Meet The A18 Tzar
Shell & Design
Though the new shell choices may be more limited than the old school process there is something to be said for the quality and finish of the new 3-D printing process. The shell finish is impeccable without a hint of bubble, blister, crack or scratch from top to bottom. The less a human hand is involved the better it seems.
The design is on par if not better than the A6 which was the last 3-D design I received. The deep set and very nicely polished face plate adds a delicate purple hue over the clearly visible inner workings of the A18 which is a nice touch over the cooler tones of the A6’s more metallic feel.
The logo is on the polished acrylic surface rather than on the face plate itself though it doesn’t have that shimmering effect I found so alluring on the A6 given the more solid nonreflective properties of the translucent purple coloring on the plate.
I highly recommend the transparent shell casing by the way if simply to be able to peer into the inner working of the A18 and that glut of drivers. I have to remark on how well they are laid out because the actual unit is no bigger than the A12 yet packing 6 more drivers. 64 Audio has used what they call an “octary device’ designed to closely pack each set of 8 drivers (16 in total using this method) in an organized manner and then offset the upper mid and tia treble driver much further up the wide bore.
If you look closely you can actually see the tia driver right before the metal gauze at the far end of the bore in the picture below. Part of the gauze is slightly darker where it is situated.
The Port & Modules
The port placement right over the nozzle on the A18 is the same as the rest of the CIEM or universal product range for the APEX modules. The port acts as a pneumatically interactive vent that allows the air pressure in a sealed ear canal to escape using the APEX technology and leaving just the sound pressure going into your ear. It is relatively easy to pull out or slide back in from the rest of the shell should you have both the M15 and the M20 and wish to swap around.
The modules can be stored in the carrying case where there are 4 openings to hold 2 pairs of modules.
Though tiny they feel very solid in the hand with good build quality. The top of the filter is flush metal with their ports just below in the slight indent. There two rubber rings to help ease the module in and out of its socket on the shell without cosmetic damage through unwanted friction and at the bottom, there is a metal mesh filter. You can differentiate between the M20 and M15 modules through their coloring scheme with the M15 having a darker gunmetal type coating and the M20 having a brighter silver finish.
The A18 actually felt smoother and more comfortable in the ear than the A12 and A6. Observing the A12 and A18 side by side I felt the nozzle finish on the A18 was just a touch slimmer towards the front making it easier to insert. It also looked more contoured than the A6 perhaps retaining more detail from the original scans than before. Out of all the 64 Audio custom designs, I have had previously this A18 shell so far seems the most accurate using the 3-D printing tools. Clearly, 64 Audio have been working on perfecting the printing process continuously.
As before this is a deep insertion nozzle for maximum seal and minimum movement, something akin to an artist or musician request so they do not experience a loss in seal or the unit falling out during energetic stage movement. I am not sure if you can request for a more “relaxed” shorter nozzle with the A18 given the unique positioning of the tia high driver so close to the top of the nozzle as well as the bore itself playing an important role in mixing the signal before entering your ear.
The seal and passive noise isolation are as good if not better than the A6 which I thought was kind of hard to beat. The additional contouring seems to just fit that little bit better in the ear with the A18. Rather than bludgeon your canal into the shape of the CIEM, the A18 really feels like it is accurately matching every nook and cranny of my ear canal.
The passive isolation using the M20 module is superior to the M15 module courtesy of that slightly more closed venting design. If you want the best in isolation get the M20 though the M15 might have a more open sound that suits some tastes. Event noise will be heard but that’s normal. What I mean by event noise is single higher pitched noise such as dogs barking, doors slamming etc.
Short Fitting Comparisons
Older 64 Audio Designs
As mentioned the greater accuracy of the A18 3-D printed shell means the A18 is the best fitting 64 Audio IEM I have tested thus far. The A12 and A6 are on par with each other but their slightly bulbous nozzle doesn’t quite curve the canal just as brilliantly as the A18. Often the fitting is going to come down to how good your audiologist is with the mold but in the case of the A18 this is the 3rd one from the same mold scanning so clearly something or someone is getting better with the process.
The single wide bore on the A18 is on par with Vision Ears wide bore implementations on their new VE8 and the VE6 XControl in terms of comfort. The A18 bore is also superior in comfort to the Rhines Stage 5 and Stage 7 CIEMs though some of that maybe to do with the impressions sent to Rhines.
Comfort levels are just slightly behind Custom Arts wonderful silicone design on the 8.2 but ahead of Minerva’s Mi-Pro by some distance. It is also a better sealing fit than my old Merlin from UM and the W300AR from AAW though this was design to be one of those more “relaxed” fittings.
Accessories & Packaging
The A18 packaging and accessories are the same as the A6 which was the first I received with the revamped accessory and packaging. Previously, the gear would arrive in a plastic bag with a slip-on sleeve over a Pelican case and that was about it. It was solid but a little boutique in appeal. Now your gear comes with a thin but long retail box and a bespoke hard case that’s about half the size of the original Pelican case.
