Flawless gloss finish, Comfortable and well-isolating design, Quality stock cable, Highly refined and versatile tuning, Excellent dynamics for a BA design, Jack of all trades master of many, Easy to drive
Treble extension and sub-bass definition could be improved, Soundstage depth just above average in-class
The RSV is one of the most well-rounded and instantly likeable earphones I’ve tested, representing an excellent value proposition even at its elevated price tag.
Soft Ears are the luxury division of the now widely renowned Moondrop, seeking to offer a more refined experience at more premium price tiers. Their product portfolio is more focused and mostly high-end focused. This starts at their all-out co-flagships, the 10x BA driver RS10 reference monitor and their Tribrid Cerberus. Alternatively, the Turii offers a high-end single-DD configuration that has become more popularised in recent years. The RSV is their cheapest model if not a cheap earphone in isolation. The team spent 1 year honing it to perfection, aiming to offer a scaled back version of the RS10 experience with the same technologies and engineering on a simplified and easier to drive 5-BA platform. Compared to the flat out reference RS10, the RSV has been slightly reworked to provide a heavier emphasis on dynamics. Its engaging yet immaculately clean sound, ease of driving and more accessible price point makes it a great choice for audio enthusiasts.
The RSV comes in at $729.99 USD. You can read all about it and treat yourself to a unit here.
I would like to thank the team at Soft Ears very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the RSV, RS10 and Cerberus for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. I paid a slightly reduced cost for the earphones in return for honest evaluation and will attempt to be as objective as possible.
The combination of electronic crossover and passive filters has enabled Soft Ears to achieve their desired note presentation in addition to their ideal frequency response. Using a 3rd order LRC filter for bass, impedance + low-pass for the midrange and film capacitors for the high-end, the company was able to achieve both whilst maintaining almost linear phase. This is aided by the 3D-printed shell and internal acoustics, leading to maximised extension, resolution and sharper imaging.
Moondrop pioneered the VDSF tuning curve which is a combination of the diffuse field neutral and Harman Curves which have become industry standards as of late. Every model lies on a spectrum between both. The Moondrop sound has become hugely popular with users and critics alike due to its combination of timbral accuracy, balance and improved listenability over time compared to the vanilla Harman and DF Neutral curves. The RSV represents one of the most refined takes on it yet.
The RSV has the most exclusive unboxing of the Soft Ears line-up with a large magnetic box that folds open to reveal the leather carrying case and accessories within a separate box. The case contains the earphones and cable. Each earpiece comes protected within a fabric pouch that prevent scratches during shipping. The accessories include 3 pairs of silicone tips in addition to 3 pairs of memory foam tips that offer a warmer, softer sound. In addition, a cleaning tool is provided alongside a metal Soft Ears card. Of note, the tips have an especially large bore size which can limit aftermarket pairings. The stock tips also have a seat promoting a more homogenous fit depth, likely in order to provide a more consistent sound between listeners. As there was such a heavy emphasis on tonality on this earphone, I decided to stick with the stock ear tips, of course, experiment for your preference if this is not to your liking.
As a huge car fanatic, the RSV invoked some primal instinct in me. From the sleek, smooth yet symmetrical styling to the gold foil inlay atop carbon fibre faceplates, the RSV advertises its sporty, high-performance nature. I am a huge fan of the combination of texture and simple yet flawlessly finished 3D printed piano black that oozes quality even in the absence of metal and its associated density in the hand. With its solid 3D-printed design, the RSV feels far more substantial than your average acrylic monitor. If I had one complaint, perhaps the nozzle could have a small ridge to help tips stay attached as those with wet wax may find themselves having to clean them frequently.
Up top are 2-pin 0.78mm recessed connectors compatible with a wide range of aftermarket options. The stock cable leaves little to be desired, with a smooth matte jacket and very sturdy yet minimally cumbersome construction. The wires are a little springy though it is supple enough to coil without issue and microphonic noise isn’t exacerbated either. The pre-moulded ear guides are comfortable and the connectors complete the aesthetic with their clean matte black finish. Altogether a well-considered package, perhaps a modular or balanced termination could have been employed. Arguably, their use of the widely adopted 3.5mm standard is in line with the company’s intentions that this monitor should be enjoyed from almost any source.
Fit & Isolation –
This is a medium-sized earphone and its fit will be reminiscent to anyone familiar with faux-custom style monitors. It sits comfortably in the outer ear and its rounded design is devoid of features that may cause hotspot formation over time. It protrudes slightly, meaning they won’t be suitable for sleeping on, but the RSV isn’t especially bulky either. For my ears, they were comfortable for hours on end and I achieved a strong, consistent seal. Due to its fully sealed design and well-shaped body, the RSV is very stable and forms a great seal with its slightly deeper fit. Those sensitive to wearing pressure will have a similar experience here to other sealed in-ears that said. In addition, wind noise isn’t an issue and isolation is strong, great for commute and even travel, especially with foam tips installed. This also means the earphones don’t require huge bass emphasis to sound great in louder listening environments.
DISCLAIMER: Satin Audio provided me with the 4-wire Athena and 8-wire Athena in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Satin Audio for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.
Satin Audio is a Vietnamese cable brand, who I last saw with my reviews of the Griffin and Chimera; two of the strongest entry-level cables I’d heard yet. Since then, the company’s dived into rarer, more exotic materials for their pricier entries, and they’ve upped the quality on their hardware too. Ryan shows that off wonderfully on his review of the flagship Zeus. And, today I’ll be covering its partner in the Olympus line – the palladium-lined Athena in both 4-wire and 8-wire formats – to truly see just how far they’ve progressed in build quality, hardware, accessories and, most of all, sonic performance.
