Singapore is one of the world's premier audio hubs. A combination of crippling humidity and heat, a thriving public transportation system, and an intrinsically reserved society make the country a haven for IEM enthusiasts in particular. By contrast, I happen to reside in the barren IEM desert that is the USA where my closest "demo shop" for IEMs is basically my friend Super*Review's house!
You can imagine why I'd been floating around the idea of taking a trip to Singapore as far back as six months ago. And the icing on the cake? CanJam Singapore 2022, a popular audio show, would also be taking place at around the same time. There were a few things that would have to line up first, though. I'd be just wrapping up finals and my last quarter in college, so I couldn't afford to fail my classes. And more importantly, I had to actually secure the funds to afford the trip. Fortunately, Headphones.com was happy to sponsor the majority of the trip - a big thank you! - and I managed to pass my classes. Requisites met, I excitedly packed up my bags and I hopped on a flight to the other side of the world. A fun fact: I believe that the flight I took was the longest the airline offered at a doozy of 17 hours!
Motivation behind the trip aside, read on for a full look at what I got up to in audiophile (and as I had the pleasure of finding out, food) haven. Most of the audio-related stuff in this article happened on Days 4 and 5 if that's what you're looking for. Days 2 and 3, CanJam Singapore 2022, are in separate articles (IEMs here and headphones here).
Day 1: Arrival
If you're wondering about the IEMs that I rocked on the flight, it was a mix between my 64A A4S and Apple AirPod Pros. 64A's Apex technology on the A4S really came in handy when the plane was changing altitudes because it allowed my ears to "pop" and release pressure without taking out the IEMs. Of course, because of the superior comfort, I was also readily able to wear them for ~10hrs without an issue. I did find isolation on the A4S to be slightly worse than the Softears RSV I wore on the way back, though. That's not something I've really noticed before - in fact, I'd consider the A4S's isolation to generally be very good - but it became more apparent in the din of the plane's cabin. I guess that's just one of the trade-offs you'll have to make with this type of technology.
After getting off my flight and going through customs at the Changi airport, I was greeted by Tork, Miji, and Howard, friends that I've been chatting with online for a couple years. Unfortunately, the car we were taking had its battery die right when we were about to leave! Just the way to start off a trip, right? I ended up walking around with Tork to explore other parts of the airport while the others got the car checked out. While this might initially sound boring, just take a look at the MASSIVE indoor waterfall in the picture below. I'm pretty sure the airport itself is a tourist attraction of itself - or at least it certainly should be!
Picture credits: Cornelius ("Tork")
After this, we took the train to make a brief stop by Zeppelin & Co (which I'll get much more in-depth on later) for a quick demo session of Subtonic's upcoming IEM, the Storm. We had another scare along the way where I forgot my phone on the train at a connection. As luck would have it, someone had already picked it up and was going to report it missing. I was really grateful; in the US, that probably would've been long gone.
Later, we met back up with Howard and Miji to grab lunch at a local mart. This was my first exposure to Singapore's food, and let me just say...it didn't disappoint! The fried oyster and egg dish below was probably one of my favorite out of the entire trip. It probably tasted a whole lot better because all I'd eaten up until this point was food from the plane, but hey...
Aside from being unprepared for just how good the food would be, I was equally unprepared for the heat in SG. Sure, I knew it almost never goes under 80F (yes, I use dirty imperial units), but coming from the Bay Area, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer humidity. It makes it feel like it's upwards of 10F more than it really is; let's just say that AC is a godsend in SG.
I certainly jacked it up after checking into my hotel, the iBis Budget Bugis (sorry, it's not the mega-expensive Pan Pacific, so I didn't bother taking any pictures). Generally, I thought this was a decent hotel overall for $70 a night; however, my room didn't even have a window, so I was constantly wondering what time of the day it was when I'd wake up! Space really comes at a premium in a country as small as SG.
