Custom Art FIBAE Black Review: Guilty Pleasure

 

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The FIBAE Black is a single-balanced armature in-ear monitor, available in both custom and universal form factors and retailing for 450 EUR. In terms of customization, the shell is only available in black (as the name precedes), but the faceplate can be customized.

I’d like to give big thanks Piotr and Kamil from Custom Art for setting me up with a review unit. I’ll be attempting to cover the quality and sound of the FIBAE Black with as little bias as possible. Almost all of my listening is done through the Sony NW-ZX300a, playing FLAC, WAV, and 320kbps MP3. Occasionally, I have also tested the Black through the LG V20 and OnePlus 6T USB-C dongle streaming Spotify Premium.

You can find more information, pricing, and details of the FIBAE Black at Custom Art’s  site, available through the following link:

FIBAE Black – Custom Art


 

Delivery

I’ll try to keep this section concise. The Custom Art FIBAE Black comes in a plain black box, containing a small pocketable zip-case and a black Pelican 1010 with foam lid padding. In summation, you’ll find:

  • Pocket-sized zip case
  • Black Pelican 1010
  • FIBAE Black + cable
  • Tips (S / M / L + M biflange)
  • Desiccant
  • Cleaning tool
  • Warranty / info sheet

Personally I am not a huge fan of the stock tips in terms of feel. They are made of a thinner material that gives easily, so using the right size is necessary. Using tips too large resulted in the tip ‘folding’ along itself and breaking the seal (whereas with other tips, a large tip will seal but have a shallow insertion depth). I was able to get a consistent fit with the small stock single-flange tips.

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I’m not sure the specifications of the stock cable, but in terms of ergonomics it does quite well. It’s flexible and decently low in microphonics, though there is a tad bit of springiness to it. It doesn’t retain memory and the chin slider is very effective.

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In terms of fit and finish, Custom Art’s shell work seems to be of very high quality. I have a set of FIBAE 3 on loan (thanks to Crinacle), and the shells here have no bubbles or imperfections. I assume the same follows for the FIBAE Black, though since it is opaque such things like that would not matter. The nozzle does have grooves for silicone/foam tips to latch on securely — I did quite a bit of tip rolling with the Black, and it seems to be holding up quite well so far. Detachable 2-pin connectors sit flush with the IEM (so not recessed), which is supposedly better for longevity and durability purposes. The inner surface of the housing is imprinted with the serial number of the IEM, in the respective blue/red for the left/right monitors.

I did not give any particular input on the faceplate design, but the result was described as a “broken glass with chameleon effect”. Aptly named, as the glass flakes shift between emerald and sapphire hues depending on the angle at which light hits it.

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The fit is excellent. I was seriously happy with the way the FIBAE 3 fit, and am once again impressed with the Black. The two shells are similar, but it appears the Black is actually slightly larger. However, the FIBAE Black still remains on the smaller side of things. It lays completely secure and flush with my ears (with the right tips, of course), and doesn’t protrude at all — like a custom would. I also don’t have any issues with discomfort over long periods of time.

Sound

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The FIBAE Black can be described as a warm neutral IEM with a tilt towards the lower frequencies. It has a smooth overtone with thick solid midrange notes, rolling off gently in the treble region. As a result, the FIBAE Black does not have the greatest sense of treble airiness or extension. However, there is not an out-of-place peak, valley, or any sign of incoherence in sight when it comes to the Black. It’s a slightly coloured listening experience that envelops the listener in a natural warmth; the longer I listen the more I notice its imaging and layering presentation.

Sound is described using the stock single-flange tips, with a slightly deeper insertion. I found out a bit later that tip rolling made moderately significant changes to the sound. A shallower fit (with the stock biflange) shifts the sound from low-end tilt to a more neutral, balanced sound.

Bass

Single-BA setups tend to leave one end or the other a bit neglected in terms of extension, whether it be in the low bass or higher treble regions. With the FIBAE Black, I can say that the low end is not lacking, especially with deep insertion. For a single balanced-armature, the Black delivers some commendable subbass and adequate impact to back it up. Subbass is a tad smooth in texture with a warm overtone, but Black still presents a surprisingly satisfying amount of rumble. Midbass is boosted in quantity but slightly blunted in attack, resulting in less aggressive bass hits with ample density. In terms of sheer amounts, the Black is not shy when it comes to throwing down the bass — it settles a bit above what I’d consider “good fun”.

I found bass rumble to be pretty intense with stock single flange, but actually more neutral with a stock biflange. Subbass has less authority with the latter, giving a quicker, more BA-typical presentation.

Midrange

Black aims for a warmer, more natural rendering of midrange notes, while maintaining adequate forwardness. Lower midrange is very full, carrying momentum from the upper bass frequencies. This balance gives the midrange a warm and ‘organic’ tilt, working well in the spectrum of male vocals and heftier woodwind instruments. Upper midrange is lifted moderately around 2-3khz to balance vocal body at the forefront of its presentation, though not overly forced in the mix due to the less emphasized presence region. Texturing is pleasantly smooth and rich in the midrange, there’s a distinct and unique sweetness to vocals through the Black.

