Thinksound On1

Thinksound On1 On-Ear Headphones

Thinksound is a company that’s focussed on sustainable and environmentally conscious headphones. In fact, they even offer a recycling program for headphones with a bonus if you recycle their headphones, but I doubt you’ll be doing that any time soon with the On1s – you’ll be hanging on to these puppies with everything you’ve got!

Overview

Thinksound’s On1 headphone is a foldable, portable, closed, on-ear design that retails for roughly $350 (AUD). In Australia you can buy them from Noisy Motel. A big thank you to Billy from Noisy Motel for putting me onto these gems – they continue to amaze me every time I listen to them!

  • Frequency response:  5 – 22,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  50 ohms
  • Drivers:  40mm dynamic
  • Cables:  4.5 feet (2 equal length cable options with / without phone mic and remote)

At $350, the On1s are competing with some outstanding competition from the likes of AKG, Sennheiser, Beats, Kef, Focal, and various other brands, but they more than hold their own with their sound and offer something unique with their striking timber finish.

Design & Comfort

Other than the wooden cups, Thinksound On1 with accessoriesthe design of the On1s is not particularly special, but that’s not a knock on them so much as a simple statement of fact. They are a fairly traditional design with a simple, adjustable headband and swiveling and folding cups, and that’s about it. The wooden cups are engraved with the Thinksound logo, but other than that these headphone don’t really stand out as looking like $300+ headphones – they’re not blingy or flashy and that’s fine by me because they won’t draw attention to themselves or to you and that means you’ll be left in peace to simply enjoy the wonderful sounds caressing your ears.

Some may find the basic looks and finish of the plastics in the On1s to be a bit of a turn-off, but I would definitely encourage you to take a listen before letting that dissuade you. The finish isn’t poor in my opinion, but it also isn’t polished in the manner of something like a Sennheiser Momentum or Beyerdynamic DT1350. The fact that I’m reviewing the On1s though, and not those other products, tells you how much the finish impacts the overall enjoyment of these headphones thanks to their adequate finish and the exceptional quality of their sound.

Accessories

The On1s are supplied with a carry pouch made of a natural cotton along with 2 different cables, both of which are high quality, Kevlar reinforced affairs that feel high quality and resist tangling very well.

You can purchase replacement ear pads from Thinksound if required, but that’s really the only other accessory I can think of for the On1s

Foldability

Thinksound On1The On1s are designed with earcups that swivel to sit flat and also fold inward towards the headband. This means that they can be swiveled and folded into quite a small package. All the joints and moveable parts feel sturdy and solid despite being plastic so the end result is a compact, robust portable headphone that fits nicely in a bag. My only complaint about the folding design is that when the headphones are placed flat on a desk they are the wrong way around. What I mean is that the left earcup ends up on the right hand side if you lay the headphones flat on a table with the padded side down (see images). This is a really minor issue, but it does mean you have to turn the headphones around when you pick them up to put back on your head. It’s not a deal breaker, but I’d much prefer if they just swiveled in the other direction.

Comfort

Comfort with the On1s is pretty good, but they’re still an on-ear so I do find they physically fatigue my ears after an hour or two. Design-wise I think they’re just right from a comfort point of view – they use nice soft, memory foam pads and a good level of clamping force so they’re about as good as an on-ear can ever be and there’s no way to make a headphone this portable if it’s over-ear so no complaints here.

Cables

I’ve already described the Kevlar reinforced cables so the only other things to mention are that Thinksound cleverly kept the phone controls simple enough that they work with most phones, including Windows phones!

The cables are a good length at 4.5 feet (roughly 1.3m) and use a simple 3.5mm mini jack so you can very easily replace the stock (non phone control) cable if you want to. You can see the 3.5mm socket on the right ear cup (shown on the left in many of the photos due to that folding issue I mentioned).

Sound

Thinksound On1This is the bit that really sold me on the On1s, but, if I’m completely honest, the first time I heard them I wasn’t particularly impressed. That was my error, not theirs. The overall sound of the On1s is quite smooth so their quality may not jump out at you on first listen, but relaxing into their slight warmth will reward you with a purely enjoyable experience of accurate, detailed sound presented in an endlessly listenable manner so give them a moment and sink in…

Bass

The On1s go deep, very deep.

One of my favourite test tracks for bass is A Thousand Years from Sting’s “Brand New Day” album and the On1s very accurately convey the massive, sub-bass rumble to start the track and then display appropriate control over the bass line as the song continues. They’re not quite as refined as a top-of-the-line full-size headphone, but the simple fact that they’re close enough to consider that comparison is testament to their very impressive bass performance.

Another track I threw at the On1s is Morning from Beck’s “Morning Phase” album because it presents the challenge of some long, held bass notes at the same time as some drum hits for shorter bursts of bass. Once again, the On1s handled the subtle and not-so-subtle with grace and control. They’re not quite ballerina agile, but they’re also not sluggish or slow. The On1s strike a great balance between smooth, very slightly rounded bass and punchy, controlled bass. For a portable headphone I would much prefer this sort of tuning because it lends itself to use in louder environments and for a wide range of genres (including movies) so the On1s are right on the mark.

In terms of overall balance in the bass, the On1s are pretty balanced. They boast great levels of sub-bass, but also excellent punch in the mid-bass with no glaring peaks or troughs anywhere to be heard. They probably have a bit of a lift in the mid-bass to give them their sense of warmth and punch, but it’s nicely balanced with everything else so I’m in full favour of that decision.

Mids

Thinksound On1To me, when the mids are done right they’re hard to describe – not in-your-face and not recessed, not raspy and dry, but not creamy and thick. That’s what the mids from the On1s are like – just right. They are well-placed in the mix, but aren’t emphasised so everything just falls together into a cohesive auditory “picture”.

In the overall balance of things, if I absolutely had to make a call, I’d say the mids are slightly less energetic than the bass and ever-so-slightly warmer than neutral, but all in a good way. The On1s are in no way over-polite, but they are incredibly smooth and friendly. They won’t gloss over a crappy recording, but they also won’t scream and shout about it.

Throughout the mid-range frequencies, the On1s often surprise me with little details that I didn’t expect from their overall presentation – a guitar lick here or a drum strike there. The way these headphones deliver everything to your ears, but without making a song and dance about it is quite exceptional. I guess, as I think about it, the presentation from the On1s would best be described as speaker-like in all the best ways possible.

Treble

The overall shape of the On1’s frequency response chart would probably resemble a beginners ski slope so the treble is rolled off slightly, but does so in line with the other frequencies so there are once again no glaring peaks or troughs to attract your attention away from the music. The treble is clean and detailed and not overly polite, but as per the theme of this review so far, there is a refinement and smoothness to the treble that allows it to caress your ears with sound rather than scream and shout.

Consonants from vocals have enough energy to be crisp and clean, but never sibilant and cymbals crash and splash with a natural sense of energy that once again reminds me most of a good set of speakers and that’s about as good as it can get for an enjoyable set of portable headphones in my opinion. Sure, the On1s may not reveal details in the same manner as a pair of HD800s, but they’ll be far more enjoyable to listen to when you’re listening to a wide range of sources and genres in a wide range of environments so the treble is perfect to my ears for this sort of headphone.

Staging & Imaging

Thinksound On1 remoteI think Thinksound could have called the On1s the Thinksound Tardis if they had wanted to. These things have uncanny imaging for what look like basic, portable earphones. Despite the lack of angled drivers or other acoustic tricks to help imaging, the On1s are one of the best staging and imaging headphones I own and they’re closed!!

The stage thrown by the On1 extends beyond the ear cups, has excellent height and is even borderline for projecting sound beyond the boundaries of the forehead – that’s pretty impressive in my book!

Each instrument from the On1 has well-defined space in the soundstage, including a sense of weight and presence that adds to the ambience and enjoyment of the music. The overall presentation of the On1’s stage and image is actually quite holographic and never ceases to be a source of enjoyment for me when I listen to them with any genre.

Summary

SAMSUNG CSCAt $350, the On1s aren’t a cheap headphone, but in my experiences they perform at a level that’s easily twice their price. These have quickly become my favourite closed headphone of anything I’ve listened to (including flagships like the Fostex TH-900). I’m not suggesting that the On1s out-perform flagship headphones across the board, but they do present a uniquely coherent sound that is just so easy to get lost in because nothing is noticeably highlighted or flawed, but they’re also not bland in any sense of the word. No, the On1s are engaging, lively and enjoyable, but they do it all in ways that are hard to pin down.

Writing this review has actually been very challenging because the On1s don’t really stand out in any one way, but they stand out overall. It’s hard to pin anything down with them as being excellent (or flawed), but the overall result is nothing short of brilliant. I’m worried at this point that my blow-by-blow sections above don’t do these headphones justice so I’m hoping this summary will. These headphones are exceptional, amazing and outstanding. No, they are not detail freak headphones like HD800s (for example) and they aren’t completely neutral because they have a definite sense of warmth and bass, but they are just so completely enjoyable and versatile that I have a hard time imagining someone not enjoying these.

If you’re in the market for a portable (or non-portable) closed headphone, please do check out the Thinksound On1 before you buy anything else – it might be the best move you ever make!

SAMSUNG CSC

Brainwavz R3

I recently had the pleasure to review the Brainwavz S5 IEM and the team at Brainwavz were obviously OK with my objective thoughts (I really liked the S5, but wasn’t shy about its short-comings) and offered to send me their R3 model for my next experience.

Overview

The R3 is a dual driver IEM, but not a dual balanced armature as you might expect. No, the R3 is a dual dynamic driver IEM using two opposed dynamic drivers firing into a single sound chamber / nozzle. It’s an unusual design, but one I had heard good things about so I was keen to check it out for myself.

The R3 model retails for about $139 here in Australia so it’s at the higher end of Brainwavz’ range, but still very affordable in the IEM world and I have to say that it performs exceedingly well for its price – better even than the S5 in terms of price:performance ratio I think.

Specifications

  • Drivers:  2 x 10mm dynamic per side
  • Impedance:  32 ohms
  • Frequency response:  16 – 22,000 Hz
  • Sensitivity:  110 dB at 1 mW
  • Cable:  1.3m, copper

Design & Comfort

I can only assume that the R3 was designed around the engineers’ desired driver placements because it’s a strange-looking IEM and one that can be problematic for comfortable insertion and ongoing use, but that might also just be my ears – if you’ve read my other reviews you’ll know that I often have trouble with universal IEMs due to the size and angle of my ear canals.

Housings

WP_20141029_15_13_24_ProThe R3’s housings are best described as bottle-shaped with the cord coming out of the bottle top and the nozzle emerging from the side of the bottle. The nozzle is a normal diameter (I can use most of the same tips as the FIDUE A83s, HiFiMan RE272, Brainwavz S5, etc.) however it’s quite long due to the need to extend out far enough from the non-ear shaped bottle housings of the R3s. I’ve got no problems with the long nozzle or look and feel of the housing – they’re actually great and were it not for this next bit I’d be a huge fan, but…

But the housings are completely impractical for creating a good comfortable fit that’s secure in the ear for extended periods and during movement. The biggest issue is the fit’s dependency on the angle of your ear canal. With apologies for the ear selfies I’ve had to use here, you might notice when you look at the first picture here that the way the cable exits the housing means that the angle of the IEM is important to ensure that the cable wraps comfortably up and around the ear. The natural angle created if I insert the R3 comfortably in my ear means that the cable points backwards towards the top fold of my ear and therefore cannot in any way be comfortably secured there.

WP_20141029_15_23_56_ProThe good news is that the R3s can be successfully and comfortably worn cable-down and it allows much more angle flexibility. You can see in the second ear selfie that the R3s want to sit at a significant 15-20 degree angle in my ears so you can see why the over ear option is not really possibly with my anatomy. Perhaps others have more flexibility with this than I do.

Now, before you click away to another page, let’s discuss a few good things.

Other than their slightly troublesome fit, the R3’s housing is unique and really well put together. The R3s feel like they’ll last for a very long time and will withstand almost anything you could throw at them. The chrome finish looks great and they feel good in the had and in the ear (once you get a good fit).

Other Design Elements

SAMSUNG CSCThe R3s have a thick, round cable that’s quite heavy to the touch, but surprisingly light to wear. It’s a bit springy and not the most comfortable cable I’ve used, but it’s OK and probably preferable to the S5’s flat cable. The Y-split is solid and functional and the cable cinch is similarly suitable although I find that it doesn’t slide easily along the cable, but that also means it stays where you put it which is a bonus.

The final 10cm of each cable before it reaches the IEMs is a black rubber instead of grey with a secondary strain relief at the join. I’m not sure what purpose that serves because it’s no stiffer than the grey cable so it’s not memory wire for over-ear use and doesn’t provide any benefits I can see. Still, it doesn’t hurt and adds a nice touch of extra interest when looking at the R3s so no complaints.

The 3.5mm plug at the other end of the cable is a rugged, molded plug at a 45 degree angle that I really like. Right angle plugs and straight plugs both have issues in different applications, but I generally find these angled plugs to provide the benefits of both without the challenges.

