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The New Age of Portable Audio

post #1 of 40
Thread Starter 

The new age of Portable Audio

 

The rise of universals and the slow decline of custom IEMs

 

There is a paradigm shift occurring with universals that is shaking portable audio to its core. The old-schoolers are having trouble wrapping their brains around what’s happening, and the new guys are thrilled at the plethora of seemingly new and exciting toys to play with at all price levels – and it may even be confusing.

 

Just a few years ago, there was a decided division between universals and customs, unless you were a fan of rare esoteric, extremely expensive universal IEMs. The universal was where you began. Then you would top out with an SE535 or W4, then start the custom gamble. Customs were the next tier in sound quality. This was a typical path.

 

That it not the case any longer. There are new universals that question the entire existence of customs for many people.

 

People’s preferences vary so greatly. If you’re lucky enough to demo a custom, that’s great, but most of us take the word of our piers around here. And owner bias says of course something you spent $1000 on will sound good.

 

Many people took the gamble of customs. Some lucked out, some did not. If you don't love them, you're stuck. This is assuming they fit you right and you don't have to go back and forth getting them refit, or even worse, go back to the audiologist. And overseas (even CONUS) shipping is costly and takes so much time. Then you inevitably grow out of them at some point.

 

The top universals are just as good if not better. They maintain their resale value if you choose to move on to something else. And you never outgrow them. Plus, you have the option of tip-rolling to tweak the sound to your preference if it’s close to what you like.

 

Unless you need superb isolation in a portable package, I see no use for customs. Some argue comfort. But I found nothing comfortable about shoving giant pieces of acrylic up your ears. Universals have less touch-points, and to me are much more comfortable.

 

That is my opinion.

 

There are too many top universals available to take the gamble on a custom these days.

 

Not only have top universals come to dethrone the top customs, but also the quality of the new universals in the middle price-range is becoming more and more impressive. People are comparing the $400 Flat4 SUI to the TG!334. Rhapsodio to Tralucent. Price is becoming less important, and is not an indicator of performance, moreso than ever before.

 

The entire landscape of portable audio is changing, and changing quickly. Less weight is being put into accuracy and graphs, and more weight placed on pure musical enjoyment and how an audio device tugs at your heartstrings. Sometimes the earphone that you connect with emotionally doesn’t look so good on paper. That’s one of the most important things you can learn, and the new onslaught of universal variety is showing people this truth.

 

At the end of the day, this new landscape will force innovation across the portable spectrum. We’re seeing new offerings from the established guys, like Shure and Westone. Now they are playing catch up.

 

The new offerings are outstanding, and there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of new offerings in the making. The old guys, and the new, need to put away with the previous structure, the previous hierarchy that defined portable audio a few years ago. A new day has dawned, an exciting day. Every new offering should be evaluated in this new light. What was before is no more. We are experiencing a renaissance in the portable audio field, and it’s exciting. Lets all hop on board and enjoy the ride.

 

Cheers

post #2 of 40

Hmmmm ... I was about to take a leap (of faith) to a set of JHA16 CIEMs from my Westone 4Rs with comply tips.

 

Now you have me wondering if I would be better off exploring more universal offerings first.

post #3 of 40
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by IceClass View Post

Hmmmm ... I was about to take a leap (of faith) to a set of JHA16 CIEMs from my Westone 4Rs with comply tips.

 

Now you have me wondering if I would be better off exploring more universal offerings first.

 

A leap of faith is exactly what it is. A gamble, a risk... whatever you want to call it. I'm glad I have put the question in your head if customs are really the way to go. I'd definitely encourage you to do some research on some universals before pulling the trigger on a custom. 

 

If you're going for the JH16, sounds like you want some bass with your sound. Try the ASG-2, or some of the Heir Audio stuff. There's so much to explore without taking the chance on a custom. And you also have flexibility with a universal with resale that you don't have with a custom. 

 

Good luck!

