- Pros: Exotic performance, unique VE etheric rendering, best-in-class bass performance, best-in-class clarity, full-sized performance
- Cons: Only available in universal fit, requires significantly more volume from your DAPs to match output vs. other CIEMs
To be clear, the VE EXT is not just an upgraded Elysium, it is at a whole new level with a different overall signature. It is now supporting two dynamic drivers which should be of interest to anyone that enjoys full-sized audiophile bass. The best-in-call mids that the Elysium offers are still there, but it is not the focus of the EXT. Those mids/vocals are still forward and intimate but are now accompanied by the dual lead guitars over the vocalist’s shoulders, gobs of venue ambiance, and full-sized bass that you can feel all around while maintaining the Elysium’s texturing all the way down and up in the frequency range. Therefore, the EXT is competing more with the ERL and now the new Phonix.
Tour: Vision Ears PHöNIX and EXT Flagships
For those that do not know me, I am active on AudioTiers and HEADFI under the username “Barra” and have been hosting product tours for almost a decade now. During this time, I have been able to hear all the greats and experienced the evolution of CIEMs/IEMs and all the associated equipment. From that experience, I can say without a doubt that Vision Ears has always been on top of all the lists in terms of performance and unique tuning capabilities. I have managed a number of tours for Vision Ears and am very excited to now offer another 2021 flagship tour for the Phonix and the EXT. To sign up and to hear the EXT and the Phonix for yourself, please go to the tour thread and follow the instructions: https://audiotiers.com/tour-vision-ears-phonix-and-ext-flagships/.
As always, my goal is not to just offer my opinion, but to offer tours so you can hear this equipment for yourself. If you are not already an AudioTiers tour member, please go to AudioTiers.com and follow the instructions in the “Getting Started” box on the Tours page: https://audiotiers.com/tours/.
Vision Ears Tour Kickoff Video
The Vision Ears Family
Vision Ears is a premium CIEM manufacturer out of Germany that has a full lineup of premium IEMs and custom IEMs and are longtime favorites on HEADFI and AUDIOTIERS. Their lineup has always made the top of the charts in performance including the VE8, Elysium, the now-retired king – ERLKöNIG, plus the new EXT and Phonix. To learn more about Vision Ears, their lineup, or to purchase the EXT from this review, please visit their website at: https://vision-ears.de/.
The Vision Ears EXT
The EXT is a new dual flagship from Vison Ears sharing the top spot with the new Phonix. The EXT is being seen as an upgrade from the Elysium while the more expensive Phonix appears to be a replacement for the now-retired ERLKöNIG. While this review is on the EXT specifically, many readers are comparing these two to decide on a purchase as they are very close in overall performance with sonic preference being the key determining factor. Therefore, I will offer a number of comparisons within this EXT review. As the EXT is also seen as an upgrade to the Elysium, I will be offering a number of Elysium comparisons within this review as well. However, as I pointed out in the introduction, I don’t feel that this is simply an Elysium upgrade, that it is at a higher level of performance and has a different signature.
Universal Format Only
Both are only available in universal format only. While this was always the case with the ERLKöNIG, so it is not surprising in its replacement, the Elysium had a custom option so not having that option in the EXT was a disappointment for me. Having a custom option is very important to me as I have fit issues that are eliminated by having a custom IEM. My perfect fit allows me to wear them in an active environment without losing my seal forcing me to continually readjust and ensuring that I always have perfect performance so I can hear to the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum and that I can experience the full impact of the bass response.
My Elysium is a custom fit and this should be noted in the comparisons. This is because the custom Elysium has superior performance to the universal version as experienced in my online conversations with universal version owners as well as my direct experience comparing the universal tour Elysium to my own custom version. The difference in performance was a significant boost in the bass which the universal version owners felt was missing. A perfect seal is the only way to get a perfect bass response, and the Elysium was susceptible to imperfect seals issues as the mids were so prevalent that most never realized there was an issue. Most people will notice a marked improvement when cupping their hands over their ears when wearing a universal IEM – due to an imperfect seal.
While I would love for both/either of these models to gain a custom option, this is not likely. It was explained to me by Vision Ears that: “Both new models are just available as universals and it is not planned to make them custom – would be difficult anyway because the shell and faceplate material is an essential part of the design and not so easy to transfer to a custom version.”
Configuration – Yes, it has Two Dynamic Drivers
The EXT is a tribrid IEM with four electrostatic drivers – same as the Elysium – to create a wide-open landscape of lush details, an additional new 9.2mm dynamic driver with loads of power in the very low end replacing the Elysiums single BA bass module, and the same 6mm driver for the mids that was found in the Elysium. Yes, you hear correctly, there are two dynamic drivers, one for the mids and a larger one for sub-bass. This configuration similarity is why the EXT is looked at as an upgraded Elysium, it is the same configuration with the addition of a new 9.2mm dynamic driver for the lows. However, the tuning and crossing is very different which will be detailed in the comparison section.
