NCM Bella – the Bella of the TOTL hybrid ball

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Pros:  Sub bass presence and overall bass capability, beautiful and non-recessed midrange, exceptional treble, lots of air and sparkle, very coherent tuning

Cons: Fit is shallow, nozzle bore is very large

Introduction

I first came across the NCM brand at the start of the year, referenced in passing on one of the various Head-Fi threads I subscribe to. I am always interested in discovering new manufacturers and brands, so after a bit of digging around to find some information about NCM and what they offered, I dropped their main man Thomas a line via their Facebook page to enquire about their range. One of the great pleasures in this hobby is the sheer enthusiasm and knowledge of some of the people behind the scenes at the IEM and headphone manufacturers, and shared some interesting conversations with Thomas regarding the tuning and general design of the Bella, and some of the goals he was looking to hit sonically.

To give a bit of background about the company, NCM are a CIEM and universal IEM manufacturer based in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. They offer a range of all-BA and hybrid DD/BA models from a single driver up to the flagship 9-driver Bella model. They take orders through their own site (where you can also design the IEM you want) and have decided not to work with any distributors. This is so that NCM can keep the turnaround for customer orders pegged at around the 2 week mark, which is pretty impressive.

The general impression you get when conversing with Thomas is of a guy who spend a lot of time on each little detail of his CIEMs – this is borne out in both the unique design and the high quality sound. For a small firm, NCM have definitely made a large impression on me, so I hope this continues as their brand inevitably grows. The Bella is currently their top tier product, and also one of the highest driver-count hybrids on the market at the moment with a 10mm dynamic driver providing the low end and 8 balanced armatures split evently between the midrange and treble. All this is packed into a shell around the same size as the 64Audio U8, so that is quite an achievement. To find out if all those tightly packed mini-speakers sound good, please read on…

Unboxing and design

Cracking open the package from Vietnam, I was met by a reasonably large hard carry case (think Otterbox or similar), which is pretty common for a standard CIEM build. It is nicely monogrammed with the initials of the manufacturer (NCM), but otherwise fits the bill as a sturdy carry case for throwing in a pack or bag for everyday use (it definitely isn’t pocket-sized). Opening the case, there is a zippered bag containing the usual accessories (tips, cleaning tool etc) which is attached by velcro to the inside of the rood, and also a small veloir NCM bag for the IEMs themselves.

Completing the loadout is a selection of silicon tips and an NCM branded braided cable. , Speaking to NCM, they were not satisfied with the thickness of the supplied OEM cabling when it arrived, so have actually added a bespoke wooden y-splitter (adorned with their logo) and recabled above that, so the cable retains its thickness all the way from one end to the other. It’s a small detail, but it does make the otherwise slim and flexible cable feel a little more sturdy.

I received a demo version of the universal Bella, with a transparent shell and simple jet black faceplate. The manufacturing quality is good, without any visible air bubbles or imperfections, and sporting a nice cursive “Bella” engraving in gold leaf paint on the outer side of the shell. Each NCM monitor is built to order, so you are able to choose both the shell colour and faceplate from a range of options they offer on their site, so you can effectively configure the IEM to suit your own preferences. I am not sure if NCM do any specific “custom” faceplates as yet, but given the very helpful nature of the responses I have had, I’m sure it is something Thomas may consider if you have something specific in mind.

Build and ergonomics

As mentioned, the Bella seems very well built, with a smooth finish and nice ergonomic “pseudo-universal” design, all packaged into a medium-sized IEM shell that sits more or less flush with the outer ear when fitted properly. The nozzles on the IEM are fairly short, so may not suit people with larger ears in terms of seal – I had to resort to foam tips to get a consistent and unbreakable seal for day to day use, so that may be a consideration for you if you are on the larger side of the ear-canal scale and aren’t interested in the custom route for these.

There are some nice touches to the IEM design – the vent for the 10mm dynamic driver is located on the top of the shell, and is around 2mm in size, which is pretty big. To avoid any debris clogging this up, there is a fine mesh fitted below the vent hole, adding an unusual look to the IEM and allowing the vent to be cleaned with relative ease at the same time.

The last item of note are the sound bores, which are milled from stainless steel at the NCM laboratory for each IEM. These are selected to reduce resonance in the higher frequency ranges, to allow the Bella’s trademark “sparkle” to shine through. I was curious to know if they had tried other materials like brass or titanium, and NCM confirmed that there was a slight sonic improvement with the titanium bores they tested, but this was outweighed by the considerable increase in cost associated, so stainless steel delivered the best “bang for buck” improvement here.