 

Edit: The new Shure looks intriguing with the "subwoofer" design : )


Edited by SoundFreaq - 6/7/13 at 3:15pm
post #4 of 40

I went through the same train of thought. Never had the luck to listen to some CIEMs or one of the "god-tier" universal IEMs, but just from the resale value/possible fit issue etc. point of view, I pretty much gave up the thought to go through the whole process of buying some CIEMs. It just sounds too risky for me.

post #5 of 40
Thread Starter 

Risky, and so time consuming. Many days to weeks or months sometimes for the first fit. Then if they don't fit? Man. More waiting. Thank goodness I never had to go back to the audiologist for a re-mold on a pair of customs, but I know plenty of people that had to. Not fun. 

post #6 of 40

I agree with the premiss of this thread. I love the sound quality of my ES5 but I do not intend to get another custom. Actually the custom fit is my least favorite aspect of the ES5.

 

Designs like the 1Plus2, IE800, K3003, TG334... this is the way of the future.

post #7 of 40
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by cooperpwc View Post

I agree with the premiss of this thread. I love the sound quality of my ES5 but I do not intend to get another custom. Actually the custom fit is my least favorite aspect of the ES5.

 

Designs like the 1Plus2, IE800, K3003, TG334... this is the way of the future.

 

Well said. And I agree. It was for me as well when I owned my ES5. I finally got rid of it. 

 

We all need to start getting on board. It's an exciting time to be a part of this revolution. 

post #8 of 40

I generally agree with your feeling on customs, even though I'm not sure I agree that there's an actual revolution happening of the kind you perceive.  I think the market is just becoming more saturated with different options and particularly the higher tier universals are entering the price tier once exclusive to customs.  I see the changes as more to do with the market as opposed to technology, as the average user who wouldn't go for customs anyway becomes comfortable with paying huge $$ for universals.  

 

Personally, I'm skeptical that the AKG3003, the Sennheiser IE800 and the new Shure are actually priced the way are because of costs or new and expensive tech, but rather that they're a response to better market conditions for sellers.  If you see those products as representing something qualitatively different, I could see taking your position.  I think that they could have been released at $500-$600 and people would have readily assumed they were simply the next generation of top tier universals like they did when the W3 replaced the UM2 or the Shure 530 replaced the EC5. 

 

It seems as though the market for both customs and universals has expanded rapidly this last three or four years and I would hesitate to say which has experienced faster growth.  I think there may have been a phase here where they became more popular than they deserved based on their specialty nature, and I think they may now be settling into their proper place.  I think that phase may have been more of a result of the timing of product release cycles, whereby after the UM3X, Shure 530, TF10pro, etc.. there was a lull in new universals.   


Edited by roy_jones - 6/7/13 at 10:06pm
post #9 of 40
Thread Starter 

Hi roy,

 

You have an interesting and most valid viewpoint. 

 

But I do have to disagree that the "revolution" is not in part driven by technology. Never before have we seen so many hybrids of all levels hit the market. Until recently, there were only a couple people that made hybrids, and the top guy was the Merlin, a custom. 

 

I think we're seeing experimentation and innovation in technology - which is boosting the competition, and thus your point of the market simply becoming more saturated is certainly true. But I do believe it's driven by technology We're stepping away from cramming as many BA's into a single earphone, and playing more with well thought-out driver implementation, filters, and combinations and placement of different types of drivers. More drivers is not better. Then there's Final Audio Design working miracles out of their single balanced armature drivers IEMs - all with so much thought behind implementation and tuning. 

 

And if it is a better market for sellers, wouldn't that possibly mean that these new expensive universal offering may not have a demand?

 

I don't think the price dictates the performance. I truly believe these new universals, priced as they are, run circles around mid-tier IEMs and some top-tier customs, and thus are aptly priced. They are not the new gen mid-tier universals. Hopefully with continued innovation and competition, we will see these proces start to come down. 

 

Thanks for the discourse!


Edited by SoundFreaq - 6/9/13 at 3:56pm
post #10 of 40

I also am not sure if I agree with your thesis re: the "Decline Of Customs" and the ascension of TOTL Universals - now I don't have a custom in my possession - yet, but from my time here and my many years in mobile audio - I see a plethora of high-end universals coming to market. You make mention of the Fitear TG!334 and the Rhapsaudio - phones that are universal equivalents of the customs that preceded them. I also see three times as many new customs manufacturers that I did moons ago. I agree with the above poster in that I think that the major manufacturers are hitting a price point they believe will make them a great deal of profitable sales. That sweet spot of 1,000 (euros/pounds/dollars) is a mighty attractive one - small companies that put their sweat equity into these CIEMs that were the first to reach this plateau - and they needed to do so to survive. The cost of components, manual labor, marketing and such made this figure a necessity. We have seen what happens when companies try to pare down that figure in order to win market share - typically quality suffers as the masses (at least the smaller masses of audiophiles) inundate these firms with orders. When that happens, most of the problems inherent in the custom process plow their way to the forefront - and we audiophiles are a cranky, vocal lot. 