It looks a lot more professional than the older package though for the A18 I would love to just see a little more of a premium finish considering the price difference. Something along the lines of say a faux leather case instead of hard plastic or both modules in as standard instead of just one would bring it up a level.
The hard case is as customizable on the outside with logos, names whatever you want just on a slightly smaller scale. In comparison to the Pelican case, it wins points for mobility and size but I think it may lose points in durability and lack of weather sealing. This is only due to Pelican cases being incredibly good at sealing.
The new in-house case seems strong enough but it doesn’t have that little-rubberized cornering between the lid and bottom that keeps out the moisture. 64 Audio have handily thrown in a silica case for everyday moisture build up should you need it but I wouldn’t throw this one in a puddle with confidence.
The inside of the case is very different to the old peli cases and is customized specifically for your custom monitors. Gone is the contoured cutaway foam sections of the old pelican case and in its place, you have very specific set of functional areas. At the base, you have a pillar for wrapping the cable and at the top a small rubberized dual box container for the driver units. In between, you have space for the silica gel and anything else really that fits.
Underneath the lid is something akin to one of those small nail treatment kits with everything sensibly laid out in their own distinct areas and latches including the cleaning tool, shirt clip, and inserts for up to 4 modules with a small rubber pad that sits over the shells protecting them from knocks and bumps. I like it. It’s purposeful, well laid out and makes use of just about every area of the case.
The only caveat I have is the time it takes to put everything back in its place, most particularly the cable, it a bit of a slower process compared to the older case where you could just throw everything in and close it.
Tonality & Presentation
My goodness, this is one of the most spacious and open sounding presentations I have heard from a CIEM period. This is the type of CIEM that will work wonderfully well with orchestral genres, anthemic rock and even sparse passages of play where layering and instrumental separation are key.
Tonally, the A18 has a natural to neutral quality to its timbre with a quick paced tempo, excellent clarity and very good control indeed, particularly with the tia high driver. The variance between neutral to natural and the degree of accuracy you get with the A18 will, however, depend on the module you elect to go with.
With the M20 module you will get a bit more body and weight, particularly in the low end and a fuller-sounding vocal presence but with a change of top end emphasis from sparkle to smooth. This would be the more musical choice and the module that generates the most low-end power. I find this combination to be exceedingly good for classical works with a full string ensemble, heavier hitting double drum kicks and modern R’n’B.
With the M15 the bass presence becomes more linear in delivery with a tighter leaner signature turning the A18 into a more neutral and slightly more accurate sounding reference monitor. This is the kind of pairing where the detail in the mids and treble take more focus and things become a little more “hi-fidelity” in terms of presentation.
Where I do find some staging differences though between the two modules is in terms of depth and width emphasis. The M20 has the greater emphasis on depth which gets reduced slightly with the M15 inserted. That reduction, in turn, allows for a greater sense of width and height with the M15 pairing. Both modules though deliver a stunningly detailed and immersive soundstage and it really just depends on where your preference lies.
The A18 bass response is very well extended with very little, if any, perceptible roll off below 50Hz and a steady performance to around 250Hz. There is a drop to the lower mids but the drop is relatively mild and linear in response so it sounds very coherent.
It is also a very spacious presentation and with the M20 it also has excellent body and weight with a slightly boosted sub-bass performance for additional power and rumble. There is less of a mid-bass boost which is perhaps my favorite type of low-end curve with a more linear drop to the lower mids to prevent the low-end from sounding overly warm or bloated.
The A18 bass response is incredibly tight and snappy even with that slightly enhanced sub-bass signature. The attack and decay on the A18 bass drivers are smooth and quick and combined with the M20 the texture is very good indeed for a BA low-end. You have to remember that 64 Audio uses 8 specific BA drivers rather than say one large dedicated BA or dynamic driver so you get the power with that many drivers working in tandem but it remains really fast and really articulate which is a trait of a smaller BA driver.
The M15 module trades some of the additional weight on the M20 module presentation for a tighter but more neutral low-end. You could argue that the M15 is a bit more reference or accurate with the bass signature of the A18 and a bit less musical sounding.
Primarily it brings down the sub-bass linear drop a little quicker than the M20 does so you get less of a mid-bass impact which is where the drop seems to be at its most distinguishable. It doesn’t suck out the sub-bass extension and rumble as much though so the power is still there but just slightly reduced. I would hazard a guess that the mid-bass reduction is around 2-3dB in and around 100Hz dropping from a sub-bass boost which is about 1-2dB lower than the M20.
Whilst the mids of the A18 are somewhat more neutral in their positioning the layering and instrumental separation is so good that it is never anything less than vivid and engaging. There is a slightly forward vocal presence but nothing that would skew the A18’s presentation and leave the rest of the staging qualities thin and far behind. There is a very tiny dip in the lower mids but it is very well controlled up to around 2k then you get a pleasant burst of energy upwards with the upper-mid driver and the tia high coming into play.
The level of detail is excellent, perhaps one of the best I have heard from a CIEM in a long time but this is not a sterile delivery of detail either. The timbre on the A18 is accurate to natural sounding with a superb harmonic balance. If anything, there may be a very slight preference to even over odd but it is that well controlled I never felt the A18 mids were anything but superbly accurate.
