Ranking The Stars - flinkenick's 2017 IEM Flagship Shootout (introduction and reviews on page 1)

  1. flinkenick
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    INTRODUCTION


    The Headphone List was founded by ljokerl and average_joe, the two pioneers of iem reviewing and early contributors to the portable audiophile community. Long before I became familiar with Head-Fi, I’d been redirected there many times after searching for a review of some lower tier model. And more often than not, it was to ljokerl’s massive list. I became familiar with that thread long before I even understood what Head-Fi was.

    After I got hooked on iems, as many of my fellow brethren an unsuspecting victim of the powerful allure of this hobby, I started dreaming away with average_joe’s TOTL reviews and ciem list. His list introduced us to many top performing ciems, while laying the groundwork for analytical reviewing with an emphasis on technical performance.

    Once I started dabbling in high-end ciems and became an aspiring reviewer myself, jelt2359 made his debut on THL with his fantastic shootout of 8 flagship ciems, combining a thoroughly enjoyable writing style with precise descriptions.

    I’ve been writing for THL myself now for a while, so I feel the time has come for my full initiation: a list of my own. For my list, I’ll be comparing 17 flagship iems including some of the most popular iems – present and past. A mix of some all time classics, recent rising stars, and some promising outsiders.


    The Headphone List: we might not do headphones, we sure as hell do lists.


    THE CONTENDERS (in alphabetical order):

    -1964 Audio A18 Tzar
    -Advanced AcousticWerkes W900
    -Campfire Vega
    -Custom Art 8.2
    -Dita Audio the Dream
    -EarSonics S-EM9
    -Empire Ears Zeus-XIV
    -Jomo Samba
    -Hidition NT6pro
    -Lime Ears Aether
    -Noble Katana
    -Perfect Seal Deca
    -Rhapsodio Galaxy V2
    -Spiral Ear 5-Way Ultimate
    -Ultimate Ears UE18+ Pro
    -Unique Melody Maestro V2
    -Warbler Prelude



    SCORING

    Ideally, you want to paint a picture of how an iem sounds by focusing on objective and quantifiable properties. Even if a reviewer can transcend their own bias, it’s important to keep your own preference as a reader in mind; the way I perceive a signature, won’t necessarily translate to the way a reader does. For this reason I’ve always stayed away from using scores in my regular reviews. For some listeners bass or a non-fatiguing treble might have the highest priority, while more abstract terms as resolution or transparency won’t say as much, or be factored in a purchasing decision. But that doesn’t mean the opposite can’t be true for someone else. For example, my own preference relies more on a solid technical foundation over the specifics of the signature. It doesn’t matter so much whether an iem has a warm or bright signature, or more or less bass; what matters are factors like its separation, transparency, tone, or the smoothness of its note release.

    But despite this wide variation between listeners, sound isn’t all subjective; only a preference for a certain signature is, as well as appreciation for technical performance. A signature also consists of objective, quantifiable properties that can be ranked. Examples are resolution, stage dimensions, separation, imaging, as well as tonal accuracy. Even within the individual aspects of a signature (bass, midrange, and treble) there are objective properties that can be judged. For instance, when we look at the midrange alone, properties as forwardness, density, thickness, tone, definition, and smoothness, can all be more or less directly related to a monitor’s frequency response.

    Even so, it’s possible to arrive at a higher (or lower score) from multiple directions. For instance, a treble can be smooth and accurate in tone, but lack definition. Conversely, a highly articulate and detailed but brighter treble can receive a similar score. All I can do is go into detail as to why I assigned a certain score. However, as a baseline I will provide a description of all the objective characteristics I score within each individual aspect later on. So while I can’t deny there is some subjective bias in play, there are many objective properties that can separate an iem’s performance. And as we will see, the final score will consists for a great deal on these objective characteristics.

    In conclusion, despite personal differences in preferences, it’s nevertheless possible that one iem outperforms another, at least on individual aspects. For example, say you have a $50 V-shaped iem, and a $1000 midcentric one. Even though Tim prefers a V-shaped signature, he should agree with John that the $1000 is objectively better; it might have a better stage, a fuller sound, and higher resolution. Unless Tim’s very stubborn of course (we all know that one guy), or there’s something very wrong with the expensive one. Though differences might be not as large in the flagship domain, the same principle applies. However, keep in mind the content of the review is always infinitely more important than a score or final rank, since each reader will highlight and neglect which aspects they prioritize according to their own experience and preference.

