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IEMs? Where would we be without their high propensity for mobility and discreet listening sessions? It’s like a personal private eye, hired for some deep investigative work. In the case of the masses vs. Fostex TE100 ($1,200 USD) the undiscovered back story is a fairly rich one.
Fostex is known for its OEM work as well as a myriad of partnerships over the years (you can check out some more of their history from our other review HERE), and one of the more recent meet ups came at a crossroads with high-end IEM maker FitEar. While not one of the most well-distributed brands in the US, its international presence overseas has been more significant, being one of the first major companies to dip their toes into the water in terms of high-end price points in the universal-fit IEM world. This was some time before the days of simultaneous custom/universal fit product launches in this category, but now Fostex has taken some of their brand’s mojo and thrust it out into the audiophile zeitgeist. Also worthy of note, the TE100 also bears some seriously close resemblance to FitEars overseas custom hybrid IEM release called the “Air,” but for the sake of a North American application, the Fostex hybrid is by all means the go-to offering on this side of the globe. Even the TE100 looks to have limited, selective distribution as the Fostex worldwide site clearly states “Not Sold in Europe” for the product.
And of course, before we dive into any IEM review, its important to touch on a few necessary talking points before the discussion evolves. The important thing is to ensure a proper fit, with a comfortable tip. Custom options alleviate most of this rather large issue, but come with a lot more legwork and much lower resale value than their universal counterparts. If you miss the seal, you miss the bass. According to our scientific friends at Harman who have actually measured the phenomenon, the low frequencies can take up to a 20-30 dB hit. This renders the overall response to a bad place, so just be sure to take the proper time to get the fit right out of the gate.
Precautions aside, the nozzle protrusion from the TE100 is fairly easy to attach said tips from, making for easy swap outs during adjustments. The delivery tube appears as a smaller, metal tube suspended within the nozzle. Unsure if this acts as a dual bore delivery system or just a single tube, not much was available in terms of literature on the subject. Hush-hush is also the word for exactly how many BA drivers were used in the initial design, but later reports and website spec data now point to a single armature driver for highs with a “full range” 9mm dynamic-driver for the rest. The feature set also leans us towards an “air-controlled acoustic tuning engineered by FitEar, offering maximum sound isolation without a vent hole for the hybrid type earphones.” The TE100 may signal an end to the multi-BA cold war that had brewing for the better part of the back half of the 2010’s. It has been made clear by many designs that more BAs don’t always equal better, and far more elements go into solid IEM design than just cramming more and more drivers into a shell. The profile of the FitEar collaboration is decent, landing neither completely within the confines of the a typical outer ear, nor pushing outward to an extreme where all the pressure of suspension lies solely on the connection to the ear canal. The shell is an interesting black/blue colour with a slightly transparent section near the faceplate. Instead of attaching the cable to the side of the shell-like most IEMs, the TE100 opts for a supplemental extension projecting out the exterior facing side, allowing for a little more space around the connector. The design appears to give the casework a slightly narrower contour in exchange for a bit more depth. One interesting thing to point out is if the writing on the interior of the earphone is to be believed, the proper way they should to be worn is with the cable running up and around the ear, rather than allowing the cable to dangle at a straight downward angle. This up-and-over design works just fine for this reviewer, but either option is acceptable with the use of a cable clip (a must have for any serious IEM lover). The added benefit here being that a quick jerk of the cable will not directly yank the IEMs downward out of the ear, even without the mighty cable clip of protection. The detachable cable is terminated at the earpiece end with a two-prong connection, but not your usual make or model. It appears to be more of a custom-made variety that clicks in and out with a much more stable proposition. This is a definite improvement over the more common “standard” connector.
