Two Custom In-Ear Monitors from EarWerkz Legend R

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Legend R
At the top of the EarWerkz hierarchy sits Jack Vang's pride and joy, the Legend R ($1,199). The Legend R uses 8 balanced armature drivers per side, making price and driver count roughly mid-pack compared to top models from other CIEM makers. Some brands have designs with 10 or even 12 drivers, though to be fair I'd say 6 or 8 per side is more common for a flagship offering. I don't necessarily equate more drivers to better sound in every case, though it does seem to work out that way more often than not—at least when comparing designs within the same family. From one brand to the next is a tougher comparison. I'd happily match some 6 driver models against others with 8 or 10 drivers on per side, depending on the particular model in question.

One unique aspect of the Legend R design is the crossover. Rather than the typical 3-way or 4-way design as used by most competitors, EarWerkz ramps it up to a 7-way crossover. In theory this could go one of two ways: A) each driver handles a smaller frequency range, resulting in more efficient output with lower distortion, or B) driver coherency is inferior to more simple crossovers which leads to poor imaging and uneven response. We'll find out soon enough how things worked in this particular case. The configuration here is three drivers for highs, three for midrange, and two for lows. Or at least that's how it would go when using a typical three way crossover. As it stands I'm guessing each high and midrange driver has its own specific range to handle, and the dual low end drivers work in tandem for increased headroom. EarWerkz keeps the particulars under wraps so as not to invite copycats.

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Internal wiring is done using 7 strand Estron ESW Litz which is surely not the most affordable option out there—EarWerkz left no stone unturned in their quest for great sound. The internals look incredibly clean and well organized. After gazing inside the shell for some time, I finally figured out why—I could see drivers, a bit of wiring, and sound tubes... but where are those complex crossovers hiding? Jack Vang explained, "Our crossover network is concealed inside the recessed socket". Ah, now I see it. EarWerkz has a little "bump" protruding from the faceplate where the cable socket resides. I initially thought its purpose was merely for better cable clearance around the ear (which is a nice bonus), but now I see the crossover components tucked away in there. Clever.

The Legend R package is fairly well rounded. We get the CIEMs themselves, a nice quad braid cable (silver or black), cleaning tool and microfiber cloth, Pelican brand storage case, and smaller zipper pouch for travelling lightly. It's basically what I'd expect from a product in this price range. For an extra $70 EarWerkz will swap out their standard cable for an Estron Linum baX which is incredibly thin—more on that later.

The CIEM itself is well built if not completely jaw dropping. The craftsmanship is about on par with what I've experienced from JH Audio, Westone, and Unique Melody, which is to say quite good but not on the level of some others like Noble Audio or Hong Kong's Lear. EarWerkz doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of customization either—shells come in 14 different color options, while faceplates are limited to black, white, or clear. That might have been reasonable a few years back but seems below par considering the state of the market right now. What appears to be a mandatory "E" logo on each faceplate comes in your choice of red or white, with no option to add custom graphics much less fancy extras like wood or carbon fiber. Despite all this, my set of Legend R CIEMs looks very handsome in dark blue with clear faceplates. So obviously it's a matter of perspective. EarWerkz does allow each IEM to be designed completely different from its counterpart on the other side, without extra fees. They also give the option for the cable to exit downwards rather than over the ear, which is rather uncommon and might be attractive for users who wear glasses.

