Alclair Audio Curve Review
Thanks to Alclair for the sample.
First Impressions: Hmm. No nice box, is that normal? Googling seems to suggest that it is, I suppose the company being mostly about customs which don’t really come in boxes. Makes sense I guess, just seems weird. Not that you need a box of course. So you get a little case, quite nice, Westoneish in appearance. Inside we have the Curve’s, a cleaning tool, and 2 pairs of Comply’s. I’m thinking functional rather than fancy.
In the ears they go and thank god they fit me well. I was worried with their “unconventional” shape. Music comes on and I’m rather impressed. The lows seem particularly well extended for a BA, hmm how many are in these again? Gosh these sound pretty good all across the spectrum. Somewhere in my brain a neon sign is going off, flashing KC3 at me. Hmm must pull those out but certainly these have a gently warmed smooth beauty to them. Given that the no longer made KC3 (Klipsch Custom 3) has been one of my long term personal favourites it bodes well for the Curves. An hour later and these are rapidly falling towards the “I could listen to all day long” category. It’s not a thrill machine, it’s not wild or exciting but I’m falling for its sweeping and melodic nature. I think we have a contender for the position of my personal favourite of the year.
Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear.
Lows: While I am most certainly no basshead, I’m not adverse to there being a little too much bass. The bass here is clearly well elevated, well in both the sense that it’s significantly more but also in that its talented. What I do find curious that it’s an all BA set up. Sure in the olden days when you just couldn’t get small dynamics that were any good, to be audiophile grade you had to use balanced armatures, that’s just not true anymore though. Today there are masses of dynamics that are excellent, not to mention the current wave of hybrids. You know, dynamic for the lows and one or two BA’s for the rest. There is frankly a lot of bass. It’s not especially BA like in its nature either, it’s relatively dynamic like in that it’s full bodied and reaches fairly deep. There isn’t the inclination to be all, lightning fast punch and agility. It’s rich and laid back. If anything it’s all a fraction slow and weighty. Flicking back and forth with the Curve, the KC3 and the IE7 the Curve is easily the weightiest of them and it is not even close.
Playing around with the positioning it becomes clear to me that the mids and highs are being significantly muted where the Curves naturally sit in my ear, resulting in a very warm, dark, rich sound. The bass in particular is abundant in a way I’m not sure I’ve really come across in a BA before, I thought in first impressions that the KC3 shared a sound signature, it does, but the Curves go much further in the lows. They are BIG, pulling out the Momentum In-Ears they are about equal in quantity but the Senn’s bass is focused lower down, the Curve’s is more in the middle to upper bass ranges. I wish I had an SE215 to compare it too, though I remember it being rather more flabby. Soft for a BA the Curve may be but it still a BA.
Mids: Lush. Rich, smooth with a hint of darkness. The mids on the whole aren’t especially forward, the bass likes to come out to play a little too often but….. you get a track with great vocals with reasonably sedate bass and they are good. Slapping on “When You Believe” and it literally is shivers down the spine good. It’s not the only track either, everything and anything that suits a very rich, creamy, slightly over thick vocal becomes just so sumptuous on the ear. Erasure’s Union Street album is a symphony of melting, oozy almost dark, yet still milk chocolate. If anyone is familiar with Hotel Chocolat, Supermilk 65 if you haven’t had it, buy a bar of that and it is the oral equivalent to the aural experience of the Curve. I’m not sure chocolate is the best analogy though as my experience with American “chocolate” has, errr not been positive. This is deeply smooth and achingly creamy. It does it a little at the expense of clarity and air. The most breathy of vocals are a little smothered.
Grown up me knows that this is not “neutral” nor is it even close. It is much too warm, rich and darkly delicious. So if you’re thinking it could be a “monitor”, well no. In the sense that your little ears would happily hear it all day long and never grow tired then perhaps. If you think you’re getting a non-flavoured midrange then think again.