Both their 4-wire and 8-wire Athena’s arrive in identical packaging, which, interestingly, adopts this hand-drawn, almost-tropical aesthetic. It’s not something I’d associate with Greek mythology, necessarily. But, at the end of the day, the print quality and materials used are all admirable, so I can’t genuinely complain. I particularly like how the specs sheet on the back has been framed and written-out. It’s an area lots of brands tend to neglect, so it’s good to see it shown some love here. And, I adore the corner cut-out with the gold Satin Audio logo peering through as well, as it adds excellent contrast.
Taking the outer sleeve off, you’ll get the full, black, cardboard box that your cables come in. And, lifting the lid off, you’ll find the Athena’s leather case and a box containing the included accessories, both embedded nicely in foam. Inside that accessories box, you’ll see three Satin Audio stickers, a warranty card with a year-long guarantee for all parts (aside from MMCX connectors), a leather cable tie with an engraved Satin Audio logo and a satin pouch, which also came with Satin’s Griffin and Chimera cables. I believe, along with that leather case, this is about as complete as a cable’s accessories pack should be. I’d love to see more brands follow this example, especially with the branded cable tie. So, kudos to Satin here.
The Athena’s included leather case is a puck-style one, which’s similar to the ones you’d find with Effect Audio’s cables or FiR Audio’s IEMs. It doesn’t quite have that feel or the torched edges of, say, the case that comes with Effect’s Leonidas II. But, this is an admirable effort from Satin Audio nonetheless and one that feels quality all around; from the slight rise on the lid, to the debossed Satin Audio logo, to the strong seal on the lid, to the uniform stitching all around the case as well.
Aesthetics, Ergonomics and Everyday Use
Both the 4-wire and 8-wire Athena’s feel like they were designed with comfort and usability prevalently in mind. You can see that in the conductors’ slightly thinner insulation and looser braid, and it shows in their hardware as well. There isn’t that cork-sized metal Y-split you’d find on an Effect Audio cable, nor is there the sizable pendant that Han Sound Audio’s cables tend to sport. Both the Y-splits and the 4.4mm plugs are short and slight, which, while not as visually-arresting as those other examples, make both Athena cables vanishingly light, especially with, again, its small, loosely-braided wires. And, lastly, both cables emit very little microphonics as well, so they earn near-full marks when it comes to practical use.
The thinner insulation helps the cables move and flow a bit freer too. I feel this helps get them out on the way, especially when you’re on the move. And, it helps prevent them from developing any long-term bends or winds too. They’re two of few cables in my arsenal that haven’t developed any micro-kinks at all. So, that should be a relief to those worried about long-term durability. They don’t have any pre-shaped heat shrink or memory wire either, which, again, boosts comfort to me. And, in terms of connector quality, they aren’t far off from the top-shelf stuff I’ve seen from Eidolic. Their pins firmly, yet easily slide in and out on the majority of IEMs I’ve tried them on, so this proprietary hardware is certainly up to snuff.
Aesthetically, the cables sport a slightly off-white hue. So, they aren’t the ultra-white silver conductors you’d find from an Effect Audio or PLUSSOUND. But, they glimmer brilliantly all the same, and the insulation beams that through effectively. My 4-wire Athena also sports Satin Audio’s new gunmetal hardware, which’ll come stock with every Athena from now on. I personally think it’s a big step-up from their original hardware, which you can see on my 8-wire Athena. Again, they are slighter and less imposing than those you’d find on their competitors. But, ultimately, it’s a great aid to comfort, and they look stylish and sleek all the same. They’re also subtly engraved with the Satin Audio logo in a darker shade, which I love.
DISCLAIMER: Custom Art provided me with the FIBAE 7 in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Custom Art for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.
Custom Art is a Polish monitor maker unique for their upbringing in the online DIY community. Former monitor reviewer Piotr Granicki ventured into building in the early 2010s, eventually spawning a company renowned for their lush, musical sounds, their zany, off-the-wall designs and – last, but not least – their superb after sales service. Though home-brew was this company’s de facto brand earlier on, Piotr’s recent efforts in 3D-printing, custom-tuned drivers and FIBAE technology has undoubtedly elevated them a great deal. And, now, all that has culminated in their top-of-the-line in-ear: the FIBAE 7. Embodying the company ethos, the FIBAE 7 is the flagship for your buck; a shot at the top without the sky-high price tag.
The FIBAE 7 comes in Custom Art’s age-old packaging: A modest mini-shoebox with a familiar, yet practical accessory set. In it is Pelican’s heavy-duty 1010 case, a smaller zipper case, a cleaning tool and desiccant. Then, accompanying all that is the Hi leaflet, which is both a quick-start guide and a warranty card with your IEM’s serial number and manufacture date.
For all that mileage Piotr’s gained in technology, craftsmanship and sound, it’s frankly a tad disappointing to see Custom Art’s packaging continue to stagnate, especially for their newest flagship. I’d love nothing more than to see at least some branding on the cover; perhaps, a simple, debossed emblem or an engraving of some kind. And, extra accessories like a microfibre cloth would be greatly appreciated as well. Though sonics and build clearly rank above all else for Custom Art (and rightly so), the unboxing experience still has to have a place there as well. Hopefully, a revamp here is in their cards.
Another addition worth mentioning is the Arete aftermarket cable that this FIBAE 7 comes with. It’s an OCC copper cable made by Null Audio in Singapore, and it features far superior hardware to the Plastics One cables that Custom Art CIEMs usually ship with. It comes with a velcro cable tie for very easy tidying-up as well. And, you can also get it with a balanced termination at check-out or with a microphone, even, if that’s what you want. So, I personally feel it’s a very sensible add-on for Custom Art’s top-of-the-line. And, at €99 purchased separately, it adds even more value to its overall package too.
Thankfully, though, when it comes to the in-ear’s build quality, Custom Art have only continued to top themselves. Every piece I receive from them boasts a new level of polish, and the same is true for the FIBAE 7 I have here. Taking cues from a design I found in CanalWorks’ catalog, I opted for a fairly complex scheme, which the Custom Art team pulled off to a T.
