Ode to the 4 directions
Something of a 4-way shootout: My impressions of the Vision Ears VE8, Campfire Audio Solaris SE, 64 Audio u12t and Empire Ears Legend X
One year ago today I was sitting down to gather my impressions of my then just-a-few-days-old OG Solaris. It was my first real “endgame” IEM but what I didn’t realize at the time was that my journey was only beginning. In the year that followed I have bought and sold my way through a number of high-end IEMs and DAPs-- sometimes purchasing new gear due to dissatisfaction with old gear, and other times simply due to the irresistible persuasion of curiosity that is the true driving force of this hobby—and have presently settled on the VE8, Solaris SE, and Legend X as my foreseeable endgame. Those 3, along with a u12t which has been graciously loaned to me for a few days by @Titienne, will form the basis of the present post.
I have learned two very important lessons this past year. The first lesson is—take absolutely everyone’s opinion with a massive grain of salt. There is no shortage of opinions out there on pretty much any piece of gear you can imagine—and many of them are glaringly contradictory. This isn’t to say that there aren’t an abundance of great impressions/reviews out there…there are, and anyone who has been in this hobby for long will have a sense of which reviewers or users they will look to for reliable info—but the greater point is that, at the end of the day, nothing can compete with actually hearing something for yourself to determine if it’s right for you or not. There are plenty of quality reviewers out there—Antdroid, Toranku, Resolve and Crinacle (whose graph comparison tool has been especially invaluable) are a few who have been quite helpful for me, or who I have learned a lot from…but there isn’t a single one I haven’t flatly disagreed with at one time or another. There is so much that goes into determining whether I will enjoy a piece of gear—musical tastes, signature preferences, sensitivities, sensibilities, and so on—that, while information from others can be very helpful, it will never be the final word.
The second most important lesson for me has been revolves around the journey of self-discovery that I’ve undergone. One year ago I had only a dim sense of the different types of sound signatures out there— like so many audiophile plebs I started out thinking that if the bass was good nothing else was important. I had no idea about things like resolution, naturalness, musicality, soundstage, voicing or what terms like neutral, bright, warm etc. really implied. Due to my relentless program of “trial and error” this past year I’ve come learn a few things about my own preferences and biases, and what value in an IEM. The lesson is: until you have some understanding of and experience with the types of sound signatures available don’t pigeon-hole yourself down one particular pathway or another. Be open to trying new things, get a sense of what you like and not afraid to let go of what isn’t working for you.
What follows is in no way meant to convey any sort of absolute order of said IEMs’ objective worth. IEMs, for me are more a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” sort of deal. A superficial demo (~1 hour or less) will give you some idea of salient characteristics and certain technical features, but to really get a sense of where something fits in the grand scheme of things you need to spend some time with it. I am personally less interested in the individual characteristic components of an IEM’s sound and much more interested in the overall gestalt it presents-- how everything fits together as a whole. This is often something that becomes apparent only after you’ve spent a good deal of time with them. In short: this is a work in progress.
This won’t be structured like a typical review. I am by no means a professional and l believe I lack the technical palette that many reviewers have. Furthermore, since I have no access to measuring gear I won’t be commenting too much on the FR of my IEMs. Both 64 Audio and Campfire Audio have been criticized in some quarters for alleged “unit variation” (though nothing specifically has been said about the SE in this regard) and since my VE8 is a re-shell I shouldn’t assume that the FR for the VE8 generally will apply wholesale to my own. Ultimately my impressions are rooted fundamentally in what I hear, what I notice during long listening sessions and what jumps at me when switching from one IEM to another. I will try and be as objective as possible when I can, but fundamentally what follows are my impressions and as such will be indelibly rooted in and intertwined with my own subjectivity.
1) Vision Ears VE8
The first thing I should point out before talking about my VE8 is that it is not a custom as is typical for this IEM—I am the third owner and I bought it off a guy who had the original custom re-shelled by Naga Audio to a universal fit. So anything I can about the VE8 here may not be applicable to the VE8 generally, as I have had a few people tell me that universal VE8s tend to be brighter than their custom equivalents. That being said, my one and only gripe with the VE8 so far is that I’m detecting a dash of sibilance here and there in some tracks-- s, sh and ch sounds sometimes have a dash too much emphasis. Now it’s only in some tracks…in most I don’t notice it at all but it has been a slight nitpick here and there. I’m not sure if this is 1) just how the VE8 sounds, 2) a problem with the recording that the VE8 is picking up or 3) something to do with the re-shelling process and the fact that the drivers in mine aren’t totally optimized for the shells they are in. I noticed on Crinacle’s site the graph for the VE8 uni has an 8k spike that is absent from the custom he measured, so maybe this is what I’m hearing. Consequently if I drop 8k by a couple DB I don’t really notice it at all.
