. In your cabin, you have a large fireplace burning wood you chopped earlier that afternoon. The fire warms your large cabin to a nice cozy and comfortable temperature as you're wrapped up in a cashmere blanket in the loveseat, soaking in the warmth of the hearth. Your cabin is filled with windows. Floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows on all sides of the cabin, and a large glass observation skylight takes up a giant space in your roof. At night, the purity of the snow gleaming in the moonlight, while content and warm, moves the soul. The dark trees, cast long, dark shadows against the brilliant white snow. White/black, cold/warmth, the emotions are heightened peacefully, filled with juxtaposition. A few bright planets and some twinkling stars that peer through, remind you of the size of the universe itself. Life is precious, life is sweet, life is pure, and it's the most beautiful creation this universe can offer.
Beautiful. But for the more left-brained among us, I'll try to translate.
The sound signature of the K3003 is reminiscent of a long, straight stretch of country road on an evening that's not quite chilly enough for you to have to wear a jacket. It's nearly completely flat to my ears from end to end of the frequency range. Nothing sounds out of place, nothing seems to be making more effort than it should. It has Etymotic-like clarity and transparency without that annoying spike in the upper midrange, along with detail for days. The midrange carries the same effortless quality I adored in the Sennheiser IE800, but it isn't as inviting as that of the IE800. The bass is exquisitely tight and controlled all the way down. There's certainly nothing lacking in the upper or sub-bass, it's just so, so tight. The treble has this refined quality that lacks any obvious peaks or spikes (to my ears). It's certainly not a powdery type treble though, as it can transmit the brassy quality of cymbals with ease.
My impressions of the K3003 are overwhelmingly positive. My only reservation with this phone comes from the soundstage. Depth and width are great, but it can' portray the height I'm used to listening to. Thus, the center channel is slightly compressed. However, this contributes to an very interesting effect. The overall great soundstage depth combined with the centerstage's qualities creates forward projection that I haven't heard from any other iem. Certain cues seem to project forward into eternity. Listening to "Mayla" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros was quite the experience.
Overall, there's truly no way I can fault the K3003's sound. It's just so clean and effortless while being immensely capable. If it were a lady, it would look something like this Southern Belle:
She can appear disinterested sometimes, but she just likes to love in her own way.
XBA-H3 (Stock, without taped vent)
My initial impressions of the H3 were overwhelmingly positive. It came to me with a tape blocking the vents, with pinholes in the middle of the vent to let the driver breathe a little (tape mod). Since the first audition, I haven't been able to really listen for the last few days due to lectures. I've removed the pieces of tape for the purposes of this write-up.
The sound signature of the H3 starts from the bottom up with large, deep, and powerful bass. Extension is faultless down to the lowest of the lows. Then it rolls up to the mid-bass, which is where the problem is for me. It's larger in quantity than the sub-bass, and isn't very tight. It can make the overall sound cloudy at times. It isn't all bad though, as it lends to a very black, sometimes menacing type bass that isn't very far off from the imagery of Lovecraft's C'thulu.
The midrange is positioned slightly behind the bass, and can sometimes get caught in the wake of the mid-bass. Otherwise, the midrange is very refined and tonally accurate to my ears. No strange pitch variations to be found. The treble is equally smooth and detailed. It certainly does not lack sparkle or extension when required by the song. The armatures used are world class to my ears, only bottlenecked by the tuning of the dynamic. A small piece of tape is all that's needed to mostly clear up the sound though.
Soundstage wise, the H3 is slightly wider than it is deep, so it doesn't quite have a surround your head type of sound nor very much forward projection.
Overall I'd say the H3 has a very consumer oriented tuning, a far cry from the very open, romantic, and audiophile tuned EX1000. With the tape in place though, I'd say it's a worthy successor of the EX1000, in that it's more refined and has a more friendly signature without losing too much of the EX1000's open-air stadium presentation.
Comparisons to ASG-2 (bass port closed)
Cats and Dogs - The Head and the Heart
Lips of an Angel - Hinder
Djobi Djoba - Gipsy Kings
Mayla - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen
Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
Lakehouse - Of Monsters and Men
Floret Silva Nobilis - Carmina Burana (Jochum 1968)
K3003 and ASG-2
These two iems have very different philosophies. To help me draw the image, imagine these two iems were used as the inspiration for houses. The K3003, the clean and modern smart home...perfectly designed to meet every need and want. Nothing is lacking at all. The ASG-2 is an old antebellum mansion, modified to have electricity and modern appliances. The design shows its age and a few boards need to be replaced, but the rooms are grand in size and stepping into the house instantly transports you to another time.
Like the housing designs, the respective sound signatures are quite different. The K3003's cooler, more distant presentation is countered by the taller, more dynamic presentation of the ASG-2. The ASG-2 is overall warmer than the K3003 as well, but not by much. Detail levels in the midrange are very similar to my ears, with the ASG-2 being able to convey more "sweetness" than the K3K. However, the K3K is technically superior in the treble and bass. The K3K reduces the peak the ASG-2 has in the treble, while flattening and tightening the bass. I also hear the K3K reach into the sub-bass with more authority. It has a flatter FR that lends to greater note transparency than the ASG-2. In return, the ASG-2 carries better dynamics and has a more live feel than the K3K.
Visually, the K3003 is recording studio, technically perfect Miles Davis:
While the ASG-2 is this slightly imperfect, but mesmerizing Miles Davis:
ASG-2 and XBA-H3
The first track I used to compare these two was Floret Silva Nobilis. It's a test for clarity, detail, bass tightness, dynamic range, black space, and soundstage qualities.
