New Age Earbuds: Don’t Call It a Comeback — Yet?

In the eyes of many portable audio enthusiasts, the earbud is dead. Long live the in-ear.

Well, almost.

Save for the Apple EarPod (because it comes included with every iPhone and iPod), earbuds are just not popular these days. To many, they seem to fall out of the ears every other minute and possess next to zero isolation. For city dwellers that spend exorbitant amounts of time walking about and on public transit, these drawbacks of earbuds are big no-nos. The 21st century is the great era of urbanization, where more than half of all people on the planet live in urban areas, and urban areas are natural generators of noise pollution and foot traffic, so the current trend of consumers buying isolating in-ear products, rather than earbuds, is all but irreversible.

But what happens when the pace of life slows down? Not everyone wants or needs to have 25+ dB of noise isolation. Companies have zeroed in on a special demographic: the kind that is married with kids, without the luxury of blaring their speaker systems all night long, or might not have the space to go with a full-sized headphone setup, and happen to find the “stuffy” feel of in-ears uncomfortable. Even as in-ear technology improves by leaps and bounds, this group of audio lovers has been left hanging for quite some time, and they’ve been anxiously awaiting an earbud revolution.

This year seems to be the first year audio companies dedicated to the enthusiast/audiophile sector — largely from the Asia/Pacific region — are seen to be really pressing forward with new developments for the earbud form factor.

We got in three different earbuds from three different companies, each with a different kind of focus and different technology to boot.

Celsus Sound Gramo One

The Companion One, paired with Celsus Sound's Gramo One earbuds.
The Gramo One, paired with Celsus Sound’s Companion One.

We received this Gramo One to test along with Celsus Sound’s Companion One 32/384, wireless portable DAC/amp. At $249 MSRP, the Gramo One is the highest priced of the three products we feature here. It’s also by far the best sounding.

Celsus Sound is a new brand, born from the ashes of NuForce (technically, the brand isn’t dead, but spiritually, it might as well be), and pushes toward the waters of high-end portable audio. As purveyors of precisely this segment of audio, CYMBACAVUM was delighted to see Celsus tackle the long-neglected ecosystem of earbuds.

Design-wise, the Gramo One is classically handsome with a horn-shaped, large and functional rear vent. Our pre-production sample was a tiny bit rough around the edges with respect to build quality, especially when it came to the logo, but we were told beforehand for that to be true — their laser engraver apparently needed some retooling. Expect the quality to be very good for final production models.

Let’s talk about the venting. The Gramo One employs a huge, functional rear vent. Cover up the vents, and the Gramo One‘s frequency response changes drastically for the worse. Clearly, the acoustic engineers at Celsus Sound designed the Gramo One with venting in mind, and accepted having absolutely no isolation as a consequence (not that earbuds are all that isolating in the first place). In that vein, the Gramo One‘s sound is more akin to that of fully-open, full-size headphones, with separation and space that connotes an atmosphere of boundlessness. This is a rare paradigm in the world of earbuds, and in hindsight, it’s strange that not that many companies have embraced this kind of fully-open design.

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Prior to our receiving the pre-production unit, we did tests with an engineering prototype, and the Gramo One performed exquisitely. Never before had we heard an earbud with such an accurate, complete sound. The center image was extremely well-formed, with separation of all instruments clearly delineated. The bass was tight, and the overall atmosphere of the sound was truly top-notch.

The pre-production model changed somewhat in the sound department, both for the good and the bad. Previously, the Gramo One possessed somewhat thin bass that could only be rescued by outfitting the earbuds with foam rims. For both aesthetic and practical purposes, Celsus Sound wanted to make foam rims purely an optional thing, so they re-tuned the bass to be stronger than before.

Quality-wise, the new bass was comparable to that of the old prototype, and quantity-wise, without foam rims, the production sound was just a tad bit more thumpy to make things better align with the expectations of the general public. If you ask us at CYMBACAVUM what we prefer, we’d say we still prefer the pre-production signature, but this quantity of bass is very well-measured and symbolizes a healthy amount of bass quantity that won’t alienate accuracy freaks (like us!) at all.

The second aspect of change was with respect to the midrange. As mentioned, we absolutely loved the way the midrange sounded in the prototype model. It was absolutely exquisite, and possessed imaging qualities that were just unheard of for earbuds. They seriously sounded like a quality pair of open, full-sized circumaural headphones. Sadly, the production sound signature had to give up some of this midrange magic. While still detailed and open, the midrange of the production signature was no longer the focus and superstar — it managed to slot right into the music, but doesn’t overstep its boundaries.

The benefit though, was an increased range of fitment. The prototype Gramo One did not handle off-axis (relative to the external acoustic meatus) wear all that well, and could easily get “hot” in certain areas of the upper midrange and treble if not worn in a sweet spot. The production sound was much more forgiving at different wear angles, and still held more overall detail than the venerable Sennheiser MX985. At the end of the day, the production Gramo One loses some of the magic of the prototype sound, but we can hope that if there’s a successor/upgrade to the Gramo One in the near future, Celsus Sound is able to emulate that prototype sound without sacrificing wearability.

