Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Frogbeats C3 Customs Review

Frogbeats C3 Customs Review

Thanks to Frogbeats for the sample

(A small shout out to http://www.betterhearingscotia.co.uk/ where I had my ear impressions made.  It was really quick, easy and I remember at the time thinking rather cheap too, although I now can’t remember how much it was.)

First Impressions:  It has been with some anticipation that I have been awaiting these.  What feels like many, many moons ago I got to demo all the various options Frogbeats had in their universal form.  They were wildly ungainly things and hideous to boot, not just that they were so hard to get them sitting right that once you did you near dare not breathe for fear of moving.  Now I knew that would not be an issue with the final product but still, as my first set of customs it did cross my mind that perhaps the fit wouldn’t be great or that the acoustic changes that would happen would make the ones that I heard before sound nothing like what the final product would be.  What if I had lead Frogbeats down the wrong path and into some hideous disaster?  So the box then, as it sat before me seemed so unassuming, sans the card sleeve the little blue box, okay maybe not that little blue box.  Inside there they are, they look good.  I had requested they be coloured, red for the right one and blue for the left.  They look just the colours I wanted so that’s certainly a good start.  I know looks aren’t really that important but even as the baby of Frogbeats present offerings at £490 they are hardly cheap so it’s very nice to know that these look spot on.

Sticking them in my ears for the first time, which was a little weird I must say, sort of angling and twisting them then they just slipped in.  It was a curious sensation, I may be very used to sticking soft squishy thing in my ears but this was quite different.  There was no give, there was no adjusting angle or depth.  It wasn’t unpleasant just very different than what I was used to.  Slapping on some music and what struck me most was the bass, the bass was not only very significantly sized but seemed to have terrifying depth.  For something that only has one BA bass driver in there it’s doing a remarkable job.  I don’t feel the bass like a big dynamic but it sounds like loads of air is being moved.  Maybe that’s what you get with incompressible acrylic rather than soft squishy foam?  It’s all very curious.  Burn in time.

Source: 5G iPod Video line out through a Practical Devices XM5 with LM6171 opp amps, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anniversary edition and a FiiO E7 + E9 combo.

Lows:  They have depth, depth that I’ve heard no universal with.  In paper they shouldn’t stand much above things like the Westone W4 which has the same on paper spec, down to 10Hz.  This feels as though it just takes that midbass level that is so easy to do and just takes it all the way down, no fuss or straining it just does it.  The acoustic measurements I’m sure will show the bass as being rather boosted and that’s because it is.  The C3 was never meant to be about going for an on paper spec, let’s do something flat, it was I think always for more concerned with having a party.  The bass therefore was likely to play a leading role in the C3 and the C5.  Now in the old universal fit that demoed so long ago the depth didn’t feel it was all that one might have hoped it to be but it was assured that the real deal with a proper seal makes a big difference and boy there weren’t kidding!  After all the years of multi BA IEM’s using two for the lows and one for everything else you could easily be forgiven for thinking that using just one in the lows might leave them lacking, however it does not.  I haven’t heard the C5 and I don’t doubt that it will be better but it no way means things lack here.  They are thick, weighty and lusciously rich sounding.  One of my Favourite albums Erasure’s Union Street (I know its Erasure but trust me hear it before you judge me) and it sounds so deliciously rich and mellow.  The midbassy combination of the very rich vocals and the slow lumbering lows that abound in the album are the acoustic equivalent to a gooey chocolate pudding. Dark, enveloping, viscous sumptuousness that just melts and flows over the senses.  Its just as that album yeans to be portrayed with the weightiest of lingering notes and the C3 are doing a quite mesmerising job of it.

