ASG-2, CK100Pro, UE900 and FA-4E XB - A nice little dysfunctional family
After some time listening to the ASG-2 and UE900 I was given the opportunity to try the CK100Pro. Thank you Sweden (no, not the country) for the loaner pair. It's been a blast listening to, and comparing, these three iems. After some time I also purchased the FA-4E XB. First of all let's set up the play field.
Listening "rigs": Samsung Galaxy S4 headphone out / Sabre DAC -> Pure Silver IC -> C&C BH
ASG-2: The canal that leads to the bass valve is half filled with a piece from a comply tip. The valve is about half open. This, to my ears, increases the sub bass significantly but also gives the mid bass a small boost compared to a fully closed valve. The tips used are medium auvio tips.
CK100Pro: Tips used are the smallest hybrids included with MH1C. I try to get the deepest insertion possible as it really helped with the treble. Just 1 mm too shallow and I would get sibilance in every song.
UE900: Pinhole is about 2/3-3/4 blocked. A 100 Ohm adapter is used. The tips used are meelec balanced dual flanges and I've elongated the nozzle on my right housing with a comply tip to get a better fit and better treble extension.
Fischer Amps FA-4E Xb: Tips used are medium sized Comply TS500. Not the included ones, those are probably T400/500.
ASG-2: The curling mom
The ASG-2 is a warm and caring iem that focuses more on emotion than measurable performance. It's very pragmatic in that it only presents what it thinks that you need to hear. That is often very true. However, often it's a bit too polite. Protecting you just a little bit too much from things like edgy upper mids and airy treble extension. The one thing that the ASG-2 doesn't protect you very well from is sibilance. Often if you listen to music that's prone to sibilance, ASG-2 likes to remind you of just how sibilant the music is. Even if it's just a tiny bit. I like to think of it as a caring mother who doesn't want me to hang out with poorly recorded albums.
The ASG-2's strengths are tactile bass, excellent texture, a big and well separated soundstage with great height and depth, and vocals. Oh, did I say that they're great for vocals? Especially emotional vocals. If there isn't very much emotion to start with, you won't get any from the ASG-2.
The weaknesses are a lack of sub bass, an audible mid bass lift, a tendency to exhibit sibilance, a lack of presence in the upper mids and a lack of treble extension.
The ASG-2 works particularly well while commuting (well... it's tuned for stage use so I guess it would be brilliant there but I haven't tried since I'm not a performing artist) because of the elevated bass. It manages to sound full even when you're sitting on a bus driving down the highway in 110 km/h. When played on a low volume, the ASG-2 sounds full and smooth with decent detail and a good soundstage.
The sound: The sound of the ASG-2 is a bass enhanced, kind of loudness oriented sound. It works great in noisy environments. It's made to be played loud. If it weren't for the sibilance, that I'm getting at least, I would play it far too loud. Because it's intoxicating. Having that bass hit you really hard. Feeling the music being played around you.
The bass is mid bass focused. It's always elevated, no matter what you set your bass valve to. Until the cross valve mod comes out, you will have to live with a mid bass lift and a little amount of sub bass. Unless you open the valve and stick some foam in the canal that leads to the valve. Then you will be rewarded with some nice sub bass but you will lose isolation compared to a fully closed valve. The bass is very well textured and it's detailed. I focuses on being a detailed bass and not a bass with details in the treble. It's fast and hits hard but there is some decay that creates a natural sound of bass that lingers for a split second. A bass drum with a bass guitar note being played simultaneously is really intoxicating.
The mids are warm, dark and smooth with great detail. The best part about them is the ability to seduce. Violins gain a darker tone but with good clarity, soothing and seducing. Brass gets more relaxing. Acoustic guitars sound fuller and overall more well bodied and less tinny. What I don't like is the fact that every electric guitar sounds like it's a humbucker type. Quite often guitars sound like a neck pickup is being used. The fundamentals of hi-hats and cymbals are often lacking as well. But it all results in a really fatigue free tuning that's made for longer listening sessions.
The treble is smooth and with decent detail. Placed in my ears it is prone to sibilance. I have to cut across 8kHz-9kHz by maybe 5-6dB to not have that sibilance. If I then boost everything that's above 10kHz by as much or even more, the treble is where I want it to be. So there is a lack of treble extension which also makes the ASG-2 fatigue free. Maybe it's just me who gets this sibilance but it's more of a rule than an exception. However on moderate listening volumes it's not really an issue.
The imaging is superb. The soundstage is large. It's wide, deep and high with great layering inside of the confines. I feel that the amount of bass and lower mids is taking away the feeling of openness that could've been achieved with less of a bass lift and a better upper mid presence (which is confirmed by adjusting with an EQ). But it's hardly ever congested and the bass really makes for an enjoyable listen if you like a full sound. Because often the ASG-2 sounds like the music is being played right now. Like you're there, with ear plugs. It's been a while since I played in bands but the instruments sound a bit like they do when you play with good ear plugs.
To sum things up, the ASG-2 is a great iem that's made for noisy environments. It is built like a tank with a lot of choices of plates. The included cables are comfortable and the memory wire really remembers its shape. Do try different tips though. If you like to EQ the ASG-2 respond extremely well to EQ and you can turn them into a totally different beast. And when I say beast, I really mean it. Are they worth the money? Well, they offer an interesting tuning that's capable of conveying immersive emotion. More so than I've ever heard. They also do respond well to EQ if that's an option for you. So in my book, it's a yes.
