A Splendid IEM... Eclipsed By Its Big Brother (review from Head-Fi user @Grimbles)

Quoted from head-fi.org: https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/clear-tune-da-vinci-ix.22889/reviews#review-21669



A Splendid IEM... Eclipsed By Its Big Brother
Written by Grimbles
 
Pros - sound quality
balance
detail
scalability
premium
Cons - a few niggles
cost
CTM's own DaVinci X
Quick Read Conclusion

I set out to review the CTM DaVinci IX and X to figure out if I could tell the difference between my mid-fi kit, and some properly premium, top of the range equipment. Unfortunately for my wallet I can! These IEMs are absolutely sublime and from the second you open the spectacularly pretty box to the thousandth hour of listening, you will have a smile on your face as they stun you again and again. If I was dropping this $2k+ myself, I would spend the extra and buy the CTM DaVinci X – that treble, that soundstage, that tuning… sublime.

Introductions and General Bumf

This review of CTM's DaVinci IX (the "IX") and X (the "X", the IX and X together, the "DaVincis") is written as a side by side review. Partly this is because the DaVincis are packaged identically, look almost identical and are obviously products of the same development, although they do sound quite different. As a consequence, the sections headed Unboxing, Accessories, Practicalities, Fit and Tips and Niggles apply equally to both DaVinicis and it is only the section headed Sound where the differences between the two become clear.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am in no way affiliated with CTM and have received no inducement from them to write this review.

Test Kit: I have tested the DaVincis with a Samsung Note 8 and Galaxy S8 (using both UAPP and Tidal), an 11" Macbook Air (2012 vintage, running Tidal), an Astell and Kern AK70 mk 1 (both balanced and unbalanced), an iFi iDSD Nano Black Label, xDSD, and iDSD Micro Black Label and also a Schiit Modi 2 Uber into a Vali 2 ("Schiit Stack").

Preparation: I received the DaVincis as review samples and gave them both about 50 hours of burn in before any analytical listening.

Me as a listener: I am not a pro by any stretch of the imagination. I have always enjoyed my music, and my tastes are pretty broad. I go to live music ranging from rock and pop concerts to orchestra and opera. I would not describe myself as having a trained ear, but I am attentive and my ears are in pretty good nick for a 35 year old.

My tastes: neutral to warm, but I do like good punchy bass and I love to hear decent instrument separation.

Test tracks: Test tracks noted in the review below were the TIDAL 16/44.1 available through their Hi-Fi subscription. 

So, on to the main event. [/General Bumf]

Tech Specs

I have set out below the key technical specifications for the DaVincis, lifted directly from CTM's website. I also note that, on writing this article, the IX is priced at $2,000 and the X at $2,400. No small sum!



Unboxing

I would like to reserve my superlatives for a little later in this review, so will not spend much time waxing lyrical, when I can let the pictures below do it for me. The retail packaging for the DaVincis is simply beautiful…artful… and every bit the elite experience one would hope for if north of $2,000 had been dropped on a pair of IEMs! 

    

How to tell the difference? The IXs have a black IX milled out of the face plate whilst the Xs have a chrome fill in their milled X.

 

Accessories

Included in the box with both the DaVincis are a 3.5mm terminated 50" cable, 2.5mm terminated (balanced) 4-wire hybrid cable, 3x interchangeable sound filters, a hard carrycase, 3.5mm to 6.25mm adaptor, aeroplane adaptor, cleaning tool, silicon and foam tips (small, medium and large of each), a set of double flange silicon tips and a warranty card and user guide. Some comments on a few of these are set out below (and in the niggles section of this review also).

Cables

At this price range it is great to see a couple of really decent cables included. Microphonics from both are minimal. The 2.5mm cable has straight 2 pin (0.78mm) connectors, whilst the 3.5mm cable has angled connectors. Both cables are braided, with the 3.5mm being CTM's "standard" (presumably all copper, waiting for CTM to confirm) and the 2.5mm being a 4 write hybrid copper/silver number. The 3.5mm cable has some sheathed memory wire running back from the connector to help retain shape, whilst the 2.5mm cable does not. The 2.5mm cable has much more premium termination and chin sliders, giving a v expensive feel over the 3.5mm cable.

   

Tips

I didn't really get on with any of the included tips (see niggles), and opted instead for my trusty Comply TSX-400 tips.