SOUND
Now, as far as sound goes, I'd say these are very impressive if perhaps a bit colored, and therefore somewhat specific in their sonic appeal. Isn't that almost always the case though? The Legend R has a smooth, natural flow to them, elevated bass impact, very slightly shelved upper midrange and highs, and an overall meaty tone which practically begs to be played loud. Cut from the same cloth as the original Audeze LCD-2, this isn't an IEM for those seeking ultra-crisp, speedy highs and neutral bass impact. Not that I think the Legend R is slow per se. Nor is it overly dark or rolled off. But I do sense the slightest bit of missing air from up top, not completely absent but also not as prominent as some people might like. And the weighty bass impact can sometimes come across as being a little mushy—yet other times it sounds exceptionally clear and controlled. After much listening I determined it comes down to the recording...where some CIEMs can make everything sound pretty great (even when they shouldn't), the Legend R is fairly brutal in its portrayal of muddy low frequencies. So, while it leans towards being a forgiving CIEM in terms of treble harshness, it shows no mercy on the opposite end of the spectrum. That makes it more picky compared to the usual "fun" sounding IEM which is how I normally classify this type of sound.

Worth noting is the fact that these might be the most sensitive custom IEMs I've ever encountered. That brings certain implications. On the plus side, amping requirements are absurdly simple. Portable amps are rendered completely unnecessary as far as extra juice is concerned. You may find the better quality is appreciated, but the added quantity is not needed at all and extra gain often complicates matters. Even a simple smartphone or Sansa Clip Zip is completely capable of driving these with authority. The flip side of that is hiss—I've never heard any IEM, custom or otherwise, that had such a propensity for hissing. I get mild hiss even with quiet sources like the AK240 which I had previously thought to be silent. Some people seem more tolerant than others when it comes to this issue. For me, it's a mild annoyance which is sufficiently covered once the music starts. Others won't be so generous. Jack Vang explains that they wanted to make the sound accessible for everyone, even those with more basic equipment, thus the high sensitivity. Which makes sense on the lower priced models but less so on the Legend R. Jack says they are surprised by how much heavy artillery is used by audiophiles. Based on feedback from the HeadFi scene they may look into changing things to help mitigate this issue. As it stands, I'm not overly bothered by it, having accepted it as a necessary part of many older recordings anyway. I realize some people will have a hard time finding a good match with their gear though.

The test rig in this case is one I know very well and use often for IEMs due to the exceedingly silent noise floor. It starts with an Equitech power conditioner to eliminate ground loops and other noise. The source is an Aurender X100L music server, feeding an Audiophilleo 1 with PurePower, and then out to an Anedio D2 DAC for very transparent D/A conversion and amplification. The Anedio's integrated headphone amp isn't the most powerful thing in the world, but I find it ideal for IEMs due to its hiss-free nature and essentially zero output impedance. There are some excellent engineering touches in the Anedio, notably Cree silicone carbide Schottky rectifiers in the power supply which is extremely uncommon. So I'm very comfortable using it as an IEM reference—even if the price tag was "only" $1500.

One of my favorite tests for low frequency performance is to cue up two different versions of Bob Marley's Legend. The Aurender server lets me quickly switch back and forth between the relatively recent 24-bit/192kHz version from HDtracks and the 1990 Barry Diament remaster which is "mere" CD quality. Both sound very nice indeed, and I can easily assemble a lesser system where differences are so minute as to be indistinguishable. But in this case, with a resolving system and the EarWerkz Legend R on the job, I have a clear favorite—and contrary to audiophile expectations, it's actually the lower resolution version that comes out ahead. Both have very well done midrange and treble which sounds fantastic on these CIEMs. But in the critical (especially for this genre) low frequency range, the HDtracks release shows itself to be somewhat loose and indistinct. Not terribly so, yet enough to make the experience less pleasant after hearing the superior 1990 remaster. This lack of articulation equates to a perception of less impact which leads to a thinner sound, throwing those nice mids and highs a little off balance. Despite being somewhat boosted and "fun", the Legend R is very accurate on the low end and thus portrays this weakness clearly. The end result is that I find the 24/192 version less natural and therefore not as enjoyable compared to the 25 year old CD release. This demonstrates how resolving the Legend R can be, and also reiterates again how mastering is of utmost importance—even more so than format in my opinion.

