AZLA Xelastec (for Airpods Pro) Review: Maximization
Eartips are such a tiny accessory that does not seem to matter much while it is actually the most crucial part of your earphone. Having a good fit directs the user to properly and fully experience the sound from the earphone. Each person has ears that are different in shape, size, and angle. That leads to a possibility that what you hear may differ from what others hear, often in a negative way.
Thus, even if you do not particularly feel discomfort from your current eartips, it is still possible for your fitting to be far off, making an earphone sound horrible than how it truly sounds. The situation could also work the opposite way - you may be receiving a good sound through your current eartips, yet the fit may be uncomfortable or even painful. Since both of these elements (sound and comfort) must be achieved for a better experience, a number of brands have been coming up with numerous types of eartips so far.
Silicone, Foam, and now... TPE.
Though if we vaguely categorize them, types of eartips could be divided into three groups; silicone, foam, and a hybrid of both. However, an extra group of eartip has been added into the category by AZLA. Now we have a specially formulated TPE made into an eartip, under the name of "Xelastec". AZLA is a Korean IEM/eartip manufacturer that has been producing a variety of products including AZLA IEMs (Horizon, Orta, Zwei, etc.) and the Sedna Earfit series. Let us now go through the highlights of Xelastec and how it differs and compares to other types of eartips.
Xelastec is one unique eartip. Why? Because instead of ordinary silicone, Xelastec uses Thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) as its material which is a mixture of polymers. TPE has both characteristics of plastic and rubber, hence it is also referred to as Thermoplastic rubbers. Now you may ask what are the differences between using TPE instead of ordinary silicone. The coolest and the greatest feature of Xelastec is that it automatically modifies its shape to match your ear canals. It is similar to the way how foam tips work - but instead done with silicone (sort of).
Another major element other than the material itself has to do with something called 'sonic linearity'. AZLA has been emphasizing their importance of consistent linearity in their products - to form the straightest sound path for higher sonic accuracy. This particular philosophy has been applied throughout their IEM and eartip products. It is quite interesting as this runs completely counter to what SpinFit desires - to bend the sound path according to the angle of the nozzle. That being said, how does Xelastec compare to Spinfit? And how does Xelastec compare to Comply foam tips? It is now time for us to put all those to the test.
But why were foam tips popular in the first place?
Before talking about the other features of Xelastec, let us first go through the reason why so many people have been using foam tips. Foam tips are contractible that allows users to insert them into the ears and let the foam expand accordingly to their shapes. Since that, foam tips make it much easier for users to achieve higher isolation and better comfort. Just as the name says - it is a foam version of an eartip that is "customizable" to every user thanks to its cushion-like texture.
Drawbacks of the foams
Now, there are some side effects once using foam tips. First, foam tips deteriorate fast. They would soon begin to diminish in contractibility and isolation. They are fragile, so they will start to show splits and cracks after some usage or eventually break down. Lastly, and above all, the foam itself serves as an extra layer of a damper to the earphone nozzle. This causes the sound to be duller, warmer, looser and increased in bass quantity. Of course, it would be unfair to necessarily call such changes to be bad (since some may actually prefer their IEMs to gain those effects), though they are undoubtedly signs of degraded sound quality caused by the foam.
Back to the topic... why TPE?
Now to return all the way to the main subject, there are clear likes and dislikes when it comes to using foam tips or not. The isolation and comfort that they provide are desirable, yet all those multiple side effects are what often keeps people away from using foams - including myself.
However, the story changes in the case of Xelastec. Xelastec is a mixture of plastic and rubber that has both thermoplastic and elastomeric properties - means that it is just as durable as high-quality silicone that also consists of thermoplasticity and stronger flexibility. Unlike foam or ordinary silicone, Xelastec reacts to the warmth of the ears and soon begins to become softer. Then the shape gently deforms and tightly seals the ear canal. Just for reference, the eartips do not deform in shape while it is not worn. They also quickly return to their normal shape once removed from the ears.
Tada. Xelastec, but for Apple Airpods Pro.
Since the growth in usage of TWS earphones, Apple Airpods Pro is one of the most popular and advanced TWS products available in the market - hence AZLA made a specialized version of Xelastec eartips optimized for Airpods Pro and its case. The stem is now shorter to make them perfectly fit into the Airpods Pro case without a problem. Airpods Pro also requires an additional eartip holder (since the original eartips are simply made in one unified chunk), so AZLA has also included precisely made eartip holders that are better formulated than from other brands.
The Fit / Isolation
While ordinary silicone eartips have a rather smooth surface, Xelastec is very clingy in its texture. Yes, the newest SpinFit eartips do provide a stronger grip than their former products or other silicone tips, though not even close to what Xelastec provides. Therefore it may require just a slightly more effort inserting into the ears as the insertion feels a bit stiffer, but nothing close to being bothered. These would perhaps be the eartips that would least likely fall outside the ears since their firm grip. The core (where it would be installed into the nozzle) is also cut with deep grooves for secure installation.
