Noble Kaiser 10 CIEM

Noble Kaiser K10 – Custom In-Ear Monitor

A while back, after spending a little time with the Shure SE846, I decided to part with my Unique Melody Miracle custom IEMs. In time I came to regret not having a custom-molded IEM in my collection so I began considering a replacement. Somewhere around that time I also had the chance to try the Noble PR universal IEM which, although not to my sonic tastes, showed a degree of tuning expertise that instantly intrigued me – the PR managed to deliver a crisp, super-clean, treble-focussed sound without harshness or sibilance – a huge feat in my experience. With Noble firmly on my radar and a clear sense of the type of sonic presentation I wanted, I started to consider their other offerings and decided eventually on the Kaiser 10 CIEM.

Before I get into the normal format, I wanted to say that the K10 is the first earphone / headphone that has ever left me wanting more… I’ll let you read on to see what that really means…

Overview

Noble hardcaseIn the world of personal audio, the ultimate sound experience generally comes from custom molded in-ear monitors (CIEMs). In recent times, top of the line (TOTL) CIEMs have gone from 3-6 balanced armatures per side to 10 and even 12 BAs per side. The Kaiser 10 is an example of a 10 driver CIEM and has 10 individual drivers in each ear-piece – a pretty awesome piece of spatial design, but also a challenge of epic proportions when it comes to ensuring that all of those drivers are delivering their frequencies in time with and in support of the other drivers in each ear piece.

One of the largest challenges of any multi-driver setup (including speakers) is to have each driver deliver its optimum frequencies without interfering with the frequencies coming from the other drivers. A speaker manufacturer faces challenges with 2-3 drivers so imagine what happens when you get 10!! Add to that the challenge of placing the drivers at slightly different distances from the sound outlets and the possible timing / phase challenges this presents and getting everything right to the level expected of a flagship CIEM becomes a daunting prospect.

Specifications

Not much is published about the Kaiser 10’s specs, but what we do know is that they have / are:

  • 10 drivers per side
  • 4-way design (e.g. bass, mid, lower treble, higher treble) – the exact arrangement isn’t specified by Noble, but this example is a guess based on the Noble website info
  • Approx. 35 ohm impedance
  • 4-wire braided cable (silver plated copper) with 3.5mm plug and industry standard 2-pin earpiece connectors

The Kaiser 10 is named after a mysterious team member at Noble known as Kaiser Soze. The design has apparently been in the works (or maybe even on the shelf / back-burner) for a number of years, but was recently brought to life by Dr John Moulton, Kaiser Soze and the team at Noble.

At $1599 USD, it’s a serious investment into an audio device so it needs to perform at a level suitable for the pinnacle of this hobby – they’re big shoes to fill…

The Custom Process

I won’t spend much time describing this process because there’s a lot of info out there about what’s involved in the process of buying custom in-ears (including some info in my UM Miracle review and this video), but I would like to briefly highlight the process and where Noble might differ slightly.

  1. Decide on the brand and model you want to buy – sometimes without even hearing them
  2. Get instructions from the manufacturer about how to get your ear impressions taken (different brands like the impressions done differently)
  3. Go to a good audiologist, one who does impressions regularly, and get them to fill your ears with goo (temporarily)
  4. Send your impressions to the manufacturer
  5. Wait
  6. Wait some more
  7. Try to forget you ordered customs
  8. Wait some more
  9. Receive your customs and hopefully enjoy a perfect fit first time around (if you read my Miracle review you’ll see that this doesn’t always happen)

So, you see, ordering a set of customs is as much an exercise in delayed gratification and the taking of calculated risks as it is an exercise in purchasing audio excellence. It’s 100% worth the effort though if you choose right, and that’s a function of knowing what you like and don’t like before you pull the trigger. For example, I knew as I purchased the K10s that I wanted a CIEM that was resolving and detailed, but not analyitcal – I wanted musicality and realism first and foremost. I wanted to feel like I was sitting at a live performance or recording every time I put these in my ears.

How Noble Differs

Most CIEM companies allow some degree of customisation in terms of colour choice and artwork for your CIEM shell and faceplates. Noble offer this with even more options than most brands, but they also offer a whole different level known as Wizard designs.

Noble K10 Wizard signatureDr John Moulton has earned the moniker, The Wizard, because of his amazing aesthetic designs on CIEMs. To see some examples of these, take a look at Noble’s Instagram feed. When you order a Noble CIEM you have the choice to pay $200 extra and have a “Wizard re-print” which is a recreation of a past design, or you can $400 and have a unique design crafted for you by The Wizard . You can offer some preferences (e.g. blingy, conservative, lots of blue, something quirky, etc.) or you can just kick back and let The Wizard work his magic. Personally I went somewhere in between because I discovered that Dr Moulton could work with some stones so I hunted down a stone / crystal with significance to me and asked for it to be incorporated in a design of his choosing, but something not too flashy. The results, as you’ll see, are astounding and beautiful!

The level of customisation at no extra charge for a set of K10s is industry-leading in my experience and the option to go to the “Wizard design” level is great for those who love something unique and amazing. There is even a Prestige range which is essentially a K10 set inside a shell made using high-tech machining that allows the use of solid pieces of wood or other materials and can even result in some wood / acrylic hybrids that look spectacular. You pay a mighty premium, but the result is visually jaw-dropping.

Delivery, Packaging & Accessories

So far we’ve been on a high note so I’m a little sad to say that there is at least one fly in the ointment…

Receiving your K10s could be an underwhelming experience to some. I was blown away by how fast they arrived after being dispatched from the factory in China, but upon opening the cardboard box, things were a little less impressive.

