Alclair RSM Quad Custom In-Ear Monitor (My impressions)
I recently acquired some Alclair RSM Quad Custom IEMs and I spent some time comparing them to the only reference that I have handy (Westone 4R). The Westone 4R has become the backbone of my on-the-go and desktop listening. I have owned almost everything universal from Etymotic, Shure and Ultimate Ears but somehow it was the W4R that really became special to me. They are not nearly as lively or fun as the Triple Fi's but I've always appreciated the resolution and soundstage they produce.
I have wanted to invest in some Custom IEMs for quite some time and actually had impressions taken almost two years ago but never sent them anywhere. There is an anxiety of fitment problems and cost that kept me with universals. Seeing ridiculous wait times for items from JH Audio compounded this. I do not want to wait seven months while they have my money. I kept telling myself that it couldn’t get too much better than my W4’s.
In June, I had the pleasure of meeting Marc from Alclair at a local Head-Fi meet at the Needle Doctor ( www.needledoctor.com ). Marc had “universal” versions of his product line up. I was unable to get a satisfactory fit with the universal RSMs, but immediately became shocked how it made my W4’s appear “muddy”. This effect was not so much the result of being less veiled, as it was less grainy/confused. Without a good seal, I was unable to gage the quantity of bass that the RSMs were capable of. Never the less, I placed an order for my first ever set of Custom IEMs. Perhaps it was Alclair’s proximity that allowed me to break that activation barrier with regards to fitment anxiety.
The Alclair RSM Quad:
This is a three-way, four driver arrangement using two tubes. Alclair has these ranked as being flat; using two woofers, one mid-range, and one tweeter. As Alclair’s main audience is the professional musician, I assume the products are designed to make instruments sound real. Drums should sound like drums, guitars like guitars etc.
“Typical User: Someone who needs peak performance from their monitors. This monitor has the most power, lowest distortion, and highest clarity in our line-up.” –www.alclair.com
Features & Specs
Fit and Finish: If you have never had custom IEMs before let me state that these were my first and I may never buy another set of universals again. The Westones do a great job of isolating (large Tru-Fit tips) and they are probably the most comfortable universals that I have owned. But after getting used to the RSMs, you become aware that the Westone’s spongy tips are slowly trying to pry open your ear canals. The customs, on the other hand, just fit like a glove.
The seal is fantastic. I have no measurements, but I get the sense that they isolate a little better than the Westone Tri-Fit tips. I can kink my neck and rotate my head while opening and closing my mouth without losing the seal. They are very comfortable.
The RSMs are also beautiful. There are no sharp areas. I thought I had found a tiny bubble in the left earpiece but it turned out just to be a reflection. I selected clear bodies with transparent red/blue faceplates. The transition from the faceplate to the body looks very nice and is especially smooth around the recessed cable socket. Inspecting the pieces really gives the sense that they are made by people that love their work. With my Westones, I always wanted to share the sound with somebody else and say “look how great these sound!”. With the RSMs, I find myself wanting to share both the sound and beauty. Although I find it a little weird proclaiming the negative impression of my ear as “art”, these are really deserving of it.
The RSMs feel very dense, unlike some JH13’s that I have inspected. The JH13’s appeared to be very thin walled. Maybe the thin wall is necessary for working with more drivers. Regardless, the Alclairs feel like they are really built to last.
iPhone 5: Spotify extreme offline files (320kb/s OGG). I do not have the ability to distinguish these from flac files. I really am quite happy with the Spotify service.
Desktop: JRiver --> Schiit Loki --> RSA SR71B (balanced). The files used are all DSD64.
The same SE and balanced cables were used for both phones in the comparisons. I did the best I could to volume match listening sessions but I do not have a meter. I found it a little difficult to match volume levels for two reasons; the RSMs really do seem to isolate more than the Westones and the RSMs appear to be quite a bit more dynamic as well.
Thrice – “All that’s Left” – Live at the House of Blues
This album has always struck me as fantastically recorded. It really gives a sense of the space and the energy of the audience. The drums punch through nice and cleanly, which is something that I do not hear much in live rock recordings. The guitars have a nice texture and are well balanced with the vocals.
Westone 4 R (W4): The cymbals sound messy, but well spaced apart. The bass drum sounds grainy and seems to be compressed into the bass guitar. It is difficult to pick apart the bass guitar. The initial hit of the bass guitar notes are present, but the rest of the notes bleed into the rhythm guitar. The lead guitar rings very nicely and so do the vocals.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): The bass drum is fuller sounding and I can now distinguish reverb from it. It has a percussive driving rhythm that gives the song energy that isn’t quite present with the W4’s. The drums sound more believable and never grainy. With the W4’s, I did not even notice the drummer riding the cymbal into the first verse. It is very clear with the RSMs. This is a rather ‘screamy’ song, vocal-wise. Even so, the RSMs add a dynamic drive to the vocals that is not apparent with the W4s. The bass guitar is very easy to isolate from the drums and the rhythm guitar. The RSMs paint a much more realist image of the band and the energy on stage.
