Pros: Clarity, over-all sonic signature, soundstage, build quality, accessories, value
Cons: Cable (worst I've ever come across), slight imbalance beteen upper and lower mids, fit
Introducing Brainwavz very uniquely designed dual dynamic IEM
|Brainwavz R3 (Comply Tips)||Brainwavz R3 Dual Dynamic IEM|
I've been lucky enough recently to start reviewing for a few IEM and earbud manufacturers. Raz from MP4 Nation PM'd me a month ago, and asked if I'd be interested in listening to, and reviewing, the new Brainwavz R3 dual dynamic driver IEM. This is one I was really looking forward to for a variety of reasons:
[a] I previously owned and very much enjoyed Brainwavz B2 (dual BA) IEMs , and also their HM5 full sized headphones.
[b] Brainwavz and MP4 Nation (in my personal experience) really try to look after their customers, and their service to me has always been excellent
[c] The R3 was such a unique design that I really wanted to see how they sounded.
They arrived a week ago – and in that time I’ve logged as many hours as I could with them (so that I could get Raz my impressions before Xmas). I have around 20-30 hours with them so far, and they haven't noticeably changed in that time (to my ears anyway). I’ve listed price at USD $100 (current MP4 Nation promtoional price at time of writing) – however this is not what I paid for them (they are a review sample).
I was provided the R3 as a review sample. I am in no way affiliated with MP4 Nation or Brainwavz - and this review is my honest opinion of the R3. I would like to thank Raz at MP4 Nation for making this opportunity available.
Preamble - 'about me'. (This is to give any readers a baseline for interpreting the review).
I'm a 46 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile - just love my music. Over the last couple of years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current mid-fi set-up. I vary my listening from portable (HSA Studio V3 and iPhone4) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > coax > NFB-12 > LD MKIV > HP). My main headphones at the time of writing are the Senn HD600, Beyer DT880, and Grado RS1. Most of my portable listening is done with IEMs - up till now it has mainly been the Shure SE535 Ltd Ed., Dunu DN-1000 (recent acquisition), or the HSA BA100 IEMs. I have auditioned quite a few entry and mid-tier cans, but have yet to hear/own any real flagships (at current time of writing this review). A full list of the gear I have owned (past and present is listed in my Head-fi profile).
I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical/opera and jazz to grunge and hard-rock. I also listen to a lot of blues, indie, folk music, classic rock, and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I tend toward cans that are relatively neutral/balanced - with a slight emphasis on the mid-range. I am neither a bass or treble head (you could argue that I do like clarity though). Current amps = NFB12 and LD MKIV. I also formerly owned several portable amps - the most notable being an Arrow 4G and GoVibe PortaTube.
For the purposes of this review - I used the R3 straight from the headphone out socket of both my iPhone 4 and Studio V3. I did not bother with amping them, as IMO they do not require an amp. The Studio 3 has a class A amp anyway - and has no issues driving my full sized cans (including the HD600 and DT880). In the time I've had the R3's I have probably already put around 20-30 hours listening time. In that time I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (I do not believe in 'night and day' burn-in). I will allow that the more time I've have spent with these IEM's, the better they have sounded to me. Personally I think this is brain burn in - but I will respect others choice if they interpret this as physical burn-in.
This is a purely subjective review - my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt - especially if it does not match your own experience.
Packaging and Accessories
The R3's arrived in a simple retail box - consisting of an outer case over a clear plastic inner - which shows the R3, but hides the supplied carry/storage case, and accessories. The specific sales messages on the box are very much straight forward and to the point:
- twin driver configuaration (tick, definitely true)
- bass and clarity (tick again, but not what I originally expected)
- rugged metal housing design (tick, definitely true)
The box also has a list of specifications on the side, as well as a list of included accessories. On the rear of the box (which is a fantastic touch) is an image of the driver design (cut-away image of the shell). They also have a blurb regarding the design, and what they were aiming for.
|Retail Box||Rear Of Box With Driver Design Detailed|
On opening the outer box, you're presented with the inner clear plastic 'tray' (which is pretty flimsy but funtional) the (fantastic) Brainwavz carry case, and the very shiny and rugged R3's. On opening the Brainwavz carry/storage case you discover the very good accessory range shipped with the R3s.
|Inside The Clear Packing||Included Accessories|
For accessories, included is the excellent semi-rigid red and black case (dimensions approx 90x70x45mm). The case is strong enough to fully protect your IEM's, has twin pockets on the inside for tips etc, and is very roomy (you'll see this last part does not apply to the R3 however - more on that later). I still have the original case from my R1s (impulse buy when they first came out) - and although the R1's were given to a friend, I kept the box - simply because I love the design.