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    Signature

    Bass
    Of all the individuals aspects, bass tends to be one of the most determining features for many people, a deciding factor. More often than not when people use the term ‘musical’ in discussion, it unknowingly refers to nothing other the quantity of the bass – signatures classified as ‘musical’ tend to be the most bass enhanced. It’s not without reason, for bass plays a powerful role in a signature. It contributes to the sense of rhythm and liveliness of the music. It provides power to the presentation, an overall sense of dynamism. But it also makes the sound full and engaging; an enhanced mid-bass will often result in thicker notes. In addition, the bass plays an important role in determining the structure of the stage; both its airiness and dimensions. Too much of it affects the cleanliness of the stage, and can affect the separation and transparency. And of course, it provides a warmer tone.

    Because bass has both positive and negative qualities, how much quantity one prefers is highly subjective. Some people simply want as much as possible, but most listeners and manufacturers seek a balance. Bass is valued, but shouldn’t dominate the signature or affect its performance. Regardless of preference for quantity, there are key factors that affect the quality of the bass. Its low-end extension provides the bodily feel a bass can give, the aspect that determines how a bass is felt in the background, rather than heard. The tone of the bass can sound natural and accurate, reflecting how bass players or kick drums should sound. And of course the resolution of the bass determines the definition of the bass notes, which can either be fuzzy or well-defined. The speed and decay in turn not only affects the precision of notes, but their effect on the stage. And of course I too value a solid impact as much as the next person, which will too be included in the score. But more as an equal to its ‘audiophile’ properties, rather than a sole determining factor.

    Midrange
    The midrange is the foundation of the music, as most instruments are positioned in this range. In this shootout, the lower and center midrange combined are scored separately from the upper midrange. Separating these scores reduces the variance between all the different and possible conflicting ways a midrange can sound ‘good’, and provides a more consistent way of scoring the two components. There are several key constructs to consider when analyzing midrange notes. The most important being their tone, density, forwardness, size, smoothness, speed, and definition (although definition is scored under resolution and transparency). All these aspects can directly be related to specific peaks or dips in the frequency response; the reason I will strongly advocate this score is highly objective. The midrange score (in this shootout) can largely be tied to the vocal presentation, so I’ll take that as an example to elaborate on these concepts as a further understanding when reading the shootout. The vocal presentation also gets its own paragraph in every review, alongside the midrange and upper midrange, so I’ve structured this similarly.

    The density describes the solidity of the vocals (or notes), and is irrespective of their actual size. If a vocal is very dense, it creates a 3D, opaque image; like you can reach out and touch its contours. It will also result in greater focus, its fixation in the image. The opposite is a thin and diffused vocal, the feeling you can poke right through it, because it lacks substance. Forwardness can have different meanings (like the degree of emphasis), but in this case it refers to its position on the stage; being either laidback, neutral, or forward. The size or thickness of notes is related to their actual size, the space they take on the stage. The vocal presentation depends on a wide range of frequencies, spanning roughly from the upper bass to the lower treble. Each frequency determines individual aspects of the vocal range. While the density and forwardness of vocals are accounted for in the midrange score, their size and articulation depends on the upper midrange and lower treble. For example, when you’re home alone and singing in the shower, you might be tempted to give it your all – no holding back. In this case, you’re singing at the top of your lungs, relying primarily on your chest and throat to create that volume. This is what I refer to as depth or power. When you’re singing at normal volume, the sound tends to be produced from the back of your mouth. A sensual female singer in turn might emphasize the top end of the vocal range, the pronunciation in the mouth; the same when you’re silently singing along for instance. So this roughly encompasses the full vocal range, and different tunings can emphasize these different regions. Ideally, we’re looking for a dense, nicely sized, and balanced vocal presentation throughout this whole range. And naturally, the naturalness and tone is crucial in the scoring.

    The upper midrange is another key area for determining several aspects throughout the presentation. For instance there’s a tradeoff between its role in the precise articulation of notes and smoothness – the upper midrange and lower treble are sensitive areas. If certain frequencies are too prominent in the tuning, they can put a bit of stress on the articulation of notes or vocals. It’s also a crucial area for determining the general tone, and the timbre of instruments. The scoring of the upper midrange primarily reflects the tone, which should be slightly warm to sound accurate; but also the smoothness and instrument size. However, factors as clarity, detail, and sparkle, might still result in a nicely sounding upper midrange, even though it isn’t the most accurate in tone. Fans of electronic or pop music might even prefer a brighter tuning here, as it emphasises synthetic melodies. So even though it might be less ‘correct’ from an audiophile perspective, it can of course still sound enjoyable based on preference.

