The best way I can describe the xMEMS experience is that it is one of absolute, unabashed clarity. You hear exactly what everything sounds like in a mix, with virtually no color from the drivers themselves. It’s utterly liberating, but it can make bad mixes—anything with an unbalanced midrange, weird panning, or too much high end—immediately stand out. You might hate how some favorite old records translate to a set of headphones with this much clarity. I found a few mixes shockingly awful through such a clear window.
Obviously the drivers’ characteristics, their speed and separation, are exaggerated to the highest degree inside this pair of custom-milled titanium earbuds and the purpose-built amp. The scary thing for hi-fi nerds is that I have also demoed preproduction sample units of much more affordable earbuds with the xMEMS drivers inside, and they sound very close to this good. The drivers are naturally flat up to the high-end of the frequency spectrum, which means that they can be easily tuned by manufacturers using EQ and acoustic design.
xMEMS headphones don’t require more power than traditional earbud drivers, so they’d essentially fit inside any existing pair on the market as long as form factor and impedance allow. (These headphones run on an inverse impedance curve compared to normal drivers, and the iFi amp has a special DC bias to power them.) It’s a small change, a trade-off for such excellent and repeatable sound, and one that can, the folks at xMEMS assure me, be easily designed into earbuds and dongles given existing power restrictions. The company makes a tiny 1.9 mm x 1.9 mm chip that can easily power its drivers.
The robustness of the drivers is another big plus. These can be treated like utter crap and still sound great, according to the company. The masochists at xMEMS proudly claim they’ve gotten them really hot, cold, and wet, and ran them through a full wash and dry cycle, and the drivers still come back perfectly in spec. The joys of solid state.
The Future of Headphones?
The best part about xMEMS’ driver tech? It doesn’t appear to be a mirage on the horizon so much as a plane that’s rapidly coming in for landing. Creative, a brand that has long been at the forefront of audio technology and itself made some pretty decent wireless earbuds, will have two pairs of xMEMS-based headphones for under $200 on the market before the end of the year.
Singularity’s high-end earbuds (the ones I’m listening to) already exist and are for sale, as are another pair from Soranik ($1,200). The company continues to innovate and create new and better drivers, such as the new Montara it announced recently. I expect that many brands, especially at the higher end of earbuds, will follow suit as soon as they spend time with the technology.
The new drivers might not be substantially cheaper than previous dynamic or balanced armature options (the company claims they are more expensive than dynamic drivers, about the same as high-end balanced armature drivers), but they make up for that in ease of manufacturing, the fact that they don’t have to be sorted by humans or matched, and, of course, the fact that they create such incredible sound. The folks at xMEMS point out that MEMS microphone technology is still slightly more expensive than the previous technology used in cell phones, yet it’s still the market leader due to the many benefits it offers in a macro sense.
Between innovations like this new solid-state driver technology and the latest Qualcomm chipsets for wireless earbuds meaning lossless audio transmission and Wi-Fi-based streaming, it’s gearing up to be a very exciting decade for earbuds. In 10 years, we might listen back to the original AirPods (7/10, WIRED review) and think they sound like AM radio. As someone who loves to make music as much as I love to listen to it, I can’t wait for everyone else to experience such true-to-life musical performance at attainable prices.