CK100Pro: The Sheldon Cooper of iems
Contrary to the warm and caring curling mom, the CK100Pro is quite similar to Dr. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. If you're not familiar with that show, you should google it. Incredibly intelligent and sort of a wonderchild, Sheldon Cooper has a thing for always pointing out every single mistake that anybody makes. A small flaw becomes a glaring error in the eyes of the CK100Pro. Sheldon also has a tendency to explain everything, so does the CK100Pro. Given the right circumstances, the CK100Pro is potentially the most detailed, highest resolution iem in its price bracket (just guessing now but it fits with what I've read and what I've heard). If asked to play too loud or play flawed material, it can potentially be the worst listening experience of your life.
The CK100Pro's strengths are details, details, details, details and details. A slightly elevated mid bass that doesn't bleed into the mids make for a little harder impact that's still very fast and well textured. Mids that have good presence and great detail across the spectrum. Treble that's extremely detailed and if given the right song and the right fit and the right volume, is very smooth and extended. A good soundstage with good separation and layering and an airiness that makes for an uncongested listening experience.
The weaknesses are the inability to play music that's not well produced, inability to play on louder volumes and the possibility of a bad fit that induces sibilance.
The CK100Pro works particularly well on lower volumes. The most detailed iem I've heard on lower volumes. Easily beating out the ASG-2 and UE900. The isolation is good if a good seal can be achieved. So good that it blocks out most of the commuting noise making it a good choice for noisy environments. However the sound is very different from the ASG-2 which is also a good commuting iem. While the ASG-2 manages to sound full despite the noise, the CK100Pro manages to sound pretty flat despite the noise.
The sound: The sound of the CK100Pro is mostly neutral but with a boosted treble. The bass is fast and can hit hard, the mids are pretty much neutral in tonality but lean more towards cold than warm. The treble is very detailed and extended. It feels a bit like using a fine sand paper. I guess that would make it a dry treble. Extremely detailed, part of it due to the high level of treble and upper mids present.
The bass is very fast. Not much decay compared to ASG-2. Still has good texture. There is a very small mid bass emphasis. Impact is greater than rumble. Doesn't really affect the tone and doesn't bleed into the mids. Not much to say here. The bass hits and runs.
The mids are tonally pretty neutral. If anything I would say leaning towards cold. No real flavour, just very transparent. The upper mids can be harsh on occasions. That has more to do with recordings and volume than the iems. It's actually very hard to describe the mids as I can't really think of anything to describe them with. They almost don't do anything wrong. They also don't excel at anything since they're so good at everything. But very detailed. The mids are rarely the problem.
The treble is bright. There is a lot of it. The emphasis is more towards 9kHz than 8kHz. That makes sibilance seem a bit brighter than usual. Given that the fit is good. If the fit is poor and too shallow, the treble will be ear piercing and you will wonder why you ever put them in your ears. Best case scenario the treble has good fundamentals (more upper mids than treble really) very good detail and great extension with a good sense of air. High pitched instruments sound very lively.
Imaging and soundstage is superb. A large soundstage that's wide and decent in depth and height. The fact that it's airy and never congested is a bigger plus than the absolute height or depth to me. The imaging is great and separation is top notch. Sometimes I feel that with the great details, the tonality and the imaging, it's so realistic it's unrealistic. That I'm hearing what I expect the instruments to sound like, placed where the sound engineer placed them. Instead of hearing the music. I'm hearing instruments and vocals instead of music. Details instead of emotions.
Is the CK100Pro a good buy? If you like details, can handle lots of treble, can shove things into your ears that weren't really built for it and can live with the swiveling cables, yes. The build quality feels premium except for the cables. The swiveling cables is a great annoyance but also great for getting a good fit and a good over ear placement of the cable. It also sees to it that the housings can be rotated to fit the angle at which your ear canals start.
UE900: The educated, caffeine dependant, father
The UE900 with blocked pinholes and an adapter is like an adult man, a father. A well educated man who has lived life and is now a stable individual with lots of experience. He is not the fastest, the strongest, the most detailed or the highest performing overall. But he is adaptable and he always does a good job. No matter what situation you put him into. Almost no matter what you ask of him. Sure, he may not be young anymore, he isn't as funny or exciting as he used to be but he will never let you down. At least not after he's had his coffee.
The UE900mod's strengths are versatility, versatility and usability. Extremely versatile. You use it without the adapter to get a bassy sound with more laid back mids and a warmer sound. Or you can get a pretty neutral iem that is smooth with almost any music.
The weaknesses are the lack of real aggression, the lack of the last treble extension, a slightly smaller soundstage and just a bit lacking sub bass as well as apparent build quality issues.
The UE900mod works very well with everything, almost everywhere. Quiet room? No problem. Loud bus? Still ok. Walking? Just fine. A warm but mostly neutral sound that's rarely fatiguing.
The sound: A pair of modded UE900 are a bit warm but mostly neutral. No part of the spectrum is really emphasized.
The bass is tight, pretty flat, not emphasized or lifted. It's not exceptionally fast but that means it gives a more natural feel to it. There is some rumble but not a lot. It never sounds bloated but it lends a bit of warmth to the mids.
The mids are on the warm side of neutral but not as warm as GR07. I'd place them between GR07 and R-50. Slightly thick as well but not overly. It has a tendency to tame down guitars to sound more crunchy than distorted. Vocals sound well bodied, not too full or hollow. Details are good. Most timbres are good, piano and violins can sound a bit soft at times but it's not something that makes me crave more upper mids presence or treble. Only that for a mostly neutral sound they're more on the laid back side.
The treble is fairly extended most of the times there is a good balance between fundamentals and overtones in hi-hats and cymbals. In more laid back recordings which don't have the added sparkle, treble heads might find the extension and sparkle lacking. That is hardly the case with modern productions. It almost always manages to not sound sibilant. It does lose out to things like Re0 in extension and presence and has less detail than CK100Pro but it's still good and like I said, almost never harsh.
