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

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  1. Wyville
    Since we are talking high-end... Have you (or anyone else for that matter) been able to secure a review sample of the oBravo Ra C-Cu yet? I keep asking oBravo for them "in exchange for my honest opinion", but they appear surprisingly reluctant. :D
    flinkenick and ExpiredLabel like this.
  2. flinkenick
    Lol is that the $10K one? I doubt they're handing those out hehe. Maybe I can listen at Canjam sometime.
  3. Wyville
    Yes, they go for £8,999 around here. I expect Audio Sanctuary will have them at Canjam London. They had them at the Indulgence Show, but I somehow missed their booth. Which was a real shame because I was looking forward to trying out some of the EarSonics... (Wyville logic :D )
    ranfan, Kerouac and flinkenick like this.
  4. Kerouac
    Haha, such a classic line...

    Happy listening with your new iems! I hope they won't suck too much :ksc75smile:
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2018
  5. flinkenick
    Hello everybody,

    The shootout has been a long and, for me personally, somewhat arduous journey. I'm glad to see that one year later the thread is still going strong. But despite its completion, it’s time for one last installment: putting theory into practice.

    For the last three years I've dedicated every spare minute of my time listening to and intently analysing IEMs. I've been fortunate to learn about frequencies and signatures firsthand by comparing top-tier offerings, and getting a feeling for which combinations attribute to certain effects. Simplified, an IEM's signature can be divided in four key elements, or building blocks: the bass, midrange, lower treble, and upper treble. Once you understand the individual characteristics of frequencies, as well as the way different sections interact with each other, you get a pretty good feel of how to achieve an intended sound.

    A while back Empire Ears invited me to provide feedback on their new lineup a few months back, and in the process I once drew several graphs to illustrate why certain frequencies of a model should be adjusted. As a sidenote, I ended by drawing a graph of my ideal curve, with an explanation of how key frequencies should be tuned to incorporate characteristics I value: a coherent signature with accurate timbre, adequate note size, and high resolution. Drawing on inspiration from favourites as the ES80, 5-Way, Prelude, VE8, and of course Empire's own Zeus-XIV, there was one curve that theoretically made most sense to me.

    Admittedly, Dean didn't know what to make of the graph at first. But he went to work on it regardless in the next weeks, unbeknownst to me. And in the following set of prototypes, was an unscheduled 5 driver. Knowing nothing of it, I gave it a quick listen. Within the first track I contacted Jack: "Jack, what the hell is this?? Everything is how I expect how an IEM should sound – the note size, tone, separation; everything is just right." At that point, Jack hadn't even listened to it himself. Dean had only made one and sent it off before they left for RMAF, but he promptly sent the frequency chart upon request. When I saw the graph, I was shocked to realize how close Dean had come to hitting my perfect curve: the Phantom was born.



    The graph was drawn to fill a void I encountered; a versatile monitor that could do it all. Even within the top 5, I considered most IEMs specialists, that excelled for separate genres. For instance, while warmer IEMs as the 5-Way or UE18+ have a natural signature, they tended to be limited in their versatility. A sax or guitar might be reproduced beautifully, but at the cost of crispness for a violin, or modern genres as pop, EDM, or metal. Conversely, brighter iems as the Samba and A18 sound highly detailed, but might miss a touch of naturalness. So a key priority was a sound that could realistically reproduce a violin, jazzy saxophone, or grungy electric guitar, while just as easily being able to switch to pop or EDM. And of course, while achieving perfect timbre, a natural vocal reproduction, and top notch technical performance resulting from excellent extension on both ends.

    To accomplish this signature, the Phantom's tone is neither particularly warm, nor bright; its midrange is only lightly warm, with a beautifully controlled touch of sparkle. As should be expected, its vocal presentation is exceedingly natural; slightly forward, and full-bodied. A sufficiently dense and 3D vocal presentation, with a more neutral lower midrange compared to Zeus. And despite the natural tone, providing excellent vocal transparency. In sum, a vocal presentation that isn't intended to favour either male or female vocals, but excel with either. Finally, while technical monitors (e.g. ES80, S-EM9, Samba, or NT6pro) pair their high resolution with a leaner sound, the Phantom was designed to construct full-bodied instruments by finding the right balance between the midrange and treble, rather than creating a thicker sound from enhanced bass.

    The bass itself falls in line with IEMs as the 5-Way and ES80. Rather than enhancing mid-bass to increase the quantity, the primary focus was on improving its bottom-end extension. By drawing on extension for power, the Phantom provides a clear, impactful punch for kick-drums, with a subtle lift in its mid-bass to increase its body, and provide a natural tone. It’s a tuning that takes the crucial role of the bass throughout the presentation into account: controlling mid- and especially upper-bass improves its transparency, and opens up its stage. By relying on proper extension rather than quantity, the stage remains clean and airy, which benefits the separation and precision of layering.


