This post is a review of the CustomArt Pro100 single-driver, silicone-molded CIEM. Piotr Granicki (aka piotrus-g), proprietor of CustomArt, sent me the Pro 100 for review. I consider Peter a friend on this forum, having conversed with him many times publicly and privately, even before he began his venture into CIEMs. I personally would like to see him become a success (as I suppose most or all people on these forums would). However, I’ve done my best to be as impartial as possible with all aspects of the Pro100 in this review.
Note (Click to show)
I was actually supposed to have sent out my impressions way earlier, but ran into some unfortunate delays. At the beginning of April, I contracted an adenoviral infection that led to my having the flu for a week, conjunctivitis for two weeks, and then influenza for another week. So, I was shivering, tearing, coughing, and sneezing like a Nyquil commercial all over the place. My Eustachian tubes were plugged up, and my ear canals were swollen. It wasn’t until recently that I got well enough to take ear impressions that fit properly. If this has delayed you from making a decision on whether or not to get a pair of CIEMs from CustomArt during their pre-order period, I apologize profusely, on behalf of the virus. You’d probably feel fit to give it a piece of your mind, but right now it’s currently predisposed with infecting other unsuspecting individuals and is in general an unapologetic entity. You can probably find it hanging with a bad crowd of birds and pigs, but I must warn you, it’s not what it seems. It might seem innocuous at one moment, and then mutate into a malicious murderer on a dime; at the very least, it will seriously incapacitate you. If you ever enter a confrontation with influenza, make sure you bring some backup, like water, bed rest, and oseltamivir.
(Okay, a very weird, esoteric note, but hopefully you get the point!)
CustomArt Pro-Audio Series 100
Preface: From Member to Maven…
Perhaps more so than any other technically-oriented niche hobby, high-end audio self-spawns its next generation of companies and products from within its enthusiast ranks. I’m particularly excited about CustomArt, because it is a creation truly forged by the fires of audiophilic passion.
The brainchild of the Warsaw-based CustomArt is Piotr Granicki (aka Peter, aka piotrus-g on head-fi). Peter began his audio journey quite like the rest of us --- from initial interest in better audio gear, he became a reviewer in his native Poland (for audiohead.pl), and subsequently began experimenting with his own designs, delving deeper and deeper into the art and craft of making custom-molded IEMs.
I first came into contact with Peter when I began exploring CIEMs and turned to the Home-Made IEMs thread to search for information on the design aspects of balanced armature IEMs. Peter was already a helpful fixture in that thread, and we quickly began striking up a conversation regarding the design of BA-based, multi-driver IEMs. Back in the day, when Unique Melody was actually willing to experiment heavily with customers, Peter had an ‘UM-3w’ commissioned. Initially, he had chosen his own drivers, dampers, and crossover design, but in the end let UM make the executive decisions regarding the final acoustic design. At that time (and even now), it was still a pretty substantial feat and from there on out, I basically regarded Peter as my teacher when it came to everything CIEM-related. We would PM back and forth, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of certain designs, analyze what other companies have done, and talk about fantasy designs not yet in existence.
Born from these discussions was the Balanced Armature Chart Project. The two of us, along with a few others, began cataloging the majority of balanced armature-based IEMs, and began listing the known BA drivers used in prominent universal-fit and custom-fit IEMs. Our hope was that DIYers would use this chart as a transparent resource for seeing what most companies chose to use in their designs. While I worked on the chart diligently, it seemed as though Peter was equally, if not even more invested in the project, as he quickly filled in many blanks that I wasn’t aware of.
Then, midway through last year, I was a little surprised to notice that Peter had been given MOT status and asked him about it. Apparently, he’d been running a business making custom-fit ear tips and cables within Poland, and decided it was time to make his services available to the broader head-fi community. He pointed me toward CustomArt’s Facebook page, and it was only then that I realized that not only had Peter been busy making cables and interconnects, but had also been putting his CIEM design knowledge to work (unlike me, just hoarding knowledge like a pack rat when I've never even actually touched an actual acoustic damper or un-soldered BA driver in real life…).