Moving on to faster and more agile bass and I’m going with “I Turn To You” which I stumbled across but I fear isn’t really all that fast.  It was the Hex Hector remix but dance type music isn’t my sort of thing.  I had slightly feared that the richness and ever so laidback attitude would mean fast would be a problem.  It wasn’t.  The low end has all the agility one would expect of a BA, by that I mean it flies like a rocket on steroids.  I’m not sure this is really what I want as I personally like that as bass rises in quantity the usual thing is that it slows and softens.  Here I feel the low end is hurling itself like a race car cornering, I can’t fault its ability but with the perfect air tight seal of a custom and the bass level I sometimes found myself wanting a little softness.  It could also be that I’m subjecting myself to lots of fast and bassy music which is not my favourite sort. 

Mids:  I love mids and a really am very happy to have them out in front, the sort of stuff I prefer musically suits that sort of thing well.  The mids here are not out in front and are a touch recessed.  They sit on the liquid and rich side of things too and I may have preferred a teeny touch more air about them but what I cannot fault is the detail level.  For something of a liquid nature such as this the detail retrieval is just outstanding, it really is first rate and as I sit and AB with my mids benchmark, the SE530, they sound so much fuller.  They do it so differently, the 530 sticks things right up in your face but the C3 is so much more relaxed about the whole affair.  The detail and nuances are there if sir should care to peruse what’s on offer.  It’s there so effortlessly and casually displayed.  They two styles are so very different, and I’ll admit right now I prefer the 530’s approach. 

That I’ve just said I prefer the upfront mids approach I’m now going to utterly contradict myself, or at least seem to.  Nora Jones is a fabulous artist and her rich, gooey, melodic voice is perfectly suited to the rich and liquid mids of the C3 and the 530 but the 530 sticks her out in front and the C3, well it has her casually strewn across a chaise longue, slowly swirling a glass of Glayva (not sure if you can get it much outside the UK, it’s a whisky liquor and is ever so pleasant on the tongue.)  It’s probably easiest if you just buy a buy a bottle, stick Nora on and I’m sure you’ll get a good idea of what I mean.  Vocally she just oozes delicately and effortlessly, smooth and sultry and it is just wondrous. 

Shifting to something more dry, The Bird and the Bee’s “Ray Gun” has not quite the openness and airy quality that I’d hope but the level of detail there pulls out so much more than I’d have expected.  The thickness that the C3 has and gives everything such body and weight should suffocate any air it finds but it doesn’t, the level of detail it offers ensures that some remains and allows you to hear that it’s a dry, airy song.  It’s peculiar.

Highs:  I find that these have a bit of a V shape and as such the highs are rather abundant.  Ooooh yes, abundant treble so for me that’s like waving a red rag at an angry bull.  Its almost daring me to pick fault and so I shall.  The quantity isn’t for me, it’s too much and I don’t like it.  That of course is an entirely subjective perspective and one that’s not likely to be shared by everyone or indeed by that many.  I was only the other day thinking that the IE7 is indeed one of my favourite IEM’s yet its treble is often found lacking by many.  I don’t like a lot of treble, so sue me.  I have sensitive ears and they are particularly sensitive to treble.  I can hear high and with the state of modern music such as it is where things are dynamically compressed to death the first thing to suffer is the high end.  Recently I’ve been acquainted with the band Nightwish and their album “Imaginagium.”  I really rather like the album but my god, I’d like to take who ever mastered it and beat them with a pointy stick!!!  The highs as oh so effortlessly offered up by the C3’s show you just how the highs were produced in this album.  I’m convinced they just recorded someone going “spssssshhhhhh ssspppssssshhhh” over and over again. 

This is the trouble with the high end here.  Its sufficiently able and abundant that it does utterly no favours to sucky recordings and sucky mastering.  You can hear all that’s there and Nightwish, shame on you!

Another thing, and again its not really its fault, is that it can go high, high enough that it will show up easily hiss in a track, “Somebody That I Used To Know” becomes so frustrating and distracting as to make the song practically unlistenable.  I can’t stop myself from picking out all the crap that’s going on the in the background and what is with the hiss!?!?!?  The C3 has so little trouble picking out details that you would rather you didn’t notice.  If you want a sure fire way to ruin lots of modern songs then this level of clarity and detail retrieval is a great way to do it. 

