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.

To read the rest of this review, please go to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content coming soon.

 

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.

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content coming soon.

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…

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content on the way.

 

FIDUE A83

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

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

Um… no.

I just made a really stupid assumption and I feel really silly now because I spent 3 weeks not appreciating the A83s for what they weren’t instead of realising what they are. Would you like to know what they actually are? Read on over at the new Passion for Sound site – it’s sexier and has lots of great new content coming!

 

Atomic Floyd Super Darts

The Super Darts are a hybrid IEM from English manufacturer, Atomic Floyd. They boast some of the best build quality and bass quality I’ve ever seen and heard in an earphone, but were recently reviewed rather negatively by a local magazine publication. I was shocked to read the review and promptly asked Billy from Noisy Motel if I could have a lend of the Super Darts to review and to see if I had mis-perceived the Super Darts during my previous auditions. Despite being loaned the Super Darts there is no bias for me to write a favourable review.

Overview

  • Sensitivity:  100 dB
  • Frequency range:  5 – 25,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  16 ohms
  • Drivers:  1 x dynamic, 1 x balanced armature per earphone

The Super Darts retail for $299 (AUD) which places them firmly in the sweet spot for the many hybrid IEMs appearing on the market from companies such as Astrotec, Sony, and T-Peos to name a few. The hybrid trend is thriving at present because of the benefits of marrying the very bass-capable dynamic drivers with the more agile balanced armatures for mids and treble. I’ve previously reviewed the Astrotec AX60s which are a 3-driver hybrid that costs $100 more than the Super Darts so they provided a nice reference point for this review.

Design & Comfort

These are easily some of the sexiest IEMs I’ve ever seen and the fact that they’re made from metal and have a beautiful fabric-wrapped cable means that they feel as good as they look. They are built like a tank, but a tank made by Ferrari. Everything from the plug through the Y-split to the shells of the IEMs themselves are made of high quality materials and look and feel like they’re worth every cent of your $299.

Cable

SAMSUNG CSCThe cable is fabric wrapped up to the Y-split before being replaced by a hard-wearing red rubber to maintain the silver, black and red colour scheme of all Atomic Floyd products.

Incorporated into the left channel cable is a mic and remote control for Apple devices (it doesn’t work with any other brand of device I’ve tried including Windows and Android phones) and the mic housing is also made of metal and high quality rubber for the buttons. Everything about it feels high quality and long-lasting, but the placement leaves me wondering a little.

Using the Super Darts while wearing an open-neck business shirt, the microphone section was constantly SAMSUNG CSCcatching on my collar and soon drove me quite nuts. It also seems to be a little too high, sitting level with the adam’s apple in my neck. Although it’s probably a good placement for a microphone it is out of sight and in a position that will catch on a lot of clothing I think. Of course, some of this may also depend on your individual dimensions because we all have different length necks, ear heights, etc. It’s not a deal breaker, but I felt it was worthy of noting.

Accessories & Fit

TSAMSUNG CSChe Super Darts are supplied with a sparse selection of silicon tips – 3 sizes, but that’s fine because they are excellent tips offering great comfort and perform better with the Super Darts than any other tip I tried (including foam, Sony Hybrid, and Monster tips). The tips carry the black and red colour scheme as well so your IEMs will look extra bad ass with the provided accessories.

As well as tips, Atomic Floyd package in an airplane adapter and mini-jack (6.3mm) adapter. Both are gold-plated with red accents so they look good and they feel like they’re high quality too.

SAMSUNG CSCFinally, you also get a rubber clam style carry case which is basic, but very practical and one of the best carry cases I’ve seen for IEMs (from a practicality point of view).

Overall Comfort

The Super Darts are a very comfortable IEM. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I sometimes struggle with in-ear comfort because of relatively small ear canals. The small flange on the tip of the Super Darts is just enough to hold the tips securely in place, but puts no pressure on my ears allowing the Super Darts to almost feel weightless.

Despite being made of solid metal, the Darts aren’t heavy or bulky. They have some weight, but they remain comfortable even for long listening sessions. As previously mentioned, the supplied tips are excellent and definitely contribute to the overall comfort.

Sound Quality

The Super Darts are best described as a fun sounding IEM with a U-shaped frequency response. They have perhaps the best bass I have ever heard on an IEM  – admittedly I haven’t heard some of the beasts in the bass department like the SE846 and IE8, but for a $299 IEM to be SO impressive in the bass region is astonishing. Before I carry on about the bass though, let’s break down the sound as usual into some categories for consideration.