Next up, Autumn in Seattle by the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. This is a very high quality recording from First Impression Music, again in two different versions. The original 2001 XRCD release sounds exceptional. Mastered using the XRCD2 process which may or may not be considered a gimmick, it has long been counted among the finest redbook releases in my collection. It helps that I LOVE the music, which isn't something I can say about every reference caliber jazz album. Anyway, the Legend R plays the 2001 release with very high levels of composure. Hi-hats, brushwork, and cymbals are exemplary, and Mr. Yamamoto's piano sounds especially lifelike—it feels like I have a front row seat to the performance. That missing air I mentioned earlier? Nope, doesn't bother me at all in this case.

This is an intimate portrayal of three musicians who sound like they just love jamming together, and the slightly warm tilt of the Legend R does not in any way detract from the realism. Just when you think it doesn't get any better, First Impression Music goes and releases a remastered SACD version in 2011 that does it one better. This time mastered using their own 32-bit UltraHD process, the new version boasts increased warmth and smoothness, with the focus shifted more to macro than micro. It's the sort of subtle difference that could easily trip-up an overly warm headphone, revealing things like too much midbass bloom or blunted transients. But not here. Legend R keeps its cool, giving nothing short of an "analog" performance for lack of a better word. Before you protest, note that I used the standard CD layer for this test. I've got the SACD portion ripped to my server in DSF format and have compared it to the CD layer extensively—for the life of me I can't hear a difference. The Anedio DAC in this rig won't play the DSD but I've got many others that will, and after much comparison I'm confident in the quality of the 16-bit/44.1kHz version.

Last comes a personal favorite of mine—Machinations of Dementia from technical metal supergroup Blotted Science. If you're one of the many who enjoys the musical aspect of metal but can't get past all the screaming/growling, this instrumental progressive metal extravaganza is worth tracking down. It helps that, while not a pristine audiophile recording, it's actually very listenable, unlike many other entries in the genre. The whole thing is very busy, and I've heard many warmer headphones/IEMs completely lose the plot. Legend R keeps pace like a champ despite the dense full-throttle sonic assault. The music can at times get aggressive in the upper midrange which gets fatiguing with certain IEMs—the smooth top end of the Legend R keeps me going through the very last track.

In case you aren't catching the drift here, what I'm getting at is this: EarWerkz made their flagship Legend R with a somewhat unique sense of intimacy combined with a subtle warmth that doesn't sacrifice accuracy in the least. Soundstage isn't the largest in terms of width but does just fine with depth, while imaging is very accurate—the overall effect is quite pleasing to my ears and I suspect many others would feel the same. For a "new" company in the CIEM game, a very impressive achievement indeed.

COMPARISONS
When discussing an expensive audio product such as this, I don't think it's enough to simply say "It sounds like this!" or "I love it!" and call it a day. Context is definitely in order. Especially when it comes to custom molded IEMs which are difficult to demo and even more difficult to be returned. I've yet to see a company offer full refunds on CIEMs—I can't imagine they'd last long with such an expense. As such, a few comparisons are in order.

First up, the Noble Audio 5C ($950) which I reviewed not long ago. The 5C is Noble's most extreme bass cannon, massively fun for certain genres but not so well suited for others. I enjoy the hell out of the 5C in proper context, yet I'd classify the Legend R as clearly the better choice for most situations. It gives a similarly excellent (if less accentuated) performance with EDM, hip-hop, and other music where an extra helping of thump is appreciated. The 5C has more midbass presense while the Legend R kicks lower in the sub bass region. Both are tons of fun. Where the Legend R pulls ahead is with chamber music, jazz, singer/songwriter stuff, and any other genre where more subtlety is called for. The EarWerkz warmth doesn't dominate the presentation as it does with the Noble, which makes for more universal appeal. Admittedly this is not a fair comparison—each model has its own focus. EarWerkz has a model called the Penta which seems a far more obvious competitor, so that would make an interesting contrast.

