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RAZ's review thread and TOTL IEM shootout

  1. mvvRAZ
    RAZ’s review thread and multi-TOTL IEM comparison

    I got into personal audio about an year ago now, and I’ve built up what you can call a pretty solid collection. I am creating this thread to post my reviews of all sorts of audio gear (though predominantly IEMs and a few sources here and there). To sort of kick off the thread, I am writing up a big ass comparison between 6 IEMs that I consider to be some of the most solid choices in the current IEM market, as well as two sources (one portable, one desktop), that I personally found to be the best of the best.

    I will also do a small write up on my current favourite budget-ish setup. It isn’t proper budget, but rather a mid-fi option.

    All of these IEMs are ones that I either own or have owned, I have since traded in the FiR M5 for the Noble Khan. The trade was recent so the M5 is still pretty fresh in my mind.

    The official list is of IEMs is:

    - 64Audio Tia Fourte Noir

    - 64Audio U18t Tzar

    - FiR M5

    - Vision Ears Elysium

    - Noble Katana

    - Noble Khan

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    The two sources:

    - RME ADI 2 DAC

    - AK SP1000M

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    The budget mid-fi setup:

    - AK SR15
    - Noble Savant II
    - Labkable Violet
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    About me as a listener and audiophile: Ultimately, I’m just another dude with just another opinion on the internet, so if my statements and assessments offend you, press alt F4 and they will magically disappear. That being said, I have spent the good part of my life listening to music and I have provided dozens of recommendations to friends and fellow HeadFi-ers that for the most part have been successful.

    My sound preferences and what I’m looking for in the gear I own: The most defining element is my sensitivity to midbass. I absolutely cannot handle IEMs that have strong and forward lows as they give me pretty bad headaches and generally frustrate me. As a general rule, the less bass the better, so take my assessment of the lows with a grain of salt.

    I would define myself as either a mid-head or a treble-head, so overly dark gear is out of the question. Technical ability of the IEMs is also very important for me, especially detail retrieval and instrumental separation. As most people I enjoy a large soundstage, but if the separation is on point I can deal with a more intimate setting.

    Some of the IEMs I have loved without needing to adjust their sound signature are the U18t with the M13 module and the VE Elysium. My most hated IEM is probably the Jomo Trinity as I feel like having an estat driver and no treble extension is criminal.

    Assessment criteria and format: In order to keep the reviews brief and interesting I will be writing about how the IEMs present the music and their technical ability, such as soundstage, instrumental separation and detail retrieval.

    All of said IEMs have been listened to with both the AK SP1000M and the RME ADI2 DAC, as well as the AK SR15. No EQ has been used in any of the cases.

    About the cable topic: I personally find differences between cables and I enjoy rolling them as a non-EQ tone control. I find the aesthetic contribution of a cable to a setup to be essential to completing it. All of the cables strapped to my IEMs are below 1k USD, most of them residing around the 4-500$ mark.

    With all of that out of the way, let us begin

    1. 64Audio Noir – if you plan on auditioning the Noir, it is crucial that you bring a cable with you that is different from the stock one. There’s something genuinely weird about the upgraded cable as it makes the Noir sound way too energetic to the point where you lose the instrumental separation and it sounds congested. The bass becomes excessive as well, while the treble extension suffers.

    Once you have changed the cable, the Noir opens up and becomes a very “complete” IEM, and the all-rounder that I would evaluate to be the best on the market right now. It presents the music with a certain ease and smoothness that few IEMs achieve, making recordings sound better than they really are – your music never sounded this good. This is heavily contrasted with the U18t, which will show you exactly what the recording sounds like, without any forgiveness for imperfections.

    The soundstage is massive, with plenty of instrumental separation and detail retrieval. The Noir is able to really dazzle you with just how technical of a performance it can deliver, while remaining easy and fun to listen to. 64 have managed to achieve an extremely fine balance in the tuning of their flagship, making it sound musical, technical and precise all at the same time.

    The second truly special aspect of the 64 Noir is how well it scales with sources and cables. You can fine tune the sound to exactly what you like, and it will keep on getting better and better as you upgrade the rest of your setup. It will sound good off an AK SR15. It will sound exceptional paired with an RME, or an AK SP1000M.

    The IEM doesn’t really have any disadvantages, except its price. It is nearly 4000$, and once you factor in import taxes and costs, it usually goes pretty significantly over the 4k mark. Ofcourse it depends on you how much you’re willing to spend on a pair of IEMs, but the price is a pretty significant disadvantage for the Noir when comparing it with other IEMs.

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    2. 64 U/A18t – the 18t puts the Monitor in IEM. It is the ultimate reference, as it will tell you exactly how what you’re listening to sounds. And by exactly, I really do mean spot on, along with every single imperfection or inconsistency in the recording. I imagine for sound engineers this is the ultimate IEM, as it is insanely revealing.

