This is Part 1 of a four-part Playback report and new headphone, earphone, and personal audio products seen at CES 2012. This section of the report covers products from: ACS Custom, AKG, Alpha Design Labs/Furutech, Altec, Audeo/Phonak, Audioengine, Audio-Technica, Audioquest, and Beyerdynamic.
ACS Custom is a British/US-based company that specializes in building custom-fit in-ear monitors for audiophiles and performing musicians. Much of what sets ACS monitors apart from others involves the physical construction of its earpieces. Specifically, ACS believes, as does the US-based firm Sensaphonics, in constructing its earpieces from soft-gel, cold-cure silicone—a material that is substantially more flexible than the comparative stiff acrylic material that the majority of in-ear monitor makers typically use.
In theory, the benefits of using soft-gel silicone are threefold.
• First, the material allows a superior fit. This is true because silicone earpieces can be made exactly the same size as the wearer’s ear mold impressions, whereas hard acrylic earpieces typically are made a bit smaller than the ear mold impression, partly to facilitate ease of insertion or removal for the earpiece, but also to allow for the fact that the outer ear flexes a bit when wearers open or close their jaws or shift the position of their heads. The difference, here, is that silicone earpieces can flex along with the ear.
• Second, silicone earpieces are thought to offer superior comfort for long-term listening sessions, in part because the flexibility of silicone is fairly similar to that of the wearer’s outer ears. In short, there’s no sense of having “hard objects” within your ear canals.
• Third, and perhaps most important of all, silicone earpieces offer superior noise isolation—a factor that relates directly to their superior fit, as above. At this stage the quietest in-ear monitor Playback has ever tested was the silicone earpiece-equipped Sensaphonics 2X-S, and there is every reason to think that ACS monitor will be just as quiet.
The only perceived drawback to silicone earpieces involves the fact that silicone is susceptible to deterioration owing to environment factors, whereas acrylic earpieces are thought to be more or less indestructible. However, ACS has addressed this problem (as has Sensaphonics) by creating a durable, flexible protective coating that is applied to its silicone earpieces to prevent deterioration.
ACS offers three basic models of in-ear monitors: the three-driver T1 ($999), the two-driver T2 ($799), and the single-driver T3 ($479). Company spokesman Craig Kasper told Playback that the T2 is arguably the most audiophile-friendly tonal balance of any model in the ACS lineup, and accordingly we made arrangements (and had ear mold impressions taken) with an eye toward reviewing the T2 in Playback later this year. We’re looking forward to hearing them in action.
One further point worth noting is that ACS in-ear monitors will be sold under the auspices of Altec dealers in the US (or they can be ordered directly through ACS online). Either way, the customer chooses his or her preferred model (and desired earpiece color) and then receives instructions for connecting with local, ACS-qualified audiologists for purposes of having ear mold impressions taken. At the time of purchase, the customer is given a ship to label so that the finished ear molds can be shipped directly to ACS (there are ACS labs in the US—near New York City, and in the UK—in Banbury, Oxfordshire). Once ACS has the customer’s order and ear molds in hand, assembly work begins on the monitors, which will be shipped directly to the customer once finished.
At the AKG/Harman International booth, I had the opportunity to hear a new earphone that, for me, proved to be one of the major highlights of CES 2012. The earphone I’m speaking of is AKG’s new flagship model: the K3003, which sells for a whopping $1300! The K3003 is a three-way earphone that is billed as offering “Reference Class” sound; each earpiece is made of solid stainless steel and houses a three-driver array consisting of a dynamic (moving coil-type) driver and separate balanced armature-type midrange and high frequency drivers. The K3003 comes in a special presentation case complete with an elaborate set of upscale accessories.