Heir Audio 3.Ai and 4.Ai in Review

Heir Audio’s youngest children have been thrust into the thick of a do-or-die competition. Custom earphone manufacturers are pounding with exceeding energy toward the lucrative – and showy – universal earphone market. I see no end in sight – and to be honest, that is a good thing. Technology handed down from top-flight customs is good stuff. Heir Audio’s 3.Ai and 4.Ai carry the goods inherited from their more expensive, custom siblings.

• 3 Precision tuned Balanced Armature drivers.
• One Dedicated drivers for Low Frequency production
• One driver for Middle Frequency production
• One driver for High Frequency production
• Dual Bore Design
• Detachable cable
• Quality ear tips
Shell color: “Black Mamba”
Face Plate: Burl
299$ USD

• 4 Precision tuned Balanced Armature drivers.
• 2 Dedicated drivers for Low Frequency production
• One driver for Middle Frequency production
• One driver for High Frequency production
• Dual Bore Design
• Detachable cable
Quality ear tips
Shell color: “Black Mamba”
Face Plate: Burl
399$ USD

Heir Audio
Floor 10, Tower C, Chengdu International Commerce Building
136 Bin Jiang Dong Road, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Email: heiraudiousa@micro-dsp.com
Tel: +1 (805) 284-6443
Fax: +1 (619) 615-2105
Skype: brannanmason
Facebook: www.facebook.com/heiraudio
Twitter: @heiraudio
Head-Fi: bangkokkid

Heir Audio
In all my dealings with Heir Audio, I’ve met the kindest, fastest of responses. Heir Audio stand behind their products and their services. No matter which product you choose, you are in for a treat. In that respect, they are top notch. Well done.

Accessories and package
Seasoned lurkers will realise by now that almost all custom and custom-ish earphones come similarly attired. Heir’s little ones come replete with branded Otter style box, detachable cables, ear pieces, and cleaning tool, is no exception to the rule. It’s just that after looking at what you get – and considering the price you get it for – the 3.Ai and 4.Ai embarrass other sub-400$ earphones.

Against other custom-ish earphones, too, Heir wiggle quite nicely. Neither FitEar nor Tralucent offer so many ear pieces. The carrying box looks and feels like an Otter box. Thank god it isn’t though: those things are impossible to open. It protects Heir’s littlest ones perfectly, but isn’t quite as smooth an operator as a Pelican box is.

Fit and isolation
If you can’t find perfect fit via the included earpieces, you are in a tough place in life. Heir include just about every size imaginable: single, dual, split flanges in sizes from tiny to large. The tips are hard, but not abrasive. They keep the earphones firmly in the ears, and block external noise extremely well.

Still, there are those, who, like me, prefer a gentler touch. Thankfully, the nozzle size accommodates the same tips used by the FitEar To Go! 334, ortofon eQ5 and eQ7, and many other wonderful earphones. I prefer the ortofon eQ5 tips. They are the most comfy single flanges I’ve found. If you live outside Japan (where they are readily found), you can pick up a pair at Musica Acoustics. If you live inside Japan, I suggest going to e-eearphone or checking out kakaku.com for best e-Q5 earpiece prices. I got mine from e-earphone.

The bodies of the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are so similar in size that without a glance at the back of each, you might mistake one for the other. They are tiny. In comparison to the FitEar To Go! 334, which boasts the same number of drivers, the 4.Ai is positively dwarfed. But comparing them is an ineluctable delight. For users who can’t cram the 334 into their ear holes, the 4.Ai is a safe bet. Barely larger than a regular earphone, both Heir Audio universals disappear in the ear by any practical comparison.

They lay flat enough that you can lay on your side with them in with very little discomfort. However, laying on your side will, in the long run, bend the contact pins. My recommendation is merely to rest assured that you could if you wanted to- But for the sake of your investment, don’t lay on your side.

The one standout issue is that neither earphone grasp earpieces as firmly as the ToGo! 334 does. I guarantee you will lose ear pieces. They will fall off the 3.Ai’s and 4.Ai’s sound tube flange. Heir Audio’s tooling isn’t perfect. FitEar’s tooling is: its sound tube of the 334 is as precise as a handmade earphone can be while the 3.Ai and 4.Ai look very much handmade. Both are hand made, but you can tell at the most cursory of glances that FitEar’s earphones command top prices. That human touch works wonders on tables and chairs, but where sound tubes and precise tooling are concerned, more effort needs to be paid to 100% repeatable form.

The cable
Heir chose to strap the 3.Ai and 4.Ai to a Westone/UE style cable. The good of it is that if the cable breaks, finding a replacement is simple as pie. There are numerous replacements out there. Most can be found for modest sums. Some can even be had for more than the price of Heir’s earphones.