This is my first time A/B'ing the ASG-2 and H3, so the next few paragraphs may come off as a stream off incoherent thought.
1) The H3's soundstage is wider, the G2' is taller
2) the ASG-2 is more refined, details are better fleshed out. Timbre is also better on the ASG-2, the H3 has this slightly plastic timbre.
3) The H3 requires about 20% more power than the G2.
4) The G2 is clearer and more resolving of microdetails.
5) The H3 has better sub-bass extension, but that is not always obvious because the looser mid-bass can obscure it at times.
6) The G2 has a more mid-forward presentation.
7) The H3's treble tweeter is marvelous. It's more resolving up there in some fine details and gives more weight to the treble.
Next track: Djobi Djoba - Gipsy Kings
1) Guitars are more realistic on the G2.
2) There's that plastic timbre on the H3 again.
3) Vocals on the G2 are better.
4) G2 mid-bass is more controlled.
5) G2 has greater black space due to the greater soundstage height.
6) ASG-2 + H3's tweeter = goodbye head-fi.
7) Actually, SR-009 = goodbye head-fi.
Lips of an Angel - Hinder
1) See above.
2) I really like this song.
Overall, I wouldn't say the differences are large enough for me to put the XBA-H3 a whole tier below the ASG-2. No, I'd say they're on the same playing field in the superbowl, but the ASG-2 is up by a couple of touchdowns. For the price the H3 is a nooo brraaaiineerrr. A zombie would stop chasing you to buy a pair of these.
Ergonomics wise, it's the ASG-2 10 times out of 10. The H3 is comfy when inserted, but I'll be damned if I had to do it multiple times at work or in between lectures. It's large, and the memory wire can be an obstacle to proper insertion.
None. Make your own
Bonus: XBA-H3 ASG -2 and K3003 vs Earsonics S-EM6
I really dislike the S-EM6. It sounds to me like someone covered the nozzle with thick pieces of wool. Pure, farm fresh sheep wool.
The bass is bloated, loose, and lacks definition. The treble seems to have studied at the school of Houdini, because it's very proficient at pulling disappearing acts. The only saving grace of the entire IEM is that is has very nice creamy lower mids. The upper mids are stifled though.
I know I'm being harsh, but this iem should not cost anything close to $1000. The XBA-H3 is a great deal more technically proficient than than the S-EM6, carrying more detail, less bloat in the bass, and and a much larger soundstage, all for a third of the price. The S-EM6 makes my blood boil every time I listen to it and A/B it to other iems.
If you want a more technically proficient S-EM6, look into the InEar SD3 or the Cardas Ear Mirrors. Both of them cost less than half the S-EM6's asking price.
Rivers and Roads - The Head and the Heart
Slow and Steady - Of Monsters and Men
Ho Hey - The Lumineers
Blood on the Leaves - Kanye West
A/B'in these two, I think the biggest tonal differences come from the respective presentations of the ASG-2 and Noble 6. G2 has more distant presentation, with a soundstage that has greater height and width than the N6. It also has a drier presentation, plus an upper treble peak that lends a touch more sparkle than that of the N6. In comparison, the N6 has more intimate stage that puts you closer to the music. It also has a more lush sound that can make the ASG-2 sound slightly sterile at times. For instance, Slow and Steady is a song that is abundant with tiny details here and there, especially in the first minute. It's bustling with activity in a way that gives me the imagery of a busy rainforest. The ASG-2 presents that song very well, and all the details are there, but the taller presentation feels a bit like one is floating above the forest floor. Vocals are taller as well and meet you as you levitate, but the tiny details are left flat on the floor. The N6 brings you back to the hard earth. The sound is a good deal less spacious, but now the scene is teeming with life. The smaller details are fuller, and more fleshed out.
As you can imagine though, the opposite can be true for other songs that thrive on the ASG-2's spaciousness. Ho Hey is one of them. The treble peak, which can be be sometimes bothersome, wakes up cymbals and adds a bit more life to vocals. Rivers and Roads is another track that showcases the differences between the two.
Aside from those differences, I find most else to be a wash more or less. The bass on the G2 reaches deeper, is tighter, and can present a bit more texture. In response, the N6's treble is more refined and lacks the G2's potentially sibilant 9khz/10khz peak.
I honestly could be happy with either one.
What has been said about the ER4S that hasn't already been said. This old veteran has been around for almost as long as I've been alive, and it's still going very strong.
My first real encounter with the Etymotic range came through the HF5, which I found fantastic, despite having to slightly cut away at the 2 kHz region for my tastes. I've wanted to hear the ER4S since. Luckily I now have the chance, thanks to a good friend.
Build, fit, etc.
The ER4S, along with all Etymotic iems, has a very utilitarian feel to the build. Nothing is lacking, and nothing feels like a frivolous addition. The ER4S also has removable cables, but Etymotic recommends not tampering with them, rather that the customer send the sets in for cable replacement.
As for fit, this is an interesting one. Etymotic's bread and butter comes from its single balanced armature phones, and the ER4S is more or less considered the grand-daddy of them all. As such, one needs an extremely (some say absurdly) deep fit to get the best out of them. Achieving this fit is, I imagine, not unlike losing one's anal virginity...that's how uncomfortable it is. Still, the result is pretty worth it.
If you achieve the reference plane fit with the ER4S, you're rewarded with excellent clarity and micro details throughout the range, with the exception of the lower bass region. Despite the less than stellar sub-bass, the mid-bass is extremely tight and flat. It's almost like looking down a long highway on a summer's day. Speed and texture are also remarkable, as the bass can get pretty grungy when the song calls for it. I personally find the ER4S' bass to be the best performing part of its sound signature.
