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flinkenick's 17 Flagship IEM Shootout Thread (and general high-end portable audio discussion)

  1. Deezel177
    Hey folks! I’d like to introduce you all to a Romanian CIEM manufacturer called LXear. Founded in 2016 by Andrei Grigore, a live sound engineer, the company have taken their local scene by storm with a very simple goal: Provide a superior listening experience to enthusiasts and professionals alike by way of superb sound and cutting-edge, 3D-printing technology. The latter especially is LXear’s bread-and-butter, but we’ll get into that later. They sent over the single-BA Jupiter and the four-BA Pluto for review, and, as you’ll see below, I’m loving what I’m hearing out of both.

    LXear Jupiter

    The Jupiter is an extremely unique single-driver monitor. Firstly, the form factor is unlike any custom I’ve ever experienced. Rather than a full shell, it simply occupies the deeper canal portion. The body is manufactured through 3D-printing technology precise down to a single micron. In addition, 3D-printed handles are attached to the pieces for easy insertion and removal. Isolation I find is comparable to that of a full-shelled custom monitor. LX-ear claims isolation is actually superior to that of standard in-ears at 35dB, but I can’t confirm personally. The only downside to this design is that the cables are permanently attached, but it’s a well-thought out piece otherwise.

    One fascinating facet of the Jupiter is that both the body and the lacquer layer are made of a soft, anti-bacterial and bio-compatible material that warms up and softens in the ear. I’ve found this to be absolutely true. The in-ears are hard and very much resemble acrylic when at room temperature. But, after a minute or so in the ear, they do become soft and slightly flexible, which results in vanishing comfort. Finally, 3D-printing was also used to develop a special acoustic design for the single balanced-armature driver to achieve LX-ear’s desired sound.

    LXear-2 copy.jpg

    Sonically, the Jupiter is a warm, smooth and engagingly musical monitor. The treble is definitely more withdrawn compared to the rest of the frequency response, which gives the Jupiter a very soft, inoffensive edge. But, at the same time, it doesn’t have any of the roll-off or dullness that one might expect with this sort of signature. Transient performance to me is impressive, as instruments leap out of the black background and strike with energy. The fact that you can pump the Jupiter quite loud without even nearing sibilance, fatigue or distortion only furthers this. So, although the Jupiter isn’t the sharpest-sounding monitor in the world, it never lacks attack either. And, it has a strong, stable and roomy soundscape to boot.

    Tonally, the Jupiter is very well-balanced. It works well with a massive variety of genres, and that punchy-yet-smooth timbre is a complement to any instrument. The midrange has a bigness to it that comes from a raised upper-midrange. Dirty Loops’ Hit Me showcase this quality fairly well, as the synths and vocals at the very start of the track form punchy, vibrant walls of sound. The low-end is also warm and present despite the form factor of the earpiece. It’s not the most textured or guttural bass response in the world, but it does fill out the foundation very nicely and adds a lot of musical, cohesive warmth to the mix as a whole without creating a veil.

    LXear-3 copy.jpg

    Speaking of this warmth, the Jupiter also draws musicality from how its images somewhat blend into each other. Going back as far as my very first THL review on the Lime Ears Aether, it’s similar to the cross-feed effect I described there where instruments mingle with each other. It adds to this sense of cohesiveness that’s really appealing, especially with bands like Snarky Puppy. Obviously, this compromises layering a teeny bit. The Jupiter’s definitely most ideal for set-it-and-forget-it listening, rather than any sort of critical analysis. But, if what you’re looking for is an everyday (or even back-up) pair that you can just put on, forget about, and not have to worry about what song’s coming next out of concern that it won’t mesh well with the earphone’s signature, the Jupiter ticks all those boxes to me.

    LXear Pluto

    The Pluto is a more traditional, full-shell CIEM with four balanced-armatures per side; LX-ear’s current flagship. The unit I received has a carbon-fibre faceplate and grey shells, and the craftsmanship here is impeccable. I would’ve easily mistaken it for a hand-poured shell simply because of how clean and polished it looks. The monitors feel incredibly smooth in the ear with exceptionally even pressure, and a flawless balance between comfort and isolation. In addition, the Pluto is finished with the same soft, thermally-adaptable lacquer that the Jupiter is made out of. So, within 60 seconds or so, the Jupiter warms up to body temperature and seamlessly blends with the ear for vanishing comfort.


    LXear-5 copy.jpg

    Sound-wise, the Pluto is one of the most addictively musical in-ears I’ve heard in recent memory. Although it won’t necessarily win any technical awards any time soon, the Pluto presents a charming throwback to the warm, smooth and inviting sounds of - again - Lime Ears’ original Aether, and perhaps Noble Audio’s classic K10 as well. It has strong similarities to the Jupiter as well, but the Pluto does have stronger resolution and top-end presence. There’s tons of charisma and groove to the Pluto that encourages head-bobbing, toe-tapping and shoulder-rocking to no end. When we delve deeper into the Pluto, that lovability comes from its tonal balance. There’s a seamlessness to its frequency response and a beauty to its tone that makes it work with all genres of music, as long as you’re the Pluto’s target audience.