His operation was most impressive, and I was rather astounded by his protean abilities. Most people that cater to audiophiles are specialists --- they either make cables, do mods, or design headphones/earphones. Few do everything. Peter falls into this rare latter category. Thus, I decided to check out one of his CIEM cables, which astounded me with its extreme flexibility (despite being an 8-braid cable) and delighted me with its easygoing sound. I wrote a review of it over here. I was really looking forward to finding out more about his upcoming customs and universals, but at that time, he wasn’t quite ready. Crestfallen, I retreated back into my own world of make-believe seven-driver IEMs, six-way crossovers, and phase-cancelling sound tubes. Incidentally, I was simultaneously entering a stage in my schooling where I had no choice but to study for eight to twelve hours straight, thirty to thirty one days a month. Head-fi became a bit of an afterthought.
The Stifling Search for Silicone
After some time, I emerged from the solitude of my hermit’s cave to face a brave new world. Studying so much made me realize something --- if I were to expand my areas of recluse beyond my room and into an aroma-steeped coffee shop, or at any other publicly-accessible place --- my acrylic customs, while great (I do still appreciate my Heir Audio 4.As), were not as isolating as silicone earplugs that were etymotic (used as a neologism as Mead Killion had intended, meaning "true to the ear", rather than the brand he created). I needed a superior method of sensory deprivation. Thus, I thought that it’d be good for me to invest in a pair of silicone custom in-ear monitors. I wasn’t looking for much; I merely wanted a single-driver model that isolated well and reproduced quality, accurate sound --- no need for pentabores and delayed ignition woofers.
However, I ran into a lot of issues while looking for a silicone CIEM. My first choice was the safe choice --- ACS. I’d been interested in their T3 for a while but was concerned about a few things, including the small, ITC (In-The-Canal) design instead of the traditional full-shell ITE (In-The-Ear) form factor. So, I sent them a long, quizzical e-mail asking about isolation differences between an ITE and ITC form factor, and about how accurate the T3’s frequency response was. Their response? (after a three week lull) “Er, buy an ER4 and we’ll make custom tips for you?” (paraphrasing) As much as I wanted to like that idea, my vanity dictated to me that I shan’t purchase anything that resembles the neck plugs of Frankenstein’s monster. I then saw that Spiral Ear (Poland's other, more famous CIEM company) released the 1-Way Pro, which was said to have an accurate signature similar to the ER4. However, after only one reply, Grzegorz strangely stopped replying to me. I quickly decided I didn’t also want to deal with the hassle of using a proxy to the EU. Ultimate Hearing Protection was something interesting, but they seemed even less interested in servicing people. I had actually forgotten that Minerva even existed and Sensaphonics had stopped producing single driver models, so I was ready to give up when an excited Peter messaged me and told me that his CIEMs were on the cusp of being production-ready.
CustomArt to the Rescue
As much as I tried to search for a witty Polish-related analogy to begin this section, I couldn’t think of any. However, the Big Mac that I’m currently munching on right now has given me some inspiration…
I can only say that crafting custom in-ear monitors is like making that perfect cheeseburger. Almost all burgers are composed of the same basic ingredients: buns, tomato, lettuce, cheese, and a juicy patty. Yes, some places use higher quality beef than others --- Angus steak over regular ol’ ground beef, and gourmet cheese rather than plastic-wrapped Kraft, but the basic makeup is the same. What sets a truly good burger apart from the Burger Kings and the McDonald’s of the world is its execution --- the freshness and fluffiness of the buns, the amount of flame-broiling, the caramelization, and the flavor of the secret sauce.