Day 2 & 3: CanJam (but mostly a lot of food)
Picture credits: Lee (Elysian)
These days of my trip were dedicated to coverage of the audio industry show, CanJam. CanJam is frequently the release point for new products and a chance for show-goers to get first ears on them. If you'd like to read my impressions of everything I heard, then you can check out my thoughts on the IEMs here and the headphones here.
Hanging with Gabriel (@ethanmusic7), Crinacle (IEF), and Axel (Film Crew)
Outside of this, though, I really got around to eating a whole lot more food. We went to HaiDiLao Hot Pot the first day on Crin's treat. This is a restaurant that's well-known for providing extra services. They have charging stations for electronics, plastic baggies so you don't get grease on your phone and, at one point, I'm told they even offered manicures! Honestly though, I thought the food itself here was just decent - it was a little too spicy for my low tolerances.
But can we talk about the boba? In the SF Bay Area where I live, the boba usually ranges anywhere from average to downright awful, with Boba Guys probably being the best I've had (I'd give their stuff a 7/10 depending on the day). I usually feel like a lot of stores try to compensate for sh*tty boba with more sugar and a plethora of toppings which, in reality, just makes them taste worse to me. Needless to say the boba is substantially better in Singapore; that's just one of the benefits of having a boba store every 100 yards and the competition it breeds! The pearls in the one above from Milksha were incredibly bouncy and chewy, while another one I had from Xing Fu Tang actually had fresh, hot pearls. But this one from Milksha was definitely my favorite, as the milk itself was sublime too.
While we continued to wait for our spot in line at a madly popular restaurant for dinner, we decided to go check out a Japanese chain store called Don Don Donki. As far as I know, this is not something that we have in the USA. Also observe the (likewise) regionally-locked, glorious Demon Slayer style curry above.
Din Tai Feng for dinner with Crinacle, Axel (Film Crew), Snek (IYKYK), and Kevin (Subtonic).
This restaurant is most well-known for their Xiao Long Bao's, but they made some great fried rice with chicken too! This is actually the second time I've been to this restaurant; I went to the original restaurant in Taiwan way back in 2014. But I don't remember having fried rice and chicken when I went there last time. Suffice it to say it was great to try out their food again - and explore new options - because it's been so long.
Day 4: Crinacle x Precog
A highlight of this trip for me was being able to finally meet-up with Crinacle. For those who don't know who Crinacle is, he's the de-facto authority on IEMs and he was a strong motivation behind my own decision to start writing audio reviews. Heck, I still remember reading his original Moondrop Blessing review when I purchased that IEM!
An obligatory shot showing some of Crinacle's collection. Now, note I say some because there was an entire second display case filled with IEMs plus a good number more on his desk! I basically camped out with Crin for the next five hours going through his IEMs and taking measurements for my own squig.link database. In total, I want to say I listened to about ~30 IEMs? It was definitely quite the run I had! A couple IEMs that stood out to me were the following:
- FatFreq Maestro Mini: An unreleased IEM. Crin told me, "I think you'll like this one". About that...the Maestro Mini has the most ridiculous bass shelf I think I've heard on an IEM; hell, an amount of bass that makes even Empire Ear's IEMs sound tame. But it's ALL sub-bass, and the midrange and treble tonal balance are sufficiently maintained. This is basically neutral with sub-bass boost taken to the extreme. We both agreed that the detailing on the Maestro Mini was somewhat lacking, but man, it was such a fun listen.
- Fearless Y2K Tuning System: Not strictly an IEM, but I got to see the tuning system that Crin originally used to tune his first collaboration, the Dawn. The system is heavy and comes in a fat metal briefcase. I didn't really understand exactly how it works even though he explained it to me, but the gist of it that I got is that the crossovers for the IEM are stored in the tuning box itself. This means you can adjust the tuning of the IEM just by plugging in the IEMs and playing with the various dials. The tuning system is an oddity - I doubt anyone else has ever actually purchased one as it costs $5K USD! - but I wish I'd played with it a little more.
