The Biz: E-Earphone’s CIEM Store in Akihabara, Tokyo

Founded by an Osakan man with a full head of hair and a hope to spread the spirit of porta-fi to the masses, E-Earphone is one of Japan’s premier personal audio store chains, with storefronts in both Tokyo and Osaka metropolises.

Its aisles upon aisles of headphones and earphones are famed to the enthusiast community, and when the CIEM specialty store opened its doors last August, Nathan of OHM Image and Headfonia went to take a look (link). This glowing report of toys abound convinced me that it had to be a must-see stop while I was on vacation in Tokyo last month.

After having only touched down in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, I made my way to the Akihabara E-Earphone CIEM store just as it was about to close for the evening. While the rest of the Akihabara E-Earphone sits above ground in the upper floors of the building, the CIEM shop is directly on the first floor.

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The square footage is, as expected, fairly small and packed full of CIEM demos. One aisle housed a row of Noble Audio, Livezoner41, Vision Ears, and other demos, while another had demos of Ultimate Ears, Westone, FitEar, Unique Melody, and more. There was also a wide array of accessories: dessicant packs, iPhone cables, and the lot.

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A stairwell to the side led down to its in-house audiology services (you can read more about it in Nathan’s post), but seem to already have been closed for the evening.

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Unfortunately, as I arrived with a mere 15 minutes remaining before the clerks would close up shop, I only had time to try out a few of the earphones inside. Despite it being closing hour, numerous young listeners (estimated average age about 25) were still there alongside me.

Here are impressions of the few models I cherry-picked from the lot:

FitEar Monet 17

The FitEar Monet 17 is a pleasure to listen to.
The FitEar Monet 17 is a pleasure to listen to.

The Monet model from FitEar has always been a Japan-only model; Suyama-san has shied away from making it available to the global citizen, as the sound signature of the Monet was intended for local anime lovers.

Sakamoto-chan has seemingly grown up, however, and now sports a more “mature” sound. Whereas the original Monet was said to have had gone a little overboard with upper midrange tilt, the Monet 17 is definitely measured in many respects. Not only is the midrange quite balanced, the treble is also quite smooth and sublime. A tight but still impactful low end rounds out the sound.

The only real issue here is availability and price. The typical FitEar high price aside, while there are select international dealers with Monet 17 demos, it is unclear whether Suyama will opt to make the Monet 17 available for order worldwide.

At a price of nearly 165,000 yen and limited global availability, the Monet 17 may not reach the ears of many international listeners.
At a price of nearly 165,000 yen and limited global availability, the Monet 17 may not reach the ears of many international listeners.

Unique Melody Maverick

The UM Maverick is available in both universal and custom-molded forms.
The UM Maverick is available in both universal and custom-molded forms.

This Japan-specific, hybrid driver update of the well-regarded Merlin was a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t previously heard the UM Merlin, but from what I’d heard from reputable sources, it was an exercise in fun, rather than accuracy. The Maverick is quite different; it sports two woofers: a balanced armature woofer, and a dynamic coil woofer.

I actually had no idea what was inside at the time (I knew it was a hybrid from the large exhaust vent, but didn’t know how the drivers were laid out), and found that the Maverick was quite neutral-sounding overall (perhaps some light scooping of the 1-2 kHz region with a bit of upper midrange boost that many Japanese like), but with a bit of surprising sub-bass kick. The overall sound was both pleasant and detailed.

If I had to ding it for one thing, it would be that the Maverick has the kind of treble sparkle that could elicit love-or-hate responses from the populace — the very kind the TWFK/SWFK family engenders. To me, the problem wasn’t serious at all, but I can imagine choice individuals having a problem with it. The imaging also seemed to lay more along a flat plane, rather than hang in 3D space. Luckily, the soundstage is quite wide.

On the whole, the Maverick’s troubles stem more from its high asking price relative to its performance (over 135,000 JPY, or about $1,300 USD), which, while excellent, can’t quite keep up with the absolute top-tier models around. Despite being designated a universal-fit model and despite being 3D shaped and printed, the Maverick is also not as comfortable as I would have anticipated (in fact, the demo unit for the proceeding Kumitate Lab KL-Ref was significantly more comfortable). However, in a real custom-molded shell, I’m hopeful most of these issues will be mitigated.

We don’t mention Unique Melody much on CYMBACAVUM these days because of their well-documented delivery troubles from a couple of years ago, but they do seem to have turned over a new leaf with these models. Let’s not also forget their new collaboration with HiFiMAN in the RE-1000.

Kumitate Lab KL-REF Hybrid

Who says DIYers can't make it? KL Lab certainly has a winning model here.
Who says DIYers can’t make it? KL Lab certainly has a winning model here.

This thing is just a lot of fun. Is it the most revealing thing ever? No. Does it have ultra-controlled bass? No.

But who cares! I had more fun with the hybrid KL-REF than the other two demos I tried — the Maverick had more textured, tighter bass, and the Monet 17 had smoother treble, but the tuning is organic and just… plain… fun!

Vocals are forward and rich. Bass actually thumps. All frequencies are well-represented, and the soundstage feels complete. Who can complain about that?

RE: Faceplate

These custom faceplates are gorgeous in person.
These custom faceplates are gorgeous in person.

This was probably the coolest thing I saw in the store. Customers can get their FitEar (or other brand) custom IEMs retro-fitted with intricate and ornate faceplates (Link).

Get a pair of wings for your ears.
Get a pair of wings for your ears.

The word is that local enthusiasts are behind this effort to bling out customers’ faceplates. While companies like Noble Audio are spearheading the bespoke aesthetics of the CIEM medium, these guys are also doing very unique things.

They even come in a variety of metallic colors.
They even come in a variety of metallic colors.
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