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Appeared on: Thursday, April 03, 2008
Sleek Audio SA6 Earphone


1. Inrtoduction

This has been, by far, the most difficult Earphone review for me to write. The difficulty is due to the complexity and the "coolness" of this particular product - the Sleek SA6. Imagine being able to custom tune your earphones. Too much treble? You can reduce it. Need more bass? Plug in a "bass port" and give more "oomph" to your music. These are fully customizable earphones with Treble Tubes and Bass Ports you swap in and out to "tailor" the sound to your taste. What more could a "gadget nut" really want?

Read on for my thoughts and a full review of the Sleek Audio SA6.

Sleek Audio started as a manufacturer of Hearing Aids - so they know the human ear. They also seem to know that no two ears are exactly alike - and they offer the user the ability to "shape" the sound to their liking. This is not an earphone for the faint of heart - there are tubes to pull out and push in, ports to pop in the back, cords to attach - in short, there is quite a bit for the user to do with these Earphones beyond just listening to music.

But ....I assure you, the more you put into creating your unique sound, the more you will get out of these technological wonders.

Here is the "official line" from the Sleek web site:

Why Sleek Audio

Sleek Audio is more than our name.

It defines our products. Sleek Audio means that you don’t have to sacrifice anything when it comes to your music. Sharp, precise sound can come out of a small, comfortable in-ear monitor.

Maintaining a small size and delivering incredible sound.

Beyond the beauty, our in-ear monitors are pushing the limits of sound technology and style. We decided to scrap the conventional thinking that more drivers or larger speakers are better, and we researched ways to accomplish the same broad frequency response while still delivering a product a fraction of the size of our competitors. The result: our unique VQ System. It’s true that our custom designed, single armature driver may cost us more than if we went with a dual or triple driver system, but sound, size, and quality would have been sacrificed, and your listening experience is more important than that.

The SA6, our premier in-ear monitors, not only sound great, but we also made them practical by introducing the first removable coaxial-cord setup, for a non-custom, in-ear monitor.

This setup allows you to swivel the cable and secure it behind your ear or wear it down as a traditional ear-bud.  Since the cord is removable, you can easily upgrade your SA6 for future developments, like wireless applications.  In addition to our passion for comfort and cutting-edge technology, our attention to detail can also be seen in our scratch-resistant polycarbonate case that protects your investment and shows off your good taste.

Technology

Acoustic performance is not something that can be simply measured in decibels--with in ear-monitors, it is also a perceived sensation

Insertion loss, or the amount of natural gain lost by inserting a device into the ear, has to be recreated with an in-ear monitor. How your monitor does this affects the performance. The resonant peak (the ear’s natural ability to amplify a certain frequency over all others) of one person’s ear canal may peak at 2k and another person at 3.5k. When you remove this natural peak by inserting something into the ear canal the sound changes differently depending on the person. The bottom line is that one device will not work perfectly for everyone. Enter the Variable Equalization (VQ) System.

We started by applying our knowledge of the acoustics of the ear.

The shape of the ear canal varies from person to person. The length and diameter of the ear canal changes the acoustics of the sound environment. For the same reason a bell rings at a certain tone based on its size and shape, the ear canal can increase or resonate certain tones (Resonant Frequency) more than others. This is why some people hear a tone as light and shimmery while others hear it as tinny and harsh.

The reason a loudspeaker may sound great in your living room and horrible in your garage is acoustics. The ear is not any different, and the environment varies for every person. The VQ System lets you make the necessary corrections easily.

Our multi-platform VQ System allows you to adjust our single balanced-armature driver to your personal taste.

Instead of adding multiple drivers and the necessary passive-crossovers which add color or distortion, we used a different approach. We started with a subminiature, ultra-wide band balanced single armature driver and developed the VQ System to acoustically alter the frequency response to personalize your music.

We designed the VQ System specifically for this incredible driver; because music is personal and the headphones should never get in the way.


2. Using the device
Design:

Everything about the design of the Sleek SA6 says "custom." They speak of a custom designed single armature driver - as do many other high end IEM manufacturers. Beyond the driver, everything about this Earphone is one-of-a-kind.

The size is small - about the same size as other "small" IEM's from Altec Lansing, Etymotic and others. The smallest IEM I have tested is the Klipsch IMAGE, and the Sleek's are just a bit bigger.