Edit: A user on Head Fi (mvraz) pointed out that his experiences (RE sibilance) with a VE8 universal shipped to him from Vision Ears were the same as mine…which leads me to believe that what I am experiencing is typical of a VE8 universal and not an issue unique to my own.
All of that said…
The VE8 is a tremendous IEM that has rocketed to the top of my list and shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. It has helped solidify in my mind the idea that the mid-range is the most important—and most difficult to pull off—element of the FR. When I was a noob in this hobby I was fixated on bass—the first IEMs I sought out I did so because I heard they had good bass. Even through much of the last year my initial impressions of the different IEMs I demoed—Solaris, Z1R, VX etc.—often began or ended with my impression of their bass response. With the VE8, on the other hand, it’s all about the mid-range. The VE8 is the first IEM where I really understand what people mean when they talk about the sound of an IEM being “emotional” or similarly engaging— of the IEMs I’ve heard the VE8 is the one that most consistently sweeps me off my feet, and it does so largely through its lush, natural and immersive mid-range. Don’t get me wrong—the bass and treble in the VE8 are excellent, but compared to other IEMs they serve more as the means to the end of supporting the mid-range rather than the highlights in and of themselves. The VE8 is warm, musical, detailed and deep— it plays well with pretty much all of my music and of all the IEMs currently at my disposal the VE8 is the hardest for me to stop listening to.
Of the IEMs under consideration today the VE8 more similar to the Solaris than to either the LX or the u12t. Both Solaris SE and VE8 go for the same sort of balanced sound; they are both pretty sooth up top; they both fall decidedly on the “musical/engaging” side of the spectrum in that they sacrifice a bit of pure detail and resolution for the sake of a more fun and engaging sound; they both excel at separation and imaging and lastly they both “stage” music in a similarly immersive way (as contrasted with something like the LX and u12t, where it feels as though you’re sitting in the audience with all the sound coming towards you-- with Solaris, and with VE8, you feel like you’re surrounded on all sides by the sound). In many respects I would say that of all the IEMs I’ve heard the VE8 would be the most natural upgrade to Solaris for someone who wants to go custom and is after a slightly more refined presentation of the same sort of balanced neutral-warm sound.
One thing I do prefer about Solaris is the bass texture and sense of vastness and space. VE8 bass is excellent, sufficiently extended and well textured…but Solaris has that DD element that simply can’t be replicated by any BA setup. The most prominent aspect of the VE8 is with the midrange. I’ve always loved the instrumental timbre of Solaris but VE8 takes it to another level of naturalness and nuance-- things sound a dash more “real”. Vocals are very slightly less forward than on Solaris SE, particularly male, but both male and female vocals sound more bodied and natural on VE8. Stage on VE8 is slightly more “intimate” but similarly laid out. The sound is more clear and nuanced-- I can hear more detail and separation on VE8. To my ears things sound slightly more “3 D”. Take all of this with a grain of salt, however, as I don’t think I really have the palette to accurately describe all the similarities/differences. But the VE8 does seem to take a lot of what I love about Solaris and refine it a wee bit.
2) Campfire Audio Solaris Special Edition
It’s not as technically impressive, detailed or as tonally correct as the u12t, it doesn’t have the lush or immersive midrange of the VE8, and it doesn’t thump as hard as the Legend X—but I would place it second to each of those IEMs in those respective categories. There isn’t really any other IEM out there like Solaris SE—a dynamic hybrid that goes for a nice balanced sound without any element of the spectrum dominant over any other. For much of the past year the Solaris/SE has been the gold standard for me personally. It encapsulates everything I look for in a monitor-- natural, balanced, spacious, clear, impactful, dynamic bass, not to mention beautiful to look at.
The SE represents a subtle but clear step up from OG Solaris to my ears with improved clarity, more robust and forward vocals and cleaner bass. Solaris SE provides coherent and well-balanced signature within a fully rendered 3-d space combined with impeccable layering and separation-- it doesn’t excel at any one thing FR wise, but it does “everything” better than just about everything I’ve heard. I know many have cited “weirdness” in the upper midrange as an issue with Solaris…but I’ve never really detected it, much less been put off by it. I will say though, that if you listen to a lot of female vocals or music that requires a lot of presence in the upper-mid/lower treble region (J-Pop, K-Pop) then the Solaris may not be a good bet (due to reports I’ve heard from others).