|3.5 to 6.3mm Adaptor||Airline Adaptor Plug|
The R3 also comes with an excellent 3.5 to 6.3mm adaptor, two prong standard airline adaptor, warranty form, and a variety of tips. The build quality on both the adaptors is certainly excellent, and in keeping with the very solid build which seems to be a theme with the R3. The R3 warranty card must be a standard warranty/RMA form because it states 12 months on the form - but 24 months on the box. Something which may have to be fixed / clarified in future.
|Tip selection||Good Variety Of Types And Sizes|
The R3 also comes with a great range of different sized tips including triple flanges, dual flanges, single flange standard silicone (two types in S/M/L, and also some comply foam tips (which were originally in a sealed comply pouch).
All-in-all, the accessories included are highly impressive considering the price. I applaud Brainwavz for this.
(From the packaging)
|Drivers :||Twin dynamic drivers (10mm x 2)|
|Impedance :||32 ohm|
|Sensitivity :||95dB at 1 mW|
|Rated Input Power :||2 mW|
|Frequency response :||20hz-20 khz|
|Jack / cable :||3.5mm angled standard gold-plated jack, 130 cm cable|
Build / Fit / Comfort / Isolation
|Extremely Rugged Build||Aluminium Shell "Built Like A Tank"|
The R3 is built like a tank. The shell is an aluminium alloy. It's approx 1.3cm in diameter and 2.7 cm in length, with a further 1.2cm for the nozzle. The IEMs are a little heavier than standard IEMs (because of the shell size), but so far I haven't found the weight obtrusive in any way. The casing is very shiny, and has the Brainwavz logo printed on one side of each casing, with the word "Brainwavz" on the opposite side. At the tip of the IEM shell is a port (bass port?), and there is another one at the taper toward the strain relief. There is an interesting seam above this port where you can see the connecting wires between the two drivers. This is intentional, and Raz assures us that the wires are completely sealed. It all makes for a very interesting design. L&R markings are above this seam, and reasonably easy to find.
|Side Port And "Seam With Connecting Wire"||Bottom Port|
The cable is (IMO) the worst cable I've ever had with an IEM.
Let me start with the formable wire extending from the strain relief. This is quite rigid because the user is supposed to form them to his/her ears to make fit better. On my Shure SE535 - these are the perfect length of around 8.5cm. On the R3's, this is approx imately 16cm (or twice as long as it should be). I may as well state the obvious now - because this is one of the issues that has blighted an otherwise very interesting IEM ...... unless the designers were designing these for elves, aliens or very large primates - how could they mess this up so bad, when the rest of the design actually works reasonably well? This is not just bad, it's inexcusable. Did they
not try them before they released the design? The issue with the formable wire being so long is that the excess rubs against clothing, either dislodging the IEMs, or causing extremely bad cable noise. The only solution is to fold the excess wire (see photos).
|Ridiculously Long Forming Wire Section||Cable "Kinking" - Too Thick|
|R3 vs SE535 Forming Wire||Only Solution - Fold The Wire|
Next we have the cable itself. It's thick. It's very, very thick. To give you an idea of how thick - it's actually very close in diameter to the cable on my Beyer DT880s. The problem with this is that it's slightly rubbery, and it's very, very microphonic. Even worn over ear (which is pretty much compulsory with this IEM), I still get microphonics when moving. Not only that - when you roll the cable to store the IEMs, it's so big it doesn't fit easily in the case, and because of it's width, it has a lot of memory (ie it remains kinked). I've taken some photos to hopefully show the cable difference between the R3 (awful), my SE535 (as wide as I'd want to go), the DN-1000 (excellent) and HiSound Audio's "Living" earbuds. The 535 and DN-1000, even after rolling reasonably tight, smooth out to a completely straight line again. The Living is very light but still very tough, and only shows light kinking. The R3 with it's 'industrial' design kinks all over the place and will not straighten!
|Kinking Cable Unrolled||From Top = R3, SE535, DN-1000, Living|
|Coiled (From Left) DN-1000, SE535, R3||
Coiled (From Left) DN-1000, SE535, R3
OK - enough about the cable - just one final parting comment on it. If Brainwavz had spent even 5% of their time designing the cable properly, they would have had a potential winner here. Because of this oversight - IMO they don't. Despite it's very good sonics, I would not / could not recommend this IEM because of the cable - that is how bad it is.
|Coiled R3 In Carry Case||
"Fun" Closing The Lid !
