I guess I’ll start by admitting that I am an audiophile and that I am powerless over great sounding audio. My life has not become unmanageable yet, but I can see it spiraling that way. I’m glad that I have kids because they restore me to sanity and keep me from my baser instincts to buy more headgear. I made the decision early on to turn myself over and prioritize my kids and my screenname is a daily reminder of that. I made a searching and fearless inventory of my headgear, realized I had way too much, and have been selling some off. I admit to my wife whenever I buy new gear. And, I’m entirely ready to have r/avexchange remove all the excess headphones that I own.
6 of 12 steps. I’m feeling better already. Thanks for listening.
In the interests of full disclosure, this comparison originally started even larger in scope than what it became. It was going to be a review of the Solaris + SR15, IER-Z1R + WM1A, LCDi4 + Cipher Cable + Galaxy S10+, and Anole VX + LG V30. The premise was to feature the IEMs with the best mobile source pairing that I had for it. But, it ended up being way too much work and I’m kind of lazy. However, please keep in mind that the following impressions are largely based on the above pairings.
Also, please keep in mind that at this level of IEM, we’re basically splitting hairs. They all sound phenomenal and are worth their asking price.
Gold – Campfire Solaris: DD bass, BA mids, Dual BA treble.
The Campfire Solaris may be the most beautiful IEMs ever made. The matte gold faceplates combined with the glossy black machined inner shells and stainless steel nozzle are simply gorgeous. When you pick it up to examine it, you notice the way that curved edges and grooves reflect light in almost an undulating manner. It’s pure art. But function has not been ditched in favor of form. Although the shells are fairly large, they are completely comfortable in your ears, without any sharp edges to dig into any sensitive parts of your ear.
The memory wire earhooks are somewhat annoying, but once you get a good fit, the Solaris just disappears. That is until you press play. The first thing that you notice is that familiar songs seem to have some reverb added. It sounds like there is some echo. But, then your brain stitches the sounds together and interprets the reverb as space. Certain sounds are perceived as coming from fairly far outside your head. Overall soundstage sounds like 2 head widths, or 2 MCM.
It’s very impressive at first, but the more you listen, you realize that only certain frequencies have that width. It’s mainly in the treble registers, where you’re hearing mostly the harmonics of each instrument. This makes sense since only the BAs responsible for treble reproduction are firing into TAEC (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chambers). You try to EQ out the upper mid/lower treble dip and things get wonky. On the Empire Strikes Back version of the Main Theme, there’s a French Horn that is a little hot on the left side. Normally, you just kind of hear the buzzing of the harmonics with the Solaris, far out on stage left. With the dip EQed out, you can hear the fundamental more clearly, but it sounds a lot more centered than the harmonics. It’s like the instrument is split in 2 or smeared across a wide swath of space. The dip is probably there to hide the transition between the mid BA and the TAEC treble BAs and prevent this type of incoherency. Antdroid has an EQ profile that eases some of the dip without exposing the transition so much. I highly recommend visiting his site and spamming his inbox with requests if you own a Solaris.
Overall FR is actually really good, with bass, mids, and treble striking a solid balance. It’s closer to the IER-Z1R and Anole VX than it is different. The main difference is the dip. Upon extended listening, you notice that the dip helps provide a sense of layering and depth. Since the mid BA sounds more centered, having it dip makes it sound further away. As you get used to the FR, music sounds more holographic in imaging, with a heightened sense of 3-dimensional space.
Silver – Sony IER-Z1R: DD bass, BA mids, DD treble.
The Sony IER-Z1R is kind of the opposite of the Solaris in appearance. The Z1R eschews the organic curves of the Solaris in favor of a more straightforward approach of circles of different sizes connected by parallel lines. The design highlights and accentuates the coaxial sound path that Sony aimed for in the Z1R. But, it makes the Z1R big, bulky, and somewhat uncomfortable. For IEMs, the shells are huge. When you first pop them into your ears, you realize that you’re going to need a few days for your holes to stretch out. At least you’re not trying to fit the big, black Z1R in your tight little earholes.
FR is nearly perfect if you like Harman tuning. The Z1R takes that tuning and presents it in a completely natural manner. The Bass DD is a little slow compared to BAs, but that decay is buttery smooth and you just melt into it. The extra 2-3 dB vs the Solaris is noticeable and welcome. A single BA takes over the mids and adds detail and resolution with its speed and precision. But, it’s the treble that’s really quite astonishing with the Z1R.
According to the Sony website, the Z1R features a 5 mm aluminum-coated liquid-crystal polymer (LCP) dynamic tweeter. That sounds fancy. You look up LCP and find out that Kevlar is the most commonly known LCP. Cool. If you ever get shot, you hope it’s by a 4 mm bullet and that it strikes you directly in the earhole. Maybe it’ll help you get that final stretch to make everything comfortable with a deep insertion. Because with a deep insertion, the Z1Rs treble goes from a little hot to utterly sublime. It’s fast and detailed, yet buttery smooth, unlike some BAs that can sound a bit harsh. There are no weird peaks or spikes to speak (hear?) of and decay is completely natural.