    Treble
    The treble is a very important area, because it has such profound effect on the presentation. The 7 – 10 KHz region is incremental for the general clarity of the presentation, the articulation of individual notes, perception of overall detail, as well as sparkle. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance with tonal accuracy, and overdoing it results in a tradeoff. It’s also an area where sensitivity comes even more into play, and divides groups of listeners. Sensitive listeners will have a strong preference for a non-fatuiging treble, while others might value the clarity and sparkle of a brighter presentation. In addition, one of the most important aspects of a treble is arguably its extension; a bit of a misunderstood concept on the forum. People often associate treble extension with a certain amount of sparkle, as if the treble ‘reaches’ to a certain point in tonality so to speak. But a treble tuning is really determined by the amount of prominence in the 7 – 10 KHz region, while 98% of the iems have a treble roll-off around 9-10 KHz. So both bright and warm iems will have a similar treble extension (or roll-off) around 10 KHz, but differ in their tuning and tonality based on the 7 – 10 KHz region. Treble extension refers to how far the treble goes before rolling off; as mentioned, this is usually around 9-10 KHz, but there are iems that manage to extend up to 15 KHz or even further before rolling off. This doesn’t directly affect the tonality, but technical aspects like stage airiness, resolution, transparency, and treble definition.

    However, the score of the treble itself focuses is on the actual treble notes, rather than its extension or general affect on the presentation. The two key aspects here are its tonal accuracy and smoothness. Similar to the upper midrange, a treble should be slightly warmer in tone to sound accurate. Generally speaking, this results from attenuating the lower treble region. However, the definition and speed of treble notes are also important factors in determining the score.

    -More on tonality:
    AUDIOPHILE MATTERS: 'DESCRIBING TONALITY'

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    Technical properties

    Resolution, clarity, detail retrieval, and tonal accuracy
    High resolution is somewhat of a ‘holy grail’ for some listeners (including myself), as well as manufacturers. It is one of the most important properties to define the quality of the reproduction of individual tones, as well as the combined picture of the music. It is also one of the most misunderstood terms. More often than not, the term resolution is uses synonymous for detail retrieval, or in other words ‘clarity’. But there’s a very important distinction between resolution and clarity. Resolution refers primarily to the definition of individual instruments; high resolution is ‘high definition’ so to speak. With greater resolution, instruments will be more clearly defined, which accordingly will affect both separation and detail retrieval. But these are indirect side effects so to speak, rather than the main goal. Resolution results from a combination between the tonal balance and treble extension, with a prominent role for the latter. Clarity on the other hand simply results from brightening the signature by boosting the treble. The primary goal of clarity is usually to enhance detail retrieval; it’s more of a direct and easier route. So a monitor can offer a high amount of detail based on clarity, while still having low resolution. On the other hand, a monitor can have high resolution while still having a warmer or darker signature.

    As an example, try to envision the painting styles of Rembrandt and Picasso. Rembrandt was renowned for playing with light, and painted dark but highly detailed images. The details don’t shout at you, but upon closer inspection, you marvel at the portrayal of individual faces and objects. This can be considered an analogy for high resolution. Picasso on the other hand used simple lines and bright colors. The picture doesn’t change much whether you’re in the back of the room or up close. In this case you can say there is a lot of clarity, although it isn’t particularly highly resolved.

    The distinction is important, because boosting clarity is somewhat of a shortcut for detail retrieval. The music might sound detailed, it can come at the cost of tonal accuracy; the naturalness of the presentation. In addition, boosting the treble often results in cutting off lower harmonics (the lingering after effects of a note, such as when the chord of electric guitar is struck). So while it might appear more resolving, there is a loss of information. As we will see, a lot of the top performers when it comes to resolution have a midcentric signature, in order to maintain a natural tonality. The reason that manufacturers will often boost clarity rather than resolution, is because it is proven very difficult to improve treble extension. The common standard for iems is a sharp treble rolloff around 10 KHz, due to the inherent properties of the drivers.

    Clarity can be viewed as a subjective trait of a signature. Some people prefer a brighter presentation, while others might prefer a warmer or smoother presentation. Therefore, it isn’t a technical characteristic, while resolution is. Higher resolution is per definition always an improvement, as it is independent of a signature; both V-shaped as well as midcentric iems can have high or low resolution. In addition, while a preference for signature is subjective, tonal accuracy isn’t; it’s an objective quality that refers to how accurate different instruments are portrayed, compared to how actual instruments sound. It is of course intimately related to signature.

