Pros: Versatile, light and comfortable. Excellent mid-range.
Cons: Cord not replaceable. Not repairable.
First up a disclaimer: this review focusses on comparisons to Future Sonics’ former Atrio universal-fit IEM and are based on my memory of them, which was quite a while ago since they’ve been out of production for several years. It’s possible my memory of them has changed or evolved in the intervening time period, my hearing and/or tastes have changed or a combination of the above.
Sound signature and quality
On first impressions, the sound signature is quite a bit different from what I remember of the Atrios, which may explain why Future Sonics decided to drop the Atrio brand name and call them something else. They’ve taken a step towards a more neutral or balanced presentation with a decidedly more forward presentation of mids compared with the bass-oriented, gritty and relaxed Atrios. These mids however have fantastic detail and are one of the new Atrio's best assets; it’s a genuine hi-fi quality befitting an IEM of this price. This alone makes them quite different to the Atrios they replaced. In some cases I felt the need to reduce the mids in EQ, but not by a great deal. The overall impression is one of a more balanced but definitely not boring sound. These suit acoustic music in particular very well.
While treble on the former Atrio was pretty messy, muddy and indistinct (but not really bothersome since they were all about that bass), there’s no such obvious flaw in the treble here. They’re still rolled-off to protect hearing, though probably not as aggressively as the Atrio and they're definitely brighter overall. Even so they shouldn’t cause fatigue. You will likely find better treble detail and articulation in other brands at the same price (and certainly for more) but compared with the former Atrio, treble has gone from being average or poor to fine or decent.
These new Atrios (sorry, “Spectrum G10") have a fairly open sound-stage for IEMs. Far more open than the former somewhat congested Atrios. I actually don’t mind a slightly congested sound, but these sound like a pretty good balance to me. Here is where it comes down to memory and possibly a biased nostalgia; the bass doesn’t seem as extended, prominent or boosted in that sub-bass region as I remember, which is what I loved about the Atrios. Bass quality is still good and definitely at neutral or above, but it’s in that almost inaudible sub-bass region where I think it’s less than what the previous Atrio had. Perhaps this perception is affected by the more forward presentation of mids.
Build quality, fit and looks
I loved the Atrios but their build quality was not their greatest asset. The Atrios used a soft rubber strain relief that decayed, became brittle and broke off over time. I got anywhere from 9 months to 1.5 years out of each pair before they’d decayed to a point that either destroyed the sound or simply broke completely. I even wrote feedback to FS about the problems. So it’s pleasing to see that (on first impressions at least) build quality is vastly improved over the former Atrio. The once problematic strain relief is now a very hard rubber or plastic that seems durable. Only time will tell of course but early signs are promising. Build quality in IEMs is one of my sore points and I think many manufacturers can and should do better or be forced to do so.*
The braided/twisted cord is fairly thin but relatively tangle-proof and I’m happy to report completely silent, even all the way into the earphones. Haters of microphonics rejoice! The IEMs themselves are very light and can be worn comfortably in the up or down position. I prefer the up and behind-the-ears placement of the cord. The FS tips were always very good so no change there. I’m not usually a fan of bi-flange tips but these fit pretty well and provide a good, stable and secure seal. When worn this way I think they’d even handle a run or jog, but of course I wouldn’t advise that since they’re not a sealed sports headphone.
As far as looks go I’d say they’re very discreet. They don’t stick out much and the grey colour is matte this time, as opposed to the shiny black, blue, red or beige plastic housing of the former Atrios. I’m actually a bit disappointed that they only come in grey because they’re a little too drab for my taste and I quite liked the red colour last time. Maybe they’ll add more colours in future but for now you have a choice of grey, grey or grey so you’ll have to live with it!
Packaging, accessories et cetera
Not much to speak of here. If you’ve owned Atrios before it’s basically the same, except they come in a nicely foam-padded box with the headphones already inside the small pouch, which is a nice, reassuring touch. This compares to just hanging in plastic in a mildly protected box previously.
There’s no doubt these are an improvement over the former Atrio, particularly in build quality, mids and sound-stage. However at the same time I feel like it’s taken away a little of what made the Atrio unique and a favourite among lovers of a darker, gritty sound with prominent sub-bass. Perhaps I’m being overly picky here. The Spectrum G10 is overall a more balanced and versatile IEM that’s likely to please more people. There’s also no question these are worth at least AU $200 (US $150). At AU $300 (US $220) however I think it’s wise to do your research as that’s getting quite up there for an IEM without a replaceable cord and which is essentially non-repairable. Though the build quality is improved, I’d want to get at least 2 years of respectful use out of these to be satisfied with their longevity. I’m confident that will be the case, but again only time will tell.
If you can afford them and like the sound of what I described then by all means jump in. They will please more people than the former Atrio, but still won’t please everyone and may not be everything that Atrio lovers had wanted.