And yes, there is a hint of the “BA texture” to the bass…but it’s far and away a DD above all. The u12t and VE8 both have great bass, but the lack of DD is noticeable and neither of them extend as deeply as Solaris does on the low end
Again, what I really appreciate about Solaris SE is the perfect balance it brings to the spectrum-- there’s just enough of everything and nothing is overwhelming. This is something that stands out more and more as my hours on it wear on-- CFA has, imho, reached a “zen” level of balance with Solaris SE. Further they have done a peerless job of combining BA and DD drivers into a balanced “total package” IEM. Solaris might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.
3) 64 Audio u12t
Ahh the mighty u12t. This is the only IEM of the 4 I’m covering today that I don’t own however thanks to @titienne, who graciously lent me his for over a week, I was able to finally get to know it.
My experience with and of the u12t has helped me come to a greater understanding of my own tastes and preferences. Let’s get one thing clear off the bat-- the u12t is an absolutely exceptional IEM…listening to it I was blown away by the detail, the staging, the precision, the layering…it really exposes everything in the recording you’re listening to. Add on to that it’s got a very non-aggressive tonality that basically plays well with everything. It didn’t matter what I threw at it everything sounded good on the u12t. When I first started looking at IEMs many months ago 64 Audio and the u12t were among the first to catch my attention, but when I visited the website it described it as an IEM primarily for stage musicians…I didn’t understand what that meant at the time but it steered me away a little bit, especially considering that 64’s “audiophile” offerings like the Fourte are way more than I’d ever be able to afford. Fast forward to now where, after finally getting some time with the u12t I fully understand why it would be perfect for stage musicians. The u12t presents every layer of the recording you’re listing to in such a way that 1) you can isolate each layer at any time and get lost in its details and 2) it does in such a non-obtrusive way that you can be totally doing something else (like focusing on your own playing or, as the case may be, writing a paper or something). Even the added bass boost makes sense in this capacity as it is done, not to color the signature, but to compensate for the bass that is lost in the ambient noise of a stage setting. I could see the u12t being the perfect IEM for someone who likes to listen at work, wants to experience the entirety of what they’re listening to but also have their mind in the foreground focused on something else.
This is an IEM for the analyst who values correctness and precision above all. When I was listening to the u12t I was consistently in awe of it…such a great reference sound but with killer DD-like bass. Ultimately for me (and the way my mind works when I listen to music) with the level of detail in u12t I often found myself zoning out on all the different layers of a recording-- but I have a harder time viewing it as a unity…I’m not talking about a coherence problem or anything…just that u12t is so good at what it does that I just get lost in all the detail and “forget the forest for the trees” so to speak. Put another way, it reminds of an experience I had with some friends while we were in an “elevated state of consciousness” back in the early 90s. We were excited because we were going to see Return of the Jedi in the theatre. I had thought that, in our elevated state, the movie would be super intense and involving. In short: it was, but not in the way I was expecting. Watching the movie in that state all the effects became transparent and all the illusions were dissolved-- the space ships and props looked like models and even the actors came across as people playing a part in a play. It was indeed an intense experience—all the details of everything I was seeing on the screen presented themselves accurately to my mind…but the romance was gone. It was technically very impressive but I was yearning to be swept off my feet. This same sort of thing happened to me every now and again with the u12t—I’d be wowed by all the different layers of what was going on, but it wasn’t quite as emotionally involving or exciting for me as a whole.
Solaris and VE8, on the other hand, sacrifice a bit of sheer resolution and detail for a more musical sound…they’re not as technically proficient in some respects, nor, in the case of Solaris, as tonally correct, but I have an easier time getting lost in the recording in both than I do with u12t. u12t is more correct but Solaris and VE8 are more fun, immersive and “in your face” in their presentation…thus making them slightly more engaging to my ears and sensibilities. When listening to the u12t for long stretches I would often find myself reaching for Solaris or VE8 because I felt I needed some excitement. This is not a slight to the u12t at all—I’m pretty much splitting hairs here as I could easily be happy with any one of the VE8, Solaris SE or u12t as my only IEM. If I could get Solaris bass , space and musicality with a dash of u12t stage and detail all combined with VE8 mids and treble I would stop chasing the unicorn.
4) Empire Ears Legend X
Bass of the gods. The thundering yang to complement the ethereal yin of the Solaris and VE8. With the LX the whole signature is defined by the bass-- it’s large, it’s powerful and it’s everywhere. Thankfully it’s also very resolving and detailed so that the rest of the sound isn’t drowned out in the bass. Nonetheless the bass is present and it dominates. The sheer quantity of bass makes the sound is a bit “closed in”…like you’re in a club with the bass pounding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say congested, as one of the great things about LX is that it somehow avoids this despite all the bass…it’s why I would call it the ultimate “basshead audiophile” IEM. It’s definitely the IEM I reach for the least out of the ones I have but every time I do it never fails to win me over.
The Legend X is not an IEM you can listen to “passively”-- they command your attention and are utterly captivating when you feel like getting rocked by vibrant and detailed low end. The key is that it’s so refined and resolving. The CFA Atlas (which I also love) was described as having “get off the bus and shit yourself bass”… well by that metric the LX has “park your Mercedes and shit yourself bass”. It’s definitely a “guilty pleasure”, but I’m ok with guilt and I love pleasure.
The LX is akin to listening to music in a club-- a more confined space, with the thundering bass permeating everything, much like the oil in an olive. If the LX is like listening in a club the Solaris is like listening on a mountain top-- grounded in the bedrock of the powerful bass, but wide open up top, and to the left and right, so everything has room to breathe. Nonetheless, due to the robust low end on the LX it can be said to be lacking a bit of air, which I get from my #1 and #2 above. Thus the 3 are a perfect collection for me.
So where does this leave us?
I used to wonder at people who would build these collections of IEMs and headphones-- why would you need more than a single pair, I wondered…wouldn’t one be enough? Now that I’ve got a modest little collection (all but the u12t here are mine) I kind of understand it. In some ways these IEMs are all more similar than different (with the exception of the LX’s bass response) however each of them has something unique to offer and each of them satisfy my different moods at different times. If I want to be swept off my feet by a lush midrange I grab the VE8, if I want to be rocked by a robust low end, the Legend X is my go-to, if I want to be awash in detail and layering the u12t can’t be beat, and if I want a little bit of each of those things the Solaris SE does the trick. It’s nice to pick and choose depending on what you’re feeling at a given moment. Ultimately many of us crave a bit of variety in this hobby…having the right collection on hand that suits different facets of your tastes is a great way to stay excited without having to buy something new every month or two.
In terms of the order I’ve presented these IEMs in today, and the implication of where they stand relative to others I’ve owned/demoed…it’s entirely a reflection of my subjective tastes and preferences— I make no claims to objectivity here. I quite expect there to be many who would rank them differently than I do—this is fine and normal…but the order here defines my tastes, preferences and needs at this very moment. I derive a certain degree of enjoyment from all my IEMs…but the VE8 is the only one so far that’s left me feeling romanced…if that makes any sense. I didn’t truly understand what was meant by the term “emotioanlly engaging” when describing IEMs until I heard the VE8. I’ve been moved to tears, and to dance…more often with the VE8 than with any of my other IEMs.
After the VE8 comes the Solaris SE. I get that there other IEMs that many would claim best the Solaris in some keys ways, both technically and tonally, but chances are, if I’ve heard them in some way they failed to present the total package to my ears that Solaris does. The VE8 is the hardest to stop listening to but the Solaris the first one I reach for when I need a break from any of the others.
If the criteria was simply “achieves what it sets out to do” then the u12t would probably take the top spot—I consider it the most technically astounding IEM I’ve heard. It’s also probably the safest and easiest rec I could give to someone who just asked for an IEM that sounds great with everything but doesn’t say anything else about their preferences, tastes etc. Furthermore, it is quite unlike anything else I have in my collection and would make a great addition to it…and some day may. As a standalone however it’s a touch too analytic for my tastes, which leave me preferring the more dynamic and “in your face” presentation of the VE8 and Solaris SE.
Lastly there is the Legend X…no doubt the “odd man out” of my collection. As an all-rounder the LX certainly stands distinct from other 3 being discussed in this post, and if I had to pick only one it would be the last, however for a certain subset of my music (some modern pop, hip hop and some live funk and jazz) the Legend X is so much better than everything else that I can’t deny it a seat at the table.
The LX’s bass response notwithstanding there are way more similarities than differences with these IEMs, despite how our descriptions can make them sound like vastly different things. To my ear they are all variations on a “warm musical” sound signature and I could honestly be happy with any of them as my main.