Cable relief is very good at all points. The cable cinch is extremely similar to the design on my SE535 and works well. It's at about the limit though on size. Both it (and the splitter/cinch om my SE535) could be smaller. The plug is angled. Some will like it, some will not. Most angled plugs I've come across have the angle closer to 90 degress (ie right angles). This one is quite high. I don't mind either way.
|Splitter (similar to 535)||
I have one canal slightly different to the other one (my right is very slightly smaller) - so I tend to find that single silicon flanges don't fit overly well. The included dual flanges and triple flanges weren't too bad - but I found that another dual flange I had (slightly different design) allowed me the best overall fit. The complies are almost a perfect fit (don't seal 100%), but were easy to insert, and the most comfortable. I also tried Monster gel tips which gave me the best isolation, but became uncomfortable after a while. I'm pretty sure a larger comply tip would be the best solution overall for me - but in the meantime the dual-flanges are a nice compromise.
|Comply Tips + Monster Gel Tips||
Once the R3 are correctly inserted, I find them (despite the 'funky design') to be pretty comfortable for short to medium listening sessions. However the (insert appropriate expletive here!) cable does get sore after a while (this never happens with my Shures). In the R3s defense - it's probably because of the folds I have in the ear guides to shorten them. They do however sit flush enough with my ears that I can easily lie down with them still in place - and I think I'd have no issues sleeping with the R3 still intact (if the cable was modified). They are designed in such a way that they can only really be worn cable over ear.
As far as isolation goes - these are 'OK'. They aren't as good as the Shures - but I think this is very much tip dependent. It should be good at eliminating most ambient noise - or at least mitigating it.
So are the sonics worth the hassles of the sub-standard cable ……… ?
The following is what I hear from the R3. YMMV – and probably will – as my tastes are likely different to yours (read the preamble I gave earlier for a baseline).
For this I’m using my normal tracks: Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” and Dire Strait’s “Sultans of Swing” as there is a lot of micro detail in both tracks, and the recording quality for both is excellent.
The B3 displays very good detail with a definite (but polite) crispness, and enough balance so that detail is present without having the treble overly highlighted. Cymbals are nicely present – but it's not overdone, and I'm not detecting sibilance.
Sound-stage & Imaging
For this I use a binaural recording – Amber Rubarth “Sessions From The 17th Ward” - “Tundra”. I use this because it’s a pretty simple way to get comparative data on sound-stage. I also use some recorded live performances (including tracks from Joe Bonamassa’s “An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House”).
IMO it’s usually difficult to get a reasonable stage size from an inner ear monitor. The stage is usually quite small / close – with an average impression of space. With the R3 there is an impression of being slightly out of your head. These are surprisingly spacious, not to DN-1000 standards, but better than the intimate stage of the Shures. This is particularly strange with a slightly 'mid-forward' IEM The R3 shows reasonable separation and the imaging seems pretty accurate and precise.
Switching to Bonamassa – and the R3 this time is not quite as spacious - but still sounds very good with this exceptional live blues album. The acoustics of the Vienna Opera Hall are well represented and there is some perception of space - size (width) mainly, but depth is not as well represented.
Rather than referencing tracks – I’m going to give general impressions – as I’ve tried to listen to as many varied genres as I can.
The R3 actually has a very articulate top end with just enough sparkle to make it interesting. There is definitely a crispness to them – but it is not overdone, and with my music, has never bordered on sibilance. I'm finding the top end has excellent clarity - but it's not spotlit like some IEMs. My only issue is with the cohesion between upper and lower mids. Lower mids sound excellent (Bonamassa, Pearl Jam, any male vocals sound perfect). But with some of my female vocalists, the upper mids sound a little too warm (almost contrived). I used Equaliser on my iPhone and gave them a very small boost around 3-5K (only needed about 3dB) and balance was restored.
This could be just my personal preference at play so YMMV.
The mid-range is almost how I like it – relatively balanced with the rest of the spectrum – yet still full and rich. The mids slightly forward. Vocals are very clear – and acoustic guitar has a nice crunch to it. Timbre is reasonable. Male vocals are realistic - with female vocals being a touch on the warm (darkish) side. Bonamassa's live album from the Vienna Opera House was particularly good with the R3. The guitar had nice bite and was well focussed, and Joe's vocals blended really nicely.