Overall, the Bella feels like a very well-built piece of in-ear engineering. It isn’t the most refined piece of technology you will ever see, giving more of a “hand-built” feel to the IEM design and cabling than some of the bigger players like Empire Ears, but the care and attention that goes into the design and manufacture of each item is obvious.

General impressions about the sound signature

The Bella is a hybrid setup, packing an octet of balanced armatures and one 10mm driver into its surprisingly svelte housing. Logic and experience of various other hybrids on the market at the moment dictate that what should follow is a V-shaped signature with a punchy lower end handled by the dynamic and a little dip where the rubber meets the road in the midrange and the driver types cross over. I’m glad to report that NCM have decided to go a different way, giving the Bella a signature that is certainly bass-capable, but also packs a nicely forward midrange and some very sparkly treble. They have also decided that audible crossover points is so very 2017, presenting the sound in an extremely fluid and coherent way from top to bottom, without any of the usual tell-tale hitches or feelings of disconnection as you move from bass to mids or mids to treble.

Trying to pigeonhole the signature here is difficult – there is a delicious sense of weight and rumble in the sub bass, giving a roundness to the low end and sense of extension that is almost bottomless. This moves into a slightly less prominent midbass, which still has plenty of solidity and weight but feels well proportioned in relation to the rest of the frequency range. There is serious basshead potential in this driver, but the default tuning here merely accentuates the bass present in a track, rather than adding it if it isn’t already there somewhere. If you are a fan of EQ, you can easily take the lower end into the sort of territory that melts your earwax and cracks your fillings, but it is nice to merely have that on tap rather than set as the default.

The midrange sits nicely forward in the stage, keeping the vocals and instruments from being swallowed or overshadowed by the drums and bass guitar, which can be a problem with some hybrids. It leads to a more “traditional” stage configuration in my head, as if you were watching the band from the front row of the crowd, rather than day in the middle of the recording studio. In terms of tone, the mids are fairly clean and carry a decent weight without feeling thick or syrupy. Detail levels are very good, and despite the bass capability, they aren’t overly warm, with just a hint of sweetness to female vocals.

Treble is another area that surprised me, with the Bella exhibiting the sort of sparkle in the top end that would make a diamond merchant blush. There is emphasis without harshness, again bringing a tinge of sweetness to the sound but not possessing any hugely noticeable peaks or hot zones. This sparkle and control is related in part to the use of the three steel bores for the sound tubes – after some PMs to the NCM main man and designer Thomas, he confirmed that he uses his own self-milled stainless steel bores to help control resonances in the upset end. Interestingly, he reckons that titanium bores could improve this a little further, but the marginal improvement isn’t cost effective considering the hugely increased manufacturing costs involved.

Overall, the Bella presents a signature that is well rounded, with a DEEP reservoir of bass in both extension and quantity, but an overall natural and musical W-shaped tuning with present mids and an excellent top end. It isn’t a signature that immediately grabs you by the throat and screams “look at me”, preferring to slowly saunter into the carefully organised musical preferences section of your mid brain and start rearranging the furniture, one bit at a time.

Bass

As mentioned above, the Bella is a very capable monitor when it comes to bass, possessing a default tuning that tilts a little more towards the sub frequencies, backed up with a punchy and present mid bass. This is an IEM that can rumble with the best of them, giving a visceral thrum to electronics, and providing a solid foundation for the music above it to sit on. It’s not overbearing, with the Bella keeping a tight leash on proceedings unless the track calls for it, so while it’s definitely north of neutral, the low end is more basshead-capable than basshead.

Starting my usual test tracks with a bit of Daft Punk, the Bella handles the iconic bassline with ease, staying strong and defined as it drops lower and lower. Texture is deep and throaty, with just a slight hint of wetness to the sound. Compared to an all-BA setup, this bass doesn’t feel blazingly quick or hyper detailed, but it has a physical presence and organic tone that suits the rest of the tuning. Sticking with funk, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder breezes through, the bassline sounding deep and solid without any huge amount of presence, in keeping with the recording of the actual song. Drums and percussion hit solidly, accentuating the snap of the track.