    The Pluto has a bold, present and radiant low-end that imparts a light warmth throughout its soundscape. Never is it overbearing or in-your-face, but it does loosen its reins a teensy bit to bind all the elements in the stage to a cohesive wall-of-sound. Now, make no mistake, separation and layering are still strong on the Pluto. Strong treble extension make it so. But, that wetness will not be ideal if your intentions are analysis and critical listening. That’s not what the Pluto is, nor what it’s trying to be. This light bloom also means the low-end isn’t the tightest in the world. So, as long as the lows you’re looking for are mid-bass-focused, fun and full-bodied - rather than ultra-tight, ultra-clear or ultra-sub-y - the Pluto will deliver.

    LXear-4 copy.jpg

    The Pluto’s midrange is neutrally-placed on the stage. Rather than being saturated or shouty, it takes a step back for a more laid-back, airy and open profile. There’s a slight upper-mid bias for a more vibrant presentation, but low-mid content is healthy too for a seamless transition between the lows and mids, and for instruments to have sufficient body as well. Because of the neutral positioning, there’s lots of air present between instruments, only lightly permeated by the warmth of the bass. And, there’s lots of space between them and the listener as well. This gives a stronger perception of depth and maximises headroom. Thankfully, the midrange possesses capable resolution as well, so that space does not make them sound overtly distant, detached or wish-washy. Instruments have a strong presence to them even if they’re not in-your-face. And again, that warm, airy tone makes them gorgeous to listen to.

    The top-end nicely completes the Pluto’s signature for me. Again, it’s very coherent and seamlessly merged with the rest of the frequency ranges, and it balances the warmth of the bass nicely. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to overcompensate for bass warmth with an ultra-sharp, crisp treble. Although there’s some nice clarity there, it can ultimately make the in-ear sound disjointed. Thankfully, the Pluto resists such temptations, and tempers its top-end to subtly complement everything else. There’s a smooth, feathered touch to it, so hi-hats and cymbals never sound metallic. But, there’s no roll-of either, so those instruments possess decent energy and cut as well. Finally, extension is admirable. So although it won’t be the most crisp or analytical IEM you’ll ever hear, stereo separation, stage stability and dynamic range all impress.
     
  2. davidcotton
    Had a little experience with the Jupiters form factor. Already posted my old (knackered) minerva half shells which were similar. Cosmic Ears also did something very similar called the micro, available as a dynamic or ba as I recall. Only problem I had with that fit was that the cable was right on the bottom of the shell on the first design and the cable had a tendency to rub the bottom of my ear lobe which became quite irritated if left in for any length of time. Quite interested in this form factor, as it's great for discrete listening at work and glasses wearers. The only reason I've not ordered one (aside from my usual indecisiveness!) is the fact that they don't use paypal :frowning2: Oh and fixed cables are a concern sadly.
     
  3. KuroKitsu
    Had a bit of time and dabbled with crin's graphs while testing the Khan and the Fiio K3 out. Plus labelling some stuff for my WM1A (grumble retagging and baselien jpegs grumble)

    FR-crin.png

    More or less the Khan does work out to something with the best parts of the Zeus and Phantom and the rest in between. $3K CAD well spent. And also proving @EagleWings review of the Phantom spot on.
     
    Raketen, EagleWings and Wildcatsare1 like this.
  4. buonassi
    @pithyginger63 - remember that FR is only one aspect of what makes an IEM great. Albeit, the most immediate heard and probably the most important, but still only one chapter of the story. Cascade graphs and impulse response can also help, but ultimately there's some magic when it all comes together. Only the ears can yay or nay.

    For anyone interested - here are some immediate impressions of Meze Rai Penta I just posted: Post #518
     
  5. Wildcatsare1
    I’m absolutely rocking the Solaris with a Triton 8 Reference, pure silver and copper, great tone, massive head-stage, thunderous bass, with smooth, extended highs. Considering the insane pricing of other companies Reference IEMs, it’s a true bargain!
     
    fuhransahis likes this.
  6. KuroKitsu
    Pithy's probably destroying his nth BA right about...nowwwwww.

    But yeah FR's are not the completely story because the auditory system is complicated and all. They need more of that black magic.
     
    buonassi likes this.
  7. pithyginger63
    Oh, yes of course! I actually forgot about that. I haven't heard everything yet, but it's my belief that everything in the kilobuck range far surpasses iems of lower tiers in terms of technical performance :p
     
    buonassi and mvvRAZ like this.
  8. mvvRAZ
    There's some IEMs in the 1000+ range that sound like absolute garbage (Earsonics S EM6 V2 I'm looking at you), but generally speaking - more $$ = better performance no matter what they say :D
     
    pithyginger63 and Wildcatsare1 like this.
  9. Jackpot77
    There are a few surprising gems in the sub-$1000 category for technical excellence - I recommend checking out the Flares Pro 2HD by Flare Audio if you want a good example of something that can hang with IEMs at a much higher level (IMHO - usual caveats/YMMV statements apply).
     
    pithyginger63 likes this.
  10. mvvRAZ
    I agree with you, and I feel like they are usually by brands that don't roam into the 1000+ category. I feel like the TOTL producers (Noble, 64, JH etc etc) make amazing all rounders at the max of their range, but when they make a mid-fi IEM (sub-1000 let's say), it is usually something with either great bass, or great mids, or great highs, or great soundstage, but they always have one defining characteristic, making them pretty poor all rounders.
     