- Moondrop Blessing OG: Okay, it was fun to re-visit this as I sold mine well over a year ago. I understand Crin's comments regarding the bass now, and what it was that made me decide to sell the Blessing in the first place. The bass on the Blessing OG really sounds more BA to me than it does DD. Generally, the Blessing is also sort of anemic and has a noticeable grain to decay. In retrospect, it's not really a surprise to me that I preferred the KXXS (which I still own) more, even though the Blessing OG is still a decent technical performer.
- oBravo Cupid: The meme, the myth, the legend. I think this is quite possibly the worst IEM I've had the displeasure of hearing in my reviewing career; it makes most other 'worst' IEMs I've deemed in the past sound palatable by comparison. This unit also had a massive channel imbalance (I'm told two others were literally wired out of phase and another was channel imbalanced too), so Crin finally just said "screw it" and rolled with this unit. Anyways. Suffice to say that I would not recommend purchasing this IEM.
After frolicking in a pile of IEMs, I spent about an hour and a half jamming out to Crin's personal speaker setup: Neumann KH120s + a KH750 subwoofer. Crin's fine-tuned the frequency response with DSP to be dead-flat, and then added in another filter for the sub-bass shelf (of course I stacked on upwards of 17dB at one point while listening to EDM). I have to say that these sounded phenomenal. As most would know, speakers are at the top of the food chain when it comes to audio. No IEM or headphone can re-create the sense of staging and dynamics that speakers can. And speaking of dynamics, I could really hear the brick-walling on some of my favorite questionably mastered tracks like Itzy's "Voltage"! By contrast, on Faith Hill's "It Matters to Me", for example, I was blown away how explosive and thunderous she sounded at 1:46 when she started belting.
Of course, there's no way that IEMs could compare after having just listened to Crin's speaker setup; I'd be giving extremely critical and unfair assessments! Recognizing this (plus the growling of my empty stomach), we headed out to grab dinner a short walk away at Chong Pang Nasi Lemak, a SG restaurant famous for their fried chicken wings. I was told that the rest of their food was just "alright", but I found it to be fantastic too! The rice itself was infused with coconut oil, I believe, and the tiny salted fish were oh-so-crunchy. I really enjoyed this meal, and I think it was only like $16 SGD for the both of us. Do note, however, that the restaurant is definitely more a night spot as it's only open from 5PM-5AM. Crin's apparently a regular there because of his night owl sleep schedule.
Returning to Crin's studio, just for the meme, I was finally able to hear the Sennheiser HD8XX and compare them directly to his personal HD800S. In a nutshell, the HD8XX sounds awful. My favorite singer, Taeyeon, sounded sucked-out and nasal, and the highlight of the HD800S - it's wide staging - was basically nowhere to be found. It's beyond me why anyone would want to purchase this; even with the option of EQ, I'd much rather just pony up the extra cash for the HD800S.
But to end on a high note, I had a great time being able to meet basically one of my idols in the audio world. I learned a lot about the motivation behind why he started reviewing and his decision to pursue reviewing full-time. Plus, check out a souvenir from the man himself - the SoftEars RSV! I listened to these on almost my entire return flight; they were surprisingly comfortable given the wider diameter of the nozzle bores.
Day 5: Treetop Walk + Zeppelin & Co.
On this day, I woke up early to go on the Macritchie treetop walk with Tork. In total, we walked about four miles in the sweltering SG heat. I cannot BELIEVE how tiring it was. Maybe I'm just really out of shape (my cardio is awful), but the humidity really made the walk feel way longer to me. As for the views themselves, I'd say the were pretty standard, but maybe my perspective is skewed. I've had the opportunity to visit no shortage of national parks in the past, and the nature views in SG are definitely more limited. As an aside, the general landscape of SG is beautiful, though; a juxtaposition of towering sky-rises and no shortage of greenery.