If you’re a particularly technically-inclined individual, I’m sure that if you ask Peter what he uses and why, he’ll tell you as much as your brain will allow him to tell you. Peter has been very transparent about this information because the unique part about his CIEMs is in the fine-tuning aspects, i.e. tubing diameter/length, horn shape, rear porting volume/shape (for the vented drivers) --- these are the things that really take time to get in order, rather than just driver selection or even the crossover design. It is these little things that are a part of Peter’s special sauce, and only he knows the formula.
So that’s why, on the surface, CustomArt appears to be no different from a company like ACS or Minerva. It also has three different models in its lineup, a single-driver (two variants), dual-driver, and triple-driver model. CustomArt uses balanced armature drivers from Sonion like many other manufacturers. The hypoallergenic, 40-shore density, BioPor AB vulcanizing addition silicone Peter uses is from Dreve Otoplastik GmbH, which provides raw mold materials to countless other CIEM and hearing aid companies around the world. The non-removable cables are sourced from the same companies as the others. The Otterboxes he includes with every order are just like the ones JHAudio and Aurisonics offer.
The CustomArt portfolio does, however, split itself into two distinct product lines: the Pro Audio series and the Music series. As one can guess, the Pro Audio series is intended for audio engineers and stage musicians; products in this line will be tuned with an accurate, fast response that strives for detail. The Music series, on the other hand, is designed specifically for the music listener --- the audiophile or the average music listener looking for a more comfortable fit and more complete audio presentation. I was met with a choice when getting a single-driver model from Peter. I could get either the Pro100, or the Music One. Both used the same Sonion 2300 series driver, but used different damping and employed vastly different venting methods. The Music One was to have more thumpy and extended bass to go with sparking highs, while the Pro100 was to be the consummate musician’s monitor --- honest and unassuming, and focused on the midrange. In line with my more conservative listening tastes, I chose the Pro100.
The turnaround time for CustomArt is fairly standard; barring delays, things will be done in four weeks. Officially, CustomArt quotes a more conservative six to eight week turnaround time.
The following is a timeline of the course my impressions took from putty to earphone:
2013/05/01 – Sent Ear Impressions
2013/05/07 – Notification: Received Ear Impressions
2013/05/29 – Notification: Shells and Electronics Complete
2013/05/31 – Notification: Lacquering/Finishing Complete
2013/06/01 – Notification: Engraving Complete
2013/06/05 – Package Received via EMS
Packaging & Accessories
The Pro100 came in a plain black box well-padded with styrofoam peanuts. Presumably, the box I received is not the final version, so expect a more form-fitting box, along with an embossed logo. Of course, the more important content is inside the box, which houses a clear OtterBox 1000 and a small clamshell-style semi-hard case. The clamshell case is very small, but surprisingly has good height, so it should be able to house CIEMs (and universal IEMs, if you so choose) with no problem, except for perhaps the largest of ears (think of beanstalk-dwelling giants and the Philistines). The monitors, along with a cleaning loop and a cute little dessicant drum, were securely placed inside the OtterBox.
The packaging is currently undergoing revisions.
The ubiquitous OtterBox 1000
Build Quality & Ergonomics
The shells of the Pro100 are smoothly finished with silicone lacquer, soft to the touch, and fairly flexible. My shells are not bubble-free. The are a few bubbles here and there, but in general, clarity is good, and the bubbles are not distracting. The clear shells have a hint of a yellowish tinge (normal for this type of silicone material).
I have not had prior experience with silicone CIEMs, but have seen a good number of ACS models before; I'd say that the quality of the shells sits between the worst-looking ACS shell (numerous bubbles) and the best-looking ACS shell (almost flawless, some fine bubbles). It's generally very difficult to get a completely bubble-free silicone shell, so I find Peter's level of build quality fully acceptable.
On the outside, the laser engravings clearly mark text, but don't expect miracles with artwork. Herein lies the main advantage acrylic monitors have over silicone ones --- the level of fine artwork available on acrylic CIEMs far exceeds the capabilities of what's able to be done on silicone. However, Peter accepts any type of vector format graphic for artwork.
