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REVIEW: 64 Audio Shootout – Nio. Trió. Fourté. Noir

REVIEW: 64 Audio Shootout – Nio. Trió. Fourté. Noir
Detail and clarity

At this level I expect all four hybrids to deliver excellent levels of detail and a high degree of clarity, and on the whole they do. It’s only when compared to each other that some fall behind the others. There’s no inherent lack of detail in any of the hybrids; I find mostly all the fundamental details in a recording are fairly easy to pick up, even with my less-than-perfect hearing. But the flagships, Fourté and Noir, really exemplify the meaning of world-class detail retrieval, picking up subtle cues in the music I imagine some artists didn’t even know were there. Check out my track notes for Amber Rubarth for an interesting example of how this extra detail can sometimes put a completely different spin on the music itself.     

Nio

There’s usually a price to be paid for a warmer tuning with dominant bass, and in the case of Nio (M15), that price is detail. Nio’s bass notes are softer than those of the other hybrids, with more rounded edges, and while texture is still very good, it’s not the most detailed bass of the bunch. Despite having six dedicated midrange drivers and one mid-high BA driver, Nio doesn’t quite reach the level of definition of the Tia System hybrids, and while clarity is still very good, with only marginal bass bleed into the mids and even less so with mX, it comes across as slightly veiled when compared to the others. Treble is where Nio picks up some extra detail – the Tia driver not disappointing in this regard – but it’s a more relaxed experience to the other three IEMs. Switching to mX does improve overall clarity, with details veiled by the M15’s bass at least partly revealed (especially in the mids), but there’s not much extra detail to be had in the bass or treble despite the clarity improvements. 

Trió

When it comes to outright detail and clarity, Trió is technically outstanding. This is probably the biggest audible difference when switching from Nio (in either configuration) to Trió. Note edges are better defined, with more tonal nuance, and softer cues and subtle effects are easier to make out. While not the fastest of the group, Trió’s bass is very detailed, and a good amount of clarity in the mids, despite an audible upper midrange/lower treble dip. Treble is clear, detailed and extended, if a bit peaky at times, with detail perhaps a little piercing when recordings are less than optimal.  

Fourté

The king of clarity, Fourté is easily the most detailed headphone of any form factor I’ve yet heard. It literally misses nothing. If it’s in the recording, you’ll hear it. Due to mild hearing loss and some tinnitus in my left ear, my hearing is no match for Fourté’s technical ability, and I envy anyone who can take full advantage of Fourté’s seemingly limitless ability to resolve every nuance of a track. Ironically, the same hearing loss makes Fourté a good match for me; its microscopic detail retrieval and crystalline transparency is unforgiving of poorly recorded (or even below average) recordings, though more forgiving than Trió due to Fourté’s extra smoothness. 

Noir

I’m not quite sure how, but Noir doesn’t give up much detail or clarity to Fourté despite being warmer, fuller and ever so slightly more intimate sounding. The technical strength of 64 Audio’s Tia System is evident here, with resonance and distortion kept to a minimum and detail and clarity dialed up to stun. I’m not missing anything with Noir, likely for the same reasons I mentioned above (mild hearing loss and tinnitus), but also because Noir resolves so effortlessly. I do hear details slightly differently to Fourté, but that’s because tonally they are very different. You could argue there’s a touch more overlap in the details of more complex music, and instruments aren’t separated quite as clearly from the vocals on bassier tracks, but honestly that’s just splitting hairs at this level. 