Bass

SAMSUNG CSCNo suprises here. I’ve just told you how exceptional these are here. The Super Darts are able to create rumble below the audible frequencies which is just amazing to me. They have a slight emphasis in the bass, but are not bloated at all. The bass is tight, punchy and full, but not soft or bloomy. Listening to Black Capricorn Day by Jamiroquai I was literally feeling sounds against my ear drums that I couldn’t hear. There are many tracks where I’ve flat-out stopped what I was doing to marvel at the bass from these tiny little bullets of sound.

Other than describing the bass from these as perfect, there’s not a lot more I can say and that’s not hyperbole. Imagine the best bass you could hear from an IEM and you’ll know what the Super Darts sound like in this region. Wow.

Of course, bass alone doesn’t make the perfect listening experience though so read on to see how they fare as we approach the higher frequencies.

Mids

The Super Darts’ U-shaped signature automatically means the midrange is going to be slightly pulled back in relation to the bass and treble, but to my ears the mids are still very good. There’s nice cohesion with all instruments and no signs of conflict between the dynamic driver and balanced armature where they share duties at the crossover point.

The mids are natural and clean overall. I’d probably describe them as neutral and accurate when considered in isolation. Yes, they sit behind the bass and treble in terms of overall emphasis, but the mids aren’t coloured in any way to my ears. There’s no lushness or cream added, but they also don’t get too dry or analytical with vocals – a nicely balanced approach.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCAnd it was going so well… OK, so it’s no a deal breaker, but the treble is going to be a love hate thing for some people.

The Super Darts skirt the fine line for me between being energetic and dynamic in their treble presentation versus straying into strident and “too hot” territory occasionally. They remind me of some of the beyerdynamic cans with the peaks in the upper treble around 9kHz. If I had to draw a comparison to a headphone, I would point to the beyerdynamic T90 which is just a little brighter than the T1.

Depending on your taste in signatures, your device, and your music choices, the Super Darts could be anywhere from the perfect earphone to an ear-shredding disaster (but the latter exaggeration would only be for those who swear by super dark setups like Sennheiser HD650s with uber warm amplifiers). For most people I think the Super Darts will be much like many of the high-end beyerdynamic headphones – really enjoyable for 90% of your music and just a bit uncomfortable for the 10% that’s mastered too hot or poorly and with harsh treble.

Staging & Imaging

I expected the treble profile of the Super Darts to make for some epic staging and imaging, but they aren’t quite as incredible as I hoped. They’re not bad by any stretch, but they’re probably just average. You wouldn’t pass these up because of their staging and imaging because they’re respectable and solid, but they aren’t world-beaters in this department either. Imaging is clear, well located and cohesive and the stage is moderate in size, extending from ear to ear and slightly forward. The stage is also nicely semi-circular too whereas some other IEMs sometimes create a centre section and side sections with nothing at the angles, but the Darts perform well in that regard.

Summary

So what does all this mean and would I buy a set of Super Darts?

If a friend asked me about the Super Darts I would highly recommend that they try them out. In other words I think very highly of these earphones, but also recognise that they won’t be for everyone. If you like a dynamic sound, epicly awesome bass and sparkly treble you will absolutely love these earphones. If you run screaming from anyone who says the word “treble” then you probably shouldn’t bother with the Super Darts, but everyone else should definitely give them a go and make sure you try a track with some bass – you won’t regret it!!

Just to clarify all of this for anyone on the fence, I am general a bit treble shy. I use tube amps to smooth out my heaphones and lean away from bright / analytical gear towards more musical and slightly warm presentations, but I still REALLY like the Super Darts. If I didn’t already own a set of custom Miracles I would buy the Super Darts in a heart beat. For my ears I would pair them with slightly warmer sources (the Fiio X3 and RWAK100 would both be great combos) and love every second of time spent with them. I’m almost tempted to buy a set of these just because they are such a sexy, high quality product.

 

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

The Fischer Audio FA-011s have an existing following of fans. They’re known for their price / performance ratio and their bass performance in particular. So what happens when they create a limited edition version of the famed FA-011?

Specifications

  • Style: Open
  • Frequency response:  18 – 22,000 Hz
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB
  • Impedance: 160 ohm
  • Cable length: 2.5m
  • Connector: 3.5mm

DPP_0009cUpgrades over the standard FA-011

  • Exotic timber cups
  • Upgraded, shielded cable
  • New logo badge
  • Velour pads (more on this later)
  • APE-03 frequency filter

Overview

The LEs grabbed my attention at a Head-Fi meet here in Melbourne. Having listened to HE-500s, HE-6s, and my own HD650s during the day, I was really impressed with the LEs when I tried them. I’m not suggesting they’re better than the planar magnetics from HiFiMan and I’m not comparing them here, but in the company of outstanding gear the LEs shone for what they offer. The LEs are priced at around $480 so they’re nearly twice the price of the stock FA-011s, but they’re a upgraded in a lot of ways.