Noble K10 accessoriesOther than foam packaging, inside the cardboard box was a pelican-style hard case inside a Noble-branded cardboard sleeve. After removing the plastic sleeve, the hard case displayed a Noble badge and my name branded into the plastic of the case. It’s utilitarian and basic which can be a bit of a let down when buying a premium product. Putting our consumer needs aside for a moment though, Noble gives you everything you need and nothing you don’t. When it comes to customs, you don’t really need the sexy packaging to keep for resale because they’re not generally not worth reselling. I think Noble’s packaging approach is perfectly fine, but it might not meet your default expectations so please go in with your eyes open – you won’t be getting a sexy, silk-lined box with crystal paper weight and metal owners card. You will however be getting some seriously sexy CIEMs though so there’s that…

Accessories

Noble cable and bandUpon opening the Noble hard case you’ll be greeted by your new CIEMs, a high quality, lightweight braided cable (the black one in the pics) with angled 3.5mm jack, two black Noble elastic bands, a plastic ownership card, and a standard CIEM cleaning brush. Nothing special, but once again everything you need and nothing you don’t.

The cable is similar to the Westone Epic cable, but offers 4 independent strands braided together into a tight, but flexible braid. The rubber bands are your standard type band for strapping together a portable audio brick, and the cleaning tool is the same one as I’ve seen everywhere else.

As you can see in the picture above, the top of the lid gets a few indentations from the CIEMs when you store them because the case is just big enough for the CIEM shells, but I don’t ever get the feeling that there’s pressure placed on the CIEMs when closing (although I am also always very careful and gentle).

Build Quality & Fit

I had lots of troubles when I bought my first customs, the UM Miracles, but I learned from that experience and was very careful to keep my head super still during the ear impression process. Even with the perfect impressions (second time around), my Miracles were never quite perfect and used to break the seal when I made certain movements so I expected a similar experience with the K10s and was OK with that idea so long as the seal breakages were no worse than the Miracles.

Noble K10 logoAs it turns out, my expectations from a custom fit were set way too low coming from the Miracles. The K10s fit like a glove and fill my ears perfectly in all areas – both inside the canals, but also where they sit in the outer section of the ear. Until trying the K10s, I didn’t know what a quality custom fit was really all about. I can eat, walk, tilt my head, yawn, and all sorts of other things without disrupting the seal created by the K10s – they’re perfect!

In addition to the perfect seal and comfort from the K10s, they are impeccably finished and beautifully polished. The thin layer of crystal placed in each faceplate is enclosed in a flawless bubble of clear acrylic which is polished to a glass-like sheen and creates a depth that you can just gaze into – the pictures don’t do it justice.

The shell of my CIEMs is a translucent, deep purple which is equally well crafted and polished. You can’t see much through the shell due to the dark colour, but what you can see is neat and well-arranged in terms of both drivers and wiring.

The Noble crown logo is printed onto each shell (in a turquoise colour in my case) and The Wizard’s signature is printed onto the faceplate of just one CIEM.

Sockets

Noble uses the industry standard 2-pin connector which is flush mounted (not recessed like my UM Miracles were). At first I was disappointed to read that Noble used flush mounts (I hadn’t seen it), but seeing how well the socket is built into the shell of the K10s makes me realise the reason for the decision. With a recessed socket, the acrylic “walls” where the cord / plug inserts are a weak point and can look a bit shabby, but with the flush sockets, it all looks sturdy, solid and beautifully finished.

Sound

As with any audio gear, this is the part that really matters. We’ve already established the immense challenge of getting 10 drivers, or 20 if you count both sides, to truly sing as one and the expectations from a $1600 earphone are understandably high so I think I was holding my breath a little when I first inserted the K10s in my ears and pressed play on my FiiO X5

…the result was underwhelming…

Yes, I was honestly not impressed. “Sure, they’re good” I thought, “but they’re not $1600 good”. In my mind I was comparing them to my recently acquired Shure SE846 and could honestly have been quite happy with just the SE846 and $1600 back in my pocket.

If you’ve read other reviews of the K10, you might be asking yourself right now “What’s wrong with this guy’s ears?” Everyone else raves about these earphones so what was I hearing (or not hearing)?

I had this sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t hearing the best of the K10s. Something told me that they had a lot more to give so I started playing with different sources and discovered the true cause of my disappointment – not the K10s, but the source I was feeding them with.

Quality of Source

Noble K10 with Shozy Alien and FiiO E12DIYWhat I have come to love (very quickly) about the K10s is that they sound good from any source I’ve tried – they’re not at all fussy about the source and won’t berate you with sibilance or shoddy frequency responses even if you plug them into a sub-par smartphone. However, you don’t buy the K10 to have them sound good, you buy the K10 to have them knock your socks off, and for that you need a quality source.

Let me clarify, the K10s will sound good with everything, but their performance will be restricted by a lesser source more than any other headphone / earphone I have ever experienced. When I said earlier that the K10 left me wanting more, what I meant was that they left me wanting more from my sources so I could really hear just what these little gems were capable of, and boy did they reward me!

The FiiO X5 is a very good source and worth every penny. With every other IEM / headphone I own, I felt like I was listening to a world-class setup (when combined with my E12DIY amp), but somehow, the K10s were whispering in my ear when I was using the X5 stack – they were saying, “We could do more, you know.” I’m so glad I listened to that “whisper” and switched over to the Shozy Alien as my source as well as changing op amps in the E12DIY amp to maximise the sound for the K10s. Changing sources unleashed the magic of the K10s, namely their incredible ability to create a spacious, accurate soundstage with the greatest coherency of sound I have heard from anything short of perhaps Audeze LCD-2s or Sennheiser HD800s, but I’ll return to that comparison a little later.

The reason I have spent a bit of time discussing sources here is that I have read a number of discussions comparing the SE846 and Noble Kaiser 10 with people saying that the K10 isn’t really much better. My experiences have me thinking that people with this experience perhaps haven’t had the benefit of a top quality source. After a great universal earphone like the SE846 stops improving with different sources, a world class CIEM like the K10 still has more to give. (For the record, I still love the SE846)

Bass

The bass from the K10 is perfect – yes, perfect.

