Pros: flat response, plenty of air, remarkable detail retrieval, very fast and clean, exciting analytical sound
Cons: Lacks sub-bass presence, lacks mid-range warmth, uninvolving sound, forgettable experience overall
The DBA-02 Mk IIs are getting a lot of the same fame and respect their initial version siblings got. While initial comparisons suggest the Mk IIs are not as distinctive as the originals in shining with as fearless a midrange and treble, the major sonic character seems to have carried. (I never heard the originals but have gathered this from others' opinions.) And so has the popular love for the in-ears also carried.
I am here to counterbalance that sentiment.
Why? Because, while the Fischers certainly tick off many of the boxes that make an earphone into a hi-fi product, they miss a couple important ones. Namely, the ones that make an earphone an enjoyable musical experience.
So, as you read my review below, I DO try to integrate some objective evaluations of the overall ability and nature of the Fischer IEMS. But, as I have ultimately estimated them on the negative side, what you will likely gather from my words is mostly my disappointment. I WANTED to love the Fischers, but their cold and incomplete sound (people call it analytic; I tend to consider it missing certain elements) made me unable to do so.
When I first got these, I was shocked to hear a sound that was completely foundationless, with nothing below 120hz worth mentioning. People tend to believe that balanced armature designs do not change with burn-in; if this is the case, then what was being burned-in must have been the crossover. SOMETHING significant within changed, as, after a good dozen hours of use, the Fischer sound went from an empty, echoey hall to a full-range sound with bass, mids and treble, all of it. Yet, it never got to a point with which I could be satisfied.
While I knew going with a balanced armature setup was going to provide a less physical, more ethereal kind of listening experience, I've been a little surprised to discover the low bass impact of this flavor of IEM (as represented by the DBA-02 Mk IIs). I do enjoy bass, but not because I'm a basshead. I enjoy bass because with an aesthetic object as complicated as music - timbre, pacing, dynamics, rhythm, consonance, dissonance, and, of course, different musical notes - everything matters. It all counts. I got into high fidelity because some preliminary exposures to better sound showed me this fact. The more elements of music you experience, the more you enjoy it. And so I launched into this hobby to get as much of the musical experience reproduced by my home electronics as possible.
I was happy that the bass finally actually filled out. Yet the bass on the Fischers is underwhelming. I'm not looking for a cheap-subwoofer-in-a-broken-down-car kind of bass. I am looking for bass that is able to move up and down the scales as the music to which I listen also moves--and also sustain the volumes it was meant to be played at. I'm disappointed at the completely absent low notes that define the musical drive in something like Eric Clapton's acoustic version of Tears in Heaven. You don't quite get him tapping his foot on stage or the rich bass drum that is recorded way down low and is meant to be everpresent throughout the track. Burial (sure this is electronica, but it's not bass "heavy" at all) has a track, Versus, which has fully two, highly distinct bass lines, which snake around and progress in a complicated tango. On the Mk IIs I can only hear one. Piano music as well suffers from a lack of body, as the warmth and weight of certain notes are robbed of their richness while the lowest registers simply disappear. The Fischers can reproduce some of the resonance of the lower piano, but they can't actually do the lower piano.
This is a problem. In this passion we call audiophilia, we live for hearing as much of the music as possible - ethereal concepts like decay or air define us, but only because gratuitous concepts like bass should be assumed present. The Fischer's ability to make music is respectable, and should you buy these, you will not miss anything critical. Yet, there is a lot of hype and fetishizing over the DBA-02s or the Mk II revisions, and I think it is undue.
In fact, one thing that I like about them is that the abated bass means that on pop, or other tracks where the bass was engineered to be horribly overbalanced, the DBA-02 mkIIs reign that in and smooths out those artificial thumps that normally give me a headache. In that case, the result with pop, hip-hop, or dance music is something you might finally call "music," and I applaud these for that. But my final estimation with the Fischers is that the overall sonic balance here leans away from bass and therefore from embodied presence.
The mids of the DBA-02 Mk IIs are forward and slightly bright. They are aggressive reproducers of detail, and I have been pleasantly surprised to suddenly be faced with obvious details in the music I had been missing before. This has been their greatest strength, excelling at detail retrieval in a way I hadn't heard from significantly more expensive sytems. I owe a heavy debt to the Mk IIs for exposing quiet notes, delicate sounds, hidden harmonies, and accidental artifacts that I just didn't know were there. Moreover, they project this new material so clearly that I feel like an idot for not having heard it before. The truth is, however, my other equipment has been deficient for not being able to pick up these very obvious cues.
For an in-your-face midrange, the MK IIs can't be beat. But at the same time, I can't say the Mk IIs are unequivocally good at vocals.