DPP_0001cWithout taking anything away from the outstanding FA-011s, the LEs are a brilliant upgrade. The wood used for the cups is beautiful, exotic and comes in 5 different varieties. The cable is much higher quality, and the APE-03 frequency filter refines the aggressive FA-011 sound to make it more balanced without sacrificing any of the dynamics and energy the 011s are known for. With just a brief listen I was impressed at how close in overall sound quality these came to the HD650s which cost about $70 more and are recognised as a benchmark headphone across the industry. The LEs aren’t better than the HD650s – they’re different. I’ll explain in more detail later, but the short version is that I turn to the HD650s for some things and the LEs for others – splitting them is a matter of preference and music style, not performance. I’d peg the LE as a more aggressive and dynamic equal of the HD650.

Truly Limited

Only 40 LEs were produced worldwide – 10 per timber for 4 timbers. Noisy Motel scored 12 of the 40 for Australia. There may be more being wrangled down here to Australia (via the Noisy Motel), but it will some of the original 40 units so these are a truly exclusive headphone!

Design & Comfort

The design and comfort of the LEs is almost identical to the stock FA-011s. They’re well put together (albeit with some slight variations as a result of being hand-made) and the materials all feel excellent. The design uses a sprung headband suspended below 2 rubber-clad metal bands which also house the cable from the left ear cup to the right. The cups are hinged for rotation inwards / outwards, but not any rotation. The design doesn’t really need anything more though as comfort is very good as is (possibly with different earpads) . DPP_0004cThe LEs come with a new / different velour earpad which also has a fine acoustic mesh across the centre of the driver. Unfortunately, the LE pads are a bit thinner than the stock pads and become quite uncomfortable after a 1-2 hour listening session. This is because they don’t hold the cups far enough from my ears and leave the inside of the cup pressing against the outer edges of my ear. Thankfully, Billy from Noisy Motel was able to provide some replacement earpads from the stock FA-011s which instantly solved the problem and are very easy to fit with no tools or impact on headphones.

DPP_0006cI have to say that I LOVE the upgraded cable on the LEs. It’s thick and heavy so it doesn’t tangle or get caught under my office chair wheels. It makes the LEs less portable, but they’re an open headphone so chances are you won’t walk around with them playing anyway (except at home and then it doesn’t matter). I don’t know if the core materials are any better than the stock 011s, but it looks good and feels good (and the headphones sound great so the cable can’t be too bad) so I’m happy!

Sound

DPP_0007cIt’s really hard to sum up the sound of the FA-011 LEs. They’re aggressive and “in-your-face”, but manage to do this without ever getting obnoxious, sibilant or fatiguing. The bass from the LEs is outstanding in terms of both texture, presence and extension. The bass goes low, is quick and tight, and has plenty of body. The top end is resolving and detailed, but not blistering. The mids are realistic, smooth and natural – not enhanced or emphasised at all to my ears. The LEs are a little confusing in that they separate sounds really well. There is no doubt where each instrument and performer is within the soundstage, but the soundstage is quite small. It extends roughly to the outside edge of each earpiece and doesn’t have a lot of height or depth. That said, it rarely feels crowded. One of my favourite test tracks is “Good Excuse” by John Butler Trio particularly because the recording allows some nice vertical (top / bottom) layers in the sound as well as the normal horizontal (left / right) layers. The LEs don’t really exhibit any vertical layering the way say the Unique Melody Miracles do, but Good Excuse is still a really enjoyable track to listen to on the LEs. Perhaps the most impressive attribute of the LEs is their ability to handle everything I’ve tried them with. They have the bass impact to rumble and thump when required, but also the detail and resolution for the subtleties and texture of more refined acoustic and classical tracks. If I had to criticize the LEs in any way, it’d be a slight glassy-ness or edge on some acoustic guitar tracks. The edge doesn’t sound natural because it’s not exactly how a guitar really sounds. It doesn’t sound bad or artificial (like some Ultrasones have that artificial metallic twang to the upper registers), but it just sounds like the sound has been altered ever-so-slightly from its natural sound.

HD650 vs FA-011 LE Comparison

HD650 outer packagingI bought the LEs after listening to my HD650s all day. That, and the fact that they’re in the same price ballpark make it an obvious comparison so here are some thoughts based on some track-specific comparisons. I’m focussing on what stood out to me during each track rather than a blow-by-blow description of each headphone’s sound. Please refer to my HD650 review if you’d like more information about the specifics of the HD650.

Stuffy – Arne Domnerus from Jazz at the Pawnshop (192kHz / 24-bit)

This is a great recording in a jazz club so there’s plenty of ambience and space in the recording. There are also plenty of natural textures and resonance in the sound so it’s easy to hear how naturally the headphones portray all the instruments and the space around them.