Imaging and soundstage lose out to both the ASG-2 and the CK100Pro. Although it's decent for the money I feel that the others are clearly better. The separation is still there but the soundstage is smaller.
To sum it up. The UE900 with adapter and blocked pinholes is a great allrounder. If you manage to get a good fit quite deep and they don't break on you. They can handle almost anything you throw at them adequately. While they won't excel at any part of the spectrum, they strike an exquisite balance and they're great for rock with guitars that are quite distorted and bass that is quite fast. They make that sound natural and more laid back but still quite energetic.
THIS PART IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE IN THE NEAREST FUTURE. FOR THE BETTER.
FA-4E XB: The cool uncle that everybody likes
The Fischer Amps FA-4E XB is the little brother of UE900, at least when it comes to age. Because the brother of the family father didn't start a family, didn't have any kids. Instead he focused on himself, traveled, got a good education and kept reading throughout the years. He says in great shape and loves cooking. He loves kids and they love him. He has no problem receiving attention from women and he certainly knows his own strengths. He keeps it casual and maybe he dresses just a tiny bit too youthfully. The thing that everybody wonders is; why doesn't he have a family?
The FA-4E XB is afraid of conflicts. He hates having to be harsh, hates having to tell people that what they're doing is not fine. He just hates to bring up something bad. So he does what he's told and leaves it at that. Other than that, some who have been close to him says that he's a bit egocentric and they doubt why he even does things. Is he truly that altruistic or is there a deeper meaning? The ASG-2 who has known both brothers for quite some time says that the FA-4E XB is just like UE900 used to be, before they had their first baby. Or maybe FA-4E XB is a bit more of everything.
Just like the UE900, the FA-4E XB's strengths are versatility and usability. The comfort is great, the build quality is decent. It feels sturdier than the UE900 but is nowhere near the level of the ASG-2 and it's also trailing behind CK100Pro.
Anecdote about build quality (Click to show)
A funny thing is that a few days after I received them, I had a look at them and noticed that only one housing had a logo. I thought, this is probably the way it's supposed to be. But just before the photosession I polished the housings a bit and the sticker with the logo came off.
So the logos are missing from my housings, I think it makes them look more professional and more discrete. The sound is great, I dare say at all times. It is a true all-rounder that performs well with almost whatever you throw at it.
The weaknesses are lack a lack of edge and details in the upper mids and that the soundstage isn't as large as that of the ASG-2. Those two are the only weaknesses that stand out sonically. (And they can be a bit redeemed by a good pairing with a source/amp.) Other than that, the ridges do stand out a bit, I don't have any problem with them as they're well designed. It's just that they stop me from getting any deeper insertion, don't get me wrong, they don't need a deeper insertion it's just that I tend to favor it because it feels safer.
The FA-4E XB works well in any given environment. It has enough bass presence to not sound thin in a noisy environment. It sounds good out of a smartphone. Better out of a good DAC/amp. It just works with almost everything, anywhere.
The sound: Here is where the interesting part starts. The sound is just awesome. It's detailed, smooth, quite well extended. It's on the warmer side and also on the smoother side of neutral. The bottom end is strong and a bit emphasized but never intrusive. It just lends some warmth to the lower mids and has a strong impact.
The bass is strong, impactful and well mannered. If I had to pick one part of the spectrum that stands out as better than the others, it would be the bass. The bass kicks are great. Nice texture, good decay. But somehow all kicks tend to sound the same, almost regardless of recording. Then I heard something totally different in one recording and thought that maybe it's not the FA-4E XB's fault they all sound the same. It's not the fastest bass, it's still not as good as a very good dynamic driver. At least not for kicks. But, the FA-4E XB does one thing better than any other iem I've listened to. It picks out a bass guitar line and separates it from the rest of the music so that it can be more clearly heard and the texture with TS500 is very good. The balance between sub/lower/mid/upper bass is exquisite. It keeps the energy in drops and has enough rumble for most people.
The mids are tilted towards lower mids but only slightly. Vibratos are especially good when in the lower mid/upper bass register, instrumental or vocal. Most vocalists sound full and smooth but keep a good texture despite not having all of the edges in their voices. One of the biggest problems of the FA-4E XB is in the mids, the upper mids are a bit too laid back. It makes for a relaxed listening and less fatigue. But it also creates sort of a distance between the listener and the music. A wise man described it as a glass pane. It makes electric guitars sound less aggressive, brass less intelligeble and with less character, strings sound a bit muted. This is a minor problem and some will even like the tuning. For those who do not like it, fear not for it is partially mendable, keep reading to learn more about that.
The treble is smooth and with decent extension. It is probably better with silicone tips but I found that with silicone tips, the upper mids get, relatively, more scooped out so I sacrificed a bit of the extension for better mids. There is enough treble for most people. It is a bit laid back but detailed and almost always smooth.
Imaging and soundstage are good, nothing extraordinary but certainly not bad. Separation is great but soundstage is somewhat limited and it's smaller than ASG-2 but bigger than UE900. With TS500 the background is more black than airy and that could take away some from the openness but to me it's worth losing out some, with a spacious amp these are very satisfying unless A/B-ing with ASG-2 or something of similar soundstage size.
Synergy is a very frequently used word in some circles. Audio enthusiasts and chemists could be the most frequent users of the almost mythical word. Anyway, for something to be called a good pairing for FA-4E XB I would say that a large soundstage and clear upper mids are the two requirements. One amp that works very well is the Apex Glacier. Immediately in an A/B-comparison between E9023->BH vs Apex Glacier I found that the Glacier was a better match because of clearer and crisper upper mids and an overall cleaner sound. Through it I can't really say that I miss anything from the FA-4E XB, perhaps a slightly bigger soundstage, but it too is enhanced by the Glacier. The SF/LF switches are also incredibly fun to play with and they give an exciting sound that's very immersive and a bit surreal.
