Based out of Australia, Prisma Audio is one of the latest rookie brands to hit the crowded IEM market. The brand is a one-man-show, headed by Josh Szabo (or “Veebee” as many know him by on Discord). I have watched progress of his IEM unfold for the past year or so, via Discord, and it’s been quite exciting to see the project come to life. The Azul is the company’s debut model, a 2BA configuration that will cost you roughly $300 USD. The ethos behind the Azul is one of simplicity. In a world of hybrids and high-driver count IEMs, the Azul aims to punch beyond its humble roots and demonstrate that there is still merit to the "less is more'' approach that most brands have long eschewed.
...so can it actually? Read on to find out if Prisma Audio has succeeded in their lofty endeavor.
This unit was kindly loaned by Super*Review. Thank you! You can find him on YouTube here. At the end of the review period, it will be returned. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source & Driveability
Critical listening was done off of a variety of sources including an iBasso DX160, A&K SP1000M, and iFi Micro iDSD Black Label. As usual, the stock cable, stock tips, and lossless FLAC files were used. The Azul is considerably more difficult to drive than most BA IEMs; however, I never broke 50% using the Apple dongle with my iPhone much less with any of the sources listed above.
Although it is not an advertised feature, the Azul does appear to have some form or another of linear impedance. Running it through 15/35/75 Ohm adapters, the Azul’s frequency response did not change, although it was (expectedly) considerably more difficult to drive. This effectively means that your source should not change the intended frequency response of the Azul like might occur with some more sensitive IEMs. I mentioned this to Josh, and he told me he’d rather not advertise this as a feature, as it was not necessarily intentional.
The Azul arrives in packaging not dissimilar to the Apple Airpods Pro. Indeed, I’m reminded a good deal of Apple’s presentation if, you know, Apple actually took the liberty of including accessories. Here’s what’ll come with the Azul specifically:
- 2-Pin 0.78mm cable
- Azla SednaEarfit Short (ss/s/sm/m/ml/l)
- Mesh Carry Baggy
- Metal Placard w/ SN
- Velvet Lined, Faux Leather Carrying Case
I really do think Prisma Audio has knocked it out of the park here. Each accessory is of excellent quality, and they’re everything you need and nothing you don’t. The cable is extremely soft and pliable; the connectors are angled to facilitate ease of looping around the wire around your ear. There’s no chin slider - a small oversight - but I could see myself buying one of these cables standalone for my other IEMs. It’s really that nice of a cable. And the faux leather case is equally brilliant. Yeah, it’s not top-grade leather, but it passed the “sniff test” (trust me, this is a thing) with flying colors. It’s also the perfect size for carrying an IEM in my opinion.
The Azul is well-constructed, sporting a plastic, 3D-printed shell and an anodized aluminum faceplate with the company’s logo. The 3D-printed shell is see-through, giving you a view of the various components utilized inside. The nozzle has a rim to keep the ear tips on, plus a showerhead grill to keep earwax out. Connector points are slightly recessed to prevent undue strain on the IEM. If you’re feeling patriotic, then you’ll be happy to know that it’s designed and made in Melbourne, Australia. For fit and comfort, I was able to achieve a solid seal with the Azul and wear it for hours without discomfort.
Frequency response measured off of an IEC-711 coupler. There is a resonance peak at 8kHz. As such, measurements after this point should not be considered entirely accurate.
The Azul’s overall tuning is what I would describe as neutral-reference. It is brighter, leaner, and tilted toward the upper-midrange and upper-treble regions accordingly. This is not an IEM for listeners seeking a guilty-pleasure listen, but rather for those who wish to hear their music in a clean, virtually uncolored fashion.
Clearly, the closest point of comparison to the Azul from a tuning standpoint is the venerable Etymotic ER4XR. This is the legendary neutral-IEM, the benchmark with which no shortage of IEMs have been compared to. But here’s something that you, the reader, may not know: The ER4XR is an IEM which I respect, but which I am not particularly fond of subjectively. Textureless bass, compressed imaging, pretty horrible timbre, and rolled-off treble, there is little about the ER4XR that remotely conforms to my ideal sound. So you see that there are some (okay, more like a ton of) preconceived biases that I have against this type of sound signature; suffice it to say the Azul has a high bar to clear.
Thankfully, the Azul has a few tricks up its sleeve. Let’s switch up the usual bottom-to-top format because I think what one would notice first about the Azul is its treble. Despite what no shortage of reviews would have you believe, treble extension is a foreign concept to most all sub-$500 IEMs that I’ve heard. By contrast, the Azul has terrific treble extension and air; heck, it almost has too much. I don’t think the Azul even dips post-10kHz; it’s nearly linear with tremendous quantity. Attack incisiveness is strong, perhaps pushing through more than it should, leading to a slight sharpness, particularly when listening at higher volumes (and I rarely break 75dB). While treble-heads will no doubt rejoice, I cannot help but feel the Azul is toeing the line here.
The midrange and bass follow the skeleton of the ER4XR’s tuning more closely. Intangibly, however, I’m reminded of the equally legendary Hidition Viento. Like so, I hear quite a bit of grit to the Azul’s note decay. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with what some might otherwise call “note texture” in more pleasant terms. On one hand, I enjoy the way this adds a sense of crunch to male vocals. Listening to Dierks Bentley’s “Living,” I find myself glued to every note, enjoying the trailing roughness to vocal consonance and the analog quality it adds. On the likes of IU’s “Blueming,” however, there is an etched quality to her normally smooth, bright vocal timbre that comes off more mechanical than I’d prefer. The Azul’s upper-midrange, at least, has been dropped down a tad to circumvent the shouty-ness that could characterize both the ER4XR and Viento’s tuning.
