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Pros: Faultless tonality & timbre for instrumental music
Immersive listening experience
Scales with amplification
Immersive listening experience
Scales with amplification
Cons: Tonality & presentation sensitive to source and amplification
Isolation & subbass roll-off limits some versatility with modern genres
Isolation & subbass roll-off limits some versatility with modern genres
The earbud is not new and while I wouldn’t be the right person to recount a history, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that ‘DIY’ efforts have been ongoing for many years and interest has been simmering away in various threads across the internet. The ease of access to parts combined with a shared knowledge base within a generous and inviting community has been a gateway to interested audiophiles and tinkerers alike. These custom crafters have been particularly active in Asia and South East Asia where the earbud medium has been adopted for its relative affordability and comfort owed to their open design and breathability, being particularly suited to warmer climates. It turns out that creativity is contagious, as is the love for the earbud, and we are now seeing more creators based in the West offering for sale their ‘custom’ or ‘boutique’ earbuds. Many of these boutique buds are proving that they can easily compete against branded products but without the QC-lottery of conveyer belt production.
Enter TGXear a Vancouver-based company, started by Head-Fi’er @tgx78, offering boutique earbuds (or high fidelity ‘earspeakers’ as their website describes them – this isn’t far from the truth!). Prior to listening to TGXear offerings I had only brief encounters with Jim on the forums, predominantly in the IEM space where I began to appreciate his astute critique of flagship IEMs. His appetite for texture, accurate timbre and a balanced tonal presentation appeared to mirror my own, as did some of his tastes in music. TGXear has produced three ‘flagship’ models so far – the Tantalus (500Ω beryllium driver), the Serratus (300Ω PET BG) and the Alpha (600Ω beryllium) – all named after snow-capped Canadian mountains. My first purchase was the Serratus a highly resolving and spacious listen that immediately shot to the top of my preferences, proving ‘better’ than most transducers I had to hand, both my existing earbuds and my IEMs (please find my tonality profile for the Serratus here).
I reached out to @tgx78 while atop the lofty summits of the Serratus and he pointed to a neighbouring peak, the Alpha, a set that I was told had a ‘special’ positional presentation with better timbre. My experience with beryllium drivers has been generally very positive, offering natural dynamics and texturing when implemented well, so it didn’t take long to put in my order. I was kindly offered a reviewer discount to provide my opinion on this one but I respect this community enough to not let this affect my judgement and statements of price to performance will be made from the retail price of $249.
My review and tonality plot has been made from listening impressions with the Alpha fed by the Valhalla 2 desktop tube amp and supported by comparisons with the Shanling M8 DAP. The Valhalla 2 provides 340mW @ 600 ohms. Interestingly, I have found the Alpha more sensitive than its lower impedance brother the Serratus. However, despite appearing to achieve greater volume levels comparatively, the Alpha scales more with extra power than the Serratus. Both tonal and technical presentation on the Alpha changes in my experience. When fed with greater power the Alpha has a fuller midbass, greater upper midrange clarity and presence but with less transparency and air. Technically, staging expands in width, height and depth and instrument separation improves with the desktop power. I prefer the presentation on the Valhalla 2 over the more transparent Shanling M8, largely because the note weight and dynamics provide greater realism and musicality. Ultimately, both devices can ‘drive’ this transducer to good volume levels and both are very enjoyable experiences but for different reasons. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
Accessories, Fit & Comfort
Tracked delivery from Canada was swift and the Alpha well packaged. Communication was prompt and clear. The fixed silver cable chosen is lovely and lightweight, with minimal microphonics and no memory. The 4.4mm connector is rhodium plated and has the TGXear logo on it. The earbud comes with a firm zip case for storage and a good number of replacement foams - ones that were used in tuning. Also included is a cool ‘TGXear’ pin badge. Regarding fit, provided you don’t have issues with the MX500 shell this is a really lightweight and comfortable earbud. If you’re not sure, purchase any number of cheap MX500 earbuds on Aliexpress to trial for comfort before purchase.
TGXear Alpha Sound Signature Chart
For the background of this chart and its interpretation please see here.
Sound Signature Plot
Primary = Mid-centric – Warm
Secondary (Strong) = Forward Mids
Secondary (Strong) = Warm
Secondary (Strong) = Detailed (but not critical)
Secondary (Weak) = Smooth
Tertiary (Complementing) = Airy
Sound Signature Breakdown
The primary sound signature is ‘mid-centric-warm’. The Alpha is warm (but not dark), sitting at a reasonable distance from the neutral midline on the tonality plot. Although coloured, it remains very natural and displays what I would consider an ‘organic’ colouration to sound. This is very important for my enjoyment of the string instruments I listen to (from double bass to kamancheh). This warmth from a midbass & low midrange lift does not make the sound signature ‘veiled’ and both the secondary strong sound signature of ‘detailed’ and tertiary ‘airy’ sound characteristic ensures string detail is always retained with good character.