It’s a multi-colour theme, and it features two instances of a gradient as well; a technique Custom Art have recently begun to popularise. First is a colour gradient down the faceplates, shifting from red and blue to the grey of the shells. Then, it’s a particle gradient that transitions from smaller, finer bits of mica to larger, denser pieces of gold flake. Sat at the in-ear’s topmost layer are engravings on either side; the minuscule FIBAE text on that left IEM coming out particularly impressive. And, to finish is buffing and lacquer for a flawlessly smooth, bubble-free surface throughout this entire earphone. Bravo.
3D-Printing and Fit
As mentioned, Custom Art have made the big leap of incorporating 3D-printing into their production line, which brings a fair number of changes. They now no longer need physical, silicone ear impressions to make your custom IEMs. You can send them a digital scan of your impressions instead, which, on its own, cuts the costs of shipping the moulds to Poland, as well as the week or two it takes to get there. If you don’t have scans yet, all you have to do is send Custom Art a set of silicone moulds, which they’ll convert to a digital file for you. You may then use these as a substitute for physical moulds for any future purchase; whether it’s from Custom Art or any other IEM brand that’ll accept them, of which there’re tons.
With the 3D-printing process also comes changes in fit. Compared to, say, my Harmony 8.2, these fit smoother with even amounts of pressure throughout. There aren’t any hotspots, which helps them vanish in the ear a lot more. One thing I’d note is my units were trimmed pretty low-profile. The faceplates don’t stick out much from the ear, if at all. An advantage is the in-ear is more likely to stay secure. But, at the same time, they’re also cumbersome to remove. You have to dig into your ear, almost, to get a grip and pull them out. If you tend to take your IEMs in and out often, you may wanna ask for a taller shell when placing your order. Comfort-wise, though, that low profile doesn’t bother at all; not even when I’m using thicker upgrade cables. So, all in all, it’s a nicely comfy IEM to wear, and it’ll also stay secure no matter what you’re doing.
FIBAE is short for Flat Impedance Balanced Armature Earphone, and it has become Custom Art’s spotlight innovation. First introduced with the FIBAE 1 and the FIBAE 2, what this technology ultimately aims to do is preserve this in-ear monitor’s tonal balance no matter the source it’s connected to. So, essentially, whether you’re listening to the FIBAE in-ear through your laptop or a dedicated DAP, the frequency response should remain the same. This is especially crucial if you plan to use these on mixing consoles, monitor mixers, etc., where the output impedances can vary wildly from one to the other.
However, that does not mean you won’t hear any differences between the laptop and player either. Although FIBAE tech leaves the frequency response intact, the earphone will scale based on whatever data’s fed into it. A more resolving DAC is capable of rendering clearer spatial cues, deeper backgrounds, etc. So, although it won’t bridge the gap between more capable and less capable sources per se, this tech will allow the user to judge those differences in a clearer manner. And, whatever source you choose to use at the end of the day, you will always be guaranteed the sound Custom Art intended.
While Minneapolis-based Alclair has been actively manufacturing its IEMs since 2010, the company has only recently gained the attention it deserves in pro-audio circles. No stranger to audiology, Alclair has been a primary player in that field for more than six decades, developing and manufacturing the material audiologists use to make ear impressions, and its Minneapolis retail shop also provides hearing aid fitting services. Alclair has a strong artist roster so I’ve been aware of the company for quite some time, but it was only with the release of its electrostatic driver-equipped ESM model that I knew I had to give its IEMs a try. A bit more research revealed that a handful of models are focused on studio mixing, which made me even more excited. After spending time at Alclair’s Nashville headquarters auditioning universal versions of their IEMs (a dozen models ranging from $349 to $2499) I opted to audition the ESM 13 and Studio4 IEMs for my review. Title
Alclair’s flagship ESM 13 ($2,499.00) incorporates 13 drivers and is the picture-perfect amalgamation of balanced armature and electrostatic drivers. The heart of the ESM is four proprietary balanced armature woofers, four balanced armature mid-range drivers, one balanced armature tweeter and four electrostatic drivers accompanied by a 4-way crossover. The four bore 30Ω IEMs include premium silver-plated copper cable, provide -26 dB of noise reduction and have a 110 dB SPL input sensitivity. Meanwhile, the Studio4 model ($949.00) incorporates four balanced armature drivers accompanied by a 3-way crossover. The three bore 32Ω IEMs provide -26 dB of noise reduction and have a 110 dB SPL Input Sensitivity.
To reduce distortion and increase clarity, Alclair employs a single tube and port for all of the drivers working in the same frequency range. This allows the sound to combine in your ear canal rather than the tubes making for a better resulting sound quality (this is true for all of Alclair’s IEM models).
All of the Alclair IEMs include a cleaning tool, ¼” adapter, and custom leather case by Haiti Made. It’s worth noting that besides being rugged and beautifully made, the cases support a noble cause as Haiti Made was born out of the desire to see the Haitian people (who typically live on less than $2.50/day) empowered by sustainable and dignified employment.
I’ve been living with the ESM 13 and STUDIO4 models for the past couple of months and during that time have been utilizing them daily. My critical evaluation listening was completed via Tidal, my streaming platform of choice, where I auditioned my staple reference albums, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; James Taylor’s Hourglass; The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds; Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Daft Punk’sRandom Access Memories. I also spent ample time mixing with both sets of IEMs as well as time referencing several of my own mixes from past projects. Both IEM models impressed me!
The electrostatic drivers in the ESM 13s work by applying a static electrical charge to a thin film floating between two perforated metal plates. As an audio signal is applied to the plates, the film membrane moves backward and forward because of electrical attraction and repulsion. To simplify, armature drivers work much like a dynamic microphone, while electrostatic drivers work like a condenser microphone. Electrostatic drivers are exceptionally fast, making them perfect for tweeters; the purpose of the electrostatic drivers in the ESMs is to emphasize the detail of the audio signal and add to the imaging.