Noble Kaiser 10 left ear pieceI raved about the bass from the SE846’s in my review of those, but the K10 takes it one step further, in my opinion. The K10s offer a shade less quantity of bass overall, but provide even better quality, clarity and texture in the bass than the SE846. The K10s actually dig a little bit deeper, but aren’t quite as full in the mid-bass region.

The bass from the K10s is deep and thunderous when the recording calls for it, but the bass is perfectly balanced with the rest of the sound spectrum. I would describe the K10s as having neutral bass from a ‘perception point-of view’. In other words, while a frequency response chart of the K10s might show a lift in the bass region, my perception of the bass from the K10s matches very closely with what a live recording sounds like. In that respect, the K10s and SE846s are very similar with the SE846 having just a touch more overall bass energy, particularly in the mid-bass.

Apart from slightly lifted bass to create that realistic, live sound, the K10s have the purest bass I’ve heard from an earphone and easily rival full-size headphones with their bass performance. As is my normal practice, I fired up my favourites playlist to listen to while I wrote this review and on Michael McDonald’s song, I Want You, the bass guitar sounded extraordinary. It was clear, present and audibly defined within the overall performance, but still a completely coherent part of the performance.

The bass from the K10s sounds effortless, the same way it sounds coming straight from the instrument playing it live. Noble use two huge bass drivers in the design of the K10 and you can hear the ease with which these jumbo balanced armatures handle the challenge of creating subtle, textured, and sustained bass notes. The bass is endlessly clear, clean and textured no matter what you throw at it. Rumbling bass sends quivers into your eardrums while tight, punchy bass notes snap and crack with energy and impact – no matter where a recording sits on the continuum of speed, power, and grace, the K10’s bass drivers take it all in their stride and create a completely believable experience.

Mid-Range

Noble Kaiser 10 right ear pieceThe mid-range from the K10 is a little drier than something like the SE846, but it’s still weighty and realistic. Despite an overall warmth in the sound of the K10s, the mid-range never comes across lush or creamy, but it also never strays into cold, analytical sterility. No, the K10 walks a very fine line to create an accurate, reference quality mid-range that is also immensely enjoyable for long, long sessions of listening.

Both male and female vocals have plenty of realism, texture and clarity. The mids aren’t placed in a spotlight like the SE846 or FitEar TG!334, but they’re definitely good enough to attract your attention without needing to be highlighted in the tuning of the earphones.

Every instrument you hear through the K10s sounds real – they just sound right. Whether it’s a violin, a guitar, a cello, or a drum, the K10 provides just the right balance of attack and decay to sound real and lifelike – as if the instrument is hovering somewhere inside (or just outside) your head. It’s quite uncanny how lifelike the sounds coming out these little acrylic shells are. In fact, I regularly hear something from the K10s that I think has to be a real sound from the outside world, but then I remember how extremely good the isolation of outside noise is with the K10s and realise that it was a sound in the recording.

I’m listening to It’s a Hard World by Supertramp right now and the vocals, trumpet, cymbal strikes and guitars are beguiling – more please!

Treble

Descriptions of the K10’s treble still elude me – even after many weeks. Listening to music with the K10s (I haven’t tried a frequency sweep) has me often thinking that the treble is a little rolled off, but then I hear air and details in the music that can only be conveyed with excellent treble extension. I can only make 2 conclusions about the treble from the K10s without getting into objective measures which aren’t necessarily indicative of the subjective enjoyment so here go my subjective conclusions:

  1. The treble is a touch lower in intensity than the mids and bass, but it is fully extended
  2. The treble is perfect

Yes, I said the “P” word again, but you’ll have to get used to that when discussing the K10s I expect.

The treble from the K10s is smooth, but don’t mistake that for smoothed-over because it certainly isn’t. What’s amazing about the K10s is the way they convey all of the details, but never get edgy, even on shabby recordings. You’ll hear that it’s a shabby recording, but your ears won’t be bleeding from knife-like treble spikes. This was the most impressive thing to me when I reviewed the Noble PRs and it seems that Dr Moulton has treble tuning down to a fine art based on this repeat performance with the K10s.

By now a new track was on from my playlist – My Man’s Gone Now by Miles Davis and Gil Evans – and it showcased nicely how beautifully balanced and refined the K10s’ treble is. I could hear each brush on the drums, right down to the individual textural differences of each stroke, and I could hear when the recording levels of the brass section got a bit hot and distorted at the edges, but the whole thing still sounded wonderful. It’s like the K10s are the zen masters of earphones – they don’t judge anything in the music, they just accept it as it is. The K10s won’t chastise your ears for listening to a poor recording, they’ll just honestly let you know that there’s an issue here and an issue there, but without any drama or judgement. Just like a zen master, the sound from the K10s “just is”.

EDIT 16th December 2014: I’ve come back to address the topic of treble a second time around because I think it’s difficult to capture the K10’s treble qualities in verbal descriptions. After thinking on this review overnight I felt like I needed to better clarify and describe the treble with some more concrete comparisons. I returned to the SE846 with both the blue and white filters and I also compared the K10’s treble to the HD800. The results are a clearer picture of why the K10s sound so wonderful. Where the SE846 (blue filter) rolls off a little too soon for those who want air and space in the sound, the K10’s treble continues to extend up into the higher registers where the subtlest of cues reside. Unlike the SE846 (white filter) though, this treble doesn’t seem like it includes any spikes – it is smooth and so can sound rolled-off at first, but if you compare it to a rolled off ‘phone you will hear a distinct difference and realise that the K10 has all the information, just without any spikes.

Comparing next to the HD800s, the HD800s initially sound a bit brighter and more detailed in the treble, but further listening shows that they have a slight emphasis in the mid treble (around 6 kHz according to various graphs), but not any significant extension beyond what the K10s offer. In other words, the K10s have all the information in the full treble spectrum, but none of it is emphasised so coming from a ‘phone with any treble lift (HD800, T1, FIDUE A83, etc.) you might find the K10 to sound a bit too smooth, but it’s all there  – I promise – and it’s the lack of emphasis that allows the K10s to be so marvelously revealing and transparent, and yet completely non-fatiguing.