Accessories

Like the S5s, the R3 comes packed with plenty of tips (single, dual and triple flange silicone tips plus a set of Comply T-500 foam tips) plus a nice looking hard case (the same as the S5) and a 3.5mm-6.3mm adapter. This type of accessory set is becoming more common with all different IEMs at all different prices, but it’s still worthy of applause because it makes getting a good fit much easier for new buyers who might not have a stash of all different tips from previous purchases and there’s nothing worse than investing in a nice set of IEMs only to have them get destroyed in the bottom of your bag due to lack of an appropriate case.

Compatibility

With a 32 ohm load, the R3s are in the sweet spot for IEM impedance in my opinion. Really low impedance models like the FIDUE A83 or Shure SE846 can cause all kinds of issues with some devices whereas a 32 ohm load is really comfortable for cheap and expensive players alike so the R3s should play really nicely with your phone, budget MP3 player, or audiophile DAP / stack. I’ve tried the R3s with the Colorfly C4, Fiio X5, E12DIY portable amp, and even the Bottlehead Mainline desktop headphone amplifier and the R3s always sound great. They’re easy to drive, but not too easy so they don’t show up noise from basic devices while still having the sensitivity to make the most of highly detailed audiophile sources.

Sound

Bass

I really like the bass from the R3s. It’s smooth and full, but not enhanced – just naturally present. The bass sits in perfect alignment with the rest of the frequencies from the R3 and allows for a cohesive and realistic listening experience. Being a dynamic driver IEM, the bass is full and rich with a slightly slower feel than a balanced armature (BA) unit, but there is no mistaking the R3’s bass for being slow in general terms. No, the R3 strikes the perfect balance of fullness and speed. Bass notes are crisply delivered on time and on target while leaving room for everything else in the spectrum to shine equally. Although not finely textured like the quickest of BA units, the bass is clean and detailed making faster basslines and deep percussion highly enjoyable. Listening to Muse’s Absolution via the Colorfly C4, the bass and kick drums were deep and tight. Moving to Ozomatli’s Embrace the Chaos album, the deepest rumble of the bass drum on “Pa Lante” was missing, but it takes an exceptional earphone / headphone to really get that right. The R3s certainly came close, but just didn’t have that list tiny bit of power down at the lowest of frequencies. I’d much prefer that though to an excess of bass that can cloud the rest of the spectrum and disrupt the entire musical experience.

Mid-range

Thanks to the present, but controlled bass, the R3’s mids are able to shine through and take centre stage. I wouldn’t call the R3s a mid-centric earphone so much as a neutral earphone (this reminds me that I need to write a piece about what neutral means to me versus what it means to others, but I won’t go off track here so please watch out for my article on neutrality if you’re interested).

You could perhaps argue that the mids on the R3 are slightly laid back, but they’re certainly well-balanced with the bass and treble even if they’re just a hair behind. It’s certainly not enough to make the mids sound distant or veiled and I really like the overall presentation a lot – it’s very easy to listen to without sacrificing detail or articulation in any way.

Guitars and similar instruments sound crisp and clean and both male and female vocals have an excellent sense of texture and clarity while still keeping an easy smoothness.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCThe treble from the R3s is really interesting in that, up to this point in the review, I haven’t really thought about the treble. I would say that’s a good sign of perfectly balanced treble that’s neither drawing attention to itself nor lacking in energy and leaving the presentation dark and muddy. The treble is lively enough to provide raspiness and air to vocals, percussive sounds and incidental textures like fingers on a fretboard, but it’s not over-enhanced. There is zero fatigue from the R3, but there is also zero lost clarity – that’s an extremely impressive feat.

Listening to “Calling Elvis” by Dire Straits I can clearly hear the raspiness of Mark Knopfler’s voice and the snare, high hat and cymbals have good energy and clarity so that I can feel them and notice them in the mix, but I’ve not once in all the time I’ve spent with the R3s felt like there was too much or too little treble. I’d actually go so far as suggesting that this is one of the best treble balances I’ve heard from an IEM in quite some time. I’ll discuss some comparisons shortly to demonstrate this in further detail.

Similar to the bass detail and speed, treble speed and resolution may be a tiny bit behind the sharpest of BA IEMs, but the R3s are no slouch. Not only do they not leave me wanting more from the treble, they actually leave me thoroughly enjoying the treble because it’s fully detailed and energetic, but remains smooth enough to be enjoyable and actually worth exploring. I find sharper, faster treble renditions sometimes lead me to almost tuning out treble detail so as not to fatigue my ears, but the R3s let me focus on the individual textures of a cymbal or snare without feeling on edge as I do it.

Staging and Imaging

The stage from the R3s isn’t exceptional, but for a $139 it’s very good. It feels spacious despite being modest in size and it is evenly proportioned in each direction with good depth and width. Imaging is very similar – it’s not exceptional, but it’s definitely commendable. Instruments are well separated and clearly defined in their own virtual space. Thanks to the well-balanced presentation of each section of the frequency range from the R3s, the finished product is a well represented auditory image with good clarity and separation.

Selected Comparisons

FIDUE A83

At the time of writing this there’s quite a bit of hype around the A83 (triple hybrid IEM) on Head-Fi and deservedly so, but given its $300+ price tag and slightly troublesome fit I was keen to compare it with the R3.

On direct comparison, the A83’s balanced armatures revealed extra details and texture in the mix that the R3 couldn’t show me, but that came at the cost of a drier tone and a less natural overall sound with the A83’s treble sounding slightly forward and forced compared to the R3’s outstanding balance. The staging and imaging is also better on the A83 as you’d expect with the greater availability of subtle details and auditory cues, but does that make the A83 a hands-down better earphone? I don’t think so. If I were looking to hear every nuance then I’d reach for the A83 every time, but if I wanted to simply play and enjoy my music I’d probably reach for the R3s on each occasion due to their more natural treble presentation and more natural overall sound. Technically, the A83 is a better earphone, but practically the R3 might be better for some people.

Brainwavz S5

As much as I like the S5s for what they are, they just don’t compare with their slightly more expensive siblings – or at least not for my tastes. Yes, the S5 offers an excellent bass punch that the R3s can’t match and for some genres that’s an instant trump card, but the R3’s balance won me over permanently and left the S5s sounding peaky and occasionally unnatural to my ears. For wide-ranging musical tastes or those who listen to rock, blues or jazz I would recommend the R3 every time over the S5 despite it’s funkier fit and higher price.

HiFiMan RE272

SAMSUNG CSCUnfortunately I sold my RE272s shortly prior to the R3s arriving, but at around half the price of the RE272’s when they were new (if memory serves), the R3 is an excellent replacement. There’s no doubt that the RE272 offered superior transparency and separation over the R3, but the R3 is a smoother listen and has much better bass presence than the RE272 so it’s a fair trade in my mind. To be honest, if I had the 2 sitting side-by-side I would probably reach for the R3 on almost every occasion because of it’s smoother presentation and fuller bass note.

Summary

The R3 is an outstanding earphone for the $139 price tag. I would definitely recommend trying a pair before you buy them if you tend to have fit issues like me, but when worn cable-down the R3s are easy to fit so that might solve any concerns if you’re happy to wear them cable-down.

I haven’t heard a lot of budget IEMs and there are some awesome options out there, but of those I have tried, the R3s are among the most enjoyable of the lot and definitely might be the most neutrally voiced of the lot. If you’re looking to spend <$150 on a pair of IEMs and you want an IEM that can handle wide-ranging genres while providing a smooth and natural presentation then the R3s are a must try!

20140921-20140921-SAM_1202

Brainwavz S5

Overview

20140921-20140921-SAM_1193The Brainwavz S5 is a new IEM priced at around $100 and is getting a lot of exposure thanks to a concerted effort from Brainwavz to push out review units to reviewers just like me. Thank you to Audrey and the Brainwavz team for arranging this pair of S5s for me to review at no charge. I’m really glad that they’ve decided to make this push too because Brainwavz have never been on my radar, but the S5 is a surprising package that has me seriously interested in their future offerings. As you’ll see, being a free review pair doesn’t make the S5s immune from criticism, but they’re honestly a really good budget pair of IEMs even with a few small hiccups.

Specifications

  • Driver:  1 x 10mm dynamic
  • Impedance:  16 ohms
  • Frequency range:  18 – 24,000 Hz
  • Sensitivity:  110 dB at 1 mW

Design & Comfort

For a $100 earphone, the S5s come with plenty of accessories including a good range of silicone tips, a  pair of comply T400 (medium size), a sexy 6.3mm adapter and a great hard case that doesn’t look expensive, but is very practical in both size and build because it’s a very rigid and compact hard case.

The housing of the S5s is a curious cone shape and I have to admit to being quite sceptical when I first looked at them – I couldn’t imagine a universe in which they’d be comfortable, but apparently I’m already living in that universe because the S5s are very comfortable IEMs. The tapered shape of the S5s combined with the perfect angle of the nozzles means that the housing sits close to the ear, but not touching which is much better than the IEMs on the market that stick straight out of the ear and look like Frankenstein’s bolts. The housings are light despite being solid metal and the cable entry / exit angle is excellent. There’s really no flaw in the functional and aesthetic design of the S5s.

Cable

20140921-20140921-SAM_1196This is definitely a weak spot for the S5s, but not a deal breaker. I’m yet to experience a good, comfortable flat cable and the S5’s cable is no exception. The flat cable seems prone to tangling and refuses to sit flat so I’m not sure what benefit it is intended to impart because I would have much preferred a simple, round cable design. It’s not a disaster, but could have been better. On the positive side, the strain reliefs and Y-split are all solid and look good and the cable length is good at 1.3m.

Sound

When I first listened to the S5s I hadn’t yet researched them so had no idea of their price. Suffice to say I was shocked when I later checked to discover that they are $100 earphones – I expected a price tag much higher based on a combination of packaging, accessories and sound quality.

Bass

The S5s offer a boosted bass level akin to other v-shaped IEMs like the Atomic Floyd Super Darts and many of the hybrids on the market from T-Peos, Astrotec and Dunu. Despite that comparison, the bass from the S5s isn’t quite as tight and perfect as most of those options, but the S5s are also at least one third the price. The S5’s bass is punchy with a little bit of extra weight beyond what’s natural, but it’s still in control enough to be resolving for the most part. I’d describe the bass from the S5s as dynamic and fun with enough control to suit all the music I threw at it. Really tight bass lines may trip up the dynamic drivers a little, but for a $100 earphone they are fantastic.

In addition to the weight and speed of the bass, the bass goes deep and creates a really satisfying sub-bass impact when it’s needed. Often earphones with a bass boost become all about the mid-bass and sub-bass extension is lost in the boom, but the S5s manage to still rumble deep even while creating some ounchy mid-bass emphasis. For example, listening to Liberation by Outlast (from the Aquemini album) the bass depth and control is excellent – tight and punchy like a great subwoofer.

Mids

20140921-20140921-SAM_1195Despite being a V-shaped sound overall, the mids from the S5s are well-placed in the overall mix. There’s no doubt your attention will be drawn to the bass and treble first, but the mids aren’t pushed back into the distance, they’re still front and centre.

Mid quality is good with vocals coming through clear and warm for the most part. On tracks that are boomy to start with (e.g. Try by the John Mayer Trio) I found the bass and treble lifts left the mids sounding a little thin with a touch too much upper-mid / lower treble emphasis, but with more balanced recordings I found myself thoroughly enjoying the mids from the S5s. There’s a nice warmth and smoothness to the delivery of mids from the S5s, but they also retain good attack and edge to the notes. Really the only complaint I can make about the mids from the S5s is that they occasionally get overshadowed by the sometimes over-eager bass and treble. In other words, the mids from the S5s are really excellent – there is absolutely nothing to complain about with them and given a slightly more balanced overall tuning, these could be mid-monsters (and are when thrown a nice lean acoustic track).

Treble

The treble from the S5s is a bit tip-dependent (as with many IEMs) and they can sound a little brittle and splashy with the wrong tips / insertion. With the right tips though (I found the provided tip options to be the best) the treble is quite good, but probably the weakest link in the S5’s frequency repertoire. Don’t stop reading though – they’re not bad, it’s just not their strength.

The treble from the S5s is a little unbalanced so while they avoid harsh spikes or sibilance, they do sound peaky. What I mean by that is that you can hear some gaps in the overall treble presentation on certain recordings and it makes certain sounds like cymbals sound a little fake and thin – like there’s something missing from the overall presentation. On other tracks this problem doesn’t present itself at all because of the way the track is mixed and mastered. I have also found this same phenomenon to play out with different sources. Where the S5s sound great from my Fiio X5 and E12DIY combo, they sound a bit harsh and brittle from my old iPod Nano because the Nano’s sound tends in that direction to start with and just happens to be the perfect storm to mess up the S5’s sound. The moral of the story is to test the S5s with your device before buying if you’re in doubt of the pairing, but warmer sounding devices should be completely fine.

Once again, in the context of a $100 earphone, the S5s perform very well. My comments above are subjective evaluations regardless of price, but in the scheme of things, the S5s perform very well for their price tag.