  11. davidmolliere
    I have gone up the price range in the 2.5/3K range with flagships that do deliver (VE8) but also those who deliver but target specific use case or specific preferences that might end up a dead end (LCD i4, KSE1500).

    I would be very careful with statements like this $$ = better is not necessarily true. The Phantom is less expensive than the VE8 but is in the same TOTL contender family, but that's also true of much cheaper EM64 which is less than half the price of the VE8. That's probably also the case for the FIBAE 7, potentially great value for money as well in what is now the mid tier price range around 1K you have some gems. All this doesn't factor in tuning and personal preference, you can tell me all you want Trinity is great, I prefer the "lesser" Flamenco. I might prefer the VE8 to the Elysium, haven't heard that yet. It's becoming harder and harder to justify the insane prices of TOTL IEMs. Anything beyond 2K better deliver very obvious value otherwise I'll simply ignore it... like I did the SE6 after auditioning.

    The law of diminishing returns really applies, on the flipside the great value for money gems is what I am hunting for these days.
    Beyond a certain level of technical performance, it's all about tuning, personal preferences, what source you'll pair your gear to, sometimes what kind of music you listen to...
     
  12. mvvRAZ
    I agree with you, I think I didn't explain myself/express what I was trying to adequately.

    When it comes to categories of IEMs, you generally notice a significant improvement in the sound

    To put it a bit more accurately:

    Sub 100 - budget, bit of a gamble
    100-300 - you get some great stuff in here that can easily sound like ones around the 500 range
    300-1000 - very few really good IEMs from my observations - namely the IO, the FIBAE Black, the Polaris II and a few others
    1000-1500 - this is where you can get almost TOTL performance already IMO, and if you find a good match, it can satisfy you for an unlimited period of time
    1500+ - this is where you're pretty much willing to spend an extra 1k for an extra 5% performance - for example if you compare the Katana to the A18t - I bought the A18t, and just got the chance to audition the Katana today, and while it was slightly worse in terms of soundstage, it kind of made me regret spending all that money on the A18t, because the Katana is easily 98% of what the 18 is. I will be getting one soon most likely for a daily driver, CIEMs tend to be too fragile for all day every day (at least in my experience)
     
  13. Jackpot77
    Nicely put. Music listened to and personal preference are a huge factor as you get into the top tier. Not all flagships are tuned alike, and not all flagships should be tuned alike. No one owns the definition of "endgame" as it pertains to audio - what lacks bass for some will be too fat and chunky for others, and what is too dry and sharp for some will be an analytical masterpiece for the next guy (or gal). Unless there is some form of glaring flaw in the technical aspects (distortion / unwanted resonance / treble you can carve diamond with) of a TOTL iem, then it's more often than not just down to individual tastes.
     
    buonassi and davidmolliere like this.
  14. mvvRAZ
    On your list of IEMs I see a really wide variety and sound signatures, do you listen to different genres with different IEMs?

    I'm just curious because my collection is expanding quite quickly now that I'm working full time, but it has been developing very linearly into one sound signature and one sound signature alone haha - not sure if I'm doing this wrong or if this is simply the only sound signature I properly and fully enjoy
     
  15. Jackpot77
    I do have a few different "flavours" of IEM/headphone, but I'm actually mostly a fan of slightly warmer and bassier tunings.

    Need to update the signature a bit, but it's reasonably accurate - my most used IEMs are the Zeus-XR when I'm looking for something to make the detail and mids sing in a track (mainly guitar based), the Atlas when I need to get my bass on, and the Solaris or Stealthsonics C9 fit when I just want to lose myself in music for a few hours with my "best" DAP (currently the Cayin N6ii).

    My on the go IEMs recently have been the CA Polaris 2 or the Acoustune HS1503al - both bassier, but with a nice treble sparkle. The Flares Pro2HD also fit into this category, so get a spin from time to time.

    I think it's more about the mood I'm in for me - I adore the Atlas, but it just isn't an IEM you can passively listen too, it's just too damn engaging and energetic.Ditto the Zeus - sometimes you don't need to hear everything in the recording studio.

    Long story short - as long as an IEM helps me engage with the music, I'm happy - musical is a much more important descriptor to me than analytical when it comes to putting a smile on my face. The only set I've got that deviate from that are the Ollo SR4 - they are a proper studio reference set of cans, and while they are actually pretty enjoyable in their own right, I use them when I'm writing reviews to help me set a baseline for what "neutral" sound like, so I can make a better judgement on whether an IEM or headphone is bassy/bass-light, etc.

    If you've found your dream signature, that's awesome - if that's the sound that gets your feet tapping, stick with it!
     
    Raketen and mvvRAZ like this.

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