Ken Ball from ALO Audio is a big fan of the outdoors. If you see an image of nature on the ALO Audio, and now Campfire Audio web site, it will have been one he took himself. So for his new venture into in-ear monitors it was only appropriate that The Andromeda be named after a feature of the night sky.
While I did have a listen to his first three models of IEM at a previous Tokyo headphone festival, I wasn’t so enamoured by the brightness of the Jupiters, which seemed too strong for my tastes. It wasn’t until this year, when I heard the Andromedas for the first time, that I was really moved by the sound. I was moved not so much because of any particular feature of the sound, but because their seeming lack of anything in the sound that reminded me I was listening with IEMs. The cohesion of the overall presentation had the IEMs immediately disappearing, leaving just the music.
Ken didn’t hold back on the design in any way, shape or form with the Andromeda, exemplified by the fact that the pair I have for review are actually factory rejects. It would take a careful eye to see why, but he doesn’t deny his intent to be perfectionist and send customers only a perfect product. As well, since I receive my pair, the design has been changed ever so slightly to add a couple of facets to area opposite the nozzle facing your ear, which may be better for people for whom the design is a bit of a tighter fit. I didn’t have any discomfort from the metal, but I have very average ears.
Unusually, for a manufacturer, he started off building cables by hand, then working with others to make amps and DACs, and now headphones, rather in reverse of many other companies that started with headphones first. That has, however, given him an advantage with his range of IEMs, as he has the experience to design a good cable. As much as one may dislike the idea of the importance of a good cable, I can attest to the difference they can make. On my pair of JH13s, if I use the stock cable, the sound is harsh and unlistenable. A change to a well-made Litz-wire cable from a third party transforms the sound. Time and time again I’ve had good headphones that I felt were simply held back by the stock cable. Where the manufacturer has included a good cable, this hasn’t been an issue.
Irrespective of opinion on the matter, the cable itself is the same thickness and flexibility of a regular IEM cable, excepting the metal splitter and neatly-fitting transparent plastic choker. The MMCX plugs are a custom beryllium copper plug that has a tighter grip than a stock MMCX connector, the ring having a larger bend. Removal requires quite a firm pull, which the instruction manual advises be done straight and not at an angle. The downside is that this type of connector turns endlessly, which can be annoying if you’re like me and line up your IEMs for insertion by the direction of the cable. I’m also sure some people will prefer a non-memory-wire version of the cable.
The Andromedas come with a good selection of ear tips: Silicon, foam and Comply TX-400; and a cleaning tool. The Complys are difficult to install, having a narrowish tube, the good side of that being that they stay on very tightly. With a bit of foam in the tube, they are good for keeping earwax out of the canals.
The included leather clamshell zip case has faux sheepskin lining, giving it a classy, old-school appearance suggesting a product intended to be used for a long time.
As for the IEMs themselves, they consist of 5 balanced armature drivers — 2 for the bass, 1 for the mids, and 2 for the highs. These are housed in a CNC aluminium enclosure with a uniquely shaped design. For my ears, that edgy shape could be felt a bit on insertion, but it didn’t end up bothering me at all. I’m more sensitive to the discomfort of having anything in my ear canals to really notice. However Ken has acknowledged concerns and will be smoothing the design slightly in future production runs.
Ear canal discomfort may be an issue for some, as the three-port aluminium nozzle is big, and requires similar tips that DITA Audio’s The Answer, RHA, and FitEar’s universal series do. Since that permits tips with a variety of sizes, some tuning is readily possible as it is with the DITAs. Select tips with a narrower nozzle and the highs are tamed a bit, the bass being brought out more. If I select Spinfits for comfort then this is exactly what happens, making the Andromeda warmer with stronger bass, but not as pleasant overall as with the stock tips.
After an initial listen, I ran the Andromeda in for a couple of days using pink noise, with periods of listening in between. Most of the time I ran them out of an ALO Audio Rx or Pico Power connected to my Schiit Yggdrasil. Sometimes I used a Chord Mojo. DAP pairings I shall address separately. For most of the comparison I used the stock silicon tips.
If you have experience with many full-sized headphones, I can simplify things and say that the Andromeda is much like a pair of MrSpeakers Ethers in overall tone when used out of a good DAP or amp. From the very present, but sweet highs down to the moderately strong mid-bass, with a few exceptions both have a similar character.
This made acoustic recordings a joy, enough to make one forget that you are listening with IEMs. Using my iPhone or Soundaware’s M1, both of which have a <0 Ohm output impedance, the bass drops back a bit, which I find pleasant when the music is already very bass-strong. While mostly mid-bass prominent, it does extend well down to the deep bass if you have a good seal.
Generally speaking, foam tips will reduce the treble and narrower-bore tips will increase the bass. At one extreme, if I used the Andromeda out of the Mojo or similar, which brought out the most bass, and had the included Comply foam tips on, they sounded at their darkest, similar to what I had experienced often with the Laylas. This was sometimes too dark for me. Spinfits and DITA medium-bore tips seemed to cause the mid-range to take a back seat to a degree, so at the recommendation of other members I tried JVC’s Sprital Dot tips.