To sum things up the FA-4E XB is a great choice if you listen to different music, like to take your music with you in noisy environments and like an impactful, well textured bass that isn't boomy or bloated. Pair it with a source that has clear and prominent upper mids as well as a large soundstage and you have a winner. In fact it's pretty close to the sound signature of a UE900 with almost blocked pinholes but no adapter, which I have come to appreciate more and more since I started to listen to the FA-4E XB. It's just, better. You could say it's a refined UE900. It does not have the level of detail that the CK100Pro has, at least it doesn't emphasize it as much, but it's pretty close and it's a lot more forgiving. It works with most music. If you happen to play something of poor quality, it won't be the end of your eardrums. Overall a very solid contender.
Below I will post my thoughts on different songs. Beware. This isn't the most coherent writing I've done in my life. I'm going to hide it a bit so you won't get scared just by looking. (Click to show)
Below is a comparison between the three, the rig used is Sabre Dac -> BH out of my laptop.
Paramore - Still into you [Flac]
Good rock/pop song, lower pitch details and high pitch details as well as good vocals.
ASG-2: Good punch, warm, relaxed, want to toe tap. Eggs and hihat sound a bit too far back for my taste but they're there. Details are definitely there but they're not in your face. Overall a good, intimate presentation.
CK100Pro: Good crunchy guitar. The high pitched clocks on the sides are vibrant. Vocals are more forward and clear than the ASG-2. The distorted bass is better portrayed. The kick is there for sure. In the chorus it has a tendency to get lost in all of the sounds. Cymbals sound bright and detailed. Hi-hat sounds right. The sound is just so detailed. So detailed. Really, I can't find any fault here. There is some harshness when listening to louder volumes.
UE900mod: Guitar is more crunchy than distorted. Not as edgy. Vocals are smoother than CK100Pro but has a brighter tone than ASG-2. Soundstage is a bit smaller. The high pitch tones are there and clear but not as vibrant. The kick isn't as defined or as hard as any of the others. Hi-hat sounds ok. Snare doesn't really sound dynamic. But overall good.
FA-4E XB: Guitar is chrunchy in a timid way. Sounds very pop to me. The high pitched clocks are clear and well placed. Not as vibrant as I remember the CK100Pro being. The distorted bass/synth bass in the end of the first chorus is what sets these apart from the others. It's something that I didn't really notice until now. The kick is tight, has good impact and is never lost. The eggs are clear, not forward but they're there. Cymbals sound a bit distant and lack those great fundamentals that the CK100Pro has. Overall a very pleasant presentation. Could listen until tomorrow.
Yellowcard - Southern air [flac]
This song is chosen because there are lots of guitars. Simple as that. Also a good test to try harshness in cymbals.
ASG-2: Guitars are thick, really thick. They lack bite. Cymbals are harsh. Vocals are mostly smooth and sound full. Cymbals in chorus are well defined but a bit harsh. They're quite far back. Good kick drum, hits hard but feels a bit soft when isolated in the stick.
CK100Pro: Guitars sound good. Better crunch. Kicks are fast. Snare can get a bit sharp and undynamic. (Probably poor master). Cymbals are harsh but the definition is insane. The sound just disappears and appears somewhere else. The guitars in the chorus are a bit too bright. The whole song is pretty harsh. The bass guitar is lost sometimes. The part where it's supposed to get a bit more heavy doesn't sound "fatter". A bit of the weight is lost but the kick is damn good and punchy. Just not as big as the ASG-2. I tend to listen less to the vocals and more to the instruments and I'm more impressed by guitars, kick and cymbals (well, not in this particular track).
UE900mod: Guitars sound warm and crunchy. Not as edgy as CK100Pro. The kick is there. It's not enhanced or elevated, it's just there. The hi-hat is a bit recessed but it's not really an issue. Vocals lack a bit of edge. Cymbals are a bit lacking but not harsh at all. You can hear that there is a lack of detail in the recording but there is no harshness. Bass guitar is audible, it just doesn't jump out to punch you. The same issue with weight as CK100Pro.
FA-4E XB: Guitars sound warm and a bit thick. Lacks edge but on par with UE900mod. Kick is clear and impactful but gets lost in the chorus. Hi-hat lacks a bit of the fundamentals but is smoother than any of the others. There is also no real sibilance in the chorus. The bass guitar is quite easily isolated and followed. Has good weight in the stick. The placement of the cymbals is less surgical than I remember the CK100Pro to place them.
Dashboard Confessional - Morning calls [flac]
One of my favourite tracks. I use this to test drums and cymbals.
ASG-2: Intro guitars are nice, good pick details, very inviting. Drums hit hard with good tonality. The eggs sound a bit dark. The bass guitar is detailed and rumbles a bit. Good texture but lacks a bit of edge. Drums are indeed very tactile. Crashes and ride sound good. Hi-hat lacks a bit of sparkle but is decent in fundamentals. I feel that the ride is lacking in fundamentals though. The electric guitar sounds soft and thick. Think a bit like a neck humbucker.
CK100Pro: Intro guitars sound like single coils instead of the ASG-2 humbucker sound. The drums are more moderate in impact but make up for it with greater detail and may just strike a better balance between tone and impact. The hi-hat, crashes and ride are so right. They sound so right it's almost riddiculous. Great fundamentals and overtones. The electric guitar has better bite than with the ASG-2. The instruments are so good I almost forget about the vocals. The vocals are good as well. Less full but with more edge and bite. I'd say that the soundstage is about the same size as ASG-2 only that it feels airier and that the instruments take up a bit less place.