Imaging and Staging

Noble Kaiser 10I might never have declared this outright before, but staging and imaging are my top priority in audio gear because that’s where the magic happens. If you get everything else right, but the image is flat and/or narrow then you’ve achieved nothing more than reproducing a recording. Create a lifelike sense of space and image though and you’re now recreating music that sounds realistic with an atmosphere / ambiance that is magical – that’s a miracle!

You’ve probably guessed from my lyrical opening to this section that the K10s are just as adept at imaging and staging as they are at everything else. Well, that’s almost true…

I should have held back before on the use of the “P” word because if the bass, mids and treble from the K10s are perfect then I’m not sure how to describe the imaging qualities they create because the overall result is even better! The imaging from the K10s is spectacular – better than anything else I have heard, including the masters of imaging themselves, the HD800s. The K10s don’t quite match the HD800s for size of stage, but in terms of clarity of image and general sense of space around instruments they could be twins. In some ways I actually find the placement and precision of the K10s to be slightly better than the HD800s, possibly due to the fact that the K10s deliver the sound straight to the ear canal without any chance of unwanted resonance and reflections around the outer ear and side of the head.

With the K10s, every instrument in the auditory landscape is perfectly placed and perfectly connected within the overall auditory picture. The coherence achieved from these two sets of ten drivers is simply breath-taking. It’s very easy to forget that you’re listening to a recording via a set of earphones when you’re using the K10s – it’s more like a tiny band has found its way to a live performance inside your frontal lobe.

Size-wise, the stage projected by the K10s extends beyond each ear by about 1cm or so and projects forward into the forehead to create an oval-shaped space with no real gaps or holes. The stage isn’t huge from the K10s, but it is incredibly spacious – like a tardis. Every instrument is clearly separate and distinct from every other instrument, but not in a disembodied way – it’s hard to describe. The overall sonic picture is 100% coherent – everything fits together seamlessly – and yet, at the same time, you can clearly hear each instrument on it’s own. This is what I love most about the K10s. They don’t try to sound extraordinary by highlighting anything. Instead, they just present everything with precision and honesty and let you hear what you want to hear – it’s all there for you to take in as a whole or to focus on piece-by-piece – it’s up to you.

Quick Comparison

Shure SE846Coming from the outstanding SE846, I was keen to really compare these two as some of the best offerings on the market. Keep in mind that I am using a universal SE846 (not available as a custom, but there are silicon sleeves available which essentially turn the SE846 into a custom). For both earphones I am using high quality, copper litz cables and an identical source so the following comments are based solely on the performance and characteristics of the earphones themselves without the influence of different cables or sources.

The SE846s really hold their own in this comparison, especially when you consider that you can pick them up for around half the price of the K10s. The bass from both earphones is imposing and powerful, but I was surprised to hear that the K10s actually created an even deeper, stronger sense of rumble and texture on one of my test tracks – A Thousand Years by Sting. Of course, tip choice with a universal earphone can change the quantity of bass so it’s possible that they could be equals on quantity, but the textural quality won’t really change with tips and that gives an edge to the K10s.

The overall tuning of the bass is slightly different between the SE846 and K10 with the SE846 having more mid-bass impact and power than the K10s. As to which is better, that’s up to your personal tastes, but I prefer the more open sound created by the K10s with their slightly lifted sub-bass and closer-to-neutral mid-bass.

The mid-range and treble set these 2 apart a little more than the bass. The SE846 offers the more beguiling and seductive mid-range presentation and are truly world class in that regard. The K10 is no slouch in this department either, but is less liquid and lush than the SE846. Once again, this will be a case of preference and it’s important to recognise that you can’t affect one part of the frequency response without it significantly altering the overall presentation – for instance, in isolation I prefer the mid-range from the SE846, but if those same mids were added to the K10 it would completely destroy the magical balance struck by the K10’s tuning. If you want lush mids, you have to sacrifice in other areas.

Noble Kaiser 10The treble is really where the greatest differentiation lies in my opinion. The SE846 has an edge to the treble that holds it back from being truly perfect. As I said in my review of the SE846, it is so close to perfection that it doesn’t really matter, but if I’m doing a comparison of two awesome earphones it’s always going to come down to the little things and the SE846 just can’t match the K10’s proficiency and refinement in the treble. The SE846 does have the ability to be tuned using its filters, but the treble is never as good as the K10 and always has a slight edge to it that can flare up on some recordings. While the K10s don’t sound quite as airy as the SE846 in its most “trebley” setup, there is never any sense of darkness or thickness to the sound and its effortless refinement is just so enjoyable. To my ears, the treble from the K10s sits somewhere between the blue and white filters on the SE846.

The K10 also has a delicacy and refinement to its sound that the SE846 just can’t quite match and this brings with it the coherency and realism I spoke about earlier in the staging and imaging section.

Comparison Summary

To summarise my experiences I’d say that the SE846 and K10 are both amazing and deserving of flagship / TOTL status as universals and customs respectively. If money, resale value and the ability to share the sound with others is no object then the K10 is a clear winner on the grounds of better texture in the sound, sharper imaging, and more refined treble, but it’s not a smack-down. This is a hard-fought win; a score of 18-21 in a game of pick-up (first to 21 wins). If you have limited funds for an earphone purchase or you highly value the benefits of a universal then the SE846 might be a better option.

To my ears, the Kaiser 10 is hands-down the better earphone, but the SE846 is a proud runner-up.

Note: The K10 is available as a universal, but I can’t comment directly on the sound of it and would be amazed if it can match the amazing comfort of the SE846.

Overall Summary

Noble Kaiser 10 CIEMThere’s a reason everyone is raving about the Noble Kaiser 10 – it really is that good!