  • HD650s – more space and ambience let’s you hear the jazz club surrounds, but the sound is a little muted in comparison to the LEs.
  • FA-011 LEs – cleaner highs and details – cymbals have texture and presence and the piano is more “present” in the sound mix, but at the expense of some ambience.

Switching between the 2 headphones I preferred the sound signature of the LEs. I’ve never before been a supporter of the Sennheiser “veil” description, but I can kind of understand it now. I don’t think the HD650s are bad by any stretch (they’re a wonderful headphone) – their laid back presentation is a large part of their charm and the space and ambience they create in the soundstage is brilliant, but there are times that I crave the clarity and definition of a can like the LEs.

Sinking Stone – Alison Krauss & Union Station from Paper Airplane (96kHz / 24-bit)

This track is light on bass and high on acoustic sounds in the upper mid-range which is possibly the weak point for the LEs.

  • LEs – as expected, the LEs sound a little glassy and fragile with this track, but shows better textures in the vocals. In particular, the male backing vocal is more noticeable and clear, but isn’t enhanced or pushed forward, just well-placed and separated from the other sounds.
  • HD650s – creamier mids and slightly more enjoyable overall even though the backing vocal isn’t quite as well separated. For tracks like this I would always reach for the HD650s.

The summary is pretty clear here. The HD650 excels with the acoustic instruments (guitars, etc.) and vocals while the LE is a bit glassy despite being wonderfully detailed.

Within – Daft Punk from Random Access Memories (44.1kHz / 16-bit)

This track has a nice range of different sounds including piano (always tough to recreate authentically), drums and other percussion, deep bass, and electronic vocals.

  • HD650s – once again the HD650s create more space and on this track also separate the vocals really well so they’re prominent and clear.
  • LEs – the snare is alive and the bass has presence and impact. The chimes have sparkle and clarity that the HD650s can’t match.

The LEs won this battle on the strength of their bass and treble performance. This track covers the whole range so completely that the HD650s sound a little bland in comparison to the LEs’ outstanding extension in the bass. The space and ambience of the HD650s don’t have enough impact in a track like this to offset the frequency range performance.

Good Excuse – John Butler Trio from Grand National (44.1kHz / 16-bit)

  • LEs – layering and textures are excellent. Excellent separation of percussion, piano, and other instruments
  • HD650s – I can’t believe I’m using this word, but they sound a bit veiled (in comparison only). The HD650s are smooth and present more space, but lack some impact down low. The details merge together a bit compared to the LEs, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that much of the detail in this track comes from acoustic guitars and percussion.

The LEs performed surprisingly well on this track given the heavy use of acoustic guitars and other instruments that dwell in the upper mid-range that can be the LEs weak point. I think the full-range sound in this track off-sets the potentially glassy upper registers of the FA-011 LE.

It’s really important to note here that the HD650 improves significantly on Crack!

What I mean by that is that these tests were conducted driving both headphones from the Audio-gd NFB-5.2. My normal amplifier for the HD650s is the Bottlehead Crack and it has a magic synergy with the HD650s. When I tested the HD650s on this same track but using the Crack, the results were quite different. I would probably still choose the LEs for their bass response and detail, but the separation of instruments and textures became much better with the HD650 / Crack combination.

Violin Concerto in G Major – Marianne Thorsen / Trondheim Solistene from HD Tracks (96kHz / 24-bit)

I thought it was important to test these 2 on some really well recorded classical music. An orchestral or chamber group presents a lot of similar information all at once (i.e. multiple similar instruments versus guitar, drums, bass, etc. which are all different). This makes it a different sound experience. Oh, and because a lot of people like to listen to classical so I thought they’s like the comparison.

  • LEs – the sound is more natural, clean and resolving, but like standing on the conductor’s podium where there’s not a lot of space between me and all the musicians
  • HD650s – much better sense of space, but not as intimate – I feel removed and placed back in the audience somewhere

This was a great test to finish on because it sums up these 2 headphones perfectly. The LEs once again presented more detail, texture and clarity – a more dynamic overall experience, but I felt like I was listening to a good set of headphones – I couldn’t get completely lost in the music. The HD650s once again excelled with the space and ambiance they presented. I felt like I was in the audience listening to the performance which was great, but I felt like I was a couple of rows too far back and that the sound was being muffled slightly by the people and seats in front of me.

Conclusions

This has been a slightly frustrating review because it’s shown me that the ultimate headphone in the $400-ish price range is actually a combination of the HD650 and FA-011 LE. The HD650 outperforms the LE in terms of soundstage size and ambiance while the FA-011 LE outperforms the HD650 in terms of detail, clarity and overall frequency balance (including its awesome bass response!)

So what does that mean for this review and for my headphone collection?

