It started with a long drive, roughly 150 miles of listening to Josh whine in the car but was it worth it? 100%. We arrived in Banbury, home of ACS’s Headquarters and Laboratories, one of the original and biggest custom in-ear monitor and hearing protection companies. Andy Shiach, managing director and clearly the motivation behind everything that ACS stands for, greeted us on arrival.
We went into his office, which was littered with ACS boxes, and heaps of CIEMs, I mean there was a loads. In their boxes, out their boxes, on the desk, on a table behind the desk, it was silicone CIEM paradise, well at least I thought but compared to what I saw later, it was clearly just the beginning. It is funny because conversing over email, reading emails and even owning products from a company clearly never tell the story, but meeting Andy and you really get to know what ACS are about. Andy was originally a musician and at just 19, started suffering from Tinnitus and has not stopped until this day. It really is horrible to hear and I am so glad that I have never suffered and I hope this continues. The thing is it really drives home how you take your ears for granted and how important it is that you look after them. That is a message that Andy really wants to push and is also why he started ACS. Instead of getting down about his misfortune, he decided to make a difference, he wanted to start a company that helped others so they never have to suffer and protect their ears. Using silicone he made custom molded ear plugs to reduce ambient noise, perfect for musicians, people working on building sites and even gig attendees. Too this day they still make a range of this type of product and using a filter system have a range for all different environments.
Now being part of this scene he was part of in-ear monitoring from day 1 and it just made sense with their skills in silicone custom moulds to make a model. But from the start of that as well, hearing protection still come first. When we moved on to talk about his new universal IEMs he threw some interesting knowledge at us. People tend to listen to music 13dB louder than the environment they are in. Out an about there can easily be around 90dB of ambient noise, vehicles, people, you know the drill so with a non isolating earbud like a lot of people including my friends use such as an Apple Earpod, you can end up listening to music upward of 103dB, which can cause damage after roughly seven and a half minutes of listening a day. Yes a lot less than most probably do. The new ACS universals are acrylic with a silicone fill and with the included proprietary foam tips can isolate around 27dB. So you will probably be adding that 13dB from 63dB instead of 90dB so you will be getting happy listening at around 76dB. At 76dB you can listen happily all day and your ears wont suffer. So yes while the new universals are certainly something that they have designed with performance in mind, but things like hearing are still taking into account 100%.
We got to have a play with two of the new universals. The Evoke and Evolve Studio Universal fit models to be precise although while sound tuning and general design seemed pretty much finished, they were still pre-production units the same goes for the packaging. The Evoke uses a single driver from Knowles and they actually do their own special stuff to it (which has a patent pending) to make it sound exactly how they would like. It sounded warm and sweet with a boost in the mid-bass and lower mids and while treble was still clear and in the mix, the sounded forgiving and un-fatiguing.
The Evolve is a 3 driver and the configuration is very similar to that of previous flagship CIEM, the T1. Using a Knowles (ACS only use Knowles) TWFK and large CI driver for bass, there was a flat frequency response, which favoured the upper midrange and treble and seemed lean in the bass although Josh was quite impressed with the deep bass in our short demo, I didn’t hear it.
The fit and finish seemed great and you can chose to have different coloured silicone inside the acrylic shells, which was really cool. They are also looking at doing a 5 driver universal version of their brand new Encore CIEM. Also worth noting is that all their new universals and custom IEMs come with a Linum cable and the proprietary T2 connector, which looked great, as did them cables that were so thin but super strong. Considering they are a £50 cable and the single BA Evoke is only £150, some good value is shaping up there, especially if you also get the £40 Revivo (i have a hunch you do). The Evolve is going to be £299. We will be having a much further look at this when they are finished, the same goes for the Encore 5 driver CIEM, which me and Josh are having built.
First production run of the universal IEM!
Asprey, Merdian and George Martin Package:
This is a very special and exclusive package soon to be announced and is a great idea. There will be a 1000 of these truly epic packages, with backing from boutique designer company Asprey, renowned HiFi Company Merdian and legendary Beatles producer George Martin. In this beautiful packaging you get a wooden looking Revivo, a GM branded Merdian Explorer 2, Asprey pouch and a pair of custom ACS Evolve that are fine tuned by George’s also producer son Giles. What is so special about this package, of the £2000 list price, every one sold will see £250 donated to Action on Hearing Loss. So if all units can be sold, that’s quarter of million donated to a great cause. I wish them luck with this one and if you want to be part of something special, watch this space.
