[REVIEW] Alclair Reference
Jul 23, 2014 at 6:24 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 9

planx

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Alclair Reference
 
As a few close members may have noticed, I have been mostly inactive on Head-Fi for a while now due to various reasons. With my Head-Fi hiatus, I have been able to focus on school and other hobbies, and also gave my wallet some time to recover, until I found other things to spend my hard-earned money on. I remember telling myself to stop writing reviews as it seems like there are plenty of hardcore reviewers on Head-Fi (like Joker, Average Joe, DavidMahler, and many more) that always beats me to the reviews so it seems like what I contribute is a mere repeat of an already excellent review. Now, enough of this talk, I’m here to do a review!
 
 

 
 
INTRO/PRICE/VALUE: I remember when I got my first CIEM from UM the prices of CIEMs were all around well above $500, but when I heard that this small company in Minnesota were shelling out $400 “reference” CIEMs, I immediately pulled out my credit card and yelled “where do I swipe my visa” in my workplace like a complete lunatic. Jokes aside, I was genuinely surprised by how competitively priced the Reference CIEM is, and to make things better, this is not Alclair’s most affordable model. The duals start at $249.
 
Yes, I know there are plenty of 3-driver CIEMs and other universal IEMs out today that are priced similarly to the Alclair Reference, primarily the Ultimate Ears UE4 which seem to described as a balanced sound akin to the Reference.
 
The Alclair Reference is based on a 2-way, triple driver setup, with dual lows and a single mid/high driver. 
 
For $400 USD, minus shipping, the price of impressions, and optional extras you can get on your monitors, you get your own Alclair Reference monitor, your choice of black or clear cables (I chose black, but I have my own custom cables so it really didn’t matter), typical wax cleaner, an excellent pelican case, and some bubble wrap.
 
Damn, it’s easy to enter the CIEM world nowadays.
 
Disclaimer: My review is not absolute. I am not Hydra. Testing done with DHC Symbiote SE OCC cable so no one assumes the treble brightness to come from the SPC cable. Grain of salt people (do you guys still use this term?)
 
 

(damn, that's a nice case!)
 
 
EQUIPMENT: Mainly will be based on my desktop (Foobar2k) > Resonessence Labs Concero DAC > Headstage Arrow 4G portable amp. Portable equipment includes Samsung Galaxy S3 and a Hifiman X5. Tested with FLAC, MP3, and Blu-ray Animes.
 
I found a great match with my desktop rig so I will stick with that for the time being as that's how I remember most of my other IEMs. The S3 sounds great with 16/44.1k FLAC, but the X5 really pushes what a portable device can do with DSD support.
 
Testing music+animes include…
 
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
Norah Jones – All albums
Ella Fitzgerald – Here Comes Charlie
Eliane Elias – Bossa Nova Stories
Chet Baker – Baker’s Holiday
Andre Bocelli – Vivere
Helene Grimaud – Resonances
Led Zeppelin – II
Metallica – Ride the Lightning
Nirvana – Nevermind
Rage Against the Machine – XX 20th Anniversary Edition
Slipknot – Iowa
Yui – Can’t Buy My Love
Supercell – Today Is a Beautiful Day
Mushi-shi Blu-ray
Puella Magi Madoka Magica + movie trilogy Blu-ray
 
 

 
 
SOUND (duh): So, it sounds stellar…
 
Bass: Despite being described as a “reference” IEM (and called the “Reference”), the bass is surprisingly capable. Etymotic users will be surprised by how much more oomph the Reference has over Etys. Extension manages to reach 20Hz, which is good since that’s the “limit” of human hearing, however, I managed to hear down to 12Hz on my Frogbeats C5 that has a rated frequency range of 6Hz-20k (yes, I know this could be distortion I’m hearing). Some might find a noticeable difference between sub-bass and mid-bass on songs heavy on the two as the Reference starts to become shy as it reaches the 24Hz mark. Has a clean and present initial tone, but when trying to replicate string instruments like bass, some realism is lost as decay seems rushed, while the C5 manages to replicate, to my ears, the closest damn thing I’ve heard to the real thing. While the decay seems rushed, it’s done cleanly which minimizes artefacts in the bass. While listening to Yui’s “It’s All Right”, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name (remastered)”, and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, it’s easy to become immersed in the music as nothing sounds awkward or out of place, which shows strong blending throughout the entire frequency range. These songs have distinct instrumental positioning and I am quite familiar with the songs so it was easy to compare the Reference to my HE-500s and other IEMs. The balance and blending is superb on the Reference. My only complaint is the sub-bass can sound shy at times, which is a common issue with BAs. Also, the bass is a little fast for my liking. Nevertheless, excellent tone, blends phenomenally, fairly linear, detailed, and most importantly, clean.
 