Removable Cables:

It is the flexibility and custom ability of this IEM that sets it apart. Let's start with the removable cables. Often, the cables are the "weak" link in Earphones. They get caught on things, pulled, tugged and sometimes they snap. When the cable breaks on a $250.00 pair of Earphones - that spells disaster. Not so for the Sleeks. The cable is detachable - it just pops out of the Earphones themselves. If it were to break - just order a new cable which is a fraction of the cost of an entire new set of Earphones.

The Detachable cable also allows for a "swiveling" of the cable. This allows the user to either wear the SA6's with the cable "behind" the ear or just straight down from the ear. Either way is comfortable and secure.

 

VQ System:

The defining feature of the Sleek design is the "Variable Equalization System." This actually allows the user to "shape" the sound by adding bass ports and treble tips to create a custom sound. Here is an explanation from the Sleek Web Site:

Variable Equalization (VQ) System

The VQ System, or Variable Equalization System, is the first of its kind in an in-ear monitor.

This multi-stage system allows you to completely customize the sound of your music. While you may appreciate brilliant treble, someone else may want deeper bass. Now, with the VQ System, all listening experiences can be tailored: from symphony to hip-hop, or country to rap, everyone can have the sound they love.

First, using Interchangeable High Frequency Filter Tips, the end-user can dramatically alter the sound of the high frequencies to adjust the amount of make up gain they need after inserting sound isolating in-ear monitors. It may be that you like sustained high-frequencies with a peak at the vocals. Or it could be that you want a flat response with some roll off at the upper high end. The choice is yours with our Interchangeable Treble Tips.

Second, low frequency response is a personal preference. Our patent-pending Variable (Interchangeable) Bass Port System maximizes the low-end bass curve. The result is a dramatic 12db difference at 20 hertz between our three interchangeable bass filters, with no effect on the high-frequencies. This is an industry first.

So, when you open your box of Sleek SA6's, what you see is your Earphones and four sets of tiny tubes - these are the "Treble Tips" for adjusting the high frequencies. You also see three small rubber "plugs" that go in the back of the Earphone - these are the "Bass Ports" for increasing or decreasing the Bass output of the Earphone.

I cannot tell you how cool it is to actually adjust the sound of your earphones. This is so much better than an artificial EQ system built into so many MP3 players. I literally swapped out every tip and every port on each ear to try to create the true "custom" sound I desired.

Now, the downside to this system is that these pieces are small and easily misplaced or dropped. Also, the Treble Tips did not always come out easily -sometimes they came out attached to the silicon tip. Jason, From Sleek Audio, assures me that a tool for removing the Treble Tips is in the works.

One added plus for me is that I have a dramatic reduction in high frequency discernment in one of my ears - a result of a blown ear drum and surgery. So, I could actually boost the treble more in that ear - which was a great advantage.

The Sleek SA6's ship with three silicon tips - small medium and large. The medium's were the best fit for me - but my ear size is somewhere between the medium and the small - so I actually swapped out the tips for the medium double flanged silicon tips from my Klipsch earphones and got a better seal. I found myself going back and forth between the Sleek medium tips and other tips. I have read on some enthusiast forums that others are using the foam tips from Shure earphones with the Sleeks as well.

Comfort:

Certainly, comfort is a key quality in an in-ear monitor. The small size and the flexibility of wearing the cable behind the ear or straight down makes for many options to find a comfortable fit. For me, I wore the cable straight down - this was more comfortable. Using the included ear tips (for purposes of this review) was certainly comfortable. They are well designed, seal out a good deal of outside noise and are soft enough to not cause pain in the ear canal.

The small size makes these things weigh next to nothing - which was a good thing.

Another factor in comfort is "fatigue." Earphone fatigue, especially IEM fatigue is an unusual thing. Having all that sound "inside your head" can make people uncomfortable after a prolonged period of time. Some users even complain of "nausea" from prolonged IEM usage.

Thankfully, there was none of that (at least for me or others who tried these out) with the SA6. I really did forget they were there and I was able to focus on the sound - not the fact that things were plugged in my ears.

Sound Quality:

This is always the make or break issue when it comes to Earphones - and it is always the most subjective part of any review. The "short of it" is that the Sleek SA6 sound great - really great. The long of it is a little more complicated than that.