You will also get a cable with unique looking box that monitors your listening to make sure you NEVER listen to too much at a high volume. Sounds smart.
I really didn’t know what to expect here, I understand a basic process of how CIEMs are traditionally made if they are acrylic based and also how UE are now making there products but I have always known that silicon had to be more difficult and when Andy says that are making their monitors completely digitally now, I had no clue how they would do that.
Well let me just tell you that ACS are innovating on a grand scale.
Now i am going to let the pictures help explain the process. Below we have a 3D scanner and this is where the process starts after they recieve your impressions.
You see ACS’s process is completley digital. So they start by scanning you impressions so that they have a digital copy. They then put the impressions in a bag with a barcode and they go round the entire process of making the product but are not once touched.
The sit in the machine and spin around and the computer makes a very accurate, like VERY accurate digital copy of them.
Below you can see the impressions start to render on the PC’s screen.
Then how the look fully rendered, attention to detail has to be just perfect and they use the best equipment.
This didnt actually happen in the lab but next door where all the accoutning and admin is also done. So we then walked across the hall into the lab. The impressions get put in a queue after the above process and when ready will fulfill the same journey as we made.
The next stop was also a computer and this where the impressions are didgitally edited on a proprietery CAD programme so they are ideal for whatever product they are becoming.
We saw a ear plug being made. As you can see the original impressions is on the right and what they have become is on the left. They have also made a tube in the middle for a perfecltly angled bore. Their CIEMs dont have bores done digitally just yet but they are working on it. How quickly and accuratley this process was done is amazing and if a mistake is (we didnt see one) made they can just press the undo button, handy right.
Now when i heard they 3D print i was confused as the use silicone not acrylic so how do they print a silicone shell. Well they dont, they print a hollow acrylic shell. On the computer they print a large valve where they pump in the silicone and some smaller ones for the excess silicone to come out.
The 3D printer they use prints huge batches of the acrlyic ears.
They are then pumped with silicone and cured in this machine.
They come out like this.
Like an egg they are then peeled and inside is the perfect silicone product, with bores as well for some of them. They do have to trim down where the valves for poruing the silicone was but other than that, its almost done.
For CIEMs there is of course the process of fitting the drivers, crossover and female removable cable connector into the silicone. Andy said it is like fitting a bottle into a ship, i wish i had spent the time to watch this process as i can imagine it being mighty impressive. Below is the 2 TWFK and single CI BA’s (5 driver total) of the ACS Encore about to be fitted into a silicone shell. Looks impossible to me.
First the drivers are assmebled out of the shell though. The Linum T2 female connector is connected to the tiny corssover PCB, the drivers are then connected to that using a litz wire and then you have the sound bores connected to the end of the BAs, you can see that above and being done below.
They then go to be made look pretty. You have laser engraving of ACS and the customer initials/names.
They are then painted red on the right side, blue on the left and the entire shell is lacquered so they look nice. They can also paint the shell.
So the colours start solid and then gain the clear finished look. It also leaves them very protected so teh colours dont fade over time. I like how this is done a bit more old school.
And then they are dryed, cables are all connected and they become a finished product and thats how they do it. Pretty amazing huh.
ACS Do Britain Proud:
I think it is revolutionary because everything is done completlety accurate and efficently. They average around 250 finished products a day and at the moment have a turn around time of about a week, what other compnay can boast that huh, i write this as i am currently on my 4th week waiting for two CIEMs, the same goes for Josh. They are changing the way CIEMs and custom silicone products are made ande setting an example of how things should be done. Even more impressive is how good the ethics of the company are and what a good guy Andy is. Even though ACS are a bigger company, they still have a very personal handling of theire customers and if you have a problem, you are likely to get a call from Andy, the Managing Director so he can resolve whatever has happened. On top of that they also care about everyones hearing as much as they do business, involving themselves with charity, both in raising awareness and money for them and the problems they deal with. On a day where we didnt know what to expect, we comes away with massive grins, and a very positive attitude about this British CIEM company. Expect more on them soon, their Revivo, another revolutionary product is cleaning my Hidition Viento-Rs as we speak.