This is an earphone that is so perfectly balanced in it’s sound and design / build that it truly disappears and leaves you with nothing but the music and a smile. Not lacking in anything and not showcasing anything, the K10 really is the zen master of CIEMs and “just is” as it honestly and accurately conveys every sound, every nuance, and every emotion of the music without judgement and without opinion. While other earphones might strip away the bass to show you more details, or emphasise the mids to create more emotions, the K10 lets each track speak for itself and it has the full range of frequencies covered so skillfully that it convey whatever message the artist was trying to convey. Thunderous power through to fragile delicacy, the K10s have it covered, but not altered.

The Kaiser 10 is quite unique in that it’s completely happy with a basic source, but has endless potential to deliver when given the right setup. There’s no punishment for using your phone, but there are endless rewards for treating it to a great DAP or DAC and amp.

If you have the funds and want the best, I have no hesitation in recommending the Noble Kaiser 10, and having heard the Noble PR and now the Noble K10 I would highly recommend any potential CIEM buyers to head straight over to www.nobleaudio.com to see what they have to offer. Even if the K10 isn’t for you, the quality, attention to detail and masterful tuning I’ve seen so far from Noble tells me they’re easily a manufacturer of choice in the current CIEM market.

Shozy Alien

Shozy Alien Digital Audio Player

The Shozy Alien came to my attention a little while ago before it was released and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it ever since. The main reason for my excitement is that there have been a number of stripped-back, screenless players in the past (and present) that have excelled in sound quality because of their very simple designs – I was hoping the Alien would continue this trend, but at a much lower price.

Overview

Shozy AlienThe Alien is a well-priced (~$250 AUD), compact, screenless player that plays only WAV and FLAC files – no MP3, no AAC, just the two major lossless options. For some people that will be an instant turn-off, but others may realise that this dedication to limited formats means a possible emphasis on playing those formats flawlessly – that’s what I was hoping for.

Specifications

  • Recommended headphone impedance:  8 – 32 ohms
  • Signal to noise:  >98dB
  • Power:  2 x 55mW (into 16 ohms)
  • Battery life:  8 hours
  • Charge time:  2 hours

The specifications I’ve seen published all say the Alien is designed for up to 32Gb microSD cards, but testing with a 64Gb card (formatted in FAT32 mode) proved that it works with larger sizes, however, the navigation system means that I would never want to use it with anything more than about 10-12 albums at a time and therefore a 32Gb card is plenty large enough.

Design & Functionality

Build Quality

Shozy Alien back viewThe Alien, like everything else I’ve seen from Shozy, is beautifully built. The main body of the device is machined from aluminium into a futuristic shape somewhat similar to the embellished hilt of a sword. It may be surprising to hear / read that the Alien is very comfortable to hold despite its slightly angular shape. The angles and points on the device are all gently rounded – just enough to make them smooth to hold while maintaining the striking aesthetics that set the Alien apart from anything else in the market (except perhaps the uniquely shaped AK240).

The Alien is screwed together with some tiny iPhone style screws on the back where another perfectly machined sheet of aluminium nestles impeccably into the main casing. The Alien is a flawless example of metal work and precision design – you couldn’t fit a piece of paper into the seams on this device, the tolerances are that tight. (The rubber feet shown in the image to the right are not included with the Alien.)

Interface

SAMSUNG CSCA large part of your enjoyment (or fury) with a screenless device is its interface because there are no visual cues to tell you what’s going on. The Alien employs a simple 4 way, ring shaped rocker button with a central toggle button. The central button is a simple on / off button which is slightly recessed inside the ring button to prevent accidental power-downs. This is particularly helpful because the Alien always starts from the beginning when powering up, so accidentally switching it off could be an infuriating error if you’re halfway through an album. On a couple of occasions the recessed power button has made switching the device on / off in my pocket a little tricky, but I’d prefer that to mid-session restarts.

The 4-way rocker switch is an intuitive +/- volume (up and down) and skip forward / back (right and left) setup. The + button also acts as pause with a long press and the forward / back buttons can skip tracks (short press) or folders (long press). It’s a simple setup that’s relatively effective except for one tiny issue. I’ve found that almost every time I try to pause the player (and sometimes when I just want to alter the volume) the close proximity of the buttons, and possibly the shape of the rocker button, results in me skipping tracks or folders instead of pausing or changing the volume. I expect this is something I’ll become better at over time, but in the short term it’s mildly frustrating and calls for significant care when activating either function, especially during in-pocket use.

Loading Files

SAMSUNG CSCThe Alien doesn’t interact with your PC (or Mac) in any way shape or form so you can’t access the microSD card via USB and will need to use a card reader to load the files for your Alien. I imagine this was done for one (or both) of two reasons: either to keep the costs of production down or to keep avoid the use of potentially noise-inducing components inside the Alien. I’ve found that it hasn’t really prevented my enjoyment of the device in any way, but it has resulted in me leaving the house with a fully-charge Alien, a pair of my favourite earphones, and no memory card on a couple of occasions. Needless to say, 2 such events was enough to teach me to always double-check that my Alien is loaded with a card before walking out the door.

Folder Layout

Because of the screenless interface as described above, the way you arrange your music files is pretty key on the Alien. You need to have your files in separate folders (unless you want them all together) and these folders need to sit in the root directory of your memory card. If you have folders within folders, the Alien won’t read anything below the top most level so be aware of how you structure your files and folders.

An example of the folder structure I’ve found best with the Alien would be:

microSD\Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms1 – So Far Away.wav
microSD\Muddy Waters – Folk Singer1 – My Home Is In The Delta.wav

In my setup, each folder is named by the artist and then album name with the individual tracks numbered and named inside each folder. Technically you could just have track numbers and nothing else if you wanted to, but I find having all the info makes browsing the card on my computer easier.

Audio Formats

The Alien works perfectly with both WAV and FLAC files, but is tuned for WAV files. I have tested identical copies of both WAV and FLAC and while it’s possible that there may be a tiny sound difference, it’s not sufficient that I could say one is better than the other and may just be placebo so feel free to use whichever format you prefer as I don’t think you’ll really know the difference.