Overall, the ER4S' signature is more or less linear, up until a huge spike in the upper mid range. This spike is most likely the main reason for the ER4S' love it or hate it reputation:
Vs. the ASG-2
It's taken me so long to do the comparison because I've been giving myself a washout period where I didn't listen to the ASG-2. The two are drastically different signature wise, so I figured I'd take a week and not listen to either so I could have a fresh set of ears.
Music & Gear
iPod Classic 6th Gen -> Tralucent T1 -> ER4S/ASG-2
My Head is an Animal - Of Monsters and Men
Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Split the Atom - Noisia
Nothing Was the Same - Drake
The first track I A/B'ed the two on was Could This Be by Noisia. The ER4S' linearity in the bass was truly awesome to behold. It was like looking at the individual notes as they "passed by" so to speak. The soundstage is nothing special, the highs are perfect, and the mids don't get in the way here. I switch to the ASG-2 (remember this is my first time hearing them in a week), and it's immediately so much more full and 3D than the ER4S. The bass retains almost every bit of texture, but has some extra kick to it. This adds up to a more involving experience for me. I hear a slight treble spike in the ASG-2 (around 9 or 10k) that isn't bothersome.
I'm still feeling pretty lethargic after finals week, so here's the gist of the differences:
1) Greater treble extension for the ER4S
2) ASG-2 has more sparkle due to 10k spike
3) ER4S is slightly faster
4) ASG-2's mid-bass can be bloated compared to the ER4S
5) ASG-2's soundstage has much greater height and depth. I also hear better spatial imaging with the ASG-2.
6) One defining difference comes in how they each present the upper mids. They are polar opposites in this fashion, with the ER4S being quite boosted, and the ASG-2 being recessed in this area.
Hope this helps!
Fischer Amps FA-4E XB
I have to admit, I thought this was a hybrid when I first put them in my ears. It was only after a song or two that I held them up to the light and noticed a distinct lack of a dynamic driver in the shell. Safe to say, I'm rather impressed by the sound that they've extracted from this guy. More on that later.
The FA-4E XB is a quad BA setup from another German company called Fischer Amps, and it's one of the best BA-based IEMs I've heard. Physically, I find them quite comfortable. The shell is small and ergonomic and, though it vacuum seals, the uber-shallow fit allows for great comfort with tips like the Ortofons. Isolation is also very good.
Without looking at the FR graph, I'd describe the overall sound of the FA-4 as relatively flat, with boosted sub-bass and upper mids, though the upper mid-bass boost isn't quite at Etymotic levels. I'm also finding the treble to be pretty extended and present. Details are emphasized, but the overall signature doesn't come off as cold to me due to the sub-bass that balances everything out nicely. I do notice a hard edge/some tizz to the treble though.
The bass deserves its own paragraph because of how proficient it is. It exhibits the most extended sub-bass I've heard from any BA based iem short of the Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS. Texture is great, the bass itself is very dynamic and organic. I listened to Drake's Started From The Bottom and Kings of Leon's I Want You as a sort of test for how the bass "moves". I love the way the bass just rises and falls organically with the music, never seeming to strain. The quantity also never seems to be out of place. I don't think I've been impressed by bass like this in a while. Add in the boosted upper mids, and you retain clarity no matter how much bass is in the song. One thing to note is that the bass only shows its capability when it is asked for. There is no bleed or bloat whatsoever.
Another key thing that I've noticed in the FA-4 is just how sharp the imaging is, and how individual cues are placed very distinctly I have a track to test this on later.
This is very technically impressive phone. The FR is below this:
Vs the ASG-2.
1) The Language - Drake. Chosen as a test for bass tactility and dynamics, especially in the sub-bass. Warning, salty language.
Firstly, I feel the bass of theFA-4 reaching slightly deeper than the ASG-2. To put it how the sensation of the bass feels, I feel the ASG-2's rumble stop slightly below my jaw line, while I feel the FA-4's rumble reach down into my throat with slightly more authority. The G2's sounds fuller though, with greater height. But the bass sounds slightly top-heavy compared to the FA-4. I mentioned earlier how the FA-4 can have some glare, and it's apparent here. Drake's voice is sounds more etched on the FA-4, and the synth riff can sound harsh at slightly higher volumes. I love the clarity and extension of the FA-4 here, and I love the G2's height and smoothness also. I find both equally enjoyable.
2) Neon Cathedral - Macklemore. To test for spaciousness and instrument realism.
Both iems sound quite realistic with instruments and vocals. The differences come in their respective presentation styles. The FA-4 reminds me of the taste of dry gin, while the ASG-2 is like a swig of Bailey's. Both good, but both going about getting you drunk in different ways. I specifically listened between 2:42 and 3:22 for how each iem would handle that passage. The FA-4 can come off as slightly dry, with Macklemore's voice having a slight edge to it. The G2 slightly reduces that edge, allowing for some headroom. The second half of the passage incorporates some ambiance, and both do a great job. However, I feel like the G2's warmer touch and slightly more expansive stage make the experience more immersive. I prefer the G2 here.
3) 24th Street Blues - Lee Ritenour. Imaging test, realism with cymbals, etc.
I've played the drums for years, and it's probably my favorite overall instrument. The way the drumset is mixed in this track puts you in the drummer's chair, and you can sort of visualize yourself playing. The FA-4's shorter decay and more present treble really help with the image. While I find that the G2 places the cues properly as well, it doesn't do it with as much aplomb as the FA-4. The differences in presentation are also apparent here. The G2's lusher sound really make trumpets and cymbals more seductive, but the FA-4 gives the brass instruments and snare more snap and "followability" (if that makes any sense. Again, I find both equally enjoyable here.
