Friday, 31 October 2008

Bespoke personal audio

Not all bespoke...just the headphones.

I have been an audiophile for a long time...many, many years...and retired from active upgrading some 14 years ago. My main system has stayed the same since. The system comprised of an almost all Meridian Digital system.

But the subject of today's post is my portable stereo. Comprising of a set of custom moulded Livewires T1, amplified by RSA Hornet, and MP3s ripped EAC/LAME 320kbps on a Creative Zen Vision 30GB player.

These phones are two drivers, and custom moulded to fit one's ear...bespoke earphones, so to speak. An ear mould is taken, and sent to the factory, and they make the units accordingly.

I see from pics in head-fi that it comes with a plastic LV case with a cleaning tool and some alcohol swabs. But the local dealer Jaben's supremo Wilson gave it to me in a small ziplock bag! He threw in a little black fabric case...quite neat. Doesn't LW ship the case anymore?

Also the wires are Westone, and I find them a bit on the short side.

The fit...initially I feel the right ear fit comfy, and left was very tight that it hurts after an hour. I spoke to a head-fi friend of mine in SYD, and he advised that tight is better than loose...and my ears should accomodate. Indeed they do. Now I feel the right ear, though still maintains a decent seal, is slightly loose...and the left is ok.

I find the LW to be high sensitivity...on my DVD player's headphone output, I am on volume control between 7 (min) and 7:30...8 o├žlock is too loud. This same headphone output for similar volume on the Allesandro MS-1 is 10 o'clock . But when used with the Ray Samuels Hornet, run in with some 500 hours under its belt, on low gain, it is just nice. Volume knob at a rather loud, but comfortable level is about 10 o'clock. Most of the time I listen to about 9.

I guess the LW are still burning in...head-fi reports that the headphones needed some 500 hours to settlein. I have about 150 hours or so, the sonic signature remains more or less the same as when I got it, but the amount of details, and high end extension are improving slight with each day. The bass is strong, mids seem neutral, highs a bit recessed.

Soundstage not as open and airy as my Stax SRM-001. Initially, as this is my first IEM, and I feel a kind off dense feeling on my brain area with the LW inserted. But now it is quite comfortable. In comparison, the Stax is very open, the soundstage seem boundry-less. races.

Midrange sweetness also loses out to Stax, but very close. The Stax, typical of an electrostatic is also better at the speed of transient attacks and nice decays. The LW's overall micro-dynamics are not as well defined. This is perhaps an unfair comparison, because an electrostatic is probably the champion in micro-dynamics.

Detail also seem a bit less than the Stax, but close. The LW is quite fussy with equipment. I can tell easily between 128kbps MP3, 228kbps MP3 and 320kps MP3 (all ripped EAC, LAME) on a Creative Zen Vision versus from the headphone jack of my Sony DVD player. In this sense, it is not different from the SRM-001, which is extremely critical of upstream equipment.

The RSA Hornet made a huge improvement in power, drive and control.

Immaculately constructed, the Hornet was an exceptional amplifier. Ray Samuels is a true genius...his Hornet, Tomahawk, and Predator are all ground shaking products. Superbly built, and powerful sonics...starting from the bass as a foundation, to sikly, powerful midrange, and smooth extended highs, the Hornet is a great amp.

Macro dynamics seem ok...can go very loud, and soft passages are still ok. this refers to the system as above. On its own, plugged directly into the Zen Vision, the Livewires are loud, but lacks some final authority, and driving power. Bass was also less defined. With the Hornet, all these changed and tighten up. Final analysis is that overall the system with Hornet/LW still loses out to the Stax in ability to retrieve low level detail. I have an urge to turn up with volume with the LW more so than with the Stax.

Overall Livewires without the Hornet offers a sound which lacks something to me. But coupled with the Hornet, it takes a different character, takes on an authority like a large 200Wpc amp is like to do, and provides close competition to the Stax. However, the total price of the LW plus Hornet is almost double of a set of Stax SR-M001 (Japan price Y24,000).

The biggest advantage of the LW over the Stax is isolation. The Stax provides no isolation at all, and leaks a small amount to the environment. The LW provides some 20 dB of isolation - good enough to cut off ambient noise in an airplane or train. It was good enough for me to use in lieu of ear plugs when attending the Singapore Formula 1.