There are a lot of custom IEM companies out there vying for your hard earned cash and sense of individuality. You would have to be living under a noise suppressing rock not to notice how popular they have become in the last couple of years. Some of the brands are very well known such as UE, JH Audio but this year we have tended to reach out and see what the smaller companies have to offer such as 1964EARS and lesser-known custom IEM brands such as Minerva in the UK (more known for hearing aid solutions). I have been very impressed by both the level of service, communications and end product these rising firms have to offer. So much so I decided to dip my toes once again into this ‘indie’ scene and this time picked out Advanced AcousticWerkes (AAW) from Singapore and their then flagship, (they just came out with the 500 series last month), the W300AR hybrid custom IEM.
The W300AR was launched a little earlier this year by AAW and if it is not a big brand name you have heard off before then you might instead have heard of Null Audio Studio who partnered with AAW specifically for the W300AR launch which is part of AAW’s Meister line of custom IEM’s. Null Audio Studio has long been known in SE Asia and beyond as manufacturers par excellence for great quality aftermarket cables specifically for IEM’s. Some people I know swear by their cables. In fact, I had the Lune cable for my old UE TF10i permanently connected right up until the day I let it go – it really was such an improvement on the stock cable. I also currently use their MK3 series with Shure connectors for my SRH-1840 which is tons smoother and much lighter ‘on the go’ than the stock cable that comes with it.
AAW’s Product Range
Currently, AAW has two lines of Customs IEM’s on offer; The Musiker Line and the Meister line. By my interpretation the Musiker line is more for those looking to dip their feet into customs for the first time with an emphasis more on musicality than a preferred reference sound and the Meister line is the top of the line equivalent to say a “pro” level reference sound preferred by musical artists and raging audiophiles with too much money to burn in their pockets. Naturally, I chose the burning of the pockets option with the W300AR. Until last month the W300AR was the flagship custom costing SG$899 but at the time of writing, they have just launched the new W500IR series which takes it up a notch at SG$1499.00.
The common thread between the W300AR and the W500IR though is that both use a hybrid driver setup with the W300AR using a 3 driver setup comprising of a W100 Reference Proprietary 9mm Dynamic Driver for the bass frequencies and two Balanced Armature Drivers, one each for the mids and treble frequencies. The W500IR adds two more BA drivers into the mix much like my old UM Merlin to produce a 5-way hybrid with a ‘on the go’ customizable sound signature. In some sense then with the launch of the W500, the W300AR 3-way config and pricing now places it into mid-fi custom territory and closer to my Minerva Mi-performer Artist acrylic series which is also a triple driver, albeit a straight 3 way BA setup rather than a hybrid. There are also some slightly cheaper hybrid single dynamic/dual BA universals such as the Fidue A83 in the market at US$330 but having tested the two it is really like comparing oranges and apples at times. I do not believe they really appeal to the same target market or audience on price and purpose.
While not as polished looking or as centralized as the 1964EARS online website ordering and customization process, the custom choices for the W300AR are nevertheless adventurous and interesting. The issue though is the lack of connection between what you can get and where you can find that inspirational design choice because there are quite a few excellent designs just not on the site. Understanding the possibilities of design in a custom, outside of the driver setup, is probably one of the most enticing and important selling points any customs manufacturer can offer.
For their part AAW publish the best stuff on Facebook, well their latest and greatest designs anyhow, and that is where I found a great design and asked for the one that you now see on the top of this article. If you are like me and just plain suck at choosing interesting and eye catching designs then you can certainly feel the creative juices flowing when you are staring at the possibilities on the FB page. The main website has your standard choices but it is too passive and not thought provoking enough, the FB page is where the action and inspiration to order really starts.
The Facebook Page
Now you can go direct with AAW and order based on what you want in terms of design and cables but I decided to work once again through Polaris Studio, our local dealer here and they very kindly helped with the fitting and design choice process so sadly I cannot comment on the 1-2-1 experience of having a design and build commissions directly with AAW but there are some pointers that I can give you to help you ease through the process based on my own experience.