DPP_0002cIt means I will happily keep both headphones in my collection. The HD650s have earned an unassailable place in audiophile lore for good reason. They’re not a perfect headphone from a technical perspective, but they are wonderfully easy to listen to and create an amazing ambiance in the music.

The FA-011 LEs, the star of this show, are an incredibly enjoyable headphone. They perform at every part of the frequency range, they provide superb bass impact, texture and speed, and great detail and clarity. Perhaps most amazing is their ability to do all this without causing any fatigue. Yes, they’re in-you-face and aggressive, but in the most likable way somehow. I haven’t enjoyed bright, analytical headphones for a while now because of some treble sensitivity, but the LEs manage to deliver all their detail and clarity without any fatigue or discomfort.

I think there are some great headphones around this price point (HD6X0, HE-400, DT880, etc.) and the LEs definitely deserve a seat at that table. They are enjoyable, dynamic and revealing, but never inducing of fatigue or discomfort. The provided pads are best changed for stock pads if possible for more physical comfort, but it’s a simple switch.

I would recommend these to people wanting an open headphone which doesn’t sacrifice on bass or overall tonal balance (i.e. they’re not bass monsters, just brilliantly balanced across all frequencies). I wouldn’t recommend them to people seeking large soundstages, but I know some prefer the intimacy of a tighter stage. Remember the LEs don’t lack separation and layering of sounds, just overall space in the soundstage. They are everything the stock FA-011s are known for only better in every way!

VSonic GR07 MkII

For a few years now I’ve been intrigued by the VSonic GR07, but buying it in Australia had been tricky. Thankfully, there are now a number of local vendors selling the GR07 and I finally have the pleasure of owning a pair. I bought these as a stand-in while my Unique Melody Miracles are away for a refit and it’s saying something that I’m not overly missing the Miracles – the GR07s are not better than the Miracles, but for $250 vs $1000, they are an incredible buy given the performance they offer.

Overview

The VSonic GR07s have been around for a while now with the MkII version the more recent iteration. The GR07s have somewhat of a cult following for their price-to-performance ratio. Here are the specs you get for around $250:

  • Driver:  Dynamic
  • Sensitivity:  105dB
  • Frequency range:  7Hz – 30,000Hz
  • Impedance:  50 ohms

As always, specifications need to be taken with a grain of salt until viewed in the context of actual auditioning, but the first thing I liked about the GR07s was their 50 ohm impedance. 50 ohms is a really nice mid-range impedance which normally means the head / earphones will happily perform with most sources.

Design, Accessories & Quality

GR07 - accessoriesThe GR07 MkII arrive in a nice looking cream and bronze packaging which nicely displays the square housing of the GR07s. Inside you will find bucket loads of different tips – mostly single-flange silicon tips, but with some foam-filled and twin flange versions as well. There is also a single pair of Comply foam tips in medium size. There is also a carry pouch and ear guides for the over-ear section of the cable in lieu of in-built memory wire.

Simply stated, the GR07s are some of the most abundantly accessorised IEMs you will ever open.

Everything feels fairly high quality with the possible exception of the pouch, but that’s of minimum concern. The tips are admittedly direct copies of the Sony Hybrid tips, but they seem to be a good copy and are comfortable.

The included ear guides are a great idea as an alternative to memory wire in the IEM cable itself, but I have to wonder if they could have been made a little less bulky. I would probably choose to use them were they not so chunky. I have to admit to feeling a bit embarrassed to be seen in public with them on. As a result, I wear the GR07s with no cable guide and they are mostly fine with the exception of times that I move with any real vigour.

The ear guides aren’t required for sitting, walking, laying in bed, etc. but I would not recommend trying to go for a run or any similar exercise without the use of the ear guides. It’s your choice then as to how much your self-respect outweighs your desire for great sound! (Note: I’m over-exaggerating the embarrassment factor here. It’s not dreadfully embarrassing, but it’s also not ideal)

Cable Quality

The marketing of the GR07s says that the internals of the wire are silver which is a really nice feature if it’s true. There is obviously no way of knowing if it is short of pulling apart the earphones and there is the chance that it’s silver-plated copper that’s been lost in translation, but it does a fine job and the outside of the cable is excellent – it feels supple, smooth, and of good durable quality. I do wonder how the cable will hold up under continued use, but more-so because of the way the cable exits the earphone housing.

The cables exit the housings on an angle and out of a relatively small strain relief.

Based on the age of this model (this part has remained essentially unchanged in the mkII version), I can only assume that this isn’t a weakness of the earphones, but it’s one of those things that can only be measured in the fullness of time.

Housings and Fit

GR07 - nozzleThe housings of the GR07s are square! Not exactly an ergonomic shape so you might wonder how comfortable they can be.