    -More on resolution and clarity:
    AUDIOPHILE MATTERS: 'AUDIOPHILE VS. MUSIC LOVERS APPROACH'

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    Soundstage dimensions, separation and imaging
    The reason I always start with ‘presentation’ in my reviews, is to create a visual representation of how an item sounds, so the reader can picture how an iem reproduces the music. This starts with the stage dimensions, the outer lines that determine the visual field wherein the music is presented. The mid-bass presentation and warmth contribute to the stage airiness, that together with the stage dimensions plays a crucial role for separation. But the forwardness of the midrange, the thickness of the notes and their resolution, all equally contribute to create a visual image of how the music is presented, and how well it can be heard as a coherent and refined formation.

    A soundstage is the audiovisual space wherein the music is presented, consisting of width, depth and height. Soundstage width is the easiest discernible feature, and therefore it is naturally the most popular. While the role of depth is a little bit less obvious, it arguably plays a greater role in the instrument positioning and separation. In an average track, the vocal is presented in the center of a stage, flanked by guitars towards the front and the side, the most prominent elements of a band. The drums in turn are positioned behind the vocal. A wider stage allows these main instruments to be positioned further apart. But more often than not, a track consists of many minor elements that are positioned behind the key players. If a stage is too tight and lacks depth, these finer details are obscured by the main elements. The drummer might intermingle with the singer. More depth in the presentation generally results in better layering of these different rows, although the precision of layering is in itself irrespective of depth.

    So a soundstage should not only be wide, it should also provide enough depth. In addition, there’s an interplay between the average note thickness and the stage dimensions. If an iem has thicker notes, the stage will be relatively more crowded. So it’s possible for an iem with a smaller stage to offer better separation than an iems with a larger stage but thicker notes. The scoring of imaging simply refers to how accurately you can position individuals in space. The scoring of stage dimensions is pretty straightforward, relying on the effectual dimensions; width, depth, and height. Separation in turn relies on a multitude of factors including the average note size, stage dimensions, resolution, airiness, precision of imaging and layering, and the stability of its background blackness.

    -More on stage dimensions and separation:
    AUDIOPHILE MATTERS: 'SEEING THE MUSIC'

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    SOURCE

    The sound impressions and scoring are based on my A&K RWAK380 copper. The AK380cu is a particularly natural sounding player, that combines a warm tonality with a grand stage and excellent technical performance. As a result of the Red Wine modification, its bass is significantly enhanced; this is a player with quite a powerful bass response in impact and overall quantity. The full bass not only provides a warm and smooth tone, but creates a thicker note structure. While the AK’s stage is grand in both width and depth, the enhanced bass reduces the airiness of the stage. By comparison, the regular AK380's bass is closer to neutral. As a result, its notes are leaner, and its airier stage feels more open. Nevertheless, the RWAK380cu's separation is excellent based on the stage dimensions alone, as well as its precise imaging and layering ability. It’s a beautiful stage, both in its dimensions and quality.

    The midrange is slightly forward, and full in size. There’s a nice little bump in the midrange that creates a nice vocal size and density. Most importantly, its tone is exceedingly natural. Not so much as a result of its enhanced bass, but the slightly attenuated and very linear treble. Attenuating the treble not only creates a smoother sound, the tone of the treble is warmer and very accurate. There’s a touch of sparkle in its upper midrange that allows an instrument as an acoustic guitar or violin to shine, but the focus remains on naturalness rather than brightness. It isn’t an upper midrange that shouts for attention, nor should it be – it’s an accurate midrange in timbre. Excellent bottom and top-end extension results in an overall high resolution as well as transparency, the final key ingredients for its allround performance.

    More often than not a flagship iem will sound great on most players, but there are occasions where an iem can perform better or worse based on the characteristics of a player, including the AK. For instance, the Lotoo Paw Gold works well with iems that have leaner notes, or have a warmer signature. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t pair well with brighter iems as well, but the AK sound significantly better with iems that have a tendency to sound clinical, dry or harsh. Another example is that the LPG matches suboptimal with iems that have an intimate stage, while the AK opens them up. There are cases (including in this shootout) where iems sound significantly better with the LPG than the AK, and vice versa. Therefore, keep in mind that the descriptions and scores are related to the type of player I use, and impressions will vary based on other players.

