Advanced M4: I Have The Energy
Today we are going to be taking a look at the ADVANCED M4. Yes, they feature dynamic 6mm micro-drivers. Yes, I am excited. Some of you may realize by now that I have an unhealthy affinity towards micro-drivers.
The M4 originally came to be as part of a successful Kickstarter crowd funding project. On their product page, ADVANCED claims the M4 to be “one of the most accurate in-ear monitors in the market” and is crafted from premium materials. They’ve got custom acoustic filters, a sand-blasted and diamond-cut aluminum chassis, and one heck of an awesome cable that is completely overkill. At first glance I’d say we’re off to a good start.
I would like to thanks Peter and ADVANCED for providing the M4 in exchange for a fair and impartial review. I am not receiving any financial compensation for this review and all comments and views within are my honest opinions. They are not representative of ADVANCED or any other entity.
The M4 currently retails for 39.99 USD. You can pick up your copy here (link to https://adv-sound.com/collections/all-collection/products/m4).
Please note that ADVANCED was previously known as ADV.SOUND. Earlier this year they changed their brand name. The packaging of the unit I was sent reflects the original branding, likely planned for an update with the next batch set for release in August.
A Little About Me:
Over the last couple years I decided to dive head first into the world of portable audio. After reading pretty much the entirety of IjokerI’s multi-earphone review thread and being greatly inspired, I took a chance and started writing my own reviews. Fast forward a couple years and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some great products for wonderful companies like RHA, Havi, FiiO, NarMoo, Brainwavz, and Meze. I don’t do it for money or free stuff, but because I enjoy it. If my reviews can help guide someone to an earphone that makes them happy, I’ll consider that a job well done.
The gear I use for testing is pretty basic composing of an HTC One M8 cellphone, Topping NX1 portable amplifier, and my aging Asus G73 gaming laptop paired with a Plantronics Rig USB amp. An XDuoo X3 (shout out to my cousin Rob!) has recently been added to the crew, and was used for the majority of my testing. I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. When it comes to signature preference I tend to lean towards aggressive and energetic, but I try not to limit myself to one signature only. I also tend to listen at lower than average volumes.
Enough preamble. Let us dive into the good stuff shall we?
Packaging and Accessories:
At $40 I don’t really expect much when it comes to packaging and accessories, but sometimes a company will go the extra mile to make their product stand out. In the very crowded and increasingly competitive under $100 market, and especially for a newcomer like ADVANCED, it pays to put in that extra effort to give your buyers a greater sense of value upon choosing a potential unknown. I feel they succeeded with aplomb when it comes to the M4.
Unboxing the M4 didn’t wow me to the extent of something like the Havi B3 Pro 1, but it still impressed. ADVANCED makes it evident whom the M4’s target market is; musicians and those who are looking for something that isn’t a bass-heavy bleed-cannon.
“It was for the love of music. It was the respect for all musicians of the past, present and future. It was for the struggling instrumental buried under the heavy bassline. It was for the audiophiles craving that crystal clear and mid-blowing detail.“
Admittedly, I’m no musician. I was inspired by my sister to try clarinet and saxophone in high school, have messed around with pianos and keyboards for ages, and there was a failed attempt at guitar at some point during university. I realized that I prefer to listen to musicians work their magic as opposed to struggle to create my own. Still, that statement printed on the side of the box held my interest. I’m totally down for crystal clear, mind-blowing detail.
Moving to the rear things are kept interesting with a frequency chart and a list of what’s included. Unlike on most packages I’ve come across, the list is accompanied by a glossy photo with everything on display. The M4 with pre-installed Complys, the shirt clip, the compact clam-shell carrying case, and all three sets of eartips.
Yes, the M4 comes with three complete set of eartips, though two of them seem to be the same tips in different colours. The tips are of decent quality, especially the dual flange which are made of a softer, more comfortable material than those provided with the B3 Pro 1. Both the shirt clip and case are imprinted with the ADVANCED logo (or in my case, the ADV.SOUND logo).
Slide out the insert to find the clam shell case and M4 chassis safely secured and neatly displayed in a dense foam sheet. Pretty standard, but still pleasing to the eye and with just enough of a premium air to make it feel good. Underneath the case is a simple user guide that outlines the functions of the inline control module, tip selection, how to use the included Comply foam eartips, and information on the generous 3-year warranty which covers material and worksmanship defects. That warranty sure puts most to shame *cough* Sony AS800AP *cough*.