The Alien can also handle 24-bit audio, but with limited sample rates so it’s not a player for those who want DSD, DXD or even 192kHz compatibility. That said, it sounds so good with standard 44/24 audio that I haven’t really bothered with 24-bit audio other than to test that it works.

A friend and I have encountered some minor glitches with random FLAC files being ‘invisible’ to the Alien. We’re not sure why this happens yet, but I can only assume that any minor glitches or corruption in the encoding process may be enough to make the Alien ignore the file and skip to the next track on the card.

Lack of MP3 Support

If you have a lot of MP3 files in your collection you might want to consider your conversion and card-loading methods before jumping on the Alien bandwagon. Software like MediaMonkey and Foobar (and probably JRiver) offer easy on-the-fly conversion as you load a memory card so in these cases it’s easy to convert MP3s to WAV for the sake of Alien playback. That doesn’t mean you’re getting lossless audio quality because the WAV file created from an MP3 can never be better than the MP3, but this approach will allow flawless playback on your Alien.

Different Impedance Headphones

I’ve tried the Alien now with a wide range of headphones. It is specifically designed for lower impedance IEMs and small headphones so it’s not going to drive full-sized cans with the authority of a proper amplifier, but that’s not what it’s for – it’s a maximum portability audio device so it’s optimised for highly portable ‘phones like in-ears and compact portable headphones. So far, the Alien performs beautifully with any in-ears I’ve tried it with and also with the moderate impedance Alessandro MS-1s. With higher loads like the 50 ohm Thinksound On1 and 80 ohm Beyerdynamic DT1350 I could hear that the Alien wasn’t squeezing every last bit of performance from the headphones, but they remained highly enjoyable even if not maxed out performance-wise.

A Little Hiss

With lower impedance in-ears the Alien produces a faintly audible hiss during very quiet moments. Friends of mine have been unable to hear this though so it might be something that’s only of concern to those who are particularly sensitive to treble and hiss. For 98% of my listening the hiss is completely inaudible so it’s nowhere near a deal breaker and it’s completely inaudible with headphones so don’t let the hiss put you off.

Amping

Shozy Alien w FiiO E12DIY & Noble Kaiser 10I received a recommendation to try the Alien with an amplifier and have to say that it is an incredibly good piece of advice! Despite not having a dedicated line out, the Alien makes for a brilliant source when paired with a quality amplifier. Normally, double-amping (feeding an external amp via an already-amplified headphone out) detracts from the sound, but the Alien’s headphone out is of such excellent quality that things just get better when amping. Because of the high impedance of an amplifier (normally 1000s of ohms versus the <100 ohm of most ‘phones), the hiss I mentioned above is completely gone when using an external amplifier so that’s another bonus in addition to the external amp’s ability to drive a much wider range of loads including full-size, power-hungry cans.

Beware if you’re using an external amp with the Alien that it needs to be an excellent amp with outstanding transparency and imaging or you are liable to lose some of the Alien’s magic. I wanted to save this revelation until the next section, but it’s important to mention here. This player offers exceptional sound in terms of space, transparency and resolution so if your amp isn’t top notch you’ll be losing out on what the Alien can offer – choose your amp wisely!

Sound

Shozy Alien w Noble Kaiser 10 and FiiO E12DIYI’ve already let the cat out of the bag, but the Alien sounds amazing! Shozy’s decision to design a player with no screen, no internal card reader (to access the card with your PC / Mac), no onboard memory, and only FLAC / WAV support has resulted in a beautiful, organic sounding device that presents the music as a perfect, coherent whole with no distractions to remind you you’re listening to a recording. The Alien presents a sound that is realistic, spacious and rich – a sound that contains oodles of detail, but without flaunting anything.

From top to bottom, the Alien’s sound is as close to flawless as you are likely to find for less than $1000. Top notch gear in the upper price echelons may offer slightly more micro details, but you’d only notice it with direct comparisons. In isolation, the Alien just sings like a perfect, extra-terrestrial angel and any shortcomings are completely invisible without direct comparison.

The bass extends deep with excellent control. Mids are clean and liquid without any sense of emphasis or added lushness, and the treble is smooth and extended. If I had to pick one area where the Alien might colour the sound slightly it would be the treble, but I’m not sure about this – you see the treble is extended, but super smooth so I can’t tell if the player tilts towards a hint of warmth or if it is neutral, but smooth. Smoothness versus roll-off is often hard to judge, but to my mind, the Alien offers a sound that is very similar to the Matrix X-Sabre DAC which is generally considered a little warm so perhaps the Alien is warmer than neutral or perhaps it’s just not dry. Either way, it’s highly enjoyable and completely realistic sounding.

One of the biggest strengths of the Alien in my opinion is its staging. The Alien throws a stage that is at once huge and coherent. Auditory cues are perfectly placed in a large, open space that seems to extend equally in all directions and each sound is clearly defined and focussed within that space. If you have ‘phones that have good imaging abilities, the Alien will reward you with a marvelous experience.

Comparisons

I really only had one comparison to the Alien that’s even close to fair (disregarding my iPods and Walkman because they’re not in the same league) and that’s the FiiO X5. At the time of writing this I no longer have my X5 because the Alien made it completely obsolete for my purposes – that’s how far ahead of the X5 the Alien’s sound is. Of course the X5 offers features that are miles ahead of the Alien in some regards: two microSD slots for up to 256Gb of storage, a simple visual interface, more output power, digital out, line-out, DAC functionality and OTG capabilities, but all of that meant nothing to me once I heard the difference in sound.

As I stated in my review, the X5 is an outstanding portable player for all of the reasons above, especially at its price, but the sound, while good, never quite wowed me in the way the Alien managed to even within the first few seconds. When comparing the headphone outs of both players, the X5 has more power, but the sound always seemed flat (spatially). The staging from the X5 is very accurate, but the sound all occurs in quite a tight space stretched from left to right. With the Alien I heard a sense of depth that made the music seem instantly real whereas the X5 remained an excellent, but artificial reproduction of the music.