Getting the IEMs inserted comfortably is easy given the massive range of tips available and the nifty angled nozzle which rotates on a ball joint within the housing (see right). I have to admit to finding the adjustability of the nozzles fairly useless, but figure that it could be helpful for some depending on the unique anatomy of everyone’s ears. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not a selling feature from my perspective.

Once inserted properly, the square housings have no impact on comfort because they don’t really come in contact with the ear itself. Perhaps that’s where the nozzle comes into play – ensuring that the square housing sits away from the ear – but for me it is a challenge to get the housing to touch my ear so I again find the adjustable nozzles a bit redundant.

After a while listening to the GR07s, I tend to find them moderately uncomfortable no matter how I insert them or what tips I use. My right ear (which is usually my non-troublesome ear) starts to feel like there’s pressure on the front of the ear canal where the little flap of cartilage protrudes. No amount of adjustment seems to prevent this sense of pressure and it limits my enjoyment of the GR07s to around 1-2 hours at the absolute most within any sitting, but more towards the hour mark than the 2 hour mark. By 2 hours I find my ear has become quite sore and will remain sensitive to the GR07s if I try to use them again that day.

I have begun to wonder if the discomfort is caused by the diameter and length of the GR07’s nozzles as my other IEMs like the SE535s and RE-272s have shorter or narrower nozzles. With my narrow ear canals, this might be the problem.

It is important to realise here that your ears and mine are inevitably completely different so please judge the fit for yourself before crossing the GR07s off your list. It would be a shame to miss out on the sound they present.

EDIT: After further extended use, either my ears have adjusted or I’ve found a good fit. The GR07s are now perfectly comfortable for extended periods so don’t despair if it takes you a while to find the right fit for comfort and enjoyment!

The All-Important Sound!

This is always where the rubber meets the road.

GR07 (1)The GR07s have a good reputation and it’s well-deserved. Their sound is generally balanced and neutral. They don’t offer any significant “colour” to the music you play, but instead just provide the music as per the recording. Some might want some extra bass, extra warmth, or extra treble, but to me the GR07’s sound style is just right.

This is actually one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written because the sound of the GR07 doesn’t excel or fall short in any particular area – it’s just on the mark across the board. This makes it pretty dull to write about, but really nice to listen to.

Highs

The top end of the GR07s is clean and clear. They start off a little harsh out of the box, but after some listening time or burn-in they settle into a really nice groove.  There is a nice amount of breath and air in the sound and the details are crisp, clean and present, but are rarely too forward or bright. Percussion and incidental sounds (e.g. the sounds of fingers on guitar strings and frets) are really nicely textured and detailed, but again don’t overshadow anything else.

Because the highs are accurate and clear, a recording with harsh top end will sound harsh through the GR07s, but this is not a knock on them – it’s actually them doing their job perfectly.

Mids

The mids in the GR07 aren’t spectacularly smooth or obvious like some other IEMs / headphones like the SE535s or HD650s, but they’re well placed and clean. Once again, you’ll hear exactly what the album producer meant you to hear. Vocals are well-placed and well-balanced. Voices and instruments have texture and depth. Once again, a perfect performance in terms of neutrality and balance.

Bass

The GR07s have deceptive bass. On one track you’ll think they’re bass shy and then you’ll get something bassy and realise they’re very capable in the bass department. Listening to a 20Hz to 20kHz sweep tone, it’s quite impressive how much rumble they produce very early in the range.

I have to admit to occasionally wishing for a touch more bass than the GR07s offer, but I think that’s more a reflection of the mastering of a lot of music more-so than the design of the earphones. Without fail, when a track is well mastered and produced, the GR07s produce really nice, clean, textured bass. They are capable of a good level of impact and punch as well as some rumble. Not on par with full-size headphones of course, but very respectable for an IEM.

Presentation

The presentation of the GR07s is fantastic. Instruments are well separated and defined. The stage is clearly laid out inside your “headspace” and extends well in all directions. The presentation definitely improves over time with the GR07s though, so don’t judge them straight out of the box, and give them a good 100 hours before expecting their best.

The GR07’s stage isn’t massive (in IEM terms) like the HiFiMan Re272s, but I find myself coming back to the GR07s because they have a more enjoyable sound overall. The Re272s create incredible space and separation between each instrument, but their lack of warmth and bass impact means I don’t feel the music as much. I’m much better able to groove with a track played through the GR07s and the difference in staging and separation is not enough to return to the Re272s.

As I said a little earlier, the GR07s just do everything really, really well. There’s nothing to complain about and no characteristic  that stands out above the rest. That’s a good thing in my experience because when something stands out it also leaves you wanting more elsewhere. The GR07s just don’t have that problem – I’m always left satisfied by their sound and presentation. Sure, some more bass can be fun as I said before, but it would also muddy the waters in terms of the detail and staging. No, the GR07s have it exactly right for what they aim to provide.