The ESM 13s are a pleasure to listen to. Although they have a slight top-end and bottom-end boost, it’s just enough to make them fun without feeling overly hyped in those areas. The soundfield of the IEMs is impressively wide, laying out the perfect sonic space for the precise placement of every mix element to be clearly identified. The ESM 13’s electrostatic drivers provide amazing detail, allowing the most subtle mix elements to be heard. This was especially noticeable when listening to Hourglass, as I heard reverb trails on this album sink far deeper into the mix than I had ever noticed previously, and I’ve spent a lot of time with that album. The bottom end is full, tight and punchy. On some tracks, there is a perception of a slight bass boost, but never to the point of being overwhelming (drummers and bass players typically enjoy this type of performance in an IEM). The mid-range clarity is smooth, and the top-end is detailed and crystal clear. The headroom on the ESM13 seems nearly uncapped and there is no perceivable distortion, even at extremely loud listening levels.
Although perfectly suited for stage, the Studio4 is ideal for studio work. Think of it as a precision, uncolored pair of high-end studio monitors. Listening to the Studio4s is the closest I’ve felt to having ATC monitors in my ears. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to mix an entire project solely with IEMs, but once I get 10% of the way into a mix, I’m completely fine moving to Studio4s and staying there until I’m ready for my final tweaking. With more and more people doing serious studio work in their homes, a flat IEM is the best solution for musicians and engineers needing to isolate from their housemates.
The Studio4 provides a tight, punchy bass with mid-range clarity and a smooth, natural top-end. Like the ESM 13, it is extremely detailed throughout, but in contrast, there isn’t quite as much headroom and there is no slight top or bottom boost (They’re not quite as fun to listen to but they are accurate as hell).
On an entirely different note, I’m a big vinyl fan and historically I haven’t been fond of listening to vinyl with IEMs. It has just never translated in a musical way, as any clicks or pops sucked me right out of the listening experience. The natural sound and flat response of the Studio4 has changed this completely. It is the ultimate IEM for vinyl listening and I can finally enjoy my vinyl collection when my wife and kids are sound asleep.
While all of the Alclair IEM’s have their place and purpose, the Electro 6 Driver Electrostatic is the perfect blend between the Studio4 Quad and ESM 13 models that I evaluated. Users attracted to Electrostatic drivers but lacking the funds for the ESM 13’s price-tag should give the $1,499 Electro 6 Driver Electrostatic consideration.
DISCLAIMER: Vision Ears provided me with the EVE20 in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Vision Ears for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.
Vision Ears produce some of the most coveted in-ear monitors in the industry, desired equally for their superlative build, their evocative aesthetics, their lavish packaging and their precise, yet musical tunings. Recently, they’ve taken the world by storm with the release of their flagship ELYSIUM and Erlkonig. And, they’ve shown no signs of stopping since. In 2020, Vision Ears started the EVE initiative: A series of limited-edition monitors that’ll be refreshed with a new entry every year. We previewed its debutant back in April. And, now, here’s the full review of Vision Ears’ EVE20: A firecracker with finesse.
The idea behind Exclusive Vision Ears is annual concept pieces that Vision Ears will release in limited quantities. These are completely separate from their mainstay monitors, and will essentially be their avenue for experimentation; irrespective of any pre-determined price hierarchies, driver configs or house sounds. Following this 6-driver EVE20 could be a 2-driver EVE21, for example. And, despite the EVE20’s pretty modest look, Vision Ears also plan to “explore the boundaries of visual design” with the program as well, which – if you’re familiar with their repertoire – is very, very exciting news to hear. All in all, it looks to be a project filled with potential, that’ll hopefully bring some welcome unpredictability to the market today.
Packaging and Accessories
As per usual, Vision Ears have decked out the EVE20’s packaging with a ton of different nuances and textures. You’ve got the matte-grey outermost sleeve topped with a web of gloss-black lines cutting through it; a great show of contrast. And, topping it off is an EVE emblem in metallic-purple. The box inside is wrapped in a weaved, carbon-fibre-inspired material, which is then finished with more accents of purple on top and along its sides. This box folds opens with a magnetic latch, which only further boosts that clean, classy aesthetic. Presentation is A+ from VE yet again. Now, let us take a look inside.
Lifting the lid open, you’ll find the EVE20 in its puck case, embedded in foam. And, next to it is an envelope, which houses the IEM’s signed warranty card, a pretty substantial instruction manual and a letter congratulating you for your purchase. Also in this envelope is a microfibre cloth and three sets of replacement mesh filters. The latter’s packaging also acts as a guide – illustrations and all – for replacing the mesh filters, which I think is a keen touch. Returning to the box, below this envelope, you’ll get a cleaning tool, a 1/4” adapter and VE’s cleaning spray; all embedded in foam too. As far as accessory sets go, I have zero complaints. Again, presentation is VE’s game to play, and I’m glad to see they haven’t slipped an inch.
Again, you’ll find the EVE20’s tucked away in its round, metal case. And, you’ll find a pack of SpinFit tips in small, medium and large sizes there as well. As with their other monitors, VE have attached a velcro cable tie to this EVE20’s stock cable; an inclusion that I feel needs to be more common in the industry. Next, you get a small dry pack for moisture too. Lastly, this case is a similar metal puck to the ones brands like Empire, Jomo or JH Audio pack with their in-ears. It isn’t the most exclusive or lavish case in the world, but it’s still quality nonetheless. I’m not ruling out something fancier with the EVE21.
Build and Wearing Comfort
Vision Ears have gone with a pretty modest, yet brave look for the EVE20. Its design is made-up solely of two translucent colours; no fancy swirls, foils, glitters or woods. But, the two colours they’ve chosen are rather unconventional: A vibrant wine-red and a light olive-green. It’s a combination that screams the word “apple” to me, and I personally love the blend, especially with its metal emblems inlaid on top. Obviously, however, looks are very subjective, so your mileage may vary.
