Ever 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…
- 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).
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?
Some 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.
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!
Being 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.
I 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.
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!”
As 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.