Heir Audio also offer an upgrade cable. The Magnus 1 comes terminated in Neutrik and sports stronger contacts and lead pins than the stock cable does. Rather than three cable strands, it is separated into four. The Neutrik connector gets into and out of fiddly iPhone case earphone ports better than does the flat Westone/UE style connector. Both are L-shaped, and to be honest, similarly robust for casual use – that is, until you reach the terminals. Treated with kiddy gloves, the standard cable should last many years. However, I’ve broken two Westone-style cables. The Magnus 1 may be an expensive upgrade, but I have a lot more faith in its leads and connectors than I do in the standard version. Is it worth double the price of the standard cable’s replacement? Not sure, but it is a nice option to have.

Technically, its four strands should offer some sort of sonic gain, but I’ll be honest here and say I don’t hear it. Again, not being a dog (or a Sennheiser recording head), I’m at a disadvantage here. Audiophiles, you can duke it out in the forums of your favourite party website.

Build quality
Both the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are well-built earphones, easily toeing with the likes of similarly priced universal earphones. That is, of similarly priced earphones from the 2010-2011 era. Heir’s earphones come in rather thick acrylic housings. They are free of blemish and wrinkle and they should last for a long time. Still, I’d put Audio Technica’s CK100 ahead of them where housing quality is concerned. Like Audio Technica’s high-end earphones, Heir work with luxurious materials. Both the 3.Ai and 4.Ai are topped off with beautiful burl wood faceplates.

Heir built the pin ports flush to the housing. There is no structural support for the teeny tiny Westone/UE pins, and the plastic blocks that houses the copper tubes that connect with the cables are fused directly behind the faceplate with no lateral support to the pins. Either earphone comes with ovoid sound bores. This shouldn’t affect sound quality, but when the ineluctable question: “how’s it compare to the ToGo! 334?” comes up, it’s basically fit, finish, and build quality that comes up soonest in my mind. Sound is one thing, immediate visual targets are another. While there are no severe bubbles or finger prints inside Heir’s housing, the guts of the earphones (what you can see of them) dully reflect light as if they are blanketed lightly with dust and oil.

Those are hardly faults. After all, these earphones come at less than half the price of their nearest big-name competitor. But, as with all things, you get what you pay for.

Apart from the cable pins and unreinforced contact square, I commend Heir for what they have been able to accomplish at the price point. The x.Ai series is beautiful, functional, and while not even even with FitEar’s build quality, the benefits of hundreds of extra dollars in your pocket can’t be discarded.

The tale of the 3.Ai and 4.Ai is curious. The 3 bears 3 balanced armature drivers, split between low, mid, and high, while the 4 bears 4 balanced armature drivers split like this: low, low, mid, hi. Spec alone is cause to believe the 4 bares a plumper bottom. That isn’t the case. In all cases, it is leaner, more mature, and for music lovers who hold neutral sound signatures dear, more mellifluous. The 3.Ai has received surly attention at a number of forums – namely for the amount of bass it produces.

3.Ai is too bassy
Firstly, I’d like to dispel any such nonsense. The 3.Ai does have a healthy bit of oomph in its lower end, but it isn’t in what can honestly be called the low bass region. Its impact, which artfully fits genres such as hip-hop and pop, is actually situated in the higher bass regions. Don’t believe me? Fire up Markus Schulz’ Mainstage from the Progression album. Truly low-voiced earphones yawn ferociously in the opening seconds. The 3.Ai doesn’t really get going until the main beat fires up.

Pedantic but necessary. As ‘bass’ denotes the lowest pitch, the 3.Ai isn’t a bass monster. It is a creature that favours mid and upper bass. True bass monsters don’t expose themselves in just any genre. True bass monsters take special songs such as the above-mentioned Mainstage, to reveal themselves. The 3.Ai exposes itself at most corners.

That upper bass hits with medium speed. Its presentation is safely situated between the slow body of the ephemeral DDM and the low-riding but heavily textured FX500. It reacts faster than either, but isn’t instant. Both its attack and decay hang on for a fraction of a second longer than my favourite ortofon eQ5. This slight delay is great for medium-fast to slow musical genres. It’s not an earphone a seasoned listener would pair with trance. There is a slight stuffiness to the lower end that doesn’t resolve itself too well with the likes of fast electronic. Trance beginners, however, may love its well of low-end power. Move to slower IDM, hip-hop, pop, rock, etc., and it delights.

On bass and the 4.Ai
Where the 3.Ai is hefty, the 4.Ai is lean. Straightaway, I’ll recommend it for trance. Bass impact and attack are tuned to fast beats and swifter attack/decay response. Back to back with the 3.Ai, the 4.Ai may even sound thin. But after a few minutes, it feels right as rain. Bass detail and texture are medium. It lacks any sort of congestion.

Neither earphone outputs what could be called ‘organic’ or ‘textured’ bass. Detail and impact come when called for in the 4.Ai, but neither rise particularly high against the competition. Again, the 3.Ai’s upper bass impact is another matter. It won’t be forgotten soon. While fun, it is more of a mood-matching sound than a practical one. Fun is the name of the 3.Ai’s game.

