The success story of the custom in-ear monitor (CIEM) scene last year may well have been the fresh faced Custom Art. It wasn’t there first year in the market but by far their biggest. It included a move to a new bigger lab, increasing to a 3 man team, making 318 monitors and introducing lots of new models to their line up including the worlds first silicone 8 balanced armature driver CIEM, quite a revolutionary leap considering there isn’t even any 6 or 7 driver silicone monitors on the market. I think for a company that started out as one guy (that is founder Piotr Granicki in Poland) working in a desk room they achieved some amazing things and the rise to greatness continues with them already achieving 2/3s of last year sales by April this year and they have just added their first acrylic monitor to an already respectable portfolio. I got a taste of what they were capable way back in October 2013 when I had a little trial with a universal demo of Pro330 but I thought it was time to try the full package, so here I am with Harmony 8 Pro.
The Harmony 8 Pro is Custom Art’s current flagship model, along with a non pro version, which is supposedly not as bright and uses different tweeters. Both models come in at €925. The idea behind these models was to bring the best elements of the Music and Pro series also from Custom Art to create something that is very accurate and detailed but is able to remain enjoyable. Now while I have never been one to get behind the hype of lots of drivers being better, I understand that Piotr needed the 8 drivers per side to achieve the sound he was after. I can also appreciate the feat it is to squeeze 8 drivers into a silicone shell, which is not as easy to work with (in some areas) as acrylic, hence companies like Noble who offer their products in both acrylic and silicone shells, don’t offer any models above their 5 driver in silicone. So how was this pulled off? It is simply down to clever driver selection, with smaller, twin driver units being optimised into the design so the final volume of drivers is only 255mm3 and for some perspective, that is 21mm3 less than the Knowles CI balanced armature, which is a the huge woofer that is used in countless IEMs, from the Westone 3 to ACS Encore. Now obviously there is more to it that driver size and all the crossovers and wires have to be fitted in so you can’t take nothing away from this achievement.
A Design For You:
When it comes to customisation, I don’t think you can fault what Custom Art are up to. You might not personally find every design they do appealing but what I think is easily agreed on is how technically impressive each creation is. For a start over 30 colours are offered, that is borderline silly with other silicone masters such as ACS offering only a measly 12 colours in comparison. On top of the colour selection you can have artwork engraving that is a pretty standard offering but also have wooden or carbon faceplates, which is much more unique. Now I just found there to be too many options and my mind just isn’t creative enough so I left the design in Piotr’s hands. I did request the sites logo on the earphones if possible. Not only was that possible but he used its black and red colour scheme as a starting point for the earphones. Adding in a space effect, surely derived from our name, and these are some magnificent earphones that in a beam of sun, sparkle like jewellery. Creative brilliance.
Other than the designs being great, Custom Art’s silicone customs are just a bit different to the norm. Now here at Inearspace we also have silicone models from Minerva and ACS, both british companies. While the ACS are lovely looking in a more simplistic way, both them and the Minerva are just blobs of gloop. These are much more defined, like an acrylic CIEM they have an obvious faceplate section, it just makes them seem a tad more professional and offers for that increased range of options.
As for the rest of the build quality, they are of course silicone, which at first feels weird, it is flimsy and you can even bend it a little bit. Only when you have used them for a longer period do you realise they are actually pretty solid. My only nitpick was a small blemish on the body, facing towards my ear. These also use removable cables in the almost industry standard 2 pin configuration. Again with these being silicone, I have been a bit extra careful when removing the cable and the earpieces from my ears trying not to apply pressure on the connector, which seems easier said than done. Despite my fears though, every thing is as secure as it was on day one.
The cable seems like a pretty standard affair and I think it is the same or at least very similar to what Josh has on his Minerva Mi-Artist CIEMs. It starts with some memory wire and the cable cinch, splitter and jack are all a smooth plastic. The cable itself is quite thin but seems very flexible and coils well.
Now the perks of getting something silicone over acrylic is just how comfy these things are. The have a little give when in your ear so they never strain or put pressure on your ear, like I have experienced with some tighter fitting acrylic products. It is also worth noting they still fit like any traditional acrylic CIEM you may have, where you can fit by twisting into your canal. With my other silicone customs from ACS you have to push the top part under your helix and then squeeze into your ear. The Custom Art method is so much quicker and easier, both in insertion and removal. Along with the stellar fit, you also get great isolation, especially of the low frequencies and they offer true immersion into your music, not that acrylic customs are shabby. These will be my pick of earphones for the plane journey to Munich for the High End Show!
Soft On The Ears:
With my demo of the Pro 330 being such a long time ago and this being my first true custom from the company I knew this would give me an insight to what the company where capable of creating, especially with this being one of the flagship models. Like you may expect from Custom Art’s own description of these they are a fairly balanced monitor with a flat and textured bass, a dry midrange and a sparkly treble. Staying true to Custom Arts claims I do find this one of the more musical and pleasant sounding monitors that is also relatively flat. That being said I find that may be down to this not being on the extreme technical level of some of the other similarly tuned flagship models. Instead of clinical detail we have a softer, more composed sound and I actually find these pretty darn smooth and by that I don’t mean they are bassy and rolled off in the treble, there just isn’t distortion or aggression.
