As kids we tend to be indoctrinated into believing that success follows excellence. However, it is only when you grow up into a cynical reviewer that you realise the two virtues are, in fact, mutually exclusive. The truth is, when a manufacturer has to choose between spending the budget on marketing and R&D, the best-selling product will invariably be the one that has laid more emphasis on advertising over good engineering practices. Such is the reality of consumer electronics, where large corporate entities wilfully choose to sacrifice quality at the altar of maximising profits.
However, every industry has its share of guys operating out of a shack—esoteric brands unsullied by corporate greed and driven by a passion for their craft. A passion that's fuelled by a singular quest for excellence and not just the compulsion to appease investors with rosy bottom lines. Consumer products involving hard engineering generally have many such obscure yet brilliant brands, with the Ascari, Ariel, Caterham and Gumpert being shining examples of how a dude in a shack can embarrass large automotive entities with multi-billion dollar development budgets.
The grain on the wooden enclosures looks impressive
There's one major problem with this arrangement though. Because the veritable geek in a shack loves what he does, he is least interested in marketing, or rather anything but engineering itself. As a consequence, your average consumer is least likely to hear about his product. Not unless he happens to be an enthusiast; in which case he isn't average by any stretch of imagination, but instead a part of elite, forum-visiting lower percentile of the populace.
Don't worry though, that's exactly what we at tech2 are here for. Signature Acoustics is one such Indian brand specialising in modestly-priced IEMs offering what's touted to be titan-killing levels of performance. That's why I spent a good two months with their maiden offering—the C-12 Elements Wooden IEMs—to find out if they really are the gems that no one has heard of.
The C-12 IEMs possess refreshingly unconventional aesthetics thanks to their lacquered wooden enclosures bearing a pleasing wood grain and a minimalist logo engraved onto the recessed back. The old-school enclosure has been ported to tune bass response, but doing so tends to negate sound isolation as well. As a consequence, you're bound to hear a noticeably greater amount of ambient noise than you would in IEMs bearing a perfectly sealed chassis.
The bundled small, medium and large silicone ear tips feature thin walls, which don't provide the same level of sound isolation as regular thick-walled alternatives. However, this is a deliberate move by Signature Acoustics to balance out the bass-heavy nature of the C-12, which don't sound as good with any of the thicker silicone or foam after-market ear tips I tested them with. Nevertheless, while noise isolation provided by the IEMs may not win any awards, you won't really notice the difference unless you move from foam ear tip-based IEMs such as the SoundMAGIC PL50, like I did.
The polished brass case is as gorgeous as it is impractical
The bespoke cable has been constructed from multiple strands of copper for better bass response and twisted to reduce mechanical noise conduction. It is lightweight and quite sturdy, as evidenced by the fact that it hasn't snapped into two in rib-crushing peak hour train rush I'm subjected to every day. Overall, the IEMs are comfortable to wear for longer durations. However, the sound isolation is a weak point if you intend to use them in places with high ambient noise.
One look at the beautifully-crafted and lovingly-polished brass earphone case, and you realise it's too heavy and unwieldy to carry around. In fact, when paired with a handkerchief, it makes more sense as an improvised morning star than, say, a carrying case. A similar lack of practicality is evident with the cable management system, where the cable itself doesn't quite fit in the shirt clip either. Is that a bad precedent then? No, it's quite the contrary if you ask me. Things such as the ridiculously majestic brass case only show that these IEMs have been made by someone who's more caught up in attaining perfection than trifling with anything else.
The Signature Acoustics C-12 need at least 30 hours of break in until they reach their full aural potential. Once they do, the very first thing you'll notice is how the audio fidelity offered absolutely belies the Rs 2,700 asking price. For someone who has switched over from the SoundMAGIC PL50, these earphones are a revelation.
The packaging and presentation is top notch
There's one major caveat though. Be careful of what you pair them with because these IEMs are quite sensitive to the source they're hooked to. The bass output isn't as impressive and highs lack definition, for example, when I pair them with my Samsung Omnia W smartphone. However, the C-12 sound positively breathtaking when hooked up to my Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip PMP. It's not like the CCAW clad 8 mm drivers are difficult to drive. On the contrary, they really aren't in need of any amplification, but the warm, bass heavy nature of the earphones makes it crucial for them to be paired with neutral sounding PMPs and amplifiers.
Whether you listen to dubstep, hip hop, or just the occasional accentuated kick drum, the infrasonic frequencies sound pronounced and are reasonably tight and fast once you factor the price. By that I mean, although the C-12 IEMs easily outperform my PL50 in that area, they still lie somewhere between that and my Alessandro Grado MS1i. Although those exposed to more expensive IEMs will notice that the really deep notes tend to decay slower, the bottom line still remains that it's difficult to find infrasonic performance of this calibre under Rs 4,000. The C-12 managed to deliver every bit of the punch and slam I expect from ES Posthumus' Nara and other assorted Prodigy and dubstep tracks I auditioned it with.
The highs, however, tend to be rolled off. Mind you, there's quite a bit of detail that the C-12 could dig out of my audio test suite, but these are not the IEMs for those who prefer their music to have the shimmer and bite characterised by treble-heavy earphones. The mids are sweet and warm, without being recessed despite the bass-heavy nature of the earphones. The near neutral tonal quality of the mids makes these IEMs capable of rendering both male and female vocals with consummate ease and accuracy.
The only place where you should be careful with the C-12 is to avoid pairing them with amplifiers/PMPs bearing a warm sound signature and bass-heavy nature. The bass response isn't exactly flat, but this is a deliberate decision taken to make them sound more exciting than overly analytical. There's a clear hump somewhere between the mid to lower bass region, so songs that accentuate this part of the spectrum sometimes tend to overpower the rest of the frequencies. It's little wonder then that I found the C-12 to work the best with bass-shy music.
One of the rare top-notch 'Made in India' products
The soundstage isn't as expansive as what you'd expect from high-end headphones, but it's pretty good when compared to IEMs within and beyond its price range. However, when I introduced the C-12s to better-recorded material such as the orchestral pieces by LSO, they managed to accentuate the natural depth present in the tracks much better than most IEMs I have auditioned in that price range. The separation between instruments is excellent and I had absolutely no trouble pinpointing the various sections of busy orchestral recordings. The transient response is quite good, as it was evident in the horn loaded sections of my favourite western classical tracks.
One thing is clear at the end of the day—you'd be hard pressed to find a better pair of IEMs than the C-12 for a street price of Rs 2,700. The treble may not go through the roof and the frequency response may not be the flattest, but the overall tonal balance and timbre quality is quite pleasing, if not most accurate. Then again, these IEMs aren't meant for your average Etymiotics fan either. These may not sound analytical, but they compensate with a brilliant audio signature that goes well with most genres. The bass performance is absolutely delightful at this price, which makes these one of the most musical IEMs I have heard.
Just feed them with a good source and a decent recording and it's pretty hard to move on to any other IEM, unless you're ready to spend way more than Rs 4,000. I mean, these pretty much made me dump my SoundMAGIC PL50 without batting an eyelid. Praise doesn't get any higher than this.