Vision Ears Erlkonig Review - Nothing But Vanilla
Vision Ears is an IEM company based out of Germany that enjoys a cult-like following in the EU. I’ve had the opportunity to demo a number of their IEMs in the past, including the VE8, Elysium, and EVE20. All of these are IEMs that I would consider to be “heavyweights” on the price-side of things: that is to say, while very solid IEMs in their own right, I found them lacking in good value proposition.
…and then we have the Erlkonig. Clocking in at a whopping ~$4500 USD, this is far-and-away the most expensive IEM I’ve had on loan for review, and likewise, my expectations are higher than ever. Does the big boy of the Vision Ears lineup have what it takes to measure up?
This unit was kindly provided for review as part of a Head-Fi tour organized by user Barra. Thank you! At the end of the review period, it will be sent to the next person in line for the tour.
Source and Driveability
All critical listening was done off of an A&K SP1000M (volume ~25) and iBasso DX160 (volume ~10) using stock tips and the stock cable with the SP1000M. The Erlkonig is a very easy IEM to drive. My genres of preference include the following: K-Pop/J-Pop, Country music, EDM, and instrumental scores.
Because this is a tour demo unit, I won’t comment too closely on the unboxing experience or the accessories. I’ve checked out some other reviews that showcase the presentation though, and rest assured that it looks like you’ll be getting your money’s worth in that respect.
As for the Erlkonig itself, boy, it’s a chonker. I believe the shell itself is composed of pure silver (holy cow!) which would explain the meaty heft to it. Again, I’ll refrain from commenting closely on build quality as the demo unit shows some dings from being on tour, but the build certainly inspires confidence. And we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet: the magnetic faceplates. The faceplates are held on by a strong magnet embedded in the IEM, and if you pop the faceplate off, you’ll have access to the tuning switch. This also opens the door for customization (ie. custom faceplates) so you can bling out your Erlkonig. For example, I believe a Dragon Skin plate made out of carbon fiber was recently released to the tune of $400. Yeah, not cheap either!
Frequency response measured off of an IEC-711 coupler. There is a resonance peak at around 8kHz; as such, measured data after that point should not be considered accurate.
The Erlkonig is quite interesting in that it has no less than (4) settings you can choose from. But perhaps it would be more apt to say that it has a bass switch which you can adjust to varying quantities; as is reflected by the frequency response above, shifts to the upper-midrange and treble are more perceptual.
Settings ‘1’ and ‘2’ will give you a good deal of sub-bass, but not without consequence: Bass transient attack takes a turn for the worse, clearly smearing, and everything comes off a little bloated. To this effect, extra body is tacked onto the lower-midrange too, and the already poor treble presence the Erlkonig exhibits standalone is completely inundated. When I listen to Joe Nichol’s “Sunny and 75,” the Erlkonig makes a caricature of the song’s inherent warmth and his rich, vocal timbre; it’s downright congested. If I had to pick my poison it would be setting ‘2’, but I’ll refrain from covering these settings further, as frankly, they’re just not to my taste. I could definitely see them being fun if you like warmth and gobs of bass, but...again, it’s not exactly what I would (personally) qualify as good bass either.
Speaking of which, let’s examine the bass more closely. It’s a lot more controlled on the ‘3’ and ‘4’ settings to the point of which the electronic, sub-bass rumble on the intro of Minako Honda’s “Ave Maria” is reduced to a mere tickle . Intangibly, I don’t hear much distinction between any of the settings: sans more dynamic slam and bloat on ‘1’ and ‘2’, they’ve all got the same, characteristically quick BA decay and inadequate texturing. Even within the context of BA, I struggle to call the Erlkonig’s bass anything much more than, well...average at the flagship level, and all the more so when I consider the blunting it exhibits on the first two settings.
That aside, settings ‘3’ and ‘4’ are nigh indistinguishable and follow something close to a neutral reference curve. The midrange is pretty unremarkable if not well-tuned on these settings; a lot of the lower-midrange bloat is cleaned up, resulting in a more likeable balance. And while you lose some of that lower-midrange richness the VE8 has, there’s no sign of the 6kHz peak that resulted in sibilance to my ears. Of course, this also wouldn’t be a Vision Ears IEM without the (at this point) infamous treble roll-off. This is the same roll-off that both the VE8 and EVE20 exhibit, and given that it’s linear and lends all the IEMs to an easy listen, I’m inclined to say it’s intentional. At the same time, though, it’s a part of Vision Ear’s tuning philosophy that I can’t help but disagree with. I constantly find myself wanting more luster to the decay of upper-frequency instruments, and I suppose you could say it’s too smooth for my tastes. However, let there be no mistake: The Erlkonig is not a poorly tuned IEM. It’s tuned well, at least on the last two settings, and I feel the need to make clear that my gripes are mostly of subjective preference.