One small side note here. The GR07s perform beautifully with every source I’ve attached them to, but really came alive when driven from a full-sized amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2 in my case). Nothing in their specs suggest that they need high quality amplification, but there’s absolutely no doubt that they benefit!

Summary

For the money, there are very few options that can compete with the Vsonic GR07 Mk2 for the crown as a neutral sounding and highly enjoyable IEM. The Re272s are a contender, but are let down by their lack of bass which can render them a little soul-less at times. The Gr07s provide exactly the right amount of everything and would be a great choice for anyone considering a non-custom IEM at any level. They very comfortably compete with much more expensive IEMs like the Shure SE535 and are not even that far behind custom IEMs in terms of their balance, quality presentation and refinement. It’s also a bonus that they sport a 50 impedance because they’re far less picky about the source than many other IEMs including the SE535s and Re272s.

HiFiMan Re-272

OK, let’s get it out of the way… yes, the name “HiFiMan” doesn’t inspire confidence. So much so that a friend of mine refused to buy their products because the name sounded like a cheap knock-off brand. If you haven’t heard of HiFiMan before, don’t be put off by the name – it is a great brand that continues to pump out some amazingly priced products that outperform vastly more expensive products from other manufacturers.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

Super Sounding IEM Shootout

Today’s post is about 2 very different in-ear monitors (IEMs) (i.e. canal phones or earphones that go inside your ear like an earplug). They are very different in technology, slightly different in sound style, very different in looks, extremely different in price, but very similar in quality. So which one’s better for you? Let’s find out…

Our contestants are the Shure SE535 Limited Edition and the HiFiMan Re272

Dressed in red, the Shure SE535 Limited Edition

Dressed in black, the HiFiMan Re272

Both of these IEMs are recognised as offering brilliant sound quality, but they do it very differently. The Shures use 3 drivers per earphone. Yes, there are 3 tiny speakers in each of those red casings! The drivers are a balanced armature type. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – I didn’t either until I spent some quality time with Google. In essence, the balanced armatures are a delicate and sensitive system to push the air that makes sound. They are very good at picking up subtle details in sound, but can sound a bit thin at times and without the warmth of the alternative system. The alternative system is dynamic drivers. These are exactly what we’re all used to seeing in our home theatre systems or car stereos. They have good presence and warmth, but are sometimes less sensitive. The Re272s use just 1 dynamic driver per ear, but don’t be fooled by the 1 vs 3 matchup – dynamics and balanced armatures bring very different characteristics so it’s not won or loss based on this matchup.

I want you to know that I have not planned the order or results of this shootout – I am writing, reviewing and scoring as I go so you are experiencing the comparison exactly as I am and the results will be as much a surprise to me as to you! I’ll score each section out of a possible 10 points for each phone.

Let’s look at the all-important dollar…

The Shure Se535s will set you back around AU$400-500. That places them right up near the top of the pile for non-custom IEMs. There are only a few mainstream brands (e.g. Westone) that charge more for an IEM that doesn’t require an audiologist to make moulds of your ear.

At nearly $500, the 535s may be instantly knocked out of contention for some, but read on because you might find some good news waiting for you.

The Re272s are much more affordable at around AU$250 making them still expensive compared to some alternatives, but there is very little (if anything) for less money that will sound as good.

So far it’s Re272: 8, SE535: 5

Usability & Comfort

Both headphones can be worn with the cords going over the ear, but only the 272s can have the cord straight down. Although it’s fiddly to get used to running the cord over your ear, I find the benefits definitely worthwhile. Wearing the cord over your ear means little or no noise is transmitted through the cable to your ear and it also means that if you snag the cable on something, it doesn’t put pressure directly on the fragile joints where the cable meets the earphone.

Both earphones come with a range of tips, but the 535s have a few more options (including foam tips). In the end, I’m using non-standard tips with both: Comply foams on the 535s and Sony Hybrid tips on the 272s. The range of options supplied with the 535s is offset by the small size tube which can make using aftermarket tips a bit tricky. The 272s are slightly larger than some others, but seem to fit most standard tips I’ve tried.

Both earphones are really comfortable so it’s a draw here… Still Re272: 8 + 8 = 16, SE535: 5 + 8 = 13

Isolation

One of the key benefits of IEMs is their ability to block outside noise. The 535s excel here because of their use of balanced armature technology which is happy in a completely sealed shell. The dynamic drivers in the Re272s need a small vent and therefore allow a tiny bit of sound to come in. I also find that the fit of the 535s helps to keep them snug and keep a secure seal. Using both on a noisy train or airplane, you can definitely hear the difference and it means you either have to go louder with the 272s or lose details in the sound so it’s a win to the 535s for isolation.