After all, Xelastec provides the firmest grip beyond any other eartips I have tried - not just for Airpods Pro but for earphones in general. The stock eartips from Airpods Pro were rather flimsy and gives an ambiguous firmness, although they did a mediocre job in keeping the earpieces intact. Xelastec shows a considerable difference when it comes to fitting as I could sense the eartips grasping onto my ear canals. Xelastec causes less vibration and shaking during exercises or outdoor activities. Needless to say, firm fit means effectively filling up the ear canal, and effectively filling up the ear canal means effective isolation. These do provide better isolation than the wobbly stock eartips and bring up the ANC performance as well.
Sound comparison - Xelastec vs. Stock Airpods Pro tips
This "Sonic Linearity" that AZLA desired and applied to Xelastec brings evident changes to the sound. The sound transmission feels to be faster and expeditious; I said feel
because this effect may be limited to the aural perception rather than technically speaking. Bass gets tighter and punchier, all while having loose reverbs or boominess neatly organized. Along with that, the sound ray (or the "edge" of the bass) gets thicker both in color and thickness. The results? A cleaner, tighter bass response that does not degrade the bass quantity but instead brings them out even deeper and wider. Simply speaking, it removes unwanted elements that hold back the bass performance and adds up the necessities to make the bass sound even better. The bass slams are cleaner and stronger, overall making the bass response to gain changes that are nothing but ideal.
More on the sound of Xelastec
Xelastec brings a positive change for the upper ends as well. Mids gain a mild boost in size with improved clarity and openness. Xelastec naturally highlights the mids that causes the vocals to stand out better without diverging from the original presentation. Highs are crispier and tighter, bringing out more air and shininess while not altering the original balance of the three bands (low/mid/high). The sound stage is wider along with securing higher altitude, therefore lows sound deeper while mid/highs reach higher. Compared to the stock eartips, the Airpods Pro now delivers finer texture details while not breaking the tone or the overall balance.
While the material used for Xelastec is special, it also requires some precautions and treatments too, however. First, you should not clean the eartips with alcohol swabs or soap. This would degrade or disable Xelastec's elasticity and thermoplasticity. As recommended by AZLA, Xelastec eartips must only be rinsed with cool or room-temperature tap water in case of cleaning them. Alongside, due to the nature of its texture, it is better to let the moisture dry out than wiping off with cloths or tissues. Otherwise, the fibers or dust from the wiping material will likely stick again to the eartips.
Second, Xelastec should not stay deformed in the same shape for very long periods. I mean very long, at least for weeks. Rest assured, they would almost never stay deformed even if you wear them for long periods of time (under the assumption that you would not wear them longer than 100 hours or so...). However, if you shove them into a small case and let them stay squished for days and weeks, it is possible to get them deformed as shown above. They are still usable, though the eartips are no longer in a nice rounded shape as it should be. You may continue using it if the fitting is just fine. If the eartips are too far deformed and need a "reset" to their shape, follow the steps below.
1. Prepare a cup of hot or boiling water.
2. Flip the umbrella portion of the eartips inside out (otherwise deformation may get worse)
3. Drop the Xelastec eartips into the water. Let it stay for one minute.
4. Drain out the hot water and cool it off by pouring it in with cold water. Let it stay for 30 seconds.
Will the hot water do the trick?
Cutting to the point, yes it does. It is still possible for the recovery to fail if the deformation was severe, yet it will work in most cases. But with some side-effects though. The photo above presents a pair of Xelastec eartips - the left one is the one after the "hot-water recovery" and the right one is the original. The first noticeable difference is its shape. The umbrella portion under the core has now become slightly wider. The size change is not dramatic to consider size S to be bumped up to MS, though it did get larger. I was not able to particularly find significant changes in my fitting, but keep this in mind before you attempt the recovery procedure. It is possible to utilize this trick to enlarge your Xelastec eartips in case need a bigger size, though I still would not recommend doing that. The second difference is the color. The restored version is now less transparent along with a mild discoloration. Other than those two, the restored version is still working fine with all its original features still intact. Of course, the best scenario is not to cause permanent deformation to your Xelastec eartips.
Xelastec is a remarkable product that started a new genre or category in the eartip market. Having the sonic characteristics based on the Sedna Earfit series, AZLA has now topped them with this grippy, auto-fitting nature to make things even better. Xelastec is a strong eartip choice for all earphone users but even more for those who use TWS or wireless earphones. In the case of AirPods Pro, I would go far as calling Xelastec to be a must-buy as they bring multiple changes that are desirable in every aspect; improved sound clarity, automatically secured fitting, stronger installation, and reinforced ANC. Yeah, I am of course aware that eartips are strongly up to personal preference, but I would rather make an exemption for AirPods Pro: I doubt that any other eartips would do better than what Xelastec does.
Thanks to AZLA for providing Xelastec in exchange for an honest impression/feedback.
I am not affiliated with AZLA and none of my words were modded or asked to be changed.