Imaging and soundstage are well-presented, if not quite as wide as the Solaris, VX, or LCDi4 at their widest points. However, all tones are presented equally as wide, without the wonkiness that the Solaris sometimes exhibits. Imaging is great, with each instrument occupying the precise amount of space they’re supposed to. At higher volumes, the Z1R takes on the holographic nature that you love so much about the Solaris, though not so much at low volumes.
Bronze – Audeze LCDi4: full-range planar magnetic.
The Audeze LCDi4 is really a weird beast. It’s finicky in fit and comfort, with a wide range of eartips and earhooks to choose from. To complicate matters even futher, Audeze recently released a new set of earfins with the release of the LCDi3, adding 2 more variables to the fit and comfort equation. All this so that you can support the gargantuan 30 mm planar driver which sits outside your ear. The LCDi4 also doesn’t sound very good straight out of the box. You need to use the DSP included in the Cipher Lightning Cable, Cipher BT Module, or Reveal desktop plug-in, or some form of parametric EQ, in order for the LCDi4 to sound the way it’s supposed to. But, once you get the eartips, earhooks/earfins, and EQ dialed in, there is no IEM that comes close to the breathtaking transparency of the LCDi4.
Listening to music with the LCDi4 is like wearing a pair of glasses with no lenses in the frame. You can feel the hardware resting on your head, but there is nothing between your senses and the stimuli. Maybe it’s just the way that the LCDi4 interacts with your particular ear canal and HRTF, but the only time you previously found this level of transparency was with a high-end estat system. Compared to the Stax SR009 played through a BHSE and DAVE, the LCDi4+Cipher+phone is downright cheap. Sure the LCDi4 isn’t quite at the level of transparency of the SR009, but it comes awfully close.
Instruments are presented on a soundstage that seems impossibly wide for an IEM at around 2.5 MCM. When you’re not paying really close attention, it seems to stretch out forever. Imaging is pinpoint precise, the best in this bunch. It’s a bit unfair to compare the LCDi4 to other IEMs on imaging, separation, and soundstage as it’s more of a miniature open-back headphone than an IEM.
Like open-back headphones, the LCDi4 has zero isolation. You will hear everything going on around you. Sound leakage is not that bad, however, being about on par with closed-back headphones. The 30 mm planar driver is closer in size to the 40 mm dynamic drivers you commonly find in full-sized headphones than the 10 mm dynamic drivers commonly being the largest size found in IEMs. The use case for the LCDi4 is closer to that of open-back headphones as well, primarily being indoors in a quiet space. However, taking a walk around the neighborhood with the LCDi4 is quite nice, as it sounds like you have a live band following you around instead of having everything just inside your head.
Platinum – QDC Anole VX: Quad BA bass, Dual BA mids, Quad BA treble.
The QDC Anole VX is the only IEM in this comparison that doesn’t sport a metal shell, just metal flakes suspended in clear acrylic. This may actually work to its favor is it is by far the most comfortable IEM in this group. Its pseudo-custom shell shape fits exactly how you imagine a custom IEM to fit. Listening sessions can easily extend all day, with 3 dip switches on each shell allowing you to change the tonality if you get bored. The dip switches give boost to bass, mids, or treble, for a total of 8 different possible FR combinations. The bass boost, especially, reaches down deep to rattle your balls. Every combination is usable and generally sounds really good, with the all-off neutral combination closely matching Harman and generally sounding the best.
Despite having very similar tuning to the Z1R, the VX sounds very different. It’s punchy and aggressive. Attack and decay come lightning quick. Maybe too quick. It’s a bit hyperreal. It’s like watching images on an 8K TV. Everything is a bit too sharp and detailed to feel perfectly natural. The leading edges of cymbals suddenly crash into your skull with the transients fading away a touch too quick. The effect is even more noticeable in bass notes that rattle your brain and then disappear without bloat or rumble. Despite its speed, the VX doesn’t suffer from the weird timbre that all-BA IEMs can sometimes exhibit. The VX is a cybernetic enhancement going a bit beyond what humans ears can hear. It’s quite addicting to listen to.
Soundstage on the VX is as wide as the Solaris, but with all the instruments sounding equally as wide. Imaging is not quite as good as the Solaris or Z1R, with instruments sounding like they occupy slightly more space than they should. Consequently, separation is also not quite as good. However, this may be due to how the VX interacts with my particular ears as I have not seen anyone else mention this.
Who’s It For?
LCDi4: People looking to have uncompromising full-sized open-back sound in a mobile package. You have to be willing to tinker a bit to achieve the perfect fit and sound.
IER-Z1R: People looking for the best sound while commuting or in other noisy areas. Unless you have big ears or ones that have grown numb from years of abuse, it might take you a while to get used to the fit.
Anole VX: People that only want 1 TOTL IEM and not ever get bored of it. Those that prioritize comfort over everything should start here first.
Solaris: People looking for the most beautiful set of IEMs ever made.