I find the Mk II to be great for separating congested vocals, but their upper-mid brightness can sometimes defeat this one great strength of the Mk IIs. To whit, listening just earlier today to Radiohead's In Rainbows album, which is not exactly Linn-records quality but a very great album in terms of SQ, I suddenly found Thom Yorke's higher-pitched words to run all together. This has to do with what some people are calling "flatness" of response - and, to be sure, the Fischers are mostly flat - but which can also feed into a mid-range fowardness. So a higher-pitched male like Thom Yorke sounds less like a higher-pitched male, and more like a manufactured recording. Beyond this, as I said, his words become a little indistinguishable as the upper-mid energy takes over his singing and blurs the lyrical stream.
Now, these are of a COMPLETELY different sound signature and style in every way, BUT, to compare the ultimate musical experience from a different headphone, this has not been a problem with my Ultrasone PRO-2500. (Nor is this a problem with an in-room stereo.) These full-size, open-back cans allow Thom Yorke's very mumbly parsing of words to still come out as parsing and lazy enunciation. Meaning I can hear his syllables and make out the lyrics. Soundstage-wise, there is also a little bit of breathing room between me and his mouth, which is pretty obviously supposed to be there. This is due to the infamous, often-hated midrange recession caused by the S-LOGIC driver implementation. (The design to offset drivers relative to ear holes makes the midrange sound pulled way back and quiet, regardless of whether or not the driver's actual response is flatter through these areas.) The important point is that, while vocals here are recessed, I am nonetheless able to decipher syllables and cadence much more easily through the Ultrasones than with the Fischers.
Moreover, on the Mk IIs some voices sound a little harsh and inorganic. I noticed this even moreso with regards to Fiona Apple's When the Pawn..., which is much older than In Rainbows and not engineered as well. Listening to these vocalists on the PRO-2500s (which are not "flat" by any means), in their own ways each singer comes across as soulful, with some of their ulullating penetrating my inner humanity. Switching over to the Fischers, the quality of their voices drops as if each had suddenly stopped recording on their regular microphones and dropped down a notch or two to an inferior microphone. Part of this difference is due to the artificial warmth of the Ultrasones, which comes from a lot of uneven, powerful bass and adds a lot of chest cavity resonance to their singing. Listening to the Fischers, thankfully, has enlightened me to this fact. But the converse is the undue brightness of the Fischers. With a high-pitched voice like Thom Yorke's, some upper-mid harshness intrudes and makes him sound less stirring and more irritating. Fiona Apple's deep, melancholic brooding takes on a hint of being annoyed, rather than moved by her inner turmoil. Also, her singing, which is already recorded to sound close and intimate, becomes a little bit like a slap in the face with the midrange fowardness. Combine that with the subpar mastering of this 1990s CD, and what should be a rich and involving experience gets turned into a matter-of-fact projection of a recorded voice.
But, these are particular cases where I felt let down by the Fischers' vocal reproduction. Most of the time, I either approve, or downright enjoy, what they do for extracting midrange subtleties. For example, I had never before realized just how damned lazy Sia is when singing "Breathe Me" - she is hardly producing any real vocals for a surprising length of time in the song, letting her lazy breathing and tongue and lips make a lot of the real sound picked up in the recording. Being able to extract that kind of detail is amazing - also to the benefit of acoustic guitar and drum kits - and is what makes listening to IEMs such a value proposition over other types of hi-fi systems. Additionally, male vocals sang at a middle-of-the-range pitch come across smooth, clear, and just terrific. This is still not honey-like viscosity, but more like a really great wine with a little spice and bite and a lot of complexity. If it were a red wine, it would be a pinot noir; if it were white it would be a high-end chardonnay. Drinkable, but striking to the tongue. Listenable, but striking to the ears.
When I want to think about what's good in the Fischer's, I think of what they do with Dave Matthews Band. The clarity, brightness, and uncanny ability to sort through layers of simultaneous instruments means that music as energetic and complicated as Dave Matthews' finally gets reproduced in its fully glory. It's an amazing accomplishment, one that I didn't realize I hadn't yet been exposed to. In fact, I owe the Fischer's a lot for teaching me how much more music is happening in the upper registers than I previously knew. Music with lots of chiming, plucking, and high-hatting will come across brilliantly. Music requiring detail, such as complicated instrumentals, or vocals recorded with lots of detail in the throat and tonality of the voice, can be outstanding. When I play music with lots of groove or bombast, I am underwhelmed; but when I play music recorded with lots of microdetails (breathing, sighing, delicate strokes of whatever instrument) then I am enchanted.
