Kanemori Takai is an icon in the Japanese high-end audio scene. The current president and founder of Final Audio Design, Takai-san started Final Audio Design with a line of high-end moving coil phono cartridges and booster transformers back in 1974. Many legendary products have come from Final in the decades since its founding. On Head-Fi, though, their in-ear headphones are popular with some, yet still enigmatic.
I was honored to finally meet Takai-san at the 2013 CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations at the time, his Final Audio Design Heaven VI in-ear monitor.
With a single balanced armature driver per ear, the Heaven VI is unusual at its price point, where, most commonly, we're used to seeing multi-driver balanced armature in-ears. Then again, Final Audio Design hasn't exactly earned a reputation for being at all typical. When I think of Japanese audio esoterica, Final Audio Design is one of the first marks that come to my mind.
The Heaven VI is a straight-body design, looking a bit like something Etymotic's Mead Killion might have designed for a night out on the town. Simple though it is, the Heaven VI's polished chrome copper housing is beautiful.
The Heaven VI's sound was surprising to me. With its one armature per side, I was expecting to hear something similar to an Etymotic ER-4 type sound. What I'm hearing instead is something more impactful, with more bass than I was expecting (though this is still not a basshead's in-ear). The midrange is really very nice, and wonderfully detailed. Final claims the Heaven VI "perfectly reproduces the sound of a human voice," and while I don't know that I'd go that far, I felt challenged to test that claim with the 40-part motet Spem in alium, a couple of albums sung by Cantus, and a lot of my favorite vocal-centric jazz, pop and rock; and, indeed, the Heaven VI renders human voices clearly and with body. Also, I enjoy the Heaven VI's treble presence that has yet to veer into harsh territory with me. Imaging with the Heaven VI is very good, spacious for a deep-insertion in-ear.
In the bins of in-ears we have here at Head-Fi HQ, there nothing here that sounds just like the Heaven VI. And the sonic qualities of the Heaven VI that make it unique are what make it an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Listen to the Final Audio Design Heaven VI (above), and you might just start to understand why Final Audio Design (often abbreviated on Head-Fi as "FAD") has a loyal, sometimes cult-like, fan base. Some of FAD's higher-end products are expensive, though--like the Heaven VI--so it can be a pricy club to belong to.
At last year's fall Tokyo Headphone Festival, however, Kanemori Takai himself personally gave me the Final Audio Design Heaven II. I believe the Heaven II is priced around $130, and, to my ears, it's very good for the price, and possessing of a good dose of Final Audio Design magic.
The Heaven II looks a lot like the Heaven VI, but its gorgeous chassis is made of stainless steel (as opposed to a fancier alloy) with what looks to me like a very finely brushed finish.
In terms of sound, it has a clear familial tie to the Heaven VI, too, with clear, articulate mids and highs. The Heaven II's bass, however, is quite a bit lighter--more flat sounding--than its more upscale sibling's. Still, though, the Heaven II's bass is good and fast sounding to me. And, like the Heaven VI, the Heaven II's imaging is airy for a deep canal in-ear. Overall, the Heaven II is a beautiful sounding piece for the price.
If you've ever been interested in owning some of that Final Audio Design magic--but have been held back from a wallet whose maw simply doesn't open wide enough for the upper-end FAD headphones--then make sure to audition the Final Audio Design Heaven II.
I first met the Audiofly team at an event called CES Unveiled last January, and a quick listen to a couple of pieces in their line had me interested in hearing more. I eventually picked up the AF56 and AF78, and am glad I did.
The Audiofly AF78 (around $200) is Audiofly's flagship, and is a hybrid design, with a 9mm dynamic driver and balanced armature driver in each earpiece. The AF78's sound signature is warm and smooth, with bigger-than-neutral bass, velvety mids, and soft, smooth treble. The AF78 is no resolution monster, but yet I find it eminently easy to listen to for long sessions--almost every time I use it, it's for at least a couple of hours. I'm not sure what, if any, crossover network is melding the sound of the two drivers, but the two driver types in the AF78 seem to work well together.
The nozzles on the AF78 are a bit large, though, so those with small ear canals might want to look elsewhere. The unusual shape of the AF78 can also make it a bit fidgety at first, in terms of getting the fit right; but once you figure it out (which doesn't take long), you'll be inserting them as fast as your other IEMs.
