Future Sonics has been around for 20 years, and the company’s founder was making custom in-ear-canal headphones for ten years before that, making Future Sonics one of the elder statesmen of the canalphone market. The company introduced the original universal-fit Atrio ( ; $199) in 2007, but recently released the upgraded Atrio m5 Professional Earphones ($200), which use the company’s newly-developed MG7 driver (miniature speaker).
Some quick background info: canalphones typically fit snugly—and fairly deeply—in your ear canals, blocking most external noise and creating a solid acoustic seal to improve bass performance. (Canalbud designs are similar but don’t sit as deep or block as much sound. See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more info.) The downsides of canalphones are that some people find it tricky to get a proper fit, and you may hear some microphonic cable noise—bumps and scrapes of the cable that are amplified by the canalphones’ tight coupling with your ear canals.
The Atrio is set apart from most other canalphones by Future Sonics’ driver-design philosophy. Most canalbuds have moving-coil (also known as dynamic) drivers that produce strong bass but aren’t always of high quality, while most canalphones have balanced-armature drivers that generally give you better overall audio quality but don’t produce comparable bass volume unless multiple drivers are used in each earpiece. Future Sonics, on the other hand, believes in using a single, high-quality dynamic driver that the company designs and manufactures. The theory is that this approach offers the high-quality audio of balanced-armature designs but retains the simplicity and powerful bass of moving-coil designs.
The Atrio’s plastic earpieces are each shaped like an apostrophe, with the eartips at the larger, rounded end and the headphone cable exiting from the thinner end. Future Sonics provided Macworld with the Atrio Special Edition, which comes in a “chocolate” (dark brown and black) color scheme, but the Atrio is also available in black, blue, and red, as well as a blue “Roberto Alomar Hall of Fame edition.” The company’s newly eco-friendly package includes a cleaning tool, two-flange silicone eartips (one pair each of small, medium, and large sizes), and foam eartips (two pairs each—one black, one flesh-toned—of small and large sizes). Also new with this upgraded version of the Atrio is a nifty ear-shaped, zippered case (designed by fashion-accessory maker Passchal) made from recycled tires and other recycled and renewable materials.
Due to their shape, I had a difficult time fitting the Atrio’s earpieces into my ears with the cable pointed down, but I had no trouble with the cable pointed up and draped over and behind the ear. The latter arrangement also mitigates cable microphonics. I tested both the silicone and foam eartips, and while the two-flange silicone tips more readily formed a seal in my ear, I found them to be less comfortable than the foam tips. However, establishing a seal with the foam tips took a little tweaking. For the best possible comfort, I suspect aftermarket Comply Tips ( ) would be a worthwhile purchase.
Future Sonics emphasizes the bass performance of the Atrio, and rightly so—it’s the best I’ve heard from a canalphone or canalbud. The Atrio pumps out lots of bass, but, thankfully, that bass is of sufficient quality that it doesn’t overwhelm the other frequencies. Having bass performance this powerful also does a lot for the Atrio’s presentation of macrodynamics: Through the Atrio, sudden kick-drum or bass-guitar hits grabbed my attention and added drama to music. The Atrio also offers impressive midrange and treble detail, but that isn’t as unusual in a good set of canalphones, so that doesn’t grab you in quite the same way as those lower frequencies.
Of course, the Atrio is not the final word in sound quality. Some comparably priced canalphones from other vendors offer midrange and treble frequencies with better detail and a more-relaxed, natural sound; however, most will have more-restrained bass, good or bad. How does the Atrio compare with less-expensive options, such as Etymotic’s outstanding $99 mc3 ( )? The mc3 offers better high-frequency detail, and it has a modest edge in midrange detail and treble body. However, I noticed these advantages only after adjusting to the huge difference in bass quantity between the two headphones—the mc3’s bass output is so much less than that of the Atrio, the mc3 sounds thin by comparison. It’s worth noting, however, that $200 gets you the mc3 with custom fit eartips, whereas the comparable SofterWear option for the Atrio costs an additional $150 (plus audiologist fees) over the Atrio’s $200 price tag.
Macworld’s buying advice
I was very impressed with the Atrio’s audio quality, and especially its bass performance. If you’re a closet bass-head—or if you just appreciate visceral reproduction of lower frequencies—but you’ve been depriving yourself because you don’t want to sacrifice the bass detail and midrange and and high-frequency performance of good canalphones, the Atrio could be your new favorite. However, competition is fierce at this price, so if bass response isn’t your priority, I recommend looking carefully at models from Etymotic, Shure, Ultimate Ears, and others. And if you’re looking for better comfort, and you don’t require the Atrio’s bass performance, consider that $200 gets you the excellent Etymotic mc3 with Custom-Fit eartips and headset functionality.
R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and enjoys the finer things in life: food, drink, Apple products, and well-reproduced music. You can find his thoughts on these and other subjects on his personal blog.