    Accordingly, the Phantom creates a vast, three-dimensional stage with equal proportions in width and depth, and pinpoint precise imaging. In overall size, the Phantom's stage might be similar to an IEM as Zeus or the 5-Way, but improves in airiness, resulting in a more open, spacious feel. The excellent and linear top-end extension plays a prominent role here, but the bass tuning certainly helps. Despite the lightly warm timbre of its instruments, the Phantom sounds clean, and highly detailed. Still, this is a bass designed to accompany the music, rather than steal the show - those prioritising bass should look towards the Legend. Nevertheless, it's a bass that should be sufficiently engaging for the rest of us.

    But more than anything, the Phantom is a chameleon that shapes itself according to the track. Its stage dimensions, transparency, and bass will display high levels of variation according to the original recording. The only other IEM with similar characteristics is the 5-Way, but the Phantom is even more explicit due to its cleaner presentation. You can play one song and feel that the stage is intimate, congested even, often with older recordings or poorly mixed tracks. Then switch to the next track, and feel a surge of fresh air flowing through the stage, pushing its dimensions wide open. Similarly, the quantity and impact of the bass will vary based on the recording. When a song portrays a deep-reaching rumble the Phantom will display it, but it can just as easily stay in the background when required. I'm not touting this as a strength, and it certainly wasn’t intended; it's just an interesting phenomenon to take into consideration.

    Source and tips

    Generally speaking, the Phantom can be considered as having a lightly warm tuning with a tilt towards naturalness, combined with a spacious stage and high resolution. But overall, it's delicately balanced, and perceived as fairly linear. So subtle variations in bass, due to tips for instance, can shift its sound from warm and natural, to a more neutral or even bright signature, relatively easy. In a similar vein, it is equally transparent to the source, and will reflect its signature. Both my Sony and AK are on the warmer side, portraying the Phantom with a warmer than neutral signature. With the Lotoo Paw Gold, the Phantom becomes more neutral, with a clear and more stimulating signature reflecting the inherently more energetic LPG. So when using a brighter source, the Phantom will reflect that, trading more of its naturalness for an increasingly detail-oriented signature.

    Tips are somewhat of a personal affair, since people might get varying results based on their own anatomy. For instance, people might find Spin Fits warm or bassy, but I've always had the opposite experience. Spiral Dots tend to be consistently warmer for me, but I've heard of impressions portraying them as brighter. In addition, source pairing will come into play, as warmer tips might work better with a brighter source, and vice versa. Therefore, perhaps read the following descriptions more as an indication of how the sound can vary with different tips, rather than a general rule of thumb.

    Ordered from bright to warm:
    -Spinfits: Spin Fits reduce the quantity of the bass, resulting in a leaner signature with an emphasis on upper mids and treble. The sound becomes more neutral, while losing the body of its instruments and accuracy of its tone; the treble is on the brighter side. Same effects can be observed for various cheap silicone tips. For me, these are the least preferred type of tips, and the furthest away from its intended tuning.
    -Final Audio (Type E): The Final tips offers a nice bass response, combined with a neutral tonality, and slightly aggressive treble. It's a stimulating sound that I like for genres like pop or EDM, although it might miss a touch of warmth to sound completely natural compared to the Spiral Dots, as well as a slight reduction in midrange body. This is an interesting option, though not the most representative for its intended tuning. By comparison, the Acoustone 07 tips are even brighter.
    -Ortofon: These tips provide a balanced sound, which can be considered linear and fairly neutral. The Ortogons provide a sound that is neither bright or peaky, nor particularly warm. They're not as clear-sounding as the above, though not as warm as those below. There's an even clarity throughout the signature, accompanied by an airy and spacious stage. Accordingly, there is a tradeoff with the Spiral Dots: these sounds a bit more neutral and transparent, while the Spiral Dots add a touch of warmth for a more a natural sound.
    -Spiral Dots: These have been my most used tips along with the Ortofon, forming the basis for the sound impressions. The Spiral Dots offer a warmish, natural sound, while retaining an airy stage and transparent sound, although some of the above edge it out with respect to the latter. Both the Spiral Dots and Ortofons offer a balanced sound, with a slight tradeoff for a warmer, more natural sound for the Spiral Dots, and a cleaner, more transparent sound for the Ortofons (or Final tips).
    -Mandarin Symbio W: the Mandarin tips are yet a touch warmer than the Spiral Dots, coming closer to Comply tips. They trade a bit more transparency for an even smoother sound.
    -Comply: At the other end of the spectrum of the Spin Fits are the Complies. The Comply tips are the warmest tips, trading more smoothness and greater instrument body for a slightly more intimate stage, with reduced airiness and transparency. For more treble sensitive people, or those that just prefer Comply of course, these might be the best options. The difference between Comply and Spiral Dots is not drastic as both lean towards the warmer side, but becomes increasingly greater when compared to Ortofon and especially Spin Fits.

