Photography by Chitoh Yung (@chitohgraphy)
Veterans of the IEM hobby are no stranger to “Chi-Fi”, a term used to describe affordable but high-performance IEMs often manufactured in China. While these IEMs have the potential to offer incredible value, Chi-Fi manufacturers often prioritize quantity over quality in an effort to maximize short-term sales. As a result, the Chi-Fi industry exhibits a cyclical nature in which IEMs are quickly released, quickly deprecated, and sometimes deprecated for an “improved” version if something performs well.
SoftEars is a brand that has seemingly tried to break out of the cyclical rut that characterizes most of the Chi-Fi industry, but they’ve experienced middling success. Most of their IEMs tend to be pricier for Chi-Fi and, while I don’t believe any of them have been outright bad, there have certainly been misses in terms of price-to-performance. The shining star of their lineup still seems to be the Reference Sound 5—RSV for short—an IEM I once considered to be a tonal benchmark at $700. Given the RSV’s positive reception, it’s no surprise that SoftEars seems to be trying to emulate it in the form of the new Studio 4. The Studio 4 scales down the RSV’s five-balanced-armature configuration to four, with an accompanying reduction in price to $449.
This unit was provided for review by Shenzhen Audio. The SoftEars Studio 4 can be purchased here. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source & Drivability
All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX300 and iPhone 13 Mini with the stock accessories. The Studio 4 takes minimal power to drive and I had no issue hitting my usual listening volumes of ~70dB. Hissing was not an issue. If you'd like to learn more about my listening methodology, test tracks, and general beliefs in audio, then I would encourage you to check out this page.
- Hard-carry case
- Silicone ear tips s/m/l
- Cleaning tool & microfiber cloth
- 2-pin 0.78mm cable w/ 3.5mm termination & extension
I’m a fan of the Studio 4’s carry case for the most part. It is a Pelican-like case that uses robust, hard plastic and claims to be waterproof (there is an O-ring seal in the lid) with foam padding inside. Unfortunately, I found that one side of the case’s padding was not glued in very well, which resulted in the foam padding falling out.
The Studio 4 has what might be considered a very safe design from its aesthetics to its ergonomics. The shell is composed almost entirely of black acrylic minus logos emblazoned in silver. It’s a very plain looking IEM; however, it would also be perfect for listeners who prefer the safety of a more discrete, sleek aesthetic instead of the bolder, possibly gaudy, IEM faceplates flooding the market. Thanks to its compact BA design, the Studio 4’s ergonomics are also quite comfortable from my experience. There is no presence of a vent for pressure-release, but I had no issues wearing the Studio 4 for a couple hours in my smallish-medium ears. Of course, be aware that fit and comfort will vary from one listener to another.
The frequency response below was measured off a clone IEC-711 coupler. Measurements after 8kHz should not be considered entirely accurate due to the presence of a resonance peak. If you would like to compare the Studio 4 to hundreds of other IEMs I have measured, then please follow this link.
For context, the RSV had a presentation that was quite safe but was also quite appealing by the same virtue. I could listen comfortably to it for hours, and it’d deliver just enough excitement to keep me engaged. For other listeners, it was also a set that could also be listened to quite loudly (not endorsing this!) due to its balanced tonality. Similarly, the Studio 4 has a safe presentation wherein few things stand out as particularly wrong on first listen.
The bass response is tastefully boosted yet controlled. Like most BA IEMs that I have heard, the Studio 4’s bass response does not excite outside of its appealing curve on paper. It sounds fairly plasticky, missing tasteful decay. But this would not necessarily be a glaring flaw in my book given that 1) it’s well-integrated with the lower-midrange and 2) these qualities tend to appeal to listeners who want a cleaner, more coherent bass presentation. True to its studio monitoring roots, the Studio 4 follows up with a near-flat lower-midrange from 200Hz to 1kHz then—this is worth noting—a tad upper-midrange emphasis around 3kHz. In tandem with the razor flat lower-midrange, the Studio 4’s midrange is slightly thinner than the RSV’s but not so much that it’d be considered thin or peaky.
Now, I did say that few things stand out as particularly wrong on first listen. Like most of its frequency response, the treble response of the Studio 4 also measures fantastically; quite smooth and free of any jarring peaks. But closer listening sings another tune: the Studio 4’s treble is too safe; it sounds like it’s missing entire parts of the mid-treble. Imagine you’re about to chomp into a piece of food with the most succulent looking garnish, only to find that…well, darn, the base taste is there, but there’s no bite; there’s no edge. That was my reaction after getting over the “nothing stands out” phase of listening and waiting for a kick of “hey, this is actually good” that never came.
Generally, the Studio 4 has an odd juxtaposition of being upper-midrange oriented and having a plasticky, smoothed timbre. The Elysian Diva is an IEM that exhibits similar characteristics; the distinction being the benefit of a sharper upper-treble peak to 1) balance the upper-midrange emphasis more and 2) lend some edge to transient decay. In any case, the Studio 4’s detail mostly comes across as surface level, possibly around a “B” grade in my book. It does have fairly precise imaging(a product of its controlled bass and conventional pinna gain), although staging stays in the shell like most IEMs. And like most BA IEMs, the dynamics of the Studio 4 are not worth talking about other than to say they are unsatisfactory.
The Bottom Line
You might be thinking, “But Precog, the RSV and the Studio 4 measure so similarly, so why are your opinions between them so different?”. To me, the Studio 4 illustrates not necessarily the issues with taking graphs at face value, but rather underestimating the major effects of minor shifts in frequency response. In practical listening, the RSV is far more pleasurable to listen to for me. It has just enough spice, enough edge to keep me listening for hours and coming back for more. The Studio 4 simply doesn’t seem to have that special sauce for me.
Should you consider purchasing the Studio 4? It seems like we’ve come full circle because, like many of its brethren, the Studio 4 is not bad, but it’s also not necessarily competitive for its price point. I’d say it’s worth giving a listen if you have the opportunity to demo it - just to decide for yourself - but otherwise, I’d say it can be scratched from the top of the shopping list.