The quality of the Alien’s treble is another element that set it apart from the X5. The X5’s treble carried a slight edge that I could never fully enjoy – it’s a subtlety, but there’s just something about it that falls short of perfect to my ears. The Alien’s smoothness made me think that the X5 may convey slightly more detail in the music, but I consistently enjoyed the Alien more than the X5 so any potential loss of these miniscule details is irrelevant. In fact, I think the amazing presentation offered by the Alien makes it easier to listen into the music in a way that the flat “wall” of sound from the X5 can’t so there’s a trade-off: the X5 might offer 1-2% more micro-details, but with the Alien I can actually enjoy more details so it was a simple choice for me.

Conclusion

For around $250 AUD here in Australia, the Shozy Alien offers astounding sound quality and impeccable build quality for portable audio with small headphones and earphones. It is a study in simplicity and focus that results in a near-perfect device. You need to be comfortable using a device with no shuffle function and no screen, but adapting to this approach will reward you with one of the most enjoyable truly pocket-sized sources you are ever likely to hear. I am personally loving the fact that the Alien makes me think consciously about which files to load and which albums I want to listen to. Gone for me are the days of shuffling 4000+ tracks and I’m loving the focussed enjoyment of rediscovering my music collection on whole album at a time. Of course, with the way the Alien is designed, you can create whichever folders you like so you can still create your own mixes if you want to (you don’t have to arrange your music by artists / albums).

In the end, all that matters is that once you load a memory card, plug in your ‘phones and fire up the Alien all you be able to think about is the incredible realism and engagement offered by the music pouring out of the Alien and straight into your ears.

Aside

I’ve heard whispers recently of a modification you can do to the Alien. I am trying to find out more and decide if I’m willing to void my warranty to test the mod, but once I know more I will share it here so check back if you’re interested.

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - Olive

Sennheiser Urbanite XL Over-Ear Headphones

Overview

The Urbanite XL is a new addition to the Sennheiser range and was offered to me for review by Head-Fi user, White Lotus, as part of an Australian review tour made possible by Sennheiser so thank you to ‘Lotus’ and Sennheiser for making this possible.

I’m not sure what the plans are for the Urbanite (on ear) and Urbanite XL (over ear) models – they may be intended to replace the existing Momentum range or they may be intended to offer an alternate style of headphone and therefore be a completely separate line so I’ll review them without any direct comparison to the Momentum range.

Throughout this review I’ve been lazy and just typed “Urbanite” each time, but please know that I am always referring to the XL (over ear) model. I haven’t tried the on-ear model.

Specifications

  • Driver:  Dynamic
  • Cable:  2.5mm to 3.5mm with locking system on headphone and inline mic / controls
  • Frequency response:  16 – 22,000 Hz
  • Impedance: 18 ohms

The Urbanite XL comes in 6 colour variants (I had the Olive ones to review and photograph) and retails for around $300-400 here in Australia.

Design & Comfort

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveThe Urbanites are meant to be a portable, rugged, urban headphone and their design hits this brief in almost every way – they are built like a tank, but wrapped in luxurious feeling (and looking) materials and the end result is both stylish and robust.

The cups are made from quality plastics and have nice accents to provide a sense of style. The tour models are the olive colour scheme and they look fantastic thanks to a slightly pearlescent finish that throws different tones of the green-brown variety depending on the light and angle.

The hinged sections of the headband / cup mounts are solid metal which is painted to suit the colour scheme and the headband is wrapped in denim on the outside and a nice, soft, padded rubber material on the underside.

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveSennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveSennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveLittle touches and flourishes abound on the Urbanites in areas like the beautifully finished inside of the hinges, the entry points for the signal cable where it runs from the headband into the cups, and the connection between the cups and the headbands. Everything has been meticulously styled to perfection, but without pretension. The Urbanites don’t look showy, they just look quality.

All of this would mean nothing if the Urbanites weren’t comfortable to wear, but the good news is that they’re super comfy. The earpads are firm, but forgiving and strike a good balance of keeping the cups away from the ears while still being soft and plush on the side of the head. The headband is also very comfortable for reasonably long sessions so the Urbanite designers definitely struck the perfect balance of form and function here.

Cable

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - cableUnlike the headphone itself, the Urbanites cable is strikingly ordinary. It’s a flat cable with decent connectors (2.5mm 4-pole), a simple locking system at the headphone end, and an iDevice compatible volume control / microphone. What stands out is how plastic and lightweight (in a not so good way) it feels. Sure, it does an adequate job, but seems in contrast with the quality and precision level that’s gone into the rest of the headphones.

Folding & Portability

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveThis is the other area that I’m not sold on with the design of the Urbanites. They come with a high quality, soft carry pouch and they do fold, but the folded size of them is still huge for a portable device. You’ll have trouble fitting these into a messenger bag unless they’re all you’re carrying with maybe just a wallet and phone to go with them.

I don’t know that there’s any other way the folding could have been accomplished (and I’m guessing that Sennheiser’s designers would be more than capable of finding the best possible solution), but the end result is a bumpy, bulky bag full of headphones so I’m not sure how portable these really are.

Compatibility

The Urbanites have low enough impedance and high enough sensitivity to easily produce good volume levels from almost any device. The impedance is getting into troubling territories for some poorly designed sources, but as a headphone designed primarily for use with iPhones and the like, the Urbanites are right on the money and also pair beautifully with quality DAPs and portable amps, but are also quite comfortable on a desktop rig (as long as the output impedance isn’t crazily high)

Sound

On first listen, the sound from the Urbanites shows a bell-like clarity and image that’s quite beguiling. As the listening session continues though, some subtleties of the sound begin to become more obvious with varying impacts on the musical experience.