There are several different ways In-Ears can present vocals. In the case of the TE-100 the offering is one of spaciousness and perceived distance from the listener. Linked closely to this sensation is fairly extended high frequencies that also draw on a more analytical nature of delivery. The whole ball of wax is quite entertaining to listen to, covering a bouncy and slightly large low-end, to highs ripe with detail and transparency. Listening to the new reissue of RadioHead’s “OK Computer” (OKNOTOK version), on Subterranean Homesick Alien it was easy to pick up a slightly more defined edge to York’s vocals, giving the singer a more raspy, dimensional quality to it. This was gleaned in a comparison to another top performer, the less expensive hybrid IEM option of 1More’s 3-BA-and-one-dynamic Quad Driver ($199). The bass sounds of the track hit fairly low in the total sum of the song’s sonic range, and pile along nicely as the song progresses, almost washing around the drum’s bass thump with an effortless, uncaring mission. This strikes a nice balance with the TE100, recreating the scene without too much strain, especially for the delicate environment of your ear canal. As the song speeds up with both an energy, and tempo the busy passages suffer little breakup: the IEMs driver combination is able to flush out control with both authority, and a delicate touch to the instruments they now represent.
Unlike any other listening source, universal fit IEMs ultimately suffer some of their low-end impact to the listeners ability to cram the devices into their ear canal. Does the bass seem a little light? Check the seal, and the fit. Unfortunately, this interpretation of variability is not expressed solely in a binary way. In many instances a little more shove down the pipe will result in a sliding scale of presence, capable of slight adjustments or correction. While enthusiasts may find comfort in the fixed distance of both customs, and products like Snugs, the loss of resale value along with the convenience of not dealing with molds keeps the universal variant very much alive and well in the high-end earphone market. Taking all this into consideration, one must take extra care in evaluating the amount of perceived bass to any universal IEM. In the case of the TE100, the average response was taken, and still felt just a hair above some of the most flat-response IEMs on the market (see: UERM), but still pretty balanced against the backdrop of wildly bassy options up and down the price scale. This was something that remained confident across the frequency spectrum, with a fair sense of balance and control. While the mids didn’t perhaps carry the same intimacy in the vocals as our reference pair of Campfire Audio Andromeda ($1099), overall the additional spaciousness and air gave the Fostex IEM a bit of its own personal flair that could very much be a preference for many an audiophile. Detail from the TE100 was in no sense diminished, which pushes hard against the perceived need for multiple drivers: if not for overall resolution, then what? No doubt additional phase and timing issues might be exaggerated, with more source points to direct the blame-finger towards. Single dynamic drivers can sound fairly fast, and responsive, but the quality appears to be more rare at lower price points. Many manufacturers are even starting to take a queue from loudspeaker design with coating options, although most keep their secret sauce under wraps.
So does the hybrid technology bring together the best of both worlds? Things are definitely looking better than even a few years before. While I didn’t have any on-hand products to pull from, many early attempts I’ve heard at audio shows didn’t quite offer the cohesion that has emerged from this latest crop of hybrids. Those are observations from memory, so please accept them with a grain of salt. In any case, the Fostex TE100 manages to step up the overall resolution to something more on par with expectations for its price point, which as one may imagine are very high for something that could easily be traded for a used boat at some point. Stalwart balance with a keen sense of dynamic retrieval doesn’t hurt much either. The treble offers up a significant portion of information without so much as a grating edge to speak of. It’s there, but not overly pronounced.
Since it appears the $1k price is the tipping point for next-level fidelity in IEMs, so follows the Fostex TE100. It delivers a clean image, both in transparency to source and by virtue of its snappy overall signature. In terms of hybrid IEM design, this is the first we have received that does so at level consistent with the high expectations associated with the cost. The out-of-head factor that is so sought after with this type of earphone is deliciously prominent, while the frequency balance strikes a fun yet refined quality. Its unique in a way that deserves a round of applause for not only the total sum of its sound-quality output, but also for the additional hurdles it takes to get to that point given the driver design and limitations for this type of in-ear listening. There is a sense of multi faceted texture to the vocals that set it apart from many others in the field while the lows, and highs score well against a landscape of either dull or exaggerated competition (in most cases the latter). It’s not quite what is expected, and that’s a good thing in this scenario.
For more information, don’t forget to check out Fostex International.