The Alpha has a strong secondary sound signature of a ‘forward mid’ presentation. A tendency for earbuds but especially this set, the ‘forward mid’ presentation puts vocals and instruments intimate to the listener and gushes with instrumental focus. This ‘forward mid’ presentation never pushes towards ‘boxy’ and sound is projected into a stage with good dimension. Dependent on the track and volume of replay there is a risk of ‘shout’ that is largely reserved for female vocalists and instruments in the upper midrange. To expand, four things will be at play here that will affect your experience: personal tolerances, mastering, replay volume and the effects of increasing driving power that seems to lift ear gain. Rest assured, it’s not hard to find a comfortable place that retains clarity and presence and without shout. The midrange shows no sibilance having good upper midrange/lower treble control and the ‘smooth’ weak secondary sound signature softens vocal presentation. On the whole, vocal body is appreciated more than vocal breath but the balance struck is romantic and enjoyable. Male vocals are full and not too ‘smooth’ that they lack ‘grit’ or texture. A tertiary complimenting sound characteristic of ‘airy’ is present which is more appreciable on lower powered sources on which the emphasis shifts up the frequency range. This air acts to counter balance the warmth and weight of its low-midrange focus by bringing out the atmosphere in recordings and adding definition, detailing and natural decay.
The Alpha has a beautiful tonal profile that never leaves instruments feeling incomplete. Even from the Shanling M8 the performance is laudible, offering life-like instrument replay with palpable fundamental note weight, complimented by a complete harmonic picture. A related quality to touch on here would be instrumental timbre i.e. how truthfully the Alpha presents complex tones. While I am not a musician I have spent many years enjoying live performances, mainly in the folk and world music scenes, and I like to think I have an ear for this. I put the Alpha through my library of instrument recordings that I have heard live and I couldn’t find a fault. For all intents and purposes, I consider this to have faultless timbral accuracy (or maybe I have reached the extent of my critical listening skill here). Timbral accuracy is something hard to come by. So-called TOTL IEMs often fall short in this regard and for those that index for instrumental realism in their music and still want portability, the Alpha represents a very compelling purchase at $250 for this aspect alone.
Fortunately for us, there is more to the Alpha than excellent tuning and faultless timbre. I would argue the X-factor emerges only when we consider how the Alpha presents this sound in space.
Earbuds excel with staging, offering ‘out the head’ presentations and it’s no different here, except the Alpha doesn’t just offer width that reaches ‘out of the head’, it has a spacious centre image and clearly defined positional cueing around the periphery of the stage. This produces a wonderfully dimensional feeling to the sound and combined with a stage height that reaches above and below the ear line and the ‘mid forward’ sound, you are thoroughly ‘within’ the recording. Stage width isn’t the widest and layering capability suits smaller, less complex performances but imaging in space is exceptional. The self-proclaimed ‘earspeakers’ moniker is well earned here. It’s an engrossing experience that only improves with time and familiarity. This isn’t a clinical, detached presentation, this is one of closeness and listener involvement – make of that what you will!
Having covered the tonality & technicality I have chosen listening observations from a number of tracks I'm familiar with:
Nenad Vasilic – Bass Room – Gavrilo’s Prinzip
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The bass and low mid performance is tested here. The double bass is full and impressively assertive. The ‘smooth’ and ‘warm’ tendencies soften some of the fine string detailing but at no loss to my enjoyment. Too many earbuds either go too thin and bright or too heavy and dark, but the Alpha manages to find a balance and do this instrument justice. This track can feel overwhelming at times, as the ‘boom’ and ‘resonance’ of plucked notes combine with the forward presentation, but it would be unfair to attribute this entirely to the Alpha. The recording itself accentuates this and these properties of tone and placement are noticeable when listening through more neutral transducers too.
Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers – Rich Spirit
This is primarily to demonstrate the degree of subbass roll-off. Play this track with enough driving power and the Alpha produces good atmosphere and some ‘felt’ rumble but it is rather distant and thin. This sort of bass quantity is enough for some electronic genres but not all. While on this track, another class-leading facet of the Alpha is clear – great male vocals. Kendricks voice is weighted naturally, textured and undeniably well isolated with other track elements decorating the edges of the soundscape.
Christian McBride – Gettin’ to it – Night Train
Another close solo performance on the double bass. The Alpha conveys the energy of the musician, the body of the instrument and tension in the strings. It’s all there. A lot of sets present this track too dry or thin but the tonality and timbre of the Alpha keeps things locked in just the right place.
Brian Bromberg – My Bass
If you want to get up close and personal with bass guitar strings in all their metallic glory without any shouty mids or peaky treble the Alpha has you covered. It gives a perfect performance here. Quick enough to keep up and expressive enough to move enough air to send the performance straight to your core.