UE900mod: Intro guitars sound like single coils, slightly warmer than CK100Pro. The picking is less sharp. You can clearly hear the string being picked but it doesn't have that sharper detail. Hi-hat sounds good, cymbals are a bit more laid back. Drums have lesser impact but it's still a good balance between tone and impact and I don't feel that they are lacking impact. Vocals are detailed, not overly full but still have good body. Electric guitars again sound more crunchy than distorted. I feel that there might be some energy lacking in the guitars compared to CK100Pro.
FA-4E XB: Intro guitars sound gentle and relaxed. The bass guitar stands out with nice, soft, texture that rumbles a bit. Hi-hat is good but again just lacks a little of the fundamentals. Cymbals are laid back. The kick drum and larger toms really sound good. Borderline too emphasized to sound real. I feel that everything is just a bit soft. It's not as aggressive or involving as I like. But it's not really veiled. It's just something. But the sound is very dynamic and has a strong, tight, well textured bass that's just a tad on the softer side. By that I mean that the contours are a bit rounded.
Mumford & Sons - Whispers in the dark [flac]
Used to test for some vocal sibilance, acoustic guitars, banjo.
ASG-2: The acoustic guitar sounds full and very intimate. Great sounding. Vocals are detailed. Sibilant in some places but that's the recording. Bass guitar is rumbling and fills up the presentation in a good way. Kick drum hits hard. The banjo is there and it's quite detailed though can be hard to pick out from the rest of the instruments. The acoustic guitar that's added after that pretty much soaks it up. I don't even know if the banjo keeps playing.
CK100Pro: Acoustic guitars sound less full bodied. To my ears they don't sound as good as on the ASG-2. But they make up for it with better clarity. Vocals are less full. Very detailed. The banjo picks and unique sound really gets through. There is harshness in the vocals. But not really more than the ASG-2. Only in another way. The banjo and the acoustic guitar is better separated now. There is no doubt about which one is playing; they're both playing.
UE900mod: Acoustic guitars sound good. They sound a bit smaller than with the other iems. Tonally good. The kick is there, sounds really good with the bass guitar. Vocals are good, detailed and smooth. Less harsh than the other two. The acoustic guitar is less audible than on the CK100Pro but the banjo is fine. It's slightly less detailed but it's easier to hear than on the ASG-2.
FA-4E XB: Acoustic guitars are good, sound real. Not as sparkly or stringy as I would like my guitar to sound. But really good. Vocals are detailed, smooth unless sung harsh. There is sibilance but it's not piercing. It's just there. Banjo is very good. Clear and well separated but not as "picky". Kick is again strong but not overbearing. There is a good separation between the acoustic guitar and the banjo in the stick.
The Lumineers - Morning song [flac]
Just a good song. A lot of room reverb. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, drums.
ASG-2: Electric guitar is again, thick. Vocals are full, almost bassy. Intimate sounding with good detail and I don't feel them lacking in bite. Good room details. Reverb is there but there is no definite end to the room. The sound just kind of stops and gives the impression of a large hall with kind of soft walls. Acoustic guitar sounds full bodied. I don't mind it the same way I do the electric guitar. Drums are again, very tactile. You can even feel the snare drum. Kick hits hard again. Feels very... organic? It feels like a kick does when you're in a rehearsal room.
CK100Pro: The electric guitar is more life like. Sounds better. The vocals sound clearer. There is some sibilance however on a few places. Nothing ear piercing. With more natural edge. The room is more defined and there is more reverb than ASG-2. The acoustic guitar has more brilliance to it, more definition and it still doesn't lack in body. It doesn't fill out the same space though. The whole presentation is airier. Hi-hat is again, insanely good. The ride is full bodied and sounds natural. The kick and snare sound good.
UE900mod: Electric guitar sounds good. It's not sharp or harsh. Kick hits with good impact. Vocals are a bit less clear but smoother. The reverb is good, detailed, about the level of ASG-2. The hi-hat sounds good, good fundamentals but may just be lacking a bit in overtones. Ride is full bodied but also lacks the last extension, still good. The acoustic guitar sounds good and it isn't lacking in anything but it's really not excelling in anything.
FA-4E XB: Electric guitars sound soft but good. Strong kicks. Vocals are detailed, smooth and the reverb is very prominent. Maybe a bit too much low end in the vocals. Nothing serious, just nitpicking now. I again feel that the room sort of fades out instead of being clearly defined. The hi-hat has good placement and some reverb. It's very good but not anything special. The snare is quite bassy, strong impact. Cymbals detailed and smooth but they're just there, they don't excel and steal attention from anything. The kick is very detailed and well textured. You can feel the air moving back into the kick drum after each kick.
First aid kit - Emmylou [flac]
Female vocals with lots of harmonies. Shows character of upper mids quite well.
ASG-2: Full sound again. Kick drum kicks, more like a sub bass kick that's soft but there. It's more thumping than kicking actually. A lot of bass guitar and bass notes on the piano. Vocals are place exquisitely delicate. I can really imagine two girls sitting beside eachother, singing together. Tambourine isn't offensive, acoustic guitar to the left is crisp and has body, steel guitar (?) to the right is full and detailed. Very enjoyable song.
CK100Pro: The guitar to the right has more edge to it. More definition. The guitar to the left isn't as full bodied as on the ASG-2. The kick is there and it's a bit tighter. Still not very defined. The bass notes are there if you listen for them but they do blend in a bit more. The vocals tend to soar a bit and can be fatiguing I imagine. The placement is almost as good. Though due to the more emphasized upper mids I think that their voices together on the CK100pro just might not be the best combination. At least not on the level I'm listening. Maybe on lower levels. Otherwise the instruments sound great.