Mids: It seems like the trend with the Reference is trying to make the sound as clean as possible without making things sound cold like the ER-4S or HF-5. Unlike the Etymotics, the Reference sounds a touch warm (quite a gentle touch) lower down in the midrange and gets a bit spicier as it gets close to the treble. While some would assume the Reference to have a Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde personality, I find the difference to be insignificant to make a distinct impact. For lower-frequency vocalists, I find the touch of warmth helps make things sound lusher while the touch of spice for higher-frequency vocalists helps make things sound more crisp and bright. With that said, listening to “The Prayer” by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion demonstrates this subtle difference well. Listening to the same song with something like the UM3X, the tone of Dion’s voice lacks realism as the UM3X has quite a warm and lush sounding midrange all the way through. However, with the added spice in the Reference, it can become slightly sibilant for some. While non-intrusive for me, the difference in sibilance between the UM3X and the Reference is distinct, and should be something to consider when thinking about purchasing the Reference. Also, something worth praising is how clean the overall midrange sounds. Instrument separation is strongly defined and holds a pleasant tone throughout the entire midrange. Definitely one of the strengths of the Reference.
 
Treble: As I mentioned with the upper-midrange/lower-treble, things took a change by getting hotter as the frequencies increased. Without any graphs to look to, I found that the treble peaks occurred in expected regions, more specifically where you hear the “s-s-s” from the majority of vocalists. From there on, the treble is well controlled making it surprisingly easy to listen to for long periods of times. While the treble does get a little hot near some areas, not once I found it to be uncomfortable, which is, IMO the perfect sweet spot for me as I like treble emphasis without being intrusive. With the light emphasis on the treble, you may be thinking that the Reference has a V or U signature, but that is not the case. While what I’m describing definitely hints at a mild V signature, the overall signature has phenomenal balance causing the Reference to sound flat without sounding thin down low or dead up top, which the Reference surprisingly reminds me of my modded HE-500s, the love of my life.
 
 

(Alclair Reference with HPL SPC cable on left, Frogbeats C5 with DHC Symbiote SE cable on right)
 
PRESENTATION/SOUNDSTAGE: Excellent far left and right depth and layering, but sounds mildly flat near the center. I wouldn’t call it a dead zone, the flatness is emphasized by focusing further out. Definitely one of the best presentation I’ve heard from a BA setup and easily one of the most believable. Plenty of air, which is a great thing with often cramped sounding BAs.
 
BUILD AND DESIGN: Crafted well, but nothing of exceptional. There are one or two bubbles in the shell but they are easy to miss. Canal length seems to be equal on both ends, but the faceplate sticks out more on the right shell over the left shell, something that is quite easy to tell. There is a small white blemish around where the plug is located on the right earpiece. Other than those minor things, average acrylic shell quality, this is good since the competition for quality is quite stiff in the CIEM market. Finish is nice, but when I ordered Glacier for the left and Pop Bottle for the right, I expected it to look more different from one another, rather than looking almost identical, but I feel that I made it look too similar by choosing clear faceplates rather than coloured ones. Be wary of this as both colours are extremely light and difficult to tell apart from one another, bummer!
 
 

(white blemish where the plug is. compare with left shell)
 
 
COMFORT: I always trust my audiologist, simply because he’s a perfectionist and KNOWS how to do PERFECT impressions every time. For a $50 session (a little on the high side), Jamie will take as many impressions needed until he finds that the impressions are “perfect”. It took us three times with the Alclair impressions. Mind you, the previous two were pretty much 98% perfect and more than good enough to send off, but Jamie knows how much of a PITA it is to send customs back for a refit so he absolutely eliminates any chance of imperfections on his end. However, I think the fit on the Reference is 99% on the right and 97% on the left. Not 100% like on my Frogbeats, but more than good enough to keep. Anyone living in the Vancouver BC area should definitely give Jamie Larson from Simple Hearing Solutions a try. Best audiologist I’ve come across and also a fellow audiophile.
 
 

(I should probably shave and leave the house...)
 