The AF78 version I have is the one with the one-button remote/mic, and the sound quality of my outgoing voice in phone calls through the AF78 is very clear. When I ask those on the other side of the call how I sound with it, most are surprised to find I'm on a headset.
As much as I enjoy the AF78, it's the AF78's understudy--the Audiofly AF56--that I enjoy the most in the Audiofly line. I find the AF56's presentation more coherent, more detailed, than its big sib. With a big 13mm dynamic driver in each earpiece, the bass from the AF56 can actually be felt, not just heard--literally, there's a physical sensation from the AF56's bass that you can feel in your ears; and while this might suggest that bass on the AF56 is muddy, it's not. Strong, yes. Muddy, no. The mids of the AF56 also have more presence and detail, to my ears, than the AF78 does--and the same goes for the treble. Its soundstage is also impressive and full.
Whereas the AF78 might not be one of the first to come to mind if someone was asking me for $200 IEM recommendations, the AF56 would certainly come to mind quickly for $100, especially for those who prefer a bassier presentation.
Also, I find the AF56 an easier fit for my ears, as its nozzle has a smaller diameter than the AF78. The AF78 is available in marqee black (black), and the AF56 is available in vino (deep red), vintage white, and blue tweed.
Many a veteran Head-Fi'er has cut his teeth on high-end in-ear monitors with Shure. Among the first to push multi-armature IEMs into the mainstream, Shure's latest generation SE in-ear monitors are outstanding.
As far as performance for the price, the sweet spot of the line is, to me, the Shure SE425. For around $300, the SE425 serves up a decidedly audiophile-friendly signature, with its specialty being the sweet and detailed midrange that Shure has become known for. Bass extension and impact is good, and on the more neutral side. Treble is good, but some (including me) might find it could use just a touch more sparkle.
If you're willing to open up your wallet more than 50% wider, and if you're looking for one of the very best universal-fit in-ears for detailed listening that never loses its smooth, then spring for the Shure SE535. It is everything the SE425 is, but better. If it your budget allows for the SE535, and if the Shure sound is what you're after, then definitely go for the SE535, as it is the ultimate expression of Shure's in-ear sound.
Both the SE425 and SE535 are very comfortable, and their cable plugs swivel 360 degrees to helps prevent cable twisting.
"The 425's are a really good iem - well designed and built (these will last for years), superbly comfortable and really smooth and detailed. The mids are the strongest point - but the entire sound to me is balanced and relaxed."
"The SE535 is a fantastic choice for fans of older recordings that wish to screen out some of the analog hiss. From a sonic perspective, the SE535 is virtually identical to the SE530. In addition, the SE530 was sonically identical to the E500. In essence, one can say that the sound signature of the SE535 has been around for many years. During this time, it has remained favored by many who prefer a forgiving sound presentation. Fortunately for everyone, Shure addressed the SE530's fragile cable problem when they designed the SE535."
As a Head-Fi'er, and as a father of a young son, I want to do all I can to help him take care of his precious, pristine hearing. As my boy sees his dad constantly donning headphones of all types--and as a little music fanatic himself--he's taken interest in having headphones of his own. I got him the ETYKids by Etymotic, which are universal-fit in-ear monitors for children over four years old.
The ETYKids work by controlling the earphone's sensitivity, making it unnecessary to worry about restricting the volume level of the player, or counting on your young child to know when loud's too loud.
I've listened to the ETYKids, and the volume-limiting works very well--and it sounds like an Etymotic IEM, which is a very good thing.
The MA750i offers a slightly-elevated, but satisfying low-frequency response as part of it's presentation. That is, after all, a component of RHA's house sound. However, the MA750i does depart from that tradition in a very important way: speed.
A quick run through Trentemøller's Remix of Röyksopp's What Else Is There? told me most of what I needed to know. The MA750i articulated the forward/reverse bass drums distinctly, definitively and without confusion. Turning over to Sarah Jarosz's cover of Bob Dylan's Ring Them Bells, I was rewarded with tight and visceral plucks from a double bass that never once droned nor overstayed it's welcome. My hat is off to RHA here, both for what they have done, and for what they have not done with the MA750i's bass characteristics.