    Describing the frequency response of the 18t is a bit useless, as the IEM is insanely responsive to cable rolling and source swapping. I am currently using it with the FiR 13 module, as well as the Silver + Gold cable from Plussound (Poetic Series), and the result is a very bass-light, mid centric U18t with tons of sparkle. It’s plugged into the RME ADI 2 DAC, so you have a very black soundstage, and technical ability able to astound just about anyone.

    The main topic of discussion here is just how much the U18t is able to do once given a proper source and a good recording. The soundstage is very large, just shy that of the Noir, with similar precision in the placement. Instrumental separation is hands down the best I’ve heard in the audio industry, and the detail retrieval is unlike anything you have ever tried before. Spend a little while with it and I guarantee you’ll end up hearing stuff you’ve never known were there before, even on tracks you know by hard.

    What 64 have done without the use of a dynamic driver or estats is absolutely magnificent. The U18t is an IEM that will most certainly be regarded as one of those all-time classics that never really ages.

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    3. FiR M5 – the FiR M5 was the IEM that I had the toughest time describing and discussing. On one hand, it was an IEM that I loved from the moment I tried it. Truly spectacular sound, coherency for days, soundstage, detail retrieval – everything you could ask for in a TOTL and much more. It has deep and impactful bass, clean mids and amazing sparkly highs. I had a proper honeymoon period with it when it was the only thing I would listen to and everything else felt inferior.

    That being said, there were a few issues that led me to ultimately trade it in for the #5 on this list, the Noble Khan. First and foremost, the M5 features something similar to the LID tech 64 audio offers on its Trio, or Custom Art’s FIBAE. Essentially, no matter what cable you put on it, or what source you try it with, the M5 will maintain its frequency response pretty constant so I can’t perform my usual bass slaughter ritual. That coupled with my bass sensitivity means listening to the M5 would give me pretty regular headaches, which wasn’t too much fun.

    The other aspect that I have mixed feeling towards is the RCX connector (or FiRCon), which does feel way better than 2pin and MMCX, and comes with a 3 year warranty, but it does limit how much you can cable roll. I personally enjoy matching IEMs and cables, and I didn’t have the adapters so that also took away some of the fun.

    If you’re looking for an IEM to simply plug into your DAP or phone or whatever, and don’t care for all the fine tuning etc, the FiR M5 is an amazing choice. Extremely coherent once again, and a stellar performer across all frequencies, with technicality for days. In my specific use case, the Khan made more sense though.

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    4. VE Elysium – my personal favourite out of the bunch, and the one that gets around 60% of the total playtime. The Elysium provides a midrange that offers such detail, texture and body that will ruin other IEMs for you. I’d say the whole performance comes alive in front of you, but really it is an exaggeration of the reality and in the best sense of the word. While VE were tuning and designing the Elysium I imagine they spent a good 80% of the time perfecting the midrange to reach this level. The mids are complemented by excellent, gorgeous estat highs. Once again they act as a support to the midrange, giving it extension, clarity and detail. At no point is there any leakage or excessive highs, but they aren’t afraid to perform either. Plenty of sparkle, 0 sibilance and tons of excitement.

    The instrumental separation is on point, allowing you to hear each instrument and vocal as their own performance, but they are joined together by an energetic performance and an intimate, but extremely precise soundstage. Detail retrieval is at a remarkable level, comparable to that of the A/U18t, but it is centered around the mids and the highs as opposed to across the entire spectrum as is the A/U18t.

    All the being said, the bass will probably be a dealbreaker for many. It is very light, probably south of neutral, and really acts as a support to the midrange as opposed to a frequency asking for any sorts of attention. This weakness of the IEM is something that very specifically fits my preferences, but I can see how it can also be an issue.

    The VE Elysium generally requires a pretty good source to be able to dazzle. Having listened to it with the FiiO M11 and the AK SR15 you can hear that something is missing, as the treble isn’t as lively as energetic as you’d like it to be. Once you’ve fed it a more proper source however it really shines and is able to deliver the performance advertised. This is contrasted with the rest of the IEMs on the list, which are able to sound really good off an entry level source, but only keep on scaling as you improve it. Getting the VE Elysium only really makes sense if you have a great source ready for it as is.

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    5. Noble Katana – I think the most important thing to say about the Katana is that this isn’t an IEM that will win your heart over from the moment you’ve heard it. It probably won’t impress you the first time around, but it also most certainly won’t disappoint you the 1500th either.

    Its sound signature and presentation make it an amazing daily IEM, one that you can grab without giving it a second thought and you are guaranteed to have a great companion for whatever you’re doing. The bass is neutral, with an emphasis on the sub-bass, giving you a wonderful sense of quality over quantity. It also has the Noble midrange it is famous for, giving vocals and instruments plenty of warmth and keeping them center-stage.