Overall the unboxing experience for the M4 is an attractive, if uneventful, affair with just enough spice to get you excited to try out what’s inside.
Build, Design, and Comfort:
As was mentioned earlier, the M4 uses a sand-blasted and diamond-cut aluminum chassis. They are finished with a matte, pebbled look. While I personally am not a huge fan of the textured effect it does serve to give the housing a unique look and also makes them easier to grip, always welcome on such a small, light housing.
The cable starts off with a quad-braid, moving up to dual-braids on either side past the y-split. The winding is tight and consistent throughout, except for the left side where the control module is. The twist is notably looser there, lacking the consistency found everywhere else. The cable feels thick, durable, but also a bit too heavy-duty for this application (not that I’m complaining). If wearing the M4 cable-down I found it to tug uncomfortably at the housings, but not enough to break a good seal. Wearing the cable over-ear completely negates this issue and what little microphonics there are. This is an excellent cable for a budget earphone, one that I was not expecting to see in this price range.
One area of potential concern is with the inline control module. It fails to inspire the confidence in longevity that the rest of the earphone presents. Compared to the quality materials used elsewhere, it seems to be made from pretty cheap plastic, though it feels solid and the button depresses with a satisfying click. It would be nice to see ADVANCED release the M4 with a mic-less version, and update the existing model with something that better matches the rest of the earphone.
Comfort is quite good, though they fall slightly short of my personal expectations of a micro-driver. The heavy cable makes cable-down wear slightly less than ideal since the housings are quite long and there isn’t much support for them. As expected, wearing them with the cable wrapped around your ear pretty much solves the problem outright. Using the included Comply foam eartips also helps out a lot. While they’re certainly not uncomfortable to wear, they never quite disappear.
Overall they are made from quality materials, the design is simple but attractive, and they’re comfortable when worn cable-up, with the one question mark being the in-line control module
Normally I group this in with build, design, and comfort, but isolation on the M4 ranges from sub-par to outstanding depending on the tips used. The dual flange tips provided the least isolation, letting me hear a good bit of what was going on around me. The single flange tips were ever so slightly better, rolling in about average for a dynamic. The included Comply Isolation 400s boosted isolation to above average levels. With KZ foam tips which are made of a very dense, almost rubber-like foam, isolation was intense and way beyond what I was expecting.
And now for the fun part. One of the reasons I love micro-drivers so much is that I find they share qualities with balanced armature (BA) earphones while maintaining the benefits of dynamic driver (DD) earphones. While there are exceptions to everything, what I’ve come to expect from BA drivers is speed, detail, and excellent treble performance. I think this is a fair expectation given the majority of hybrid earphones use BA(s) for treble and mids, and a DD to give you a robust and well-sorted low end.
The micro-driver that best encapsulates everything I love about this design is the JVC HA-FXH30. It’s easily holds it own against my BA and hybrid earphones by providing extremely detailed and accurate treble response, while bringing to the table a very lush and natural mid-range with a full low end that leaves no want for more bass. How does the M4 fare? Quite well.
*Tips: I have spent a significant amount of time tip rolling this earphone, coming to the conclusion that they have Comply Isolation 400s preinstalled for a reason. With the standard single-flange silicone tips they come across mildly harsh and grainy, more so with the dual-flange, and their extension into sub-bass regions falls off rather quickly. With foam tips, they smooth right out and early sub-bass drop-off is no longer an issue. As a result the majority of my testing was done with the included foams and those that came with the KZ ATE.
As a special mention, the tips that come with the Syllable D900S pair exceptionally well with the M4. Everything I said about their use with foam tips applies, but you also get an enhanced soundstage thrown in for good measure. If ADVANCED could include a version of those tips but using a more comfortable material, it would be awesome. The two paired together sound outstanding but comfort is compromised somewhat due to the tip material used.
*Amping: The M4 is a typical micro-driver in that it is a power hungry little guy, begging for some juice so they can reach their full potential. I found amping to tighten up their overall response and give them some extra punch. Recommended.