Staging & Imaging

20140921-20140921-SAM_1197The S5s present a pretty good stage. It’s relatively small and contained within the boundaries of the forehead, but it doesn’t feel congested. Instruments and vocals are each clearly defined although not razor sharp. Once again, this also depends on the mixing of the track and the bass levels present – more acoustic / lean tracks show good imaging capabilities, but when the bass kicks in the stage size and clarity is reduced. It’s important to note that the S5s never offer a bad presentation and retain good clarity and coherence at all times with all tracks. They range from a beautiful, clean image on leaner tracks to refined, but still clear images on bassier tracks

Summary

20140921-20140921-SAM_1201As I mentioned earlier, on my first listen I thought the S5s were a much more expensive earphone (in the $200-300 range I would have said). They reminded me of a “poor man’s” IE800. Further listening with a wide range of tracks showed why they’re not on the level of something like the $250 Audiofly AF140s or similar $200-300 models, but at less than half the price of the offerings in that price-range the S5s are a brilliant budget IEM that is very well made, packaged with outstanding accessories, and sounds very very good for the money if you like a dynamic and fun sound. I can imagine these being an excellent exercising or commuting earphone due to their comfort, over-ear design and dynamic and engaging sound. I’d definitely recommend auditioning a pair if you get the chance because if your music tastes happen to hit the sweet spot of the S5 you could have yourself a really nice budget earphone.

Shure SE846-01

Shure SE846

I’ve been threatening this review for a while now, having had the SE846s in my possession for a number of months. The reason for the delay is not the normal busy-ness or range of other gear requiring reviews. No, the reason for the delay is that it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the SE846s for everything they are and can be. I have been through phases of awe, doubt, wonder, and hesitation with more time spent in awe and wonder, but enough doubt and hesitation that I wanted to be sure that my opinion didn’t swing the other way in time.

Well here we are now with a pair of SE846s in my ears, my mind completely made up on them and a blank page ready for audio-induced ramblings. Let’s go!

Overview

Shure SE846The Shure SE846 is Shure’s flagship IEM, sitting a step higher than the older, but still ongoing SE535. The SE846 sits significantly higher in price though at around $1000-1200 depending on where you shop and where you live. There are differing opinions about the SE846’s value compared to the SE535, but that comes down to two things: what you value in sound reproduction and which filter you use in the 846s, but I’ll get to that. Suffice to say for now, the 846s come three pairs of filters to tailor the sound to your tastes.

Specifications

  • Impedance:  9 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  114 dB / mW
  • Cables:  silver plated copper (SPC) in 162cm and 114cm lengths
  • Frequency Response: 15 – 20,000Hz

Design & Comfort

The engineers at Shure haven’t strayed far from the general form factor of their other highly successful SE series IEMs with the 846. It is still a similar shape housing to the older models, but is now more rounded like an oval-shaped bubble. The cable attachment remains at the same position and angle as previous models and that’s a good thing. They also continue to use the MMCX connector which is a great connector in my opinion and I’m personally fine with the ability of the cable to spin in the connector, but that seems to be personal taste.

Comfort-wise, the SE846s pickup exactly where the SE535 left off for me. They are super comfortable for long, long sessions and are among the very best fitting universal IEMs on the market (next to the new range from Audiofly). The casing of the SE846 is slightly larger than the SE535 due to housing an extra driver in the 846 so those with smaller ears may find some parts of the housing touching their ears and potentially becoming uncomfortable, but I personally haven’t found this problem and love the comfort of the 846s.

Compatibility

The SE846s are a 9 ohm, multi-balanced armature design meaning that you’ve got wide-ranging impedances that may easily dip below 9 ohms in spots and soar higher in other spots. That means you need to be really careful about matching the SE846 with the right devices – namely those with output impedance <1 ohm and ideally closer to 0 ohms (like 0.1 ohm). Failing to correctly pair the SE846s can result in extremely rolled off treble and the sense that you’re listening to a highly flawed product so be aware of this before you demo the SE846 as it would be a crime to not hear them in their full glory.

Another compatibility issue with the SE846 is the combination of their low impedance and high sensitivity leading to the possibility of hiss from less-than-stellar devices. The SE846s even display the slightest of noise when connected to the outstanding FiiO X5. Thankfully, the sound from the X5 is so slight that it’s only audible in a quiet room and quickly becomes inaudible once even the faintest of music begins so the pairing with the X5 is actually excellent and not at all far behind something like the AK240 (we’re talking 95-96% versus 100%).

Just a note: I’ve conducted all the listening for this test using the X5 paired with the E12DIY running a MUSES01 op amp and HA9P5002 buffers.

Packaging & Accessories

SAMSUNG CSCThe packaging of the 846’s is suitably high-end as it should be for an IEM in this price-range. The box is high quality and everything inside is beautifully laid out. What’s more important to me though is what’s inside. I love that Share provide 2 cables – short and long – and a wide range of tips including silicone, open cell foam and Shure’s own sealed foam tips (often referred to as “olives”). As it happens, I’m not using any of Shure’s supplied tips, but the range they provide is excellent and should be suitable for most users.

You’ll also find an excellent hard-case to transport your IEMs in and this might be the best manufacturer-supplied case I’ve seen in terms of being just the right size, being hard enough to protect your investment, and offering a small section for storage of tips, etc.

Of course, the unique thing in the SE846 packaging other than the earphones is the little metal phial and attached key. The key is circular with three prongs and is designed to remove the metal cuff holding the earphone nozzle and filters in place. Attached to the key is the phial containing 2 pairs of alternate filters. The 846s come with the “neutral”, blue filters installed which means the darker-sounding black filters and brighter sounding white filters are in the phial. I’ll discuss the filters in much more detail later.

Aesthetics

The SE846s look the business. The clear acrylic shells allow you to see some very detailed electronics in the form of crossovers and wiring of the balance armature drivers. You can also clearly see the labelling on a number of the drivers (including frequency response for the individual driver in at least one case) and the incredible low-pass filter assembly that Shure developed for the SE846 and which is the secret weapon in the SE846s outstanding bass performance, but more on that later.

Cables

The supplied cables are identical except for length and offer a silver-coloured wire with right-angle jacks and simple white / grey  Y-splits and sliders. The cables are made of silver plated copper which is their only weakness in my opinion. Without getting into cable debates, I feel that SPC cables do more harm than good to the audio signal and can’t wait to receive the pure silver cables I ordered for the 846s. Personally, I prefer manufacturers to go with pure copper or pure silver, but we’ll see what differences an “upgraded” cable bring to the sound of the 846s.

Sound

SAMSUNG CSCReviewing the sound of the SE846s is really like reviewing three different earphones because each filter makes a noticeable difference to the overall sound of the earphones. Personally, after many, many filter swaps I found that the white filter was my clear favourite so I’m going to review the sound from an overall perspective using the white filter and will then discuss how the blue and black filters differ. For the record, all three filters sound great and will definitely suit different people so it’s not to say one filter is right – they’re all good, but to me the white is superb.

White Filter Treble

The treble from the white filter is clean and crisp with plenty of air and extension. Those who felt like the SE535 was great, but missing that little something up high will love the SE846s with white filters installed.

It’s still a polite treble for the most part, but that doesn’t mean it’s veiled or rolled-off, it’s just not in-your-face. With the white filters installed the 846s deliver breath in vocals, shimmer in cymbals and plenty of spatial cues and texture. I haven’t once found myself wishing for more treble out of the 846s (with white filters). If you read reviews or hear accounts of the SE846s being nothing more than a bassy SE535 (or anyone generally knocking the SE846’s treble quality / quantity) there’s a good chance they haven’t tried the white filters.

One comment on the treble though… Tyll at Inner Fidelity mentioned that he found the treble a little harsh and I can understand what he means. I’m hoping that the culprit here is the SPC cable and that it can be fixed with a simple cable change, but there can at times be a slight edge to the treble that strikes even though the overall treble quantity is definitely not out of balance with other frequencies. This is by no means a deal breaker as 90% of the time I just listen with a huge smile on my face, but occasionally the 846 bites just a little and I have to nudge the volume back a notch. Perhaps this is the  846 showing flaws in the recording, perhaps it’s the SPC cable, or perhaps it’s just the way the 846’s treble drivers produce certain notes. All I can say is that this is the one element that prevents the 846s from attaining perfection in my mind and it doesn’t prevent them from still reaching 98% of perfection. Yes, they are really that good and easily the best universal IEM I have heard, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mid-Range

SAMSUNG CSCShure earphones have long been known for their glorious mid-range reproduction and I’m glad to say nothing has changed. The filters have less impact on the mids than they do on the treble so consider this a review of the midrange in general, not just with the white filters.

Before I bought the SE846s I was actually saving up for the king of mids, the Fit Ear TG!334. After seeing the 846s second-hand at a great price I decided to pounce and hope they were nearly as good as the 334s. Since then I have listened to the 334s multiple times for extended sessions with all different tracks with a view to still buying them because I thought they were better. After multiple sessions I am amazed to be claiming that I believe the SE846 produces a better mid-range than the TG!334!! I know that’s a big claim and may draw the ire of Fit Ear fans and groupies, but let me clarify. When the TG!334 hits its sweet spot there is nothing on the planet quite as special, but when thrown a range of genres I found the 334 drifted in and out of the sweet spot and sometimes just sounded a bit thick and slow. The SE846 however has not once disappointed me with its beautiful clarity, speed, and texture through all of the mids.

Vocals on the SE846 are front and centre, but not closed in – just accurate and present. Guitars have a wonderful sense of attack and energy where you can hear the textures of the strings and little details buried deep in the recordings. With the SE846s I find myself hearing the texture of drum skins, the subtle characteristics of a singer’s vocal chords, their positioning relative to the microphone, and all those other intangible details that make an upgraded system so exciting. With the SE846s I am learning more about my music collection than I have in a while.

What’s fascinating to me about the SE846 is that it manages to produce beautiful, creamy mid-range with speed and accuracy, but never falls into the trap of placing the mids ahead of other frequencies. Not once have I found myself feeling too close to the vocalist or trapped in a crowded soundstage with no air and no hope of rescue.

White Filter Bass

SAMSUNG CSCOnce again now I’m referring specifically to the white filters because the treble and the bass are the most influenced parts of the frequency response. I’m not sure that the filters actually adjust the bass levels so much as the other frequencies, but the end result is a changed perception of the bass.

With the white filters in the SE846s they might just have the best bass I have ever heard from an earphone or headphone. I have heard some people describe the SE846 as having the equivalent to a subwoofer, but it’s important to clarify that comment because there are subwoofers and then there are subwoofers. What I mean is that there is a big difference between a boomy, bassy, messy setup and a well tuned sub. A well tuned sub should only be noticeable when it’s removed – during normal listening it should support and reinforce the experience, never dominate it. That’s exactly what the SE846 achieves and it does it in the most remarkable way.

The engineers at Shure have managed to create a 4″ long tube inside a 1″ long IEM. How? By welding together tiny sheets of stainless steel of course. Why didn’t we all think of that!? Yes, the SE846 wields one of the most innovative advances we’ve seen in IEMs and may end up on par with the introduction of balanced armatures to consumer audio or the introduction of time / phase alignment in custom IEMs – all that depends on how tightly Shure holds onto the technology and how many more IEMs receive the same stroke of innovation in the future.

As far as I can understand it, the bass tunnel created by Shure acts as a low pass filter by physically attenuating higher frequencies. I wonder if it also acts a little like the technologies employed by Bose to help create bass with small speakers by using tunnels to “mechanically” amplify the bass. Regardless of how it works, what I can say definitively is that it works like a charm!

What makes the SE846’s bass so astonishing is that it moves so much air (especially for a balanced armature) while staying incredibly fast, tight and clean. If a track is mixed with a lean sound it will sound lean on the 846s. If it is mixed with rumbling, thunderous bass then you’re in for a treat.

The SE846 creates bass that is on par with a live performance. It produces a visceral, vibrational and auditory experience second only to being in the room with the musicians. It is magical to hear a bass guitar played or a kick drum struck while listening with the SE846s. You can hear (and feel) the impact of the notes as well as the deep, lingering reverberation (if it’s meant to be there). Each note is defined, separate from the rest of the music and decays quickly and naturally to make space for the next glorious sound wave. As you would imagine, sub-bass is powerful and present while mid-bass is solid, but equally well controlled and that’s why the SE846 can create such an excellent sense of clarity, detail and space while still being musical and engaging.

Soundstage & Imaging

The 846s have an excellent soundstage – very coherent and clean with excellent separation of instruments. It’s not huge, but the outstanding separation and clarity means that it never sounds congested. I would say the SE846 stage is a little larger than the TG!334 while perhaps not being as expansive as something like the UM Miracles.

The stage centres clearly on vocals (much like the TG!334), but is not dominated by the mids and manages to clearly recreate the location and space around cymbals, bass instruments, and everything in between. Height is limited, but natural and similarly not congested while depth is similarly average, but well defined.

In short, the SE846 isn’t an earphone for those wanting a massive out-of-head experience, rather it’s about an accurate, well-defined stage that fills every “corner” of your head, but doesn’t extend significantly beyond. To me it’s a natural presentation that allows me to completely forget that I’m wearing earphones and that’s perfect!

