Welcome to my Cliffnotes, a series where I push out rapid fire opinions of some of the IEMs I’ve heard while I was back in Singapore during the month of July. Thus I won’t get too in-depth, nor will I be too formal and technical. Less analysis, more… from-the-heart if you will.
It’s the 9th of August! Happy independence day to the good old city-state of Singapore, one of the various meccas of the IEM community and my homeland where I disturb every audio store in the country.
Today I figured I’d engage in a bit of patriotism and go through Advanced AcousticWerke’s (AAW) new lineup of IEMs. AAW had been on a rocky path recently; once one of the pioneers in the emerging hybrid scene a few years back, it seems that they have fallen off the radar. Even the local community calls them “Singaporean chifi”, given their manufacturing processes and their heavy focus on the Chinese market these days. Would their new lineup prove to be their redemption?
(I forgot to take pictures so in lieu of eyecandy, I’ll just plaster the graphs so the article doesn’t look so dreary.)
AAW A3H (2019)
MSRP: 400SGD (~$290)
Driver configuration: 1DD + 2BA
I have sweet memories of the A3H. It was actually my re-entry into the IEM scene after a hiatus between 2013 and 2015, and served as my re-introduction to the hybrid IEM market. It was a nice budget custom IEM at the time, and still is to this very day. The sub-$300 CIEM space is sparsely populated, so any entry would be a welcome one.
As context, I have owned two versions of the A3H: the “Pro” and the “Pro V2”. That said, the history of the A3H is apparently rather long and convoluted so I won’t dive into the specifics of previous generations due to non-relevance in this case. Just know that the current A3H is the latest in the long line of descendants… and probably the most inferior of them all.
To put it nicely the new A3H has an odd tuning, especially for a hybrid. The midbass is emphasised and the upper mids a tad too intense for my tastes, and it sounds like a weird compromise where things try to be balanced but ultimately turns out… well, bad isn’t the word, but I guess the proper description would be that the A3H is simply average. It is a thing that exists.
That said, for a budget custom option you would be hard-pressed to find a decent alternative with AAW’s shell quality. Their in-house acrylic really is one of the best in the industry.
AAW AXH (2019)
MSRP: 600SGD (~$430)
Driver configuration: 1DD + 4BA
The AXH also isn’t unique to AAW’s lineup. The previous generation was characterised by a rather sibilant and piercing tonality created by its ~8kHz spike, and it seems that the new AXH somewhat follows that.
The good thing is, the new AXH is no longer “sibilant” or “piercing” and is now just… “sharp”. It is undoubtedly a bright IEM, but I think AAW have done a good job in tuning a bright-neutral hybrid. The transients are very good and the tonality of the midrange is acceptably natural, so if you’re a fan of treble or just hard of hearing the AXH would be a solid, semi-budget choice for a custom.
Just work on your channel matching, AAW. God, y’all never learn.
MSRP: 1,100SGD (~$800)
Driver configuration: 1DD + 6BA
The ASH is what I’d consider as a natural evolution over the AXH. It is a refinement of everything; slight improvements in transients, slightly better midrange tonality, smoothed out the potentially troublesome treble and what you get is a solid winner. That is, if it wasn’t almost double the price.
Now we’re edging into a price bracket that AAW simply cannot compete in. The technicalities are pretty good… for $500. The tonal balance is solid… but so are things a quarter of the price. The ASH certainly has a good combo going for it, but the channel matching issues and high pricing are really preventing it from being recommended more often.
MSRP: 1,400SGD (~$1,000)
Driver configuration: Planar
There is something about planar drivers that just don’t work when you downscale it to the size of IEMs. Either you get a driver that’s excellent on a technical front but can’t tune it to a decent frequency response beyond DSP (iSines/LCD-i4), or you have a driver that isn’t really all that good compared to similarly specc’d dynamic drivers, but tunable in a way that it becomes decent in tonal balance (Tin HiFi P1).
Or you go the complete opposite direction and have neither of them. I’ve only ever heard another planar that wasn’t good technically nor tonally, and that was Unique Melody’s own ME1. And sad to say, the Nightingale joins the ME1 on this two-entry list.
To get to the point, the Nightingale isn’t tuned properly. It sounds wrong right from the start, and the transients aren’t very clean either. At the same time it doesn’t isolate, so it’s not like you’re compromising sound quality for functionality either. The Nightingale really needs another few hundred hours back at the drawing board, possibly an entire overhaul for it to be taken seriously.
MSRP: 2,000SGD (~$1,450)
Driver configuration: 1DD + 8BA
Touted to be the successor of what once used to be my favourite hybrid IEMs, the Mockingbird does evoke a familiarity of the W900. Yet for some reason, I don’t feel the same love for the Mockingbird as I did with its predecessor. Perhaps it is due to bias, perhaps my performance criteria simply changed over the years. Who knows, one only lives in the present.
At any case, it seems that I dislike the Mockingbird for the same reasons that I “dislike” the Campfire Solaris, except the Mockingbird seems to be worse in every single regard. You get that upper harmonic recession that makes instruments and vocals sound strained and choked out, and if that is not enough, the entire upper midrange section seems to be suppressed as well, resulting in a tonal signature that lacks bite and energy.
At least they managed to keep the W900’s stellar imaging capabilities. But all in all, it seems that the Mockingbird has become yet another faceless hybrid in a red ocean of competitors.
MSRP: 3,000SGD (~$2,170)
Driver configuration: 2DD + 4BA + 2EST
The ultimate flagship. An absolute monster in terms of paper specifications, the Canary certainly makes you feel like it is the undisputed endgame hybrid IEM when you first look at its driver configuration.
Not one dynamic driver, but two in an isobaric configuration. Most audiophiles in the scene haven’t even heard an isobaric IEM in their lifetimes! Then comes the usual fare of four balanced armature drivers taking responsibility for the midrange, and finally the cherry on top of the cherry pie: 2 of the finest electrostatic (actually an electret but that’s a topic for another time) drivers from Sonion providing its treble. What a beast of a hybrid it is!
It could be due to the complexity of it all that the Canary sounds underwhelming. Yep, it is basically nothing special in the grand scheme of things. The isobaric DD configuration doesn’t evoke the same sense of awe and wonder I get from its bass response than I do from, say, the HYLA CE-5 and the Sony IER-Z1R (just to name two prime examples). The midrange is alright but again, nothing special in terms of tuning nor technical ability; the Canary does not have the most detailed or natural midrange even amongst kilobuck competition.
And then you get to the treble, and it seems that AAW falls flat in tuning the extremely tricky Sonion EST drivers. This problem is not exclusive to them; other companies like Jomo and FitEar don’t seem to be able to either, resulting in lacklustre extension, snappiness or even straight-up channel imbalance as seen in the unit I’ve tried. Honestly, they might’ve had a better chance with BA tweeters.
The Canary is an amalgamation of bells and whistles that make no sound. Better luck next time.