the past few years have been more actively pursuing, and reviewing, custom
in-ear monitors (CIEMs). Having used the universal variety since 1989 or
thereabouts, including the world's first dual-driver IEM by Panasonic, it never
ceases to amaze me the progress that is now being made within the industry.
During the past five years we have seen incredible
progress being made. This review of the latest offering, 64 Audio (was 1964
Ears) model A12 ($1999), combines 12 drivers and a unique user-swappable
adjustable module. Their Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens module (ADEL, $199 per set)
and 3D scanning technology is at the heart of their new custom in-ear monitor A
series and universal fit U series. ADEL is a secondary 'natural ear drum' that
absorbs the pressure within your ear drum to relieve the pneumatic pressures
that 64 Audio says can lead to hearing fatigue and perhaps hearing loss. It is
also said to enhance the accuracy of the phase and sound of the music it
produces. Their 3D scanning technology skips the old-school mold-making process
and allows them to take a scan of your ear impressions and refine them to ensure
a proper fitting within your ear. Here's a video they made detailing all this.
64 Audio's three-way design of the A12 uses four
high, four midrange, and four low frequency drivers. The drivers are carefully
aligned, and when combined with the passive crossover, produce a phase accurate
sound to your ears. The A12 CIEMs reduce outside interference by 6dB to 26dB
according to the company, and am assuming this is dependent on which ADEL module
you choose. Noise isolation is -18dB with the supplied ADEL Auto Module within
my set of A12. Another Module coming available will be adjustable and it has an
intuitive dial that will give you the freedom to open and close it based on your
listening preference. Frequency response is rates at 10Hz to 20 kHz and the
amplifier is presented with a common-sense 16 Ohm load. A maximum output of up
to 117dB can be achieved, which is extremely loud IMHO yet it is always good to
have extra headroom versus operating the 12 driver's at their maximum; as this
would cause unwanted distortion. Casing material is hypoallergenic hard acrylic
and the A12 comes with a 30 day fit warranty and two year overall warranty on
parts and labor.
A standard ADEL module is included, with other modules being
available to the public shortly. On the 64 Audio A12 as reviewed here, you can
see the silver-colored metal ADEL module. You simply pull it out and can easily
replace it with a different module. Thus there's no need to send your 64 Audio
in-ear monitors to be modified, plus you can swap out modules to suit your
listening preference whenever you wish. It took the company over seven years of
IEM design to reach where they are today. Their 'revolutionary' ADEL technology
ensures that the 12 drivers work together with the goal of achieving the very
best sound possible. All 64 Audio custom IEMs are carefully hand-built from
your ear impressions, which as I said before are 3D scanned and then computer
optimized. One of the things I love about CIEMs is that they are, by their
nature, noise cancelling and thus outside interference (noise) is highly
reduced. This is great during normal listening of course, plus as a world
traveler I find that my ears do not feel fatigued by the constant drone of the
jet engines, babies crying, the guy next to me snoring, etc. Those of you who
are frequent fliers know the benefits of reducing outside noises during long
hauls in the tuna can.
The fit and finish are first-rate and 64 Audio's A12 have a
far slimmer main body sticking outside of my ear as the Noble Kaiser 10 (K-10,
$1599 in basic form, or much more
with my Italian rose gold custom design). Instead of being a
large housing as with the K-10 and 10 drivers internally, 64 Audio's A12 packs everything
including the 12 drivers very neatly
inside the small housing and they weight about 30% less than the K-10. Would
give you a breakdown in grams, yet my high-precision scale is packed in a box as
we're prep'ing to move to new digs by a West coast beach. Visually, the 64 Audio
A12 CIEMs look to be about 30% smaller than the K-10 (sorry and all, am not
going to do a displacement test to give exact figures). While the Noble K-10 can
be visual works of art with a vast array of designs as your deep wallet permits,
64 Audio has a wide selection of slid colors and premium outer 'faceplates' to
choose from including set designs or wood types. One thing I love about the 64
Audio CIEMs is that you can specify tight-fitting recessed sockets or the basic
fitting for two-pin cables. The tighter recessed socket is excellent for those
who work out or are active when wearing their CIEM. The reasons for bringing up
the Noble K-10 is that it has 10 drivers and, as you'll soon learn, sounds
like a close cousin of the 64 Audio A12 with 12 drivers. Ok, enough with the tekkie stuff and
let's get to how the 64 Audio A12 CIEMs produce my fave tunes.
With 200 Hours Of Break-In
64 Audio's A12 are without a doubt reference quality. Accuracy
reigns supreme as you have a very clear window into the music without harmonic
editorializing. One of the things I enjoy from time to time is this bit of
musically rich editorializing with the Sony NW-ZX2, which is
largely absent with the Questyle QP-1R. Frankly, am beginnin' to
feel more like an audio chef with mixing and matching CIEMs, cables and playback
devices. Each one has a personality and excels in certain aspects. Longtime
portable audio enthusiasts can relate as depending on your mood and/or the
music, you grab the combination of gear that best suits your desires. It also
makes it tough for a reviewer to give you exact descriptions of how a product
produces sound as with the simple substitution of a cable or digital audio
player (DAP) 'the game' changes to some extent.