UE900mod: The guitar to the left sounds good. Like a guitar should. The guitar to the left is more laid back than CK100Pro. Has less body than on ASG-2. The soundstage is smaller than both the others. The kick isn't going to get anybody toe tapping or head bobbing but it's there. Maybe I'm just imagining but I think the vocals are less fatiguing here than CK100Pro but I can't know for sure as I don't have any good way of checking the levels. The harmonies aren't really flattering as they make the vocals sound compressed. It's probably the recording that's not top notch.
FA-4E XB: A well balanced sound from the start. You feel the kick.. or hear it.. I just either hear or feel it clearly, don't know which it is. I never struggle hearing/feeling it. Stage is large, vocalists are placed beside eachother, almost sound like they're singing into the same mic. Vocals tend to distort as with the other iems. Guitars are good, have good body and are clear but not as edgy as I like them. The piano is also a bit soft. Tambourine is never harsh. The steel guitar clear and has good vibrato.
Diana Krall - The girl in the other room [flac]
A more mellow production. Double bass, piano, guitar, drums. Most of all vocals.
ASG-2: Guitar vibrates well, tactile vibrations with good overtones. Vocals are full and smooth with great detail. Again, very intimate and seductive. The plucks on the double bass are felt and there is great texture in the bass. The piano is a bit muffled in its higher notes and overtones. Cymbals I feel are suffering a bit from the lack of treble extension. However it's a smooth presentation that won't offend anybody. Vocals are really seductive.
CK100Pro: Guitar still vibrates well, not as tactile but it's still felt as well as heard. Again, sounds more single coil. Vocals are less full. Greater details in the breathing and articulation. There is an airiness that the ASG-2 lacks. Plucks on the double bass are more defined. Not felt as much. It's brighter with more edge and definition but the bass texture is not as good as the ASG-2. The cymbals sound great. Really great. The piano sounds just right. However I feel that some of the emotion is lost in the vocals. I don't want to follow that Diana Krall home as much as I would the ASG-2 Diana.
UE900mod: Guitar vibrates well, some tactile sensation. Sounds a tad bit warmer. Vocals are slightly warm. There is a bit of detail lacking in the upper mids and treble region. Otherwise good. The double bass isn't as detailed as on the CK100Pro. Plucks are about as impactful. Less bass overall than ASG-2. Hi-hat and cymbals sound good, non-fatiguing but lacking the last extension. I'd still pick ASG-2 Diana over UE900 or CK100Pro Diana Krall.
FA-4E XB: Good guitar vibrato that's strong, quite tactile. Slightly soft and warm but excellent except there's some detail missing from the moving of fingers/edge. Diana's vocals are detailed, full, her character shines through well. Actually good edge in her voice, not that sharp tone but the details which creates that kind of coarse texture are there. Everything is close to excellency. Feels very rythmic. The background is more black than airy. The room feels medium sized and well isolated. The piano could be brighter. But really, the double bass is close to perfect. Actually, I don't know what could be better except the little edge, the presence in the upper mids.
Relient K - Deathbed [flac]
A track that gets very crowded later on. It has pretty much all instruments known to man. Packed in a long song that can show pretty well what an iem is capable of in terms of separation and soundstage.
ASG-2: Piano sounds warm and full. A bit lacking in overtones. Vocals are very intimate. Very smooth and soothing. Great detail. There is a bit sibilance. Acoustic guitars on the sides widen the stage nicely. Hi-hat is in the background, pretty good balance between fundamentals and overtones. The bass is filling up nicely with good texture and bottom. It's rumbling on. There is just so much going on here. Brass sounds good, in the background to the left. The accordion is smooth and sounds life like. Strings sound good here. Not too dark. Overall the song sounds very good, intimate and full, not really congested, I'd rather call it well blended. There is some harshness that shouldn't be there. But now I'm not focusing on the best part. The vocals. During the busiest part I'm pretty impressed how the ASG-2 just makes it sound so good. Just effortless. Everything is there. No problemos. The cello is really good and the texture is great.
CK100Pro: The piano sounds more balanced. Great details. Vocals are close and detailed. Better texture in the vocals. A bit of sibilance. The acoustic guitars are a bit clearer. The hi-hat and tambourine are more present. The kick is there, not as hard as ASG-2 but it's faster. Brass is more audible and separated. CK100Pro just sounds better overall here. Airier. More detailed. Maybe because there is so much happening. When the ASG-2 was saying: "Hey, there is a lot going on. Just sit back and relax." the CK100Pro is saying: "Hey, look what I can do! Hey! I'm doing all of this right now! It's friggin perfect! Listen to this! No this!".
UE900mod: Piano sounds warm but not as dark as ASG-2. Vocals are close and detailed but are lacking in air and maybe there is a bit of lost resolution in the treble. It's not harsh but it's just not as smooth and detailed as I would've thought. Soundstage is a bit smaller than the others. Kick is fast and balanced, not overpowering. Hi-hat sounds a bit compressed at times, cymbals are better. Strings are good. Balanced and not really lacking. It's just that after the CK100Pro they don't have that same bite. I'm getting a bit of the same vibe I got with the ASG-2 during the busiest part "Hey, it's here. Sit back and enjoy man. There is a lot for you to hear."
FA-4E XB: The piano is detailed, you can hear the impact and also the pedal being used. On he softer side. Vocals are detailed and less harsh than ASG-2. Also feels less crowded. The kick is impactfull. Toms sound good. Hi-hat again lacks a little of the fundamentals. The brass lose a bit of character and edge, ending up sounding less life like. The soundstage is a bit smaller than the ASG-2 in all dimensions. But larger than UE900mod. From memory of ASG-2 vs CK100Pro I'd say that the FA-4E XB is also smaller or of the same size as CK100Pro. I would say that compared to the others sibilance is a non-issue. The presentation is a bit like both the ASG-2 and UE900 in that the FA-4E are more relaxed about music. Just letting me tune in what I want to hear. The strings in the end sound a bit soft. (See any pattern?)