The "X" factor in the Sleek sound is that you can make it your own. I was skeptical at first of the "VQ" system and how much difference it would really make. The fact is that is does make a difference. If you use an iPod or other music player that plays compressed MP3 files - the difference is noticeable. If you "Amp" your earphones - the difference is astounding.

Treble Tips:

I tried every combination and permutation of Bass Ports and Treble Tips on the Sleeks. The Treble Tips are in a nice foam array with a cardboard cutout that says "=,""+" or "-." "=" is for neutral treble sound, "+" gives the High end a boost and "-" reduces the Treble.

I first listened to the "=" Tip and found the Treble pleasing - but somewhat lacking. The high end was certainly clear and sharp - but not as brilliant as other Earphones I had listened to. The "-" Tips seemed to suck the life right out of my music - so those ones got the boot right away. When I put on the "+" tip the high end was magical - clear, not sibilant, sharp, bright - but not too bright. Vocals, cymbals and instrumentals began to soar.

In new packages of Sleek SA6's, they are also including a "++" Tip for even brighter high end. When I used the "++" tip, I found the highs to be too "bright" for my liking.

Bass Ports:

Like the Treble Tips, I tried all the Bass Port combinations. The "=" Ports allowed for smooth, if somewhat anemic sounding bass. I could certainly still hear the drums and bass guitar - but I certainly could not "feel" them. The "-" Port seemed to swallow up not only the bass, but also the midrange. The "+" Port gave me the best bass experience. I could hear the "punch" of the Bass Drum and I could hear every not of the lower end - but, I still did not "feel" the bass like I did with the Klipsch IMAGE. I found myself wishing for a "++" Bass Port.

Musicality:

It is hard for me to describe this completely - but the Sleek SA6 might just be the most "musical" IEM I have very listened to. The sound was "fun." It wasn't particularly "warm" and it wasn't overly "lively" it was fun and musical. Part of that certainly has to do with the Sound Stage of the SA6. The sound does not come from "inside your head" as it does on other IEMs - it is as close to wearing good "over the ear" earphones in terms of sound stage as I have experience with a Canal Phone or IEM. The sounds comes from everywhere - the musicians were truly surrounding me and I was enveloped in great musical sound quality. This is one of those things that needs to be experienced to be truly appreciated.

Vocals were "pure" on the SA6 - they really sounded the way (I think) they were intended. The only exception were vocals that had more bass in the voice. I did many "head to head" comparisons with other Earphones and mostly did close comparisons with the Klipsch IMAGE. For Vocals like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Josh Groban and the like - the Sleek's provides the best vocals I have heard in an IEM. For Bruce Springsteen, Norah Jones, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles and the like - the IMAGE provided a more full vocal experience.

For Instrumental music - especially guitar and piano - the Sleeks were "dead on." Beautiful reproduction and presence.

For most "Rock" - the Sleeks fell a little short of the IMAGE - mostly due to the reduced bass response.

For Jazz - the Sleeks were tremendous - all the highs of the symbols and the horns and a beautiful midrange coupled with the great sound stage made these a winner.


3. Overall Conclusions

The Sleek SA6 is a whole lot of Earphone for the money. The sound is terrific - especially the high end, midrange and sound stage. The bass is a little lacking - but certainly more than "passable." The ability to customize the sound by swapping out Treble Tips and Bass Ports is more than a novelty - it really helps you shape the sound quality and creative a unique, personal listening experience. For that quality alone these are well worth the money.

Last week I wrote a very positive review of the Klipsch Custom 3 - a dual driver earphone. As much as I liked those - when I find myself with time to just sit and enjoy my music, I pull out either the Sleek SA6 or the Klipsch IMAGE - for reasons of comfort and sound and that indescribable "sound stage" experience. It really depends on what I am listening to as to which is my favorite on a given day. Given that the Sleek is $100 less and has all the options - it makes it a wonderful addition to anyone's Earphone collection.

Jason, From Sleek Audio, has informed me that they are working on a "wireless" solution for the SA6- imagine this kind of quality and Bluetooth Streaming Stereo into these tiny marvels - that is very exciting and we will be watching out for news on that development.

Final Grade: A

Pros: Amazing Sound Stage, great mids and high end, unique VQ system allows you to "tailor" the sound

Cons: Small pieces can get easily lost, tricky to swap out Treble Tips, lack of bass response - especially in Rock music

Pricing

Retail: $249.99

Go to www.sleek-audio.com for a detailed description and nice Flash demonstration of the VQ system.


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