There's no better feeling than kicking back and resting after getting some exercise - especially with some good food. I don't remember the name of this cafe, but they had a really diverse menu that spanned from burgers to Korean fried chicken. I found this to be quite good if a little overly sweet. The thing with Korean chicken is that it's often drenched in sweet sauces, so it's really filling. I also noticed that the egg yolks here were almost orange, and Tork informed me that it's a product of what the chickens in SG eat - more specifically, I believe I was told chili peppers?! Well, today I definitely learned something new.
Now onwards to Zeppelin & Co!
Founded in 2016, Zepp & Co is one of SG's most popular audio stores that is located on the second floor of one of the few remaining tech malls in Rochor, SG. I've frequently seen my friends talking passionately about this store, so it's been on my radar for some time. To me, the most distinctive part of Zepp & Co when you walk in is definitely the atmosphere. In most audio stores, I'm used to a couple people milling around, mostly keeping to themselves, and everything in the store having an aura of "you couldn't afford this even if you wanted to".
But not Zepp & Co. When I entered, I saw listeners sprawled at the various tables spread out on the store's floor and at the bar table to the far right of the entrance. Some were listening intently on their own, but many were also chatting away with one another in groups. To me, there was a general sense of the usual snooty, reclusive audiophile stigma being flipped on its head in this store. One of the best parts about all this, though? I saw employees happily conversing with customers like they were...well, people. There didn't seem to be any pressure to make a purchase, and I saw people moving from one piece of gear to the next, taking their sweet time. It's just so, so different from what I'm used to seeing (and here, I'll reference a very special store in SF that makes you put down a $150 deposit to demo for half an hour).
According to the founder of Zepp & Co, Kristy, and her brother, Feng, this is all very intentional. When Kristy founded Zepp & Co, it was with the sentiment that there wasn't an existing audio store where she felt comfortable. But she loved the relaxing environment in cafes; naturally, the idea of an audio store that served drinks was born. The goal was to create a safe space where audiophiles could meet one another, make conversation, and bond. This meant doing away with traditional barriers to entry like salesman talk and the usual atmosphere of exclusivity. The name of Zeppelin & Co itself is inspired by 1) the German airship that pioneered an idea similar to the blimp, and 2) the famous rock band. In both instances, it's intended to reflect the idea that Zepp & Co is doing something different that hasn't been done before.
If Kristy is the heart behind Zepp & Co's vision, then Feng is the brains so to speak. He talked to me about the steps he took when he joined the team a couple years ago. One of the first things he did was modernize the company's accounting and automate much of their online sales system. Zepp & Co's long-term trajectory is to go regional while maintaining the atmosphere that their current store is known for. But most of all, they're on a mission to emphatically prove that retail is not dead, especially in a segment of the market that's been stagnant for so long. This means not only focusing on the people and building lasting relationships, but also devoting a high degree of attention to detail...well, pretty much everywhere!
Picture credits: third_eye (Producer for CanJam)
Case in point, I commented on the posters they had at CanJam - specifically how I liked the added touch with the location and coordinates of the brands they were exhibiting - and I learned there was way more detail to them than met the eye! If you look above, the showcase image for each brand had airplane windows, and the posters themselves were interconnected like a plane. This was intended to signify a show of unity between the brands even if their official representatives weren't able to make it to CanJam SG. Neat! And within the context of the store itself, Feng tells me that the shopping mall is older, so the AC actually tends to run slightly colder than it should. Zepp & Co, however, took the liberty of installing dampeners over their AC vents to bring the heat back to a slightly more palatable temperature. It was fantastic hearing the attention to detail that Kristy and Feng have put into their store to create and maintain its cozy, welcoming atmosphere.
Subtleties aside, one thing that immediately stood out to me is how incredibly passionate Kristy and Feng are about what they do. Our initial ten-minute interview rapidly jumped to half-an-hour, and both were eager to share with me their favorite headphones (the new ZMF Atrium, Kennerton Odin, and Rosson RAD-0) and a new source they were thinking of purchasing. I even spent some time after that with Feng and other friends, checking out the upcoming Questyle M15 dongle (which we all agreed was a solid jump over the Lotto Paw S2 that was also on-hand). Of course, this passion extends to the staff. Many of the staff members were customers and hung out regularly in the store before joining the crew, and they come from a diverse set of backgrounds (Feng originally did mergers and acquisitions in the oil industry for example!). By looking from outside the glass, so to speak, members of the crew are able to better understand where newcomers in the hobby are coming from and offer a unique perspective.