The Phonix on the other hand is a traditional 12 BA configuration – 4 low, 4 mid, 4 high – same as the ERLKöNIG with the addition of a new super-tweeter offering a new 13th driver. From memory – I don’t have the ERLKöNIG on hand currently to compare directly – the sonic results are similar to the ERLKöNIG on its popular second switch. The Phonix in contrast has no switch. As the ERLKöNIG is rated at GOD-TIER status, just matching performance is quite a feat. I am hoping to get the tour ERLKöNIG sometime soon to be able to compare directly.
The EXT feels noticeable smaller and lighter than the Phonix. While side-by-side pictures don’t echo this feel, the EXT disappears and sucks into the ears while the Phonix just feels more substantial overall. They are both comfortable, but the EXT does a better job of disappearing while listening to music. I can actually lay with my ear on the pillow with the EXT while listening to music at night where I wouldn’t do this with the Phonix. The Elysium is not comparable as it is a custom build with a custom faceplate. However, the Elysium is one of the most recognizable faceplates in the world of IEMs and is extremely beautiful.
The EXT feels solid and uses a nice aluminum while the Phonix feels heavier and more solid in a good way. They both are beautiful and well built, but the Phonix was obviously the one designed to win the beauty contest and is priced higher to match its looks. The carbon fibre in the picture below is very beautiful but is dark and not immediately noticeable unless in the direct Arizona sunlight. The Phonix faceplate does pop and appears fiery in the sunlight which is extremely beautiful. Apparently, the Phonix likes it here in Phoenix.
The fit and seal for both the EXT and the Phonix is superb, but the seal on the EXT is better for me. The EXT somehow is sucked into my ear offering a custom-like fit and seal while the Phonix feels more external while still offering a great seal. Both have a good enough seal that they work well in an active environment. My Elysium is a custom fit so there is no comparison – it is perfect. As a traditionally custom-only company, Vision Ears has only recently begun offering universal versions of its extended lineup. Previously, only the ERLKöNIG was offered in universal. As a traditionally custom-only company, Vision Ears is one of the best in the business at getting a perfect custom fit. In fact, my Elysium is the best custom fit that I own.
For me, I only go silicone due to the inner workings of my ears. With a significant bend in my ear channel, the silicone offers a wedge to seal the IEM and get full performance. Therefore, I have not tried any other tips to offer other suggestions.
Vision Ears packaging is worth discussing as they have gone above and beyond. There is not much to say as the following picture say it all, but they do accessorize well.
The EXT Sound
The name AudioTiers comes from my attempt to offer performance tiers to provide perspective to these various in-ear offerings and the surrounding gear. While we have definitely hosted mid-tier and some entry-tier IEMs, we have mostly focused on the top-tier offerings with some mid-tier. The best of the best are termed exotics for their ability to be unique and stand above the crowd. The top 5 of the exotics are awarded GOD-Tier status. The ERLKöNIG is among those 5 GOD-Tier IEMs, but will lose its position soon as it is no longer available since being retired by Vision Ears. The Phonix has a good chance of replacing the ERLKöNIG, it is that good. The EXT is neck to neck with the Phonix as it is that good also. However, we never award exotic or God-Tier status to new entries until we get consensus from our membership which is likely to happen. My expectation is that they will fall into the exotic category at the minimum.
To describe the EXT signature, in a nutshell, is that it offers extreme clarity, euphoric and powerful texturing from end to end of the frequency spectrum, all supported by exotic bass performance for a full-sized soundstage. The bass is quick and large, but is only there when it is called for – the 9.2mm sub-bass otherwise disappears allowing the dynamic mids to take over. The sub-bass never steps on the mid-bass which is significant given that they are both dynamic drivers. For those audiophile bass lovers out there, the EXT delivers on the bass, but it is certainly not a fart cannon. This bass has impact and soul, but it is not always on. It offers warm characteristics even though the EXT has extreme clarity.
What is unique about this IEM is its reach both up and down while retaining power throughout the frequency range to drive textures, but allowing space between the instruments to offer clarity and positioning with gobs of detail. I could say the same thing about the Phonix, but it is warmer vs. the EXT clarity. The best way to describe the sound is to compare it to other familiar IEMs as at this level they are all superb and we are splitting hairs on performance. So it all comes down to your preferred signature which can best be described through contrasting and comparing with other great IEMs. But first, let’s discuss optimizing and pairing to set the stage.