Lucas van Merjwijk and Aly N’Diaye Rose – Drumix – ‘Rumbita
The whole album is great for testing percussion tonality and texture, but I especially like this track as there are all sorts of things going on from high to low and elements are spaced and layered well on the stage. Kickdrums, snares, bells, cymbals, all the different tones and textures are ‘laid out’ to the ear in spacious centre image, fully exposed with nothing too tizzy or overwhelming. With regards to the bass, the quantity sufficiently enlivens the kickdrums but is again not to ‘basshead’ levels. Another faultless performance for the Alpha in my opinion. While on the topic of high-energy drumming, listening to ‘The Grudge’ by Tool there is some percussive weight and presence missing that I want for metal/prog rock – mastering of tracks probably plays into this need too, so it’s not a one size fits all.
Nicolas Parent Trio – Mirage – Désert blanc
Presentation here is well separated but characteristically forward on the Alpha and it really shines as an instrumental powerhouse. Guitar, cello and drums/percussion are all at play here. You can appreciate the guitar down to the tips of the Nicolas’ fingers. The imaging prowess and stage depth places all the instruments comfortably around the head. Percussion has a natural weight to its impact and thanks to strong imaging, the surface of the drum skin ‘radiates’ sound in space revealing all subtlety you could hope for. This is also something well demonstrated on the track ‘Joy’ on the same album wherein the ‘bol’ stroke on the tabla (a sliding palm motion over the skin after a finger strike) has a natural depth and resonance.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Little Wing (Album Version)
I tend to use this track to pick out ‘sharp’ treble presentations. The Alpha with its sensible, smooth lower treble combined with the height of the stage, detailing and imaging wizardry just puts the whole experience on another level. More than ever SRV makes me play air guitar!
Agnes Obel – Aventine (Deluxe Edition) – The Curse
The controlled upper midrange focuses on the body of her voice but the appeal on this track remains. It’s dream-like, intimate and detailed. High notes remain enjoyable and not shouty despite a forward vocal presentation. Supporting elements are well placed around the head for a good immersive effect.
Ulf Wakenius – Momento Magico – The Dragon
Another track I go to for guitar timbre and tonality. The left channel has some sharp plucked notes that if overemphasised or accentuated by a peaky/wonky treble come off entirely one dimensional, invasive and lacking the right emphasis. They’re handled great here, detailed but with softer edges and a natural decay. The right channel is handled just as well, with the flattering treble tuning controlling an aggressive strumming track that can come across harsh on some sets. Timbre heaven.
Wasis Diop – De la glace dans la gazelle – Sogolon
A nice demonstration of how Alpha handles male vocals. The spacious centre stage gives the vocals breathing space and the weighty low end and air gives soul to the voice. The downward vocal slide near 00:20-00:26 is my musical equivalent of a deep tissue massage…!
Serratus vs Alpha
For those looking into the Serratus and the Alpha but with money for only one I hope the following can help:
|Tonal differences lie largely in the treble and low mids. The Serratus is more transparent and revealing and the Alpha has more low-end body and less air. The Serratus is less ‘mid-forward’ placing vocals slightly further back.|
Both are what I would also describe as ‘balanced’ from top to bottom and ultimately share a similar tonal DNA.
|Timbre||+++||++||IMO, the Alpha finds a more realistic note ‘colour’ thanks to its midbass/low mid lift and ‘smoother’ presentation. The Serratus seems to have a less realistic (quicker) note decay that when paired with its more aggressive/airy tonality makes its handling of complex tones less accurate.|
|Technicalities||++||+++||The Serratus has a wider soundstage with better instrument separation and layering. The Alpha has a taller stage and more ‘holographic’ imaging.|
|Strengths||Jazz, small ensemble, folk, world, blues, soul||Modern classical, large ensembles, contemporary jazz, ambient||The embodied low end, accurate timbre and (especially) forward mids of the Alpha lends itself to intimate, small group instrumental performances. The better layering, wider stage and more transparent sound of the Serratus plays well with more complex & atmospheric tracks. However, it is less forgiving of harsh recordings. If you are treble-sensitive the Alpha offers a smoother, warmer replay.|
Metal and prog rock listeners may want more presence and impact from their percussion on both sets. Pop/electronic/hip hop listeners may want more bass in general.
I’ve found it hard to capture the value and virtue of the Alpha and it has been an even harder task to find a weakness. Sub bass is rarely reached in the genres I listen to so this roll-off (to some degree inherent to the earbud medium) doesn’t bother me. If you’re looking for an earbud for jazz, classical or acoustic music I struggle to see how this could be bettered. Most transducers have a compromise to make in tonality, technicality and/or timbre – rarely do you find standout performances in all three domains. After journeying between headphones, IEMs and earbuds I have found my ‘desert island’ driver and while l feel you need a desktop amplifier to truly hear what the Alpha has to offer, it still sounds great from powerful portable sources too. TGXear with its flagship earbuds has quickly cemented itself as a boutique brand to look out for; selecting drivers with purpose, tuning them with balance and implementing them well. Borrow, buy or bargain your way to an Alpha – you won’t regret the experience.