Overview

I’ll follow the overview with some other filter comparisons so read on after this if you’re interested, but in the meantime allow me to summarise the SE846s in just a few words: the very best universal IEM I have heard to date!

SAMSUNG CSCThe SE846s really are exceptional earphones and are so far beyond their very capable ancestor SE535s that they really shouldn’t be compared. No, the SE846s deserve comparisons at their pricepoint and beyond – comparisons with IEMs and CIEMs like the Fit Ear TG!334, JH Audio JH13 / JH16, UM Miracles, Sennheiser IE800 and AKG3003. Of the models listed here I have directly compared the SE846 with all but the JH Audio models and can comfortably say that the SE846s are a better overall option than all of the others mentioned. Some earphones may do 1 or 2 things better than the SE846, but I haven’t yet heard an earphone which is overall better and continually put my wallet back in my pocket after auditioning potential upgrades having realised that there may be no upgrade for the SE846 without venturing into the $1500+ custom territory of Noble Kaiser 10s, JH Audio Roxanne, UE Personal Reference Monitors, and other flagship customs.

As I stated earlier, no earphone or headphone has successfully conveyed the feelings of a live performance the way the SE846 can and it’s all about the bass. Other options like the HD800, LCD-2, and T1 can create a great reproduction and possibly highlight more details or create a larger soundstage, but nothing manages to make me feel like I’m in the room with the musicians the same way that the SE846s do. When I first listened to Ane Brun’s “What’s Happening With You and Him?” I was gob-smacked by the texture and clarity of the drums that rumble across the soundstage – it was so real! I immediately tried the same track with everything else I own and couldn’t reproduce the experience on anything except the SE846s. I’m eagerly awaiting some new customs which will hopefully be an upgrade over the SE846, but I’m not convinced that they’ll be anything more than a sideways step because it’s hard to imagine the sound getting significantly better than the SE846s.

Read on below to learn more about the different filter characteristics because it’s an important feature of the SE846s – they can be 3 different earphones with just a quick filter change. You’ll also find out that the addition of an aftermarket silver litz cable changes the sound further still and left me preferring the other filters over the whites so you can have plenty of fun fine tuning the SE846s to your exact taste and that’s rare with an IEM (although becoming slightly more common).

Blue Filter Comparison

The blue filters are the stock inclusion with the SE846s so they’re what you’ll hear straight out of the box. If I’m honest, I wasn’t overwhelmed by what I heard when I first listened to the SE846s with these filters installed. The sound was smooth and polite, but lacking in anything particularly special. The blue filters produce a sound that is smooth, warm and mid-centric, but I personally find the treble extension a little lacking, however some will like the smooth, fatigue-free sound they produce.

Because of the reduced treble, the bass and mids are more prominent in the mix with the majority of the benefit going towards the mids. The bass is not significantly stronger (referring only to perception as the blue filter doesn’t enhance the bass, just reduce the treble). With the blue filters installed, the SE846s remind me a lot of the SE535 Limited Edition, but with upgraded quality at every frequency and deeper, stronger bass. I find myself missing the airiness and treble extension that the white filter has, but that’s only when using the stock cable. I recently received a pure silver litz cable from Headphone Lounge and it brings the blue filters to life by adding a little extra air and treble extension while keeping the beautiful smoothness and gentle mid-range emphasis.

Black Filter Comparison

SAMSUNG CSCThe black filters are the warmest option available with the SE846s and bring increased bass and mid presence by pulling back the 1kHz-8kHz range by 2.5dB (just as the white boosts this range by 2.5dB relative to the blue filter).

I personally prefer the black filters to the blue filters because they shine a brighter light on the mid-range and really showcase the SE846s’ brilliance in this area. With the black filters installed, the SE846s remind me quite a lot of the Fit Ear TG!334, but with faster, tighter bass. The 334s probably still have an edge in out-right mid-range resolution, but the SE846 isn’t far behind. The sound from the black filters is still smooth like the blue filters, but the extra mid and bass emphasis makes the signature more striking and interesting than the blue filter which I find to be a bit too neutral in all areas. Of course, some may like that about the blues.

Once again, the edition of a nice silver cable like the silver litz cable I bought brings the treble energy back into the mix and helps to bring life to the SE846s when using the darker filters. In fact, I find myself preferring the blue and black filters with the silver litz cable – I’m not yet sure which of the filters will become my new standard with the silver cable in place.

Cable Comments

The addition of the silver litz cable from Ted Allen at Headphone Lounge certainly had the desired results. The sound became noticeably smoother and with better extension and air in the treble. The bass becomes more agile and nimble which may initially sound like a decrease in quantity, but it’s just faster as far as I can tell, not reduced at all. The bass extension and impact is still excellent and just right. As I said above, with the silver cable in place I found the white filters a little too bright and was pleased to discover that the blue filter now sounds very similar to the white filter with stock cable, but the blue filter with silver cable combo is smoother and more refined while still delivering all the extension and air of the white filter (with stock cable). In short, I would definitely recommend upgrading the SE846 cable even though the stock one isn’t bad. If you’d got an IEM with this kind of potential you might as well unleash it.

Mad Dogs Feature-01

Mr Speakers Mad Dogs 3.2

fostex_t50bigThe Mr Speaker’s Mad Dogs headphones have been around for a while now and are currently produced as revision 3.2. To understand the reason for the revisions, let me explain the genesis of these ‘phones.

Mad Dogs begin their life as the very affordable and not particularly special (except for being very neutral and a little bass-light) Fostex T50RP. Over many years, Dan Clark (the founder of Mr Speakers) tested various mods to the T50RP which resulted in the product we have today. Currently (on the 3.2 version), the mods include everything from new ear pads, sealed vents, and internal damping to a leather “comfort strap” which sits directly below the stock Fostex headband. The result of all this modification is a similar looking headphone that is sturdy, robust, comfortable and a great performer at its very modest price ($300 USD).

Overview

The Mad Dogs use a planar magnetic driver – similar technology to the Audeze and HiFiMan headphones, but in this case it’s implemented in a sealed enclosure. Mr Speakers don’t publish specifications for the Mad Dogs, but based on the Fostex specs, the Mad Dogs have an impedance of 50 ohms and sensitivity around 98 db/mW so they’re pretty sensitive for a planar and have a good level of impedance for most devices to drive comfortably.

Design, Accessories & Comfort

SAMSUNG CSCI bought my Mad Dogs second hand so I am not completely clear on how they are originally packaged and delivered, but I do know that they come with one cable terminated to 6.3mm stereo headphone jack and another cable with a 3.5mm jack. The stock 6.3mm cable locks into the left earpiece of the Mad Dogs (see picture to the left) while the 3.5mm cable just plugs in, but is perfectly secure and serviceable. You could use any cable that ends in a slim 3.5mm jack at the headphone end so the options are pretty open for cable upgrades if you so desire.

I’ve spent very little time with the stock T50RPs, but can assure you that they are nowhere near as comfortable as the Mad Dogs. The thick strap of leather attached under the stock Fostex headband (it’s screwed into the headband assembly at the base of the arch on each side) is a perfect solution – simple, rugged and really comfortable. The earpads too are extremely soft and comfortable, reminiscent of the earpads on the Audeze LCD-2. The current 3.2 models (like mine) come with the “Alpha Pads” which are so named because they were designed for Mr Speakers’ top model Alpha Dogs which use the same driver, but replace the Fostex cups with a custom-made 3D printed cup.

All-in-all, the Mad Dogs are a perfect implementation of everything the T50RP is capable of. They are rugged, comfortable, and squeeze every last bit of performance from the T50RP package (without upgrading the whole housing of course).

Sound

Before I launch into the sound quality, it’s worth mentioning that I do find the Mad Dogs perform better with a desktop setup, but they’re no slouch from a decent portable setup with a nice portable amp. I used the FiiO E12DIY to listen while preparing for this review and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but there’s no denying the extra step the Mad Dogs can take simply with a little more juice behind them. With that said, I’m using the Bottlehead Mainline for this review to squeeze every last ounce of performance from the MDs.

Bass

SAMSUNG CSCThe MDs offer bass that is smooth, full and clean. It’s not overly fast, but it’s also not bloated in any way. The bass from the MDs falls shy to the Beyerdynamic T1s in speed and texture, and that’s high praise for a headphone 1/3 of the price. Bass depth is also excellent and there’s a slight lift in the mid-bass of the Mad Dogs which helps them to sound punchy and dynamic (but may be masking the sub-bass slightly). The boost is tasteful and adds only a hint of bloom to the sound – just enough to make the Mad Dogs sound smooth overall, but not sluggish. To my ears the Mad Dogs are slightly slower in the bass than some of the alternatives, but it’s very slight and still extremely enjoyable because it’s in keeping with everything else they do as you’ll soon see.

Mids

The Mad Dogs’ mid-range is its strong point. Vocals and particularly instruments like guitars sound fabulous – textured, clean, and real. The Mad Dogs have a great weight to the notes and deliver everything in the mid-range band with a nice sense of realism and accuracy. I’ve never heard the MDs present anything that sounded artificial or canned. Listening to Diana Krall’s The Girl In The Other Room and similar great vocal recordings is a joy as the Mad Dogs deliver the vocals and instrumentation accurately and effortlessly. Drums have just the right texture and speed, guitars have that slight edge as the string is plucked followed by the warm glow as the notes resonate into the room (or your ears in this case).

If I had to find a weak spot in the Mad Dogs’ mids it would fall in the upper mids where the line blurs between mids and treble. I feel like the one thing missing from the Mad Dogs’ mid-range is a little bit or air or breath at the upper limits of the mid-range, but as I said, this is starting to blur the lines with treble so let’s discuss it there.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCThe treble of the Mad Dogs is smooth and clean, but there’s just a little something lacking for me and it’s both a blessing and a curse I think. There is a bit of a dip in energy at the upper limit of vocals where consonant sounds (“s”, “t”, “k”, etc.) live. This means that the Mad Dogs are never sibilant and that’s great. However, it also steals a tiny bit of energy from the overall presentation and makes the Mad Dogs a little too laid back for truly engaging auditory experiences.

Before it sounds like I’m panning these, let me clarify that the treble has great qualities too. Cymbals and percussion sound natural and realistic, and there’s a nice sense of air at the upper end of the sound spectrum so it’s not all bad. The treble isn’t muffled or veiled, it’s just smooth and polite. In the context of a $300 headphone, these are possibly one of the best you could hope to find, but the dip in the treble around 4-6kHz prevents them from being exceptional giant-killers.

Staging and Imaging

Being a closed headphone you may not expect a lot from the Mad Dogs, but they might surprise you. The imaging is very good and the staging is surprisingly wide for a closed headphone. The treble dip I discussed above prevents razor-sharp imaging, but they are still very very good with a nice clean sense of each instrument’s place in the auditory picture. The stage extends beyond the ears and has good depth and height.

Once again, for a $300 headphone these things are ridiculously good. In the context of overall sound performance, they are not quite as resolving and pin-point accurate as the flagship headphones on the market, but it’d be a worry if they were because no-one would buy T1s, HD800s, TH-900s, LCDs or any of the other great top-of-the-line cans out there.

Summary

SAMSUNG CSCI’ve reached the end of this review feeling like I’ve been too hard on the Mad Dogs – after all they’re a $300 headphone and I keep comparing them to $1000 headphones. What that tells me though is that they’re so very good that I’m wanting just that tiny step more performance to make them truly special (at any price). In truth they are truly special at $300 and would still be special-sounding headphones at $400-500. They do everything very well and are clean and neutral without getting analytical and harsh. Sure, I’d like a touch more sense of speed from them, but that might also be personal taste.

If you’re looking to spend up to $300 on a headphone be sure to check out the Mad Dogs. They’re so good at everything they do that they’d suit almost anybody working with a $300 budget and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better closed headphone without going up to their more expensive ($600) sibling, the Alpha Dogs. The only similarly-priced headphone I prefer sonically to the Mad Dogs is the Beyerdynamic DT1350, but the Mad Dogs win hands-down on comfort and isolation so I’d struggle to choose between the 2 and there are areas where the Mad Dogs out-perform the DT1350s sonically so it’s a tough, tough call and one that would come down to personal usage and preferences in basically every case.

Audiofly AF140 – Mini-Review

I’m sitting in bed today feeling decidedly lousy, but with the quandary of also having a pair of Audiofly’s new AF140 IEMs in my temporary possession for a review before I pass them on to another Head-Fi’er so I hope this mini-review can do justice to what I find to be a really enjoyable set of IEMs. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that the brevity of my review or quantity / quality of photos reflects the quality or performance of the product in any way.