    : The custom Phantom took a bit longer to develop, and some playing around to get right. Overall the custom and universal are highly similar, but there are some slight variations throughout the signature. For starters, the custom has a bit more mid-bass, as well as clearer treble. It isn't brighter as the two balance each other out, but it does have a slightly better tonal balance, along with more body in its midrange. One might say the custom has the body and warmth in its midrange of the Spiral Dots, combined with the clear treble of the Final tips. Even so, the caveat is that the universal's stage can be a bit more spacious depending on the tips, due to the additional touch of bass and midrange body of the custom. Taken together, the custom has a slightly better tone and greater body, or for the lack of a better word, it is a bit more 'musical'. The universal counters with a slightly more spacious stage, resulting in a more effortless separation.


    Concluding thoughts

    The Phantom represents my interpretation of perfect harmony between performance and timbre; one that ultimately leads to beauty, rather than a compromise between either. The advantage of such a tuning is that its timbre sounds accurate for both brass and string instruments, while remaining versatile over genres. Whether rock, pop, classical, or EDM, the Phantom sounds right, for just sounding true. Somewhere along the road, terms as 'neutral', 'reference', and 'uncolored' have become synonymous for boring, sterile sound. But the Phantom strives to restore the its original connotation: to be as faithful to the recording as can be. A signature that doesn't have to be bright to sound transparent, nor overly warm to sound accurate. Finding ultimate beauty in tonal accuracy, and allowing a high level of detail to emerge, in a natural manner. And it will sound absolutely beautiful for it, because your music is beautiful. You'll listen to this IEM and appreciate the skill of the performing musicians, and the tone of their instruments.

    Clearly, this won't be the perfect IEM for everybody. There are as many differences in preferences, as there are people. But this is my daily driver, as I hope it will become for many like-minded individuals. Elegant, versatile, and what I believe to be one of the most natural-sounding monitors on the market - the keyword perhaps, is balanced. The 5-Way Ultimate set the standard for the previous generation of reviewers. I believe the Phantom can be a reference point for the next; a tool for reviewers, and a benchmark to compare iems against. And equally, a bridge between audiophiles and musicians, as witnessed by upcoming endorsements of the Phantom by two multiple Grammy award-winning engineers: Michael Graves, (two time winner), and Jeremiah Adkins (five time winner).

    One year after its inception, the shootout is completed with its own-themed iem - one designed according to the principles of the shootout. My thanks to Jack and Dean Vang for putting their faith in me, and making a dream come true.

    LEGEND-X impressions and comparison in the EE thread.

    Last edited: Feb 7, 2018
  6. Deezel177
    Congratulations Nic, this is one heck of an astonishing achievement! I'm extremely glad to have been an eager spectator throughout the development of the Phantom - and equally frustrated at the amount of secrecy I've had to uphold :D - and it's truly heartwarming to see a pure expedition of passion (i.e. the shoot-out and your reviewing repertoire as a whole) give birth to such an outstanding product. Hats off to @Jack Vang and Dean Vang for taking on such a brave ordeal, and giving the world something completely unprecedented - a consumer-designed commercial IEM. Regardless, I look forward to giving the Phantom and the rest of the new line-up a go in a couple of days in Singapore, and I'm very glad to say that - as far as the Phantom is concerned - this is only just the beginning. :wink:
    AC-12, ranfan, kubig123 and 4 others like this.
  7. PinkyPowers
    A million thanks to Nic for the impressions. And a hearty congratulations on such an epic collaboration! I'm proud of you! It's not something I could have done.
    AC-12, ranfan, Wyville and 2 others like this.
  8. proedros
    AC-12, Wyville and flinkenick like this.
  9. ezekiel77
    It appears this thread has come, ahem, full circle.


    Legend X and Phantom, damn.

    Guys, I'm a professional, and giving away a kidney would doom you guys to expensive lifelong dialysis. Sell your liver instead. It regenerates!!
    ngoshawk, junix, AC-12 and 4 others like this.
  10. Deezel177
    See? Now, all of my “Wait before you buy an SE5U” posts suddenly make sense! :p
    AC-12, noplsestar, Kerouac and 3 others like this.
  11. Wyville
    Congratulations @flinkenick on a really, really special achievement! High five with four paws!..

    I can't wait to finally get my hands on the Phantom and hear your ideal FR curve, which as we both suspect will match my preferences pretty much spot on. Amazing work Nic! And indeed a very big hats off to Jack and Dean for having the balls to make these a reality.

    Now where can I load these up?!

    ...and of course. "Honey?! I got you a present... or five!"
    junix, AC-12, 13candles and 5 others like this.
  12. tomcourtenay
    Congratulations, Nic! The Phantom looks like the Ultimate Iem to those who priorize Naturalness and Timbre...

    Really really excited to try them!
    AC-12 and flinkenick like this.
  13. justrest
    Amazing news Nic, congrats :clap:
    Thank you for this great detailed impression also.
    flinkenick likes this.
  14. Mimouille
    I tried it. Very good. Needs an amp
    Wyville likes this.
  15. Mimouille
    Too many emotions.

    istfleur, AC-12, knopi and 4 others like this.
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