Sound Filters

As you will see in the niggles section, I did not particularly like the design of the sound filters. I also found the sound quality with the DaVincis from the included reference filters so jaw dropping, it wasn't until I came to send them on, that I realised I hadn’t really played with them much. As such, I can't reasonably make comment on the effect these filters have on the sound signatures of these IEMs.

Practicalities

Glancing at the numbers above, the impedance figures for the DaVincis may seem high compared to some other TOTL headphones (CA Andromeda 12.8 ? @ 1 kHz, EE Legend X 14 ? @ 1 kHz, 64 Audio Tia Fourté 10 ? @ 1 kHz), but the input sensitivities of both show they don't really need that much power, and I found my S8 was able to push both to very high volumes.

On reading the specs, I thought that the DaVincis might not reproduce some of the hiss I have typically encountered with exotic multi BA IEMs. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and so you are still going to need to find ways around this. The IEMatch function on the Micro BL was successful, but I encountered no hiss on the AK70 (balanced and non, unless v high volumes), xDSD or xCAN. Obviously the Schiit Stack (specifically the valves in the Vali 2) made a racket and so are not well suited as a pairing!

 

This said, the DaVincis do scale brilliantly with the kit that you use – they were able to eke out levels of performance from the iFi xDSD and Micro BL (which I had on loan for another review), that my other kit (notably the Sennheiser HD 600) could not.

Fit and Tips

Cramming 9 or 10 drivers into an IEM is no mean feat, but the result is the largest universal IEM I have ever put into my ear. The surface area is sensible for my average sized ears, and the ergonomic shaping on the inside face of the DaVincis definitely helped with fit, the moulding into the concha fitting perfectly for me. Where the DaVincis show their size is in their depth, but the lightweight aluminium constructions helps to ensure that they stay in place (at least for me) during use, and I did not find that the DaVincis induced any physical fatigue over long listening sessions.

The nozzle is pretty wide – on a par with the Campfire Polaris. This is fine if you are used to it, but may be uncomfortable for those with particularly small ears. I've noted in niggles below that I was a little disappointed with the included tips, but on a quick tip-rolling session, I found the tried and tested Comply TSX-400 worked a dream. As ever with a universal IEM, seal is key to get the best performance from the DaVincis, so this is worth spending some time on if you do decide to buy a pair.

If you are dropping this sort of cash on an IEM you are obviously going to want to try them. For people with average to large sized ears, I do not think there will be an issue with the DaVincis, but for people with smaller ears, the depth and nozzle size may make comfortable fit more challenging. For this amount of cash, the advice has to be to go to your local retailer and try before you buy.

  

The Sound

Highs, Mids and Lows

Mids and lows are a similar story between the DaVincis. Full and rich the mid reproduction remains sweet throughout, with no emphasis or weakness in any part of the frequency response. The result is that, no matter your choice of music the DaVincis render the sounds beautifully, whether male or female vocals, strings in the orchestra, electronica, unplugged, live or studio-produced the DaVincis deliver.

Bass is full, rich and detailed. Whilst (as with pretty much all IEMs) this is not standing next to a speaker stack at a rock concert, the DaVincis are capable of both impact and texture, without losing detail. Thundercat's show off masterpiece Uh-uh (one of WhatHifi's 10 best tunes to test your system) is held together artfully, without confusion in response at even some of the most frantic of passages. Neither DaVinci struggles to deliver a solid bassline either… to try to really make them wobble, I chucked AwolNation's Sail at them – a tune that should really rattle your bones and the DaVincis did not disappoint, with the weight of the bassline conveyed with clarity and control.

In a sense writing about the bass and treble output of the DaVincis is difficult – they just sound right! But then we come to the treble and what really separates the DaVincis. For the IXs, this is a continuation of the rest of the story. Measured and controlled with clarity in abundance. Whether the hi-hat, the triangle over a busy orchestra (think Throne Room and opening credits from the first Star Wars movie) or the metallic twang on an acoustic guitar piece (the live version of Matisyahu's Live Like a Warrior), the IXs are faithful – decay is realistic and there is no fatiguing ring. The word here is "balance", and it is the signature of the IX.

Now the treble on the X – wow. Never overdone, never sibilant, the treble on the DaVinci X is CTM's Mona Lisa. I can't wait to see some frequency responses published, as I hope they will bear out what I hear, which is a subtle but audible peak across the treble range. On top of making those hi-hats, triangles and metallic twangs more noticeable, this introduces a clarity on every single track I played on the Xs, opening out soundstage (see below) and making every other earphone I have heard (including the IX) sound a little bit muffled in comparison.