What isn’t subjective, though, is how cleanly VE’s team have executed this design. Both colours are perfectly transparent, allowing you a pristine view at this in-ear’s tidily-arranged internals. Symmetry between the left and right sides are about as close as they could possibly be. The whole piece – from faceplate to nozzle – is contoured gorgeously; marble-smooth all around with neither a jagged edge nor an odd bump. And, its faceplates are fused perfectly to the shells as well; not a single glue mark in sight. Finally, kudos to VE for machining a groove on the nozzle to keep tips in place. It’s a feature I’ve always found odd to omit, and I’m glad to see this extra measure. I won’t have to dig tips out of my ears after each listen.
Fit-wise, the EVE20’s have a fairly unique shape. Rather than the shorter, wider silhouette that multi-armature universals tend to have, these in-ears are quite thin and tall. As a result, they can sit pretty low-profile in the ear; almost like a CIEM would. But, I feel you’ll only be able to take full advantage of this shape if you have naturally-tall canals. I personally have a taller canal in my left ear, so it fits brilliantly there. Whereas, on my right ear, I feel light pressure pushing on the top of my canal, so I have to push them out a tad, such that the top of the monitor hangs out. It does not affect isolation or the security of the fit at all. So, even if you do have shorter canals, you’d probably be able to finagle them into a comfortable position. Still, though, those with smaller or shorter canals should keep that in mind if they’re concerned about comfort.
The advantage to this taller design is that the IEM locks into your ear very securely. So, that extra concha bump I usually ask for from universals isn’t needed here. And, this is an easier design to store away as well, due to the smaller footprint.
Strong balance and linearity, Outstanding midrange timbre, Impressive metal build, Wide soundstage, Well-detailed
Bass could still be tighter, Average noise isolation
Moondrop’s latest earphone appends complaints with their former design whilst retaining benchmark level tonal refinement at a substantial price cut.
Like many, my first introduction to Moondrop was the Starfield, an earphone that combined their Harman-based VDSF target tuning with a CNT dynamic driver at an affordable price. While I found the earphone to impress in both its build quality and the refinement of its tonality, I did find myself wanting when it came to technical performance. The Aria is the latest offering in Moondrop’s single-DD arsenal, promising to build upon the same foundation of the Starfield. It implements a smart all-black colour scheme and revised driver and surrounding acoustics in order to realise this. Furthermore, the Aria comes at a substantial discount. Of note, some sources refer to this model as the Aria 2 as Moondrop have previously released a single-DD Aria. For the sake of consistency, I will refer to this model simply as the Aria during this review.
You can read more about the Aria and treat yourself to a set on HiFiGO and Apos Audio.
I would like to thank Nappoler from HiFiGO very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Aria for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
The Aria takes the brass inner cavity and CCAW voice coil of the Starfield and adds stronger N52 Neodymium magnets in addition to a revised LCP (liquid crystal polymer) diaphragm. A newly designed phase waveguide aids treble response and minimises distortion. Moondrop achieve their desired frequency response via implementation of a composite sound cavity, multiple acoustic dampers and numerous tuning ports.
HRTF Frequency Response
The Aria’s frequency response is compliant with Head-related transfer function and room response function. This enables the earphone to provide accurate imaging and localisation. Moondrop’s target curve is a derivative of the diffuse-field neutral and Harman curves – more specifically, compared to Harman-target earphones, Moondrop have toned down the upper-midrange and slightly bumped up the lower-treble. As with the Starfield, I find this to create a very pleasant tonality with a natural-timbre that is increasingly common but not nearly a given in this price range.
Leveraging their huge success, the cheaper Aria provides a far more prestigious unboxing experience than the pricier starfield before it. An outer sleeve slides off to reveal a magnetic rubberised hard box with foil print. Inside are the earphones within a foam inlet with the zipper carrying case identical to that included with the Starfield just below. The case contains a 2-pin fabric-sheathed braided cable in addition to a whopping 6 pairs of silicone ear tips. What we do miss relative to the Starfield are the tweezers and replacement mesh nozzle covers. Overall, while the accessory set is almost identical to the Starfield, the experience has been elevated by a large degree.
The Aria is almost identical to the Starfield with a very similar two-piece metal chassis and identical inner half retaining the same in-ear feel between the two. As before, the housings have a nice heft and density alongside impressive tolerances and finish with a palpable seem but rounded edges and corners. The Aria actually appears to have stepped up tolerances slightly from the Starfield, and employs a new flat faceplate design in addition to introducing a more tactile matte finish. In addition, where the Starfield’s painted finish garnered complaints of chipping, the new matte complexion is promised to be harder wearing. Overall, the Aria looks smart with its subtle gold accents and the metal construction rewards with excellent in-hand feel.
The cable has also been revised relative to the Starfield though retains the same 0.78mm 2-pin interface with wide aftermarket support. As opposed to the Litz braided cable that came before, the Aria has a fabric sheathed cable that is only braided below the y-split. It feels a little light and flimsy above the y-split compared to the prior design but is soft and flexible with minimal microphonic noise transmission. The y-split is low-profile and the right-angle plug is both case-friendly and well-relieved. While the cable has some memory, and I do personally prefer the more supple Litz wire, it isn’t too prone to tangling, has a great aesthetic and is easy to live with day to day.
Fit & Isolation –
Given that the portion of the housing that contacts the ear is identical, the fit experience very much mirrors that of the Starfield and models that came before such as the KXXS. This is not a bad thing, for these earphones are all shapely and comfortable to wear. The nozzles are tapered with a nice angle that positions the housing neutrally in the ear to minimise hotspots. The housings are thin so the fit is reasonably low-profile. They’re not ideal to sleep on but are certainly sleek and unassuming in addition to being relatively resistant to wind noise when worn outdoors. There is no driver flex due to their more open-feel with minimal wearing pressure and a shallower fit depth. This is also likely due to the obvious venting which means isolation is below average and not ideal for listening in noisy areas. They do suffice for general commute but I would investigate fully-sealed options for frequent travellers.