Enough with the negative, all not the C3’s fault I might add, so what does it do well?  For a BA it has a near dynamic ability in shimmering.  They don’t have the brutally crisp edge that is so common in trebly BA IEM’s.  Listening to Mr Johnson’s “Breakdown” and once the cymbal kicks in it is very convincing.  The impact is cleanly crisp and the shimmering decay that ensues is I believe the best I’ve come across from a BA.  It’s not easy to do and I find myself being more than impressed with ability to just get on with things and making even the hardest things feel effortless.

Soundstage:  Grand, expansive and with a great sense of depth and scale.  The down side to this is that it never really seemed to want to get up close and personal.  It feels like being in a sizeable but closed room, yes there is space but its finite and lacks a truly open airy feel that I might have liked a bit more of.  That of course the C3 is sealed, vacuumed sealed means that’s hardly a shocker.  The clarity though can make for a relatively intimate impression on certain songs, like it’s just you and Nora in a room but she’s strewn over a sofa in front of you rather than being right in your face.

Comfort:  These are the first customs I’ve used and they are rather different to what I’m used to.  Now I’ve heard millions of IEM’s but they all don’t give you the same feel as these do.  These seal perfectly.  The absolute seal made the bass capable of its quite amazing depth, far exceeding that of anything open I’ve heard.  In my ears, the having something sit quite deep and being so unyielding was a little strange.  Particularly the perfect seal I found took a little getting used to.  It wasn’t uncomfortable but it was odd.

Fit:  Being custom moulded they ought to fit you perfectly it take a little twisting to seat them though, then being hard acrylic.

Cable:  Very good.  It’s tightly braided and accordingly is very flexible yet seems rather sturdy.  The cable is replaceable anyway so if you don’t like it you have that option.

Microphonics:  None really, well a bit of foot fall coming through but certainly nothing from the cable.

Accessories:  The stand out is no tips!!!  So numerically rather light but they come with a case.  While it’s not something you’ll slip into your pocket it looks and feels pretty indestructible.  Short of deliberately taking an axe to it or driving a car over it I can’t see how you’d kill them in this thing.

Amped/Unamped:  Here’s a shocker, unamped they still sounded really good.  Now I know my little Shuffle is quite potent but still it’s nothing too special.  It managed to drive the C3’s fine.  Now of course when you moved up to something rather better they made full use of all you could give it.  I cannot ignore though just how well they did with my phones.  They were rather noticeably different between the two phones (Galaxy Nexus and Sensation XE.) the mids on the Sensation were so much more focused and forward with the GN being more flat and slightly more detailed.  Of the two the GN impressed me more but both made the C3’s sound very, very good.  I must say it got me thinking maybe Frogbeats might be persuaded to offer a cable with a mic.  Not that it’s really doing them justice to do so but I was pretty taken back on how well the GN drives them.  I think you could legitimately use the two together and get away with it.  Maybe not all you’d ever use to drive them but I’m just saying you could.  The only trouble with this is that lesser sources, the shuffle, the phones tend to be a bit noisy.  If hiss drives you nuts then, well maybe it’s not for you as the C3 hides nothing.

Reality is though if you’re buying these then you’re probably using something pretty good.  Feed them good and will show.  Out of the Studio V 3rd and the FiiO E9 they were at their noticeably best.