In other aspects, we would’ve wished that the Gramo One possessed a chin slider, despite its not being designed for outdoor/active use, just for a more secure fit. The cables themselves are relatively soft, braided with a stretchy sheath over the top. There’s little to complain on that front.

When it comes to the Gramo One, there’s little to waver on other than price and brand recognition. Even though Celsus Sound is new and untested, we can vouch for the sound quality of the Gramo One. Whether you’re willing or able to pony up the $249 for it, though, is another matter.

Astrotec LYRA 6

The beautifully-crafted Astrotec LYRA 6 is reminiscent of the popular Bang & Olufsen A8 earbuds.
The beautifully-crafted Astrotec LYRA 6 is reminiscent of the popular Bang & Olufsen A8 and Audio-Technica Earsuit EC-707 ear hook earbuds.

The LYRA 6 look great.

Taking after the modern industrial design of Astrotec’s recent products, the LYRA 6 is a re-tuned and re-tooled LYRA. The columnar metal filters coming out of the backside of the LYRA 6 are said to be different from the ones used on the original LYRA, radiating sound energy in a unique pattern so as to optimize the sound signature. Of course, the biggest change is in the form factor — the LYRA 6 now possesses ear hooks. The addition of the ear hooks allows the LYRA 6 to resemble two iconic and elegant earbuds — the Bang & Olufsen A8, and the Audio-Technica ‘Earsuit’ EC-707. Suave secret agents would dig these earbuds.

Bass on the LYRA 6 is undoubtedly the earbud’s strongest suit. Deep and well-articulated, the LYRA 6 reaches low in a baritone manner, belting out the lower registers in a way foreign to most earbud listeners. It’s strong, robust, and textured, yet holds smoothness well.

Midrange transparency needs a bit of work with the LYRA 6, however. The upper midrange sounds a bit recessed and veiled, lending to a patent sense of warmth, but the unfortunate consequence is a dullness that doesn’t allow the energy of music to full realize itself, despite the LYRA 6‘s articulate bass and present treble.

The treble is well-measured and in step with the bass. No complaints here.

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The big question mark, of course, is why Astrotec tends to warm up the midrange in such a manner. It’s not unpleasant, of course, but impressive it is not. Herein lies the conundrum — the LYRA 6 is dressed to impress, but the music it produces is merely homely.

For its asking price of about $170 USD, the LYRA 6 are certainly eye-grabbing, but if you’re serious in the pursuit of sound, there are others that will pamper your ears better. We’re a little worried for Astrotec. They certainly have the promise to rise from the mediocrity of the collective Chinese audio hive mind, but seem to merely be throwing things mindlessly at a wall and seeing what sticks, instead of driving forward with a cohesive vision.

DUNU Alpha 1

The Alpha 1 employs DUNU's patented hybrid transducer technology --- a first in earbuds.
The Alpha 1 employs DUNU’s patented hybrid transducer technology — a first in earbuds.

Designed as more of a technology demonstrator than a product made to fly off the shelves, the DUNU Alpha 1 is a singularly unique entity. It is a hybrid, balanced armature and dynamic moving coil solution, intended to piggyback off DUNU’s success with hybrid IEM engineering in the DN-900/1000/2000.

DUNU has patented their hybrid design, making use of a directed nozzle of sound emanating from a small balanced armature driver directly into the ear canal, while having the dynamic driver sit traditionally right outside the ear’s concha bowl. This kind of specific, sophisticated acoustic design could not have been easy to pull off, and requires extensive testing of phase shifting crossovers to allow the sound from both transducer sources to be perceived as one.

Because of how directed the BA sound output is, we found the DUNU Alpha 1 to be somewhat fit dependent, requiring an ideal fit for the best sound to come through.
Because of how directed the BA sound output is, we found the DUNU Alpha 1 to be somewhat fit dependent, requiring an ideal fit for the best sound to come through.

In our tests, we noticed that the sound quality of the Alpha 1 was very, very fit dependent; the Alpha 1‘s BA output is designed to be directed on-axis into the ear canal, but because the directivity of the sound is very high, any off-axis positioning due to a non-ideal fit will result in fairly compromised sound quality. DUNU has included a variety of fit sleeves to aid with ergonomics, but have indicated that they plan to release a successor model with improved fit and smaller size in the near future. Even with a perfect fit, though, it’s clear that the lower midrange expression of the Alpha 1 is catalyzed by the thicker dynamic coil driver, whilst the thinner-sounding upper mids are driven by the balanced armature driver — for us, this type of dual personality change in the all-important midrange influences the perception of timbre and causes the sound to be slightly unnatural.

As a first generation, never-before-seen product though, the Alpha 1 is certainly an interesting product. It is also decidedly a first iteration with ample room for improvement.

A comeback will have to wait.

Three different brands, three different models with very different focuses. Companies are noticing the void in earbuds. However, even with a resurgence of new products in the earbud segment, we’re not convinced a revival is on the horizon. These products make a compelling argument for the betterment of sound (and aesthetics) in earbuds, but we still don’t feel a genuine impetus to include them permanently in any collection. Perhaps in time.

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