When COVID-19 cases spiked last March, most people figured that we were looking at a limited shutdown—perhaps a few months. This happened just as sound companies and rental houses were preparing for the summer concert season. The global lockdown was extremely trying for everyone, and the pro audio community felt its share of the impact in 2020.
The past year has been a pretty rough time for the music industry, especially in live events. No tours, no venues, no festivals—for a full year. Now, with vaccines being distributed, live events are being tentatively planned, venues are slowly being reopened, and equipment in storage is being readied for normal use.
For most equipment, standard downtime procedures apply: Pull out that gear, dust it off, set it up, and make sure it’s sounding good and ready for action. Check your cables, lubricate wheels and hinges, tighten screws and bolts.
But while most sound companies and rental houses have solid procedures for off-season storage and reboot, one year is a long time, especially for batteries. Most of today’s wireless systems—microphones, in-ears, and intercoms—are designed for constant usage via lithium ion rechargeable batteries. The problem? No company plans for its gear to spend a full year offline.
Here’s a key fact: Even when not plugged in or powered up, all battery cells remain electrically active. That means a small, steady loss of power over time that, potentially, can affect performance. While in theory, everything should be fine, you’ll want to confirm that everything is working properly before your wireless system is back in service. So, just as you will need fresh frequency scans for your wireless systems, it’s equally important to make sure their batteries are performing properly.
Many a wireless system today features advanced lithium ion rechargeable batteries. These are marvels of engineering, highly resistant to memory effects and degradation. Assuming they were stored at room temperature range, it’s unlikely there will be any issue. Still, storing batteries for a full year was never part of the plan. Fortunately, the engineers at Shure have been studying the situation.
If your battery charger offers a Storage Mode, use it! This feature charges the batteries to a slightly depleted state, optimal for long-term storage. Several Shure chargers offer this feature. For example, the AXT900 charger can put the batteries in storage mode. This puts the voltage of the battery at a mid-range point (3.8 volts), which is best for the battery.
Also, keep the battery from getting too hot or too cold. Lithium ion batteries can lose health when stored in cold or hot areas. For best performance, store the batteries in normal room temperatures.
If you haven’t used your rechargeable batteries in a while, don’t wait; do the following now: Put your lithium ion batteries through several power cycles—at least two—before being returned to routine service. This serves to physically demonstrate the run time while simultaneously stabilizing the electrochemical properties of the batteries. Please review your owner’s manual and documentation and follow all other safety recommendations for handling lithium ion batteries. If your battery fails to charge after the power cycles, contact the manufacturer for further guidelines.
We’re all excited at the prospect of the live events industry working again. At the same time, we urge everyone to be patient, stay safe, and follow appropriate protocols.
Orlando, FL (March 5, 2021) — Professional Wireless Systems (PWS) has launched its new Tour Series (TS) Helical Antenna for IEM, wireless mic and intercom usage, designed with a lower profile to make its presence less obtrusive in live event settings.
The TS Helical differs from the company’s standard helical versions (available in both the 460-900 and 900-1000 MHz frequency ranges) due to its size. All PWS helical units have circular polarization, created by a rigid helix to help provide consistent performance, but the helix on the TS is significantly shorter than the traditional version by almost 7 inches .
The all-new smoked, transparent materials are intended to help the TS blend in with staging and scenery. Nonetheless, it maintains the brand’s traditional helical design. According to PWS, the circular motion of the RF field emitted by a helical antenna distributes the signal through all possible polarizations, reducing the risk of drop-outs. The RF energy rotates through all 360 degrees of polarization, providing reception in the artist’s ears and in the wireless mics receiver. It can be used as either a transmitting antenna or a receiving antenna.
New York, NY (March 3, 2021)—KLANG:technologies has released its new KLANG:kontroller, a hardware controller that is compatible with all KLANG immersive in-ear mixing processors, and a new processor, KLANG:vokal, intended to aid musicians’ personal monitoring needs.
The KLANG:controller is essentially a standalone hardware controller that offers the same mixing functionality as the company’s KLANG:app, along with a Dante headphone amp. The unit provides tactile user control of channels, groups and immersive mixing via an intuitive interface that centers around color-coding and channel names.
Relative DCA group mixing and full single-channel control via eight push rotary encoders is onboard as well, with eight rotaries that allow musicians to balance their in-ear mix.
The onboard headphone amplifier delivers audio for in-ear monitors and high-impedance headphones, with both 3.5mm (1/8″) as well as 6.3mm (1/4″) stereo TRS connectors. Two XLR outputs can be connected to, for example, wireless in-ear transmitters. Installation-friendly features like Power over Ethernet, remote setup via the KLANG:app, and automatic Dante routing are included. KLANG:kontroller gives musicians full control of all relevant functions, while the engineer can still overview and control all mixes via the KLANG:app or DiGiCo SD or Q series consoles.
User Presets, plus USB import and export, are offered, allowing users to save personal presets, which can then be imported into the KLANG:kontroller, allowing the unit to be used by any number of musicians.
Binaural ambient microphones are built into the unit; they can be blended into the immersive in-ear mix, along with a local stereo aux input for, for example, a click track or playback from a phone. The mix can be sent back to the Dante network or, alternatively, the ambient microphones, or aux input can be shared with other musicians.
KLANG is also releasing a new immersive mixing processor, KLANG:vokal, which offers a dedicated feature set that allows up to 12 musicians to pick up to 24 mono or stereo channels out of 64 Dante and MADI inputs. Based on KLANG’s FPGA core, KLANG:vokal offers 12 mixes of 24 mono or stereo inputs at 48 kHz and 96 kHz, including the company’s Root-Intensity EQs.
DISCLAIMER: 64 Audio provided me with the A18s in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank 64 Audio for their kindness and support. The article is as follows.