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    PREDICTION GIVEAWAY
    As a reviewer, I’ve been very fortunate to enjoy certain perks such as getting free samples. But I’m also thankful for the friends I’ve made; sharing experiences with other reviewers, gaining insights from manufacturers, and of course just talking with fellow audiophiles. I feel blessed that this community has given me a lot, so I’ve decided to give something back.

    Fidue A91 Sirius
    I was provided with a sample of the Fidue Sirius for this review. I won’t be able to listen to it for the next half a year at least, and after that chances are I’ll be reviewing other iems. So I’ve decided I’ll give away my Sirius to the person that correctly predicts the outcome of the top 5 of the shootout. The Sirius is a hybrid with a 1+4 configuration that retails at $899.

    SilverFi IEM-X
    SilverFi is a Turkish based cable manufacturer that builds their own wires from the ground up. Each cable consists of individually cotton-shielded wires. The procedure might be costly, it results in a very natural sound, unlike any conventional silver cable. The IEM-X is a 4-wire cable that retails for $496.

    Toxic Cables Silver Widow 24 AWG
    Toxic Cables is one of the most popular cable manufacturers, providing high performance cables for an affordable price. The Silver Widow has been an all time best-seller on the forum, due to its excellent price-to-performance ratio. I was provided a sample for this review, and will give it to third place. The cable retails at $320.

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    Everyone can only make one prediction, other than that there are no other requirements. I will ship the Sirius worldwide at my own cost. The challenge starts when the last iem is announced, and bets can be placed up until the first review is posted!


     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2017
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  2. flinkenick

    THE CHART


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    *Impressions based on pairing with the RW AK380cu.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2017
  3. flinkenick
    Rank #17:


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    The 8.2 has a warm tonality, resulting from an enhanced bass presentation and laidback treble. This gives the 8.2 the appearance of a mid-centric tuning, although the midrange itself doesn’t necessarily have an added body or forwardness – it’s a fairly linear midrange. The aim of the tuning is presenting an organic and smooth listening experience, with a focus on a non-fatuiging sound rather than detail retrieval based on apparent clarity. Due to the enhanced bass and linear midrange, instruments have good size and are well proportioned within the stage dimensions. Vocals are fairly neutral in their overall size and density.

    The 8.2 presents music as a unified ensemble, like a band that’s been playing long enough together to be able rely on each other blindly. Naturally, the coherent presentation is primarily due to the 8.2’s smooth signature. For when it comes to the analytical – organic dichotomy, the 8.2 is an outspoken member of the latter. Not only the bass is warm; a soft treble response results it a gentle sound, pushing the spotlight towards the lower frequencies.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  4. flinkenick
    Rank #16:

    Don’t let Aether’s rank fool you – Aether sounds wonderful. Its tone is simply beautiful, and its signature seems centered around the very concept of naturalness. It sounds soft and pleasing, focused on musicality rather than being revealing. Which isn’t to say it is technically lacking, quite the contrary. But it’s the smooth and forgiving type, due to its treble tuning. Emil tuned Aether by enhancing its upper midrange, while attenuating the treble: a proven recipe for tone, that we’ll come across more often during the course of the shootout. But its naturalness is not only present in its smooth tonality, but in the flow of the music; the well-timed decay, and preservation of lower harmonics.

    Besides its treble tuning, an enhanced mid- and upper-bass helps to create its natural tone. Midrange notes aren’t overly dense, but the bass adds a bit of body, making them slightly thicker and richer, yet very smooth. Vocals are slightly laidback, but warm, natural and welcoming – Aether feels like coming home. It isn’t necessarily the most transparent or resolving midrange; but it is without a doubt beautiful, and very easy to listen to.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
  5. flinkenick
    Rank #15:

    Following Perfect Seal’s house sound, Deca is tuned with a lightly warm tonality and natural sound – the general focus of its tuning is on tone. Its recipe: enhancing the upper midrange, while attenuating the lower treble. The result is a beautiful midrange, with a soft and smooth treble. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Deca follows a very similar curve to the previous-in-line; the Lime Ears Aether. But Deca trades a bit of midrange body for a crisper sound, and greater transparency.