One of my other favourite testers for bass texture (“Bad Rain” by Slash) absolutely growls out of the Bella, the single dynamic driver imparting a huge dollop of physicality to the gritty bassline, marrying it to a nice sense of slam for the kick drum impacts. The slight lower end tilt makes itself felt here, giving the bassline a deepness to the bottom edges of the sound. Despite the presence, the bass remains well behaved, blending seamlessly into the lower mids without any overshadowing or frequency bleed.

Sticking a bit of the King into the mix, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” from the recent Elvis collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic again carries a nice if not overwhelming weight to the bass, sounding velvety smooth against Presley’s low croon. The cello strings on this track are also worth noting, with a rich texture and sense of ”correctness”. In fact, this track is the first track that makes me yearn for just a little more of that sweet textured bass the 10mm driver is pouring out like musical chocolate. Nudging a few dB up around the midbass region, the Bella responds with a much bigger and throatier response, losing none of the delicate texture and tone, but now fully rocking the lower end. It still remains remarkably well integrated with the mids, the extra presence still steering clear of flooding or cluttering the vocal. For those fans of a bassier tuning, there is plenty of spare capacity to EQ this into a real bassheads delight.

Switching back to the standard tuning and going in search of sub bass, “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight soundtrack sounds suitably ominous, the rumble at the 3:30 mark giving a real sensation of physical vibration between the ears. It almost feels like the membrane of your ear is flexing in time with the beat, it is that present. Again, with EQ this can easily be cranked up to face melting intensity, but I’d suggest only the most ardent bassheads will need to stray away from the baseline tuning here. Extension is top notch, eking out every last Hz of the audio signal as it dips and flutters.

Switching genres, “Heaven” by Emile Sande feels symphonic and powerful, the heavily sub bass tilted intro lending the song a sense of thickness and grandeur as Sande’s crystalline vocals soar above the thrumming beats beneath. Overall, the tuning on this bass feels exceptionally well implemented, carrying just enough mid bass to keep things sounding warm and organic but without flooding the midrange, and giving a masterclass in extension and presence in the sub regions.

All this is achieved while still maintaining the subtle texture and physical “taste” to the sound that a good dynamic driver can bring – genuinely one of the most enjoyable implementations of a hybrid bass I’ve heard yet. The only small criticism is that sometimes I would like to hear just a little more mid bass in the mix, but that is readily achievable with a touch of EQ, and I much prefer an IEM that works with the bass that is actually present in the track, rather than artificially introducing its own “omni-bass” where there was none to begin with.

Mids

The Bella has been tuned without the V shaped dip in the mids that normally goes hand in hand with the majority of hybrids, presenting a nicely forward midrange with good note weight and size. In terms of tone, they sit somewhere between musical and neutral, not feeling overly coloured or emphasised. They stay pretty firmly in the Goldilocks zone, neither too warm or too cold, or too thick or too thin. The edges of notes and transients feel crisp and defined, but without feeling unduly sharp or emphasised. Vocals sound slightly sweeter in the higher mid range to my ear, so female singers typically sound slightly more euphonic, but not by a huge amount.

Starting with one of my preferred Foy Vance tracks, “Shed A little Light” carries a good mix of Vance’s distinctive voice, some weighty acoustic guitar (it’s a thing) and piano and a subtle gospel style chorus, all wrapped up in a “live in the studio” vibe. Vance moves back and forth in front of the mic during the recording,almost as if it was miked from a live gig (most noticeably towards the end of the track), and the Bella picks this up beautifully. I can picture the singer swaying his head back and forth as he croons into the microphone, and get a subtle but definite image of the space he is performing in. The vocal is rich and velvety smooth, but not lacking in detail – the Bella deftly resolves the honeyed gravel in the singer’s delivery without unduly sharpening or toughening the edges.

Vocal harmonies are equally well handled. “It’s A Beautiful Thing” by Ocean Color Scene blends the piano and twin vocal lines seamlessly, allowing the listener to pick out the subtle detail from both vocalists without losing the sense of cohesion. Another twin vocal track on my review playlist is “Sometimes We Cry” by Tom Jones and Van Morrison. The track has a very good sense of placement for both singers, with Sir Tom standing a little to the right of centre stage, and Van the Man over towards the left. The Bella positions these accurately, giving both vocals a good sense of size. On some of my IEMs, it can feel like the singers are crowded around a single microphone, but here it paints the picture in my head of the two singers standing facing each other, with plenty of air between them. Room noise and reverb on Morrison’s vocal are also clearly heard here, which some of my less resolving IEMs fail to highlight.