Thirty seconds to Mars - Conquistador [flac]
Sub bass, sibilance in the upper treble, a colder tonality, aggressive strings.
ASG-2: Kick hits hard, really hard. There is a decent sub bas presence but more mid bass. (Although more with the foam than without.) There is some sibilance. A bit brighter than the usual sibilance. Strings are just a bit dark, lacking that brilliance and aggression. It's an aggressive song but the strings are a bit too soft. The bass drops pretty good. The ASG-2 makes the mids less cold.
CK100Pro: Kick doesn't hit as hard. There is sub bass and mid bass. A lot less mid bass than ASG-2. There is some sibilance. Not as bad as one might expect. Strings are clearer and capable of more aggression. The toms are faster but also less heavy. The bass is less impressive. It doesn't really have anything to drop from but there is decent lower bass and sub bass. The overall tonality is colder and feels a bit hollow.
UE900mod: Kick has decent impact. Good balance between sub and mid bass. Smoother than both of the others. There are traces of sibilance but nothing that really gets through. Strings are just a bit dark and maybe they're also less detailed. At least it's something I thought about. Toms are focused and fast. A bit lesser impact than CK100Pro, I'd say. Tonality is a bit on the warmer side.
FA-4E XB: Kick has good impact. It's not head shaking but it's very good. A good balance between impact, rumble and tone. Vocals are smooth (?!) no sibilance. Hi-hat is missing a bit of fundamentals etc. Same as usual. But this is some infectious **** really. Hard hitting, not bloated or boomy bass. A good lower end, enough warmth to not sound cold (quite cold song). The strings are less aggressive than I would want. The drops have body throughout the range. This is good. Really good.
Underoath - Writing on the walls [flac]
My ultimate congestion test. There are guitars everywhere except where there's bass, drums, singing or screaming. If an iem can pull this off, it's probably not prone to sounding congested.
ASG-2: There is some added bass in the beginning. Bass guitar is thumping along. Really makes you want to bob your head. Guitars to the left and right are quite detailed and audible but could be better. Again, I'm missing some aggression on electric guitars. But they sound full and just hits me like a punch in the face. Screams are detailed and powerful. Sung vocals are clear and because they are already on the edgy side, they don't sound off on the ASG-2. The cymbals are taking a back seat but they're there and they sound good. The sound isn't really congested but there is no openness to it.
CK100Pro: No added bass. Bass guitar is still there and it's playing. It's just not thumping as good. The guitars are way clearer and more aggressive but together with the hi-hat, crashes and snare it will get fatiguing after a short time. Screams are more accurate and edgy but overall there is less weight behind them. There is a bit more air to breathe, no congestion except the one that's in the recording. Sung vocals have more edge and are clearer.
UE900mod: The guitars sound a bit warmer. Sound is smoother than CK100Pro. A lot smoother and easier to listen to. Guitars have good detail. Less edge but as I said, a lot easier to listen to. Bass is well rounded and has good texture. Screams are good, nothing wrong with them. It's like earlier, hard to fault for anything really. Still hard to find any real strength as well. A little less impact than CK100Pro and a lot less than ASG-2.
FA-4E XB: The guitars sound warm, but detailed. They are a bit undefined and lack edge but that's more a problem in the recording. Cymbals are just a little harsh, probably more recording. Sound a bit splashy but are clearly audible. Sound is full, thick, not leaving much space for anything else. Maybe a bit congested. Screams lack edge but have good texture, they lack aggression. Vocals also lack a bit of edge. Solid performance. Hard to fault for anything except lacking in edge.
Bonus - FA-4E XB with SF/LF on BH: Space is just crazy. Cymbals soar over my head. Guitars are panned wider, there is a lot of air, screams are litterally scaring the crap out of me. The brighter tonality is really working well here. Kick is solid as usual, maybe hits a bit harder, more sub bass but could also be a bit less of the natural texture. This is just insane. INSANE. It's a binaural feeling to it. I feel really enveloped by this soundstage. This is one of the tracks that gain some kind of surrealistic quality but that still works despite being surreal. It feels like being in a really messy emocore music video. Insane. Just insane.
Katie Melua feat. Eva Cassidy - What a wonderful world [320 kbit ogg vorbis]
Added for the sake of evaluating "emotion" in vocals. Kind of a weird thing to say but here's emotion for everyone.
ASG-2: Eva's vocals are detailed, warm and inviting. However there is some piercing sibilance at times. Katie's fast vibrato is almost tactile and her voice doesn't show the same sibilance. The bass is VERY solid and well textured. It's soft in nature but it's probably the way it's played. The kick is hard, well bodied and relaxed in that it has quite long decay. The ride sounds a bit thin but delicate. The guitar is warm and pretty crisp. The piano is warm and relaxed. Good soundstage, it feels like some kind of hall. Well separated.There is so much emotion conveyed. It's really touching.
CK100Pro: Eva's vocals are more detailed. You can hear that the recording isn't high quality. The sibilance is there, but it's different. Higher pitched and not that piercing but still stronger. Katie's singing is also more detailed but now there is some sibilance in her voice as well. Her vibrato isn't as tactile anymore which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The bass is more controlled but still full. Kick drum is more focused and faster, still not exceptionally fast, it's a mellow recording. The snare details are better, the ride is even more delicate and detailed. Piano is clearer and brighter. The guitar is crisper and less full. Everything has a bit more detail. The soundstage is about equal. Some of the emotion is lost but I still don't think it's cold. There is something there.
