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(Originally posted in Jaben Forums, March 2009)

OK folks, as some of you know I’ve taken the plunge and ordered a pair of Softerwear custom tips for my Atrios.

Although my primary use for the Atrios is casual listening / blocking out the world on the bus, I do use them for their actual intended purpose – as an onstage in-ear monitor for musical performance (for which its mainly in church, which is the only venue i can enjoy using IEMs). As such, my priorities in getting the tips really were as follows:

1. Better seal, fit and increased wearing comfort
2. Improved isolation
3. Improved SQ

EDIT (16 Mar 09): Have made some minor edits and updated impression in this review, so do read on. Some points have changed slightly – although I make the changes in postscript, rather than editing out the original opinions entirely. I’d like to track how my opinion changes over time as well so I’ll just use this EDIT section to update my impressions.
EDIT 8 Sep 09: More edits and longer-term impressions (no pun intended) on SQ and comfort.

COMFORT
First impressions…. these buggers are REALLY hard to put in. The material isn’t as soft as some other forums have mentioned. Stiff rubber stuff… solidly made but definitely a real pain in the… ears… heh. So much for increased wearing comfort! I reckon they’ll soften up over time – like the etymotics tips. But till then… i guess i’ll be nursing some sore ears for a while.

EDIT (16 Mar 09): Almost two weeks and they’re still tough to put in without lube. ARGH. Ears still a bit sore but getting used to it. Used to be that the left ear was hard to put in, now the right ear is hard to put in. Future customs users take note of this strange alternating-ear-insertion-difficulty phenomenon!

EDIT 8 Sep 09: I haven’t touched the bottle of Oto-Ease for quite a few months. Anyone want to buy a semi-used bottle of Oto-ease?? The sleeves have softened up a tad, but just enough that it has become extremely easy to insert the custom tips in without lube. Its easier at the end of the day when there’s a bit of oil in the ears to help, but its still not too difficult to insert in the morning as well.

SEAL AND FIT
It was pretty difficult getting a good fit – needed help getting them shoved in. Initially I had trouble getting a good fit and seal and i was worried that I would have to send them back to be redone… another 5 week wait! Some oto-ease did the trick and i was able to get a decent fit. Going home, i realised that saliva would do the job just as well. shouldnt have bought that bottle of oto-ease! doh! but its always nice to have a bottle handy in any case, although its not that practical for when i want to use the atrios onstage – hate having oily, slippery fingers when playing guitar. But now i’m getting used to inserting the tips and how to get a good seal and fit… these do seal up beter than the universal tips, so mission accomplished on the fit and seal front.

EDIT (16 Mar 09): Oto-ease has proven far superior to saliva for proper lubrication. But use sparingly, if not the earpieces will slip and slide every which way! Lube is also essential for ensuring a proper seal, so if you can’t get a good seal, some lube might do the trick.

EDIT 8 Sep 09: Now that I’m not using saliva or lube, seal can get iffy at times. Proper insertion is paramount! Some days the seal isn’t quite right but its not a deal breaker, since its still a vast improvement over universal tips anytime.

ISOLATION
Well, as some reviews mention, this doesn’t increase isolation one iota. Maybe a teeny bit, but the difference really isn’t discernible to me. I would say isolation is on par with the universal tips, maybe only mildly improved. Still, once the music starts only all but the lowest and loudest of frequencies leak in (.g. bus engine) – and those can’t be helped really.

EDIT (16 Mar 09): I stand corrected. The custom tips do improve on isolation, especially compared to the foamies and Jays tips that I had been using previously. Have given away my biflanges so can’t really compare, but they do isolate better than the stock tips. Realised that when people tried talking to me with my Atrios on and I couldn’t hear a single word of what they said to me – as compared to the other tips where i could sort of make out what they were saying. That’s pretty telling! So yes, isolation is greatly improved. However, don’t expect complete 100% isolation – these tips are not fully isolating. If you use these to listen to classical music in an MRT train, you are still going to hear the train sounds. And that irritating kid who runs screaming from cabin to cabin.