The imaging and instrumental placement on the A18 are also spot on. Combined with that 8 driver mid-range speed and capability you get effortless detail that makes spatial cues so easy to pick out be it triangles, strings or more intense percussive passages. There is not a hint of smudging or smoothed over technicalities.
Something like Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers with its dynamic interplay between string and percussion as well as the multiple timbres at play is tailor made for the A18. You can still clearly pick out the nuanced detail of the opening harp cadenza leading into a really black background it is that well controlled. Even with the sweeping call and response between the upper strings during the main melody, the background single triangle hits are crystal clear and accurate sounding.
If anything, the M20 adds a bit more body and texture to the mids of the A18 calling on its stronger bass fundamentals and producing a better sense of power to guitar and string work compared to the M15.
The M15 opts instead for articulation with pure speed and clarity. You can stop on a dime with the M15 such is its control so if you love a good mids-tear up with a focus on shredding, solos and complex acoustical works then its the better choice. If you need a bit raw power and more body, those who enjoy power metal and synth wave then the M20 works very well indeed.
The tia treble driver sounds totally different to a closed BA drive in my opinion and the A18 clearly benefits from this new tubeless design with an open sounding clean and clear treble performance that effortlessly hits the final octave without a hint of roll-off.
It has got plenty of energy and bags of articulation but it leaves out the nasty sibilance. It has sparkle but never sounds forced or peaky. The balance between a clean and clear attack and a measured and tight decay is just right for me.
The A18 treble qualities and lack of roll-off provides a lovely airy quality and excellent headroom yet at the same time the notes are not brittle or too ethereal sounding to lack authority. There is enough sustain and body in the top end note especially with the M20 to produce a natural sound especially on the upper mids and lower treble.
The key difference between these two modules is in the amount of body and energy injected into the treble performance. Both are completely sibilant free by the way, neither will sound peaky or uneven in their treble response. The tia treble driver does a remarkable job in delivering clean treble without any harshness.
Instead, the M15 will take a little away in terms of smoothness that the M20 offers and replaces it with a cleaner more aggressive attack with a slightly boosted and more energetic lower treble. Percussion and synth have more presence using the M15 and the balance of the A18 becomes a little more tilted to the top-end than the M20 pairing. Arguably it is the brighter of the two modules using the A18 but if you really enjoy a vivid and articulate top end with zero roll-off then it could be the right one for you.
Stock Premium Cable
The A18 comes with complete with a brand new cable and one which is only available with the tia Fourte or A/U18 models. It is called their Premium cable, retails separately for $99 and is comprised of SPC mix using OFC. The connectors are a bit more robust than the older stock cable with a right angle gold plated 3.5mm jack and gold-plated 2-pin connectors though not in a flush port configuration as the A18 does not use flushed sockets.
Out of the three cables, the premium cable was the smoothest sounding of the 3 using the M20 module but it didn’t quite have the same level of clarity in the mids and treble. It is not as aggressive or impactful as the SXC24 but not quite as revealing or as natural sounding as the Twag v4. This is actually a warmer sounding cable also than either the SXC24 and the Twag v4 which works better with the M15 module than the SXC24 which tended to get overly energetic with the M15 and a little fatiguing.
ALO Audio SXC24
The SXC24 has been one of those light and lively sounding cables in my cable rotation now for the last 3 years. This is a high purity SPC cable coated in FEP jackets so it retains that lovely bright off white color and avoids going deathly green after a number of years. It looks as fresh as a daisy since day one. It also tends to have a more energetic and lively presentation than the stock Plastics One cable and I prefer using this on more laid back CIEMs such as the A12.
Tonally the SXC24 is more lively sounding than the stock premium cable but the gap between the two is much less than the older stock cable I had on the A6. The SXC24 is like a half way house between the smoother tonality and weighted low-end of the M20 module and the livelier more reference sounding signature of the M15. It retains the body and dynamics in the low-end of the M20 but introduces a cleaner and more vivid mid-range as well as the more energetic and articulate lower treble of the M15’s.
It’s exciting, fun and the perfect cable for rock and metal where percussion imaging and guitar clarity can make all the difference.
Whiplash Audio Twag V4
Whiplash Audio’s new Twag V4 is a UPOCC pure silver Litz design measuring in at a hefty 22.5awg and using a custom made nylon center core. I personally adore using Brain’s Twag cables for the best part of 7 years for it’s refined and natural sound that is almost always a huge step up on the stock Plastics One cables that come with a lot of CIEMs.
Using the M20 module you can tell right away that the Twag V4 is much more neutral sounding than the SXC24 with a greater refrain in its low-end impact and initially will not seem as exciting and in your face. It takes the M20 into a more reference level balance of the M15 but retains the smoothness of the M20 across the frequency range.
You get all the detail that the SXC24 provides but it is just a touch less energetic and more natural sounding in the upper mids and lower treble. If anything the Twag v4 offers the most realistic timbre out of all of the cables I tried. It is also the one I prefer for orchestral works for that superior timbre accuracy.
Page 3: Matchability & Comparisons