Throughout the past decade, 64 Audio have cemented themselves as one of the most prominent, go-to in-ear brands in the industry. Professionals and enthusiasts alike have shown endless praise for their build quality and sound, but, really, it’s their band of innovative technologies – from apex, to tia, to 3D-Fit – that’s put them in the position they’re in today. All those pieces came together in their widely-acclaimed flagship A18t. And, now, 64 have come out with its companion. The A18s is a variant of 64 Audio’s 18-driver statement piece with new armatures, a new crossover network and a revamped sound: Levelling off some of the Tzar’s crisp, exuberant clarity for a warm, toned and textured sound made for the stage.
64 Audio A18s
Driver count: Eighteen balanced-armature drivers
Impedance: 8Ω nominal
Sensitivity: 106 dB/mW @ 1kHz @ 1mW (84mV)
Key feature(s) (if any): tia high driver, apex interchangeable pressure-relief system, 3D-Fit, LID technology
64 Audio ship the A18s in their customary packaging: A compact, red box, sleeved in white, then adorned all around with hi-res prints. This is a more efficient, pragmatic approach to packaging than the more extravagant, boutique stylings of a Vision Ears or Rhapsodio. And, I’m sure there’ll be those out there disappointed by the lack of lavishness here. But, given 64’s massive professional clientele, I can see why, logistically, prioritising efficiency is the approach here. And, despite its supposed simplicity, it does accomplish the crucial task of establishing brand identity and looking clean at the same time.
Unsheathing the box, you’re greeted by a message from company founder and chief sound designer, Vitaliy Belonozhko. It’s a very nice, personal touch. And, flipping it over, you’ll find this in-ear’s quick start guide here too. So, again, efficiency is the name of the game here. Following this is the personalised IEM case, which houses the earpieces themselves, along with their included accessories. With the A18s, you’ll get a shirt clip, a cleaning tool, desiccant and a pair of apex modules as well. The extra set here are the m15’s, while the m20’s come pre-attached on the IEMs. The only accessory I’m missing here is a microfibre cloth for cleaning. But, otherwise, it’s a very complete set packed inside one impressively tight space.
Now, the case I received with my A18s is the one prior to their recent rebrand; the rectangular, plastic one. The new case 64 now include with all their CIEMs is an aluminium, puck-like case. It’s very similar to the ones brands like MMR, Jomo or JH Audio include with a lot of their IEMs. But, where 64’s case differs is the foam inserts. Half the case is taken up by your in-ears with the cable securely tied down, while the lower-half is foam that holds the accessories, complete with slots for additional apex modules. So, you’ll be able to carry them along wherever you go. This foam also secures them all, so they won’t bounce around the case and potentially ding your precious monitors. Lastly, this case maintains the previous one’s water-and-crushproof features. So, all in all, it’s a more compact solution that, I’m sure, feels more premium in hand too.
Customisation, Build and Fit
Personalisation is half the fun when ordering a new pair of CIEMs, and that process is especially easy with 64, because of their superb online builder. It recently got revamped with the launch of their new website and now features a sleeker UI, as well as the use of real-life photography in their previews. This is unlike most other online tools, which use CG renders to preview designs that, in some cases, may differ from the actual product. Aside from choosing your faceplate, shell and artwork, you could also drop in and manipulate any custom graphic you wish to print or engrave onto your IEM. And, the tool also saves all your changes automatically, so you won’t have to start over each time you close your browser window.
The personalisation options you get from 64 Audio are fairly diverse. You have a total of 54 faceplate styles ranging from solid, translucent and glittered colours to more exotic materials like wood, carbon fibre, rose gold and abalone. You may also opt for add-ons like watch parts and rhinestones, or simply top off your IEM with 64’s metallic logos in silver or gold.
Unfortunately, that diversity won’t extend to their shell colour options, which – as a result of their 3D production process – is limited to a set of 5. Now, this isn’t ideal when many in the industry have begun offering multi-coloured swirls, with a few going as far as CNC-milled wood and carbon fibre shells (albeit, for a very hefty cost). But, again, this is necessary for 64’s current scale and clientele. And, there are plenty of other options in the market if aesthetics mean massively to you.
Another change 64 have recently included is the option to choose between 2-pin and IPX connectors. The IPX standard is pretty recent, and it’s designed specifically for touring musicians. It’s tailor-made for reliability, and it features resistance against water, dust and sweat. It is also a swivelling connector, which allows you to reposition your IEMs if you ever need to. And, it is rated for more plugs and unplugs than the 2-pin standard with an easier, more tactile swapping system too.
The disadvantage is in its newness. It’ll be more difficult to find replacements for IPX-equipped cables on the fly, while 2-pin-equipped ones are easier to procure. And, for audiophiles who’ve already collected a fair number of 2-pin cables, an adapter or permanent retermination will be required to use those cables with your new 64 Audio in-ears. So, if you’re an audiophile with an extensive upgrade-cable collection, and you won’t need IPX’s added reliability, 2-pin would still be my recommendation. But, if you are a working musician, IPX is the choice for ultimate convenience, reliability and durability.
As far as build, fit and finish go, 64 Audio continue to deliver with their custom in-ears. My A18s’s are flawless all around, and they air a level of polish indicative of 64’s stature in the industry. Their 3D-printed shells are among the clearest I’ve seen; not necessarily as pristine as a poured-acrylic one, but unquestionably top-class among its peers. That allows for a good glimpse into the in-ear’s innards, which, despite its immense complexity, 64 have managed to keep very admirably organised. From here, you can also see the tia tweeter in its tia bore, equipped with a mesh filter to keep out any debris.
For the faceplates, I opted for 64’s mother-of-pearl, which I think turned out sublime. They’ve cleverly inlaid this material over a base of white acrylic, which gives it a bit of substance and enhances its clean, pristine, angelic look. Like the shells, every bit of machining on it is pin-point precise. Its joint with the body is seamless and without a trace of glue or residue. And, the same goes for the apex port at the bottom of the faceplate. In fact, compared to my previous 64 Audio customs, I’ve found these to be the easiest in terms of swapping out apex modules. Whether this’s down to a slight change in their specs or pure, dumb luck, I’m not sure. But, it’s a positive either way. And, lastly, topping off the faceplates are 64 Audio’s gold-metallic logos. As usual, I adore the detail on them, as well as the slight 3D-effect they give off; a true cherry-on-top.