As you can tell, I really like the FA-4E XB. IMO, it easily stakes its claim to the upper tier realm. I only wish I had the Etymotic ER4S to see how they match up technically. What I do have here though is the FitEar F111!
F111 vs FA-4E (this one's for you, gnarlsagan)
Testing using Ben Howard's Everything, and Macklemore's Cowboy Boots
The FA-4E is immediately so much more spacious than the F111, with even nicer and natural mids. I hear greater detail and black space in the FA-4. Add in better bass extension, and you have a phone that is simply on another tier to my ears. I do find that the F111 commits a cardinal sin to my ears. I have very high standards about the quality of my midrange and vocals. The F111 offends me by having a slight radio-ish tonality to the mids. Combine that with the Diffuse Field-esque forwardness, and it's just a big no-no for me. The FA-4 sounds much more right and effortless to my ears. I also prefer the FA-4's treble presentation/integration with the rest of the FR.
Again, on another tier. All IMO of course.
Cardas EM5813 Ear Speakers
As far as I know, this iem has been in development for quite some time and, after numerous delays, it's finally been released to the market.
There have been some very mixed impressions about it from members here, and from other audio sites I sometimes browse. As such, I'm pretty grateful for the opportunity to hear them myself.
Firstly, this is a rather impressive looking phone. The shell is of a brassy colour not very dissimilar to the Piano Forte VIII; the cable is quite thick and inspires a good deal of confidence in the build quality, and the strain reliefs look capable enough to handle the load of the cable. All is fine and dandy...until you place them in your ears for the first time. I have pretty bad driver flex on this pair upon every single insertion attempt. I don't know if this has killed IEMs over time, but it's certainly not pleasant to experience. The second issue comes from the cable. I haven't encountered one this unwieldy since the original Tralucent silver cable. It's thick, heavy, and very microphonic. I found myself sitting still as a rock when listening to the EM5813 just to avoid any sudden movements that would make the cable growl at me. I tried to listen to it yesterday while folding laundry, but I quickly gave up and reached for my ASG-2. Overall, it's a fine looking iem, but incredibly impractical.
The Cardas cable (on the right) compared to the stock CIEM cable used by the ASG-2 and FA-4E XB.
The ASG-2's earpieces feel almost half the weight of the Cardas'
SO SHINY AND PRETTY!!!
My initial impressions were not exactly favorable, so it was recommended that I let them burn in some more. I've left them on my clip+ all weekend, and switched to the Auvio large tips.
The overall signature is what I'd describe as very warm and sweet. The focus here is obviously in the mid-bass and lower mids. The treble, while extended with good timbre, is quite recessed. What this leads to is a sound that I consider overly dark. The biggest thing I can't get over is a sort of fuzz with vocals that sets off my claustrophobia after a while. The actual soundstage is not small, but that quality in the vocals and overall sound signature reminds me of a room like this:
This tuning makes me not want to listen to most of my library. Combine this with the excess mid-bass, and I don't think I'd keep these around very long if they were mine. *Now, in the sake of fairness I want to point out that a lot of this might be due to the driver flex. However, I've tried to eliminate this possibility by using my sawed off complys and TS-500, both yielding the same type of sound. Maybe the Ear Mirrors don't exactly mirror my own ears.
Compared to the ASG-2:
Test Tracks and Gear:
iPod Classic 6th Gen -> Tralucent T1. This was my primary setup, but I confirmed my findings with the iPhone 4 and my desktop setup.
For Reasons Unknown - The Killers
Your Love - The Outfield
Move Your Body - Nina Sky
Only Love - Ben Howard
Valerie - Amy Winehouse (Back to Black version)
I started off with the Amy Winehouse song because I thought it would play most to the Cardas' strengths....and I was right. Something about Amy's voice song works really well here, and the electric guitar to the left is just having a grand old time. Amy's vocals are stark, yet smooth, but the background vocals exhibit the fuzz I mentioned earlier. I switch the ASG-2 and start laughing. The vocal intimacy is still there, but her voice is so much more clear, and the background vocals are much more defined and separated. There's also less mid-bass on the ASG-2, making the sub-bass tones of the guitar more articulated and less masked. The electric guitar has a taller soundstage to play around in. I can hear tiny inflections that are simply absent in the EM5813.
I hit next on the playlist, and Your Love starts playing. It's one of my favorite songs overall, and the G2 simply makes it come alive. Switching to the Cardas, the soundstage collapses in due to the extra warmth, and the fuzz is there again. One of my favorite parts of the song is around 1:30, where the toms on the drum set kick in. You can follow them from the right to the left side of the sound field. The ASG-2's extra soundstage height help with the imaging, and the extra treble presence gives better attack to the impact.
I use Move Your Body for bass performance sometimes and, with the ASG-2 as the baseline, the warmer nature of the EM5813 works better in its favor here. Though the ASG-2 has greater detail, separation, etc., the EM5813's more laid back treble allows for higher volumes than the ASG-2 can manage without sibilance. That adds up to more headroom for the bass. The EM5813 sounds more fun on this track.
Last was Ben Howard's Only Love. Again, the EM5813's midrange haze was a distraction. However, the extra warmth and intimacy was nice. Then I remembered I could open my ASG-2's bass port to achieve the same level of warmth without that haze. I also think I hear a bit of shoutiness in the Cardas. I'm also noticing some timbre issues due to its tonality, in that some instrument harmonics are screwy or missing due to the way the FR is skewed.
