Future Sonics, self-proclaimed innovators of in-ear monitoring (IEM) phones some twenty years ago, hit the market with two universal-fit IEMs, the Atrio M5 in black and the M8 in blue.
Future Sonics isn’t a company with a big advertising budget; they keep a low profile. However, their phones are quite well known among professional musicians and audio technicians. Artists like Madonna, Sonic Youth, U2, and Luciano Pavarotti use custom-built Future Sonics ear monitors on stage. Now the universal-fit Atrio series offers a glimpse of the Future Sonics sound – without the need of having ear impressions made by an audiologist and (most importantly) without dropping almost a thousand bucks for them.
Future Sonics is very vocal about their usage of traditional single dynamic driver technology in their products, similar to the ones found in most full-sized headphones. This approach is the polar opposite to almost all other high-end IEM manufacturers who use multiple balanced armature drivers, the tiny drivers commonly used in hearing aids. We’ll see if Future Sonics are on the right path, and if a single dynamic driver IEM can take on the masses of balanced armature IEMs out there.
- Proprietary Future Sonics dynamic drivers
- 20Hz – 20kHz response
- 32 Ohm impedance
- Up to -26dB ambient noise rejection
- 1.3m cable, low microphonics
- Angled 3.5mm gold plated stereo plug
They might not win a beauty contest in all their plastic glory, but they’re designed to do their job well. Build quality seems solid enough, though there’s nothing outstanding to report about it. The housing is all plastic; the stem where the cables enter the phones is rubberized. This might improve comfort, but those rubber parts are rather hard-to-clean lint magnets. Memory wires are attached to the rubber stem – thin wires in a transparent tube, which keep the shape they’re bent, to go over the ears – for improved comfort and reduced cable microphonics. These cable noises, which are often quite obnoxious and distracting on many cheaper IEMs, are quite well tamed on the Atrios.
The cables are a bit thin side, but they feel sturdy. The only possible downside in the construction is that they’re not user replaceable like on the Ultimate Ears IEMs. If the Atrio’s cables snap or get damaged, the phones have to be sent back to Future Sonics for repair. However, the company is well regarded for good customer service, so this might not be a big issue. If you buy phones for $200, you will probably be more careful than with the $5 stock earbuds that came with your player, anyway.
The large variety of silicone and foam sleeves comes with the Future Sonics for a reason. They’re deep in-ear phones, not canal phones like the Sennheiser CX300 or the V-Moda Vibes. Unlike with many of these phones that sit on the outside of the ear canals, it is of utmost importance to get the right seal with the Atrios – otherwise they don’t sound nearly as good as they should. It is quite obvious when the right seal is achieved and the bass response achieves full impact. Some trial and error might be involved until the perfect fit is found, but that’s all part of the deep IEM game.
On a side note, many people recommend using Shure’s newly designed black foam tips with the Atrios instead of the stock ones from Future Sonics. They should isolate even more, have better durability, and are more hygienic since they’re washable due to their smooth surface. The Future Sonics’ porous skin-colored foam tips start to get quite gross after a week of usage.
For me, the Atrio sounds like a totally different phone when I use them with either the silicone or the foam sleeves. Both variants can provide a proper seal and decent comfort. However, for my ears the foam tips sound a bit darker and more rolled off in the treble region than the silicone tips. It is easier for me to achieve a proper seal with the foam tips than with the silicone ones, but the silicones give me better bass response – your mileage may vary. It’s a matter of taste, and it’s fun to experiment finding one’s own sound – and comfort – preference. The Atrios are chameleons regarding the sound character, a detail that makes them even more interesting.
Comfort is an important factor when wearing the Atrios for a long time. I got used to their quite "intrusive" design rather fast, and now I can even wear them while sleeping. When I’m on the go, I almost forget I have them shoved that deep down my ear canals. These phones certainly are no fashion accessory, but they are built to deliver truly great tweakability, isolation, and comfort.
Contrary to the recent hype about IEMs with two or three balanced armature drivers (the type of drivers also used in hearing aids) as found in Shure, Westone, or Ultimate Ears phones, Future Sonics stays true to their roots and only builds phones with a single dynamic driver. Dynamic drivers have a wider frequency range than balanced armatures, and a single-driver design does not need crossover electronics built into the phone. Complicated designs and multiple drivers can reduce sound quality due to the additional signal paths, next to under- or over-emphasized spots around the crossover frequencies, where the bass, mid, and treble frequencies overlap. "More" doesn’t necessarily mean "better", according to Future Sonics. Seeing my impressions of the Atrio’s sound quality below, Future Sonics certainly may be on to something with their attitude…
erified the Atrio’s frequency response – indeed they do go down to 20Hz, and the bass starts hitting heavy and almost blurring my vision at about 28Hz. Of course I can’t hear if they actually go up to 20kHz, but nothing is missing in the treble regions of the recordings I listened to. 32 Ohm impedance is a bit higher than many other in-ear phones. Therefore the Atrios might not be quite as loud as some other IEMs, but they have a lot less background hiss with some portable players.
The noise attenuation claims also seem to be right. They isolate a lot more than most other non-custom in-ear phones (depending on a proper fit, of course). The Atrio’s cables also deliver the promised "low microphonics" – they’re far less annoying on the go than many other in-ear phones.