Optimizing and Pairing
As I did not find either the EXT or the Phonix lacking in any area, I did not feel that rolling cables at this point would be a benefit. The stock cables are wonderful and the resulting sound is satisfactory. So this optimization section is mainly about pairing given that we have all already made investments in gear that we would like to use with our purchases. My preferred DAPs are the Sony WM1a and the Calyx M as I have sold my AK and other DAPs that were not being used. The Hugo 2 rounds out my setup offering top-tier performance using my Sony or iPhone as a source. My desktop DAC/AMP is the Burson C3R offering 7.5 watts of pure performance to test the limits of scalability. Based on experience, the C3R wattage scales my dynamic drivers to the extreme but is not necessary for BA-only setups. Here is what I found.
- iPhone 11: Amazon HD Music is a new app on my iPhone that has improved my sound quality considerably. From the standard Apple Music app, the EXT sounds great, but better on my better DAPs. The new Amazon app takes this up several notches and gets the iPhone closer to my dedicated DAPs mentioned below. In fact, the music discovery on the iPhone has made it my preferred method to listen to the EXT on the go. Either way, the music sounds full-sized from the iPhone, just more filled out with the Amazon app. But the dedicated DAPs are clearly better overall. I just wish that I had access to the Amazon music app with these DAPs. As mentioned above, the only weakness of the iPhone is that in crowded or dynamic passages there can be some clipping at first. However, for whatever reason, the clipping seems to disappear, and the fullness of the note returns after the iPhone warms up with 15 minutes or so constant playing. Of note is the need to turn my iPhone about 80 to 90 percent volume with the EXT vs. around 50 percent volume or less with my other IEMs such as the Phonix. While this sounds like it may be a disadvantage, it feels like to more power to drive the output also grips the drivers better for more texture. The iPhone doesn’t feel colored in the signature offering a very revealing look at the EXT but may not extend to the extremes like my better sources.
- Calyx M: The Calyx M is famous for its sound quality implying that the 9018 is responsible. While the stats don’t speak to this, the amp is likely to be the bigger influencer burning up a giant battery in less than four hours to meet that quality output. The clarity and transparency offered in the colder Calyx M signature offer more detail than the Sony below. In comparison, I used to like the Calyx M better than the Sony until I got a custom firmware upgrade on the Sony. The Calyx takes the audiophile performance up a notch with more and tighter detail, while Sony can actually be more fun. An advantage the Calyx has over Sony is that volume slider that allows me to perfect the volume for each song instantly and to play the EXT louder than normal for short bursts. The clarity of the EXT shines on the M and the powerful amp boosts the texturing. The M is a great pairing with the EXT offering a slightly different signature than the Sony which comes across as warmer and punchier. The Phonix loses some of the tube-like euphonics on the M offering more clarity bringing it closer to the EXT signature.
- Sony WM1a: The Sony was almost sold last year as it didn’t pair well with my CIEMs until I got the new custom firmware. The new firmware now plays nice with all my CIEMs. The EXT is a wonderful pairing offering a warmer tint to its performance with a nice girth to the note and more resonance and textures. The Sony with its superior battery life and UX is my go-to DAP for the EXT. While the Sony moves the EXT a little in the direction of the Phonix signature, the Phonix signature stays the same on Sony. Both the EXT and the Phonix sound fantastic on Sony.
- Hugo 2: The H2 takes the experience up a notch with a better DAC and AMP. The pairing is more in line with the Calyx M but on steroids. The bass comes out more, the detail is at another level, and the sound gets fuller. However, as with the M, the H2 brings out the clarity/transparency of the EXT for more of an audiophile sound rather than the more fun Sony. The problem with the H2 is that it is a stack that is not always convenient, so this is not as normal of a pairing as the Burson C3R which takes it up another notch given the additional driving power if I have to deal with the inconvenience. The Phonix performance also goes up a notch with the H2 with an additional gob of detail.
- Burson C3 Reference: Going desktop, the Burson C3R is my favorite pairing supersizing the overall SQ significantly and in a fun musical way that crushes the Sony. It should also be mentioned that I am employing the Amazon HD Music application as a source and running it through my Sonarworks True-Fi application tuned to my HD800 headphones that work well with the EXT signature. Playing through iTunes with True-Fi turned off brings down the sound quality noticeably, so some may consider this a cheat. Regardless, the C3R drives 7.5 watts into the EXT and offers a significant boost to the low end with more punch and more clarity. While the C3R is slightly warmer than the H2, not by much. The soundstage also grows with the C3R. Applied to the EXT it reaches the peak of performance and closes the gap on the Phonix, perhaps matching it. The traditional BA configuration of the Phoenix doesn’t handle the power boost as well having to keep the volume down to 1 out of 100 or it can sound overdone. However, the Phonix does grab another boost in detail and soundstage offering peek performance with the C3R as well. With the C3R, we are splitting hairs and the performance is around the same with two slightly different signatures – EXT offers more punch and dynamic bass with clarity throughout whereas the Phonix reminds me of a wonderful tube amp performance rendering the musical romance that can be missing from modern music.