Some bubbles are visible.
(Please note that the way I photographed it isn't particularly flattering toward the clarity of the shell;
there's no backlighting, so the shells appear cloudier than they really are.)
Note the horn design of the Pro100.
In terms of profile, the Pro100 was made to sit flush with my ears; my 4.A tend to stick out quite a bit more. The low profile makes sleeping a lot easier; these will surely be my CIEM of choice when I get on a ten-hour transpacific flight in August.
I get a very good fit with the Pro100, with a positive seal to both ears. The 40-shore silicone is soft and comfortable. As people with silicone monitors will know, however, removing the CIEMs is a bit of a pain. They don't pop out easily like acrylic monitors do, but rather have to be slowly twisted off. The absolute comfort of silicone outweighs this drawback, however. Even though acrylic IEMs are very comfortable, you'll neverthelss still be aware of their presence within your ear. On the other hand, it's altogether too easy to forget you're wearing IEMs with silicone monitors. The way they flex with your canals, and the way they mimic the density of human soft tissue, give silicone IEMs the upper hand when it comes to comfort.
With respect to isolation, silicone is not necessary better, but just different from acrylic. Many people can claim that silicone monitors have superior isolation, but the reality is that silicone isolates better in some frequencies while acrylic isolates better in other frequencies. It's a different isolation profile. Qualitatively, acrylic customs isolate like being inside a thick-walled room, while silicone customs isolate like, well, earplugs. I find that I tend to hear high frequencies more easily with silicone than I do with acrylic, but can somehow play music at lower levels without getting bothered by traffic noise when on the street. Frankly speaking, neither has a clear advantage over the other in any one situation.
Inside, the litz wires connecting the drivers to the cable are of good quality. The cables are sturdy and very flexible, but the length above the Y-split is quite short. People with large heads will find the length troublesome. I have less of a problem with them, as I often cinch the cables behind my head instead of draping them down in front of me. Unfortunately, the cable neck length is an issue that has to be corrected by the cable supplier and not something that can be taken care of directly by Peter. Hopefully, that will change with time when the supplier realizes that people have issues with the length.
Currently, unlike Spiral Ear, Peter doesn't offer removable cables with his CIEMs, but hopefully they'll make an appearance in the future.
The short cable length above the Y-split will be annoying for some.
In general, CustomArt's description of the sound signature of the Pro100 is spot-on. It's a relaxing earphone with a neutral tone, but doesn't do away with all "fun" despite its analytical capabilities --- a very well-rounded type of presentation. Bass is not a problem. There's actually a healthy amount of bass for a single driver IEM, with more bass presence than the ER4P. Overall, I'd say the bass comes closest to the amount present in the HiFiMAN RE-400. The amount of midrange presence and treble brightness is also on par with the RE-400, just with a differing style of presentation. The Audio-Technica ATH-CK70Pro also comes close to the sound of the Pro100.
From the bottom, bass speed is not the quickest I've heard out of a balanced armature, but it's certainly no slouch. Compared to my 4.A, there's a bit more rolloff below 40 Hz, though not completely absent in the sub-bass. The main bass area of 80-150 Hz is well-defined and can definitely kick a little when it has to. Apologies again to the bassheads, however --- the Pro100 won't satisfy your needs. The type of bass response in the Pro100 is made for listeners who require cleanliness in the midrange and thus desire circa neutral levels of bass.
Texture is not specifically "sharp" in the bass. I'm one of those weird listeners that somehow enjoys the type of odd-order harmonic distortion that BA drivers introduce in the bass region, so if you're not one of those people, you won't have a problem with it either. It's not the quintessential "BA sound" but not quite the "natural dynamic driver" style of response either.
