A few months ago, my friend Johann tipped me off on a local brand of custom IEMs 1 In-Ear Monitors that offered a 20% discount on an upcoming audio convention. He intended to go, as it was his first time to have custom IEMs made. I, on the other hand, already had a pair of custom UERMs (Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors) since 2011 – so I never really felt the need to keep up with new brands and models.
Still, I was intrigued that a local outfit was doing it. The last time I heard of a foreign brand offering custom IEMs locally was years ago when Unique Melody came to town – but they have since pulled out of the country 2 I have no idea why – so it was exciting to finally have another player that can cater to this “specialized” market.
Furthermore, my UERMs were acting up. I thought I’d see if they could do something about it. They were on local soil after all – which sure as hell beats having to coordinate with Americans and the logistics of shipping.
Apparently, FlipEars has been up and running since 2015, and more than that, they seem to have the entire local music industry cornered. If you see any, and I mean ANY artist (I’m not even kidding) using an in-ear monitor during performances, it’s most likely theirs.
They aren’t some big manufacturer like Ultimate Ears, or any other big name brand. They’re Aries and Mia Sales, a husband and wife outfit operating out of their home in Las Piñas. Aries is professional singer-songwriter, and the Philippine music industry isn’t necessarily that big, so I can see how his network is the way it was.
Apart from being a musician, Aries is also formally trained in audio technologies (hearing aids in particular) – so custom IEM development is right up his alley. He does the electronics and tuning, his wife does the ear-impressions and shells.
Aries is very easy to talk with; willing to answer any questions I had, and of course (and most importantly) explaining his approach to anything audio. And that last bit was a big deal for me, because sonic tastes can be very subjective. So what sounds good to one person might not be the other’s cup of tea. And that has always been a major concern for me when it comes to these sorts of things. So I was glad to know that we basically shared the same sensibilities as to what constitutes “good sound.” Coupled with the fact that I liked what I was hearing from his sample units, I got an impression that I could trust this guy’s ears.
As with any other custom in-ear manufacturer, they had a bunch of models which basically differed in two things: the number of drivers, and voicing (i.e. tuning, or the sound profile/signature). Right off the bat, I knew I preferred neutral/flat sounding monitors (why do you think I have the UERMs in the first place?) so I was keen on on trying the models that had neutral voices.
These were the Genesis (1), Aisha (3), Aim (4), and A-Z (5), (he currently also has 2, 6, 14, and 16 driver units, mind you). Since I already had triples, I ruled out the first two (because why would I even bother with anything similar or less).
What I noticed 3 Granted with just a brief A/B with them – I hope I could get to spend more time and do a thorough review of each was that assuming all units are similarly voiced (in this case, neutral) for the most part, the differences in the units’ voices are negligible. But having more drivers drastically affects the soundstage. The “space” you’re immersed in widens – so while the instruments may sound exactly the same, perhaps you’ll notice now that one instrument is further off compared to another when they sounded much closer to each other (and you) on another unit.
So as ironic as it sounds, they sound similar, but different – it depends what aspect of the sound you’re listening for (and prefer). If the argument before for high end audio vs consumer grade was you could hear things that you couldn’t hear before (more accurate tonality, better detail and therefore separation), the driver game extends that to the extent of the “binaural space” you’re immersed in. You want your music to be as in your face as possible? Go with fewer drivers (and save money while you’re at it). If you need a more expansive soundstage where its easier to visualize where the instruments are, then pony up more cash for more drivers… and everything in between.
Sufficed to say, they all sounded great. The only problem was that I could only compare them to other FlipEars models – which makes the comparison even less objective than it already was. My UERMs were damaged so I couldn’t do a meaningful A/B with them.
But as luck would have it (and this is what sold me to the brand), Aries just happened to have a pair of JHA Roxannes in universal-fit shells no less! That’s a $1,700 (yes, dollars) 11-driver pair of monitors which is held in high esteem by most enthusiasts.
And you know what he suggested I compare them to from his arsenal? He didn’t have an 11-driver in his line up for direct comparison, but neither did he cop out with the Ace (16) or Alpha (14) units, he used the 6 driver Axis – and let me tell you, they friggin’ held up to IEMs created by a man who many consider as a god in the IEM space.
Alpha B Green
As I was gravitating towards the A-Z (i.e. the most neutral with the most drivers), he had me try an Alpha that was different from the one I had already sampled. He mentioned that this particular set (which he dubbed Alpha B Green) 4 Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. was a neutrally voiced version of it. He says he came across its voice accidentally while experimenting with the drivers.