I found the M4 to be dominated by bright, highly detailed treble. This is followed by a prominent if somewhat thin sounding midrange with a fairly neutral bass presence pulling up the rear. If you want to “shape” their signature, it could probably be described as a light v or u, with the treble end showing the greatest emphasis. To my ears they lean towards being cold and analytical, with a touch of warmth in the low mids and mid-bass.
As noted above, treble on the M4 leads the charge. It’s bold, crisp, in your face, and quite aggressive. Despite this, it is not as fatiguing as something similarly aggressive like the JVC HA-FRD80 or RHA S500i, but of which are quite treble-happy earphones. The M4’s presentation gives their high end a very open and airy quality despite the soundstage being about average in size and depth. My only real qualm here is they can sound somewhat unnatural and metallic at times, most noticeable with cymbals.
ADVANCED noted that they put an emphasis on the M4’s midrange “for abundant details”. I can’t argue with this. Mids on the M4 are forward, clear, and rather detailed. They’re also mildly thin and on the cold side, especially with female vocals. I find this takes away from their fun-factor a bit, but it’s no deal killer. These mids are very nice enabling you to clearly hear artists licking their lips, minute intakes of breath, fingers sliding along guitar strings, etc. It’s pretty impressive for a $40 product.
I was initially underwhelmed with bass on the M4, feeling it was lacking impact, depth, punch; everything that makes a dynamic driver so much fun. The problem was the tips. Once I swapped over to foam tips I got what I wanted. Bass on the M4 is boosted slightly above what I consider neutral (my neutral bassline is the Havi B3 Pro 1). It’s snappy, well-textured, and while it falls short of digging into my favorite sub-bass regions, is still pretty satisfying.
The M4 has a nice airy and open soundstage, even if it isn’t huge. What impressed me most was their imaging and separation. They make it pretty easy to pick out individual instruments or effects and their locations, though they do get overwhelmed with thrash/speed metal.
Some Select Comparisons:
To even the playing field, I used KZ’s foam tips. This worked out better than expected as all sounded at their best this way.
RHA S500i (49.95 USD): The S500i has been one of my favorite earphones for a while now. They offer an attractive design, great build quality, and a fun, energetic sound. While the two are similar in many ways, RHA’s take on a microdriver is warmer and less balanced.
The M4 is ever brighter, more detailed, has a more forward midrange, and less bass presence though they dig deeper into sub-bass regions than the S500i (even with the same foam tips). If you liked the S500i’s sound but felt it was too bassy and the midrange too recessed, the M4 would be an excellent alternative. You also won’t have to deal with the S500i’s horrible microphonics.
JVC HA-FRD80 (original MSRP ~80.00 USD): I like my earphones bright, but the FRD80 takes things a step to far. Their sound is grating and way too sharp, but I do welcome the extra sparkle they have that the M4 doesn’t. That said M4 is significantly more comfortable to listen to for long periods. The M4 falls between the FRD80 and S500i in the brightness category which I think is a safe place to be.
The FRD80 takes the texture crown, showing the M4 that things can be better, but falls behind in mid presence. The M4’s more forward mids are quite welcome on vocal-focused tracks. The JVC undeniably comes across as the quicker and more nimble earphone, handling complicated metal tracks with ease. This is one area JVC’s microdrivers always seem to excel, and despite being very competent, the M4 misses the mark in direct comparison. I would still take the M4 though because the FRD80 is just way to intense and tiring.
Ultimate Ears UE600: Despite it’s age, the UE600 is still a pretty great sounding single BA earphone. To my surprise, it was the warmer sounding of the two. The M4 was much more vibrant and lively with even cleaner, more emphasized treble. Mids on the two were quite similar with the UE600 taking the edge through a more robust texture that suited female vocals quite nicely. Bass presence is similar, with the UE600 being more mid-bass heavy, lacking the texture and depth the M4 could provide. The UE600 came across sounding a little dull, but was more forgiving for long listening periods.
With the M4, ADVANCED jumped into a very competitive segment guns a’blazing. They offer a solid accessories kit with a variety of eartip options, quality materials, and a very energetic and unique sound in a field dominated by bassy earphones. They may come across as too treble heavy for some and too light on bass for others, but if you want something that breaks from the norm, the M4 is certainly worth considering.
Thanks again to Peter and ADVANCED for the chance to review the M4. I am very excited to see what you have on store for us next.
Thanks for reading!