I really don't know what to say about the EM5813 as a package. It has its moments of brilliance, but the bad far outweighs the good to my ears. I have a feeling that the metal housing may have something to do with the way it sounds, as it has a (very small) trace of the Piano Forte's overall character (the tuning is drastically different though). I don't see it as a practical package, either in sonics or ergonomics.
InEar StageDiver 3
I've been really looking forward to this one.
The SD3 is a triple balanced armature phone in a 2-way configuration - 2 bass drivers, and the other handles mids and highs.
It currently retails for 469 Euros at Thommann, which works out to about USD $600, this puts it in line as a direct price competitor to the ASG-2.
Build quality wise, this is a very good looking phone. I love the piano black finish, and it seems they put a lot of work into getting it to fit just right despite its size. It's about 25% larger than the ASG-2, but doesn't even feel that way inside the ears. It may ultimately end up being even more comfortable for some due to its smaller nozzle size. It's really physically reminiscent of the TG334, but even better looking (IMO, of course), and has the advantage of using standard Westone style cables.
As for the sound, this is really one unique phone. I looked into the specs after hearing the phone, and I didn't doubt them at all.
This is one of those cases where the drivers used can tell you how the phone will sound. It's not so much that the bass is terribly emphasized, it's just that the sound is tilted heavily towards that region. It lends to a very warm and thick sound. Though the soundstage is fairly large, the center stage feels quite congested because the mids and bass seem to be fighting for the same space. There is plenty of bleed, and the mids can often stand behind the bass. The treble has just enough presence to avoid being called absent. I also find the timbre of some instruments and, like the electric guitar and snare, to be thrown off by this tonality. Some vocals also come off as a bit stuffy.
Tuning aside, the technicalities are pretty good. Detail retrieval is there, imaging is there, it just sounds really clouded. It's almost like someone tried to copy the FitEar 334, but took a few wrong turns somewhere along the way.
I think the sound could be greatly helped by a few, well-placed strokes of EQ. In fact, I really want to use the same one I used on my ASG-1.2, but I don't have access to my computer anymore.
Now, vs the ASG-2...
Compared to the SD3, the ASG-2 is immediately much clearer in the mids, and the bass is a good deal more controlled. It's also more extended in the bass and treble. The key difference here is just how much more air there is to the sound. The lower mids of the ASG-2 are a step back, and the more linear FR allows for so much more space for the sound cues to dance. Vocals are more holographic, the bass is deeper, with a lot more texture (Party Rock Anthem is a good test for this), and the signature is faster overall.
Wish - The Flashbulb
Going from the SD3 to the ASG-2 produces improved clarity on this track, especially with the cymbals and snare hits. The timbre improves slightly, but not as much as I thought it would, given the sound sig differences.
Limit to Your Love - James Blake
I'm using this track to test for bass control, instrument separation, and timbre.
Again, the biggest improvement comes in the form of clarity - not the false clarity that comes with overly boosted treble, but true clarity (whatever that means). There's also greater separation, bass extension, as well as timbre. Gone is the stuffy feeling in the mids and bass. I could "feel" the bass reach further down into my chest, while still remaining tight and impactful. James Blake also did several voice overs in the vocal tracks, and each was more apparent on the ASG-2.
Thirst - City and Colour
The differences are the same here, but there's the added element of rock guitars. The SD3 tended to muck up the guitars, and just lacked overall bite compared to the ASG-2. Whereas the distortion guitars sounded like buzzing, pulsating instruments, the SD3 made them sound more like phones vibrating on a desk.
I had a few more tracks in mind, including some of the ones Sinth sent, but it would be more of me repeating myself.
Now, despite how negatively I may have spoken of the SD3, I think it's a good performing phone. I may even venture to say that it's actually be priced accordingly, given the crazy prices of TOTL iems nowadays. It's just that the ASG-2 is that much better. Still, the SD3 has a very distinct flavor to it that may or may not be to your liking. I can personally appreciate it, but I feel like the ASG-2 is a much better option, especially when you take their similar prices into consideration.
Carlsan will have his pair back soon, so he'll be able to do his own comparison.
The next few paragraphs will be my sincerest attempt at not gushing about the 1Plus2.
First off, the 1Plus2 is exorbitantly expensive. If you want to get your hands on a pair, expect to pay USD $1,300 if you want to go through Musica Acoustics, and this before any any of the special cables. Furthermore, the price you pay for the 1Plus2 goes entirely towards the sound (and some profit, of course). I say this because the sound is pretty much the only impressive aspect of the 1Plus2. Ergonomics are just short of terrible, the stock cable is very stiff and has a mind of its own, and the build quality inspires zero confidence. I usually baby loaner iems anyway, but I felt the need to handle the 1Plus2 like a freshly delivered neonate. I know one can't expect FitEar-like precision from everyone, but I'm sure they can do better than this.
When I first listened to the 1Plus2, I was immediately struck by how similar the tonal balance was to the Beyerdynamic DT880 that I owned for a couple of months. Both phones share a slightly boosted low end, and mids that are scooped just enough to showcase an amazing treble response. The treble itself works wonders for the overall sound, bringing clarity, detail emphasis, and changes in timbre that are either negative or positive depending on the song.
To me though, the real hallmark of the 1Plus2 is its soundstage and imaging. The stage is about the same size as that of the ASG-2, but the 1P2 has the sound signature to take advantage of that space, creating a starker image thanks to the increased treble and lessened bass response. The scooped midrange also moves the vocals far back enough to allow sound cues to dance around the stage more.
