Breaking the Mold : A Survey of Entry Level Custom In-Ear Monitors
A Little Introduction
To start I need to make a bit of an apology. This review took way longer than I ever expected. I won't bore you with the details which were both in and out of my control but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Why? Because when manufacturers send us, the "professionals", products for review there is an unspoken trust and expectation that we'll do just that. The silver lining here is that as a result of the delay I've spent a lot of time listening to all of these headphones in more situations than you can shake a stick at. Let's get started.
In The Beginning...
This story starts way back in 2004 when I first started getting into listening to music with headphones. At the time there was no such thing as a custom IEM and really, there were precious few choices in the IEM market period. Today there's a new IEM manufacturer around every corner but the custom market has exploded, with manufacturers both large and small providing options to suit just about every taste and budget. But I'd tried custom IEMs before, way back in 2008, and the experience was, in short, terrible. I tried two types of customs at the time: true custom-designed and manufactured IEMs and the remolded type reutilizing drivers from your choice of IEM. I had fit issues with both types and more importantly the sound left me wanting in a big way. The whole deal was enough to put me off the thought for another 5 years. But then my colleagues at InnerFidelity started talking about a mega review of high end IEMs and it got me thinking, was it finally the right time to retire my venerable Etymotic ER4Ps and finally make the jump back into the world of customs? The evidence was there, at least at the top end of the range, so I sought their trusted council and created a list of sub-$500 IEMs for a non-TOTL shootout. Boy, am I glad I did.
The field (in alphabetical order):
A. Aurisonics AS-1 (http://www.aurisonics.com/store/)
B. Cosmic Ears HY3 (now discontinued- http://www.cosmicears.com/shop/hy3/)
C. Jerry Harvey Audio JH5 (http://www.jhaudio.com/product/jh5-pro-custom-ear-monitor)
D. Lear Audio LCM 3F (http://lear.hk/)
E. Noble 3C (http://nobleaudio.com/products/custom/acrylic/order/noble-3c/)
F. 1964 Ears V3 (https://www.1964ears.com/product/1964-V3-Custom-In-Ear-Monitor)
There's no getting around the fact that to enter the world of custom headphones you still have to cross a bridge that no other category of headphones requireshaving custom ear impressions made. Some manufactures have gone so far in trying to make this a non-factor as to offer do-it-yourself kits for the brave. Take it from this guy, a full-on fan of just about everything DIY, I'd leave this to the professionals. I say that for a couple of main reasons: one, do you really want to the one injecting stuff quite deep into your ear canal and likely doing it for the first time when you do? And two, even when I had professionals do my impressions I found two sets of the eight that I had made had to be rejected and redone. So take the leap, invest a little time and money and find someone fluent in high-end headphone ear impressions and let them do what they do for a living. Costs can range from free (at, say a headphone meet) to $50/set or more. Some manufacturers work with a network of audiologists so check their websites. Otherwise a little research is likely to yield multiple good options. I had three available within a 20 minute drive and I live in a pretty rural setting. The ear-mold process itself is pretty simple and involves inserting a foam block into the ear canal to the manufacturer's recommended depth, filling the inner and outer ear with material and letting it set up. Whether or not to get an open mouth impression can vary by manufacturer and I'd defer to either that advice or the advice of the audiologist. All of mine were taken that way and it seemed to result in a good seal for my ears.
The Good News
Of the six models that I tried I could easily live with all but one (we'll get to that in a just a bit). Most present a listening experience commensurate with the asking price, with reasonable extension at both ends and are generally inoffensive. Fit and finish on all six was very good and none require modificationthat was certainly welcome news based on my prior debacle. Add to that that they all come with some sort of case, some hard shells, some soft, and cables that are compliant and constructed of high-quality materials. Most come with accessories to help clean the canals of the headphones and some even come with a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter. Basically enough kit to cover most user's wants and help justify the price. One word of caution about using headphones this sensitive with a device sporting a 1/4" jack, think before you press play. Most examples in the field have efficiencies near or over 120db/1mW and will have precious little adjustment on desktop amps. And noisy sources are a serious no-no. A high quality IEM amplifier, like the Headamp Pico Slim that I own (and used in conjunction with the review) will at a minimum provide a far more usable range of volume adjustment if not significantly better sound. All of the examples here were perfectly happy driven directly off my iPod but if you want to use a better source with an external DAC I'd look for a purpose built IEM amplifier like the Slim.
The Bad News
As I mentioned above, the news isn't all good, there are still examples out there that, well, just aren't very good. Honestly, I think things have gotten a lot better and risking your hard-earned cash on customs is a lot safer bet than it was even a few years ago. That said do your research, read a bunch of reviews before buying and, my advice, if the reviews are polarizing steer clear. There's no reason to throw good money at bad with the plethora of established good choices that are out there.
