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Up in the Air: FitEar’s hybrid IEM gives you wings

  • “Maybe you’re the Jerry Harvey of Japan!” Keita Suyama, CEO and Founder of Tokyo-based IEM manufacturer FitEar, seemed somewhat unwilling to accept my compliment despite the almost incontrovertible evidence: that FitEar supplies custom in-ear monitors to hundreds of Japan’s biggest rock and pop stars; that he prides himself on his IEM’s sound quality; that FitEar are big news in Japan’s head-fi scene; that his booth at local headphone shows consistently draw some of the biggest crowds; that demand for FitEar’s handiwork is so strong that wait times between ear-mould appointment and custom IEM delivery can sometimes stretch out to half a year or more.

    Such wait times would seem worth it. FitEar’s latest custom model, the Air, is a highly expressive earphone, particularly in the treble and bass. I’d call them ‘fun’ if that descriptor hadn’t already become a polite stand-in for a U-shaped frequency response.

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    The Air’s midrange holography says otherwise. Vocals really pop. These FitEars are fun in the way that Zu Audio loudspeakers are fun. The F-word applied euphemistically here to this IEM’s thrill-ride dynamics that don’t lose sight of high-end head-fi standards of refinement and separation. On tonal mass, the occasional rivals’ cook-up will serve more meat.

    The FitEars are a modern music lover’s dream come true in that they make everything from Radiohead’s In Rainbows to Richie Hawtin’s From My Mind To Yours sound more exciting and involving than do the Ultimate Ears’ UE 7 Pro. You guessed it: the Japanese ‘phones are more coloured than their Californian rival and all the better for it.

    In case you were wondering, Suyama-san is no Johnny-come-lately. Whilst an audiologist, in 2001 he began experimenting with earphone modifications; first a pair of Apple earbuds, then a pair of Shure IEMs.

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    Fourteen years on, the audiology seemingly plays second fiddle to earphone manufacture. On the upper floors of FitEar’s Tokyo headquarters a room is set aside for hearing-aid testing. To non-audiophiles, the enormous Altecs still point to something else going on. On the floor above, an equally impressive pair of Dynaudios ensure that Suyama-san can play it loud whilst undertaking product development work.

    Nowadays though, FitEar can be seen collaborating with the big boys. As per the inscription on each earpiece, the Air are “Powered by Fostex”. The Japanese headphone giant supply the Air’s 9mm dynamic driver.

    However, the Air is a hybrid design. The accompanying balanced armature driver comes from Sonion. When pushed on “How many of each?”, Suyama-san plays it coy: “At least one of each”, he says with a smile.

    Similarly in 2014, Suyama-san wouldn’t be drawn on the exact number of balanced armature drivers running inside his eponymously-name fitear universal. Like many IEM manufacturers, the FitEar mainman is pushing back against those who would make judgement calls ahead of an audition.

    In the case of FitEar however, listening is a long way from easy. A very small number of units see export to Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Singapore but the vast majority of the company’s custom and universal models are available only in Japan.

    Compounding the try-before-you-buy challenge: how does one audition a custom earphone before it is made?

    The second of Tokyo’s 2015 Fujiya Avic headphone festivals had the answer. FitEar offered would be punters a chance to try a demo-only universal take on the Air. Miss that and the only option is to visit FitEar HQ.

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    Located ten minutes’ walk from Ginza’s high-end fashion retail strip, FitEar’s facility is large by local standards but also typically Tokyo: every last square metre of each floor is fully utilised whilst a narrow elevator, whose door opens directly onto each floor (no lobby), carries people up and down. If a stairwell exists, it’s not apparent.

    Handling re-introductions this time out was one Kotaro Shima of Emilai (local handlers of OPPO Digital, Aurender and AURALiC among others). Suyama-san’s spoken English is excellent and Shima-san’s translation skills weren’t required, not even once.

    One up from street level is where the earphone auditions take place. Suyama-san had laid out the FitEar range across the table. Like his Fujiya Avic show exhibits, universal versions of custom models had been prepared.

    One notable takeaway from my Ginza visit was that the sonic deltas sitting between the handful of FitEar IEMs I listened to with a Sony NW-ZX2 were more pronounced than expected. Where earshell volume, shape and disclosed (!) driver count differed, so did tonal balance and dynamic contrast.

    I was particularly taken by the Parterre’s more elegant sound signature but it’s a universal. To visit FitEar’s HQ and not go custom would surely be a missed opportunity. Besides, with each pair of custom IEMs tailored to the individual, superior isolation from external noise is one key advantage over any universal equivalent. That said, universals have the clear upper hand in the second hand market.

    The MH335DW custom, a ‘double-woofer’ variation on the MH334, itself designed in conjunction with mastering engineer Mitsuharu Harada, very nearly stole my nomination on the day. However, the Air’s more radical break from the multiple balanced armature norm ultimately held sway. A hybrid driver configuration, a choice of six coloured faceplates (I went with yellow) and precision 3D-printed earpieces weren’t FitEar’s usual speed.

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    Silicon gel moulds of my ears were taken on site in Ginza by Suyama-san’s assistant. Afterwards, the waiting game. This pair of Air took around 8 weeks to wing their way to Sydney. Emilai’s Shima-san bridged the gap between FitEar’s Japan-only delivery policy and Fedex International.

    In daily use, the Air’s shorter nozzle – that FitEar refer to as “short leg shell” – not only allows for a larger air gap between the twin-bore output and the eardrum, it also renders the Japanese customs more comfortable to wear for longer periods than Noble Audio’s Savant (review in the works). This was most noticeable after short-haul naps on long-haul flights where one ear is invariably pressed against a pillow.

    One such flight took place in May. This commentator’s third trip to Tokyo and third sitdown with Suyama-san in six months. Physical evidence of his big news wasn’t to be found at FitEar’s Fujiva Avic show table but at Fostex’s whose all-new TE100 IEM was a universal take on the FitEar Air. A FitEar in Fostex clothing.

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    The latter’s bilingual promotional material shone a torch onto some hitherto unseen specifications. Impedance = 17 Ohms. Sensitivity = 108dB. Like its custom cousin, the TE100 ships inside a Pelican case that also contains a mesh carrybag and cleaning brush – signs, along with the 3D-printed shell, that FitEar themselves were handling production of the Fostex model.

    Fostex have set pricing on the TE100 at ¥115,000 (~US$1100), a few thousand shy of FitEar’s custom AIR which, despite the ‘open price’ obfuscation of their website, sell for ¥135,000 (~US$1300).

    Those are big numbers. Thankfully, each earphone’s performance/dollar quotient holds up to closer scrutiny with the Fostex variant seeing worldwide distribution and so robbing you of the perfect audio-related excuse to finally book that bucket list trip to Japan.

    Further information: FitEar

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    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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