Note weight is decidedly lighter on the 1P2 than on the ASG-2. I've outlined the benefits of this already, but there are also downsides. For instance, I like a good bit of rock music, and I like my distortion and electric guitars full, crunchy, and powerful, toms deep and impactful, and vocals that have emotion. I don't get this with the 1P2, at least not vs the ASG-2. Guitars sound remarkably less full, and the song loses the engagement factor for me.
I went on to test the soundstage of both iems using Chesky's Explorations in Space and Time binaural album (seriously, you need to buy it now if you don't already own it). the test confirmed for me that both iems are equal in soundstage dimensions, but the 1P2's change in sound sig goes a long way towards creating a starker image.
A/B'ing these two iems is actually pretty difficult because they're so different. Switching immediately from the 1Plus2 to the ASG-2 will produce a bloated and muddy mess, while going from the ASG-2 will find the 1P2 sounding tinny and bright. Of course, things right themselves once the brain is allowed to reorient itself to each of the signatures.
Morning Song - The Lumineers
This song should be on a disc sent with every demo pair of the 1Plus2. Personally, I was slightly unimpressed by the 1P2 until this track came around on shuffle. The cymbal presentation here is simply unheard of. I think it just may be the best reproduction of cymbals I've ever heard. The mids and bass are ok, but it's the treble that steals the show here. I've heard of gear synergy, but this song on the 1P2 is pure symbiosis. The ASG-2's sound signature just couldn't keep up here. This is the only song where I could say that I certainly preferred the 1P2 to the ASG-2.
Helping Hand - YoYo Ma, et al.
This track is an example of the two opposing tuning philosophies adopted by each iem.
The 1P2 is rather aggressively detailed here, but the recessed midrange takes away from the recording. I have to turn up the volume to get the strings to have the kind of body that I'm used to hearing in real life, but then the treble starts becoming too much, making the violins too bright. Notes are a good deal thinner vs the ASG-2, which I feel affects transparency slightly. The ASG-2, on the other hand, sounds a lot fuller. It manages to capture the rise and fall of the recording more efficiently despite its warmer signature. It's a case of clarity vs transparency here, and I ended up preferring the ASG-2's presentation.
The Way I Am - Ingrid Michaelson
Again, I had to boost the volume to get vocals to have the kind of body I want from the 1P2. Mark you, it has greater clarity than the ASG-2, but a side effect of the thinner note weight is that it seems like it's trying a bit too hard. Ingrid's voice sounds slightly grainy, a problem I had with my DT880, and the brighter treble is evident in the overly lively snap of the hand claps.
Moody's Mood for Love - Quincy Jones and Co.
I expected the ASG-2 to completely take this one, but the 1P2 more than held its own. The 1P2's sound sig works well here, and the clarity does great as well. However, the ASG-2 takes it a step further (to my ears), reminding me of my favorite smoky jazz club in New Orleans. It removes that bit of grain that the 1P2 has, and adds smoothness and further immerses you in the music.
I also A/B'ed the two using these tracks:
Flower Duet - Adriana Kohutkova
Bronte - Gotye
A Dagger Through the Heart of St. Angeles - alexisonfire
I'd go into detail for these songs, but the differences are the same as I've already outlined.
I can't say that I'm disappointed by the sound of the 1Plus2. It's a marvelous sounding iem, with a soundstage that takes no prisoners. However, I'm not a fan of its tonal balance. As a matter of fact, my impressions of it mirror the progression of my time with the Beyer DT880. I started off impressed by just how open sounding it is, and how the treble is truly awe-inspiring when it hits its stride. Unfortunately such a signature doesn't do very well to my ears for extended periods of time, and there is a certain level of grain that is almost inevitably there. I ended up selling the DT880 to buy the Sennheiser HD600, and I'd do the same if the 1Plus2 was mine. Really, if you want to have a fantastic representation of the way the 1Ps and ASG-2 compare without spending $2,000, get our handson the DT880 and HD600.
Gavin contacted me not long after this comparison thanking me for my feedback about the 1Plus2. He also offered me an opportunity to see the advancements they'd made in build quality and ergonomics. Of course, I jumped to say yes.
Fast forward a few weeks and this new 1Plus2 is in my hands. The black carbon fiber faceplates, with a black shell make for a gorgeous iem. The most notable thing here is that the body of the 1Plus2 feels a lot sturdier, and the cable jack inspires much more confidence than before. As for the cable itself, the word "improvement" doesn't quite emphasize how much better this one is than the last. It's a lot thinner, more flexible, and is less of a pain to deal with. Microphonics are also noticeably reduced. This makes for a much more pleasant listening experience.
As for the sound, I immediately noticed something different. There is definitely more sub-bass in this pair than the last one, and the treble is a much more controlled. I don't know how much of the change has to do with the fact that this pair is using the silver/gold upgrade cable, but it's a pretty large difference. It retains the overall characteristics of the pair I heard before, but improves on the overall tonal balance of the iem.
As for the cable itself, it's made me a believer. I tried it on the ASG-2, and it's as if I unlocked a hidden level of performance just above my current one. A/B'ing the stock and Translucent cable shows improvements on the side of the latter. The most notable change is the added control in the upper bass and lower mids. It removes a good deal of bloat from the stock cable, leaving only a tinge of warmth down there. I preferred the ASG-2 before, but now the margin has grown wider.
All in all, both the 1P2 and G2 are world class iems. I feel like they're equal performers on a technical level, but preferences will dictate which iem one finds more suited to their listening tastes.
I'm pretty excited about this particular shootout, because these two phones share the exact same sound signature. To raise the stakes even more, both phones currently have the reputation of the some of the best mids in the IEM game.
