Your Royal Highness!
PROS: expanded transparent sound, coherent tuning of 18 drivers, resolving balanced sig, two apex modules with different sound sig, custom storage case, quality stock cable.
CONS: price, more eartips wouldn’t hurt.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
What is the next logical step after reviewing U6 and U12? According to my calculations it’s got to be U18, 64audio latest flagship with 18 BA drivers. Some people are probably going to think that 64audio decided to open another chapter in driver wars, but once you get a chance to hear U18 it becomes clear this is a TOTL flagship with an impressive multi-driver coherency and not just another marketing stunt. Actually, I was thinking how to start this review with introduction of U18, and decided there is no way to avoid an elephant in the room. When 64audio made the announcement about their upcoming U18tzar, I wasn’t sure what got more attention, the fact it was the first universal 18-driver BA or its MSRP price. This not only applies to 64audio, but also to many other manufacturers when introduction of the new flagship opens a door to a discussion about the price. In my opinion, it just makes no sense for the next gen enhanced IEM model to be undervalued and priced the same or lower than a previous flagship, otherwise your customers and the audiophile community will not take your product seriously. But it will certainly raise a question if the increase is reasonable?
My reviews are typically neutral with a focus on what I hear and how I hear it, as well as how it compares to other products in the same category or pairs up with different sources. It’s exactly what you should expect from this write up as well. But I did start it differently, unlike my U6/U12 reviews, because I felt compelled to address U18 pricing in lieu of many of my readers talking about it. To be fair, only the manufacturer knows the material cost, the R&D resources, and the labor and production cost associated with a finished IEM. As a consumer, we take into consideration the price of the previous flagship and the new design changes on top of it. In case of U18, there is an addition of 6 more drivers, including a unique open BA TIA driver, a set of two APEX modules (M20 and M15) with each contributing to a distinct sound signature, a new SPC stock cable tuned for a better synergy with U18/Fourte, and the all new slick aluminum shell with a single bore design (to accommodate TIA driver) – even smaller than their previous universal U12 shell. When you factor in all these updates, it can give you a new perspective on U18, so you can shift your focus from the pricing to other more important things this new flagship offers, the things I’m going to cover next in my review.
U18 arrived in a large box, a lot bigger than a compact packaging I got used to with U6 and U12. Their previous packaging box was about the size of their new custom travel case used with different A/U models. Here, 64audio decided to do something different, making the box noticeably bigger to have more room to showcase a glossy, nearly 3D hi-res image of U18tzar shells popping out from the cover of the sleeve wrapped around the main box. When you flip it over, you get a lot of detailed info about U18 with a CAD drawing of the inner guts, the philosophy behind the design and the sound, and the spec in thumb images with a corresponding description. Furthermore, there is info about 64audio TIA technology, covering open back driver design, and a detailed description of the inner shell and the driver placement. You will also find the info about their new cable and the description of APEX modules.
This is a type of packaging you would expect to see on the shelves of traditional brick-and-mortar shops, reminiscent of the days when people used to go to the actual store to browse the isles, to read the packaging, to learn about the product before making a decision to purchase it. Obviously, you can’t go to your local Best Buy to pick up a pair of 64audio IEMs, but I do appreciate the effort put into the packaging design and can see owners proudly showcasing it on their desk at home.
With a packaging sleeve off, you are looking at a black cardboard box with a magnetic latch front cover which has a glossy 64audio logo, also in black. After you flip the cover open, you can read a personal message from Vitaliy Belonozhko, founder and CTO of 64audio, with a Thank You note at the end of the message. Inside of the box you have a foam cutout securely housing U18 shells with an attached cable, 64audio custom travel case inside of another secure cutout opening, and a small cardboard tray with 6 pairs of eartips.
Overall, it was a satisfying unboxing experience, and it was interesting to read about the product without going on manufacturer webpage.
Since this is a universal version of U18, it arrived with many eartips. Here you will find two sets with 3 pairs (S/M/L) of foam eartips, and 3 pairs (S/M/L) of generic silicone eartips. Choosing the right eartip is a matter of a personal preference which going to affect not only the fit and the comfort, but also the sound. For me personally, I have dozens of other spare eartips and usually take my time to tip roll to find the right one with the best seal, making sure I get the full doze of the bass! I didn’t find any of the included ones to work well with my ears, so I ended using a pair from my private stash. I do wish 64audio would include a better selection of eartips, maybe another set with hybrid tips that have a firmer cap and a longer stem.
Other included accessories were a custom storage case which I’m going to talk about next, 64audio round sticker, and a product manual with some useful info about the fit, care & maintenance, handling detachable cable and apex modules, and volume advisory. Inside the storage case you will find a small dehumidifier, cleaning tool, shirt clip, and 2 sets of APEX modules (M15 and M20). Perhaps it would have been a cool idea to have a shirt clip that can also be used to grab and to remove Apex modules.