UE900mod: The feel I get is that Eva's vocals are less intelligeble, they sort of lack either the great bottom end from ASG-2 or the brilliance from CK100Pro. More of a mid-centric presentation which is weird. There is almost no sibilance present which is a pleasant surprise. When the bass begins to play, I don't feel the presentation lacking anymore. Katie's voice is smooth, so smooth. The vibrato is there but it's not really tactile. The harmonies are less separated but still very good. There is good detail in the snare but less than the CK100Pro, the bass drum feels natural and not overpowering. The ride is less detailed and less extended, giving off a faint tizzle when struck. The piano is good but on the mellow side and not as bright. The biggest upside is the smoothness to the vocals. They're less harsh than the other two. The soundstage is smaller however. Still decent separation but not as big. The emotion is there, it's a more intimate presentation of the instruments but about the same distance to the singers. So it feels more like a large room instead of a hall.
FA-4E XB: Eva's vocals sound quite full and smooth with good detail. Katie's voice is well bodied and quite smooth, good vibrato, almost tactile. There is a lot of air moving along with the kicks. The toms sound good, with a great balance between tone and impact. The cymbals are delicate, maybe lacking a bit of fundamentals but then again, they're not being struck with sticks. The ride sounds delicate and thin. Good detail, you really imagine how it looks, all golden, thin, delicate. Good separation of the harmonies. The guitar is clear and quite crisp. It bothers me less with clean electric guitars than crunch or distorsion. Soundstage is good, feels like a very large room or a well isolated smaller hall.
Claudio Scimone - Vivaldi Concerto in G major for 2 Mandolins RV532 I Allegro [wav]
Sent to me by Mr. Sweden himself. For trying something classical (I don't listen to classical at all).
ASG-2: Good tonality in mandolins, the tones get through good. The impact is not very prominent which makes for a more relaxed listen but I would've wanted more brightness and edge. The strings are a bit muted. The funny instrument to the right (please tell me what the name is) is a bit undefined as to where it is. At times it blurs with the right mandolin. The violins in the end are laid back, trying to lure you into their world, to seduce you. They are a bit darker but still have an ok clarity. There is a strong bottom end. There is good height and placing of everything. I'd say that the one quality the ASG-2 nails here is relaxation and making you forget that it's a recording. It sounds like an insanely large living room where the music is played live.
CK100Pro: A lot of details. The plucks on the mandolins are more prominent making it almost overshadow the tones. A very good sense of space due to a more airy sound. Very sharp presentation, in a good way. That funny instrument to the right (again, please tell me the name of it) sounds clearer and is better separated from the mandolin. You can follow the mandolins more clearly when the strings start playing in the end. The soundstage could potentially be a little shallower and lower. The strings don't sound as dark but instead sound more life like. Less lower end but not lacking. However, due to the increased amount of details in the treble, you can clearly hear that this is a recording. It doesn't have that live feeling.
UE900mod: Mandolins sound somewhat smaller. Tones get through in a good way, impact is there as well. The violins sound ok but there's something lacking. Maybe it's that last edge. The funny instrument is separated from the banjo in a good way. The soundstage is more of an "in your head" soundstage. Smaller in every dimension. I would say again that the sound is hard to fault for anything. But I could tolerate a bit more low end and a bit more treble extension.
FA-4E XB: Mandolins have a good tonality to me, there is a good impact from the plucking of the strings but still lots of tone. Perhaps a bit too dull sounding. The violins sound ok but lack edge. The strange instrument is very clear and well separated from the mandolin. The overall sound is very clean, like a concert hall with large red drapes that absorb quite a lot of sound. The finish is grand. Again, very solid performance.
Conclusions: Are there even any to begin with? What makes an iem great? Well, you should ask yourself what you like, what you want to hear when you listen to music. I do think that the ASG-2 and the CK100Pro complement each other very well. One that's intimate and relaxed with great vocals and a full sound and the other one that's pretty much a surgeon. Now, when I say surgeon I do consider surgery to be kind of an art.
Then the are the all-rounders. The FA-4E XB and the UE900. The FA's are versatile sonically and are a pleasure to wear, they play well with almost anything. The UE900 are even more versatile, use the bassy, veiled stock version or plug the pinholes for some control of the bass. Use the adapter, don't use it. Use the cable with mic or the one without. The UE900 can fit the needs of many. The UE900 isn't as capable on a technical level. It isn't as fast or as extended. An EQ'ed ASG-2 puts the UE900 to shame really. But that's one more thing to care about, except for all of the cables, chargers, DACs, amps, adapters. But the UE900 has to be one of the most versatile iems ever made, sound wise.
If I could only pick one iem, I would now pick the FA-4E XB. It's an improvement over the UE900 on a technical level, yet it remains very versatile. It's just very, very, very good. Maybe one day I will buy the CK100Pro as well because that signature really planted a seed in my brain. I can't stop thinking about "that piano could use some more edge and overtones" or "those strings sound muted". The ASG-2 is a very special iem that grabs me and just sucks me into a world of music. Although it sometimes gets interrupted by sibilance or phone calls, the ASG-2 universe is an enticing one that captures me and makes music come alive. So what happens to the UE900? Actually I'm not sure, but the UE900mod has a lot less bass than the FA-4E XB, perhaps that is enough for me to keep it. The FA's have a strong bass and are less neutral than the UE900mod. Also, one can't have too many iems right?
Hope you found my ramblings interesting. I seriously doubt that anyone will read every word but maybe you'll find bits and pieces somewhere that give you a hint of what I hear when I listen to these iems.
Simon Moon Yeol S.
Edited by MoonYeol - 11/19/13 at 11:27pm