Value:  It’s always a tricky thing to judge value, not least of which because what is there to compare these to?  As I mentioned before these are my first customs so right of the bat I can’t compare these to any other customs regardless of pricing.  What I do have is a bunch of high end universals.  Grabbing what are off the top of my head the most expensive ones (CK10, TF10, SE530, W4 and the IE8) and the difference becomes quite apparent.  The CK10 especially sounds so needle thin.  Of them all only the IE8 comes close to sounding as rich and full as the C3 and even then it can’t hope to compete with the depth.  The IE8 is really rather open and while having great bass the depth isn’t there like the sealed C3 can do.  I’ve never really been wild about the idea of customs over universals as I really wasn’t convinced they could be all that different.  After all the W4 has 4 drivers in there so there is no obvious gain from moving to the larger enclosures found in customs.  The reality is there is, most notably in the low end where the depth is very clearly superior.  The universals I have here just cannot compete.  So while there is a chuck of price difference, as the C3 are still pretty expensive objects when most people think spending £20 on earphones is a lot of money.  To spend £490 on a pair then is a fairly rarefied crowd and I’m not going to suggest that it’s the wisest thing a person could do with the money but……… a check on Amazon UK has the W4 coming in at £360.  These are simply better, sure they aren’t flat monitors like the W4 but in all other regards they are simply better.  The sound signature too is likely to be a more popular one than that of the W4.  I’m not sure I’d place the C3 as being better value than most high end IEM’s as diminishing returns and all that but it’s pretty apparent you get something clearly superior sounding.

Conclusion:  I had a touch of up and down with these.  When I first got them I had some fit bother and then the worst of timing, I hurt my ear so these sat for some weeks untouched.  Once my ear was no longer in pain I gave them another try and realised that the fit wasn’t just quite right on the right hand side.  They then got to take a trip back the land of their creation.  This as you can imagine took a little bit of time and naturally we had Christmas and new year in there too.  By the time they came back I’d mostly forgotten how they sounded.

When I restarted listening to them I recalled their sound signature and its unassuming nature.  It at first seems nothing special, it has this smoothness and above all effortlessness to it that doesn’t grab your attention.  Some IEM’s, the DBA-02 springs to mind, hurls the treble at you with such wild energy it makes you feel they are amazingly revealing.  Now I’m not saying they suck because they don’t but they trick you somewhat.  It’s like turning the brightness and contrast up to max on your TV.  Everything will look hyper crisp and pop out at you but it won’t actually make the recording itself any better.  I love the old “Walking With….” Series from the BBC.  Dinosaurs and Monsters are both great and I love them but they were made so long ago, they are old PAL 540 x 480 lines and if you compare it to something like the BBC’s “South Pacific”  which is in many ways a lot of rubbish (Hawaii is not in the fcuking SOUTH pacific!)  Visually however that thing is just stunning, just amazing visuals on that programme.  Once you have something of that quality you don’t need to over dramatise things.  You can allow the quality to come thorough just as it is in real life.  No artificial additions or adjustments to make things pop out more.  This is how I’m feeling about the C3 despite its somewhat V shaped sound.

The C3 is subversive.  It as a V shaped slightly dramatic shaped sound yet it does not feel dramatic.  The only universal that I can think of that in anyway comes close in the IE8 but it’s not the same.  The IE8 was clearly a bit of a rollercoaster but it did manage to offer up astonishing clarity in a most unassuming manner.  So much was there but unlike that of an ER4 or DBA-02 where it was thrust at you the IE8 was in comparison almost hiding it.  Things were all there they just didn’t leap out at you with over contrasted edges and this is very much like the C3.  When you listen to them on their own they are so unassuming.  Sure they sound like the have tremendous scale but the nuances are so gently and casually displayed.  It isn’t until you start paying attention to old songs you know very well and you start hearing things you haven’t really noticed before.  That tambourine in there somewhere, that slight echo in the vocals, the over tough fingers sliding along a guitar string.  Things that when you hear them seem so natural and casually placed that you may just ignore them but if you are paying attention, you realise you didn’t know they had been there.

The detail level that the C3 actually give is out and out amazing but you have to pay attention or it shall pass you by.  Even the mighty RE-272 can’t match the level of detail and might I add the 272 sound razor thin in comparison.  Even the body of the IE8 can’t compare, it’s the closest I’ve got in an IEM but it hasn’t the endless depth and the C3 just sounds bigger.  Bigger, richer, more full bodied and endlessly powerful.  This is really what I’m taking away from the C3 is that it seems to have so much power and scale that everything seems so effortlessly presented.  All in all it’s a thoroughly impressive sound that to date tops any universal IEM I’ve listened to, and it’s been a few!

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