We have all been there before, well those who profess to be headphone nuts but I guess a few auto fans also come to think of it. Most likely it is after a few beers but you do tend to sit there with a set of headphones in your hands and wonder if you could do a better job tuning it yourself. Perhaps you wonder why they didn’t listen to your last comment in Head Fi about why this part or that part sucked. And so you remain frustrated almost doomed to just accepting the way things are with a casual dream of what could have been if you had of been in charge. Well it turns out that for a certain piotrus-g (Head Fi id) or to his friends and relatives, Piotr Granicki, that dream actually turned into a well thought out reality with his company Custom Art. I took a little time with Piotr during this review to ask him if this really was the dream come true?
Yes, that is true, before I started I was also reviewer just like yourself. I was always into DIY and at one point I decided to put my knowledge and passion about Balanced Armature driver to use. This is how Custom Art has been born. When you are starting you have to be accountant, supply manager, PR, HR, CS, CEO and still you have to find time and strength to do all the physical work. It’s really blood sweat and tears. But I have to say I love it and as they say “when you do what you love you don’t have to go to work”. Now I have got an incredible team, which helps me with all the tasks I’m no longer able to handle.
The Product Range
Custom Art hail from Poland and started in 2013. They initially offered a limited range of custom monitors for a competitive price of around $300 upwards but have now expanded that product range to a far higher end $1000 range in 2015. Piotr started with the Music One series, then onto the Pro Series consisting of the Pro100, 210 and 330 models and all of a balanced armature setup ranging from the 100 which was a single BA to the 330 which was a triple BA model. Fast forward to 2015 and the Pro series has now been reshaped into the Music One and Music two series replacing the Pro100 and 210 branding whilst the Pro330 has had a few tweaks including an upgraded crossover design and now being sold in its second generation or the v2 model. I asked Piotr how things were developing with the new range and if he had more in store and true enough he is inventing new units as we speak:
Right now Music One and Music Two they are both our best sellers, why? They are relatively cheap, especially Music One, and perform way above their price range. We are expecting our newest acrylic Ei.3 to be next big thing in our portfolio. With Ei.3 you are getting 3way custom monitor for about the same price as some universal IEMs, which is considerable alternative when you are looking for something in mid-level
In mid-2014 Custom Art announced their new flagship range, the Harmony series which was quite a substantial leap up from the Music and Pro series with no less than an 8 BA driver configuration inside their latest range of custom molds and putting them side by side with some of the more established names such as 1964EARS, Rhines, Vision Ears and Noble. Now midway in the launch phase of the Harmony series Custom Art tweaked the single unit into a range of two units; the Harmony 8 and the Harmony 8 Pro. The key difference between the two is a retuned tweeter allowing Custom Art to offer the Pro unit with a tweaked upper treble performance by as much as 15db.
Now since they launched both units last year there is a glut of Pro reviews but very rarely do you see a Harmony 8 non pro review knocking around. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the Pro is somehow a better version yet when you check both have the same price of €925 so what gives? The word Pro is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion, it’s just a different flavor but that’s marketing for you and the perception as best I can gather is that the Pro is the one people are really shooting for. Well call it doing it for science or taking one for the team but I ponied up and asked Piotr how about I gave an honest review of the regular ‘vanilla’ Harmony 8, put it out there and see if they can set their stall by it or not. He agreed, I demanded orange, he agreed again and we sat back pontificating for the next few weeks until the units arrived. Well I pontificated, he worked a lot harder on this than me I am sure of it.
The Silicone Pitch
Now 8 drivers has been done before so what makes all of this so interesting? Well that is because this is an 8 driver design done in silicone and not acrylic. That is a big difference right there to the normal CIEM out on the market and also it is my first silicone review since the Mi-Performance Pro from Minerva at the start of 2014. I wasn’t as enthused about the silicone version of Minerva’s range back in early 2014. I actually preferred the acrylic version which had a more engaging personality and a slightly better body to the presentation but hey that’s just one out of a few in the market but getting up to 8 in a silicone mold is quite an achievement compared to a rather more conservative 3 way design in the Minerva unit.
Driver count is not everything though and some 3 way units sound way better than others but Custom Art have set their stall out and stand by silicone as the way forward so given the success of their previous lower end units and the positive reviews of the Pro I would have to say they may have just pulled it off. I did wonder though if this required anything unique beyond silicone and interestingly, something I didnt know, it went further than simply the shell around the drivers but the drivers themselves, as Piotr points out:
My philosophy is pretty simple. I want to achieve the best sound possible with drivers I’m using. Typically we use quite untypical combination of drivers or drivers never previously used in personal audio to ensure our earphones are one of the kind.
