IEM’s have perhaps gone through the most rapid and high profile transformation in the last 3-4 years in the world of the audiophile. It used to be the flagship would be something churned out for around $200-300 with a single dynamic driver and some above average packaging. The TF10, the IE8 and some the earlier Westone models were pretty much top of the tree in terms of choice and audio capability and rightly so for varying reasons. Then along comes some bright person with tiny balanced armatures (facts may vary but you get the picture hehe – editor) and taking the concept of musicians’ custom monitor plugs the created the custom in-ear monitor or the CIEM. Some say the CIEM is now just about the most perfect form of IEM being able to pack almost unlimited drivers into the perfectly sealing IEM that is created just for you.
That is value to me and incredibly unique but for others there are certain hurdles that make universals more appealing as their IEM of choice. Hurdles such as cost of doing ear impressions and getting them right, the 1-2 month wait time for your customs to arrive, the possibility they may not fit and the endless post receipt search for that ideal, but expensive, after market cable. Buying a custom takes time and in the last year it can also take a lot of money for a certain amount of risk. Universals such as the AKG K3003, Westone’s WM60 and Dita’s The Answer (The Truth edition) are also challenging the idea that, subject to fit, a universal can sound just as great, pack just as much technology and avoid all those time consuming efforts in getting ready for a custom. Buy it now, get it now, sounds just as good, and resell it higher. The audiophile world is an impatient maelstrom when it comes to audio bliss and the right flagship universal in 2014 could very well hit gold.
Not to be outdone by the latest ‘bigger is better, faster is more satisfying’ mantra of today, Heir Audio have sliced open their custom flagship 8.A and tweaked it into universal IEM, the 8.0 that bears all the hallmarks of a Heir Audio type of earphone and priced at $1099.00. Not cheap, even by today’s standards, but its packing some serious firepower and a type of physical appearance that reeks of luxury in a very nice way indeed. Wood inserts check, 8 balanced armature drivers check, four way passive cross over design check, dual bore design check and a Magnus 1 cable check. Did I miss anything? Oh yeah the super 1020 Pelican case type box used by custom kings such as Vision ears and Heir Audio themselves for their custom earphones with a ton of accessories. That is a pretty impressive universal IEM on paper but what about reality and the sound?
Build & Fit – just like a custom?
It actually came as a complete surprise to me the 8.0 as the guys at Heir Audio and I had been talking about the 8.A up until Sunny and the team suggested trying their all new 8.0 universal. I had not even seen a picture of it on the website (there still isn’t on the main website 8.0 page) and just a tech sheet with some impressive specs I said what the hell lets try it out. Now I was half expecting a more traditional fitting TOTL style earphone such as the Dita’s The Answer or the AKG K3003 hand crafted barrel type driver enclosures which catch the eye but instead I got something more akin to a custom type earphone. I should have guessed given Heir Audio’s fine heritage in custom earphones that the 8.0 would have the aura of a custom with all the design sensibilities that come with custom making.
Mature face, clean lines
Those worried about the lack of customization in the 8.0 need not worry. Heir Audio have opted for an incredibly smooth quasi Westone/Fitear style acrylic shell in dark smoke coloring with a very nice Siamese Rosewood insert as the face plate. It’s supremely mature and stylish looking and adds a much needed touch of character among the plethora of shiny metal IEM’s such as the K3003. Wood is always welcome, even if just at the veneer level. The grain on my particular edition is very uniform and clean also without any messy grain knots. I know some love the uniqueness of knots in their inserts for customs for me personally I like a bit of uniformity and cleaner lines and the 8.0 veneers are as clean as they get.
Inside the ear shell Heir Audio is packing a lot of tech. When you consider the size of some new universals with 10 drivers plus the 8.0 has to be applauded for keeping everything within reasonable dimensions. We are talking 8 paired drivers here in a 4 way passive crossover configuration. That’s two drivers for the low end, two for the mids, two for lower treble and a further two for right at the top end treble reproduction. That is a lot of frequency coverage in a small shell. The drivers are Knowles DTEC drivers and TWFK twin drivers give a nice mix of warmth and clarity.