Moving on to the midrange, we discover that Lewis Heath and the rest of the team at RHA have truly taken our collective impressions to heart. In short, the mids are breathtakingly enjoyable in their smooth and cohesive presentation. There is detail--presented with both clarity and separation - and an admirable lack of distortion, grain and harshness.
While the highs are not groundbreaking in any way, they are noteworthy in their own way. They roll-off gradually in an infinitely smooth taper, like a ghost returning to the ether. The result is just hint of sparkle and shimmer. Nothing distracting, certainly nothing exaggerated, just a nice and clean departure, sans that sudden drop-off that I find irritating to no end. Nicely done.
So what we have here is a weighty low-end that packs a potent but tight punch, Goldilocks mids that are neither too forward nor recessed, and graceful highs with good manners.
With respect to detail retrieval, I'd hate to get all cliche on you BUT I'M GONNA. With at least one track (it was Pet Shop Boys's Liberation), I did hear a percussive element that I had never heard before. This is rather shocking to me given how many times I've listened to this track and NOT heard that.
The MA750i's soundstage is always able to address a wildly varying (and sometimes contradictory) set of conditions in just the right way. Tracks that should exhibit a holographic depth do just that. But tracks that should snuggle up to you intimately do that as well.
This year we had a chance to stop by the headphone labs at Sony in Japan, where the head of their headphone engineering--Naotaka Tsunoda--gave us a tour of the place, and then let us play with some of their newest models. Of the many new products were new in-ear monitors of hybrid design, using both dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers, and I'm really enthusiastic about them, especially the Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3. (I also really like the new "Foamed Silicone" eartips that they come with.)
The Sony XBA-H3 is the flagship of the Sony hybrid IEMs, and has one 16mm dynamic bass driver, and two balanced armature drivers (one of the BA drivers is full-range, the other is what Sony calls an HD super tweeter).
With a 16mm dynamic driver, the XBA-H3 has very large earpieces for an IEM. Not surprisingly, given its large size, the XBA-H3 is designed to be worn inverted (cable pointing up, with an over-ear loop). When worn, the XBA-H3 juts out further from my ears than any IEM I have here, reminding me a bit of the old Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro in this way. Given the peculiarities of its design, some may find the XBA-H3 a bit more challenging than a standard IEM to put on.
Fortunately, the Sony XBA-H3 sounds fantastic. Sony has done a better job integrating the dynamic driver with the balanced armature drivers than I've heard from this type of headphone before--I do not feel any sense of disjointedness in the melding of the two different types of drivers.
Not surprisingly with a huge 16mm driver, the XBA-H3 has very deep, very solid hitting bass--boosted, but well-controlled and tuneful, too. The XBA-H3's midrange is clear and precise--more neutral than the bass--and transitions beautifully to the the tweeter's soaring, shimmering treble. You know what it sounds like? Like a Sony flagship IEM.
Despite how much I love the XBA-H3's sound, it's the Sony XBA-H1 that I find to be the biggest gem of Sony's hybrid IEM line, for its combination of sound quality, design, and affordable price.
Because the XBA-H1's driver compliment--one 9mm dynamic driver and one full-range BA driver--is so much smaller than the XBA-H3's, it can use a far more compact housing, and a more traditional form factor. The XBA-H1 is worn cable down, and has a relatively straight body design, so putting its earpiece in your ears couldn't be easier.
In terms of sound, the XBA-H1 has a more neutral tonal balance than the XBA-H3, and the integration of the two drivers sounds seamless to me. Though the bass doesn't hit as hard as the XBA-H3's, it still has good punch, and, again, is more neutral. I find the XBA-H1's midrange to be almost as revealing as the XBA-H3's, and very competitive with other good IEMs in this price range. Its treble is also well extended, but not as much as the XBA-H3's, and is less shimmery. Still, though, I love the even-handed presentation of the XBA-H1, and find it a fantastic value at the price, even if its not as revealing overall as its much larger sibling.
The Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3 are two fantastic IEMs. Kudos to Sony for being able to integrate two completely different types of drivers (dynamic and balanced armature) so seamlessly in these two new models.