Before I get started, I’d like to thank the team at Audiofly and Billy from Noisy Motel for making this tour possible. I know that the AF140s have received some criticism so far which is always a risk during a tour, but I honestly believe that the criticism is misplaced and a result of personal tastes (which we are all completely entitled to) as opposed to a product design flaw. I believe the AF140s hits its brief as perfectly as the previously reviewed AF180s – it’s just that the brief in question isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. Read on to see if it might be for you…

Overview

AF140 ShellsThe AF140s are one of the four new IEMs in Audiofly’s Performance Series. The series consists of the AF120, AF140, AF160 and AF180 ranging from entry-level to top-of-the-line. The AF140s are a hybrid offering with a single dynamic and pair of balanced armature drivers. At $349, they compete with other models like the Astrotec AX-60 and FIDUE A83 (both $399), but all three of these models offer a completely different presentation and that’s why I feel the AF140s deserve some consideration and praise – they aren’t a clone of anything else out there (except perhaps their bigger brother, the  AF180).

If you want to know more about the specs for the AF140, please check out all the info here. Suffice to say, the specs are fairly standard for an IEM.

Design & Comfort

I won’t spend much time here because everything about the AF140s is like a scaled back AF180. The same great cable is used, but this time it’s hard-wired. A similar case is provided, but this time it’s a little smaller and made of canvas instead of leather. In both cases, you’re still getting great features and accessories, but at a level on par with the lower price-point which is completely fair.

The shells of the AF140s are the same brilliant looking and comfortable shape as the AF180s so you can wear these things forever with no problems. On top of that you get a nice range of tips and accessories to ensure you can find a comfortable fit. I’m using them with the excellent Westone Star silicone tips (not included with the AF140s), but that’s just because I had them handy when the 140s arrived.

There’s really not much more to say about the design and comfort of these. They look great, they are sturdy and comfortable and they come with all the accessories you’d expect so let’s get to the good stuff.

Sound Quality

As I said earlier, the AF140s have taken a bit of a beating from some of my peers over on Head-Fi and I understand why – these aren’t going to be everyone’s auditory cup of tea, but if you’re like me, they could just be your cup of hot chocolate instead!

Bass

AF140 CaseBecause they use a dynamic bass driver the AF140s are able to offer plenty of bass with good depth, but they’re not bass monsters. The bass is full and a touch slow perhaps, but it’s enjoyable and well-tuned overall. I don’t feel like the bass bleeds into other frequencies, but it is a touch slower than other units like the aforementioned A83 or the more expensive (and BA driven) AF180.

Because of the slight roundness in the bass, the AF140 sounds full and smooth – a theme which continues throughout for better or worse – that part’s up to your tastes. Depth and impact are excellent and the AF140 never runs out of puff even on bass-heavy electronic tracks. It’s not agile like the A83, but it’s enjoyable in its own way and is coherent with the rest of the picture… which is about to get much more compelling.

Mids

I love it when a product has a “party trick” – that thing that it does better than any / many of its peers. For the AF140, the party trick is the mid-range presentation.

I haven’t enjoyed a mid-range this much since I first bought my SE535s all those years ago. In many ways, the AF140s are kind of like an SE535 with deeper bass, but I don’t have them 535s anymore so I don’t want to get too carried away with that comparison as I might be selling one or both IEMs short.

What I love about the mids from the AF140s is that they are so perfectly focused and accurate – I can’t help but get drawn into the music and notice each instrument, each vocal nuance, and each subtle texture in the instrumentation and mixing of the track. The AF140s are able to shine a very different light on my music collection than many (any?) of my other IEMs, including top-notch offerings like the UM Miracles and SE846 (yes, I keep saying that the review is coming soon and it is – they’re just tricky to fully appreciate as you’ll see in the future).

Instruments and vocals are rendered with complete precision by the AF140s. The sounds are eerily palpable within the soundstage regardless of whether they are placed front and centre or off to the side of the mix. Everything is just so well-defined and rendered in the mid-ranges.

Highs

The highs, much like the similar AF180, may be troublesome for some. For once with a hybrid this isn’t because of stinging shards of treble energy, but because the AF140 is very politely rolled-off up top. I literally can’t find a track that sounds sibilant on the AF140s which could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing – once again it all depends on how you look at it. I’m going to keep the treble summary very brief – it’s there, but it’s rolled-off relative to the other frequencies a little more so than with the AF180 I think. With that said, let’s flash back for a moment to the origins of the Audiofly brand… It’s an IEM company run by musicians. Now let’s think about how a musician would use an IEM like the AF140…

You’re a guitarist and you’re on stage with your band. You need to know what’s going on in the mix. You need to know how you sound; how your band mates sound. You need to know where the groove is headed. Do you know what you don’t need? Sibilance. You don’t need any excess treble information to get in the way of relaxing and sinking into the magical moments that come when a group of musicians hit their stride with one another.

So, my assumption when I listen to the AF140 is that this was designed as a stage monitor. If you’re an audiophile, this IEM is probably not for you – it is definitely not a mastering tool or analysis device. If you’re a music lover like me though, you probably value the musical experience above the technicalities of a track – you’re looking for the groove and the magic. To me that’s where the AF140s really shine. I just can’t help but enjoy the music washing over me when I relax into a good track with the AF140s. They don’t dissect poorly recorded tracks in my collection, they just wrap them gently in velvet and deliver them to me with a big smile and an extra dollop of cream.

Imaging & Staging

AF140sI still can’t quite work out how the AF140s throw the image that they do. Typically speaking, positional information comes from higher frequencies because lower frequencies are less directional. With rolled-off treble, the AF140s should produce a solid clump of congested sound somewhere between your ears, but they don’t. No, the AF140s create one of the most spacious stages I’ve ever heard from a smooth, relaxed earphone or headphone. The stage stretches comfortably from ear to ear and has excellent depth. Instruments are coherently placed and spaced throughout the entire space and every instrument has an incredible sense of space around it without ever sounding separate from the other instruments. I personally find the imaging and staging of the AF140s completely seductive and intoxicating. I will honestly miss these when I have to send them back simply because they are unique (in a good way).

Summary

It’s very easy in this hobby to get caught in the quest for every last bit of detail and neutrality at any cost, but having been down that road I’ve returned to a place over the last year or so of really emphasising the enjoyment of the music over anything else. My personal measure for a product is about one simple question – do I enjoy my music with it? With the AF140s my answer is a resounding yes each and every time I listen to them. Sure, there are technically better IEMs out there. There are IEMs with better bass and better treble. There are IEMs that are more neutral and less coloured, but for the price I don’t think I’ve heard an IEM that I just for enjoy moment that it’s in my ears. In fact, while the AF180 is clearly a superior product, I find the AF140 has a certain something that I almost prefer because it’s unique and fun.

Now my measure for a great product (for me) might be the simple question of enjoyment, but your needs and measures might be different so let’s be clear… If you like a bright signature or lots of detail, or if you need neutrality for mixing and mastering, there’s probably not a lot of point in auditioning these and you might find the FIDUE A83 a better option (or some of the countless other IEMs out there). However, if you’re a musician looking for a comfortable and sturdy IEM for stage use or a music lover who just wants to listen to tunes and smile then you absolutely should check these puppies out and revel in that mid-range glow – it’s something special!

AF180 feature-01

Audiofly AF180

SAMSUNG CSCEver wondered what happens when you let musicians design an earphone? No, not branding exercises like Beats, Marley, or certain AKG models, but musicians having an actual say in the design and sound of the earphones – in fact  in this case it’s musicians owning and running the company making the earphones.

Well what you get is something practical, sexy, comfortable, and never-endingly enjoyable to listen to. Meet the AF180 from Audiofly…

Overview

  • Drivers:  4 x balanced armatures
  • Frequency range:  15 – 25,000Hz
  • Impedance:  18 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  108dB (at 1kHz)
  • Cable:  1.6m (detachable with MMCX connector)

Thank you to Luke, Dave and the team at Audiofly for sending out a pair of the AF180s on loan for this review! I first saw these little beauties at the Australian Audio & AV Show back in October last year and have eagerly awaited them ever since. Sometimes that type of anticipation and a $500+ price tag can build for disappointment, but I’m pleased to say that there is no disappointment to be had.

Design & Comfort

Defining the AF180’s most striking feature is a hard call – it’s either the design or the carry case provided by Audiofly. You’d pay a fortune for one of these cases as the ultimate IEM accessory and you get it for free with the AF180s (and some other models).

SAMSUNG CSCLet’s get the carry case and other accessories out of the way…

The brilliant and beautiful leather carry case is perfect for carrying in a bag and provides protection for your IEMs as well as ample space for storing tips, a cleaning brush and other IEM related knick-knacks. There’s a nice elasticised mesh in the bottom of the case to help hold things in place and prevent that embarassing moment when your small IEM tips fall out of the case on the crowded train and force you to either pretend nothing happened or go crawling on your hands and knees under the seats (and other people’s legs).

In addition to the carry case, Audiofly has jammed plenty of accessory goodness into their beautiful retail packaging so you’ll have no shortage of tip choices and adapters for airlines, full size (6.3mm) headphones jacks and the like. Audiofly provides you with everything you’d expect and nothing more than you’d expect, but it’s all at a quality level on par (6.3mm adapter) or beyond (carry case) anything you’re likely to expect from other premium brands costing significantly more.

The cable is another quality fabric wrapped offering which is not quite as gob-smackingly awesome as the FIDUE A83’s cable, but it’s still an excellent example of how stock cables should look, feel and perform.

The Sexiest IEM on the Planet?

The housing shape and design of the AF180 is unique and strikingly beautiful. I can safely say that these are the best looking IEMs I have ever seen and the looks don’t come at the cost of practicality or comfort.

Just quietly, I prefer the look of the AF160s, the AF180’s slightly cheaper, 3-driver sibling, but that’s a colour preference only because they share the exact same design elements with the organic looking curved-droplet-shape housing finished in an incredible translucent blue colour (or brown in the case of the AF160 which I don’t have here to review). They also have a detachable cable with MMCX connectors that employ a wave shaped moulding to help them lock into place. I haven’t played with any aftermarket cables, but imagine that this design, whilst helpful in a practical sense because it prevents the cable from spinning freely, may prevent some aftermarket cables from working. The good news is that the stock cable is great so many will feel no need to change to aftermarket offerings.

The nozzle on the AF180s is the same as Westone and Shure offerings so there are plenty of tip options available. (I am using the Klipsch oval silicone tips because they are a great fit for my ears and it prevented me soiling Audiofly’s provided selection).

The Comfiest IEM on the Planet?

SAMSUNG CSCSome may argue that custom IEMs are the most comfortable, but in my experience they can cause their own troubles because certain movements can change the shape of your ear canal and therefore draw your attention to the lump of plastic in your ear canal and break the seal created against the inflexible housings of the CIEMs.

In my experience, I have never worn a more comfortable IEM or CIEM. I would rate the comfort of the AF180s equal or better than the SE535s and SE846s and actually slightly prefer them to my UM Miracles (for comfort in full ranges of movement) due to the reasons mentioned above.

The AF180 nestles into the ear perfectly with all the curves in just the right places to avoid discomfort after longer sessions. I have even read comments on Head-Fi about people sleeping with these in their ears, but I’ll leave that to them as I have never been comfortable falling asleep with IEMs in place.

Sound

A portion of my listening with these IEMs was conducted in a 2 hour round trip on the train to the city and the isolation was excellent. I was completely in my own world with just the smooth, relaxed, and detailed sounds of the AF180s to keep me company… Oh, it’s a hard life!

Bass

Audiofly AF180-9Being a 4-driver design, you’d expect good bass from the AF180s and they certainly have the chops to produce a good thump when it’s needed, but they’re not bass-boosted monsters and actually remind me of the Miracles in their overall amount of bass – a little north of neutral, but with no bloat or bleed.

The bass from the AF180s has a certain character that, to me, defines their overall sound. The bass is smooth and easy and doesn’t cut away sharply to create the sense of speed normally associated with BA bass. Although different in quantity, the bass on the AF180s actually reminds me of the bass from the FitEar TG!334s – punchy bass that defies the typical expectations from a balanced armature partly because it’s just a little on the slow side. The AF180 has less bass overall than an earphone like the TG!334 which helps the AF180 to avoid drifting into muddy waters with the excess bass flab that can plague the TG!334s on some tracks. Just for the record here, I am not suggesting the AF180s compete with the $1800 TG!334s overall – just that their bass presentations are similar in that they both sound more like a dynamic driver at times with a slightly slower feel than many other similar BA-only IEMs.

There’s plenty of extension to provide deep rumble where it’s required and a nice punch for more energetic tracks. If it lacks in any area it’s overall bass speed and detail, but that’s in comparison to some of the best IEMs in the market that cost twice as much. In the price range where the AF180 plays I think its bass performance is as good as anything else I’ve heard in the context of how Audiofly have chosen to present the bass frequencies here.

To sum up the AF180’s bass I would say it’s been tuned for musical enjoyment and a non-fatiguing overall experience. There’s enough punch to feel it, but it’s not going to bombard your ear-drums until they feel like the aftermath of a piñata party. Excess bass can be fatiguing just like treble and I think the AF180s have a nice balance of politeness and punch to keep the music engaging, but not aggressive. Some may find it too slow and smooth so best to audition these if you’re specific with your bass tastes.

Mids

SAMSUNG CSCI guess you could call the AF180s slightly mid-centric, but that might paint a picture of a thick sounding, creamy and lush presentation which would be vastly overstating it. The mids are nicely balanced with the bass and slightly ahead of the treble, but are agile and detailed whilst remaining smooth to retain coherency with the other frequencies.

