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

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  1. flinkenick
    Rank #4:


    The Prelude is a little gem, predestined to be misunderstood. For extraordinary strengths, come with equal weaknesses. Tuned for tone, its timbre is spot on – a sense of beauty flows from its accuracy. And there’s a rare smoothness in its note release, with each note a touch of velvet gently caressing the ear. And then there are its deep, powerful, and emotional vocals; presenting themselves as strong contenders for title of ‘the best’. As does its treble: articulate, quick, but most all, boasting a beautiful timbre. Not just a very coherent signature; but one that drips with naturalness.

    Even so, the Prelude is tuned for a specific type of audiophile, rather than a crowd-pleaser. For the Prelude has some inner conflicts of its own, and there are concessions to be made. For starters, its extension on both ends is not particularly impressive, having several consequences throughout its signature. The stage seems to lack air, especially considering its warmer tuning. As a result, it tends to create a more intimate feel; or cozy perhaps, depending on how you’d like to frame it. And down below, the sub-bass impact might leave one wanting, especially the more bass-enthused. The mid-bass is there, providing warmth and a little kick; but it’s just a shadow of what a sub-bass can be.

    Last edited: Aug 4, 2017
    ranfan, proedros and Arkady Duntov like this.
  2. flinkenick
    Rank #3:


    The A18 is the reference iem, that isn’t. It might have been given the label by its makers, but it has too much energy to be confined to a strictly reference role. For in its heart, it’s youthful and playful. In a rebellious act, it seems to have broken free from the serious role it was intended to have. The A18 sounds vigorous, the A18 sounds alive. Due to its lower treble tuning, it’s stimulating, and sparkly. And it’s hyper-detailed, without sounding bright. Well, there is a slight brightness in its treble; but it’s a well-dosed brightness. It manages to bring the smallest detail to the foreground in an exciting way, while simultaneously, remaining smooth.

    Its treble extension is impressive, bringing the A18’s resolution and overall performance among the elite, and even above. Its tonality is fairly neutral, and leans somewhat towards a reference-oriented signature. But the origins of the A18’s beauty lies in its upper midrange and treble tuning: the lifted treble not only provides an abundance of sparkle, but gives the upper midrange an exciting tone – the A18 is the one to go to for melodies, or screeching electric guitars. And it certainly isn’t bass light – especially with the M20 module. This is a bass that reaches deep enough, while its mid-bass provides more impact than any neutral role would require – the energy from down low.

    Last edited: Aug 11, 2017
    proedros likes this.
  3. flinkenick
    Rank #2:


    Zeus is an iem that never fails to impress me. It combines high resolution with an impressive stage, and power in its sound. Leave it to 14 drivers to hit you with a wall of sound – to floor you even. There’s solidity in its sound, enhanced by its forward vocals. But despite it being released as their flagship model, Empire Ears didn’t choose the safest route for its tuning, opting for a bold midrange, rather than a strictly neutral signature. Zeus is built with character, and one that doesn’t mind steering away from conventions.

    But Zeus is a finicky one. It’s tuned with an impressive midrange, producing full-bodied vocals, with ample power. A midcentric signature, emphasizing the full vocal range – from top to bottom. Its tone on the other hand, wouldn’t necessarily suggest it; while Zeus was tuned with the midrange in mind, its treble balances its tone to almost dead neutral. As a result, Zeus is somewhat dependent over sources, cables, and even tips to provide direction in its sound. When paired with a brighter source, its sound can become predominantly revealing; Zeus as the reference monitor. But Zeus is a god with many faces. When paired with warmer sources and cables, Zeus is a smooth iem, providing, arguably, one of the best midranges money can buy.

    Last edited: Aug 18, 2017
    proedros likes this.
  4. flinkenick
    Rank #1:


    The 5-Way sets a candle-lit dinner – just you, and the band. A special ambience, resulting from its warm notes, set against a black background. For even though the 5-Way’s stage is spacious, it conveys intimacy in its sound. The 5-Way has a romantic heart. It’s highly resolving, and its separation is excellent. But it seems to mask its outstanding technical performance, behind the naturalness of the presentation. Due to its laid-back treble, there isn’t a lot of clarity in its attack; it seems to lack a sense of excitement in a way. But upon further listen, the 5-Way’s specialty comes from an unexpected corner. The 5-way doesn’t just reproduce the music, it humanifies it; transforming a recording to flesh and blood.