Bass

The bass from the UrbSennheiser Urbanite XL - Oliveanites is really solid with excellent extension. There’s good sub-bass rumble, but it’s not lifted at all so it’ll only show up in tracks that really command it – I’d describe it as neutral sub-bass, but fully extended. Further up into the bass range it sounds to me like there’s a bit of a mid-bass bump – nothing to extreme, but enough to bring some extra fun and engagement to the music. Unfortunately though, the extra fun comes at a cost with the Urbanites. On some tracks where tight, controlled bass is needed the sound can get just a tiny bit flabby. Now, I need to emphasise that it is a small amount of bass flab – like the results of a week of bad eating – not excessive flab – like a lifelong obsession with McDonalds burgers.

What this means for the Urbanites is that on some tracks they sound tight, punchy and awesome, but on some other tracks (or certain sections of the same track) they can become just a little bit unnatural in the bass. For example, on “All These People” from Harry Connick, Jr.’s album, My New Orleans, the Urbanites start off sounding sublime with the tight, authoritative punches from the kick bass, but as the other instruments join the fun the bass becomes a little incoherent and muddy to the point that individual bass sounds become hard to differentiate. I wonder if this is a sign of some reflections or interference in the bass frequencies within the cups.

Mid-Range

The Urbanites have a really clear and clean mid-range that I love, but it can sound a bit recessed which is both a benefit and a handicap. The sense of distance between the listener and the mids means that the Urbanites have a very open sound for a closed headphone, in fact they excel in this regard, but the overall sound can be a little hollow and disengaging at times because the mids are too far away.

Other than the mids feeling a little recessed they are very smooth and clean with good speed and texture. The mid-bass lift makes the sound seem like it is slightly emphasised towards the upper mids and that creates a slight dryness to the sound of vocals and mid-range instruments, but not in a bad way – it just makes them sound very clean and neutral with lots of breath and texture at the upper ends of the mid-range register as we cross over into the territory of the treble.

Treble

The treble on the Urbanites is emphasised towards the lower treble and it creates that sense of dryness and clarity where it meets up with the mids as discussed above, but it also creates a slightly artificial character to the sound which is intriguing and enjoyable for its own sake, but prevents the Urbanites from being completely engaging at all times because they’re not quite natural.

Treble extension is good, but sounds like it rolls off towards the top to prevent fatigue and the balance between extension and sharpness is balanced well with no fatigue, but also no sense of veil to my ears.

Staging & Imaging

SAMSUNG CSCThe staging and imaging of the Urbanites is exceptional. They create an amazing sense of space around the listener’s head and place instruments incredibly well around that spacious stage. As I mentioned earlier, there is definitely a bell-like clarity to the Urbanites and it comes from the way they place sounds in the stage and keep everything clearly defined and separated. This leads to an excellent sense of detail retrieval and accuracy across all instruments placed in and around your head.

The stage extends well in all directions going slightly beyond the ears and slightly forward. Interestingly, it sounds to me like the soundstage sits higher in the centre than on the sides. For example vocalists seem to be up in my forehead area while instruments to the left and right are more in line with my ear canals. It’s not off-putting because it all runs together coherently, but made for an interesting observation while I was listening.

Quick and Dirty Comparison

While trying to come to grips with the Urbanite XL’s sound I decided to compare them to a couple of other “competitors” in my stable. My fiancée also got in on the act as a bias-free test subject – thanks Lisa!

The two other contenders were the budget classic Alessandro MS-1 and the small, but surprising Thinksound On1. The MS-1s are way cheaper than the Urbanites, are open and therefore offer no isolation of outside noise, and they’re super basic, less comfortable, and look pretty average. The On1s sport some sexy wooden cups, but are slightly let down by their plastic headband parts and hinges. They’re also an on-ear which is inherently less comfortable for longer sessions.

Comparison Conclusions

Moving from the Urbanites to the On1s is like going from a great recording to a live performance. The extra warmth and body from the On1s makes for a more enveloping and relaxing listening experience whereas the Urbanites are a more exciting, but potentially artificial experience. Some people may find the On1s too smooth compared to the Urbanites though, so it’s important to factor personal taste into this equation and while my personal tastes are for the On1, yours may be different.

Next up were the MS-1s which are less refined than either of the other headphones, but bring an up-front, lifelike feel with a more forward sound than either the On1s or Urbanites. They can’t compete on bass with either headphone and are an open, non-isolating design so they’re not very good for noisy environments. Despite being a cheaper, simpler headphone they sound great with the style of sound they present. I would probably err towards the Urbanites here because they’re closed, have great bass and are incredibly well designed and styled, but Lisa preferred the sound of the MS-1s over both the On1s and Urbanites which goes to show that this is a very personal decision. In the end you wouldn’t go wrong with any of these headphones in general terms, but some may find that there are preferable alternatives to the Urbanites for the same cost or less.

What really stood out to me in this comparison is that the Urbanite XL has a very specific sound that some will love and some may find a bit artificial. There’s no question that the overall quality of the sound is excellent, but the presentation may or may not be your cup of tea.

Summary

Sennheiser Urbanite XL - OliveAs I was writing this, “Pá Lante” by Ozomatli came on and showcased every aspect of the Urbanites in one track. It started with amazing, accurate sub-bass performance leading to some clear and accurate instrumentals and vocals offset against some slightly over-emphasised percussion and some slightly over-blown mid-bass. As the track died away towards the end I heard crazy-good imaging as the bass receded and I was left with the achingly sweet mid-range and perfect imaging of acoustic instruments and ambient sounds of the crowd.

The Urbanites bring a mixed bag that’s at times exceedingly enjoyable and flat out awesome while at other times reminding you that you’re listening to a recording and not necessarily fully engaged in the experience of the music. Even at their worst, the Urbanites are very, very good, but a little bit of balance in the form of less upper-mid / lower-treble lift and some tighter control over the mid-bass would have created an epically good headphone. Do check these out if your in the market for a semi-portable, closed, over-ear headphone and you like an energetic, but non-fatiguing sound.

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!

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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.