Overall, I find that the BA offerings like Phonix or the ERLKöNIG do best with DAPs being overpowered by the desktop. While they sound great scaled down to the iPhone, this is not what they were built for and is a waste at this price point. The EXT and the Elysium require more volume than most to drive them at satisfactory output levels. However, they do play nice with the iPhone even though the volume is most of the way up. The desktop does offer a good amount of scaling as the Elysium and the EXT like the additional power, but they do not need it to reach most of their potential.
To compare to the other IEMs, we used the sources described in the previous section. My music ranges from EDM to classical to rock to metal to pop to new age and easy listening. My preference in listening is to play all genres randomly to jolt my senses while getting a wide sampling of music. While I have already offered some comparisons for the Phonix and the Elysium, I am also in possession of the new Lime Ears flagship, the Pnenma for comparison. Here is what I found.
These two IEMs are both exotic and offer stellar sound quality. They both offer full-sized sound and an extreme frequency range with power to drive textures and detail from end to end. The difference is mainly in the clarity focus of the EXT vs. the euphoric richness of the Phoenix. They both excel at bass, but the EXT bass is definitely more present and dynamic. I am splitting hairs, but I would also say that the Phoenix sound stage feels more full-sized headphone with the EXT being slightly smaller. In the end, the key difference is the EXT clarity focus vs. the warmer, more euphoric Phonix. When I listen to one, I am not missing the other as either are fully satisfying. However, it is always nice to switch as they both are slightly different.
The Elysium is very different than the EXT. Yes, it has mostly the same configuration, but the dual dynamic drivers and the new tuning make it a very different IEM. The focus is no longer on the mids, the EXT is a full spectrum performer that adds to the Elysium mids in a very dynamic way it is just at a whole new level of performance. The vocalist portrayed by the Elysium, is now accompanied by the full band with the EXT with two lead guitarists over their shoulders and it is easy to tell there are two leads. The EXT bass is now so spectacular that nobody would dare complain. There is also an extremely large soundstage with the EXT with the same intimate presentation so there is more ambiance and spatial cues. That being said, comparing these two very different IEMs reignited my love for the Elysium as well which will always be my go-to driver for intimate vocals. At risk for overusing the exotic term, the Elysium has exotic mids that are unbeatable.
Lime Ears Pnenma
The Pnenma is Lime Ears brand new flagship and is phenomenal. Where the EXT is a tribrid, the Pnenma is a hybrid with a dynamic driver for bass and four BA drivers. What is different about the Pnenma is the smaller 7mm (vs. 9.2mm) titanium dynamic bass driver which is extremely fast and punchy. The results are a very resolute bass note with a fast decay that etches out the details that other bass drivers may miss. The smaller driver sacrifices some of the extremely low rumbles but gets clarity in exchange while still offering an enormous and satisfying punch. In contrast to the EXT, the Pnenma bass driver is responsible for a broader range where the bass duties on the EXT are divided between the sub-bass and the mid-bass. However, the effect is similar as the EXT uses a smaller 6mm dynamic driver for the mids as well so the EXT has that rumble separated and in addition for those that find that 20-40 hertz bass to be critical and desire power in this range. Of note, there is a switch on the Pnenma that allows you to switch the bass from forward to neutral. In real-world use, you probably would not buy the Pnenma if you didn’t like its significant bass response so there is no practical reason for turning it down. I left it in bass enhanced for this comparison and found no advantage for switching.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Pnenma BA treble offers much more shimmer than I have been finding lately in the new offerings. Treble junkies may find this shimmer to be to their liking as it is very compelling and adds a lot to the overall signature. This is a very smooth audiophile shimmer and never approaches sibilance. The Pnenma is a fantastic IEM and is a very good value at its significantly lower price range and will appeal to those that miss the more traditional shimmer that a BA offers. These two IEMs are more complementary than competitors as the endearing characteristics of each are different. One last comment about the Pnenma, it is quite beautiful as you can see in the picture. However, the picture doesn’t do it justice as it looks even better in person.
The EXT and the Phonix are both easy recommendations for those that can afford them. They offer peak performance checking all the boxes of modern technology. The only downside is the lack of a custom option, but I find these both to offer a solid seal even in the universal format where this is not as much of a concern. Regardless, if you live in the US, then you are free to join our EXT/Phonix tour and hear them for yourself so you can decide for yourself – the way it should be.