O... k.... with that now off my chest here's what I'm hearing. 64 Audio's A12 offer a highly precise rending of the music. Whilst as of this writing, with over 400 hours of use, there is still a tiny touch of augmented midrange centered at around 3kHz. It is like adding a very small dash of a certain spice into cooking, to bring just a hint more of that flavor. The result, audibly, is that since most acoustic music lives within the midrange you get the sound of more attack and hear more performance hall decay. Snare drums have a bit more snap, violins have a touch more sing and heavy metal guitars have more bite versus low-end growl. Those of you with the Sony NW-ZX2 might like this bit of spice whereas with the Questyle QP-1R it might over-flavor things. Of course you can EQ this to your liking, yet the moment I begin reviewing with adjusting (skewing) EQ per each device under test (DUT) the results are invalid as one needs to keep a constant and only change the specific DUT (OMG that sounded sooo geeky scientific). Still, the point is valid and just wanted to make you aware of things on my end, and to be fair to all devices that arrive here that they are on equal footing. And since I mentioned decay...
The A12 CIEMs have an excellent, smooth and even decay in volume as recorded within the music. They are very quick to respond to initial attack and can stop on a dime too. Explosive cymbal hits shimmer impressively and fall off smoothly. Overall, the dynamics are reference quality and inner resolution being amongst the very best I have heard to date with CIEMs. Soundscape width and depth are very good, with the music sounding slightly in front of your ears yet (mainly) before your nose extends outward from your face. As a comparo, the Noble K-10 seems to have their sound a tiny bit further back into your head. It is always interesting how different IEMs and headphones create a slightly different 'physical' perspective of the main front soundscape.
Highs are nicely smooth, extended and clean. As I said
previously, the 64 Audio A12 CIEMs are without a doubt reference quality.
Precision reigns supreme here. Since I've already written about the midrange,
let's move on to the lower regions of the audio frequency. Midbass is nicely
balanced within the overall frequency spectrum, with the Noble K-10 having a bit
more grunt and electric guitar growl. The deepest bass, below 55Hz, is not quite
as robust as the K-10. Maybe it is due to 64 Audio's ADEL reducing the air
pressure wave? Perhaps, as there is deep bass yet it simply does not seem to
move as much 'air' to lock-in to your ear drum. Those of you with immense home
audio subwoofers or that go clubbing might better understand it if I say it is
the difference between having deep bass (64 Audio A12) and those home
systems/clubs that have deep bass that feels like it has a solid
grip on the air pressure that causes physical sensations (Noble
K-10). There is more to this story, too. Have not seen any studies that
specifically target how such deep bass renders ear drum movement and how that
may contribute to one's hearing loss. Furthermore, as a 1980/1990 car audio 'Bass
Head' there I have music by TechmasterP.E.B., Bass 305, etc that has an
abundance of electronic bass below 40Hz. While virtually never naturally
occurring within acoustic music, with the exception of pipe organ, today's
electronic music does have such frequencies.
Do Not Do This!!!
Sometimes being a reviewer, literally, is a dangerous job. Not just with hearing damage or testing the limits of a component, as over the years have broken toes on hefty amplifiers, threw out my back moving gear, etc. When it comes to causing actual (and quite permanent) hearing damage is when one should clearly and precisely state that we're getting close to the edge of actual harm. So be careful when using Noble K-10 and deep electronic bass at extremely high volume levels, as it might feel good at first yet am not sure of the long-term effects. This is where the ADEL part of 64 Audio comes into play as it does do as they claim, which is to reduce the physical air pressure of deep bass as it affects your ear drums. It might also be protecting your hearing too! Another benefit, there is no ear drum or ??? 'lockup' and thus no matter how loud I was willing to push the audio envelope the sound never became congested. Oh the things we reviewers do with devices under test. Again, please, pretty please with sugar on top and a cherry; do not try this deep bass test yourself. Again, DO NOT DO THIS!!!
Remember earlier within the review I talked about being a chef and adding a smidge more of spice? Well then, here's where it gets interesting as the Noble K-10 go well with both the QP-1R and Sony NW-ZX2 whereas the A12 brings the Sony NW-ZX2 to a new level of refinement a bit closer to 'mastering accuracy' whereas with the QP-1R you seem to get a bit 'too much of a good thing'. With the stock A12 cable most definitely, with the Symbiote SP 8 pure silver Litz IEM cable it tames things up just a smidge while still giving great sound overall. Remember, I'm not going to adjust the EQ to skew the results and yes some adjusting of the EQ can then re-balance the A12's slight 3kHz bump. The Sony NW-ZX2 has a five-band EQ @ a crude 1dB per level plus 'Clear Bass' adjustment whereas the Questyle QP-1R with the latest firmware (1.02) has a more diverse 10-band EQ with refined 0.25dB increments.
Am literally a bit perplexed what to say next so, &^<$ it here it goes. Both the 64 Audio A12 and Noble K-10 are excellent and I can't say one is better than the other. How does one define better? What are your preferences? What is/are your portable media player and cables? Look, there is no best so don't expect me to tell you which one is better for you without giving overall details of your use and preference.... and even then.... "Your spoon does not bend because it is just that, a spoon. Mine bends because there is no spoon, just my mind." – The Matrix
Side Note: Noble recently wanted me to send them the K-10 for
a photoshoot and there was no way I'd part with them. Not even for 'just' two
weeks. Today, I feel the same way about the 64 Audio A12, yet having both here I
can now let either go for a short period of time and happily live with the
other. On the other hand, if you want to take them both away there's gonna be a
Whatever Words I Say
Am at odds between my two top-line reference custom in-ear monitors and neither one is the best in all situations. Both are excellent, yet in different ways. Hopefully you didn't just skip down to the conclusion section here versus reading the full review. I'd say more, yet you really need to read the review. 64 Audio's A12 CIEMs are outstanding and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to review them. As much as universal fit in-ear monitors can be very good, IMHO they are only a fraction of what you hear when going the custom route. So what are you waiting for?