SOUND QUALITY
I’ll be honest with you – these tips won’t turn your Atrios into the next rival to UE11s. I’ve never tried Livewires and the like, so I really can’t compare. But if you’re buying the custom tips for improved sound quality, the sad truth is that it isn’t going to provide a quantum leap in SQ for you. The improvement is slight, but no better than getting a really really good fit with a pair of universals.

Highs are improved, slightly unveiled. Much akin to using the Jays silicone tips. Mids remain more or less the same. No change there. Bass is deeper, more resonant and involving, thanks to the tighter fit and increased skin contact. Bassheads rejoice!

What really surprised me though, was how much wider the soundstage became! The stereo field increased very noticeably, seperation became more apparent. Definitely a more enveloping soundstage. I’m looking forward to how this will translate to onstage monitoring, when I can play more with the stereo placement of instruments and vocals. Should be able to try this out next Saturday. Hopefully I can post my long-awaited atrios onstage monitoring review after that .

I’d hesitate to say that the improved soundstage is worth the price of admission, but it really is something else to experience, especially if you’ve become accustomed to the Atrio’s relatively narrower soundstage. It does elevate the listening experience to another level, though as I mentioned earlier, definitely not a quantum leap in any way.

EDIT (16 Mar 09): After much listening, I must state that my earlier assessment of the SQ change has been somewhat preliminary. The sound sig has indeed changed, though not so dramatically. High end is much more present, though not ear-piercing or sibilant. Mids are unchanged, very natural and organic midrange. Bass has actually been reduced in quantity, resulting in a reduced bass slam. Quality and depth is still there, but there is noticeably less bass slam than with the other tips. Probably because the drivers are a tad further away. What this leads to, however, is a much more balanced presentation of the music. Its not necessarily a bad thing, though I do miss the brain-mashing low end of before. But it is still a fun listen, and the improved soundstage and slightly more balanced presentation make it all the more pleasurable.

EDIT 8 Sep 09: I have grown to love the Atrios’ custom-tip-altered SQ. I’d daresay this is as close as I can get to having headphone-esque soundstaging and SQ from a pair of IEMs. These have proven absolutely indispensable for onstage monitoring as well, since the sweeter high end gives me more clarity over the mix (without becoming uncomfortable or fatiguing) and the enhanced soundstage gives me more control over the stereo placement of the various elements in the mix. The low end reproduction in particular has been absolutely essential in helping me “feel” my vocals a lot more, improving my pitching and performance overall. Still find myself reaching for the bass knob and cranking the bass a bit, just to get more low-end thump in my ears :p Am really looking forward to the day when I can afford a dedicated pair of FS Customs!

CONCLUSION..?
The softerwear custom tips certainly meet my requirements for a better fit and seal for onstage use. Comfort will come with time and frequent usage (i hope), and even though isolation isn’t really improved much, it wasn’t a major requirement for me in any case. The improved soundstage is a huge plus, and is the most significant improvement over the stock Atrios. I’d recommend these tips for users with very specific requirements – basically getting some custom features with the basic Atrio sound signature.

EDIT (16 Mar 09): I still stand by the conclusion, although I’d state that there is an “improvement” in the overall sig and SQ, but that is highly subjective and for some, the slightly reduced bass is not an improvement at all! Its worth a try if you have the Yusofs to spend (i think performance bonus coming up for some of us right? hehe). Its always a risk to get a pair of customs, but I’d daresay it will be a worthwhile experiment for those of you seeking an “improvement” over the stock Atrio sig.

Here’s some pics of me wearing the Atrios in my ears, and some pics of the tips on their own. Notice how the sound channels of the tips angle away from the nozzles – probably to deflect sound directly into the ear canal i reckon. The Atrios don’t protrude much more with the customs, and only upon close inspection would people notice that your tips are different from stock.





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