The Magnus 1 Cable
The Heir Audio 8.0 is terminated with a classic 2 prong detachable cable connection port in the style of Westone, 1964Ears and of course Heir Audio’s own custom range. And praise be to that because not only do you get heir Audio’s impressive Magnus 1 cable but I personally get a chance to try my other two prong terminated after market cables just to compare. The Magnus 1 cable from Heir audio is a bit similar to the EPIC style Westone cable in terms of form and function being very light, over the ear and memory free. However unlike Westone’s super dark and average sounding EPIC cables the Magnus 1 has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to the materials being used and its sonic qualities such as added silver content (silver plated copper cable), right angled gold plated Neutrik 3.5mm plugs and a Kevlar enforced quad-braided encasing. All of which adds up to a super pliant light and versatile cable that doesn’t come across as overly dark, too light or lean and very comfortable indeed to wear. I had a ball with the Fidue A83 cable which is top notch for a $300 IEM and similar in ways in terms of the braided design but the Magnus 1 takes the cake for comfort and quality materials. It sells for $149 alone so we are not talking cheap throw in cable here. Sure you can grab Toxic Cable’s OCC Cryo Pure Silver cable for a stack more cash to get a ‘higher experience’ but for price to value and comfort the Magnus 1 takes some beating.
Heir Audio have also saw fit to package the 8.0 with a ton of high quality accessories normally associated with customs such as the large 1020 type solid black pelican case with rubberized interior, a huge range of tips, a cleaning brush and a couple of branded rubber straps. The carry case is water resistant and pretty tough looking for knocks and drops. If Heir Audio are to believed it will take a load of up to 200kg in variable conditions. Not that I am about to try that mind you so I have no reason to doubt the claim. In total Heir Audio have included 9 pairs of tips with the 8.0 ranging from s/m/l in 7 red and blue configurations (inside not outside) and 2 sets of double flange tips. Naturally I am a double flange fan so I stuck with those throughout the review and also found them to have the best seal and comfort for my ears. Note the Heir Audio nozzle is more akin to a custom IEM finish than any more measured finish from the likes of AKG and Westone so I can’t honestly say what the fitment for those looking to try comply etc though they do look to have a fairly large opening diameter.
Heir nailed the fit on this universal edition of the 8 series. Initially I was worried that I would have some slight issues given my left ear canal is narrower than my right but everything just slotted in perfectly. The smoothed out acrylic finish combined with a moderate nozzle intrusion and double flange gave a ton of seal and a very smooth flush fit against my ear. Everything felt totally secure. I guess I got lucky with my ear shape because of late, even with some newly arrived customs, I felt the fit on my left ear was never quite right. No such issues here with the 8.0. I wouldn’t rate it as invisible or low profile as the newer Westone UM editions or as perfect a seal as their 8.A but its superior to the Dita’s, the K3003 and the Westone W50 by a country mile and far comfier than the Fidue A83 which is probably its biggest weakness (the Fidue). Whilst my 1964EARS v8 and Minerva Mi-Pro are the tightest in terms of sealing my comfiest fitting in-ear to date is the UM Merlin. The 8.0 this comes very close indeed in terms of comfort and feel against the ear which is remarkable for a universal.
Oh man this is one seriously lush and rich IEM. Tonally the Heir Audio 8.0 is an outrageously naughty pleasure – like a big fat chocolate cake with some tasty icing on top. Ok so a slightly OTT metaphor but honestly after a diet of clarity and strident treble signatures right across a range of high end gear reviews of late it really is a musical pleasure to slow it down a touch and get lost in something as warm and smooth as the 8.0. This earphone is not made for intense monitoring or perhaps even the pinnacle of accuracy and detail but what Heir does give you is a bonafide flagship IEM for musicality, smoothness and long-term likeability.