The R3 was a surprise to me. I was expecting these to have some good bass - but was expecting more quantity than quality with dual dynamics. The bass is definitely there, and actually very well defined. Almost reminded me more of a BA than a dynamic. My standard test now for bass quantity is Lorde’s new release “Royals” (local girl on the rise internationally) – mainly because the bass absolutely reaches low and has quite a bit of power. It handled the bass very well – good quality and not bad on quantity - without a lot of boominess. I'm pretty impressed with the quality of the bass overall - and the quantity is actually OK in my books - but I can imagine
that for some it may not be enough. I listened to Porcupine Tree's "Trains" as it has a nice mix of cymbal, snare, with intertwining bass guitar - and everything sounded nicely coherent. Thumbs up to Brainwavz.
The R3 is easily powered out of my iPhone4, and on most tracks I am around 50% on the volume slider. With the StudioV3 - the volume is around 11. Comparatively - my Shures need less power. The Studio V3 does have a class A amp - but it's hard to say if my preference for the Studio over the iPhone4 is the extra power at play, or if it is simply that the Studio V3 sounds better. Anyway - I digress. You're not going to need external amplification with the R3 unless you have a very weak source, or if it has a high output impedance.
What About Response To EQ?
IMO - the R3 don't need a lot of tweaking - for my tastes, just a slight lift in the 3-5K area. They responded extremely well to this slight bump, and even elevating the bass worked well.
Quick Comparisons With Other IEMs
For this I'm going to simply use two contrasting tracks (no EQ) - Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter" and Beth Orton's "Magpie" - not because they're reference or anything - but more because I know and love these two tracks, plus they give two very different styles and vocal ranges. These four IEMs are in different price brackets - but all have strengths and all are highly rated in my books.
- HiSound Audio's BA-100 = extremely well balanced, vocals slightly forward, very clear. Very comfortable and lightweight though - and the more you listen to them, the better they sound.
- Shure SE535 Ltd Ed = well balanced, but with much clearer and more upfront vocals. Very full, very clear, sublime really. These do vocals incredibly well. Bass is balanced and textured but sometimes just doesn't have the impact I'd like.
- Dunu DN-1000 = very clear, mids not as foward, the most balanced of the four - definitely not as bright as the Shures, yet still very clear. Vocals are great, almost as good as the Shures, bass is better.
- Brainwavz R3 - definitely the darkest mids of the four with this track. Bass is lighter compared to the DN-1000, similar to the Shures for quantity. Yet still a very nice presentation overall.
- HiSound Audio's BA-100 = again very clear, but with this track, slightly thinner and brighter than the recording should be. Vocals are superb though.
- Shure SE535 Ltd Ed = simply incredible. The balance, separation and timbre makes me realise just why these are worth the money I paid for them. Breath-taking with this track.
- Dunu DN-1000 = again very clear, and again mids not as foward. Yet again the most balanced of the four. Vocals are great, almost as good as the Shures, but doesn't have quite the timbre and emotion.
- Brainwavz R3 - wonderfully clear. Balance is really good with nothing sounding out of place. Could listen to this for hours. Doesn't have the emotion of the Shures, or quite have the overall cohesion of the DN-1000
By track ranking (audio):
Magpie : DN-1000 > SE535 > BA-100 > R3
EWBTC : SE535 = DN-1000 > R3 > BA-100
DN-1000 > BA100 > SE535 > R3
I'd really been looking forward to this IEM as soon as I saw the design, and read some of the glowing reviews. What I'm surprised about is why more hasn't been said regarding the design of the cable.
The R3 has a very pleasant signature, very clear and detailed (almost more like a BA than a dynamic), with a slightly better than normal sound-stage presentation. The odd shape is actually quite comfortable once you get the right tip - although that will be an issue for some (I'm still going to try the slightly larger complies).
Sonically I think there is a very slight mismatch between lower and upper mids (would love to see if anything shows up on a frequency chart) - leaving female vocals sounding slightly unnatural to me. This was easily fixed with EQ. Even without EQ though - the R3 is a very pleasant sounding IEM to listen to.
My issue lies with the cable design which I can't really put a positive spin on. It's awful.
Sonically these are very good for their price. Normally I'd have no problem recommending these to others - however for my personal taste the BA-100 are at least on par (if not better) with their single full range driver and much better comfort. In their current form (with the current cable set-up) I simply cannot recommend the Brainwavz R3 to anyone, let alone family and friends.
Recommendations to Brainwavz
Here is a very short list of what I’d change if I could. Hopefully this may be helpful to you Raz.
- Lose the memory wire - you don't need it. Include detachable ear guides if you want - they would be more practical.
- The cable needs to be far thinner and made of better material. I'd also make the splitter just a little smaller.
Once again Raz – thanks for the opportunity to try these. I'm sorry I can't be more positive. If Brainwavz do decide to change the cable, can you let me know? With a better cable, and at their current price point - these could be a very good buy.