Spiral Dot tips use a spiral of indents in the bore to reduce turbulence. Since some JVC IEMs have a similar bore shape as the Andromeda, they fitted perfectly. Also, given the wide bore of the tips, the treble could come out well. This increased the overall coherency of the sound, leaving me to balance up the amount of bass via the choice of amp or DAP. The only downside is that the very wide bore can make the highest treble a bit bright, which was fine with most acoustic music, but other music, if treble-strong, can be a bit unpleasant.
Random tracks from putting my three-stars and better playlist on random. It should be noted that I listen at a moderate volume level.
Let the Sunshine In sung by Julie Driscoll, being an old pop number with less than perfect recording quality and lacking in bass was rather thin-sounding as a consequence. I wish someone would re-master this.
Let there be Light – Justice. This band plays best with headphones and IEMs that really give a good bass kick. The Andromeda is possibly a touch too light-sounding, but when I switched over to the DITA to compare how a dynamic sounded with bass, with the “reference” tips they had even less bass. That leaves me feeling the Andromeda will be good for someone who likes their bass kick, but without there being too much, even with this kind of music.
Englishman in New York – Sting. One of the best features of the Andromeda is its ability to render a sense of space in the recording, despite being IEMs and this recording was a good example of that. The level of detail, down to the decay of notes echoing across the recording space emphasised this.
Dazzling Blue (Album) – Alexis Cole. This Chesky binaural album has become my reference for headphone listening. If anything the bass lines can be a bit strong. It’s here that I feel more like I’m listening with IEMs, as the bass crowds a bit into the rest of the sound space, if it is rendered very well.
Spanish Grease (Dorfmeister Con Madrid De Los Austrias Muga Reserva Mix) – Willie Bobo – Verve Remixed.
This is music that, along with the other tracks and similar albums I lump into the category of “club music” which is brighter with a stronger beat. Due to the mastering being somewhat bass-light, with these tracks I preferred more bass-strong/treble-light IEMs for preference, even when I rotated tips on that moved the sound signature of the Andromedas in this direction.
What was apparent throughout listening was the sense of space that live recordings are presented with. What is more, the clean-sounding treble wasn’t bothersome, even when modern, brightly-recorded (but not compressed) recordings were being listened to. The presentation is very much a “This is how the recording is, for better or for worse” one.
That presentation works fantastically with acoustic recordings, from vocals through to jazz and classical, but are also capable all-rounders, quite able to deliver music with strong bass.
My usual portable go-to is the Chord Mojo. The Andromeda has a tiny amount of hiss audible when plugged in without music playing. Being a close to 0 Ohm output device, the bass is quite prominent, yet quite clean-sounding, the sense of spaciousness still very pleasant.
ALO Rx (2015 version) — Even less hiss than the Mojo. Brings out the treble and spaciousness a tiny bit more.
Headamp Pico Power — low gain setting. No hiss at all and a minute amount on medium gain. Plenty on high gain, but no worse than the Mojo. Very smooth and neutral “nothing but the facts” but less spacious-sounding than the Rx or Mojo direct.
Sound Potion Monolith — My favourite pick, combining the smoothness of the Pico Power with the spaciousness of the Rx and only has a tiny bit of hiss on low gain.
While it may seem an odd comparison, these considerably more bass-strong IEMs were useful for providing a contrast to the presentation of the Andromeda. Where bass thump and a well-smoothed treble was more important than ultimate detail, such as with “club” music, the Shozys were strongest, whereas the Andromeda wins with acoustic music where space, soundstage and separation are most important.
Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors
Compared to the Andromeda, they are tuned to a more neutral frequency response and are less sensitive. The Andromeda picked up hiss from ALO Audio’s new Continental V5 (CV5) whereas the UERMs didn’t. The Andromedas also have more mid-bass emphasis, the treble varying depending on the tips used.
JH Audio Layla Universals (original version)
I was expecting the Andromeda to sound brighter, as I’ve always found the Laylas to be a bit dull-sounding, but surprisingly, with the bass turned down, they are more similar than not. The Layla has the advantage that they can be CIEMs, and the multiple drivers give them more headroom for louder listening, something not so important to me. The main issue for me with the universal Layla was getting a good fit and adjusting them to sound the best, something I didn’t have as many issues with when using the Andromeda. I reckon the Laylas would work best as a CIEM.
Very often discussion of new, high-end products centres around how they can be improved. The Andromeda is one of those products that is great right out of the box sonically, especially if you your tastes are more towards well-mastered acoustic music, with a spacious and detailed sound. With more modern, brighter-mastered music they are a not quite so suited, at least without some tip rolling. Most pleasing is how much care Ken has put into designing and making them. The only cautions are that the design and cable ergonomics wont be suitable for everyone.
Thanks to Ken Ball for proving the Andromeda for review.