Sadly I couldn’t get to view any frequency chart for the 8.0 so your ears might disagree with mine but after some testing across a range of DAP’s and amps the 8.0′s presentation has a slightly more forward bass and mids signature with a relaxed but very nicely extended treble response that’s clear but smooth and detailed. The 8.0 is not about tight lean or fast bass, nor is it about overwhelming bass head W50 or UM50 type bass explosion. Heir got the balance between both extremes just right with the 8.0. It does wonderfully well with EDM, hip-hop, pop and most other beat laden genres. However the longish decay on the bass softens the impact slightly meaning it may not be as tight as the K3003 but it certainly feels richer and fuller and with more character. Nor is it as extended as the UM Merlin deep bass response but comes across as more focused and less dominant over the rest of the range. The mid-section though slightly forward is oh so tolerant and forgiving even on clean and clear DAPs such as the DX90. Female vocals in particular are more emotional and engaging than observant and pristine without a hint of sibilance.
There is good extension and dynamics on both ends but perhaps the emphasis is on the low end response due to that slightly more forward bass and mids signature. Do not get me wrong, the Heir Audio 8.0 treble does not taper off like the W50 or sparkle as bright as the Fidue A83, it just more relaxed overall. Whilst its not quite up there with the K3003 and UM Merlin in terms of depth and accuracy for imaging and soundstage the 8.0 does indeed produce a very wide and engaging sound stage that doesn’t screw with an otherwise very coherent presentation. There is just enough space for everything to breathe without it becoming disengaged or lacking in intimacy when required.
In just over 3 weeks the 8.0 has taken over as my long listening session king due to that musical and fun signature. We are talking about zero sibilance, minuscule peakiness, coherent if somewhat slow paced mid range and a warm responsive but steady bass impact.
Amps and DAPs
The 8.0 is actually rated at 35ohms so on paper it is not the most sensitive IEM on the market, even the mighty Merlin is rated at only 16ohms. Now in the age of modern DAP’s 32ohms is not such a big deal and the likes of the X3, X5, DX90 and the original AK100 all have no issues driving the 8.0, staying well within acceptable volume and power ranges. I had less than stellar results with the AK100 though with that coldish and slightly harsh midrange sucking the life out of it sadly and whilst the X3 and X5 were admirable with their smoother and more weighted low end it was the DX90 that had a slight edge in overall dynamics and clarity. if I had to pick one from that range I would go with the DX90. I am keeping the DAP section a bit short and brief because if truth be told i actually found the 8.0 to really come into it’s own with some solid portable amping which is a first in a long time for me with IEM’s.
Matching the 8.0 though did throw up an amping combination that suited it’s relaxed signature perfectly with a simple iPod classic tagged onto the my 2013 gear of the year Vorzuge DuoAmp which has an alarming but welcome habit of making just about any IEM I have outside of the W50 sound really fluid and smooth. I had half expected for the whole presentation to end up being too mushy and soft given both the 8.0 and the DuoAmp to have tonally warm and lush presentations but thankfully it didn’t turn out like that at all. Plugged into the DuoAmp the 8.0 soundstage sounded a bit more 3 dimensional with a tighter snappier bass line and a more focused midrange than straight out of the jack on the AK100 and the X3. There was no need to use the bass or treble gain switches with this pairing. The bass switch was a lot of fun but I lost a degree of accuracy in the mid-bass and lower mid-range response with bass becoming a bit bloated though still remaining soft and warm. The Treble gain switch brought a tiny bit of needed sparkle into the 8.0′s relaxed treble response without any undue harshness also. If anything, the DuoAmp treble gain switch worked very well indeed for trance and house adding a little cutting edge to the top to compliment the weightier bottom end.