At the top, the Pro100 has a gentle, sparkling presence, just enough to give the treble the few flourishes it needs to stand out in a track, but is in general more laid-back than most earphones that are considered "bright". In that respect, the treble is almost dainty-sounding, as it doesn't quite have absolute linearity in the high end, making its presence known in a few choice spots. I find 9.5-12 kHz to be a bit lacking in response. Extension is not bad, but like most broadband BA drivers, the Sonion 2356 starts to trail off at around 15.5k and will disappear somewhere above 16k (honestly, I only hear out to about 16.5k; I used to do 17.5-18k a few years ago, but a stressful lifestyle has accelerated the deterioration of my hearing --- even so, 18k is not "golden ear" territory).
Where the Pro100 really excels in is vocal distinction and accuracy. This is the type of monitor that will easily dissect and distinguish between different vocal sources under a raw sound mix. Its vocal monitoring abilities are its bread-and-butter. While it doesn't match the midrange detail that I've heard in something like an ER4B, the midrange of the Pro100 is purposeful and information-filled. I don't listen to much acapella music, but I found myself enjoying acapella a lot with the Pro100. Classical violin music also sounds superb coming from the Pro100. The 4.A is a bit blunted from 3-4k, and thus the upper pitch range of the violin doesn't especially stand out, but with the Pro100, the violin sounds large and broad, which is something I value as a trained violinist.
The one striking drawback of using a musician-oriented IEM is a relatively narrow soundstage, and the Pro100 is no exception. While not really "narrow", the soundstage of the Pro100 is not particularly remarkable, perhaps because of its matter-of-factly presentation, non-emphasized highs, and modest sub-bass. Like most single-driver earphones, the bit of roll-off on both ends of the spectrum contributes to the smaller soundstage. The present 3 kHz region also presents vocals taller, which may give off the illusion of a smaller, more vocally-focused soundstage. If you’re looking for a really expansive soundstage, the Pro100 may not be for you and you may want to consider the Music One, which is supposed to have a much broader presentation.
Since the Pro100 is a single-driver IEM with a standard BA impedance response (exponential rise), analytical listeners may stand to gain from using an impedance adapter. I used 64 ohms of added serial resistance to bring the DC resistance up to 90 ohms and the impedance to about 106 ohms. The perceived accuracy of the midrange improved, and added a little more detail and extension to the treble area, at the expense of bass response --- all attributes that listeners obssessed with DF-accuracy at the DRM reference point will enjoy --- except for one thing. I noticed that there was a spike around 8.5k, normally only mildly present, that now became significantly more prominent with added resistance. While it didn't reach a point of absolute harshness, it did make a few (hotly-mastered) tracks more annoying that they would've sounded otherwise. Overall, I believe the native tuning is a superior choice, as it maintains a certain pleasant delicacy to the treble that is taken away with added resistance. Nevertheless, accuracy-oriented invididuals may want to experiment with different values of serial resistance to reach their desired target FRs (64 ohms may be a little too much, especially with that 8.5k spike). Personally, I'll be sticking with the native tuning, as 99% of the time, I don't miss the added treble presence and clarity.
Right now, for those of you believing that the Pro100 is a yawn and a stifle, and therefore not worth a look, please strike that thought from your heads. It is a solid, solid little CIEM. If you're a working musician or budding producer on a budget, don't overlook it. If you're a music listener that wants to listen to music cleanly for long periods, the Pro100 is a great choice. It's an IEM that just works. Its midrange is as capable as any, with no real weaknesses anywhere --- not built for blowing people away, but for reliable sound at a price point that's easy on the wallet. Peter will be the first to tell you that the Pro100 may not be for everyone; it just so happens to be a great choice for me and how I tend to use my earphones. I commute on public transport everyday, and when I use IEMs, I tend to use them for hours at a time. Unfortunately, most of that time, I'm not actively engaged in listening to that music, but rather, I require something that melts away in my ears. I'm very glad I'm able to use them.
