(Last Updated On: August 21, 2019)

The FIBAE Black is a custom earphone powered by a single balanced armature pushed to its very limits. Polish boutique company Custom Art shows the way to a beautiful, enchanting tuning that puts musicality above all else.

Enjoyment is immeasurable. I can’t tell you how much I like something, I just do, case closed. Some hobbies , however, have an element of snobbery in them, especially when subjectivity comes into play. People will claim all kinds of things to lord over you. They can detect the crisp pineapple notes in their coffee, smell all 3 layers of a perfume, and have such developed hearing, they can hear a fly sneeze.

Pish tosh. For the life of me, I can’t tell you if Swiss watches tell a more accurate time, nor if free-range eggs taste better, because I’m dense lol. Same goes for audio. People will go to unjustifiable lengths to justify their extravagance, but at the end of it, just because you spent thousands on gear doesn’t mean your enjoyment is 100 units whereas another bloke’s is 23.

Come on feel the emotion. I’m trying to dictate your mood.
Come on feel the emotion. I’m trying to dictate your mood.

Custom Art FIBAE Black

“The FIBAE Black, in its purest form, presents an exuberant expression of music, thanks to its achingly beautiful and intricate tone.”

Pros:

  • »Exquisite build quality
  • »Included Pelican 1010 case
  • »Superb fit and comfort
  • »Excellent isolation
  • »Consistent sound throughout audio sources
  • »Warm, relaxed sound signature
  • »Well-executed midbass bloom
  • »Marvelous mids tuning
  • »Natural timbre and tone

Cons:

  • »Does not play well with fast-tempo genres
  • »End-to-end extension
  • »Weak sub-bass
  • »Subdued upper mids
  • »Shelved treble hinders excitement
  • »Compact soundstage
  • »Average imaging capability

Zen-Level Hobbyist

In the midst of the unending game of one-upmanship, there’s a yearning to go back to basics and just appreciate the music, first and foremost. Meet Piotr Granicki. He started off like you and me, collecting and enthusing about portable gear, modding and reviewing them. Later on, he tinkered with more than he should; and the best possible outcome he could hope for, happened.

In 2012 he founded Custom Art and launched his own series of in-ear monitors (IEMs). I wish I was that talented. The company tagline is “made with passion”, with the aim of delivering the best products possible at affordable prices. Custom Art grew steadily and today, boasts a full roster of IEMs from entry-level to top-of-the-line (TOTL) for the discerning consumer, earning numerous accolades along the way.

Come on feel the emotion. I’m trying to dictate your mood.
Come on feel the emotion. I’m trying to dictate your mood.

The Dark Knight of IEMs

Today we look at one of the entry-level options in Custom Art, The FIBAE Black. So named because it was launched on Black Friday 2018, the Black features Custom Art’s patented FIBAE (Flat Impedance Balanced Armature Earphone) technology, which promises a flat impedance and phase (or in English, a consistent sound signature) no matter what audio player you use, from the lowly cellphone to a mega-expensive copper brick.

The humble Black (not humblebrag lol) consists of a single balanced armature (BA) driver, albeit a heavily researched and modified one. Tasked with covering the full sound spectrum, this modified BA has Pressure Optimizing Design (P.O.D.), which is a complex implementation of a Heimholtz resonator that shapes and controls the frequency response according to the exacting needs of the maker.

So what does the thingamajig do again? On paper, the result is a smooth, natural sound with soundstage and imaging capability surpassing what a conventional BA can do. A supercharged driver if you will. The Black retails for €450.00 (~USD500) and is available in custom or universal fit via their official website. I would like to thank Piotr and Kamil for the review sample and the patient back-and-forth emails.

This chameleon is just trying to blend in.
This chameleon is just trying to blend in.

Equipment Used:

DAP

  1. Sony NW-WM1A “K” Modded, FW 2.0

IEMs

  1. Custom Art FIBAE Black
  2. Fearless Audio S8 Freedom
  3. Acoustune HS1650CU

Albums

  1. Aaron Neville – Warm Your Heart
  2. Adele – 25
  3. Amber Rubarth – Scribbled Folk Symphonies
  4. Art Pepper – Modern Jazz Classics
  5. Diana Krall – Quiet Nights
  6. Fleetwood Mac – Tango In The Night
  7. Linkin Park – One More Light
  8. Macy Gray – Stripped
  9. Meiko – Playing Favorites
  10. Various – Jazz At The Pawnshop

Technical Specifications

I keep all my toys in shoeboxes so the kids won’t know.
I keep all my toys in shoeboxes so the kids won’t know.