Guitars (both acoustic and electric) sound clean and vibrant. There is plenty of emotion and nuance to the Spanish guitar refrain to “Mother Maria” by Slash, retaining a lightness of touch while never feeling anaemic or weak. The lightly distorted electric that accompanies it is similarly delicate – in contrast, Beth Hart’s voice sounds raw and powerful, the breathless intro and raucous chorus both carrying the correct amount of light and shade. This is also the track where I had my first experience of the oft-used audiophile cliche “I heard something new in a track” with the Bella. Cliche or not, I was surprised to find a very faint metronome type ticking sound in the intro bars that had hitherto gone unnoticed by my (admittedly less than golden) ears. This is a track I’ve listened to at least a few hundred times in the last few years, and have used as a reference on over 30 reviews to date, with gear including IEMs like the Andromeda and the EE Zeus-XR, so to say I was surprised is an understatement.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Bella has greater clarity or resolution than the Zeus (nothing else I’ve heard so far does), but it certainly plays in the top-tier/flagship playground to my ears. At first listen, the Bella doesn’t come across as a hyper detailed monitor, but the more you listen, the more you realise that one of its big strengths is in the sheer purity of its mids and treble, allowing an almost crystal clear view into the music being played. This is resolution without fanfare, just laying details out across the sound like glittering little pebbles on an otherwise jet black background, and letting you come across them almost by accident. To achieve this without the usual hardness or peaks in the sound that can accompany this sort of tuning is a pretty impressive achievement.

Kicking the tempo up a notch, “World On Fire” by Slash sounds crunchier than the contents of Humpty Dumpty’s trousers after his well documented wall-fall, cutting sharp and angular grooves in the musical surroundings without any blurring. Congestion isn’t a problem either, with each strand of the heavily layered music resolving clearly in the ears of the listener. Layering is good on other busy tracks on my test playlist too. “Thank You” by Supersonic Blues Machine is a tightly packed affair of horns, a big gospel style chorus and funky blues rock, and the Bella packs each element into the sonic millefeuille without crowding out the stage. The sound feels dense but not overworked, and still allows you to follow individual strands with a bit of mental effort.

The relative neutrality of the midrange works very well with warmer sounding tracks, and 70s rock and modern soul/motown influenced artists like Nathaniel Rateliff absolutely soar on these. Kicking back with a frosty beverage and “Backwater Zoo” by The Temperance Movement (any blues rock fans who haven’t heard them yet, you should check them out), the piano sounds warm and bar-room honky tonk rich, sitting behind the rasping vocals and Hammond organ and driving the song along. The twin guitars resolve in each ear, sounding large and in charge.

This is a midrange that sits proudly in line with the juicy bass from the dynamic driver, not fading into the background or losing emphasis to accentuate either end of the spectrum. It has enough clarity to resolve multiple instruments without issue, enough soul to deliver the full effect on the heartstrings from a classic Elvis ballad, and enough crunch to hang with the heavy guitar crowd. This is truly a very well tuned IEM, and one that is very difficult to pick fault with.

Treble

As at least one reviewer has already alluded to when assessing these, the treble is really where the secret sauce lies with these monitors. I’ve seen the word sparkle used in various writeups, but only ever really heard it (or what I think it should sound like) on one monitor – the Campfire Audio Andromeda. The Bella has that sparkle, too. This IEM spits out an upper end that is light, airy and positively glistens in the inner ear. Notes are crisp and hang in the air with a sweet shimmering sound as they decay. Upper edges and harmonics on stringed instruments float on the edges of the sound, adding a lightness and sense of completeness to the presentation.

I’m far from a treble nut, and my sonic preference is always for treble that is thick and clear rather than sharp and spiky. The Bella is far from thick, and has plenty of edge to the notes, but despite this I still can’t pick fault. There is a marginal hint of sharpness in the highs when listening to really treble-centric tracks, but more often than not it’s heavily present in the recording so I can’t really point the finger.

“Starlight” by Slash starts with a high and deliberately jarring guitar intro, and the Bella handles this with just the right amount of sharpness to the sound without making it painful. There is a cutting edge to the sound, aging crispness without a huge deal of weight. The sound up top isn’t brittle, it is just handled with a lightness of touch that lets each individual note breathe. Cymbals in this track hit with an airy splash, decaying slowly into the background and giving the track emphasis. This isn’t a monitor that deadens the cymbal hits, rather allowing them to decay fully and naturally into the background of the music.

Switching to more electronic fare, “Go” by The Chemical Brothers is one of my go-to tracks for synth style instruments. Again, the hi-hats are crisp and present, sitting high in the soundscape and cutting through the meaty bass and vocal lines underneath to open up the top end of the sound. The sweeping synth run that eases the listener into the chorus sounds light and fizzy, evoking that word “sparkle” again. The sound feels spacious and positively brimming with energy.

Symphonic tracks also benefit from the smooth but glittery treble tuning, with songs like “Palladio” by Escala and “Kismet” by Bond showing high levels of upper end detail and the telltale room noise and other spatial cues that reside in the upper echelons of frequency response. Violins and harpsichord carve and sparkle, while the deep reservoirs of bass give the tracks a rock solid foundation to work from. On Palladio in particular, the harpsichord sounds so delicate it found be coming from a child’s Victorian music box held right next to your eardrum, in counterpoint to the thicker and sharper violins sitting just underneath.

In summary, the treble is smooth where it needs to be and crisp where it doesn’t. There is still plenty of balance in the signature, with the sweetness and metallic “briiiiing” sounds of chiming acoustic guitar and the edge of synthesizer notes not straying into metallic harshness or undue heat. The sparkle and extension up top allows for the space in a recording to reveal itself, and the clarity and resolution of the 8 BA drivers to really shine. It’s a masterful example of a sparkly treble done right – edge and emphasis in all the right places, and without a shred of fatigue after extended listening sessions. Without doubt, this is up there with the Campfire Andromeda for me in terms of the most enjoyable presentation of treble I’ve come across yet – I can’t say for certain it is technically the best, but for the sheer joie de vivre it imparts to the music, this deserves to be ranked right up there.

Soundstage, separation and layering

The Bella has a decent stage size for an IEM, pushing a little outside the ears in all directions. It isn’t super-widescreen, keeping the main image reasonably centred, but still keeping plenty of air in the stage. There is good depth to the sound, and a reasonably 3D feel to the stage. This is helped in part by the presentation of height, with the Bella giving plenty of vertical scope to the music, and generating an almost perfectly round sphere around the listener.

Separation is very good, with the high detail levels in the mid and high ranges and the space between the instruments allowing for a pretty precise mental image to be built up of where people are standing on the stage. The decision to push the mids further up the mix helps here, as the singer appears in my head in front of the drum kit, rather than in line or sometimes behind (which can happen on some of the more V shaped IEMs I have heard). Layering is also top notch, with uptempo multi-instrument songs being replayed without any sonic blur or leakage between the sounds.

Power requirements and synergy

The Bella is very coherent, and doesn’t seem to drastically alter in signature began any of my current sources. It also doesn’t require a great deal of power to get up and running, so doesn’t require amping unless you are specifically looking for the sonic traits of that particular amp. Given the capability of the bass driver and the general balance of the signature, these will take on slightly more body in the lower end with a warmer source like the Echobox Explorer.

Using a colder or more neutral source like the LG V30, the Bella proves to be highly capable in terms of detailing, and does scale nicely as the resolution of the source improves, although nowhere near as drastically as some of my other gear. In trends of hiss, the Bella has a relatively black background, and is not prone to hissing or noise on any of the sources I have tested.

Tip choice

The included silicon tips were all a little too small for my cavernous ears to get a particularly good fit, so I tried a variety of choices from my tip collection and settled on some foam tips that came with my Campfire Audio gear for the best combination of fit and seal. I did have to stretch the inner core of the tip to get over the almost custom bore on the Bella. If you have to do this, bear in mind that the tips used on this 9-driver beast may be useless for smaller IEM nozzles afterwards.

Comply didn’t quite work as it took a little too much off the beautiful highs, but the more rubbery foam of the Campfire tips doesn’t dull the treble, while allowing the bass full room to reign. I found SpinFits to be the most unusual, unbalancing the beautiful sound of the Bella in my ears – I think these are an IEM that really benefits from either a foam or wide-bore tip.

Comparisons

JH Audio Angie v1

The Angie from JH Audio are an 8-driver all-BA monitor from the legendary JH Audio stable, as part of their ongoing collaboration with Astell & Kern to produce a line of universal in-ear monitors in the hiogher price brackets. While they are now a couple of years old, they have lost none of their edge compared to the more recent models on the market. Starting with packaging, the Angie come in a beautiful presentation-style box, with a hinged lid and multiple layers containing the IEMs, tip choice (and tuning screwdriver) and two heavy duty IEM cables. The bottom layer of the package is taken up with a solid metal hockey puck style carry case, which isn’t overly practical for regular use as it barely fits the Angie, but does look exceedingly durable and just damn fine. It’s an easy win for the JH / A&K product here, with the loadout and packaging sitting in stark contrast to the basic Bella loadout. Comfort is actually reversed, with the “bigger than the moon” Angie shells being considerably larger than the Bella and an order of magnitude less ergonomic, akthough I didn’t have any major problems with either.

In terms of tuning, the Angie have a more mid forward slant, with a slightly smoother and warmer feel to the tuning. The detailing and resolution feels a little less obvious than the Bella, with a thicker and more syrupy tone in the mids and a less sparkly treble. The Angie gives off a more laid back tone in direct comparison, the thicker edge to notes adding a little more body to guitar riffs at the expense of a little attack and crispness in comparison to the NCM model.

Moving down to the basement, the Angie sports a tunable mid-bass, with c. 10dB of user adjustable emphasis bass in the Angie is more centred around mid bass, and even with the pots on the cable at the 3pm setting, doesn’t deliver the quantity that the Bella is capable of when EQ is applied. The Bella also carries more physical punch than the Angie, the dynamic driver unsurprisingly proving more capable at moving air in and out of the eardrum than the dual-BA setup used by JH audio. Sub bass is won easily by the Bella, with superior extension and presence, and a more physical presence.

Focusing on the resolution, audible detail is higher on the Bella, the music being presented with a greater sense of clarity and resolution. THis detailing lends a crisper and less romantic tone to the sound than the warmer and stuffier Angie. As a tradeoff, vocals are more upfront in their stage position on the Angie, and carry a tinge more emotion in the delivery. Timbre also feels more natural on the Angie, trading the cleaner sound of the Bella for a more rounded tone. Overall, despite deploying for of the 8-driver loadout to the treble region, the Angie has a darker and more weighty tone than the Bella.

The unique Freqphase technology that JH have tried to patent gives the soundstage of the Angie a little more size than the Bella, but has more warmth (and therefore less feeling of space) between the notes. In terms of stage shape, the Angie casts a bigger and more spherical image to my ears, with the Bella feeling almost ovoid in comparison. With regards to imaging, both monitors are excellent, giving a pinpoint depiction of the instruments on stage at any time and their position in three dimensions.

Finally, looking at driving power the Angie is marginally harder to drive to a satisfactory level than the more easygoing Bella. Angie also seems to respond better to decent source amplification (maybe down to the JH Audio brand heritage as an on-stage monitor manufacturer), although both IEMs scale nicely with additional quality in either source or power. Build goes to JH, and accessories are top notch in comparison.

Overall, this is an interesting comparison between one of the famous old warhorses of the modern IEM scene and a new contender, and it’s a difficult one to call. I think the Bella has the edge in terms of technicality (specifically resolution and clarity) and ergonomics, and presents a cleaner and more detailed sound without losing the emotion. It also has a more capable and infinitely sparklier treble, so if you like hearing stuff that glitters, the Bella is an easy suggestion. The Angie will suit people who are looking for more of a dark and musical sound with a heavy emphasis on vocals, whereas the Bella feels like more of an all-rounder. If I had to choose just one, I’d personally opt for the Bella.

64 Audio U8

The 64 Audio U8 are another 8 balanced armature IEM, made by another company who grew out of the stage CIEM industry (64 Audio). The U8 were up until very recently the premier “basshead” IEM of the 64 Audio lineup, and have just been replaced by the newer N8t model in their lineup. They cost roughly the same as the Bella.

Starting with driving power, the U8 are easier to drive than the Bella, requiring a few steps less on my DAPs and laptop to get to a comfortable listening volume. The U8 are designed with the stage in mind, so when used with low-OI sources the signature tends to lose a little bit of bass (of which it still has an absolute ton) and become a little clearer, so they work very well with sources like the Shanling M2s and it’s 4.7ohm output impedance. The Bella are far less picky in this regard, maintaining a fairly even signature across multiple different OI values.

Moving on to the bass, the Bella have less mid bass than the voluminous U8, but keep similar levels of sub bass on tap. The U8 has the edge in texture and layering here, with a richer and fuller presentation, at the expense of some of the balance the Bella shows. Bella has the edge in physical slam, especially when EQ’d – the APEX tech in the U8 also loses out from that physical impact sensation in the kick drum.

Mids are warmer and smoother on the U8, and a little thinner but far crisper souding on the Bella. The NCM monitor has a much sharper and crunchier edge to the sound giving tracks like “Coming Home” by Sons Of Apollo the requisite bite in comparison to the thicker and smoother sound imparted by the U8.  Vocals have a little more texture in the Bella, but lack a little of the rich timbre and fullness of the U8.

In terms of overall tone, the U8 is a warmer and smoother sounding IEM, with a heavier feel to the sound due to the bass emphasis. The Bella has a more physical sense of impact in the low end (but less quantity without EQ), and a sharper and more resolving midrange and treble, with the treble in particular differing markedly from the smooth and warm treble of the U8. The Bella is a clear winner in the higher end frequencies, providing both more detail and a far airier and more sparkling tone to the high end than the considerably darker (in comparison) U8. The added sparkle and crunch and more perceived extension of the Bella runs rings around the U8 on a technical level, giving the Bella a clear advantage here. This is unsurprising, however – the U8 is smooth and clear, but carries perceptibly less treble emphasis. Where the U8 has the edge in bass layering and texture, the Beta holds a similar advantage up top.

Soundstage is expansive on the U8 (a typical side-effect of the pressure managing APEX technology they have built in to each model), but despite this the overall presentation feels slightly more forward. There is a wider L/R separation on the U8 as well, with the Bella feeling closer in in both directions than the vast image the U8 throws out. Separation and layering on the low notes is slightly better on the U8 – on tracks like “Black Coffee” by Bonamassa & Hart the twin guitar lines feel a little more pulled apart due to the increased stage size. Detail is also more apparent on the Bella, with less warm air to obscure the micro detailing in most tracks, which can be lost in the warm smoothness of the U8. As you move up the frequency charts, the Bella switches places with the U8, its treble capabilities resolving the sound in the highs with more clarity than the 64 Audio model.

In terms of build, the 64 Audio model is a simple black acrylic shell for their universal model, feeling similar to the Bella in terms of build quality and overall design. Comfort is won by the U8, with the (much) longer stems providing an easier seal and more ergonomic fit than the short nozzle of the Bella. Packaging and presentation are edged by the larger company, with a bespoke IEM case with some cleverly designed internal storage and cable winder making their storage case a more practical solution unless you need the more bomb-proof aspects of the Bella’s have duty carry case. Aesthetically, the Bella look a lot better in their universal form than the utilitarian U8 design (to my eyes, anyway – as always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

Overall, these IEMs are more different than they are similar, with the U8 carrying a heavy bass emphasis and the Bella concentrating more on the upper reaches of the sound. The U8 give a warm and rich sound with impeccable weight, so will appeal to fans of a warmer and beefier style of sound. They can’t quite compete in terms of resolution, making the Bella a more obvious choice if clarity or detail retrieval is one of your main concerns. Also, while the Bella in “baseline” format isn’t a asshead monitor, the DD they have packed in there is capable of some serious grunt when provoked by the right EQ settings, so they have the potential to appeal to a wider audience if they aren’t EQ averse. Again, it would be a difficult choice as they are tuned very different ways, but I think the Bella just edges it on a technical level for me here in terms of overall preference.

Empire Ears Athena (CIEM)

The Athena are another very recently retired 8xBA model (seems to be a recurring theme here!) with a very well regarded signature. They are manufactured by Empire Ears, and retailed at around the $1300 mark while they were on sale. I have the CIEM version of the Athena, so I won’t be comparing in terms of fit as these have been custom moulded to my ear canals.

With regards to build, the Empire Ears model has an impeccable build quality, with ultra smooth shells and a stunning array of faceplates, so they look slightly more impressive than the NCM model – as the Bella also comes in a custom version, this can fairly easily be remedied if you decide to go “full custom”, although the NCM site doesn’t quite have the array of beautiful faceplates that EE offer as of right now.

In terms of tuning, Athena has less sub bass than the Bella, with more of a tilt towards mid-bass, but still less in overall quantity than the NCM model. The Bella also give more physical impact and slam to bass notes, and a far more tactile feel to the lower end. Moving to the midrange, vocals are more prominent on the Athena, and instruments feel a little bigger and adopting a more forward overall presentation. To compare, the Athena feels like it puts you in the middle of the stage, with the Bella feeling more like a front row seat. There is more warmth on the stage, with a little less separation between instruments due to the extra note thickness on the EE model.

Guitars hit with more weight on the Athena, sacrificing a little of the insight and resolution of the Bella here to punch through the sound with a little more heft and emotional resonance. Vocals also feel a little thinner on the NCM model, with a hint more articulation and clarity but less heft. The Athena sound feels more grounded and less airy than the Bella in this regard, with a more subtle sense of detailing than the more crystal clear hybrid.

Treble is smoother and fuller on the Athena, lacking the sparkle of the Bella but pouring the notes on in a more velvety smooth style. Clarity is still good on the Athena despite the rounder edges, but is edged out by the impeccable tuning of the Bella here. If you are looking for sparkle, the Bella easily bests the Athena in this regard, trading weight for air and solidity for glitter and fizz.

With regards to power requirements, the Athena is an order of magnitude easier to drive, but hisses as a result. Neither IEM require amping, but the Bella will benefit more from any additional power, with the Athena just likely to hiss a little more with all but the blackest of sources. Both IEMs scale well with additional quality in the source chain, and the Athena in particular sounds better to my ears with a silver-plated copper cable, which helps bringf a bit of air into the middle of the sound for me.

Looking at loadout and accessories, while both share a similar style of package (hard case, IEM and cleaning tool), the Athena feels an order of magnitude more refined here, with obvious attention going towards the premium look and feel of the accessories. The overall impression isof a higher end “unboxing experience” then the more functional Bella, so if that sort of thing matters to you when you are spending this sort of cash, then EE are certainly ahead in this regard.

Overall, these two monitors are again more different than they are similar, but both are stellar performers in this sort of price range. For fans of a more mid-centric sound and dense, powerful vocal delivery, the Athena is very difficult to beat, even giving the Zeus-XR a run for its money in this regard. If you prefer a more airy and sparkling sound, with more sub-bass capability and a thinner but marginally higher resolution and sense of clarity, then the Bella will probably get the nod. I can’t split these two in terms of preference, with both ticking completely different boxes in my overall preference list.

Specifications
Specifications
Price 23,500,000 VND / c. £735
Transducer type 1 x dynamic driver (10mm), 8 x balanced armature
Number of bores 3
Impedance 31 Ohms
Sensitivity 114dB
Crossover type 4 way crossover

Summary

At the start of 2018, Nguyen Custom Monitors (NCM) and their lineup were completely unknown to me, and if not for a chance comment on one of the Head-Fi boards I look at, would probably remain so. Given the sheer quality of the monitor, Thomas and the NCM brand are producing down there in Vietnam, I suspect this may change over the next 12-18 months, as this is a seriously high end sound signature for a seriously accomplished IEM. The Bella is a worthy flagship for their range, and also worthy of being discussed in the flagship/TOTL bracket with some of the other “heavy hitters” of the current IEM scene like the Campfire Andromeda.

The Andromeda is probably a good parallel to draw, with the Bella not gunning to win the driver wars or offer the biggest bass or sharpest treble, but just looking to produce a magnificently balanced sound with outstanding capability both up top and in the lower end. I’m not generally a fan of light and sparkly treble, but the Bella has convinced me that it is a signature that can work for me when done right. The Bella manages this by not skimping or recessing the midrange to highlight this, presenting a soulful and hyper-detailed midband to bolster the sound. This is definitely the most coherent hybrid I have yet heard, and one of the most coherent tunings I have come across full stop, with no obvious breakdown or transition to my ears between the textured and capable DD bass and the BA mids and highs.

It is very easy to succumb to hype or “new toy” syndrome when you only get to spend a few weeks with an IEM of this quality, so I have tried to avoid hyperbole where possible, but in my opinion, the Bella, at its pricetag of about $1k, when compared to similar offerings from other manufacturers represents a stellar value in the CIEM/universal marketplace. As always, the laws of diminishing returns are fully in force here, and this doesn’t mean that the NCM iem will be three times as good as a $300 IEM, with the improvements being minor rather than major when you climb over this sort of figure. However, if you ARE looking for something in this pricerange that can provide punchy rumbling bass, a smooth but crisp midrange that doesn’t hide behind it and some of the best treble you’ll hear from any IEM under $2000 (and probably a few over that mark), then you can certainly do worse than looking these guys up.

(audioprimate.blog, https://goo.gl/TY1e5t)

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