Now I had already mentioned how more drivers can affect the soundstage, and while the A-Z’s 5 did expand it compared to a triple, it didn’t offer that big of a difference for someone who already had triples to want to pony up the cash for a new unit. But on hearing that new Alpha, the soundstage was so drastically different yet still neutral, that it made me switch priorities. I put in an order for the Alpha B Greens and decided to just have the UERMs fixed at a later time when the funds allowed. 5 Of course at the end of the day, I was able to get both done simultaneously, but that’s another story altogether
Aries is a very stand-up guy, what impressed me (apart from the obvious) is the fact that this was probably the first time where I never had to follow up on anything. When he says he’ll give an update on this day, he actually proactively updates via private message. There were even times that I myself had forgotten about the build, and I would just get a message of him showing me pictures of the current status of my Alphas. He’s also very open about how he builds these things, explaining the techniques and equipment he uses, the pros and cons of each approach, etc., which I found very illuminating.
At first I had thought that there was some sort of proprietary black magic involved that set the different brands apart. 6 Which is true to some degree, but for the most part, the differences are largely to do with how they are voiced Turns out, you don’t need to be part of a huge corporation to be able to create these things. Like Aries, you can pretty much build these things out of your own home if you know where to source the electronics, and equipment – and have the know-how/skills for it. That’s not to say that building these things are trivial though; apart from having the required materials/equipment, you also require a proficiency in multiple skillsets. 7 Taking ear impressions, 3D scanning and printing, electronics, etc But most of all, and I guess this is what you’re really paying for, you have to have an ear for it – and that can be very subjective. Take Beats for example; they might have all the technology at their disposal and build the most stylish and impeccably finished headphoness, but I think we can all agree that they’re utter crap to anyone who actually takes audio seriously. And that’s why enthusiasts end up gravitating to the more esoteric brands.
When the day came, the Alphas were inside an unassumingly elegant box that opens to reveal the unit neatly placed in velvety molded lining along with one of those pelican-like waterproof cases.
I wouldn’t get to use the carrying case though, because the unit(s) 8 I also had my UE IERMs repaired/re-shelled, which will be a different post altogether arrived exactly the same day my order from 64-Audio hit the post-office 😛
- 14 Knowles balanced armature drivers (2 lows, 6 mids, 6 highs)
- Sensitivity: 120dB @ 1mW
- Freq Response: 10Hz-20kHz
- Impedance: 22 ohm @ 1kHz
- Sound Isolation: -26dB
It’s worth mentioning that this is all personal preference – so take it with a grain of salt. For example, Aries and I we’re talking about how UE “remastered” their UERMs and the result was polarizing. Some people thought it sounded worse, some people thought it sounded better. I guess it’s just like the whole Vinyl vs CD sort of debate. What can possibly be quantifiably measured as “better” does not necessarily mean “preferable” to the human ears – which is why it really depends on a listener’s tastes – and that’s also where a creator’s ear and taste comes into play; does their musical taste match our own.
But sufficed to say, both sounded great – but the Alpha more than made up for my preference for the UERM’s voice (Which incidentally, Aries is a fan of as well) with the whole listening experience the former provided.
There was a time that I would’ve argued that as far as headphones went, 3-Drivers was enough. And I guess as far as neutral tone is concerned, that still holds true. But the difference between my UERMs and Alphas are startlingly clear, that while I feel the voicing of my UERMs are slightly better, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love what the Alphas brought to the table… enough to make it my everyday go-to IEMs for “fun listening.”
Personal preferences aside, the message I’d like to convey to any Filipino reader is that if you’re serious about audio, but western bias has been giving you pause in supporting the local “audio scene”, I can tell you that you have nothing to fear. There’s a reason all our local artists use FlipEars and the best part is you don’t have to take my word for it – you can easily visit them and try their demo units. To hear is to believe 😉
- Comparable (and dare I say, even better) tan top-tier foreign products.
- One of the few times one can claim proudly Filipino made
- Aries is very prompt, professional and extremely competent. He was even able to repair my UERMs and tune them to manufacturer’s specification.
- The tubes used to channel the drivers to the opening holes are really thin (compared to my UERMs), so it’s a bit difficult to get the supplied loop cleaner inside the holes – it feels like you’re jamming it in and might end up damaging the tubes
- Location. If you’re in Manila, you’ll have to make a trip and brave the traffic to Las Piñas. If you’re from the South, you’ll probably have an easier time.
|⇡2||I have no idea why|
|⇡3||Granted with just a brief A/B with them – I hope I could get to spend more time and do a thorough review of each|
|⇡4||Don’t ask me why, I have no idea.|
|⇡5||Of course at the end of the day, I was able to get both done simultaneously, but that’s another story altogether|
|⇡6||Which is true to some degree, but for the most part, the differences are largely to do with how they are voiced|
|⇡7||Taking ear impressions, 3D scanning and printing, electronics, etc|
|⇡8||I also had my UE IERMs repaired/re-shelled, which will be a different post altogether|
|⇡9||Alphas had more tamed mids in comparison, but still pretty neutral|