Packaging and Accessories

Years ago in college, a lecturer who was a fan of concise, bullet-point presentations asked us what KISS stood for. I stood up and yelled, “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, much to my dismay. Apparently, it was the more genial “Keep It Short and Sweet”. I sat back down, defeated.

Custom Art’s packaging is as KISSy as it gets, but loaded with charm. Packed in what looks like a kid’s shoebox, you get the essentials. Standard with all custom fit IEMs are the Plastics One 3.5mm cable, wax cleaning tool (because we dirty) and drying pellet. You get two modes of storage, a fabric zippered case, or the absolute gold standard in IEM cases, the Pelican 1010.

The Standard

The black Pelican 1010 is well-documented to be as good as it gets when it comes to uncompromised protection for your little IEM darlings. They are watertight, crushproof and dustproof. They are dang near waterproof too, able to be submerged in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes, for whenever you might want to take the Blacks swimming (don’t).

Floating in mid-air, defying gravity. Is this Black magic?
Floating in mid-air, defying gravity. Is this Black magic?

Design and Build Quality

Every budding artist has a start. Some like redesigning the wheel, others go for artsy IEMs. For the design of custom IEMs, the only limit is the wildness of your imagination. If you can dream it up, Custom Art will be up to the task. The order page is home to an interactive IEM designer tool that allows you to see your creation in real-timeLike a T-shirt maker but more expensive.

The Black only has one condition. The shell/body must be in solid black, which makes sense because it’d be thematically awkward otherwise. You can customize the faceplate and logos, but if you want something more personal, Custom Art is always an e-mail away. If, like me, you have stunted creativity, Custom Art’s Instagram page provides much-needed inspiration, and for plagiarizing purposes. Their body of work is breathtaking.

The Tux

The build quality is impeccable and as good as can be for acrylic IEMs. Shells feel solid and the integration between faceplate and body is seamless, the handiwork of an artisan so skilled in his craft. I’d still advise you to take good care of them though, since they aren’t indestructible. Avoid drops, water, children, and hungry pets. Keep them in the Pelican case and they will outlive you.

Fit, Isolation, and Comfort

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve had more Custom Art IEMs (4) than girlfriends, which is a testament to their enduring quality or my pitiful social life. And every single one of my Custom Art creations have had a perfect, flawless fit. The Black continues the grand tradition, fitting into my ear canals snugly right before the second bend (beyond which would be intrusive and uncomfortable), thus providing a perfect seal.

And what does a perfect seal provide? Not just a kiss from a rose, but uncompromised sound isolation. Holy heck, Black keeps the background so quiet – blocking out up to 90% of outside noise – that I could use them as earplugs to ward off noisy neighbors and annoying salesmen. Summing up the equation, like Spiderman would say, with great fit comes great comfort. The Black melts into my ears, offering easy listening comfort for hours.

Make no mistake, Custom Art is the gold standard when it comes to providing a consistent and excellent fit.

These colorful little snails are escargots for the ears.
These colorful little snails are escargots for the ears.

Sound Quality

I know what you’re thinking. A single BA driver couldn’t possibly cover the entire sound spectrum without some compromises, yes? Well, the proof is in the hearing. Piotr selected 10 reviewers to blind test the Black before its launch, without providing any information other than “try it out”. The response was largely positive (see the middle of this page), with minds blown when the Black’s driver count was finally revealed. It’s our turn to dive in.

Overall sound signature

The sound characteristics of the Black can be described as a mellow, yellow potato. I won’t get away that easily, so allow me to elaborate. The Black has a gentle, laid-back tuning (mellow) with emphasis on euphony and musicality rather than details and neutrality. The mids are the focus of the Black, sounding sweet and colored (yellow), with a natural timbre and organic tinge.

The bass is warm and full, while the treble is relaxed, but the sound spectrum shares a common trait that is the full, rounded notation (potato), totally free of grain. Of course, the consequence of this potato signature is the relative lack of clarity and middling transparency. If you want the Detail Extractor 3000 I’m afraid this is not the IEM for you.

Rub-A-Dub-Dub

What is it though, is the sonic equivalent of soaking in a warm tub while sipping a latte, as someone massages your shoulders. Blissful, serene, warm mid-centric magic. For a long listening session that is fatigue-free, the Black leads the way.