    Deca’s clarity results from boosting the 5 KHz range. It’s a difficult range to tinker with, for its pronounced effect on the presentation. There are benefits to reap. The most pronounced being a more natural shade of clarity compared to boosting the treble, which can easily sound bright or artificial. But it’s also a sensitive area. It easily tends to harshness, while it has an inverse relationship with the lower midrange. The trick is to balance its tone with the right amount of bass and treble, something Aether has previously demonstrated of being capable to doing right.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  6. flinkenick
    Rank #14:


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    The Galaxy is Sammy’s translation of a perfect sound, with its foundation on two pillars: an uncolored signature, and high resolution. The Galaxy’s treble extension is quite good, and its signature is indeed almost completely flat throughout the frequency range – save for a significant 5 KHz peak. The result is an extraordinary amount of detail, with a decisive emphasis on the articulation of notes. The upper midrange peak can be a popular tuning choice for different reasons. It strips midrange notes from thickness and veil, which reduces their purity so to speak. We’ll see it return for similar reasons later on. We’ve also seen the 5 KHz peak being tuned for its ability to create a more natural form of clarity, as with Aether and Deca. In both cases, Emil and Mike manipulated the quantity of the bass and treble to balance the tone. The Galaxy in turn pairs its upper midrange peak with a linear bass and treble. The result: a brighter and somewhat leaner sound.

    In line with its prominent upper midrange, the Galaxy brings string instruments and cymbals are to the foreground, with a clear and sparkly resonance. However, the relative prominence of the upper midrange results in a leaner note structure – especially male vocals might miss a bit of body. But we haven’t yet mentioned one of the Galaxy’s strongest features – its bass. This is a bass that possesses all of the virtues of a dynamic driver, while throwing in a few of BA’s as well. It has great texture and impact, but is equally controlled and relatively quick; a wonderful hybrid of both technical as well as engaging qualities.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
  7. flinkenick
    Rank #13:

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    I can’t say whether it’s due to the inherent properties of the advanced dynamic driver or Ken’s tuning choices, but Vega possesses one of the most unique signatures within this lineup. Ken clearly decided to step away from the audiophile pedestal of what is considered ‘right’, to what can be considered awesome – Vega is tuned with character. It’s a powerful type of sound, due to its significantly enhanced bass response. Saying Vega’s bass is north of neutral would be an understatement – Vega’s bass is the most enhanced in the shootout. That might make one think Vega leans towards a ‘fun’ tuning. But that isn’t necessarily the case – Vega sounds dead serious.

    The reason being, is that Vega’s sound carries a lot of weight, propelled by its enhanced bass. It’s sub-bass not only has tremendous body, the enhanced mid- and upper-bass creates a rather thick and rich note structure. But even thought it’s a very full sound, it doesn’t necessarily sound overly warm. This was achieved by coloring the sound with a nice dose of treble, in order to balance the quantity of the bass. The result is a rather interesting cocktail, as neither the bass nor treble overpowers each other; notes are full-bodied, clearly articulated and well-defined, even in bass-heavy music. Interestingly, it sounds neither warm nor bright. Instead it sounds heavy, and impactful: Vega, the speaker.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  8. flinkenick
    Rank #12:

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    Noble’s co-flagship is designed with a neutral tuning. Neutral remains a difficult construct to conceptualise; not only because listeners tend to have different opinions on what is considered neutral, but manufacturers alike. Accordingly, there are varying tuning interpretations of ‘neutral’, which again all sound quite different. There’s ‘neutral-reference’ like iems as the Samba or Dream, or ‘neutral-natural’, like the UE18+ or 5-Way. Due to its lower treble lift and punchy bass, the Katana’s version of neutral focuses on clarity with a hint of ‘fun’. It’s not necessarily the most uncolored or natural sound, it is however a musical and engaging variant.

    The Katana’s signature is characterised by a lifted lower treble response.The treble peak boosts its clarity and articulation, while adding a bit of liveliness to the sound. It brings it closer to a reference-oriented tuning, although it’s not necessarily treble-heavy; the midrange is simply a bit brighter in tone, or at least less warm than average. But its full in size, with good ability to fill the headspace without tending to congestion. Instruments have a slightly forward stage positioning, while a touch of brightness in its upper midrange adds some sparkle and bite to guitars or melodies. In the meanwhile, a punchy sub-bass steadily controls the rhythm in the background. The result is an engaging take on music, rather than a sterile performance that is often associated with reference sound. Technically it performs consistently well concerning separation, resolution and transparency, while simultaneously not being the best in its class.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  9. flinkenick
    Rank #11:

    The S-EM9 has a U-shaped signature: a tastefully boosted bass, and lightly enhanced treble. Its midrange however, isn’t the most impressive. There are thicker, more forward sounding midranges I can think of. But even though it isn’t the most full-bodied, it doesn’t sound thin – just ‘un peu petit’, perhaps.The S-EM9 might sound nimble, it’s an articulate sound; the term ‘refined’ comes to mind. Plus, there’s something special going on with the treble. It’s well-defined, detailed, and quick – yet incredibly smooth. As a result, the treble notes add a sense of pace to the music, an extra emphasis on the rhythm. This presentation might sound light and airy – it’s quick on its feet.