The bass is great and possibly my favourite quality of this earphone. It is the type that is real, the type that does what the music calls for, not what it thinks the young, hip teenager wants. It is fast and precise, shimmying through bass line after bass line with grace and groove in its step. But it is much more than a snappy lean bass response that lacks depth, oh no it has texture to it and depth and there is even some air movement going on. While fast, the mid-bass isn’t anaemic, it has enough decay to warrant some attention and get your foot tapping and even hints at just a touch of warmth when you arrive at the lower mids. That being said it shows no priority over the rest of the earphone and in terms of quantity you have less than the UERM and a similar amount to Hidition Viento-R but it isn’t quite as quick. Throwing what is going on in the deep bass and your really start to appreciate this earphones low hZ qualities. Listening to Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and you gave a steady and punchy bass response through out but when nearer then end you get them bigger drones, vroOOM, the bass kicks it up a gear and starts providing you with a layered and powerful whollop and this has been shown again and again with a range of tracks in general listening. Back to that first line and it is real bass, you are feeling them lower frequencies and not just hearing a lot of bloated and sloppy mid-bass frequencies. These are never going to give you that, nor are they going to have your head throbbing from sub-woofer like 20hZ tones but they do a great job of providing a natural and honest package in the tiny silicone shells.
The midrange is where we start to see the more soft and musical tone I mentioned earlier be cemented. Instead of having a crystal clear midrange with extreme detail, like say, the Viento-R, we have something that is smoother and less under the magnifying glass. Of course it is still a detailed monitor, it just doesn’t ever strike me as something that is ruthless enough to look at a recording and mock it before ripping it to shreds, this is tamer and yes, more forgiving. Obviously forgiving can either be a great thing or just not your cup of tea, but the bottom line is with this your get the rarity of balance and good detail along with the ability to bask in some of your favourite tracks that never had ideal mastering. That being said at times I did find this to lack just a touch of focus, sounding just a bit smeared.
Once again bringing up the UERM and Viento-R for comparison, I find this to sit in the middle in terms of tonality. The UERM is more prominent in the lower mids and the Viento-R really shows dominance in the upper mids. Strictly speaking this is more akin to the Viento-R with a bit of preference to the upper mids and female vocals alike, in fact I actually find the lower mids to lack a bit of presence coming of the bass transition, especially when comparing to the UERM. That being said these have good body and a thicker tone with less of persuasion to any area of the midrange than either of them two. Going back to what I said about the lower midrange and while they always are an obvious part of the music, I sometimes find them just a bit withdrawn, always full bodied but maybe just lacking in a sweetness. That goes for the timbre of the midrange as a whole actually, it is rather dry.
Now it is the treble that is unique to the Pro version of this model and you know what, it is not as bright as I was expecting or as finicky as some of my friends found it to be. Now it does have an obvious presence although I would struggle to say that it takes up any more room than the rest of the frequencies. Yes it has sparkle to it but not at a fatiguing level by any means. I think its biggest problem actually lays in its speed and I think that’s where some people I know such as Lieven at Headfonia run into a touch of bother. You see while I sensed a bit of extra decay to add to the flavour to the midrange, the treble is much quicker, however, this in turn causes the treble to seem a little detached from the midrange and a touch tinny. I personally have no problem with the treble; I find it airy and extended and detailed but it doesn’t have the finesse of the rest of the sound, it is a bit more aggressive, its agenda is slightly different and maybe that is because it is. The Pro version was for those who wanted a bit more treble than the original version and that’s why these new drivers were selected. Honestly I think any less treble wouldn’t have suited my preferences but I guess there could be a bit more body and smoothness to the treble to make it fit in more. All being said I don’t think this should worry you but if it does, the non-pro version may be up your street but don’t take my word as I haven’t tried it personally.
The earphone is at all times an enjoyable listen, the sound is full and every part has its place. Maybe I have been spoilt for what is capable in terms of CIEM soundstage but I find this to be good with obvious use of all 3 dimensions but I don’t find it to be huge, the JH Audio Roxanne sounds huge, this seems layered and open but not near that level, although I think the JH Sirens are in a league of their own in terms of sheer size and this easily matches the rest of my best CIEM in terms of size alone. The imaging seems pretty precise but maybe my personal biggest gripe with these is the background just doesn’t seem that dead, it just a bit blurry. I think if it was any other way then the whole way these are tuned would be different, these aren’t the cleanest or clearest monitors and that shows with the background not being the blackest.
An Enjoyable Experience:
This experience from the start with Custom Art has been a very pleasurable one. The very personal contact with the Piotr, the owner, which is much more than you will ever get with a huge company with JH or UE makes sure your needs are fulfilled and even helps you sell your CIEMs should you not want them any more and for owners of a second hand pair, reshells them at a base cost of just 75 Euro. Pair that with one of the easiest listens and most natural I have had while still having great balanced and you have a great product and a worthy flagship. I know I didn’t do the most comparisons but as you know we are currently building to a big flagship CIEM round up where me and Josh will compare all our models head to head to determine our new pride of place custom in-ear monitor and give out a few other awards.