    What I find to be quite special about the Katana is that it will really prioritize what the track is all about, without as many distractions as the rest of the IEMs in this list offer. If a certain moment is all about the vocals, the Katana will convey that. The U18t will focus on picking out every detail and nuance of the background instruments, and draw your attention to them, which I do agree is very impressive and has that wow factor, but I often find myself completely missing the point of the music and instead marveling at the level of technicality these IEMs achieve.

    Returning to the topic of what makes the Katana such a good daily IEM, this is probably the only place in this series of reviews in which I’d mention the build, because Noble have created a tank the size of an IEM. There is no punishment (except water of course) that the Katana won’t take and leave with completely unaffected. If you have a busy work environment with plenty of moving around and need something that can take a moderate to high beating, this is the IEM for you.

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    6. Noble Khan – I received my Khan following a trade less than a week ago, so these are still pretty fresh impressions and subject to some possible future changes. When I first listened to it, the first thing that really came to my mind is just how open it sounded. It has that same airiness and seamlessness as open back headphones, where you can just lay back and enjoy the music.

    The Khan and the Katana have a certain level of similarity, as they both have that Noble midrange DNA and focus on what is essential in the piece they are performing. Where they deviate is that the Khan has a much larger soundstage and an impressive level of technicality. The Khan’s treble is also much more accurate and airier, giving you that sense of openness and clarity.

    The dynamic driver is used very well as it has been tuned for less bass quantity and more bass quality – you get the depth and impact without having to put up with explosions in your head every few seconds. It is still a touch too much for me personally, but I’ve heard plenty of people complain that they don’t find it enough so I’m honestly not sure what to tell you here.

    On the topic of the treble, I think the Khan definitely needs a source and cable that aren’t too bright and treble-forward, because under many combinations it becomes too much to the point where it feels like it acts as a coat to whatever is playing. You get your music, everything sounds great, but there’s just this additional layer of treble that feels out of place. I am currently listening to the Khan using the SP1000M and the new Noble 8wire (copper) and it sounds very coherent.

    The Khan is also decently cheaper than all the other IEMs in this list (except the Katana), but it does offer a similar level of performance, and depending on your taste, possibly even higher. They’re all ridiculously pricey, but it is worth mentioning – after all, it is a whole 1400$ cheaper than the Noir.

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    Conclusions

    Ultimately each and every one of these IEMs performs on such a high level that you could blind pick whichever and most likely be one happy audiophile.

    A big shoutout to all the folks on HeadFi for making this such a fun hobby and for the discussions we have had/will have

    I will be using this thread as a space for all my future reviews and discussions, but if you have any questions or would like a recommendation please feel free to PM me!
     
  2. 8481
    Aha I was wondering where the FiR went in your sig, now I know. Due to production issues Bogdan has sent me a plastic version for the time being, should be arriving this week, I wonder if there are any differences between that and the metal one.
     
  3. mvvRAZ
    Yeah I think they're having some trouble with the metal shells for the time being... I hope they resolve it soon

    You can't go wrong with the M5, and I imagine it should sound pretty similar to the plastic one once you get it
     
  4. marcusd
    "VE Elysium – my personal favourite out of the bunch, and the one that gets around 60% of the total playtime. "

    You need to call it 'Sex Panther' :p
     
    Sound~Patriot and WayneWoondirts like this.
  5. mvvRAZ
    Hahah why sex panther?
     
  6. doctorjuggles
    Anchorman. 60% of the time..... it works every time. (A part in the film referring to the sexual allure of a cologne called Sex Panther, if my memory serves me correctly)
     
  7. mvvRAZ
    Ooooh right now I remembered haha :D
     
  8. marcusd
    Either that or it was a referral to an an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era :p
     
  9. mvvRAZ
    An old wooden ship named Sex panther.... I wanna know what happened on there
     
  10. marcusd
    I believe 60% of the time it stayed afloat.
     
    SeeSax likes this.
  11. thebratts
    How does the Elysium respond to equalising the bass.. No basshead, but since the rest of the spectrum sounds perfect (the mid-range from your description sounds just awesome), the question is how a couple or more db:s at for example 62,125 works? Does it affect the whole signature to negative or does it give som extra bass for us that want it very slightly north of neutral...
    As a reference the ve8 bass is more or less perfect, wouldn't want to end up with less (equalizing or not).
     
  12. mvvRAZ
    I'm generally speaking not great at EQ-ing, but just now I maxed the bass using the knob of my RME, and it responded really well - it became much more present, deeper and just generally felt like a more proper bass response.

    Is it at the level of the VE8? Honestly I couldn't tell you... it isn't at the level of the Noir though, similar to that of the U18t with a M13 module

    I am going to be in Cologne this weekend and visiting VE Monday, so I can do a better side by side comparison for you :)
     
    Barra and thebratts like this.
  13. mvvRAZ
    Posted in some other threads but to keep a better log here is the current Tier ranking I have started working on :)
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