Track notes 

Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder, off 2013’s Random Access Memories (Limited Box Set Edition), is a perennial favourite of mine for testing the capabilities of just about any high-end system, let alone IEMs. It’s such a versatile track, but I’m using it here to check two things: how well I can hear Giorgio talking amid the din of the crowd in the intro section; and how clearly I can make out the crescendo of the track, where the mix of instruments and effects from 8:04 goes absolutely bonkers. Giorgio’s voice sounds full and chesty with Nio (M15), though not quite as clear as I’d like, but it opens up some switching to mX, and the crowd effects are more delineated too. Nio does a decent job with the finale, but its shortcomings in the detail department are obvious here. The cymbal crashes in the left channel, for example, are a bit muddy, and neither M15 or mX have enough finesse to fully separate the strings, drums and guitars for maximum clarity. The jump in detail between Nio and Trió is obvious as soon as Giorgio starts speaking. The nuance in his voice is far more distinct, though there’s a bit of stray treble energy in edges of his syllables that come across as slightly glassy. Trió’s extra detail in the crescendo is impressive, however, with the instruments better separated and the cymbals more accurate than with Nio. Fourté not only out-resolves Trió with Giorgio’s voice – albeit sounding a little drier and thinner – but it also lifts the detail and three-dimensionality of the crowd, seating you next to him in the bar. Fourté’s clinical precision and pace also makes easy work of the closing melee, with every instrument given ample room to shine without even a hint of blurring. Noir voices Giorgio with more authority than Fourté, but the crowd effects are slightly less distinct. That fullness carries over into the melee, where the instruments left and right are clearly defined but the middle section becomes a touch thicker and loses a bit of clarity in the process.  

Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem, from her 1994 Chesky SACD The Raven, is a very delicate recording with some intricately detailed interplay between various instruments and Rebecca’s angelic voice. At the 1:40 mark, a shaker starts to play just to the right of centre, along with a violin to the left and guitar, bass and piano in between. Despite its inherent fullness, Nio manages to capture the essence and position of the instruments very clearly with both mX and M15, mX extracting a touch more detail from the shaker but less weight from the bass. Trió creates an even better sense of space, particularly with the shaker, which now echoes more realistically in the room, and I could actually hear the strumming of the guitar strings, something Nio missed completely. Fourté’s sonic microscope brings each of the instruments into even sharper relief, with even more strumming apparent and the shaker set further back and to the left in a wider stage, creating a better sense of depth. Noir brings the shaker forward again, adding heft to the bass, warmth to the piano, but not resolving the strumming quite as surgically as Fourté. 

Jethro Tull’s The Waking Edge, from their 1987 album Crest of a Knave, features an instrumental opening sequence that overlays Ian Anderson’s iconic flute with a mix of guitar strums, stick hits, what sounds like a pipe organ, and possibly one or two more subtle effects, all of which should be clear, crisp and well-defined in their own space. Nio’s rendition is lively enough, but rounds off the edges of some of the sharper instruments more than I’d like. It’s also doesn’t fully resolve all the fundamentals in Anderson’s flute play, nor the finer nuances of the organ. mX improves the level of detail somewhat, making the edges more distinct and the flute nimbler. Trió does a splendid job with the details, the organ, strumming, flute and guitar plucks sounding far more dynamic; though the guitar picks do get a touch zingier than they should at the one-minute mark. Fourté’s presentation is almost flawless; some of the brighter guitar picks call perhaps a bit too much attention to themselves, but still come across more smoothy than Trió’s zing, and Anderson’s flute is so realistic, you can almost hear the rush of his breath through the tone holes as he plays it. Noir cools down the brighter picks, adding a fullness to the flute as well, that makes it less breathy, and is the most cohesive presentation of the lot. Oh, and here’s an interesting tidbit: Crest of a Knave beat out Metallica’s And Justice For All for the 1989 Grammy Award for…wait for it…Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, Vocal and Instrumental! No justice at all, considering the album is practically full of folk ballads.   

Amber Rubarth’s Tundra, an instrumental track off her 2012 reference-quality Chesky binaural album, Sessions From The 17th Ward, is just one of several tracks on the album that leave interesting ‘Easter Eggs’ in the recording for keen ears (and highly resolving IEMs) to find. If you listen carefully at the 0:40 mark, amid the much louder drums and violins, you’ll hear a wooshing sound in the background, possibly followed by a low rumble and a slight squeal. The effect lasts about 10 seconds, and from what some audiophile friends and I have gathered, is the sound of a truck’s air brakes bringing it to a grinding stop in the traffic outside the recording studio. The sound is audible to various degrees with each of the four IEMs, all of them picking up the initial ‘woosh’ and screech of the ‘brakes’, but only Trió, Fourté and Noir resolving the full sequence at a volume low enough for the actual music not to damage one’s hearing. Both Trió and Noir convince me the sound is made by a truck, while Fourté tells me it’s a blue 18-wheeler with a slightly bent rear axle and three tyres in need of a change.