Away from the bass
Apart from bass, the overall signature of both earphones is close. Both earphones are fun to listen to. Each belts out enough mid and high end detail to satisfy fans of ortofon’s eQ series, for instance, and goes a long way in assuaging the gripes ER4 users have about every single earphone out there.

Transitions are flawless. Extension is good, and sparkle isn’t hard to find. The 3.Ai’s bass, however, is so polarising.

Generally, both earphones excel at mid-high range clarity. For this reason, piano resonance, especially against female vocals is sumptuous. Both earphones are friendly with jazz, piano, vocal, and rock music. The taste is different between the two of course, but both work quite well within personal preferences. There does seem to be a bit less sparkle in the 4.Ai in the range of higher female vocals and violins than the ortofon eQ5. I wouldn’t call the 4.Ai perfectly flat. It seems to mimic more a Beyerdynamic DT990 frequency response: while presenting mids with space and detail, the dip in the upper vocal area is noticeable.

Since fit isn’t generally an issue, you don’t have to fiddle with ear pieces to get the best balance of sound stage, 3D image, and frequency response clarity. Sound stage is medium-wide. Generally, mids hover right around the ear canals, upper mids float somewhere behind the eyeballs, bass belts at the back of the skull, each well delineated, but the entire image is intimate rather than spacious – at least when comparing to FitEar’s To Go! 334. This is especially good for a majority of studio recordings. Whatever you put into your player comes out tight, controlled, and compelling.

Generally, instruments are well separated, rendered in their own space and clean in their frequency channel. For best effect, couple the 3.Ai and 4.Ai with the small chorals and bands. Vocals from the Cardigans, while neither part of a choral (nor any longer part of a band), are sent to the moon against the backdrop of guitars/effects, very well imaged. Of course, the hitch is that Persson’s voice loses some of its cuteness on the 4.Ai. Surprisingly, 3.Ai does a better job of sustaining the right frequencies for female vocals; at the same time, it belts out that idiosyncratic high bass. So while imaging and separation are good, in the range of higher female vocals, there may be a wee bit of dynamic compression against the surrounding instrument flora. Fortunately, the fault is overall, quite small.

Regarding sensitivity
Both earphones are reasonably sensitive. You can keep the volume low, obviating distortion from both your iPhone/iPod and/or headphone amplifier. Background noise does come through, but not quite as much as with the FitEar Private 333 and nowhere near what the Shure SE530 puts out. Poor quality headphone outputs will sound even poorer through Heir’s earphones. Be warned.

Get yourself a good source. If you’re in the Apple camp already, you can’t really go wrong today. Everything since 2008 has been as free from background noise as is possible this side of an iBasso DX100.

Regarding amping
Most earphones perform their best from low Ω output devices with enough current in their capacitors to keep up the bass and supply even frequency response. Heir’s earphones will cause lesser players to stumble. If you have a pre-2009 iPod/iPhone, a small iBasso T3D will do the trick. When strapped to an iPhone 4s very little distortion affects the signal. For the most part, the same goes for an iPod nano 6/7 and iPod touch 4G and their ilk. Heir did a good job with their crossovers so that you can keep your portable package simple, small, and relatively inexpensive. Personally, I find no real reason to add an amp unless your player is ancient or has an output impedance higher than 5Ω. iPhone 5 may be another story…

Out and about
The 3.Ai and 4.Ai are by far the most comfortable universal-cum-custom earphones I have tried. They fit any ear out there. Their slim, small bodies simply disappear. Heir’s wood finish looks great, too. The Westone-style cables are noise free. However, if you use a case with your iPhone, or an amp with a heavily recessed headphone jack you may not be able plug in either the stock or Magnus cable.

The Otter-esque carrying box is strong, but huge. When out and about, I use a soft-sided nylon zipper thing I picked up at Chapters circa 2004. The earphones are small, so they’ll fit in most small pouches. Pick one up.

Heir’s kids did it. They finished the race, and after all numbers are tallied, stand quite tall in a number of criteria. The 3.Ai is probably best bought by bassheads and the 4.Ai by people who prefer more linear musical reproduction. The accessory package for both earphones is great, and so is the price. At their respective price points, both earphones are a steal. There is nothing at all like them on the market. Nothing. The tradeoffs are fit and finish, neither of which stand up to current universal earphones in the same price range. Among expensive custom-cum-universals, their build quality may be outclassed, but when Heir’s x.Ai series comes at less than half the price, what can you say. That is, what can you say except: “I wonder what Heir could do for 600$?”

Heir Audio’s 3.Ai and 4.Ai are good kids. You can’t go wrong with either.

Price vs the competition
Beautiful burl faceplates
Selection of cables
High price/performance ratio
Excellent customer service

Build quality and fit/finish meet price expectations, but shoot no higher
Sound quality not quite same league as other custom-cum-universals

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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