Listening conditions

Critical listening was done after 50 hours of burn-in. While waiting for the hours to complete I just sat there admiring the gorgeous faceplates. Burn-in did not produce any significant sound changes, but I believe the Black has finally warmed up to me. The main review rig is Sony’s NW-WM1A Walkman modded by Project K, and using the stock cable.

Fame is fleeting, so enjoy the spotlight while you can.
Fame is fleeting, so enjoy the spotlight while you can.

Bass

Lennon said guns, Charles Schultz said puppies, but I believe happiness is a warm buzz. A bass buzz, specifically. Like the elation you feel after a drink or two, before descending into a night of drunken regret and retrograde amnesia, the bass of the Black is carefully measured. The midbass is tastefully elevated, lending warmth to the signature and dictating the overall tone.

The bass isn’t fast nor punchy, but majestically rounded in a way that soothes and caresses as it attacks, and blooms beautifully with butterfly-like resonance. The bass has just the right amount of thickness for you to savor the beauty of each note, and fades away in an airy flutter that keeps the presentation neat without any smudging.

Beer Buzz

Sub-bass extension is scarce, however, with barely any rumble felt or heard in the lowest registers. However, the exquisite tone atones for it. This organic, teddy-bear-fuzzy bass is predictably welcome in slow, emotive tracks, but lacks the depth, slam and layering ability that is demanded of more aggressive tracks. You’ll be perplexed when listening to hard rock or EDM with these, it’s like asking a ballerina to breakdance.

In retrospect, I should’ve used more orange slices.
In retrospect, I should’ve used more orange slices.

Mids

Like Edward Scissorhands furiously making ice sculptures of Winona Ryder (pre-kleptomania) with his bladed hands, each note in the mids are exquisitely, intricately, and gorgeously shaped. Welcome to the brilliant highlight of the Black.

The mids are the heart and bleeding, aching soul of the signature, brimming with so much emotion, the cup runneth over.

This is not your neutral, reference-oriented mids tuning, no. It is quite colored, with a sweet, even nostalgic tuning, designed to capture emotion and make you feel. Notes are lush, alluring and irresistibly bewitching, flowing into one another with seamless ease and buttery smoothness. The texture is like fine silk, with the tone and timbre sounding natural as ever.

Raging Wrath of Emotion

The mids are placed slightly forward, because the star takes center stage. Male vocals carry weight and gravitas, while guitars, pianos, and strings sound effortlessly grand and sweeping. And female vocals, oh wow, what an emotional wallop! From Adele to Celine Dion, each power-packed performance is so alluring and enchanting, my fidelity would be questioned.

The mids fall short of perfection, as the upper mids are shelved and slightly muted. Notes lack some air and crunch, and tend to be too relaxed sometimes. That is to say, detail levels and transparency are not the best. Taking the Black’s greatest strength into consideration, however, you will be moved by the tidal wave of emotion the Black provides, with front row seats, no less.

How about a fresh bouquet of sophisticated European IEMs to start your day?
How about a fresh bouquet of sophisticated European IEMs to start your day?

Treble

When I was much younger and poorer, I’ve once climbed to the top of a modest hill, expecting a cool breeze. But it being the height of a heatwave, I was greeted by a gush of warm air instead. That peculiar experience is replicated in the Black’s treble, where I expected airy, crispy notes balanced with shimmery flair, but received the opposite.

Mild, Non-Spicy

Don’t get me wrong, treble comes in many flavors and colors, but the Black’s treble is as chill as they come. Notes are smooth and relaxed, if a bit muted. Cymbals and hi-hats have a good tone and natural timbre, but clearly yearning for air and urgency. Shining a positive light to this, Black’s treble is utterly free of sibilance and harshness.

If you are a fan of long listening sessions with no untoward surprises, Black will fit right in. For my tastes though, ever since age caught up and my biggest thrills come from treble-heavy signatures and really spicy food, Black’s treble is simply too laid-back and rounded.

I apologize for the fingerprints, but I swear I couldn't get my hands off them!
I apologize for the fingerprints, but I swear I couldn’t get my hands off them!

Soundstage and imaging

When you desire enchantment and seduction via intimate vocals of the female sort, you wouldn’t want them to be too far off.

Instead, you’d want her to be as close to you as possible, preferably inside your head, or lip-to-lip if that’s even allowed (I won’t judge). So it comes as no surprise that the Black’s soundstage is pretty compact. Stage depth edges out width just slightly, but both are frankly small potatoes.