The 334, like the ASG-2, has relatively smooth treble, forward mids, and robust lows.
I'll be focusing mostly on the mids for the review, but I'll try to be thorough about the rest of the sound.
Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
I chose this track because it's overflowing with tiny nuances. It will be a good way to test detail retrieval.
Little Hell - City and Colour
I'l be looking for how well Dallas Green's voice is portayed, the timbre of the snare, and the shimmer of the cymbals.
Turning Tables - Adele
It's Adele. She's awesome.
I Will Wait - Mumford and Sons
This will be a test for PRAT, and other other audiophile words that imply "fun"
** Before I begin, there is something that should be disclosed. The TG334 is a loaner from a fellow member here. He sent it out as a package that includes the 334, BTG audio cables for the 334, and the same BTG Audio with Westone pins for compatibility with the ASG-2, so I could try them out to hear the differences. Unfortunately, he forgot to pack the 334's stock cable, so I'll have to use the BTG cables on both phones to do the comparison. I'm also using the ASG-2's (very good) stock double flange tips on the 334.
The stock cable, along with some Ortofon tips, should arrive on Friday. I'll update this post then. Now that's out of the way,
Starting with Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah on the TG334 is simply haunting. The sound is unmistakably colored, but it's such a natural sounding effect. Jeff's voice and guitar lovingly caress you through the warmth, and resolution is simply top notch. I switch over to the the ASG-2 and hit play, then promptly walk to my bathroom mirror to make sure I'm not still wearing the TG334. WOW! The phones are so close in technical ability and signature that it would take a seasoned ear to listen out for the differences. As I scrape my jaw off the floor, I start to listen more closely for differences. In that light, please take into consideration that the differences I am about to describe are within roughly 5%, 10% at the most. Definitely noticeable, but require closer listening and potentially higher volumes.
Resolution of raw detail in the mids is dead even. Anything the TG334 could pick out, the ASG-2 could too. The differences came in the slight variations in tuning. The TG334 has a warmer, lusher sound compared to the ASG-2's drier tone. The 334 added a tinge of warmth that worked magic at certain points of Hallelujah, but the result was a cloudier sound after a quick switch from the ASG-2. The ASG-2 also had better treble presence and extension, adding to the slight clarity gap between the two phones. I'm sure extra warmth could have been added to the ASG-2 by opening the bass port, but I left it as is seeing that not everyone might go for the bass port option.
City and Colour's Little Hell was a totally different story. The TG334 sounds downright honky compared to the ASG-2 on this track. The ASG-2 has a lot (note that the "lot" is italicized and bolded) better treble timbre and presence. This song was recorded in a hollowed out cathedral, and the ASG-2 gives off the ambiance much better than the TG334 can. Dallas Green is a good deal clearer, the guitars are more delicious, and the atmosphere is right. Dale (Aurisonics CEO) wasn't kidding when he said that these weren't any ordinary balanced armatures. The ASG-2's upper mids appear a bit more laid back here, adding to the sense of space.
I Will Wait was more interesting. With the ASG-2's bass ports closed, the TG334 had more (welcome) bass, than helped add a more toe tapping vibe to the track. Mids and treble were more equal, as I could pick out about equal detail in both phones.
I don't know what made the difference so large in Little Hell. Maybe it was because the song required the use of much more treble, prompting the ASG-2's tweeters to kick it up a notch. The other songs were more focused down in the mids, so I guess that explains my results.
Take this as a preliminary comparison, as I'm awaiting the ortofon tips for the 334 that should alleviate some of the pressure that is caused by the closed design. Maybe this will have a positive impact on the sound. I'll update on Friday evening.
The stock cable and Ortofon tips arrived yesterday, and I've spent the morning redoing the comparisons.
The differences remain the same to my ears, even completely stock on both.
However, I have to comment on the rather large comfort difference the Ortofon tips bring to the TG334. The 334 is a sealed design, and as such puts very substantial pressure on the ear upon insertion. I can only stand to insert use the 334 with double flange tips or foams. However, the Ortofon tips are made of a material that somehow manages to alleviate this pressure. It's the only single flange that I can use without discomfort, and it brings the extra ease of insertion and comfort of single flanges.
Neon Cathedral - Mackelmore
So Me a Say - Vybz Kartel (Jamaican Dancehall music) - You need to hear this on the ASG-2
I Want You - Kings of Leon
Gone - Lianne La Havas - Amazing singer, among the best of her generation
The sound signature of the IE800 is rather linear, with a large boost in the sub-bass. Switching from the ASG-2 to the IE800 will produce a very apparent boost in clarity, and uncovers detail in the treble. The midrange of the IE800 is also more laid back, with a more effortless sound thanks to the lessened mid and upper bass, and the extra sparkle in the treble. One caveat here is that the treble is rather delicate, to put it lightly. Cymbals sound like they're being struck with chopsticks instead of drumsticks, and there is a very slight tizziness on some tracks. I'm not complaining though, as it contributes to what it simply the best midrange I've heard. Notes are a good deal lighter than on the IE800, further adding to the clarity of the range.
The bass is simply better on the IE800. It's just cleaner, and stays in the sub-bass region where the rumble is felt more than heard. It is actually slightly more extended down low compared to the ASG-2. The ASG-2 is very visceral above 60 Hz, but ends up running out of energy below 20Hz. The difference between the "bass-es" can be described with this old ad:
The ASG-2 is her, before the "movement", and the IE800 is the end result.