There are also some upsides to using silicone over acrylic in terms of comfort and having a far more forgiving fit. The odd time I have had some acrylic molds that can get a bit too tight whereas silicone just slots right in no issues. Of course removing them and inserting silicone is as easy as pie compared to acrylic and typical swivel techniques required by acrylic sometimes are normally not necessary with silicone. I have also heard mention of a superior seal with silicone over acrylic but honestly it is going to come down to the final cut on your unit as no two units or ear impressions are ever the same. They do offer greater flexibility beyond the 2nd bend in your ear canal to keep that seal when moving your jaw, something that stiff acrylic tends to fall down on it especially if you have a slightly ill-fitting mold.
There are also some downsides to silicone being a more pliable material. Leave it in tropical climes and it might accumulate unwanted moisture (silicone gel bags help) as well as possibly discolor over time if you opt for transparent shells. The lacquer on them can fade and pulling them out by the cable, which some might be tempted to do is a big “no no” if you want them to continue working. Silicone requires a lot more work to get right over acrylic so these are really labor of loves so to speak. Until recently also detachable cables on silicone shells where rare which sort of killed the fun of cable swapping. Thankfully the Harmony 8 has a detachable cable so the fun continues.
There is a little bit of the “unfinished business” vibe about the Custom Art website. It is impressively modern and minimalist upon initial entry but some important areas are still to be completed like the FAQ which I would need to see for audiologist design guidelines, warranties process, refits etc. I like the website layout though in terms of product presentation. It is easy to read and the product options are neatly laid out in the three core categories of Music, Pro and Harmony. Click into Harmony and all the critical information is there to describe the units, their specifications and a very nice points chart to give you an idea of the basic sound of each unit.
You can tell this chap is a head-fi guy through and through with some rather neat and tidy sound descriptions that would not go amiss on review sites and better informed forums alike. Somehow the fact Piotr started out on Head-fi just makes everything that bit more credible in terms understanding what you will get. I was particularly impressed with the list of headphones and earphones that sounded tonally similar to each of their CIEMs on offer. That can shape a person opinion quite rapidly if you familiar with any in the list. For the Harmony 8 we had a line up in terms of similarity of the HD650, Sennheiser IE80, Westone 4 and the 1964 Quads. Righty well that Westone 4 is my vanilla reference universal so this will be an interesting dual.
Once you have picked your weapon of choice you simply click the order button and voila the customization process begins. It’s not a bad design form by any means, you get a choice of shell colors both standard and special with a gloss or matte finish or even a state of the art with a box to ponder even further on your desired uniqueness. It is not quite on the 1964EARS level but it’s a little bit more insightful than the VE or Rhine’s process on their current websites. As always I am a bit moribund when it comes to design flare so I tend to prefer looking at the gallery of previous designs done and start from there. Sadly Custom Art does not provide a gallery on their site and I think they should since there is nothing like pimping your craft especially custom earphones. For that you need to trip over to their Facebook page which has plenty of styles and previous customer orders to see what is really possible. Chances are you will see mine there already. Hopefully in the future the website can post a gallery, it does help for design idiots like me. In the end though I said to Piotr just give me something in orange and left the rest up to him. I am glad I did because he came up with possible the best design I have received yet in a CIEM review.
Impressions to final cut
Nothing unusual here if you have been through a CIEM impression process. This time I was a bit unlucky as my buddies with the Detax clay ran out just as I was limbering up for my usual impressions so back to regular Dreve OtoForm KC from the local audiologist. That’s not a bad thing but for those looking for good expansion properties the KC is an average performer. This condensation-vulcanizing impression material is built for maximum usage on minimal scoops basically and only has a slight pressure. In all honesty the audiologist is going to be the final piece in the puzzle so if you get a good one then the choice of clay becomes less of a factor. This being the umpteenth one I have done in the last two years I am the fussy one so heads up if the impression is too short, i.e. not well past the second bend then don’t accept it. Audiologists will do it again and again until you are happy and you still pay for one set.
I asked Custom Art for a closed jaw full ear impressions beyond the second bend in my ear canal so no need for a bite block. Normally they ask for open but I wanted to go with closed given the excellent fit I had with Vision Ears previously using closed. Impressions as per my last few reviews should be securely packed in a hard shell container with only a slight amount of cushioning for impact but not too much that unintended physical pressure from the packing deforms the impressions. They are hardy but not unbreakable. Cotton wool, though well meaning, is an evil incarnation and should not be used. Better instead to crunch a single slip of tissue and insert between the two impressions lightly. Then it’s off to the courier of choice. Turnaround time with Custom Art for this was approximately 5 weeks include FedEx time there and back again so that’s actually on par if not slightly better than a few other company current backlogs. Yes this can vary and YMMV depending on the time of year but 5 weeks is within expectation for me for good customs to arrive on my doorstep.