No matter what style of music or input source, the Atrios sound great to my ears. Be it jazz, reggae, drum ‘n bass, rock, or metal, they deliver the sound with quality and refinement. There’s no need for dropping names of artists or bands, no need to describe what instruments sound the best with the Atrios – they perform exceptionally well with every audio material you throw at them. Simple as that.
There’s also not very much difference in sound quality when connecting them to a weaker portable player like the Cowon X5 or a full-blown tube amplifier like the Woo Audio 6. Of course, as is the case with almost any phone, the Atrios benefit from a stronger amp, making them even more dynamic and punchy. But there’s absolutely nothing to complain about when using the Atrios with the weak amp on a portable audio player. After all, Future Sonics phones are meant for on-stage monitoring and most performers don’t carry amps with 110/220V plugs on their backs.
Bass response is excellent: it goes deep and is very articulated. Pitch and texture of bass frequencies are presented very well. The Atrios have quite a bit more bass than Shures or Etymotics, but the bass does not overwhelm the mids; it doesn’t make the overall sound muddy in any way. Contrary to bloated bass-monster IEMs like the Super.Fi 5 EB or the CX300, the Atrios can be seen as the "bass reference" for IEMs. They’re still IEMs, not full-sized headphones, so the bass doesn’t go quite as deep as, for example, on Beyerdynamic DT 770s or Sennheiser HD 650s. But considering the size of the drivers inside the Atrios, they’re about as good as it gets without being anemic like Etymotic or cheaper Shure models or bloated or muddy like the Super.Fi EB or CX300.
The midrange is very slightly recessed, but still very clear and detailed. The mids are great for voices, male and female alike; they sound very human, not as artificial as with balanced armature drivers. The midrange reminds me more of full-sized Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic headphones than of the usual IEMs, which is a very good thing. All the details are there. Nothing seems to be missing from the main parts of the music. Everything is very dynamic and punchy, both in the micro and macro structures of the audio material.
The treble is slightly rolled off, but doesn’t lack any details or clarity either. The Atrios do appear to be "dark" sounding phones compared to some balanced armature IEMs, like the Shures or Etymotics, but that makes them easier to listen to for my ears. I can wear them for hours without getting any listening fatigue, contrary to ultra-bright balanced armature IEMs. They have no sibilance at all; they’re really smooth. The Shures and Etymotics do have a bit more precision and clarity in the treble regions, but for me the Atrios sound more natural, relaxed, and enjoyable.
Soundstage is quite good, considering the Atrios are in-ear phones with the drivers sitting very close to the ear drums. It’s not a three-dimensional experience as on some large, open headphones, but it leaves most of the in-ear competition far behind. Ultimate Ears Super.Fi, Etymotics, or most others don’t have any soundstage at all: all of the sound is inside your head. The Atrios can go quite a bit more to the left and right, front and back of your head. The only other IEM I know with a similar soundstage is the V-Moda Vibe, but this one uses an open design, which is a much easier approach to create a realistic soundstage.
Many in-ear phones perform quite badly at lower volume settings. They need to be turned up to dangerously high levels to sound good. Not so with the Atrios: they get the sound right even on very quiet listening levels, especially the bass response. Some details are lost, of course, but overall they still sound satisfying.
Fans of overly bright balanced armature IEMs (or of Grado or AKG headphones) might not like the Atrios that much, but for people used to the higher-end Sennheiser HD series signature sound or even the V-Moda Vibes, the Future Sonics Atrio M5 might very likely be the right thing.
Like with most dynamic driver phones, it is advisable to let the Atrios "burn in" for some time. Just let them play some music or pink noise overnight and listen in on the next day. Don’t judge their sound right out of the box. Their sonic characteristics might change in the first 20 to 50 hours of usage. In the first hours they might sound harsh or boomy, but this settles down after a while.
One last thing: do yourself a favor and do not listen to 128kbps MP3s with these phones. They deserve better quality input. It’s worthwhile to invest some time in upgrading your music collection to a higher bitrate to match the sonic abilities of the Atrios.
Without a doubt, the Future Sonics Atrios are my favorite in-ear monitors at the moment. No other IEMs I know of do so much right and so little wrong. They’re not the most "pedantic" phones out there, but they’re the most musical ones for my tastes. Almost like good full-sized headphones, they make the sound really enjoyable and they get my feet tapping no matter what style of music I’m listening to. They are punchy and precise without being fatiguing; they are quite spacious and still isolate a lot. The Future Sonics Atrio M5 are not the cheapest in-ear monitors around, but they’re far from being the most expensive ones you can find. They’re worth every penny, and they give the double/triple/quadruple balanced armature IEMs a run for their money. Highly recommended for people who love to listen to the music instead of analyzing single sine waves.
- Great sound quality, clarity, and resolution across the whole frequency spectrum
- Decent soundstage for an in-ear phone
- Good audio quality even at low volume settings
- Great isolation from outside noise
- Very little microphonics and cable noise
- Comfortable for a phone that goes quite deep into the ear canal
- Somewhat difficult to insert and remove; sound quality depends a lot on getting a good seal in the ear canal
- Sound signature might be too dark for some tastes – at least for people accustomed to very bright-sounding phones
- No user-replaceable cable