The Westone ES5 is a former Wall of Fame CIEM, favored by more than one of us writers including Tyll himself. Westone has moved on from that model by now, replacing it with the ES50 and ES60 (neither of which I've tried yet). But the ES5 was a huge success and remains a good benchmark that many people are familiar with. And I think the Legend R trumps it. Bold claim? Yep, the ES5 remains a fantastic CIEM, so this is high praise indeed. Legend R sounds "bigger" overall. More dynamic. Silkier treble that extends a bit farther. More prominent sub-bass impact, and more accurate imaging too. While having a similar general signature, the Legend R seems to be the more advanced model, and I can't imagine many people choosing the ES5 after hearing both models back to back.

Lastly, the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 ($1,599)—my current favorite CIEM which sits on the InnerFidelity Wall of Fame. I hear a lot of similarities between the K10 and the Legend R. Both are slightly on the warmer side without going too far or sacrificing much detail. Both seem like perfect CIEMs for the Audeze aficionado, and both make excellent upgrades for Westone ES5 lovers who want to move even higher up the ladder. So what's the difference? Initially I thought it might be hard to tell them apart... and with casual listening on a smartphone or iPad I'm not sure the K10 distinguishes itself enough to justify the extra coin. But after going back and forth repeatedly on my reference system, I do think the K10 comes out ahead. As good as the Legend R is, Noble's top dog is just that much better. It hits harder, digs deeper into the music, has that much more incisive treble, yet remains so free of fatigue as to truly be an "all day" IEM. I never notice it missing anything on the top end, where the Legend R does sometimes come off as a touch soft in comparison. I also think the K10 has more refined bass impact and a larger, more three dimensional soundstage. That may be the most significant single area of improvement: the K10 is so densely layered that the Legend R seems a little flat in comparison. So in this case the extra drivers and higher price tag do in fact add up to better sound.

CONCLUSION
Despite not quite dethroning my favorite model, I'd still call the EarWerkz Legend R an immensely satisfying CIEM. It's rich, bold presentation really hits the sweet spot for my preferences—which is all the more impressive considering EarWerkz doesn't have a history of multiple predecessors to built upon. Westone, Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, Noble... those guys all have plenty of successful models to serve as the basis for each new generation. The Legend R is the first of its kind and already fits right in with top models from the big boys. So while it just misses a spot on our Wall of Fame, this will definitely be a company to watch out for.

COMPANY INFO
EarWerkz
75 Maddox Rd, Suite 100
Buford, GA 30518
(404) 808-3405
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
SashimiWu's picture

What perfect timing for this review since I was looking into the Omega model of the Earwerkz lineup. I am curious to see if you have heard this model in addition to the Legend R?

I really wanted to try them out (either the Legend or the Omega) but it seems that slightly rolled off treble and wider/deeper soundstage) to make it a reasonable purchase.

It is wonderful to hear about a company that offers such great customer service and fast turn around times on their products. I have personally emailed Jack and he is very passionate and friendly about his work. Maybe an Omega is in my future since they seem to sound different enough to provide a nice complement to my K10's.

Thanks for the information regarding DAP's and hope your second part of the review comes out soon!

SashimiWu's picture

Didn't read the part where you said you didn't demo the Omega. Please disregard that portion of my comment.

John Grandberg's picture

I agree the customer service aspect is nice - not sure if Jack can possibly keep that up if his company experiences enough growth, but I know he'll give it his best shot.

The DAP project continues rolling on. Still waiting on the Sony ZX2 to arrive, and just got a balanced adapter for the AK units. So I've still got lots of listening to do, not to mention writing.

You should see how many players and accessories are sitting on my audio rack.... it's ridiculous.

SashimiWu's picture

It's awesome that you picked up the ZX2. That is probably the top of my list for my next DAP. I have always enjoyed the Sony house sound as well as their UI. Looking forward to see your comparisons.

indialogue's picture

I think you've summed up the Supra extremely well! It's a great bang for buck CIEM

KC33's picture

I was so impressed with your writing style that I just wanted to thank you for making this review so entertaining as well as informative.

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