*European brands offer 2-year warranties in accordance with EU law (even for cheap headphones) and I’ve even seen the occasional headphone with a 3-year warranty. At AU $300, headphones should be built to last at least a couple of years, so the 1-year warranty is a little disappointing. Australian consumer law is a little grey on this but I’m pretty sure it agrees with me in sentiment if not in practise.
Pros: The controlled and full subbass, monitor midrange and treble, build quality is excellent; these are pro stage monitors for you at home!
Cons: The bass could be overmuch for those used to usual earphones; the lack of spikes in the treble could be different than one is used to from other iems
Synopsis: The Spectrum Series G10 is the next generation universal fit stage monitor from Future Sonics. Replacing the Atrio with a new driver, housing, and cables, the G10 surpasses it in detail and control throughout the frequency spectrum. It does this while keeping a tuning characterized by full sub-bass, a clear midrange with a small boost in the vocal region, and a balanced, non-fatiguing treble. At a MSRP of $219, the G10 is an excellent value for the sound and build quality.
Thanks to Future Sonics for the loaner set I used for this review. Future Sonics has never asked me to write a review, although they did ask for feedback--which I'm giving, in the form of a review! The set was burned in on a loud, varied playlist for 100hrs prior to the review and a portable amp used during critical listening.
Introduction: The Spectrum Series G10 has a lot of history and experience behind it. Marty Garcia, CEO of Future Sonics was the first person to put custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs) on stage, back in 1982 (for Todd Rundgren). In 1985, Mr. Garcia offered the first commercially available CIEMs, for which he was later inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame (http://tecfoundation.com/hof/10techof.html). So, the G10 is designed by the person who kicked off the use of earphones on stage and has been around longer than anyone. And it’s the sound of live music on stage and the needs of the musicians making it that most shapes the G10’s engineering. Interestingly, Future Sonics has stayed with the use of single dynamic drivers in vented shells rather than closed shell multi-armatures. To understand why that is, we need to look at the thinking that goes into Future Sonics earphones.
Future Sonics' Philosophy: As a Future Sonics customer, I've had the chance to talk directly with Mr. Garcia and he's shared some of his views on audio. Listening to him, it's really a kind of philosophy of sound, based on the science of the human ear. As I understand it: The ear drum vibrates forward and back for us to hear sound waves. Due to the range and emphasis of the human voice, certain frequencies are emphasized over others and the ear canal itself has its own resonances (which change when something like an earphone plugs the entrance to the canal). At the lower frequencies, we feel the air-moving quality of bass sounds as much as we hear them.
As Mr. Garcia says in his own words: “Our ears breathe and our ear canals are not meant to be a sealed closed audio system, in my opinion. FS voice coil [dynamic driver] products allow for energy and air movement (balancing out the spectrum of sound) to move forward and release back like our bodies breath in and out.”
As he says, a dynamic driver's diaphragm also moves forward and back, like the ear drum, and the vent design allows not only the dynamic driver to move properly, but also lets the ear drum move without air pressure interfering with its movement. An earphone that allows the ear drum to move correctly is going sound better and the music will sound more real.
When it comes to bass, having a vented design allows for a real air-moving feel to bass. Marty Garcia found that musicians were turning up the volume on their closed-shell armature monitors in an attempt to get the feel of the bass. That's why even musicians with high isolation monitors tended to listen at a high volume level. Having a real bass feel means musicians can keep their volume relatively lower in a loud stage environment, even though the isolation of vented designs is slightly less. I find the same effect on a noisy subway or plane ride.
The Spectrum Series G10
The G10 uses an all-new 10mm dynamic driver, a new overmolded metallic housing with strengthened strain relief, and stronger, braided cables. Just like all their earphones, it was designed and engineered by Future Sonics themselves.
Note: My ear not included with G10 purchase
With the separately purchased custom-fit silicone earsleeves
Build Quality: These are very sturdy earphones. The strain relief has been improved greatly over the older Atrio and the cable is beefier, too. The housing is clearly more robust as well, while still staying lightweight in the ear.
Fit: Both the proper seal and right angle of insertion make a huge difference for the sound of any earphone. In terms of seal, for a dynamic driver earphone, you want to avoid a vacuum which prevents the ear drum from moving properly. A lighter seal gives a brighter, more detailed, more open and spacious sound.
The G10 comes with bi-flange tips and also foamies. There is also the option to purchase custom fit full-custom silicone ear sleeves, which fit exactly like custom-fit silicone-shelled ciems.
Isolation: While these are vented, the isolation is actually very good. It's a definite improvement over the Atrio. I would say that it’s actually equal in terms of isolation to several of my acrylic shelled custom fit earphones, but not as isolating as my silicone shell custom fit earphones. Certainly, it’s better than my other vented dynamic driver earphones for external noise reduction.
Impedance: The G10 is designed for pro-audio use and so has a high-impedance design. What that means is that it can give you its very best with a powerful source or amp and will still have low hiss.