    Quality runs throughout the 5-Way’s signature; from its extension on both ends, to the resolution of its midrange notes and their timbre, and the smoothness in their release. Several individual aspects could be termed as neutral; the forwardness of its vocals, and the size of its instruments – the 5-Way isn’t bound to impress with size, or power. But due to its warmer tuning, neutral isn’t the first term that would come to mind when hearing the 5-Way – that’s reserved for natural.

    Last edited: Aug 28, 2017
    proedros likes this.
  5. flinkenick

    I first logged in to Head-Fi a little under three years ago, to purchase a second hand SM64, and a little later the Velvet – the one that sparked the flame. I dove into Head-FI and wrote my first review. One year later, I wrote my first review of a top-tier iem, the Rhapsodio Solar, followed by Zeus-XIV and S-EM9. Shortly after I started writing for Headfonics, and later The Headphone List. Almost exactly two years after I signed up, I announced the shootout on this thread. Having completed the shootout in under three years, time has gone fast. During the course of the shootout, I’ve received praise much, for which I am thankful. But at the same time, it has always come with a feeling of guilt. Truth is, I would have accomplished this if I hadn’t been extremely fortunate to meet the right people.

    Shortly after I wrote my Solar review, I started talking to @MikePortnoy . MikePortnoy is a man that sees the music as clearly as you and I put on an episode of Game of Thrones. MikePortnoy taught me the basic foundation of audiophile analysis; starting by repositioning the sub- and mid-bass to mentally reconstruct a stage, and viewing the notes and vocals in terms of size and position. He explained the complex role of bass in determining the stage dimensions, and the all the fine intricacies of separation. But equally, he emphasized the importance of resolution, timbre, and smoothness of the note release – a complete philosophy of how an iem should objectively be analyzed. Slowly, he showed me how to ‘see the music’. If anything, this post on soundstage and separation was an ode to MikePortnoy. He will never call himself so, but MikePortnoy is the living embodiment of the audiophile philosophy. And in my opinion, the most talented reviewer this community has ever seen when it comes to sound analysis. His methods served as the foundation for my analysis and reviews.

    After I started writing for Headfonics, I came in contact with @tupac0306 : master of the frequencies. Tupac0306 only needs a few minutes to infer an iem’s frequency response using his ears, with greater precision than most hobbyist setups. Tupac0306 taught me how specific frequencies shape the music, attaching different combinations of frequencies to the density, thickness and forwardness of vocals and instruments. How different combinations result in different tones, and the crucial role of top-end extension in determining air, stage, and performance. But equally, always keeping track of the grander scheme of things; how each aspect affects the signature as a whole.

    My views on analysis evolved as a combination of everything I have learned from these two people, and their knowledge returns in every sentence I write. So for those people that enjoyed the shootout, or perhaps feel they learned something, please know you are thanking these two people first, and only me after. This shootout wouldn’t have been possible without these two legends, so I would like to dedicate it to them.

    I would also like to thank @jelt2359 for his shootout, which served as inspiration for mine. But mostly, for inviting me to write for THL. I was a huge fan of @average_joe and @ljokerl, and deeply honored to join their side. I would like to thank them for welcoming me and giving me their full confidence and support. Of course, I would also like to thank @marcusd for being the first to give me a chance at Headfonics.

    I would also like to thank @jude for providing us with this platform, where like-minded people can come together. But most importantly, I would like to thank everybody for their support and interest, and collectively making this thread such a success; the fun times and great humor, but equally those that sparked discussion with critique.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2017
  6. flinkenick
  7. CraftyClown
    Subbed [​IMG]
    willjie90 likes this.
  8. twister6 Contributor
    Massive!!! Looking forward!!!
  9. CraftyClown
    My prediction is the Inear Prophile-8
  10. PinkyPowers
    I shall watch this with interest. :)
  11. proedros
    this is gonna be amazing 

  12. w3nj13
    Can't wait for more!
    My guess is Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered.
  13. flinkenick
    If I had more iems to give, I'd do an extra giveaway for the one that guesses the last 4 correct [​IMG]
    I will announce one this weekend!
  14. tomcourtenay
    Good Luck Nic!

    Noble k10 Encore
  15. Blommen
    This is going to be amazing! Love your work Nick, I am so excited to read this:)
    flinkenick likes this.
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