I could imagine some listeners would opt for a tad more 4-5 khz presence, as currently it seems to be slightly blended over in this region — female vocal presence and snare drums are just a bit softer in the mix, certain singers and electric guitars could use more ‘bite’ to give the Black a sharper, more perceivable resolution. Presence definitely becomes less of an issue as listening volume increases. As an added bonus, when I do push the volume, that’s when the Black’s layering capabilities become more apparent. I’ll cover more about this after treble. After some extended listening, I’d say that this section is borderline mood-based. There are some days where the upper midrange sounds exceptionally natural, there are some days where I’d like that extra clarity. 

Treble

As mentioned earlier, most single-BA setups I’ve tried have lacked extension in one way or another. Black has taken an alternative path to treble presentation — while it’s not lacking in extension, it’s reduced in quantity as a tradeoff. Black’s treble is gentle, smooth, and a fair amount below what I’d consider the typical “neutral”. It feels like it rolls off gently without sudden drop-off, but there’s little air or sparkle — it’s just not adequate in quantity at higher frequencies for me to throw in these buzzwords. Microdetail and texturing in the upper frequencies are there, not at the forefront of its signature. Typically when I consider rolled off treble, it disappears somewhere in the upper frequencies, but with the Black I feel that upper treble is there but just significantly softer in quantity. That being said, there are no out-of-place peaks, dips, or weird jagged edges that I can pinpoint. It’s just a smooth, streamlined, and sloping treble response that doesn’t really throw any red flags up other than those based on quantity preferences.

I found a shallower insert (stock biflange) to introduce a noticeably increased low-treble quantity. I preferred the deep insertion as it eliminated any potential peakiness, though also seemingly reduced the ‘air’. Tradeoffs.

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Layering / Staging

After covering the overall sound signature, it’s clear that the Black is a warmer IEM with softer treble presentation. It’s not my typically preferred sound signature, and the Black’s technical prowess isn’t exactly turning heads — so why does the Black still sound good?

When Black is turned up to louder listening levels, it really feels like all the instruments and vocals are melted seamlessly together into a syrup of sound. Absolutely nothing feels lost (it’s all layered together nicely), but not really found either (separation becomes fuzzy). Isolating individual instruments and vocals isn’t as simple as with more technically advanced earphones, it’s almost as if all the layers are working together simultaneously, sharing mutual spatial bubbles with one another. It’s just pleasantly textured and different from what is normally expected from audiophile IEMs. It’s tricky to describe — separation isn’t the greatest, but trying to pinpoint certain layers gives you just the right amount of everything.

Though the Black doesn’t have much air rendered with its treble presentation, the Black doesn’t feel closed in or congested. Soundstage width is average if not slightly narrower, but the excellent layering means that instruments do not contest for stage real estate. In other words, the Black holds strong in more complex passages — in fact, it does very well.

Comparison to FIBAE 3

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The Black has a much heftier bass presentation than the FIBAE 3. Even with its single BA driver, Black extends deeper and has greater rumble in the subbass with more apparent texturing. Midbass also slams harder on the Black. Electronic music listeners and bass lovers would appreciate the Black’s low-end over the FIBAE 3’s leaner tuning, especially with deep-insert tips. Black has a more natural midrange timbre, where the FIBAE 3 is more nasal with an enhanced sense of sharpness. There seems to be a scoop in the upper midrange of the FIBAE 3, where the Black soars over it in coherency. Black’s treble is significantly more subdued when compared to the FIBAE 3, the latter presenting a greater amount of treble sparkle and air. Black is much smoother, and doesn’t sound peaky in any way. Black has more intimate imaging and a similar soundstage expansion, and a more textured layered sound

In summation, the Black has a heavier focus on tonal accuracy, significantly more natural timbre, better dynamics, and more apparent layering; the FIBAE 3 leans towards minute detail retrieval, treble technicality / performance.

Conclusion

This is not your typical reference monitor. The FIBAE Black does something that is a bit difficult to put into words, stepping away from the usual audiophile sound and raising the question — what makes “neutral” actually “necessary”? There are IEMs that can edge out the Black in detail retrieval, resolution, or extension for less than the Black’s asking price, but in turn it happens to be an exceptionally non-fatiguing, natural, and coherent tuning with beautiful layering at higher volumes. Bass rumbles well with the quick decay of a balanced-armature for an unusual low-end combination, while higher frequencies remain super smooth for excellent long-term listening.

As a single balanced-armature IEM retailing for 450 EUR, the Black plays at a bit of an awkward price point — far above what one would consider entry level, and well below the common flagships. I don’t think the Black has top-of-the-line technical performance at its price range, but I also don’t think that was the intention of Custom Art selecting a single-BA driver as its setup. It takes a step in a different direction, straying away from the classic “more detail” view on audiophilia and finding a different approach to refinement based on natural tone and musicality. The Black is not for the critical-listening detail-hound nor the infallible treblehead. It’s a thick and moving, robust but not-at-all-slow sound that needs to be heard to be truly understood.

For me, the Black has become my daily driver, no question: I find myself grabbing the single-driver FIBAE Black over my other IEMs without much consideration before heading out the door.

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