 

I look at the custom business as a necessity to the universal business - for if it weren't for the crazed technician with the soldering gun trying to expand the envelope, we wouldn't have some of the technologies that are making their way into the safe, comfortable world of universals. In an odd way it is like the automobile business - and racing improves the breed; multi-BA - multi-dynamic - hybrid, vented, adjustable this or that - detachable cables - many of these ideas came from the custom world. To expand that business to the masses - to those who feel that resale is a large part of their audio equation - who feel that the need to share their love of technology to their fellow (hopefully being altruistic as opposed to an attempt to seed envy) - those who cannot be bothered with the bumps in the road that are needed to create something new - is something the custom industry makes possible by their very existence.

 

I surely hope there isn't a paradigm shift in the balance between custom manufacture and mass market universals - the audio industry sorely needs invention - it isn't going to get it from a boardroom - it will only get it by looking ahead - looking ahead at the ones plowing the earth in front of them. I don't think there is a reason to worry about the high end custom business - there will always be a need for a flagship product - and one of the reasons customs fit that bill is that those who produce the music we so love, aren't making the move to universals - and we as listeners of the product they create will always want to emulate those we respect and admire - "I want one of those things Bono has shoved in his ear!"

 

It isn't going to be an IE800 that has to be messed with in the middle of each song - lol.

post #11 of 40

I really wanted a pair of CIEM's last year but after seriously long email conversation with Dr J. I decided to plump for the new IEM's Heir were releasing (I have a essential-tremor so was worried about insertion problems)..

 

I don't think so much the rise of IEM's over CIEM's, more like the thriving 'cottage industry' that Head-Fi has seen created amongst it's ranks. The innovation and design is pretty astounding and taken the game to higher levels of musical enjoyment, you can pretty much tailor a IEM to your music requirements.... the big guns are left standing trying to figure what to do next as every time they release a new product with 'fanfare & hype' some lil-guy bring out something new the following week that trumps it... long may it last I say.


Edited by OK-Guy - 6/9/13 at 7:44pm

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post #12 of 40
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ivabign View Post

I also am not sure if I agree with your thesis re: the "Decline Of Customs" and the ascension of TOTL Universals - now I don't have a custom in my possession - yet, but from my time here and my many years in mobile audio - I see a plethora of high-end universals coming to market. You make mention of the Fitear TG!334 and the Rhapsaudio - phones that are universal equivalents of the customs that preceded them. I also see three times as many new customs manufacturers that I did moons ago. I agree with the above poster in that I think that the major manufacturers are hitting a price point they believe will make them a great deal of profitable sales. That sweet spot of 1,000 (euros/pounds/dollars) is a mighty attractive one - small companies that put their sweat equity into these CIEMs that were the first to reach this plateau - and they needed to do so to survive. The cost of components, manual labor, marketing and such made this figure a necessity. We have seen what happens when companies try to pare down that figure in order to win market share - typically quality suffers as the masses (at least the smaller masses of audiophiles) inundate these firms with orders. When that happens, most of the problems inherent in the custom process plow their way to the forefront - and we audiophiles are a cranky, vocal lot. 

 

I look at the custom business as a necessity to the universal business - for if it weren't for the crazed technician with the soldering gun trying to expand the envelope, we wouldn't have some of the technologies that are making their way into the safe, comfortable world of universals. In an odd way it is like the automobile business - and racing improves the breed; multi-BA - multi-dynamic - hybrid, vented, adjustable this or that - detachable cables - many of these ideas came from the custom world. To expand that business to the masses - to those who feel that resale is a large part of their audio equation - who feel that the need to share their love of technology to their fellow (hopefully being altruistic as opposed to an attempt to seed envy) - those who cannot be bothered with the bumps in the road that are needed to create something new - is something the custom industry makes possible by their very existence.