Cypher Labs Theorem 720
For those desiring a more forward signature and a big increase in dynamics look no further than Cypher Labs Theorem 720. The 8.0′s clarity and fullness, as well as speed and articulation took a decided leap upwards from the DuoAmp using the 720′s own DAC and excellent amp. The lower end tightened up instantly whilst still retaining that lush sound signature. 32ohms really does benefit from quality amping it seems for this IEM.
Solo -DB/ ALO Audio MK3-B+
Not as warm as the DuoAmp or as detailed and resolving as the 720 nevertheless the Solo -DB and the RX-MK3 -B+ brought their own flavor of juice to the table with a slightly drier presentation with plenty of dynamics and a presentation that is not quite as forward as the Theorem 720. The RX-MK3 bass boost pot though is far more sophisticated than the DuoAmp’s bass gain switch with a much deeper extension that stays really snappy. It also introduces a stacking element into the portability that these days I am a bit averse to. The 720 can do it one tin box and do it very well indeed making a dual stack less of a need unless your into amp swapping.
Just Audio Aha-120
One of the largest portable amps, a class A no less and with a unique impedance selector starting at 32ohms which tells the amp how much current drive to throw at any headphone you are connecting to it. Being a 32ohm earphone the lowest setting is more than plenty and there is no discernible difference in terms of character or tonality when running up and down the impedance selector with the Heir Audio 8.0. The Aha-120 brought a much flatter response to the 8.0 than all the other DAP’s. Whereas most of the amps tended to accentuate the more forward bass and mid-range response of the 8.0′s drivers the 120 sort of leveled things out but at the same time thickening up the sound in the midrange considerably. If anything it adds a little touch of darkness and a more analog feel compared to the brighter and airier Solo/MK-3 -B+ combination but without any loss of detail and articulation. Noise floor crept up a bit more than the others though. You also lose access to a quality DAC interface by going back to double amping through your DAP of choice so a slight loss in resolution if you’re using something ‘cheap’.
Perhaps you spent 90% of your budget on the 8.0 and need a budget amp to match with your DAP or phone of choice. You could do a lot worse than the sub $100 E12 actually (The E11K we have here but not reviewed yet). Whilst the resolution and clarity takes a bit of a drop the noise floor is actually lower than the Aha-120 and the low end feels a bit more weighted than the 120. It is more of a step back to the DuoAmp signature but lacking in a bit of refinement. For all of the initial ‘oohs and ahhs’ about the power of the E12 the 8.0 coped admirably with the E12 sitting at about 12 noon on the pot.
The Heir Audio 8.0 is definitely up there as one of my most enjoyable experience with a universal IEM this year. It’s smooth and lush response and highly musical presentation is a God send for my tired ears and sometimes unforgiving track selection. It’s a great fit for a universal, built really well and packaged just like a custom. Unlike a custom though you can buy the 8.0 right away and pop it in your ear free of the dreaded “loose or tight fit” issues you sometimes get with customs.
The price might be a sticking point for some given the natural sounding W60 from Westone is under $1000 and the Merlins are also sub 1k but putting that aside the 8.0 is far more fun and engaging then the more accurate but more expensive K3003 and much smoother and fuller than the thinned out $800 IE800 treble. Those wanting a wholly accurate, neutral experience where everything is pitch perfect and every inch of resolution is achieved might find the 8.0 a bit wanting. This is not an IEM that worships at the altar of micro detail and transparency, it is not for pure monitoring. It’s 32ohm impedance rating actually does suit a bit of quality amping to get the last 10-20% out of the 8.0 even though it sounds excellent with modern DAP’s. The sound signature does change a little depending on the amps you use. Warm and intimate is the DuoAmp, detail and dynamics is the 720′s bag
Its funny that for all the tech being stuffed into headphones and earphones these days less and less are stopping to think is their latest and greatest creation actually an enjoyable listen or striving to be the most accurate irrespective of the tonality or musicality. Is it my type of sound signature? It certainly is when I want to put on the monitoring breaks and relax and just enjoy my music without any demands at a very high level. With the 8.0 things just sound, well, happier.