I won’t go into the same detail I went into during the 1964EARS review on hwo to package and what clay to use for your impressions – you can just click right here and suck it all up. My recommendation to use Detax Audio silicone still stands though and when packing always try not to pack it too tight in an air tight solid container. Just enough movement to prevent compression and pressure but not too much for a rampant ping pong effect during transit will see it safely to AAW. Again as before you have the option for a short nozzle for a relaxed fit or a cranial groping long nozzle for a pro or musician type nozzle for rapid movement and ultra seal. For my own edition, I selected the brain poking long nozzle. I guess I am a glutton for punishment possibly but honestly, I am never comfortable with a relaxed fit.
The Final Product
The actual finished product is probably the best-looking custom I have received to date for review and that includes outshining the design I picked for the Vision Ears VE6X that I am reviewing next and the previous favorite, my black and orange UM Merlins. Part of that reason is down to the Polaris Studio team’s rather better advice than my own tastes and the rest was down to my zest for something funky finally to be in my ear. The end product came out really well with a luxuriant but subtle combination of yellow greens and a black Zebrano woody faceplate. I had a few initial fit issues down to a rather turgid initial ear impression but the guys at AAW nailed it at the second layer after a slight refit free of charge and the seal is about 99% of the 1964EARS V8 given that this time the fitting is slightly on the more relaxed side than the super tight V8 and Minerva Mi Performer Artist CIEMS.
It does feel about 10% comfier than the V8 and the acrylic polishing is about 20% smoother than the Minerva Mi-Performer Artist so I would place this around 3rd in my list of fits with the VE6X coming out tops and the V8 from 1964EARS just in behind for seal and comfort. A lot of that really is down to the impressions you send more than the quality of craftsmanship and on that level, AAW’s work is a joy to see. Outside of the relaxed fit there are no discernible blemishes you might tend to associate with poor CIEMs like bubbles or rough edges or noticeable joins in the plates. The W300AR serial number though is not on the unit. Instead, it is on a small card inside the carry case which also includes the name of the craftsman ‘Vinny”, the model number and warranty which is for one year. If you had decided to do any etchings on the inside such as your name etc I am sure they could accommodate it though, mine simply had W300AR on the inside keeping it rather nice and clean.
The choice of cable for the AAW W300AR is a definite upgrade on the Westone EPIC style cable I am used to seeing on many a stock custom unit and is a definite step in the right direction. The partnership with Null Audio pays rich dividends with the inclusion of a 46″ Null Audio Vitesse Cable (4 Braid Detachable) worth SG$249 alone. This is primarily a copper type cable but a huge step up from the cheaper braided black stuff I am used to getting. It does have a unique sound quality that may or may not be to your taste which I will go into more detail during sound impressions. It is terminated with a 2 pin Westone style connector that will fit into the recessed W300AR socket. Like the 1964EARS V8 that is one hell of a tight fit and you really have to loosely and carefully wiggle out the cable if you want to change to another cable. Once the cable is out though it is rather easy to slot back in and out without too much pressure.
Its four braid construct does make it a bit thicker than those EPIC style stock cables and slightly harder to manage. It also has a slight bit more memory retention and kinks to flatten out upon regular usage, especially if you roll it up a lot. However, it is quite light and soft and does sit well around your ear. The cable is terminated with a gold plated Null Audio SC3 in-house 3.5mm jack and on the top it is finished with a nice soft shrink-wrap for retaining shape over the ear and reducing microphonics to almost zero when in use.
AAW has packaged the W300AR with a slightly smaller than comfortable Otter 1000 series case which is sturdy but requires some adjusting to fit everything in. Inside you get the warranty card, a small black pouch if you don’t fancy using the hard case, a cleaning cloth and the standard cleaning brush tool. All in all not too shabby but not quite the same level as 1964EARS but a higher quality case than the Minerva semi-soft zip cases that came with their Mi Performer Artists and Pro editions. My only feedback would be that I would like to see is a slightly larger hard case but in the same semi transparent lid and black tray just to make room for other types of cables or even two cables for mixing and matching.