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.