Running score: Re272: 16 + 6 = 22, SE535: 13 + 9 = 22

Flexibility

The SE535s are crazily sensitive. While this gives them the ability to delivery incredible details, it also makes them susceptible to poor source quality. They often produce background hiss from poor source units (i.e. amplifiers and players) and can be quite uncomfortable to use for listening to low quality sound such as radio and podcasts. The Re272s are still very revealing and can border on uncomfortable for my favourite podcasts, but they’re a step ahead of the 535s here and are my earphone of choice for low quality sources.

Re272: 22 + 8 = 30, SE535: 22 + 6 = 28

Build Quality

Both IEMs appear well-built and are both made from plastic so no major advantage there. The 535s have a slightly better feel to them and look sexy whereas the 272s could be cheap plastic painted to look nice – it’s hard to know. I definitely trust the 535s more than the 272s based on the feel of them alone, but only time will tell. If I have to choose to give an edge to one over the other, I have to choose the 535s not just for their look and feel, but also for their detachable cable and quality of cable (although that opens a whole other topic which I’ll need to cover shortly).

Re272: 30 + 8 = 38, SE535: 28 +9 = 37

Sound Quality

The all important question! In a case like this where it’s hard to separate the 2 options (except by price), sound becomes everything. It’s not like one of them is ridiculously uncomfortable or brings some fatal flaw so sound is the deciding factor.

The Re272s jump to mind first so let’s discuss their sound. The sound from the 272s is almost flawless – they do nothing wrong, but they also don’t excel anywhere. The sound is neutral without any specific emphasis and instruments are clearly spread out and placed clearly in the soundstage. There is texture to the sound and some energy to the sound, but the bass lacks some fullness and punch. Without EQing (which I’m avoiding purely to keep this shootout a consistent approach), the 272s occasionally leave me wanting more oomph.

The SE535s bring better bass impact and slightly better layering and texturing of sound. You can get lost in the sound of the 535s more so than the 272s, but the placement of the sound is slightly clumsy because of a slight emphasis on mid-range frequencies. On some tracks, you can hear the whole band perfectly laid out before you, but on other tracks it can sound like the band is all clustered together when it shouldn’t be (i.e. the issue is the earphones, not the recording).

So, based on the sound qualities, it is very hard to split the 2, but I think the seductive qualities of the 535s and being able to get lost in the sound leads me to reach for the 535s first (unless it’s for poor quality sources).

Re272: 38 + 8 = 46, SE535: 37 + 8 = 45

There’s one final thing to mention before I give an overall final score. The detachable cable supplied with the SE535s means that you can replace it with a range of aftermarket options. I was fortunate to have a friend in Hong Kong send me an aftermarket cable to try out (thanks Gavin!!) Despite having good results with hifi cables, I was sceptical of the power of a cable change on headphones, but was SO wrong!! The cable completely transformed the SE535s (you can read about it in my review of the SE535s). With the Baldur Mk2 cable attached, the SE535s move head and shoulders above the Re272s, but the total price increases by about AU$140 for the cable so I have to update the price scoring too.

Price adjusted scores with aftermarket cable for SE535:

Re272: 46, SE535: 35 + 1045

So the Re272s win the shootout when we consider all different characteristics and even the aftermarket cable… but part of me is unsatisfied with the result because I know that I always reach for the SE535s first. The reason I’m not satisfied is that I own both now so the price is no longer an issue and that changes everything. Let’s look at the scores again without the price element…

Final, money-no-object scores:

Re272: 46 – 8 = 38, SE535: 45 – 3 = 42

Conclusions

If you’re on a budget that won’t allow $500+ for IEMs (including aftermarket cable) then the Re272s are exceptional value and quality, but may need a slight dose of bass from your EQ. You’ll need to go a long way and spend a decent amount more money to get equivalent or better sound quality.

If budget isn’t such a concern and you can save up the $$$ or consider purchasing the aftermarket cable later, then the SE535s are simply amazing. They’re probably not perfect, but they are one of the most amazing audio experiences I’ve had for less than $30,000 and that’s saying a lot!!

One final note…

I forgot to write this before publishing, hence why it’s tacked on at the end.

The Re272s are able to run in a fully balanced setup. This means finding an amp that I can test them on which is why I can’t comment now. It also means that most people will use them with a standard common ground setup (i.e. both earphones have a signal cable and an earth wire going to them. The earth wires join up into one before they connect to the source unit) which makes the above comparison more relevant to the majority.

In theory (and from what I’ve read), the balanced configuration does significantly improve the sound, but will also require the purchase of a high quality amplifier which will increase the total cost to equal or more than the Shure SE535s with aftermarket cable so it’ll be an interesting comparison. I’ll post more when I can test the 272s with a balanced setup.