Finally, moving onto fit, the A18s joins its 64 Audio brethren as one of the most secure, precise-fitting custom IEMs in my collection. The company’s 3D-Fit tech (which we’ll discuss below) has proved key in preserving as much detail as possible from the original moulds, resulting in earpieces that simply lock into my ear canals and – crucially – don’t slosh around in use. This’s a big plus for artists with lots of high-energy choreography, or performers who move a lot on stage in general.
Now, with my 64 Audio A6t and A18t, that trimming style did result in a bit of tightness, especially in their initial few days of use, or if I’m going to them from a looser-fitting CIEM. To my pleasant surprise, that was not the case with this A18s. It had a slightly more relaxed fit without losing any of 3D-Fit‘s accuracy. And, the smaller faceplates helped relieve pressure on the outer ear too. To me, this is 64 continuing to refine their craft, and their reward is a perfectly-seated custom IEM.
Though the A18s largely builds off of the A18t’s design and sound signature, with it comes a good number of changes as well. Among them would be the balanced-armatures themselves. Although the number stays at 18, this A18s sports new driver models in its set. Then, paired with them is a new, more sophisticated crossover network. The two are responsible for the in-ear’s warmer tonality, which we’ll discuss in sound impressions and comparisons on the following pages. Then, also thrown into its signal path is LID tech. It’s one of 64’s many proprietary technologies, which we’ll now discuss below.
64 Audio claim the conventional method of sound transfer – which entails a driver firing through its spout into tubes and dampers – results in resonances that’ll reduce transparency and resolution. Their remedy to this is a system called tia (or Tubeless In-Ear Audio), which cuts those tubes and dampers out of the equation, and has the driver fire straight down the ear canal. In addition, the driver has been de-lidded, so instead of firing through a tiny spout, its diaphragm is now freely radiating for what 64 claim will create higher fidelity, a more expansive soundstage and a smoother frequency response.
Now, the second element to this system is what 64 call the tia single-bore. It houses the tia driver and acts as an acoustic chamber, shaping its sound to deliver a “linear and coherent frequency response.” What it also does in the custom tia in-ears is compensate for the inherent variances in volume from one ear canal to the next; even within the same individual. By setting-in-stone the room in which the speaker will radiate, it allows for a consistent frequency curve from one A18 to the next and minimises unit variance as much as possible. Lastly, this design is also less likely to clog with wax over time.
apex has been 64’s hallmark innovation for years now, and what it is is a valve that releases built-up pneumatic pressure from your ear canal. This pressure accumulates when the drivers pump air in your ear canal to generate sound, and that air has nowhere to escape. And, it will eventually lead to listening fatigue. So, through apex, 64 have created a controlled leak, allowing air to travel freely and the ear drum to breathe properly. This should greatly delay the onset of fatigue and lend the user sharper focus for longer periods of time, crucial for musicians or engineers who perform for hours on end.
A secondary function of apex is customisation in terms of the monitor’s bass response and noise isolation. The light-grey m20 provides -20dB of isolation and is default for the A18s’s tuning, while the dark-grey m15 provides -15dB of isolation, along with a slight bass cut, which we’ll further discuss in sound impressions. While neither of them will match the -26db isolation most non-apex monitors claim on their specs sheets, I personally found both apex modules perfectly adequate for daily use, and even behind a loud instrument like the drum kit. But, if you are particularly picky about isolation, 64 do offer an m26apex module, which disables all apex functionality and provides the industry-standard -26dB of isolation.
3D-printing has grown widespread in this in-ear monitoring industry, and 64 were one of its first adopters. Its integration into their manufacturing process has allowed for a number of advantages. Trimming ear moulds digitally on a computer enables a finer degree of control. And, it’s a non-destructive method, so any error made during cutting could be undone.
64 claim their digital processing also preserves more of the ear canal’s fine details, while the traditional method of hand-trimming and wax-dipping could smooth some of these nuances over. And, digital moulds can also be reused with future orders, which’ll save time and money from having to send new ones over. While physical moulds can similarly be reused, they will inevitably deteriorate, which can cause a poor fit if the mould is too old. Digital moulds won’t have this shelf life.
Lastly, apart from those comforts, 3D-printing is crucial for fabricating the components in all of the acoustic technologies mentioned above. It allows the in-ears’ shells to be printed with the indent for the 2-pin socket, the tia bore and the apex socket all built-in, ensuring them consistent, reliable machining and exponentially streamlining their production process.
LID (or Linear Impedance Design) Technology is 64 Audio’s solution to source variance with multi-driver in-ears. Within the 18 in this A18s are several models of balanced-armature drivers, each with their own unique impedance curve. Because of that, the monitor’s frequency response (or tonal balance) can wind up shifting between different sources (i.e. portable players, mixing consoles, mic packs, etc.), based on how each driver set reacts to that source. LID’s role is to compensate for those discrepancies, so the balanced-armatures are driven equally by the source and the original sound is preserved.
This is a feature that’ll prove valuable to, for example, sound engineers like myself, who use in-ears with sources ranging from enthusiast’s portable players, to AVIOM monitoring systems, to noisy headphone outputs on a mixing console. But, for the enthusiast, I can see it falling between two camps. There’ll be those relieved by this A18s’s “immovable” sound, as they won’t have to worry about what source to pair with it. On the other hand, there’ll also be those who’d feel limited by the fact that they won’t be able to customise the in-ear’s profile with their selection of sources. But, the A18s is a monitor designed with pros in mind, after all. So, in that sense, I do think LID can be a great asset and a godsend to any engineer.