CONCLUSION: So, the question everyone’s been screaming in their heads… Should you really buy the Reference for $400? Yes and no..? Yes, because sonically the Reference blows many universal IEMs out of the water and walks over them. They are just that enjoyable and well done. The balance tuning done on the Reference is done superbly and reminds you every time you put these into your ears. Also, they are VERY competitively priced in both the CIEM market and IEM market. Now, why did I say yes and no? This is because CIEMs are not recommended for everyone, as many unfortunate customers found out after spending a lot of dough on a top-tier CIEM. Also, if you’re like my friend who purposely fluctuate their body mass throughout the year (bodybuilder), I don’t recommend getting CIEMs as the fit will constantly change for you, no matter how minimal the change is inside the ear canal. A change is a change; plan ahead if you’re going the CIEM route. All in all, I adore my Reference. They are really suited to my liking as I am a huge ER-4S fan, but always wanted some more oomph down low. These are just as detailed with the added musicality, which makes me a very happy listener.
 
Want comparisons? I’ll try my best to answer them, but don’t expect too much as I’ve been out of the HF scene for a year plus and I’m seeing a lot of new products.
 
Jul 23, 2014 at 12:48 PM Post #3 of 9

lwells

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Thank you for the review!

I spent some time with "universal fit" versions of the reference and the quad reference. I'm still floored at how fantastic they both are at these prices.
 
Jul 23, 2014 at 3:24 PM Post #4 of 9

planx

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Save some money and upgrade them to RSM Quad later :).

 
I did not know that you could upgrade the Reference to the Quads. If this is true, in 2~years time when the fit for their CIEMs start to get worse, instead of getting them refitted, investing a little more money to upgrade them might be a nice alternative, but that all depends on how much the customer really has to spend to get this upgrade.
 
Thank you for the review!

I spent some time with "universal fit" versions of the reference and the quad reference. I'm still floored at how fantastic they both are at these prices.

 
Thanks for reading! If you were floored with the universal versions, the custom versions are bound to be just better. Seeing how you have the Quads, how different were the Quads from the Reference if I may ask? Is it worth the $250 premium?
 
Jul 23, 2014 at 4:06 PM Post #5 of 9

lithrai

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I did not know that you could upgrade the Reference to the Quads. If this is true, in 2~years time when the fit for their CIEMs start to get worse, instead of getting them refitted, investing a little more money to upgrade them might be a nice alternative, but that all depends on how much the customer really has to spend to get this upgrade.

It's possible. Marc did with mine, they just change internal components. It's not so expensive as you maybe think it is.
 
Jul 23, 2014 at 4:16 PM Post #6 of 9

lwells

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  Thanks for reading! If you were floored with the universal versions, the custom versions are bound to be just better. Seeing how you have the Quads, how different were the Quads from the Reference if I may ask? Is it worth the $250 premium?

 
I'm not sure that I would be the best judge.  I had a poor fit with both of the "universals".  I remember them both being very clean sounding and the RSM struck me as more dynamic.  But perhaps the RSM just fit slightly better.  They were both, literally, falling out of my ears.
 
Jul 23, 2014 at 4:42 PM Post #7 of 9

planx

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It's possible. Marc did with mine, they just change internal components. It's not so expensive as you maybe think it is.

 
Maybe you were just a lucky customer! Seeing how they "just" changed internal components, we can assume that the RSM and Reference are definitely two different CIEMs rather than assuming the RSM is a Reference with an additional driver, which is quite the baseless assumption.
 
   
I'm not sure that I would be the best judge.  I had a poor fit with both of the "universals".  I remember them both being very clean sounding and the RSM struck me as more dynamic.  But perhaps the RSM just fit slightly better.  They were both, literally, falling out of my ears.

 
Quite the gamble you took with Alclair. I remember a friend trying out a universal sample from company X and loved it so much he ordered it. When he got his custom version, he said the two sounded distinctly different from one another, with the custom version sounding worse to his ears.
 
Jul 24, 2014 at 1:53 AM Post #8 of 9

lithrai

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Maybe you were just a lucky customer! Seeing how they "just" changed internal components, we can assume that the RSM and Reference are definitely two different CIEMs rather than assuming the RSM is a Reference with an additional driver, which is quite the baseless assumption.

You are right. RSM Quad isn't a Reference with additional driver. It's whole new design. But this upgrade is not so hard to do. Faceplates are carefully removed and soundtubes drilled off. Then internal components swaped. After this modification my right faceplate isn't so transparent as before. Maybe too much UV glue. But it doesn't bother me. Sure, they can do new faceplates if you want.
 
Jul 26, 2014 at 7:12 PM Post #9 of 9

planx

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You are right. RSM Quad isn't a Reference with additional driver. It's whole new design. But this upgrade is not so hard to do. Faceplates are carefully removed and soundtubes drilled off. Then internal components swaped. After this modification my right faceplate isn't so transparent as before. Maybe too much UV glue. But it doesn't bother me. Sure, they can do new faceplates if you want.

 
Interesting, I might consider this method down the road if the shells still fit me.
 

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