 

I surely hope there isn't a paradigm shift in the balance between custom manufacture and mass market universals - the audio industry sorely needs invention - it isn't going to get it from a boardroom - it will only get it by looking ahead - looking ahead at the ones plowing the earth in front of them. I don't think there is a reason to worry about the high end custom business - there will always be a need for a flagship product - and one of the reasons customs fit that bill is that those who produce the music we so love, aren't making the move to universals - and we as listeners of the product they create will always want to emulate those we respect and admire - "I want one of those things Bono has shoved in his ear!"

 

It isn't going to be an IE800 that has to be messed with in the middle of each song - lol.

 

Ha! yeah, there won't be an IE800 being messed with. Customs are for musicians, not necessarily audiophiles. And that stage tuning is something the audiophiles want to get away from. The new universals are not for two markets, they are for one, for us. 

 

To be clear you did mis-quote me about me thesis. It's not TOTL universals, it's all of them. 

 

And you kind of make my point here. The customs lead the way. They were made for Bono, and audiophiles caught on. Now there is an emerging paradigm shift with an influx of universals aimed at the audiophile crowd with unheard-of technology/implementation/experimentation. In fact, I wouldn't say the experimentation we've been seeing the last year was paved by the custom market. I think the custom crowd is learning just as much from the audiophile universal brands, as the new companies, as you astutely noted, learned from the custom existence. 

post #13 of 40
Quote:
Originally Posted by SoundFreaq View Post

A leap of faith is exactly what it is. A gamble, a risk... whatever you want to call it. I'm glad I have put the question in your head if customs are really the way to go. I'd definitely encourage you to do some research on some universals before pulling the trigger on a custom. 

If you're going for the JH16, sounds like you want some bass with your sound. Try the ASG-2, or some of the Heir Audio stuff. There's so much to explore without taking the chance on a custom. And you also have flexibility with a universal with resale that you don't have with a custom. 

Good luck!

Edit: The new Shure looks intriguing with the "subwoofer" design : )

SF, I am in agreement with your original post. I have experienced what you have described first-hand over the past several years. I have gone through several mid to high end universals (Shure, Ety, Westone, Senn) before embarking on the CIEM route with JH13 followed by JH16. After some time with the customs, I found myself using them less and less, followed by almost never. I have since sold them and moved on to more current universals (FAD and Senn(though now sold)). I certainly have been getting much more musical enjoyment out of the current crop of UIEMs. And I think cooper mentioned that the fit was the least liked aspect of customs, which I also found to be true in my case. In short, I won't be going back to customs soon.

Looking forward to more extended impressions with the Shure's, for shure.
post #14 of 40

Perhaps I was unlucky but my CIEM were the most uncomfortable things that I've ever had the misfortune to insert into my ears. Perhaps the audiologist screwed up or I'm just not compatible with molded acrylic, but dang they gave me earache after about 20 minutes of use. My frustration boiled over last summer when the cable plastic split and I'd had enough, so I inserted them into the scarecrow guarding the field of crops behind my house. That made me laugh no end as I wonder whether the farmer noticed them when he removed the scarecrow for the winter.

 

Cheers,

Andy.  

post #15 of 40

In the last year I've noticed a few trends in the IEM marketplace.  1 - There are more high end/cost Universals.  2 - There are many more hybrids (universal and customs).  3 - There are many new companies offering customs, often at excellent prices.

 

My custom is infinitely more comfortable than any universal I have tried regardless of tip rolling.  It also offers better isolation.  To get real isolation with universal tips I either have to shove a triflange so deep into my head it tickles my brain, or cram comply foam in the canal (not in itself an enjoyable process).  A few minutes later I'll likely have to make minute adjustments etc.. etc...  With my custom it screws in, it's in the right spot, it fits, no games required.  Three hours later I do not have to remove them because of the pressure against the inside of my ear.  No matter what you pay for high end universals you're still getting variants of the same tips you got for your $10 IEM.  If that works for your ear, great, but it only works for mine in the short term.

 

Yes customs require more time and commitment, true.  But if I had the option of getting a suit tailored by hand rather than off the rack for the same money I know which one I'd choose.

 

There's also the issue of sound quality.  For the existing IEMs that also have a custom counterpart (i.e. Heir Audio or Aurisonic's offerings) it's an unresolved question if the universal can keep up; it's rare someone would invest in two variants of the same thing.  The few references I've seen to this situation indicate the customs sound better (one example is in the Inner Fidelity custom round up article).

 

I'm very glad the market is growing and offering more, different options for everyone; but that hardly takes away from the unique benefits of custom IEMs.

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