To this end, Kristy and Feng asked me if I had any constructive criticism for Zepp & Co. But I don't know about that. All I can really say is...please keep doing what you're doing!
Picture credits: Jim ("Miji")
I also got some new ear impressions done (for the Elysian Diva!) after learning that Zepp & Co did them in-house. If you haven't had ear impressions taken before, it can be a somewhat uneasy first experience. The general process of getting ear impressions goes like so:
- Ears are checked to make sure there is no wax buildup.
- A foam stopper with string is inserted deep inside your ear canal to eventually remove the impression material that will be shot inside.
- You'll bite down on a block. This is to ensure your ear canals expand optimally.
- Impression material is shot into your ear canal. It's cold and will block out almost all sound!
- The material takes the shape of your ear and hardens.
- The foam stopper is removed with the piece of string, thus also pulling out the material.
Luckily, I was in good hands with James ("Nostalgia") on the right above. His work was much more skillful than that of the set of impressions I had taken in the US. One, it didn't hurt like a mo-fo when he inserted the foam stoppers! He also used a bite block and left the material to harden for ten minutes to ensure the material actually took shape. By contrast, here's what the first audiologist I went to told me: "Nah - we don't need that, here's a popsicle stick". Then they yoinked out the material in about three minutes. If you can't tell, I'm still salty about those impressions I got in the US; I ended up needing to get a re-fit of the CIEM those impressions were used for.
But I digress. Even better, I was able to get this set of impressions digitally scanned. Nostalgia took me up a couple floors to Zepp & Co's office where he put the impressions in a scanner. The scanner and software used smoothes out small aberrations in the mold and creates a digital STL file of the shape. This file can then be used by any manufacturer that uses 3D printing to make their CIEM shells, so you don't even need to send out the physical mold!
After this, for dinner, I went out with Ken (Subtonic/NightJar), James (Zepp & Co), Jim, and Howard to a Turkish restaurant (sorry, I forget the name). The plate I chose was very good; I had a mix of chicken and beef for my choice of meat. There was also pizza with some of the softest, most pliable crust that I've munched on. We also got some ice cream from McDonald's after. It's been a while since I've had McDonald's ice cream, but I could almost swear that the ice cream in SG tasted different - it almost had a banana-y aftertaste to it which was interesting. Fun fact: Ice cream in SG is also expensive! I guess it would make sense that it's a popular treat given how hot it is.
Early the next morning (at 5AM) it was off to the airport with Tork and back on a flight to the US shortly after. The interesting thing is that I left at around 9AM, but because of the large time difference, I technically got back at 8AM on the same day! I'm writing this a couple weeks after, so I can tell you that the jet lag hit me hard. I spent a couple days basically awake the entire night and napping sporadically throughout the day.
Of course, by no means do I regret - at all - taking this trip. I guess this is also the part where I get to be sappy and sentimental. I'll start by noting that I think there is a general stigma against the high-end audio hobby; it's often unfairly perceived as a hobby for loners and snobby, rich people obsessed with their kilobuck gear. And I'm sure this stigma applies to a few people (or the stigma wouldn't exist, after all). But for the majority of people - such as myself - I've found that it's like any other hobby where people love to trade stories, hang out, and share their gear so others can experience it too. I even met several people in SG who have basically quit audio, but were still down to hang out and get food! In this vein, I think what will be remembered most to me about my time in SG are the people and experiences that I had. The reality is that audio gear is only temporary. Every week, there's a new hype train that's taking off and that'll be forgotten just as quickly. We should remember that it's the human element that enhances this hobby and that makes it so exciting.
Watch the video here: