Welcome to our Journey to STORM series, where we share everything that went into creating STORM. In Part 1, we'll give you some context behind the philosophy of STORM and take you through its initial prototyping stages.
Our First Embody IEM
When the Subtonic team first got together, we knew we wanted to create the ultimate IEM for each founder. We called this lineup the Embody Series, with each model designed to represent each founder's unique preference. For me, Cornelius (Toranku), a reference sound was my go-to, whereas Chang preferred a warm sound, Ken a bass-boosted sound, and Kevin a V-shaped sound. After much discussion, we ultimately decided to tackle the reference sound first. Our internal code name for this monitor was "TRKR" - short for Toranku Reference. We wanted it to be the definitive reference monitor that stood at the pinnacle of portable audio, meeting all of my needs, preferences and expectations
It all starts with a vision. What do we want to achieve with this IEM? Who will it cater to? How can we stand out from the rest of the industry? These were the questions we asked ourselves when we started working on our Embody Reference monitor.
We wrote down the criteria and specifications that would guide our work:
- A highly dynamic sound, despite a reference tuning.
- Proper treble reproduction, to create a speaker-like sound that most reference IEMs lack.
- A rectangular soundstage that emulates the experience of speakers, not a spherical one.
- Beautiful and accurate reproduction of all instruments and vocals.
- Top-tier resolution, detail, and instrument separation.
- Flat impedance and phase (which led us to develop FLAT technology with Symphonium).
We made a pact within the team that we would only launch the IEM if we met all six goals. If we couldn't fulfill even one of them, we would scrap the project and start over.
Our Embody Reference monitor was not just another IEM project. It was a passion project that demanded excellence in every aspect.
Finding Suitable Partners
When we started out, we didn't have the expertise to build top-notch IEMs. Sure, we had a solid understanding of IEM engineering, but not the hands-on experience. That's why we knew we had to partner with a manufacturer that could bring our vision to life. We needed people with a passion for IEMs who could turn our ideas into reality.
Finding the right partner was no easy feat. We felt that we needed to work with a local Singaporean company so that we can control quality and also work out tuning changes easier. A project like this would entail countless reiterations and retunes. Finding a company this flexible was not easy. The partner company would have to be doing this out of massive passion, as no one in their right mind would work with a new company to create a groundbreaking IEM. It was a huge risk, demanding a lot of resources and labour hours, to work with us.
Talking to the kind crew at Zeppelin & Co. about our vision, they recommended we shoot Symphonium Audio an email. We did not know much about Symphonium as they were relatively new to the scene. Nevertheless, we wanted to see for ourselves what they were all about.
From the moment we met with the Symphonium team over a cup of coffee, we knew we'd found our match. Their passion for IEMs was evident in their meticulous work ethic and attention to detail. We saw firsthand the advanced equipment and tools they used to create high-quality IEMs, from the finest crossover components to state-of-the-art measurement rigs. Even their tweezers they used were of premium quality! We knew they were very serious about quality audio just from the equipment they used.
What really sealed the deal for us was that Symphonium shared our belief in using only the best components and parts in IEM design. Compromise was a taboo word for them. There was a high level of attention to detail and respect they put into the IEMs they created.
It would be our complete loss if we did not work with them.
With our combined expertise in IEM tuning and Symphonium's practical building experience, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. It was time to bring our vision of TRKR to life.
The sound of TRKR was rooted in the tork target that I had designed earlier. We believed that if we modelled it after my target curve, the sound of TRKR would be right up my alley (spoiler: it was not).
Tork Target with a clean bass-elevation at 150hz and 8dB of pinna elevation.
We started with just three drivers and gradually added more, bringing the total configuration to 7BA+2EST. Along the way, we experimented with various treble tweeters and discovered that ESTs could produce beautiful treble. But perfecting its response required some acoustic and crossover engineering. Unfortunately, we overdid the crossover tuning, making TRKR extremely insensitive. It was even more insensitive than full-sized planar headphones like Hifiman's Susvara.
We had a ton of iterations throughout our workday. We would experiment with all sorts of drivers and argue over 0.5dB frequency response changes. We would also rehaul the entire configuration over and over in order to attain the sound we needed. Days went by. Months flew past. Suddenly we were a whole year in! We landed on this frequency response for the TRKR:
TRKR's frequency response, 1 year in.
Despite numerous iterations and endless debates over tiny frequency response changes, we weren't satisfied with the sound. We were still grappling with the same issues. We had a reference tone, but it lacked the dynamic quality we were after. We were at a loss, and even our most optimistic projections seemed unrealistic.
Keep in mind all 4 founders and 2 Symphonium founders were working on the TRKR full-time for a whole year. Every rehaul and every reiteration felt like we were moving in circles. While the tuning changed throughout time, it still sounded mediocre.
We did not know if it was because we listened to the TRKR day-in and day-out that we started forming unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Desperate for external input, we held a small listening session with our Singaporean community and close friends. It was time to get fresh perspectives and gain insights that we might have missed.
We took the TRKR prototype to a meetup at Zeppelin & Co, expecting some positive feedback. However, to our surprise, everyone who tried it disliked it. This negative criticism was a huge setback for us, especially considering the entire year we put into creating the sound.
The local community's feedback pinpointed several areas for improvement:
- The sound lacked excitement and had average dynamics.
- The bass was weak and needed more volume.
- The resolution was good but not top tier.
- The staging didn't feel speaker-like.
- The IEM was extremely hard to drive and more insensitive than most headphones.
Hearing this harsh but fair criticism was demoralizing. It was clear that our initial approach to TRKR wasn't going to cut it. We had to completely revamp the design philosophy and experiment with new technologies to surpass ourselves and create the ultimate reference.
We knew we couldn't rely on what we already knew. So, we went back to the drawing board to develop a new plan.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Journey to STORM series, where we'll write about how we moved from TRKR to STORM, rethinking about the way we approached the ultimate reference IEM.