The Azul’s bass also reminds me a lot of the Hidition Viento. It sounds slightly more textured than most BA bass I’ve heard; however, let it be known that you are not buying the Azul for its bass. Rumble or slam, the Azul doesn’t exactly have it, so you’d best look elsewhere to scratch that itch. That said, I’d imagine it would be sufficient for most listeners, and I can’t really fault the tuning decision that was made here. If more bass was added in - even if it was largely dedicated to the sub-bass - I’d imagine staging would take a hit.
And unfortunately, the Azul doesn’t have much staging to start with. Not only is the Azul’s staging your standard IEM affair, but the Azul is also seriously lacking in center image and relegated to three-blob territory accordingly. This is unfortunate given that the Azul has plenty of treble air. I suppose it’s further testament to staging being more than a product of tuning. For surface-level detail, the Azul’s thinner notes and copious amounts of treble energy do boost the perception of resolution. Overall detail sounds like it’s a small step behind the ER4XR to my ears.
Of course, that’s not too shabby considering the ER4XR’s the most resolving single-BA IEM I’ve heard to date. And if there’s one thing that stands out about the Azul, it would be its macrodynamic contrast. For readers who might not be familiar with this term, there are decibel peaks and valleys that are present in any given recording. Macrodynamics, then, are a reference to how an IEM scales these gradations. This can be further broken down into two subsets to my ears: contrast and weight. I’m not sure if I’ve covered these terms in my writing before (as most IEMs lack these qualities altogether!) so I’ll try to illustrate what I’m talking about.
In terms of weight, on something like Taeyeon’s “Make Me Love You,” the Azul lacks the intensity and sense of leading, excursive punch to the transition to the chorus at 0:51. But for sheer contrast, the Azul is quite competent in a manner not dissimilar to the Moondrop B2. On a track with more dynamic range such as Keiichi Okabe’s “Weight of the World,” the Azul is quiet when it should be and loud when it should be. The issue you run into with most BA IEMs - the ER4XR is a prime example, I might add - is an upwards-compressed, or flat, scaling of dynamic swings. That the Azul has circumvented this quality, if only marginally, is commendable. All the more so considering macrodynamics are what largely qualify “engagement factor” to my ears.
I know I’m critical. Very critical. And of course, readers will want to know whether I think the Azul is better than the legendary ER4XR. So to lend some context to where the Azul stands, the answer is, yes, I think it is. Or at least for my preferences it is. While it might not quite have the ER4XR’s sheer detail, the Azul plays foil to the ER4XR’s much darker treble and sounds considerably more dynamic. Stack on the ER4XR’s fit memes, and it’s really not a contest for me.
But to reiterate: I never was a fan of the ER4XR anyways. Indeed, I’ve always been more of an ER2XR guy myself, and I think the Azul has more competition on that front. Another one of Josh’s goals was to take on the de-facto $300 benchmark, the Moondrop B2. Considering I’d place the B2 over the ER4XR, that’s a lofty goal indeed. But while the Azul is certainly a contender, I do not think it usurps the B2 or the ER2XR; it’s more so a side grade to these IEMs. A worthy sidegrade, nonetheless, and one that foils both IEMs’ lack of treble air and the B2’s lack of coherency. Suffice it to say that the Azul has its place among the competition even if it’s not necessarily as well-rounded as something like the B2 on paper. And there is no shame in that, as few - if any - IEMs are.
Allow me to digress momentarily and to take you on a tangent that I promise ties everything together: burn-in. Now, burn-in is a funny thing. One should listen to an IEM for a hundred hours, two hundred hours, upwards of three hundred hours depending on who one asks, for it to sound good, otherwise one’s review and thoughts are invalidated. I’m not here to debate what causes it, but I always get a laugh out of this oft-used copout. Why? Well, it’s been my experience that the longer I’m able to listen to an IEM, the more critical the final review will be! After all, if I have more time to get familiar with an IEM, it only makes sense that I likewise have more time to find critique. Indeed, a quick look at my impressions versus reviews will corroborate this pattern.
So the Azul surprised me. While I didn’t necessarily find myself reaching for it more frequently over the couple weeks I listened to it, I did find the charm of the Azul’s simplicity growing on me. Yeah, I still dislike the staging and it could really use some more slap factor. But just the fact that my initial impressions did not shift for the worse and that I failed to find more stuff to nitpick? Now that is the hallmark of the most solid IEMs to my ears. Slap on carefully curated, top-notch accessories and you have one hell of a package from a first time brand. It’s safe to say the Azul merits the thumbs-up from this reviewer, and it’s an IEM that I think should definitely be on your list if you’re looking for a neutral-reference tuning.
- Aimer - Hakuchuumu
- David Nail - Let It Rain
- Everglow - DUN DUN
- Girls’ Generation - Galaxy Supernova
- Illenium - Broken Ones
- Joe Nichols - Sunny and 75
- Keith Urban - Defying Gravity (2009)
- Keiichi Okabe - Weight of the World (NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack)
- Sabai - Million Days
- Sawano Hiroyuki - Best of Vocal Works Remastered (2020)
- Taeyeon - My Voice (2017)
- Tiffany - I Just Wanna Dance
Watch the video review here:
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