The storage case.
In my previous 64audio reviews, I call their new case a “VIP case”. Everything from an easy to handle wide latch to an air valve eliminating build-up of inner case pressure when you close it, individual earpiece storage sections with removable rubber lining to a custom built-in cable winder, a spot to plug right angled headphone connector and to place the included round dehumidifier container, as well as a built in organizer to hold securely a shirt clip (included), a cleaning tool (included), and 2 sets of APEX modules (M15 and M20 included) – all this was custom tailored and well thought of. There is even enough room if you decide to use a thicker replacement cable.
When you placing the order, you can also specify if you want your name to be etched on the top of the storage box to personalize it. While many companies use off the shelf Pelican or Otterbox storage cases with a pre-cut foam inserts, 64audio went one step further with their own custom designed case which protects your investment and keeps everything organized inside.
Many IEM manufacturers are starting to pay more attention to included cables, and lately I noticed quite a few releases with other than cheap OFC stock cables. Not everybody has a collection aftermarket cables, and some people don’t realize that a metal conductor can have an influence on the sound of IEM. Just like we go through eartip rolling (with universal IEMs) to finetune the sound, you can do the same with cables. Here 64audio did their own homework, testing various wires to settle on a new SPC (silver plated copper) cable they include standard with A/U18 and TIA Fourte. TIA drivers can give you super revealing details which can be missed with OFC cable or turn grainy with silver or other exotic wires. Also, considering all SPC cables are not the same, I found this new 64audio cable to have sound characteristic closer to pure copper cable. I will talk more about its sound property in the follow-up aftermarket cable shootout.
As far as the cable goes, it feels very durable and yet flexible enough without springy memory effect. It has 4 separate conductors, all inner-twisted, with a tight rubbery black shielding, and no microphonics effect. The headphones plug is a premium gold plated 3.5mm TRS right-angled by Neutrik which has a built-in rubber-boot strain relief. This is a single ended TRS plug, but since you have 4 separate conductors, if you’re up to a challenge you can try to re-terminate it to a balanced connector. The y-splitter is a common heat-shrink tube, nothing fancy, and the chin-slider is a clear oval piece with enough friction to keep it from sliding freely. Toward the earpiece connectors, you have a memory wire which you pre-shape for comfort. I’m not a big fan of memory wires, but this one works fine and felt secure. The 2pin connector is universal which can be used in both surface and recessed 2pin shell sockets, and it’s conveniently color-coded with a Red dot for the Right side and a Blue dot for the Left side.
I’m a cable believer because I hear the difference, either a subtle or a more pronounced, and I have mentioned in many of my other reviews that intent of my testing with different cables is not to stir up a controversy, but rather to share my experience of what I hear. Feel free to skip this section if the talk about the cables offends you. In this test, I used U18 w/M20 module and compared various cables to 64audio stock SPC cable. I did volume match by ear because many of these multi-conductor thicker cables have lower impedance which usually result in a louder sound that could be misleading when analyzing and comparing to a stock cable. Many of these cables are from Music Sanctuary where you can also order both U18 and TIA Fourte. Last, but not least, I hear the changes but nothing is night’n’day. Cable doesn’t operate like an EQ to drastically change the sound, but I hear a certain refinement of the sound which I describe below.
PWA No5 – wide soundstage (a touch wider than Ares II and Zen), deep sub-bass extension, more rumble you can feel, stronger mid-bass slam, smoother, more organic upper mids and treble.
EA Ares II – wide soundstage, nice sub-bass extension but less rumble than No5, a touch less mid-bass impact, smoother revealing upper mids (a little brighter than No5) and treble.
HSA Zen – wide soundstage, deep sub-bass extension (as deep as No5) but with a little less rumble (than No5), stronger mid-bass slam (similar to No5), and smoother revealing upper mids and treble (similar to Ares II).
64audio SPC (stock cable) – sounds very similar to HSA Zen, just a bit narrower in soundstage depending on the source since stock cable is SE vs other cables being BAL (depends on a performance of the source and its difference between SE and BAL HO outputs). Even so this is silver-placed cable, I hear it perform more like a pure copper cable.
While for my own personal taste I prefer a pure copper cable pair up with U18, I still decided to try these iems with other more exotic cables. Keep in mind, the three after market pure copper cables (No5, Ares II, and Zen) cost under $150, while the cables below cost more due to a thicker multi-conductor wires and more expensive materials with pure silver, gold plated silver, or hybrid combinations of both.
HSA Aurora – wide staging, deep sub-bass, punchy mid-bass, revealing upper mids, crisp treble.
EA Thor II+ – wider staging, a little less rumble, though still deep sub-bass, punchy mid-bass, bright revealing upper mids, crisp treble (more on a brighter side).