Highs: Treble junkies, I suspect you have guessed by now that the Curve isn’t for you. The Curve is moderately clear in the highs, it’s capable and nuanced. In raw technical merits its pretty good. In quantity though, it’s very muted in the uppers. The Curve is all about the beautiful melange of notes coalescing to a velvety pile of scrummyness. If you want a citrusy sharp bight to cut through at the top then go look elsewhere. For me, being quite treble sensitive it’s perfect. I love rich, warm IEM’s with tame treble. I can still pick out the detail with some ease but I know that many haven’t the same acuity in the upper ranges that I do. If you want treble and detail that stands clear you will be disappointed. The treble is detailed but it is highly reticent to expose its fullest detail levels.
The initial impacts do retain a BA like speed with a faint metallic edge before quickly rolling in to a more delicate and smooth dance. It can’t shimmer as a good dynamic can but it’s fairly good in detail terms. Still it’s a rather shy treble that many will find it too reticent and too diffuse for their tastes. One plus though is that it’s very forgiving to meh mastering and bit rates. Northern Kings “My Way” is actually enjoyable to hear with these despite the tracks terrible treble.
Soundstage: There would seem to be distinct distance zones. Vocals on the whole are beautifully intimate and direct. Instrumentation seems to be on a layer a bit further out. Highs and bass both seem to be on a level even further out. This lends to the faint delicacy of the treble but makes the bass seem like its coming of you from a distant wall of subwoofers. It’s a really interesting layering effect that adds to the overall instrument separation. Everything quite separate yet still being well integrated and coherent. I can’t help but wonder how the dual BA’s are set up here. I don’t think there is a crossover between them.
Fit: There is no mistaking from even a cursory glance at the Curve without noticing its somewhat atypical shape. I admit I had reservations about its weird shape. However it went in my ear, it fit me great, not just great but for all intents perfectly. I know I’ve said before that because something works for me that it may not for all, looking at it, I cannot possibly imagine that everyone will get along as well with it as I have. They just can’t, cannot possibly fit everyone perfectly. I have yet to read of anyone having a problem with them but surely someone will eventually.
Comfort: Fit and comfort go hand in hand. If the fit sucks then things can get uncomfortable but…… they fit me perfectly and so they in terms of comfort they were perfect. I will admit that they did feel a little weird in the ear. The way they fill the whole of my inner ear is rather curious feeling. They are however completely comfortable. There is no way on earth that everyone will be the same but hey, fact is for me they were awesome.
Aesthetics: I kinda love the look of them. Weird they are, for sure but there is something I find curiously appealing about them. Plus it doesn’t hurt I’m a sucker for silvery cables. Though there is one odd point, why the grey plastic backing and not make them all clear?
Microphonics: None really. I got the foot fall resonances that you get with a sealed IEM that’s fairly shallow fitting. Though there was no cable noise so it’s pretty much all as you would expect.
Amped/Unamped: They worked pretty well out of any old source. They however very much enjoyed getting more power thrown their way. Everything snapped up and grew more defined. Detail levels were high even out of the crappy Nexus 5 but the dynamics and instrument separation were sooooooooooo much nicer out of the Solo Ultra. I intellectually accept and am aware that the differences are not huge but if you have a Curve I would want to amp it as it just feels that much more alive and vigorous. It still sounds very nice out of a phone but you know, its just plain better when driven well. Although I should note that out of the softly warm Iphone they were distinctly softer than out of the snappy Lumia 735. Warm IEM suits colder dap better, shocker.
Isolation: While the isolation isn’t the most of any BA IEM ever, it’s a sealed BA IEM so the isolation beats pretty much every dynamic based IEM out there. Being a bit of a shallow fit it’s a bit less than is usual but it’s still plenty.
Cable: Not only is it highly flexible, braided and then with a transparent plastic sheath. It would seem that the Curve is supposed to come with the cable in black but given to buy the black and “clear” cables cost the same I assume they could come with the silvery one if you ask Alclair.
Build Quality: Very nice as best I can tell. The cable I especially like, I’m a bit of a fan of braided and I love its silver then transparent coating effect. Only time can ever be the final arbiter but it looks all very nicely stuck together.