Every time I listen to the AF180s they remind me of the Sennheiser HD650s and the mids make for a perfect comparison between the two. Just like the HD650s, the AF180s have sneaky mid-range detail. They are easy to listen to and push nothing on you, but if you stop to listen closely you become aware of all the subtle details available for the noticing should you choose. This is part of the AF180’s charm. There’s nothing missing, but they don’t need to shove that in your face – they’re like a person who’s completely comfortable in his / her own skin and doesn’t tell you all the things they can do, but as you spend time with them you find yourself constantly surprised by all the things they can actually do… and they never break a sweat.

So to describe the AF180’s mid range presentation I would say that they are present and clean and equally adept with both male and female vocals. Once again though they are smooth and laidback just like the bass. Each sound is free from significant edge / attack which makes the sound very easy to listen to. Some people may long for a bit more bite in the sound, but that’s where a different model might come into play (like the AF160). Don’t mistake the lack of edge and attack for a lack of enjoyment though. The AF180s walk a fine line and succeed with flying colours at staying engaging and interesting while never becoming edgy or shouty. After literally hours of listening I still haven’t heard a track that made me wince or reach for the “next” button. Likewise though, they haven’t once made me feel like I’ve got cotton wool stuffed in my ears or a nasty head cold that makes everything sound like it’s happening in the room next door.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCUp high is probably where the AF180’s most obvious sound trait resides… or doesn’t – depends on how you look at it.

The AF180s have a noticeably rolled off treble – akin perhaps to the Shure SE535, although I don’t have the 535s anymore to directly compare so take that with a grain of salt. What’s interesting about the treble roll-off is that you don’t tend to notice it unless you come directly from a brighter ‘phone or are a card-carrying treble-seeker. This is not an earphone for treble heads – people in search of their next sparkly high (pun intended) need not apply here as you will be disappointed, but that’s not because this is a flawed IEM, it’s just that it’s not for the treble heads.

Where the guys (and girls?) at Audiofly have delivered their master stroke here is in the overall balance of the sound which lets you completely enjoy the overall balance of the sound without thinking “where’s the treble?” Yes, it’s rolled off. Yes, the overall sound is darker / warmer than neutral, but it’s so well balanced with the mids and bass that it’s only noticeable if you’re actively looking for it.

The treble delivered by the AF180s is clean, dry, crisp and detailed so it prevents any sense of veil or muffle that can come from other smooth ‘phones. With that in mind I actually think the AF180s offer a better overall treble presentation than something like the similarly-priced SE535 (including the limited editions). Whether they are better overall will be a case of personal preference, but I think their treble is more enjoyable and coherent with the rest of the frequency range.

Staging & Imaging

Often, darker ‘phones sacrifice a sense of space and air because a lot of that spatial information is delivered in the treble registers. This is true and not true for the AF180 all at the same time.

The AF180’s soundstage is very wide and very spacious. On first listen I was immediately aware of picture-perfect instrument placement and separation, especially in the mid ranges. Each instrument is clearly placed with a realistic sense of weight and presence that brings the music an organic sense of authenticity. The paradox of this space and stage width is the surprising lack of depth in the soundstage. There is very little front-back information conveyed when listening to the AF180s and normally that would leave an earphone sounding congested and delivering only part of the experience, but not so with the AF180s. A little more depth in the presentation would certainly be welcome, but I can’t say I ever thought about it when I was listening. Once the music starts, these technicalities become just that – a technicality that has no place in the world of enjoying great music. The staging of the AF180 is just right in its own way and they do it again in that really understated way where everything just is and nothing is forced. The AF180s just let you listen to the music with no frills and no fuss, just “Here it is. Enjoy!”

Summary

SAMSUNG CSCAs is often the case with a great audio product, the AF180s clearly know what they are and what they’re not. Despite sitting at the top of the Audiofly tree, the AF180s are not a detail-touting, treble wielding magnifying glass looking to shred your eardrums as they force every last decibel of every last frequency into your brain like a diamond-tipped drill-bit. In other words, don’t buy these if you’re looking for a reference tool because they just aren’t that.

What the AF180s are is a highly composed and refined-sounding earphone with detail to spare, bass on tap (but not leaking) and the confidence to deliver almost any music you can imagine with realism and clarity packaged in a sugar-coated, easy-to-swallow pill. They are comfortable on every level, but in the manner of a pair of performance runners / sneakers, not fluffy and sloppy slippers.

I really think the biggest compliment I can pay these is a repeated comparison to the HD650s. If you like the HD650 sound, I really can’t imagine you not enjoying the AF180s. They offer everything that I remember and loved about the HD650s in a package that fits super comfortably in your ear (and in your pocket / bag when not in use) and they sound great driven by basically any portable device you could hope to try (with the caveat of the device not exceeding an output impedance of about 2-3 ohms which any decent portable should really never do).

I’ll be sad to send these little blue droplets of musical bliss on to the next reviewer in the coming days because as much as some of my other (twice-the-price) IEMs are better overall, I have really loved enjoying every single track I listen to on the AF180s an I can’t always say that even with much more expensive (but also more picky) gear.

Congratulations to the team at Audiofly for building exactly what they claim to be focussed on – musicians earphones. I can’t think of a more perfect signature for a fatigue-free performance or studio session with all of the required auditory information and no fuss. To my ears, the AF180s have nailed their brief with a casual confidence and maturity that speaks of lots of reflection, discussion and consideration by the team at Audiofly.

If you prefer a brighter, faster sound, my short audition of the AF160 would suggest that it may be a preferable option (with the bonus of the sexy brown housing colour and all of the same accessories as the AF180). If however you appreciate the ability to just plug in, tune out and enjoy then the AF180s might prove surprisingly addictive for you.

A83 Teal-01

FIDUE A83

As I sit to write this review I have a confession to make. I had an assumption about these earphones before I received them and it made my initial impressions of them very confusing. You see, most hybrids on the market (IEMs using both dynamic drivers and balanced armatures) have lots of bass, sucked out mids and sharp, nasty treble. Many of them come close to the fun signatures that many of us are looking for, but none that I’ve heard in the crowded $200-$400 range are yet to achieve that signature without the curse of sizzling, snapping treble.

So when I heard about the upcoming A83 from FIDUE I got really excited. They have received excellent reviews for their A63, a mid-centric budget earphone, so I automatically thought that same warm, fun colouration would be added to the A83 along with the glorious bass of a well-tuned dynamic driver. When I eagerly unpacked the beautifully presented and engineered A83s I was in for a shock. “Where’s all the bass?” I thought, “And what’s with that treble!?” I was completely shocked and found it really hard to figure out what had gone wrong. Where was the fun, musical hybrid I was expecting? Was this another shouty hybrid, but this time without the bass chops?

Um… no.

I just made a really stupid assumption and I feel really silly now because I spent 3 weeks not appreciating the A83s for what they weren’t instead of realising what they are. Would you like to know what they actually are? Read on…

Overview

SAM_0250-4FIDUE is another newcomer to the audio scene with 4 IEMs now under their belt, the A31, A63, A81 and now the A83. FIDUE is a name made by an acronym:

  • Fidelity – Natural original voice of high fidelity
  • Inspired – The resonance of soul
  • Durable – Long-lived quality
  • Unique – The unique design
  • Enjoyable – Enjoy happily

As far as I can see they are achieving their brief with their products so far, as each is as good as it is unique. So, no, the A83 is not a souped-up A63 or A81 – it’s a product of its very own merits.

At $399 (AUD) the A83 is at the upper end of the mid-priced IEM range as there tends to be a leap up to the near-$1000 range once you crest the $500 mark. For this price I was expecting big things and I am convinced that they justify their price tag… Earlier though? Not so much – but that’s the power of false assumptions for you!

Specifications

  • Drivers:  1 x 10mm dynamic + 2 x balanced armatures (BAs)
  • Frequency range:  9 – 31,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  11 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  104dB
  • Cable:  Detachable 1.3m cable with MMCX connectors (same connector as Shure, Audiofly and a few other manufacturers)

Design & Comfort

SAM_0234-1The A83s initially caught my attention for 2 reasons – the fact that they might have been the hybrid that finally got it right and their design. These are one of the most unique looking IEMs you can buy. They have transparent coloured inner shells in blue and red for left and right respectively. These inner shells are married to beautifully sculpted metal outer shells with a striking, finned design like nothing I’ve ever seen in an IEM. I’m not sure what metal they’ve used either because it’s a subtle gold colour, but it’s subtle, not that cheesy gold colour you sometimes see on products seeking the “bling” factor. No, to me these aren’t bling – these are classy, but striking.

Inside the retail packaging of the A83s you receive a nice set of tips, an airplane adapter (single 3.5mm to twin 3.5mm) and a 3.5 to 6.3mm adapter and a clear pelican case with a FIDUE label and a sneak peek to the goodies inside. I loved seeing the gold shell of the right earpiece peeking through at me when I first unpacked the box – it’s a nice touch and continues to bring a subtle pleasure each time I see that hint of gold through the clear case.

The Cable

Sometimes I discuss cables, sometimes I don’t. This cable though… this cable has to be discussed because it’s perfect!

Not good.

Perfect!

The cable is a greenish-grey fabric covered, silver-plated copper cable in a tight braid emerging from a beautiful custom, metal, slimline 3.5mm jack. There’s a nice, metal cuff at the split and the lengths from the cuff to the earpieces are twisted and wrapped in soft heatshrink to protect them and keep them in a tight twist I assume. Finally, the cable ends in MMCX connectors with a small locking tab to prevent them from spinning in the earpiece like the Shures do. I personally have no issues with the “Shure spin”, but others do so this will be welcome to some and has no drawbacks that I can see so it’s a good feature.

The cable is soft, just the right length (1.3m) and no more microphonic than any other IEM cable I’ve tried and far better than many. In other words, in my experience all IEMs produce some degree of microphonics if you try hard enough. The A83 cable is as good as it gets in my experience.

Fit & Comfort

SAM_0258-1The shape of the A83s may have you believing (like I did) that they will nest neatly in your ears like Shure and Westone offerings. Don’t be so sure…

The angle and position of the nozzle means that these sit out a little at the front, just above the ear lobe. It’s not uncomfortable in any way, but it’s not quite as streamlined as I expected when I first saw the A83s. The good news is that the back portion of the A83 is perfectly curved and nice and shallow so they do nestle in the hollow of your ear quite nicely and are comfortable for long sessions in that regard.

The other challenge I faced with the A83s is the angle of the nozzle. For many people the following points will be of no concern, but I have relatively small ear canals that bend quite sharply close to the opening. The A83s have a similar nozzle size to the RE-272s which I find extremely comfortable, but the nozzle is a tiny bit longer and angled slightly forward and up. This tiny change made getting the right fit extremely challenging for me at first. I tried lots and lots of different tips and even bought some Comply foam tips (which were a complete disaster when combined with the A83s’ design and my bendy ear canals). In the end, I have found a silicone tip (which may have been one of the FIDUE ones, I’m not sure) that provides a perfect seal and good comfort. Interestingly, once I got used to the slightly different, quite shallow insertion, I’ve found these to be a welcome change because the nozzle and tip seal quite close to the outside of the ear canal rather than forcing their way inside my head.

The moral of this story is that the A83s may not fit quite how you expect so please work with them and don’t expect them to necessarily be the same type of insertion as your other IEMs. They are not actually difficult to fit – just different. Once I found the right tip and angle of insertion I could get a good and comfortable seal quickly and easily every time.

Sound Quality

You already know of my doomed first encounter with these. I was so disappointed with the lack of warmth I thought I was hearing. In fact I thought they were one of the most unbalanced earphones I’d heard lately. To my ears they were all treble, but I was wrong and here lies the second moral of the story: our brains get confused and uncomfortable if we expect one thing and hear another. This is a cautionary tale – beware of your expectations when you test any earphones or headphones.

You see, I expected warmth and bass and midrange. Because of that, my brain had turned down the sensitivity to bass and midrange (because I expected it by the truckload) and turned up the sensitivity to treble because I didn’t expect that much – good treble, but less than the other frequencies.

Instead of a bassy, hybrid warmth-monster, my ears were greeted by a beautifully balanced, neutral and detailed sound and my brain freaked out! What I thought I was hearing was all treble, but in truth the sound was more balanced than anything else. The FIDUE A83 is a beautiful example of natural, balanced, enjoyable sound. It’s not analytical and cold like some IEMs seeking detail at all costs. It’s also not bloomy and boomy like some IEMs seeking the “wow” factor of prodigious bass. No, the A83 delivers every frequency equally with just a slight treble tilt, but it’s slight. This isn’t another sizzling hybrid. This is a tamed, controlled hybrid delivering the detail and control of a full-BA setup and the bass warmth (not quantity) and control of a pure dynamic setup.

Bass

SAM_0239-3For most of us, the term hybrid means bass-oriented or V-shaped earphone. Certainly, the A83 shows all the capabilities you expect from the possession of a dynamic driver, but it does it with subtlety and control. The T-PEOS H-300 showed me what dynamic bass could be like when it wasn’t overdone, but was present, well controlled and beautifully detailed. The A83 shows very similar characteristics with slightly less bass prominence (from my memory of the H-300), but equal agility and detail from the bass registers.