Whiplash TWau – wide staging, good sub-bass extension but less rumble, punchy mid-bass (a little less impact), revealing upper mids, crisp treble (more on a brighter side).
PWA 1960 4wire – very wide soundstage (like No5), good sub-bass extension but less rumble, punchy mid-bass with less impact, revealing upper mids, crisp treble. Sound sig a little mid-forward with a bit of sibilance.
ALO Ref8 – wide staging, good sub-bass extension but less rumble, punchy mid-bass with less impact, revealing upper mids, crisp treble. Sound sig is a bit mid-forward.
Whiplash TWag v4 – wide staging, deep sub-bass rumble, strong mid-bass punch, smooth revealing upper mids, crisp treble though it’s a little too bright.
PlusSound Tri-metal – wide staging, good sub-bass extension and a nice rumble, punchy mid-bass, revealing upper mids (on a brighter side), crisp treble. Sound sig is more mid-forward with treble being a little too hot.
I already mentioned U18 design spoilers in the Intro of my review, so now let’s take a closer look. It all starts with a new anodized aluminum shell, very slick and durable, with rounded corners, and with a smooth slightly faded red finish and a copper faceplate with a patina inlay. Each shell weights about 8g, including the removable Apex module, and has a comfortable and secure fit. The degree of sound isolation will depend on eartips and Apex module selection. Make sure you choose the correct eartip to give you the best earcanal seal, and then choose between M20 (-20dB isolation) or M15 (-15dB isolation) modules. Apex module, which stands for air-pressure-exchange, is exclusive to 64audio and intended to relieve air pressure in a sealed earcanal. Many are probably familiar with Adel modules which I went over in my U6 and U12 reviews of the first gen 64audio shells; Adel modules are not forward compatible with the new gen shells designed for Apex modules. There has been a number of debates about benefits of one versus the other, and 64audio pointed out that Apex and Adel don’t share the same design and use different materials inside. Personally, I don’t experience hearing related problems which can benefit from using one vs the other, thus I can’t weight in on this debate. But I do find the original Adel U6/U12 and the new Apex U12/U18 to have a similar fatigue-free extended listening experience with an open sound feeling and no ear pressure build up. Personally, I treat each module (in case of U18, I’m talking about M20 and M15) as a sound shaping tool which I’m going to go over in more details in my Sound Analysis section of the review.
Regarding the design inside of the shell, we are not only talking about a very efficient stack up of 18 BA drivers, 4 way passive crossover, and Apex module, but also introduction of a new open BA driver (TIA). Balanced Armatures are typically self-enclosed with a single opening port, and usually they are grouped and tubed (in multi-BA IEMs) to be routed to a specific bore in the nozzle. Open BA driver has one of the enclosure walls removed, to enable direct-radiating of the inner diaphragm which no longer has a 4-wall confinement. U18 drivers are partitioned in groups of 8x Lows, 8x Mids, 1x High Mid, and 1x TIA driver. While other drivers are still tubed, the TIA driver is placed in a nozzle which becomes a sound-enhanced chamber going to a mesh covered single bore opening. So, instead of a typical multi-bore nozzle exit where each group of the drivers is brought out individually for the sound to be mixed in your ear canal, it looks like the sound here is being mixed and combined inside of the nozzle chamber. That also means that TIA high driver is closer to your earcanal/eardrum and shouldn’t be affected by an artifact of resonance associated with tubed sound routing which apparently affects more high drivers. Also, Apex module provides an air pressure relief pass from the earcanal and through to the pinhole vents located inside of the ridges under the module’s cap. M15, which has less isolation, features 2 symmetrically positioned vents, while M20 features only 1 vent.
To be honest, I usually treat most of the IEMs like a black box and make my final judgment based on the sound quality. But you can’t deny that U18 design is a big step up from 64audio previous U12 flagship. And the fact that now you have a machined aluminum shell with 18 drivers and even a bit smaller footprint than U12 is quite impressive. My ears are not “designed” well for CIEMs, thus I have to rely on universal IEMs where I found U18 fit to be very comfortable and secure. But I know that many people prefer Custom IEM design, tailored to their ears from audiologist impressions. Prior to my U6 and U12 review, I had an opportunity to test A12 where I went through getting ear impressions and using 64audio on-line Designer to build CIEM. The Designer is web based with an advance set of visual tools where you pick the Model, then Choose Left/Right shell Colors (over 25 standard faceplate colors, 11 glitter faceplates, and even 4 glow color faceplate, in addition to 9 premium material and 6 wood finish faceplates), Custom or Standard logo selection, Cable length and color selection, and the option to put your name on the storage case to personalize it. Once the order is placed, you get a link to track step-by-step progress of your CIEM manufacturing.