Soundstage, Separation and Detail Retrieval

Both the IX and X pull incredible level of detail and micro-detail from tracks, scaling up with source and (of course) the quality of the recording and file. Neither is unfriendly to a lower quality recording, so your non-lossless files will still have some life in them, but listen to well recorded CD quality or higher, and your ears will be rewarded.

For both DaVincis, separation is a strongpoint, with busy tracks (again, heavy orchestral like Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King form the Peer Gynt Suite, but also multi-layered numbers like Ed Sheeran or a Beach Boys harmony) never confusing the IX or becoming muddled or fuzzy.

The soundstage and separation with the IX are both superb. The soundstage is as wide as any I have heard (including from the open backed Sennheiser HD600) and portrays some depth. As mentioned above though, the X does something a little different, and listening to it is the first time I have experienced truly holographic soundstage. Not only does the X describe depth and width, I could hear height too, meaning that different instruments and singers could be placed in 3 dimensions. This was most pronounced on live tracks, and particularly with the background noise on those tracks, where the Xs create a sense of being enveloped by the audience in a way I have never previously encountered. I have to say I absolutely loved this, and a number of times (including on a train and in my office) I jumped as I heard somebody right behind me or next to me, only to realise it was just the Xs doing their party trick!

Comparisons

Given the price differences between my kit and the DaVincis, this isn’t quite apples for apples! Against both the CA Polaris and the FIBAE Massdrop Edition, the DaVincis felt like a more refined, more detailed… more mature sound. Against the DaVincis, the Polaris' weaknesses on lower mid-range (particularly male vocals) are brought under the spotlight, whilst the FIBAE ME sounds slightly veiled in comparison, particularly with the remarkably airy X. The only place either of these IEMs could compete was in bass, with the Polaris having more impact, and the FIBAE ME edging ahead for both detail and impact. But neither of them could touch the X for its treble, soundstage, separation and clarity.

Niggles

I have a few niggles which I set out below. Some of these may feel a bit like splitting hairs, but at $2-2,400 I think the customer can expect the very best and accordingly I set out some niggles below.

On first blush I thought that the hard carry case that the DaVincis come with was brilliant. Although it is quite large, it is solid and includes everything you need in a case of this nature – well moulded storage, a decent loom to wrap your cable around to keep it tangle free, a padded flap above the IEM storage bays which is itself a magnet-sealed compartment storing tips, wax cleaning tool and 6.35-3.5mm adaptor. Unfortunately, I found that it was impossible to store the DaVincis, with cable attached, without always squashing the foam tips when closing the box. See a couple of photos below showing how the box fouls the IEMs on closing. The only solution was to remove the cable from the IEMs each time I put them away. A bit annoying. 

    

Unlike the sound filters with, say the Shure SE846 which require their own special tool to remove, the tiny (and therefore easily lost) filters on the DaVincis simply screw in, easily removed by virtue of their serrated ends. Using the foam tips, I found that daily use loosened the sound filters, and if I was not careful (I was as these are review samples which I don't own) the tips could get loose to the point of falling off, with filter.

Sticking with tips a moment, I was a little disappointed with CTM's choice of tips with the DaVincis. One set each of small medium and large foam and silicon, and one double flanged silicon. Personally, I don't get on with silicon tips and I didn't really like the included foam tips. At this price point, I would expect a decent selection of high quality tips – Comply and Spinfit are the obvious names, but I am sure that there are other equally decent tip makers out there!

The DaVincis are clearly aimed at audiophiles, so I suspect that the decision not to include a Bluetooth attachment or phone control cable was about increasing spend on thecables and IEMs – in my mind a sensible decision, but I thought worth noting.

Conclusion

Over the last couple of years, I have built up some decent experience of listening to high end personal hi-fi equipment. I have heard a lot of headphones, amps, DACs etc in that time, but I have never heard anything quite like the CTM DaVinci X, and from the first moment I listened to the Xs I was utterly blown away. In comparison, The IX is a refinement of a sound signature I am familiar with; that is to say, analytical without being clinical, but without a "wow" factor – it is a consummately balanced IEM, with detail retrieval levels I did not realise were possible. But the extra driver (and presumably the upgraded crossover) in the X, create something truly amazing. Not just the best IEM I have ever heard, but the best earphone. A joy. Thank you CTM – Leonardo would be proud!


View original review here: https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/clear-tune-da-vinci-ix.22889/reviews#review-21669
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