    Nevertheless, the S-EM9’s presentation might not be one that tends to impress on first listen. There’s a certain delicacy to the presentation, as it isn’t overly forward or thick; due its neutral lower midrange and upper midrange dip, both its vocal presentation and note size tilt towards the leaner side of neutral. Similarly, its stage won’t jump out with overly large dimensions; it’s average at best. But after deconstructing all if its individual components, and then taking a look at them again as a whole, the S-EM9’s true purpose comes to mind; the compact note structure, high resolution, and precise imaging: this is a tuning that screams separation.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  10. flinkenick
    Rank #10:

    The NT6-pro is a remnant of one of the first generations of flagship iems, from back in a time when there were only a handful to choose from. The original NT6 had earned its niche position as ‘the king of clarity’; a linearly tuned reference monitor that stood out for its technical performance. The NT6-pro was a variation on a similar theme, but deviated with a modest boost in its bass, as well as a lift in its treble. But unfortunately, neither of the iems really got the traction they deserved; at least in the Western audiophile community. The NT6-pro became more or less known as just a bright iem, a treble-heavy iem with a focus on clarity; more of an ‘analytical’ tuning perhaps. But I’m here to say this really isn’t the case. Don’t get me wrong, the NT6-pro provides analytical precision when it comes to resolution, transparency, and imaging. But it’s so much more – the NT6-pro has a soul.

    There are dominant elements throughout the NT6-pro’s signature that might warrant the classification of a ‘technical iem’. I’ve mentioned its performance. And then there’s its modestly boosted bass, which focus remains on the technical side of things – speed and precision. But emphasising ‘technical’ isn’t nearly doing this iem justice. For starters, the NT6-pro sparkles like a Christmas tree. But it’s an isolated touch of brightness in its treble notes; it doesn’t sound bright across the board. The key of the NT6-pro’s tuning lies in its midrange. Its treble might be on the brighter side, but its vocal presentation is pleasingly warm and impressively balanced – this is a midrange highly capable of conveying emotion.

     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
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  11. flinkenick
    Rank #9:


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    With the Dream, we embark on the first true reference tuning in the shootout. The term ‘reference’ commonly has the connotation of being dry, and somewhat lacking warmth or emotion perhaps. And admittedly, this is also partially true for the Dream. Its midrange isn’t particularly warm, or forward for that matter. But it would be a mistake to confuse reference for analytical, for there’s an important distinction to be made – it might not be warm, but the Dream isn’t bright. It simply provides a clean and uncolored presentation of the music.

    But it would be a far greater mistake to confuse ‘reference’ for dull or lifeless; if anything, the Dream is the opposite – it’s highly stimulating. The Dream relies on three key features to impress and even convince you; power, detail, and stage structure. For starters, it draws its power from deep down below, an impactful bass that only dynamic drivers can deliver. The excitement results from its articulated sound: the definition of instruments, their positioning within the stage, and the high level of detail that arises accordingly.

     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2017
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  12. flinkenick
    Rank #8:


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    The UE18+ Pro is designed as the ultimate stage monitor. To be a valued attribute for a performing artist, there are two basic things that a monitor, at the very least, should adhere to. For starters, it needs to be silky smooth – you can’t be listening to a fatiguing monitor for hours on end. Secondly, the sound needs to be accurate. You need to be hearing a realistic reproduction of the music you’re playing; in other words, its instrument timbre needs to be top notch. This isn’t only the type of sound we as an audiophile need to hear when listening to our favorite band; but what that band needs to listen to when hearing themselves.