Accessories: Erm, a case, a karabiner and a 3 pairs of Comply’s. Actually it’s all a very curious bundle. Alclair are primarily a custom’s maker so there really wouldn’t be a “box” as there is no generic product. So these come like a custom would, in its little case in a cardboard box. It seemed so unusual at first but then seemed so eminently obvious I wondered why everyone doesn’t do it that way.
Value: They retail at US$250 which today is apparently £161. That puts them at the upper end of what I think of as the secondary tier of IEM’s. Does that mean they are “better” than others at this tear? Nope, it does not. So in raw money for sound quality these are not the best you can get but I so don’t care. These are all about enjoyment for me and I have hugely enjoyed my time with them. Their sound signature is just about perfect for me, okay so they’re a too bassy but a big bass IEM that isolates at BA levels? From memory that’s SE215 territory and while I can’t A/B them these should stand well above the Shure’s in audio quality. These sound like a bassy IE7 or KC3 but neither are practical, the IE7 offers negligible isolation and the KC3 (if you could even find one) had the worst cable in history. The Curve is very easy to live with, practical yet retaining a delectable bassy rich gooeyness.
Conclusion: When I do the conscientious A/B’ing of things, the Curve and others I deem to be in a similar realm I find that they Curves are just too bassy. They out bass the KC3 and IE7, neither of which were known for being bass light. They have a sound signature that offers a richly warm envelope in which to explore music, at a slow and relaxing pace. Then the audio world found new, cheap dual BA’s like the DBA-02 which were all about the “detail” and hurling it at you. Something that was so dazzling and cutting, like a crystal decanter exploding in your face. Some loved that brutality, I did not. Then we graduated to the age of the “hybrid” where you get a dynamic in for the bass and let a BA or two do the mids and highs. Often you get a pretty V shaped sound as is easy to dazzle first timers with. Again that is not something as a rule I love. If something is too wild or too dazzling I find them exhausting. My ears can’t stand too much of a roller-coaster ride before they need to have a little rest.
The Curve I really didn’t ever need to take a break from. The bass is a smidge too much but it’s excellently controlled, not giving into that dynamic pitfall of bloating. BA’s do bass better than any dynamic. Dynamics are slower, fatter, more flabby and have a tendency to bloom. BA’s stay tight, solid (sometimes too solid) and are always speedy. The reason they don’t get used all the time is they just can’t move as much air as a dynamic. So I do wonder at what Alclair have done here. I wonder if both BA’s are contributing to the lows and only one crosses over to play the uppers? Could the bassy one be one of the so called “moving armature’s” rather than a normal BA? I can’t figure out what they have done but I’m convinced there is some low end sorcery at work. I just don’t know what.
So often I come down to a simple, have I loved the item in question. In this case the Curve’s. The answer to that is yes, a slightly caveated yes but a great big yes. These are fantastic things and I’ve had them for ages, oh god I’ve had them since March. I know I like to spend longer than most with things for reviewing but come on, that’s 3 months. These are so good in the mids and the bass, so tame in the highs that my ears could just revel in their lusciousness and never grow tired. Maybe a smidge less bass but otherwise these are perfect for me. I do pause for a moment to look at the word “monitor” in their description, hmm yeah but no but yeah. No.
If anything I like these too much. Their sound signature is practically perfect as far as my heart is concerned. Head says too much bass but frankly it can shut the hell up. This is good, BA bass, nimbly articulate yet with such a fullness yet….. it doesn’t move so much air it makes me queasy. Oh hell yes!!! Dual BA IEM’s that aren’t lobbing crystal clays*(see bottom) at you before they explode showering you with razor sharp shards. (Yes DBA-02 I’m looking at you.) A dual BA that can pick up the baton from where the KC3’s left off. It had been one of my, long-time favourite IEM’s and the Curve I like more in practically every way. I don’t have a single “favourite” IEM as I have too many and they all do different things but the Curve sure as is right up there. Plain and simply put, I love it, I love it bucket loads!!!
*It was brought to my attention that clays are not something widely immediately known. Clays are the flying disc’s used for clay pigeon shooting. I had assumed everyone knew they were called clays, apparently they don’t.