So what do I personally hope to hear more when I use the Pro100? Well, for starters, I'd like to hear a bit more extension in the highs and less tubing-related resonances. A more substantial horn design would help shift the quarter-wave resonances upward and out of the way of the 6-10k "harshness" region. I'd also like to hear even faster transients, because, well, I'm kind of crazy. From this standpoint, I'm probably a prime candidate for the Pro210, and I'll be looking to buy a pair soon in the future.
Note the horn exit path of the Pro100, visibly different from the one employed in the Music One.
What does the future hold?
In an era when personal audio is exploding, I really find Peter’s CIEMs to be massively intriguing in a number of ways. Lately there has been a big glut of CIEM companies making customs from acrylic material, and they range from cosmically affordable to ear-fittingly expensive. Silicone customs, on the other hand, have been much more mysterious. Dominated by long-time industry stalwarts like ACS and Sensaphonics, silicone CIEMs weren’t being offered by many other companies, perhaps because of the increased hassle of silicone mold-making. Also, ACS and Sensaphonics seem to mostly target music professionals rather than music enthusiasts, as do smaller companies like Minerva. I think Peter has gone with a nice strategy of going with silicone-molded earpieces first. There’s so much competition in the acrylic segment that it's difficult to really make a buzz, but CustomArt seems poised to become a prime value-priced alternative in the realm of silicone CIEMs.
CustomArt isn't done --- Peter plans on releasing universal models in the future, as well as acrylic-based CIEMs. Peter has told me that it’s his hope to be able to provide his CIEMs in either silicone or acrylic with little change to the sound signature. However, it's probably prudent to take things one step at a time! Baby steps, Peter, baby steps!
CustomArt has made a few working prototypes of universal IEMs.
With the Pro100, I feel very confident in Peter's protean abilities. It's a solid entry into the world of CIEMs that will serve to open up doors for many people looking to get into silicone CIEMs. He’s also definitely someone deserving of our trust and support! My one worry now is, now that the floodgates are open on head-fi, will he be able to cope with the influx of orders? Seeing how hard he’s worked over the past few months, I certainly have confidence in his abilities and hopeful for his resourcefulness.
Sound Signature: Neutral with a Very Slight Hint of Warmth for Easy Listening
Suitable Genres: Vocal, Classical, Jazz, Pop
Sonic Strengths: Imaging, Center Focus, Vocal Clarity, Gentle but Present Treble
Sonic Shortcomings: Slight Roll-Off in Both Bass and Treble, Average Soundstage Size
Ergonomic Strengths: Silicone is Comfortable!
Ergonomic Shortcomings: Short Cable Above Y-Split
Information regarding CustomArt's other models can be found there, as well as on CustomArt's official website.
Official Information on the Pro100 from CustomArt:
The Custom Art Pro-Audio 100 has been developed for beginning musicians and sound engineers to use on stage. It can also be used with MP3 players and other portable devices as a budget audiophile IEM.
Single Balanced Armature
104 dB @ 1 kHz @ 0.1 V
41 ohm @ 1 kHz
10 Hz - 16500 kHz (+/-20dB into IEC60711 coupler)
Horn Nozzle Design
Bass ●●●○○○ (medium paced, warm)
Midrange ●●●○○○ (warm, colored, slightly forward)
Highs ●●●●○○ (detailed, delicate edge)
Cold/Warm ●●●●○○ (slightly warm, fun)
Design Rationale: Entry-level, all-round earphones suitable for every music genre and most portable players.
Sound: Sound-wise, these IEMs are meant to have a slightly fun sound signature but that “disappears” in your ears. Tuned to really make you listen to music rather than your gear, while good resolution and speed allow for stage or studio monitoring.
Earphones with a Similar Signature: Shure, Westone UM
These IEMs are meant to be used with low and medium impedance sources (such as iPod/iPhone, Sansa Clip, FiiO Amps) for best possible performance. High impedance sources will reduce bass response and increase high frequencies.
Price: Starting from 999PLN
Edited by tomscy2000 - 7/2/13 at 4:48am