The lush, smooth and overall relaxed nature of the signature means that imaging capability is average at best. It’s easy to pick out spatial cues in simple, woman-in-front-of-piano arrangements. But in complicated tracks, the lines are blurred and instrument separation takes a hit. Notes tend to meld into one another, not helped by the intimate soundstage either.

A new health craze meant every Tom, Dick and Black is trying out rock-climbing.
A new health craze meant every Tom, Dick and Black is trying out rock-climbing.

Comparisons

Fearless Audio S8 Freedom

I’m sorry I don’t have another single-BA to compare the Black with, but how about something similarly priced? If you had about $500 to splurge, would you go for a custom IEM from a boutique European company, or the current shining star of Chi-fi? The answer is… not as simple as I thought.

Braveheart

The Fearless S8 Freedom (S8F) sounds as far apart from the FIBAE Black as humanly possible. Where the Black soothes and caresses, the S8F pounds and pummels with an aggressive, in-your-face V-shaped signature, with a bountifully bold bass and heightened treble response.

S8F attacks hard and fast, with a much speedier transient response, and airiness and crunch to the notes that I missed in the Black. It’s highly-transparent as well, with every iota of detail mined and presented to the listener, like a housecat presenting its latest kill. Its downfall though, is the overbearing, over-eager sound that gets fatiguing after awhile.

Sugar Syrup

The Black’s weaknesses are made more apparent after a short session with the S8F. The subbass is barely there, the treble sounds too muted and the signature lacks air and snappiness. But it outlasts the S8F where it might matter most, the mids. Black makes S8F sound artificial and uninvolved, and wins me over with sheer musicality and accurate tone.

So what we have are two IEMs that are complementary to each other. S8F is made for the feet, while Black is for the heart. If pressed for an answer, S8F is the better all-rounder and fits more genres, but you’d be missing out on the purity of sound and emotion that the Black so effortlessly delivers.

Meet the Mel Gibson of IEMs.
Meet the Mel Gibson of IEMs.

Acoustune HS1650CU

Single-driver IEMs have their inherent charms. Simple, direct, without added complications (a good word in the watch world by the way) like crossovers or phasing to worry about, in general, they sound more uniform and coherent even to the untrained ear. The HS1650CU is one of my best-loved tunings at any price, and despite newer releases by Acoustune, still stands as my firm favorite in their lineup.

So what is the 1650’s special sauce? A perfect blend of detail and musicality, of emotion and dynamism. With a neutral-warm signature, it’s suited for almost all genres without being too picky. Against the Black, 1650 has a more visceral and swift bass, hitting cleaner with more jarring impact and intricate detail. The Black sounds one-note in comparison.

You Crazy Diamond

The 1650 lower mids take a dip, and this is where Black shines once more. Fully-formed male vocals realistic enough to make your hairs stand, the instrument timbre so moving it’s just magical. Moving up it’s more evenly-matched, with the 1650 more technically proficient with better detail and layering ability, but sounding grainier and less natural than the Black.

In the upper mids and treble, 1650 floats away with more air, transparency, and excitement, showcasing without a doubt that it is technically superior. Black’s treble is shelved, but the excellent tone remains its sole saving grace. For me, 1650 does more things correct, but if your music library very specifically consists of vocalists with sparse arrangements, Black will do you good.

Hit the road, Black!
Hit the road, Black!

Final Words

The IEM world is awash with people forever chasing the latest and greatest, from the newest drivers to the latest tubeless designs, among others. The tech specs read like a laundry list of gung-ho, made-up names to sound impressive. While FIBAE Black boasts a few funny acronyms too, the aim of it is to bring back the love for the music, and not the equipment.

The Black, in its purest form, presents an exuberant expression of music, thanks to its achingly beautiful and intricate tone. It renders music with conviction, purity, and sweetness, but alas, doesn’t do so with all genres. For just about any modern genre, the tone and tempo sounds out of place and lacks energy.

Emotional Juggernaut

Feed the Black slow-paced music, however, and be prepared to reap its generous rewards. Black’s unwavering dedication to present music in its most charming and emotional form, means you will be moved by intimate vocals and rich, organic instrumentation over and over again.

With the Black, I rediscovered my parents’ music collection and savored each track as if with new ears. Wave after wave of nostalgia washed over me as I closed my eyes and reminisced about years long past. While the Black is not without its weaknesses, once you find the sweet spot like I did, there is no turning back.