Now, the ASG-2 does win in several respects. The soundstage is taller and a bit more 3D. What this results in is, in addition to the more forward and dynamic midrange, is a vocal presentation that is equally as unique as the IE800's. Voices seem to roll of your own tongue. It's as if you were the one singing, a very addictive effect. The midrange is also just as resolving as the IE800's, which only adds to the amazing vocal presentation. Lianne La Havas' voice never fails to stun me, given the intimacy of her voice on the ASG-2. It's rare to encounter an artist who can pour her soul out through her voice.
One other important thing to mention about the IE800 is the delicate treble...that also happens to be a gremlin. In the same way that a gremlin should never be fed after dark, it is equally dangerous to listen to the IE800 at high volumes. The thin, docile treble suddenly becomes more and more razor like as you add decibels. When it reaches a threshold, it's almost unbearable. In comparison, the ASG-2's treble always remains smooth, and gains clarity the louder it goes. I listen at around 55% of my iPhone 4's capacity, so I'm usually at the point where the treble is just right for me.
In the Vybz Kartel song I posted (seriously, listen to it. It's ok if you don't understand the words...I'm a professional Jamaican, so I do.) the ASG-2 is a good deal more "fun", since I can crank the volume, and the bass and treble always remain under control, all the while with the vocals floating slightly above the mix. The same goes for Neon Cathedral (listen to that too...I post these songs to share my music tastes ).
Altogether, I slightly prefer the IE800. The balance, combined with the exquisite sub-bass, is my ideal sound sig...aside from the thin treble. I would actually be pretty upset if I didn't, given that the IE800 is twice the price of the ASG-2. My original thoughts on the ASG-2 are still very valid, it's just that it's flaws are all the more apparent beside the IE800.
I was going to do a write-up about the Flat-4 similar to how I did the other iems, but I'm afraid I can't because I simply don't know how I feel about it yet.
The Flat-4's sound is quite the anomaly, similar in radicality to Final Audio's Piano Forte series. Now it doesn't have the same frequency response (not even close), but it's equally as strange to my ears.
What I hear from the Flat-4 is...detail. Straightforward detail. I can't really pin down a sound signature that would make sense. All I know is that the Flat-4 is probably the most ruthless iem I've listened to. Every last detail is shown, every rise and fall in the track, every parting of lips, every slight shift in the pianist chair, every page turn in an orchestral piece, and every shift in the sound stage. This is a radically analytical phone, but with a very powerful low end. You won't get any warm caresses, nor any lingering shimmer of a cymbal. Just pure detail. If the song is recorded well, awesome. If not, sorry.
But what truly defines the Flat-4 for me, and the reason I'm so firmly planted on the fence about it, is just how raw it sounds. For me, an important hallmark of a top of the line headphone or iem is the level of refinement it can produce. The Flat-4, however, is a detail monster that doesn't have the last touches of smoothness on the edges of notes, yet it's an extremely engaging listen. Aside from the standard well mastered files, I'm finding that I also have to listen to music I actually like for me to enjoy the Flat-4. It's almost as if it presents me the details, then uses my emotional attachment to the songs as the glue that binds the experience together. A very popular phrase I see around here is "OMG, this song sounds amazing on X headphone." I haven't had that experience even once with the Flat-4. Instead, all I think is "I really do love this song." An example of this was last night when I was laying down with the lights off, and Gavin DeGraw's "We Belong Together" (the stripped version) came around on shuffle. All at once, while listening to the F4, the lyrics took on deeper meaning, and the song really touched me. I almost called my girlfriend up to tell her I love her. Almost.
I usually try not to wax poetic about iems, and I generally succeed. Only the Piano Forte VIII and Flat-4 have managed to pull this out of me.
While typing this up, I thought of a way to describe the Flat-4. I imagine it as sitting on an outside terrace at 6 am on a cold spring morning. There's nothing out there but you and your thoughts, and it's at that time, in that moment, that you think most clearly.
As for comparing it to the ASG-2, I don't think I really can. What I will say is this...
The Sennheiser IE800 is probably my favorite IEM to date. I'll probably own one down the line. However if someone were to offer me a choice between it and the Flat-4, given that I already own the ASG-2, I would take the Flat-4. It would probably it in a drawer most of the time, but every once in a while I'd listen to it...maybe while sitting on an outside terrace on a cold winter spring morning with a cup of green tea in my hands.
Rhapsodio RDB+ 2v1
I don't like it. I don't like it at all.
The most apparent thing here is the lack of note weight in the mids and highs, combined with (rather good) sub-bass. Upon further investigation I found out that it was a TWFK design, with an 8mm dynamic driver handling the bass.
I'm personally not a fan of the TWFK sound, with the exception of a few well-tuned varieties. The RDB+ is not, to my ears, well-tuned. Combine the lack of note weight with treble that becomes quite peaky at anything but lower volumes, and you get a very uninvolving experience. As for the dynamic driver, I really only hear it come in when the a song calls for heavy bass, or a solid sub-bass line. The whole thing sounds rather like the cheap, tinny speakers in my 1990 Lexus, plus a poorly integrated sub-woofer. I'm actually sorry for the dynamic driver because it puts out such quality bass, but was paired with something so...poor. I actually think my car speakers sound better.
As for songs, I tried listening to everything from acoustic rock, all the way to Celine Dion. Nothing sounded good to my ears. Distortion guitars lacked crunch, drums snaps had very little body, and vocals were distant and lacking emotion, even venturing into nasal more often than not.
Is the RDB+ 2v1 worth anything near its price, given its competition? Heck no. Go buy yourself a full-sized headphone with that money....IMO
Edited by eke2k6 - 1/31/14 at 12:47pm