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)
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)
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?)
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