The bass is present, firm and warm, but tight and controlled with absolutely no bloat or bleeding into the mids. There’s nice bass energy, but if you’re expecting an earphone like the other hybrids on the market you’re going to be disappointed – that’s not what the A83 is about.

I recently reviewed the Noble PR which is an analytical IEM designed for detail and clarity. My one issue with that earphone was its lack of bass which left larger instruments like cellos sounding a bit hollow and lifeless. I used a 2Cellos track to test that so I decided to do the same with the A83s. The results were much more satisfactory in terms of realism in the cellos. Plucking and strumming of the cello strings had body and warmth, but no bloom. The sound was tight and punchy, but full and realistic.

That’s not to say the A83 is an all-around better earphone than the Noble PR – they are quite different, but they share a sense of accuracy and neutrality so it was a parallel worth making and the A83 brings extra firepower with its dynamic driver and perfect bass tuning.

Mids

Unlike many of the A83’s competitors, vocals and midrange instruments are present and accounted for with the A83s. There’s a slight dryness to female vocals, but nothing that detracts from enjoyment – it’s just a character of the sound and possibly exposes some of the vocal textures that are sometimes smoothed over. Either way, it’s not good or bad – it just is.

To my ears, the A83 probably has a slight dip in the lower mids which create that slight dryness, but also keeps the sound clean and crisp. Male vocals have less sense of the dryness because they live a little lower in the frequency range. Other midrange instruments like guitars and horns receive a beautiful sense of agility and texture from the A83’s tuning. I wouldn’t say the sound is coloured, but that the A83s have a noticeable character similar to the subtle differences from one instrument to the next. The sound is still very, very accurate so don’t be worried that the A83s will mess with your enjoyment of your favourite music. Regardless of the genre I’ve tried, the A83s have stayed pure, realistic and accurate – just right.

While writing this review, I actually heard some distortion in the vocals of some tracks I know very well and thought were very well recorded. The distortion sounds like the recording levels were just a touch too hot during the peaks in the vocals and the result is subtle, but noticeable with the A83s. I have never heard the problem before though so this is a sign of how revealing and detailed the A83s can be. The reason I haven’t put this front and centre though is that the A83s don’t shove detail in your face – they aren’t detail-mongers, they’re just accurate and revealing IEMs which, to me, is far more fun and far less fatiguing.

Treble

OK, so you know I got it wrong at first with these and thought they were evil bringers-of-sibilance. They are far from that, but they do still have a slight treble bump relative to complete neutrality.

I really dislike hot, sibilant earphones, but as I approach the 90 minute mark of this review, having listened to the A83s throughout at normal listening levels (estimated at 75-80dB), I can honestly say that I haven’t once reached to turn down the music, switch tracks, or otherwise reacted to splashy, rowdy treble.

Yes, the A83 presents a tiny treble tilt, but like its control of bass, its control of treble is equally poised and graceful. This is one of the few IEMs I have tried where I find myself actively enjoying the treble and that puts the A83 in some good company with the Noble PR and Shure SE846 (review coming soon).

A fellow Head-Fi’er recently posted a frequency response chart of the A83s on the discussion thread which might explain the A83’s treble voodoo. According to that chart, the A83s have a small treble peak at around 2-3kHz (hence the enjoyably dry vocals and agile strings) before dropping away around 4kHz and then peaking again around 8kHz.

Our ears are most sensitive to the 4kHz frequency range because it’s where a lot of the detail in speech occurs in the form of consonants (t, s, p, th, f, etc.) There’s no need for this area to be boosted in audio gear and it often results in sibilance from vocals because all of those consonants suddenly get over-cooked. If indeed that chart is accurate then Mr Benny Tan, the mastermind behind the tuning of the A83s, is a genius because he’s simultaneously created beautifully detailed and slightly prominent treble while deftly side-stepping the common issues with this approach – namely sibilance. Perhaps Mr Tan and Dr Moulton (“The Wizard” behind the Noble PRs) have been comparing notes because they have both nailed the perfect treble presentation that’s a joy to listen to without becoming fatigued (in fact I just turned my music up a notch).

Imaging and Staging

The imaging and staging from the A83s isn’t something I’m drawn to rave about, but it’s very good and easily on par with anything else I’ve heard in the price range. There’s not a great deal of depth to the soundstage (forwards / backwards), but it extends really well from side-to-side to the point that some sounds seem to come from slightly beyond the extremities of the earphones themselves. What’s good about the staging is that it is coherent, accurate and realistic. There are no phantom sounds appearing outside the stage all by themselves and there are no glaring gaps or irregularities in the shape of the stage. Playing my favourite staging track (Dancing Flute & Drum) from the Chesky Sensational Binaural Album (not its full title) shows an accurate sense of space, but not a huge sense of space.

Imaging from the A83s is equally as competent, but also not mind-blowing. That said, there are very few truly mind-blowing IEMs out there when it comes to staging and imaging and the A83s sit very comfortably in the tier directly below the mind-blowing tier. To let you into my little rating scale of imaging, there’s:

  1. Whoah!!!
  2. Nice!
  3. OK
  4. Meh

So the A83s receive a score of “Nice!” There’s a good sense of each instrument’s position and enough space between them to be believable, but I didn’t find myself wanting to reach out and touch a vocalist or an instrument like I have on one or two very special occasions with IEMs. For the $399 price tag, the imaging is easily as good or better than you’d expect and you’d have to spend a significant amount more to achieve better performance in this area.

Summary

SAM_0235-2Recognise what the A83s are – a detailed, accurate, neutral IEM with a tiny treble boost and perhaps a slight touch of warmth in the bass, although that’s debatable given that our impressions of what is “natural” all vary. To me, the A83s are dead accurate with a touch of treble and I love that about them. To my ears the bass brings realism and life to the music without becoming a prominent feature. They have bass that can hit like a subwoofer when it’s in the track, but completely retreat when not required.

The A83s seem slightly eccentric to me. They sound different to their peers. They look like they should nestle completely into your ears, but actually stick out ever-so-slightly and don’t insert as deep as you might expect. They are vibrant and colourful on the inside, but subtle and classy on the outside. And they can slap you around with bass in one moment before dancing through delicate passages like a ballerina the next. They are warm in one moment and bright in the next, but they’re not confused – they just know what the music is saying.

Know going into any introduction to the A83s that they are eccentric, but revel in that eccentricity because they are like a wonderful eccentric friend who you might not “get” at first, but as time passes and you get to really know them you are treated to one surprise and delight after another. The A83s have certainly become a friend of mine who’ll be sticking around for a long time. I hope you’ll find the same experiences if these sound like a good fit for your tastes!

Noble PR Orange-01-01

Noble PR IEM

I find myself in the enviable position of having way too much gear to review at the moment thanks to a couple of purchases (Mr Speakers Mad Dogs and Shure SE846s) in addition to being included on some product tours for IEMs such as the Audiofly AF180s and these Noble PRs. I also have an upcoming review of the very interesting FIDUE A83s. For that reason I’m going to keep this review brief in words, but hopefully heavy on meaningful content. So here we go…

Overview

The Noble PR is one of 2 IEM models from Noble that include a switch on the IEM body that allows you to change the signature of the IEM on the fly. In the case of the PR, the options are a “Pure” sound (P) or a “Reference” sound (R). This is a first (as far as I know) because it is essentially two IEMs in one. For more detail, please take a look at the Noble website and while you’re there, do your eyes a favour and take a look at the “Wizard” range of universals – they are strikingly beautiful one-off, unique IEM designs that are incredibly affordable as a great sounding piece of artwork!

The only other specs I want to provide here are that these IEMs have two distinct impedances – approximately 240 ohm or 30 ohm depending on the mode.

By the way, before I continue I’d like to say thank you to Noble and Head-Fi’er, d marc0, for arranging this tour!! It’s a great initiative in the community to get people experiencing and talking about gear they might not otherwise try. Playing with the PRs has certainly got me very interested in Noble’s other products thanks to the great build quality and execution of the PR.

Design and Comfort

SAM_0265-4The PRs are really nicely put together with a simple, black shell and nice gold accents by way of the assembly screws. They come with a great stock cable that’s reminiscent of the well-known Epic cable from Westone, but it’s better in that it’s a thick, but flexible braid and feels more sturdy for the long haul, but is equally as soft and comfortable.

The shells of the PR are quite compact for a “2-in-1″ IEM and fit snugly in the ear, but protrude slightly more than some other universals like the Shure SE series or Westones for example. They feel secure and don’t get in the way at all so nothing to worry about and, to me, their design is preferable to some of the bullet style earphones that stick straight out of the ear.

Nozzle Size

The nozzles on the PRs are quite thick and may be challenging for people like me with smaller-than-average ear canals. I was able to find a good seal with the smallest of the Noble silicone tips, but I was always aware of the pressure in the canal. It was relatively comfortable, but my ear felt “full”. For those with moderate to large canals you should have no trouble at all, but smaller-ear-canal-ed folk might want to check before buying.

Tips and Accessories

The PRs come in the becoming-ubiquitous pelican style case which I think is a great touch for any IEM manufacturer. It makes for nice packaging, a nice sense of a value-adding accessory and it’s a useful, well-sized carry case that can fit IEMs, cleaning cloth / tool, and some spare tips.

Noble also provide a range of really nice silicone and foam tips and a couple of Noble branded elastics for your audio stack or however else you like to use them.

Sound Quality

As the name might suggest, the Pure / Reference design is all about crazy detail. You could say it’s about smooth detail (Pure) and fast detail (Reference). I’m personally not a detail freak (at least not in lieu of other parts of the whole musical experience), but I can definitely appreciate the execution of the mission for these IEMs. Let’s discuss the 2 signatures separately because they are essentially 2 different IEMs with detail being the common thread.

Pure

SAM_0263-3In Pure mode, the PR is a 240 ohm, multi-BA IEM that’s sensitive enough to work with portables, but can also present a suitable load to a desktop amplifier for full enjoyment (I’m using my Mainline with it right now!)

I really like the overall tonality of the Pure mode. It’s very neutral and very detailed, but has a smoothness that’s surprising for a detail-oriented IEM. It can get a tiny bit treble happy if the recording dictates it, but it’s not a treble monster and will only show what’s there in the recording. I think it could have been called “Transparent” instead of Pure because it just shows you what’s there for better or worse.

My only criticism of the Pure mode would be a slight lack of natural bass. There is bass present in the reproduction from the Pure mode, but it’s just a little shy of neutral compared to what you would hear from a live, acoustic performance (i.e. just considering the natural bass resonance of say a guitar or cello). I tried listening to some tracks from 2Cellos album, In2ition and it just didn’t sound natural which is a shame because in all other regards, the sound is as the name suggest – pure. Still, for guitars, vocals, and other mids-up instruments, the Pure mode reproduces the frequencies as authentically as anything else I’ve heard.

Reference

SAM_0262-2As I said earlier, if Pure mode is smooth detail, Reference mode is fast detail. After flicking the little switch on each IEM, the PR becomes a single-BA IEM, details become turbocharged and the sound takes a hit of some kind of illicit drug! Suddenly, Pure mode sounds like muffled mode. Of course it’s not muffled at all, but the Reference mode is just so darn open and fast.

Those of you who’ve read my other reviews will know that I’m no treble-head and in fact can be quite sensitive to treble. Even in this ultra-revealing mode, the PRs still manage to stay on the comfortable side of the treble line and deliver a sparkling, detailed, and airy presentation without falling into the trap of getting strident and edgy. A couple of times I noticed that cymbals sounded a little bit splashy, but on the whole, once I adjusted to the sound, the Reference mode was enjoyable for what it was. I also think it presents slightly more punch in the bass so even though extension is about the same in both modes, the Reference mode seems a bit more full-range. A quick test with 2Cellos says it’s a slightly more realistic representation of the cello’s range of resonance, but still falls just short of total realism (in frequency response).

Quick Comparison: HiFiMan RE-272

Although no longer available, the RE-272s are a reference point for me for a neutral, transparent, but enjoyable earphone. They might have a touch of warmth in the mid-range, but stay highly transparent and detailed. I haven’t yet heard the RE-400 or RE-600 to compare, but personally find the RE-272s to offer 90% of the Noble PR’s detail rendering, but with a tiny bit more bass and therefore a slightly more natural and enjoyable overall tonality. As I’ll discuss more in a second, this doesn’t make the PRs a bad IEM, but rather an IEM with a specific purpose. The question is whether you want all detail like the PRs or detail with a tiny touch of warmth and more natural bass like the RE-272s.

Summary

SAM_0252-1For $699 (USD), the PR isn’t a cheap IEM, but it’s very well priced for the levels of performance on offer. That said, it’s not going to be for everyone. This isn’t a full-range IEM in my opinion and that will limit its abilities to create an enjoyable and immersive listening experience on some genres. There’s no doubt that it completely nails its brief to be a detail monster while still maintaining a sense of musicality and enjoyment (i.e. it doesn’t fall into the “super-bright treble = detail” trap), but I believe it is more of an analytical listening tool than a musical enjoyment device. Of course, that might just be a matter of taste so others might love all the detail and find that to be their doorway to musical enjoyment. If so, this IEM is a cracker and I’d highly recommend it! For those who want a more balanced (i.e. with natural levels of bass) presentation, don’t discount the Noble products, but look at some of their other beautiful options rather than the PR.