The G10 sounds good out of my ipod, and gains balance and detail when I use my portable amp—an Apex Glacier. I would recommend using the G10 with a more powerful source if you’d like to experience its full potential.
Overall: What we have with the G10 is a stage monitor that, once you become accustomed to it, really works well with a wide range of music. The thing to keep in mind if you want to know if this earphone is for you is: Do you want the sound of live music? That’s not a rhetorical question! Live sound is a particular sound and most earphones have a different tuning. Compared to other earphones, it has a full bass that goes very deep, if it's in the music, and really fills the soundstage just like bass in a live venue. Yet, it doesn't interfere with the clear, accurate midrange which has a live music take on timbre. That means an energetic, detailed, natural sound that gives you what the recording has, all the good--and also any bad that the recording has. The treble matches the midrange, with greater presence and edge than the Atrios had, grabbing your attention and balancing the sound, yet still not adding anything fatiguing that wasn’t there in the recording.
Tonality: The way the G10's vented drivers can give an air-moving, immersive sub-bass (if it's there in the music) with control is amazing. What balances this is the detailed midrange and treble. The accurate grip they keep on the heart of the music allows the G10 to maintain an interesting tonal overall balance. Play Glenn Gould on solo piano (Bach, naturally) and the piano sings truthfully. String quartets and choirs keep their balance from violin to cello or soprano to bass. Play dance music and there's an ocean of deeply layered bass throbbing with voices and brighter effects swimming clearly in the mix. If you like a very bass-capable earphone, then the G10 will handle a lot of music well, whether there’s a deep beat to it or none at all.
Now, that's a very positive take, so let me also say what the G10's tonal balance is not. It's not a very mellow, richness-added sound that takes all your music, whatever it is, and caresses your ears with silk. That can be nice, but it's not what the G10's about. The G10 also doesn't give those spikes in the treble that give the illusion of greater clarity (and can damage your hearing). Those treble spikes are often an artifact of the way balanced armatures produce sound, although some dynamic driver earphones have them. Treble boosted earphones are nice for some music, they can be fatiguing at volume, but that's not the G10. Although the G10 can really reach deeply with the bass, its control doesn't fit the usual, slightly uncontrolled bass cannon earphone, either.
The G10 is a stage monitor that tries to show you your music accurately and includes bass, particularly sub-bass, fully on a live music footing with the rest of the spectrum.
Soundstage and Separation: A single dynamic driver is going to give a supremely coherent sound, where all the instruments and voices are singing together in the same acoustic space. The G10 does very well with this portrayal of the way sounds come together from every player in the band. In general, I think (and the acoustic engineers I speak to say) that most of the cues for how we hear the soundstage—the sense of the space the music is played in and positioning of the players—actually comes from the recording itself, not the earphone. You can hear how different recordings will sound different in this regard. Having said that, some earphones use tricks to try and sound spacious all the time, while vented dynamics tend to sound spacious generally. Here, the G10 tends to put you on stage with the singers, or at least in the first row. So, while there can be depth to the sound, there is an intimacy or immediacy with the G10. Those looking for a very separated sound I would steer to the less coherent (everything’s a trade-off!) approach of a multi-armature earphone.
Bass: Superior bass extension, cavernous with control, that’s the G10’s bass. It’s the foundation of the sound and it doesn’t interfere with the midrange to my ears when playing acoustic folk and world music. There’s an air-moving, real life energy in the sub-bass. Sub-bass is such a part of sound and music when we listen live and it should be there in our earphones, too, I think. This bass may take a little getting used if a person isn’t accustomed to an earphone giving that, but I think once you do, you’ll always want that capability.
Midrange: This is a clean, monitor midrange with very nice detail and an honest sound. It’s not adding richness, nor taking it away. There’s a small lift to the vocal range and this adds the energy needed for a stage monitor to bring the main voice or instrument to the lead with clarity even when there’s a lot of musicians playing at once. This is also what avoids a laid-back, relaxed sound. Guitars have their rocking edge and female voices have their vocal fry and yet, it’s not overmuch.
Treble: The G10 gives us a nice treble which extends well, has good presence and timbre, and is non-fatiguing. There's definitely more treble presence here than on the old Atrio. It balances the bass and midrange and sings nicely without feeling boosted or shelved down. The G10 doesn’t have those treble spikes people might be used to from other earphones. It’s not adding an artificial sense of clarity, yet the G10 has a good amount of genuine resolving power and you can hear clearly the violin hitting the high notes in a symphony or the bright effects in a pop song.
Conclusion: With its very capable sub-bass, and monitor midrange and treble, the G10 was engineered both in sound and in its sturdy construction for the demands of live music and musicians on stage. For anyone for whom that live music tuning appeals, then the G10 works very well as all-around excellent earphone for a wide range of music. Everything from thumping hip-hop to rock to jazz and classical sounds true to life. On stage or on commute, the G10 is a hit.