Okay, so the Erlkonig has some interesting imaging. It has a tendency to image stuff at “extremes”. Stuff that would generally hang in the middle of the center image gets pushed down to the floor, while stuff higher-up only gets pushed higher. Occasionally, I get glimpses of incredible depth and width, and likewise, it feels like you’re literally “peering” into the layers at times. For example, in Sawano Hiroyuki’s “Cry” I get the impression that I’m hearing everything from atop a balcony. It’s not bad per se - in fact, it’s pretty cool - however, I do think it lends itself to disconnect if only by virtue of stuff occasionally popping from places I’m not expecting. And for those wondering, no, the imaging is not what I would qualify as holographic.
In terms of more traditional metrics like resolving capability, the Erlkonig comfortably trades blows with its flagship peers. Notes are articulated with sufficient crispness, and the Erlkonig has excellent detail retrieval, enough to play with the best. Dynamic compression doesn’t seem to be a big deal either.
If it seems like I’ve been pulling the punches thus far, worry not because that stops now. When there’s $4500 on the line - no paltry sum, mind you - rest assured I’ll nitpick as much as I like. I suppose my biggest issue with the Erlkonig is that when I drop this much money on an IEM, I expect to be blown-away, which the Erlkonig just doesn’t do for me. Expectation bias and the rolled-off treble aside, my intuition tells me it has more to do with the midrange’s intangibles.
To this effect, there’s something disconcerting about the midrange’s transient behavior. Vocals are presented with a larger-than-life quality to them, but they sound borderline sluggish at times. When I hear Taeyeon go into the chorus of “Fine” she sounds emotionally dead, almost limp. On Rodney Atkin’s “Cleaning This Gun,” his chuckles ring with melancholy; the song loses its playful luster. It’s almost like the transients are hanging in limbo, and I suspect that this is a prime example of poor microdynamics. What do I mean? If macrodynamics are the large decibel shifts in a given track, then microdynamics are shifts on a more intimate level: in this case, vocal inflections. I generally refrain from talking about this stuff because, frankly, nuances this small are hard for me to capture and attest to confidently. And it stands that the Erlkonig does have quite good resolution. So perhaps in simpler terms, I just don’t “feel” the emotion I normally should on these tracks.
And really, that’s an apt segway into my main issue with the Erlkonig: It’s just too safe. Most of the IEMs that I would consider top-tier - that is, IEMs that stand at the audio summit on the merit of their sound quality alone - all have some sort of engagement factor that distinguishes them from their flagship peers. The U12t has its dynamics and transient smoothing, the IER-Z1R has its larger-than-life presentation and bass, the Odin has its sheer resolution and technical chops, heck, Vision Ear’s own VE8 is the warm IEM of IEMs. Unfortunately, there’s simply nothing about the Erlkonig that stands out to my ears. Sure, it’s well-tuned, it’s technical, it’s mad expensive, but ultimately it fails to be much else: It’s as vanilla as they come.
Vision Ears Shootout
Although it’s been a good while since I’ve heard some of these other IEMs, I’ll do my best to briefly break down their differences.
The EVE20’s tonality is something of a mild V-shape with a strong emphasis on the lower midrange and bass regions. It’s basically what you’d get if you cut out more of the Erlkonig’s upper-midrange on the already bloated setting ‘2’. Unfortunately, in tandem with a similar treble roll-off, this doesn’t play too nicely into the EVE20’s intangibles: Notes are articulated fuzzily, and the EVE20 lacks the technical chops that should befit its high cost of entry. The EVE20 is by no means bad; however, I’d argue that it’s older brother, the VE8, is actually a better value proposition taking into account the competition. Go big or go home, right?
...and if you’re going to buy a Vision Ears IEM, this is the one I’d look at. It’s the warm IEM of IEMs. And here’s why: Most warmer IEMs sacrifice technical ability, but the VE8 handily trades blows with its flagship peers in these metrics. Really, anything that plays with male vocals is a real treat on this baby. While I have my issues with the VE8 like it’s BA bass, 6kHz peak that results in sibilance, and the rolled-off treble, it stands (in my opinion) as the most well-rounded IEM in Vision Ear’s lineup.
Vision Ear’s tri-hybrid IEM with a twist: a BA to token the bass and a DD for the midrange. Frankly, this decision always perplexed me, and the trade-off to my ears was an anemic bass response and fuzzy midrange. Still, the Elysium does have one of the best electret driver implementations around with a lively treble response that actually extends. That’s what made it noteworthy - that and, you know, none of their other IEMs have much extension to speak of. While the competition has begun catching up, the Elysium is interesting because it’s an instance of Vision Ears going out of their comfort zone and basically flexing what they can do.
Contrary to what it might seem like, I don’t dislike the Erlkonig at all. It’s a very good IEM. But while I try to evaluate IEMs on the merit of their sound quality alone, I think it would also be disingenuous as a reviewer to not give an assessment of value. Along these lines, in this reviewer's opinion, the Erlkonig is an IEM that is heavily circumscribed by its cost of entry. And to be blunt: To my ears only, it does not present a significant leap - or leap at all - over many of its flagship peers that clock in at well-under half the cost.
Nonetheless, I am incredibly grateful for having been given the opportunity to hear the Erlkonig; it stands that I have no right to knock Vision Ear’s generosity for lending their IEMs out for demo. And hey, if you enjoy the Erlkonig, why should you let me - or anyone else, for that matter - detract from your enjoyment?