DAO Feature - Teal-01

Tralucent DacAmp One

The DacAmp One is a new entry into the portable audio market from relative newcomer, Tralucent. Subscribers to this blog who’ve been with me for a while may have read my reviews (and ongoing praise) of Tralucent’s previous portable device, the T1 amplifier. That amp, despite it’s simplicity, has a certain magic in its ability to be warm, detailed and spacious all at the same time so I was interested to hear what Voodoo Tralucent managed this time around…

Overview

The DacAmp One is a portable USB DAC and headphone amp similar (in concept) to products like the Fiio E17 and JDS Labs C5D, however, at a price of approximately $500 the DacAmp One sets itself apart from these and places itself in a bit of a gap in the market occupied only by the Pico Headamp. There are more expensive DAC/amp combos from the likes of Cypher Labs and plenty of cheaper options like those already mentioned, but the $500 mark is less crowded (at least in the Australian market).

  • Inputs:  mini USB, optical, 3.5mm stereo line-in
  • Outputs:  3.5mm stereo line-out, 3.5mm headphone out
  • Battery life:  around 30 hours (depending on the load and volume used)
  • Sample rates:  16 & 24-bit up to 96kHz (same for USB and optical)
  • Compatible impedances:  8 – 300 ohms
  • Output power: 190mW (95mW per channel)
  • Dimensions:  60mm x 115mm x 24mm (W x L x D) – length includes volume knob of roughly 12mm

On paper, the DacAmp One appears capable. There are no features or specs that jump off the page at me, but as you may have experienced in your own purchases and auditions, there is far more to a product than its specs and features – implementation is everything!

Design and Features

So the DacAmp One doesn’t appear to offer any unique features, but how are those features combined into a single package for portable audio pleasure?

Form Factor

SAM_0184-2The DacAmp One (DAO) is presented in a similar case to the Tralucent T1 except that the DacAmp One is slightly larger. Surprisingly though it seems lighter. This may be that it’s lighter than you expect for the size or maybe it is lighter than the T1. Either way, what matters is that it’s light for its quality of build and finish.

The DAO is very nicely finished and shows significant development in Tralucent’s quality of finish since the early days of the T1. It’s still a simple aluminium case with aluminium end caps attached by screws, but the case is now stamped with the Tralucent logo and the end caps are really nicely moulded and printed. The small toggle switches look and feel like quality items and the unit has an overall feel of sturdy, but well-finished ruggedness.

On the front of the DAO (from left to right) is the gain switch (high / low), headphone out, line in, and volume knob. Everything is well spaced and the recessed sockets are large enough to allow for even large 3.5mm jack housings to fit with no problems at all.

Moving to the back of the DAO things get a little more complicated…

SAM_0188-6From left to right again we have the line in / optical in port (this is a clever, dual function port like the ones used in the AK100), the mini USB port used for charging and USB DAC duties, the mode indicator light (more on that shortly), the mode switch and the power switch.

All of this seems straight forward, but the functionality of the lights for the mode indicator took a few moments to get my head around. The mode switch selects between DAC mode (either optical or USB) when down and charging mode when up. What threw me initially is that the blue DAC indicator light comes on even if the unit is switched off. You still have to power on the unit to hear anything though whether using the onboard amp for headphones or using the line out to a different amplifier. In fact, the power switch has to be on for your computer to even “see” the DAO as a DAC device. The blue DAC indicator light might be on, but the DAC circuitry is only active when the power switch is on.

Battery Use & Charging

To be fair to the DAO I wanted to allow plenty of burn-in time before judging its sound quality. When I first received the unit I set it up with my computer and a pair of headphones to run as both DAC and amp over night and into the next day. What I didn’t know is that the DAO runs on battery power exclusively meaning that even as a DAC it will chew through your battery and not be charging at the same time. The charging circuit is completely disconnected when running in DAC mode. This could well have been a deliberate decision to prevent any USB noise creeping into the sound, but it’s a shame that you need to then charge the DAO before taking it portable.

For example, imagine you commute with the DAO as your portable amp. You arrive at the office, plug your DAO into your computer to improve your office-based auditory experiences and then want to unplug the DAO to once again use it as your amp on the way home again. At some point in this process (perhaps on day 2 or 3 of this cycle) you are going to have to go without the DAO while you charge it because (as far as I can tell) it’s not taking any charge while you’re using it as a DAC.

On a positive note, the charge time is only 1.5 hours so you could always just switch to charge mode each day on your lunch break and continually keep the DAO topped up, but I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t charge in any way during use. I did try charging while using only the amp stage, but heard all kinds of noise coming from the USB circuit.

Supplied Accessories

SAM_0161-1The DacAmp One is packaged almost identically to the T1 amplifier which is a good thing because that means you’re getting everything you could possibly need: some rubber feet, a hex key to open the case and install the battery, a nice quality interconnect cable, 2 Tralucent rubber bands, a USB cable, and an optical adapter to connect standard optical leads to the 3.5mm port. There’s nothing flash here, but there doesn’t need to be – everything is exactly what you need at a good quality level and you’re not paying an excess for things you don’t need.

DAC Performance

 To test the DAC of the DacAmp One completely isolated from its amplifier, I ran the DAO in DAC mode with the line-out running to my Bottlehead Mainline. The Mainline has 2 inputs that are switchable on the fly so I can directly compare the DAO line-out with other options like the vastly more expensive desktop X-Sabre DAC and the built-in DAC of the Fiio X5.

As you might expect, the DacAmp One doesn’t compete with the X-Sabre, but you might be surprised that it took me a couple of tracks to hear the difference! I recently bought “The Union” by Elton John & Leon Russell so I’m listening to that album as I write this review. Foobar is driving the X-Sabre via its ASIO drivers while MediaMonkey is driving the DAO via WASAPI. Both are running in exclusive mode for the purest possible audio path.

11010045I started with the very simple track, “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” which is quite reminiscent of Elton John’s own “Candle in the Wind” – simple, slow and thoughtful. On a simple, stripped-back track I was honestly having trouble telling which DAC was which and started to worry that my X-Sabre was not the excellent DAC I believed it to be, however moving on to the next track, “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the difference. With the more complex and multi-layered arrangement of “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the X-Sabre stretch its legs and create a sense of space and depth that the DacAmp One just couldn’t match. Don’t get me wrong, a portable DAC shouldn’t be able to match the abilities of a desktop DAC that costs 3x as much.

What really stood out in this first test is the wonderful tonality from the DacAmp One. It is very, very close to neutral, but with just a hint of smoothness. I won’t go so far as saying warmth because that may overstate the delicate touch of musicality from the DacAmp One. For my tastes, the DacAmp One nails the signature perfectly – there’s no in-your-face, bleeding edge push for details at the expense of enjoyment, but there’s still plenty of detail, it’s just not emphasised to try and “wow” you and that’s great because that sort of approach leads quickly to fatigue and harshness.

With the DAO stacking up so well in tonality, but falling behind in terms of layering and spaciousness compared to the X-Sabre, I thought it was probably time to create a level playing field by comparing apples with pears as it were. If the DAO is a metaphorical apple and the X-Sabre is a metaphorical banana, the Fiio X5 is more like the DacAmp One and is my metaphorical pear in this comparison.

I struck a small quandary when comparing the DacAmp One and X5 because I didn’t have matching source cables. I’m using some nice Neotech RCA cables for the DAO, but had to handicap (out of necessity, not choice) the X5 with a decent quality 3.5mm to RCA cable I made myself, but it’s slightly inferior to the Neotech RCAs.

Predictably, the sound from the DAO reflected the improved cables with slightly better treble detail and sparkle, however, the X5 showed a clear edge once again in the sense of depth and layering created. To my ears, the DacAmp One DAC creates a stage that’s a bit flat. It’s as though spatial cues are not rendered as well in the DAO DAC as they are in some of the alternatives. There’s no doubt that the tonality and accuracy is exceptional across all frequencies, but the space and layering cues fall a little behind what I would like to hear from a $500 unit.

Amp Performance

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look - gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent T1 on your bedside table

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look – gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent amp on your bedside table

DacAmp One is a combined device – DAC and amp – so it’s important that you don’t make your decision based only on the DAC stage (unless that’s the only reason you’re considering buying it of course, but then I would suggest you should consider a dedicated DAC rather than any of the 2-in-1 options out there).

To isolate the amp stage in the DacAmp One I am using the X5 as my DAC (driven by MediaMonkey on my PC) and feeding the DacAmp One via the Fiio L16 high quality interconnect.

Similar to the DAC stage in the DAO, the amp stage is very clean with no significant emphasis on any frequencies, proving itself as an accurate, neutral and well-balanced device in all regards. Interestingly though, the amp stage presentation and staging is very similar to the DAC’s meaning that the soundstage is quite small and intimate with not a lot of layering and depth to speak of. I wouldn’t call it congested because there is good separation between each instrument and voice, but it all happens in quite a limited space that’s fairly heavily centred in the stage.

In comparison to the DAO, the X5’s onboard amp (still using the X5 as a DAC from the PC) is noticeably more open sounding and has slightly more treble energy (this is neither good or bad – just different and provided purely as an observation). Although I consider the X5’s onboard amp to be adequate, I don’t rate it as exceptional in comparison to dedicated offerings like Fiio’s own (and extraordinary) E12DIY. In other words, to my ears, the staging and presentation from the DacAmp One falls a bit short of my expectations from a $500 amp / DAC combo. As I hear it, it is bested by an all-in-one digital audio player that costs less and does more (i.e. stores your music in addition to decoding and amplifying).

DacAmp One with Various ‘Phones

Unique Melody Miracles

The DacAmp One is nicely powered for sensitive IEMs and provides plenty of range on the volume control in low gain mode. That’s often a challenge for portable amps that aim to drive both IEMs and full-size headphones so this is a big win for the DacAmp One.

Beyerdynamic DT1350

On low gain mode, the DacAmp One comfortably drives the DT1350s with plenty of play in the volume control so this it likely a good indication of how it will perform with many of the popular portable headphones on the market. Even in low gain mode you’ll have ample power for the majority of portable headphones.

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

The Fischers are a relatively sensitive (98dB) headphone with moderate impedance (150 ohm) and once again are comfortably handled by the DAO even on low gain mode. In fact, it’s worth noting that this seems to be the sweet spot for the DacAmp One. While the X5’s onboard amp runs out of puff with the Fischers, the DAO seems to thrive. The sound is full, punchy and detailed with plenty of range still available on the volume control. The presentation is still a little flat, but the sound itself is wonderfully balanced across the full spectrum from bass to treble whereas the X5 starts to lack bass and volume output in low gain mode with the Fischers.

From here things get a little more interesting…

In theory, the DacAmp One should be able to drive the Audeze LCD 2s which need only 40mW to achieve 110dB (remembering that the DAO can supply 95mW per channel), but the LCD 2s pull quite a lot of current (up to 24mA for a 110dB peak). Most of my listening occurs at around 80dB which should be no problems so how will the DAO handle the LCD 2s at my normal listening volumes?

Audeze LCD 2

The LCD 2 pushes the limits of the low gain setting on the DacAmp One and had me second guessing whether to switch up to high gain or stick with low gain. To my ears, the sound is a bit compressed in high gain mode compared to low gain mode so I chose to stick with low gain using about 80-85% of the available volume to achieve perfect listening levels for my tastes. The good news is the LCD 2s were perfectly enjoyable from the DAO. I wouldn’t choose it over a dedicated desktop amp for the LCDs, but for portable use it’s definitely up to the task.

I didn’t bother trying the DAO extensively with the Beyerdynamic T1s because the DAO is rated up to 300 ohms. I’m not sure if that should actually prevent it from comfortably driving the T1s, but a brief listen proved to be easily acceptable (low gain mode onace again) even if the electronics of the DacAmp One aren’t specifically rated for a 600 ohm load like the T1s. It’s possible that the sound was a bit light in the bass, but I find that to be the case with most portable devices trying to drive the T1s.

Summary

I really like Tralucent as a brand and still don’t hesitate to recommend the T1 amplifier as a great option for a reasonably priced portable amplifier so I really wanted to love the DacAmp One. As it is though I’m left a little underwhelmed. It’s a nice looking and feeling product with outstanding plug-and-play compatibility, exceptional neutrality and good range in being able to drive everything from IEMs to full-size headphones with a definite sweet spot on higher impedance headphones, but it doesn’t quite reach that final 5% that takes good sound to great sound – namely the subtle spatial cues, textures and layering that leave you thinking “wow” every now and then. If it were priced a bit lower, I might feel differently, but for $500 I have a hard time identifying who this product is for and would likely recommend alternatives like the X5 as being more versatile (it’s a DAP in addition to amp and DAC), better sounding and cheaper.