So are these good for vocals? If you want to hear the power of a singer using all her chest and throat to declare her emotions in a cathartic relase, then no. There are better options. Go with something warmer. (Meaning, go with something with an upper bass emphasis that intrudes on and fills out the midrange enough to make the singers leave the recording and step into the room with you.) But if you want to hear whispers, licking lips, running out of breath and quiet exhalations, then, to be honest, I personally have not heard better, even out of some more expensive equipment. With the midrange, I can't say the Mk IIs have won my love, but they have certainly won my respect.
I made most talk about the midrange to describe vocals because I felt like that is the one "instrument" the Fischers do not alter too much by their clear treble. Also, I made some notes above on what pianos sound like through the Mk IIs (overall, a bit glassy and less than seductive). For things like guitars (amped or acoustic), violins, or synthesized mids where there is a good deal of harmonic complexity, the Fischers are great. Their mid-fowardness, with the really balanced and level treble, make acoustic guitars especially exciting. Granted, the brightness makes those same guitars just a bit artificially exciting, but the liveliness is fun. A lot of this also comes from the treble, which is smooth all the way to the top, crystal clear, and never harsh. The Fischers' treble is the one part of the sound signature which I accept unequivocally. In fact, it's hard for me to say just what is good or bad in it, because it is so balanced between being audible, without being overbearing, that I just have to conclude it to be faultless. Cymbals, triangles, and other high-pitched percussion are accurate and enjoyable, and the Fischers will reproduce them to the level of perfection the recording and your ancillary equipment allow.
Other intangible acoustic elements:
In the sum, this area or combination of areas is also where the Fischers excel.
I can't really give a thumbs up on the timbre - like I've said, while percussion and guitar can sound realistic and exciting, vocals, violin and piano are just a little too hollow and mechanical for me to accept. Timbre overall is thus acceptable, but not laudable.
With the aggressive midrange detail and flawless treble clarity and extension, however, the DBA-02 Mk IIs make for a great spatial presentation. They don't layer all the instruments distinctly, but they provide intimacy and centeredness when necessary, and a wide space to inhabit when called for. There is no football stadium being presented here, but rather an intimate concert hall where music has space to stretch and grow before making it to your ears. With the exception of certain intimate vocals, as noted above (where the midrange harshness can put the singer's lips right in front of your eyelids), instrumental music has a chance to develop in a respectable size of space so as not to make you feel like you are choking on the guitar or drum kit.
The clarity and articulation of the earphones is also noteworthy. Being partly a consequence of the frequency response - the reserved bass and pronounced mids - but especially of the speed of the two armatures, the Mk IIs are very transparent-sounding. Every beat, sustained note, or word comes to you through a glass of water, chilled with just a couple ice cubes. Their ability to start and stop on a dime, picking out every cue, separating every twinkle, highlighting the tiny details, is rewarding and certainly worth my respect. They do light taps, cymbals, echoes and licking lips with striking clarity.
Last, physical design:
The design is sleek and understated. You won't stand out in a crowd for wearing these, and neither will you look like a doofus inducted into some esoteric technical subculture of hi-fi-dom (which is a style I personally go for, so long as its more "nerdy hi-fi" than "gross what-is-that-on-your-head?"). The isolation is really good for most purposes, and will block out all but the loudest buzzers, alarms, crowds, or engines. There is some microphonics on the cable - which by the way, starts life as a very soft rubber but is already beginning to plasticize a little - but this being an over-the-ear-only design, there is not too much energy transfer during most activities.
I am a little disappointed by the fit. As you will see, while I can generally live with a mediocre fit, in the case of these Fischers this has become a crucial shortcoming for me. The only included tips that will stay in my ears are the included triple-flanges, which are not that comfortable for extended listening such as I do at work. Despite a wide assortment of single-flange tips included with the Mk IIs, I have not found a pair that stay securely inside my ear without needing me to fuss over them ever few seconds. And they definitely fall out persistently with any exercise.
This is a problem in that the Mk IIs require an especially secure fit inside your ear to sound their best. Without deep insertion, the flat, unsatisfying bass becomes even more abated to the point of being nonexistence. Vocals also become vacant and lifeless - not enjoyable in the least - without deep insertion. The nozzles could be a little longer to help gain deep insertion. With the rather iffy and unreliable fit I've had, there is a direct, negative impact on the sound quality. They NEED good insertion, and desperately.
In fact, my final judgment of the DBA-02 Mk IIs is negative, and that is crucially due to this one aspect. The sound, appearance, and build quality range from good to great, and the fit itself I might call "good" as well. But, because fit has been a little unreliable for me, having a direct negative impact on my experience with sound and comfort - in my final estimation of the product I have to give a negative. Where I have mixed feelings about the Fischer Audio's abilities to present music -- great detail retrieval, great speed and clarity, but reserved bass and lifeless vocals -- this small element upsets the crucial balance of making a product I can use to my satisfaction everyday. In the end, this small usability factor has lead me to look elsewhere for sonic nirvana.