The Best News
After impressions are made and order(s) placed it's the same gig as every other headphone. Kick back, relax, listen to one of the other sets of headphones you almost certainly have and wait for the box to show up on the door step. Therein lies another piece of good/great news, manufacturing and wait times seem to have gotten a lot better, at least generally speaking. Some wait times still exist, there's a fair bit of manual labor in prepping the molds/shells/etc. and they can't start making them till they get your impressions but without exception the manufacturer's in this review produced a quality product in a reasonable timeframe.
When it comes to personalization there is a truly staggering array of choices. Most manufacturers offer sample images and some go above and beyond, like 1964 Ears who offer an amazing configuration tool that allows you to see a very realistic visual of each choice you make along the way. From the entire rainbow of colors to wooden or carbon or mother of pearl shells there's very little that can't be done with CIEMs these days. Try asking Grado to put custom artwork on your next set of SR325e's and see how far you get. And should you fear cost-creep there are generally no-cost finishing options and for the most part that's what I tried to select when putting together the samples for this review. But when one offered free reign I was helpless to refuse the full carbon treatment. I am, after all, only human.
Get On With It Already!
So, I'm sure at least one person is wondering how the field shakes out so here we go, from worst to first:
6th PlaceAurisonics AS-1 ($399)As I mentioned above, these are the only ones that I couldn't live with on a day to day basis. The top end of these is flawed to such a degree, in my opinion, as to render the listening experience pretty unpleasurable. Please understand that I take absolutely no joy in making this statement. I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the folks at Aurisonics trying to glean information on how they arrived at the sound that they did. Bottom line, it was intentional and they feel they are supplying a product for which there is demand. So if it's your particular brand of "good sound" you'll be happy but I suspect that most will be at least a little disappointed.
From there the judging got a lot more difficult. I mean it. A lot.
5th PlaceLear Audio LCM 3F ($515)despite being referred to as the "flat" version of the LCM 3 I found the sound signature to be more colored than other participants, specifically in the top end which had an overall lack of clarity. Now I'm a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to listening impressions and can live with a lot, and without another four CIEMs to choose from I probably would have been ok using these as everyday commuting or general listening headphones. But switching back and forth between these and any of the others highlighted that there was information missing.
4th PlaceCosmic Ears HY3 ($discontinued)sadly, shortly after receiving my review sample Cosmic discontinued the model. So I'm not going to waste many words on these. What I will say is that sufficient evidence exists based on my time with these that I think Cosmic can make a good sounding pair of CIEMs.
2nd Place (tie)JHA JH5 ($399)ok, quite frankly I was shocked at how well these performed. For one thing they're down a driver compared to both the 3C and V3 and they've been around for forever in IEM terms. But Jerry clearly knows what he's doing when it comes to making CIEMs whether it's in the budget realm or the top of the class. Without a doubt these are the bang-for-the-buck champion of this comparison clocking in at a full $100 less than the V3's and $50 less than the 3C. They present a balanced, well rendered sound from top to bottom with very little, if anything, to complain about. If JHA ever decides to update the bottom end of their custom range the competition should get seriously nervous.
2nd Place (tie)Noble 3C ($450)when I started this review the Noble brand didn't really exist. In fact the 3C's that I got were one of the first pairs of CIEMs they produced. It's important to note that the guys behind Noble are not new to CIEMs and the Wizard hardly needs me to explain that. I won't get into the how/why of how Noble came into being but I'm glad they did. They obsess about all the details associated with CIEMs. I spent quite a bit of (email) time with Brannan just talking about CIEM cables and let me tell you that this attention to detail yields results. Their cable is very nicenon-microphonic, soft and compliant. And the headphones are pretty sweet too. Much like the JH5 the 3C presents a clear and well rendered aural experience and with a touch more clarity on the top end they'd be right there challenging for first overall.
Editor's Note: Please see page 2 of this review for information on the Alclair Reference ($399) CIEM that would now take second place in this comparison.
1st Place1964 Ears V3 ($499)ironically these were the first review sample that I received. I clearly remember the experience, opening them up, remarking to myself how well made they appeared and then plugging them in. Why on earth did I wait this long to get back into CIEMs!? After my first few listening sessions I contacted a more seasoned colleague to see if I was way out of line in responding so favorably. Nope. Currently priced at $499 as a result of a recent price adjustment they still represent an excellent audio investment, in my opinion. They have just the right amount of slightly emphasized bass that just begs to be driven hard and I found myself having to exercise a bit of restraint with the volume knob on my Headamp Pico Slim. The icing on the cake is that the top end is the best of the bunch as well. Clear with no etch or harshness. Overall if I'm taking a trip for work or sitting down to some critical listening and want to block out the world I reach for the V3s every time.
To wrap this up and put some sort of bow on it I guess I'll say the followingif your needs demand a sealed or noise-isolating headphone you owe it to yourself to do some research and strongly consider a Custom IEM. The choices these days are so good and the customer support system sufficient mature to eliminate or at the very least mitigate most of the concerns that this particular listener used to have. $500 for a pair of headphones is no small investment but you'd be well served by any of the top three examples reviewed here.