    The UE18+ Pro not only complies, it excels. When you first hear the UE18+ Pro, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of excitement going on. The soundstage is pretty average in size, and it’s not particularly upfront in its detail retrieval, even though its resolution is quite high. But take an extra minute to listen to the tone of a guitar, or the realistic portrayal of a vocal, and what’s first perceived as ordinary, seems to be extraordinary. The UE18+ Pro’s warmer tone is not only incredibly smooth, it sounds very natural. It creates this sense of naturalness by combining a fairly linear midrange with a softened treble. The result is not only a warmer, more inviting treble that positively affects the tonality, but the coherency of the presentation as a whole. This is a tuning in service of the midrange; the bass and treble seem to display a rare sense of selflessness in helping the midrange perform at its best, perhaps recognizing its crucial role as the foundation of the music.

     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2017
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  13. flinkenick
    Rank #7:

    An monitor’s sound consists of a mixture of its signature and technical performance. While aspects as bass, midrange and tone are easy to identify, more abstract constructs as resolution, transparency, and separation can be harder to evaluate, and accordingly appreciate – until you hear the Jomo Samba. Samba is a technical masterpiece, where performance comes first. It’s so precise, it can even tend to feel a bit ‘digital’. In a world where analogue has a romantic connotation, coining the term digital might be viewed as something negative, that should be avoided. But Samba teaches us the contrary: with ultimate precision, comes a very pure form of beauty. In fact, performance does not conflict with ‘musicality’; it’s a fundamental part of it.

    Samba is tuned with a reference signature, as witnessed by its 6 KHz peak. Much like the Galaxy and Dream, it’s an important area to create an articulate, resolved sound. But Samba adds an even more impressive top-end extension, with a slight upper treble peak. The boost adds air to the presentation, constructing a remarkably clean stage. Evidently, it also results in a brighter than neutral signature, that won’t be classified as particularly emotional to say the least. But the fact that this isn’t the most natural sound, doesn’t mean it won’t speak to the heart – at least to this reviewer’s. Samba sounds exciting, stimulating. Its precision is mesmerizing. And there’s certainly a melodic sweetness in its tone.

     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2017
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  14. flinkenick
    Rank #6:


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    “Give me a wide as possible stage, and awesome bass”– without a doubt the two most popular requests when asked for recommendations. AAW seems to have taken these two key concepts as a starting point for the W900. But even so, they weren’t content with just a ‘fun’ tuning; they wanted to take the W900 to the next level – the top-tier level, competing with the best. As a result, the W900 has a mature tuning that demands to be taken seriously; let’s keep the wide stage and enhanced bass, but add a flagship worthy midrange and resolution to the mix. AAW accomplished this with a balanced signature, full-bodied midrange, and impressive top-end extension.

    The W900’s signature is hard to fit within a specific category. It’s served with a nice bump in its midrange, providing density and body to the sound, while being powered by its dynamic driver down below. The tone is balanced by a lift in its lower treble. As a result, it not only boasts a full-bodied midrange, but a clear-sounding one as well. Yet, the treble itself remains remarkably smooth, and even somewhat laid-back. As a result, the W900 manages to be neither particularly warm nor bright. Instead, it sounds clear and detailed, while simultaneously remaining smooth, and even somewhat dark. One might say it’s a variation of neutral, specifically its upper midrange and treble approach. But even so, neutral doesn’t really seem to capture this signature, especially considering the fun element that its bass provides – a light-hearted note, reminding us not to take everything too seriously.

     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
  15. flinkenick
    Rank #5:


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    The Maestro is a unique monitor, with a built-in contradiction: it seems to excel in ordinariness. But even so, it comes with a delayed ‘wow’ factor; it might not seem very exciting at first, since the signature is neither particularly warm, nor sparkly. But on further listen, this evolves as its strength. The Maestro might well be the definition of an ‘uncolored’ sound, or at least the one that comes closest to what neutral is meant to imply. There isn’t a dominant warmth in the tone, that emphasizes naturalness or smoothness. And even though its timbre might be very accurate, more than anything, its priority seems to be on sounding realistic – without showing off. This isn’t a glamorous portrayal of sound; it just sounds right.

    Maestro’s signature is qualified by a 6 KHz peak, a region commonly associated with a reference-tuning. But there’s a crucial difference with monitors like the Samba or Dream: Unique Melody tuned the Maestro for timbre, by tweaking the right balance in its tone. The key lies in strongly attenuating the lower treble following the 6 KHz peak, and completing it with a well-dosed boost in its mid-bass. But the sense of balance is not only present in its tone, but its presentation; although Maestro’s vocals aren’t overly dense or powerful, they have great size and excellent balance throughout the vocal range. In addition, instruments are full-bodied and clear, and Maestro presents them with authority. The beauty not only lies in the accuracy of their tone, but their presence on the stage.


     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2017
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