James Blake – “Limit To Your Love” -
This is a really interesting song that features a mildly constricted but smooth and airy male vocal track and blends it with some stomach massaging electric music bass beats. There is a really clear image of a simple drum track as well. The three pieces feel like individuals layers, but they slowly melt together rather beautifully towards the end.
Westone 4 R (W4): A lot of live music hides the W4 ‘veil’ from me somehow. This song does not hide it. The W4s do an awesome job of conveying the emotion in the vocal track. The vibrato just rings very realistically, but the veil is there. The vocal track has what sounds a like an intentional tape ‘hiss’ effect. It is difficult to separate this ‘hiss’ from some of the vocals. The piano sounds warm, but the strike of the keys does not feel like they have much weight behind them.
The electronic beat reaches very low but it lacks the visceral driving emotion that I think it is intended to produce. It is presented very analytically. I would describe the beat like listening to the rotor of a helicopter before take-off on a youtube clip. You understand it, but it is not exciting.
The high-hat work sounds very crisp and exciting half way into the song.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): There is zero veil on the vocals. I can hear the pedals on the piano. The vocals are even more emotional then with the W4s. The piano playing feels more dynamic, I detect the weight on the keys. I can hear a touch more reverb on the vocalist, as if he is in a slightly larger room.
The electronic beat is so completely different with these RSMs. The first time I heard this, I got so excited that I could listen to electronic music again. This beat got me pumped up to go for a run almost immediately.
Around 2:50, the vocals are intentionally poorly harmonized to create a demon-like effect. This is not as detectable with the W4s. With the W4s the vocal tracks fall into each other and the drums. The RSMs present all of this as very distinct layers that are easy to understand.
If you have any interest in this type of music, you may want to avoid the W4s. The W4s are a bit lifeless here.
Arne Domnerus - “Jeep’s Blues” – Jazz at the Pawn Shop
What an excellent album! If you do not own this one, it is really with your time. The music is great, and the recording is great. It is very easy to imagine that I’m at a small round table tens of feet back from the stage with an old fashioned and a smile on my face. This particular song is just a classic and this version is delicately played with a great deal of passion.
Westone 4 R (W4):The room cannot be much larger than 2,000 square feet, but I am 12 feet away from the sax. You can really get a sense of the condition of the reed, but oddly cannot hear the keys working. Perhaps, it sounds a touch warmer than I would expect in real life.
The piano feels a little lifeless and veiled. I did not even notice the bass player until 2:32. This may be because I was so enamored with the lovely sax, or because the W4s really make basses seem boring. They are well textured, but boring. Cymbals sure do ring nicely. The sax swells very nicely and is able to quickly grab and sustain your attention. Man that sax sounds sweet.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): I would not have known how veiled the sax was without these RSMs. It immediately sounds more textured and real. The room isn’t much larger, but I am a couple feet further back form the sax. The drum sound like they are played with more finesse. This oddly makes the drummer sound more talented.
The actions of the audience and wait-staff almost become distracting. They grab your focus because you want to ‘see’ what they are doing, but then the sax will quickly steal your attention back. The RSMs give a much more 3D impression of the room. At least three distinct conversations in the crowd can be identified and with the RSMs, I was able to hear somebody get ‘shushed’. I had never heard that before. The bass player still is not really that much of an attention grabber in this song and I still cannot make out much of the key workings on the sax.
Megadeth – “Captive Honour” – Live at the Fox 2012
I am a sucker for Marty Friedman albums. Megadeth does not always translate well into live performances, but this album is a lot of fun. The W4s give the impression that it was recorded with a nice balance between the vocals, bass guitar and guitar. This album is a good representation of the balance for their studio album. There is a nice mix of clean guitar work and funky vocals.
Westone 4 R (W4): The guitars ring very nicely. The bass sounds grainy and flat, but it is present. When the guitars switch to a crunchier channel, they sound kind of flat as well. There is a fair amount of texture in the guitars.
I think the drums are supposed to be positioned at 12 o’clock, but at 1:46 it feels like they pan all the way from 3 o’clock to 10 o’clock without ever really being in front of me.
The bass line can be easily pulled out of the mess. He is about as punchy as Marty’s guitar during solos. Marty sounds grainy and scratchy and so does the audience. The song almost sounds like a mediocre bootleg out of the iPhone.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): The bass line punches through and helps emphasize the rhythm of the clean guitar in the intro. Wow, Dave is much easier to picture now. He even sounds like he has been practicing. The kick drums are driving the song. This is not really the case with the W4s. The guitars also feel like they have a lot more energy behind them. They are ballsy. The instruments are all easy to separate and the depth of the stage is ridiculously more obvious now. Nothing sounds grainy or confused.
Junior Wells – “Early in the Morning” – Hoodoo Man
I like this album because of how raw it is. There is not a lot of technical talent on the stage, but there is a lot of passion and it translates very well.
Westone 4 R (W4): The harmonica and guitar are separated very well. The guitar sounds a bit polite and the harmonica is nice and dirty. There is at least a dozen feet between the two instruments. The vocals overpower the polite and slightly muddy drums. The cymbals really ring nicely but there is no crash when they are hit. Although Junior is singing to me, he sounds a bit grainy. The guitar, on the other hand, sounds very real.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): The guitar is much punchier. The drums are more believable and lively. The bassist is much more prevalent. You can get the sense that he and the drummer are playing off each other. The guitar is far away from the rest of the band and sounds like it could have been recorded in a different room than the rest of the band. This is not nearly as noticeable with the W4s.
SoundGarden – “Mailman” - Superunknown (2014 Remaster)
Superunknown is a 1990’s rock must have.
Westone 4 R (W4): The guitars sound more “rounded” verses the RSMs. They are lacking a texture. The drums sound a bit hollow. At no point would I say that Chris Cornell’s voice sounded ‘clean’. ItI has the typical gravel that is expected of Sound Garden.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): These guitars sound massive. The cymbals are very easy to distinguish from the guitars and the snare is really punchy. These are some of the most vivid vocals I’ve heard in a recording. Everything is easy to separate and it is very apparent that Cornell’s vocals are clean for the verses but he turns on a distortion for the refrains. It’s odd to notice something ‘clean’ in this song. The guitars sound HUGE.
Allman Brothers Band – “One Way Out” – Eat a Peach
This album give great energy and a nice picture of the crowd.
Westone 4 R (W4): The drums sound distant and thin. The guitars are punch. The guitar solos pierce through the thin sounding drum hits. The clapping on the stage at 3:09 gives you a sense that the vocals are about 30 feet away from the guitar cabinets, but it is a little difficult to place the stage outside of this section. When the band goes silent, the reverb from the vocals gives you a sense that the area is gigantic. This comes as a bit of a shock because while the band is playing, it does not sound nearly this large.
Alclair RSM Quad (RSM): There are guitar overtones from the cabs that I do not remember with the W4s. The two guitars have some distance between each other and they are really easy to separate from the drums and ringing cymbals. During guitar licks, you can briefly get a sense that the area is large. The bass player is much more noticeable now and he and the drummer make the rhythm really fun. There is a great deal more clapping on stage during the solo that I could not detect with the W4s. I really wish the mike was further into the audience. This was a fun show.
Sound Stage: The RSMs best the W4’s by a rather large margin to my ears. Not only does the audio feel less ‘in my head’, but the placement of instruments makes more sense. The RSM does a better job of painting the stage for me. This is especially noticeable in binaural recordings like "Explorations in Space and Time" - Jamey Haddad / Mark Sherman / Lenny White.
Lows: Both the W4’s and the RSM are described as flat. The RSM is never boomy, but it definitely has the ability to shake your head listening to EDM or hip hop. The added bass never confuses any other instruments in the RSMs. Switching from the Westones to RSMs showed me that there was a bass player on the stage the whole time. Having the bass player and kick drums present makes my music much more enjoyable regardless if it is Megadeth or Junior Wells. I think I like Marc’s idea of flat more than Westone’s.
Mid-Range: The W4’s are considered to be a bit veiled. I have heard people justify this by saying that it staves off fatigue during long listening sessions. The RSMs have eerie clarity and I have not experienced any type of fatigue. Vocals feel much more realistic with the RSMs.
Highs: Regardless of the source or genre, one thing that became obvious was the RSMs ability to make a cymbal sound real. They have a fast dynamic crash and then they ring on. I can ‘recognize’ cymbals on the W4 and other IEMs, but they do not sound real. I found that you can really turn up the volume and the RSMs never feel harsh or hurt you. The highs feel very smooth.
The Westones had me believing that I had reached the limit for the iPhone. The RSMs are supremely comfortable and are more enjoyable straight from my iPhone than my Westones were out of my desktop setup. If portability is a concern and you carry around an amp/dac for your Westone 4 (or similar IEM) you may want to consider something like the RSM Quads. You may even find that you do not need the amp/dac stack on the go. Heck, at the current price ($650) for the RSMs you could have a more enjoyable listening experience and save money!
I am excited by the idea of Tyll or Jude getting a set of these CIEMs. I have a feeling they are going to be extremely well received and that Head Fi will have a sizable Alclair Appreciation Thread in the future.
If you have never had custom IEMs before and are facing the fitment anxiety, feel free to shoot me a PM.