Pros: Size, weight, cable (good), value, balanced sound, nice carry case, good fit
Cons: No chin slider, build quality deteriorates over time, overall sound is a little thin
Introducing HiSound Audio's BA100 Balanced Armature IEM
After reviewing HSA's E212 and Crystal IEMs, and PAA-1Pro and Living buds, Jack from HSA approached me and asked if I'd like a review sample of their new BA100 Balanced Armature IEM. Naturally I jumped at the chance – as for the most part I have enjoyed both their IEMs and earbuds, and I was intrigued as to their next offering. They arrived just on a week ago – and in that time I’ve logged a lot of hours with them. I’ve listed price at USD $59 (available at Noisy Motel for this price) – however this is not what I paid for them (they are a review sample).
I was provided the HSA BA100 as a review sample. I am in no way affiliated with HiSound Audio - and this review is my honest opinion of the BA100. I would like to thank Jack and the HiSound Audio team 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 (i-devices) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > coax > NFB-12 > LD MKIV > HP). My main headphones at the time of writing are the Shure SRH1840, Senn HD600, AKG K702, Shure SRH840 and Shure SE535 Ltd Ed. IEMs. I have auditioned quite a few entry and mid-tier cans, but have yet to hear/own any flagships other than the SRH1840 (at current time of writing this review).
I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical/opera and jazz to grunge and hard-rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, 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 HSA BA100 straight from the headphone out socket of both my iPhone 4 and iPod Touch G4. I did not bother with amping them, as IMO they do not require an amp – and the likelihood is that HiSound have targeted them toward an audience who may not use additional amping anyway. By now I have probably notched up around 30-40 hours listening on the BA100. 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 continue to sound 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 packaging is once again ideal for a retail presentation - an easy to display rectangular retail box - with an 'average' footprint. I quite like the colouring of this particular one – matches the IEMs really – understated but still modern. The specific sales blurbs / description on the box once again are interesting (all of HSA’s boxes have a different message for each model). The BA100’s claim is "BA Drivers – Incridible Sound " (slight spelling mistake there HSA). It also has the usual HSA claim - “audiophile grade earphones” with “unbeatable sound quality”. On the rear of the box we have one more descriptor (Balanced Armature Tech – The Most Detailed Sound), and also the technical and physical specifications.
For accessories, included is once again an excellent semi-rigid soft-shell case (dimensions approx 75x75x30mm). It is an ideal size for the IEMs - and has inner pouch for spare tips etc. I’m a big fan of this pouch. It is large enough to hold the IEMs safely – yet small enough to fit in a front pocket.
It also comes with a rubbery 'fish' cable management tool – every review sample I’ve had has included this for each of the different models. As per my other HSA reviews, I'm still not really too sure what to make of this. I have tried it - but it's terribly cumbersome. I can't really see anyone actually using this.
The BA100 comes with a 3 different sized silicone tips (large, medium and small) but this time, I’m happy to say, the tips are outstanding. They are a thicker material – and others have described them as being similar to the Ortofon tips. This is the first time I’ve had the stocks tips from an HSA product fit me really well – so big thumbs up. The tip range included (because of the quality) is adequate IMO, but once again I would have liked to see some sort of foam tip (personal preference). There is also a shirt clip, and a warranty written entirely in Chinese.
(From HiSound Audio)
Type : Balanced Armature, Inner Ear Monitor (IEM)
Driver size: ~ 3.2 x 5.7mm
Impedance : 36 Ω
Sensitivity : 109db
Frequency response : 20hz-20 khz
Jack / cable : 3.5mm angled 4 pole jack, 124 cm cable with button control and mic
Build / Fit / Comfort / Isolation / 'Style'
The BA-100 is a very small but incredibly stylish looking IEM. I was intrigued with the body of the BA-100, as it looks at first glance like a metallic (copper?) interior and a plastic shell. But although they look a lot like shiny plastic – they don’t feel like it. So I emailed Jack – and the reply I received was that they use an aluminium alloy for the entire chamber. This then undergoes a proprietary treatment which leaves the exterior looking and feeling similar to ceramic. Anyway – needless to say that the build quality appears excellent. I have to say as well that the white colour scheme is appealing. I immediately thought ‘i-buds’ when I first saw them – but the quality of the finish and materials is far superior to the Apple i-buds. After a while the colour has really grown on me – they are clean and stylish.
EDIT July 2014 - over time the paint has started to lift and chip, and the cable (whilst still intact) looks like it may pull away from the housing over time. These are not quite built as well as first suspected. Pity - because I for the price, I do enjoy their sound signature.
Again (similar to other HSA products) – the L & R markings on the metal chamber of each earpiece are still quite small – but this time it is easy to tell the earpieces apart (the microphone + controls are on the right hand side). The only other writing on the chamber is the product name “BA 100”. There is a small hole (bass vent?) close to the exit point for the cable. I have noted on promotional shots (possibly later iteration) of the more colourful BA100, that there are 3 vents shown. Mine definitely only has one each side. In each of the nozzles there is a very fine mesh filter (unfortunately my camera didn't capture this well - even on macro mode).
There is acceptable strain relief at the shells (but it is rigid – possibly needs some relief with a little flex. The 3.5mm plug is angled (cable at about 40-45 deg from plug), looks relatively sturdy, and includes strain relief. It is a 4 pole plug – giving functionality to the mic and cable button control. The cable split has strain relief at the apex of the V. There is no chin slider though. This to me is a real shame – as this can really help with fit – especially for listening while on the go. The BA100 are designed to be worn over-ear – but could easily be worn hanging down if so desired.
The cable is interesting. It looks very generic and ‘rubbery’ – but that’s not how it feels, or acts. The main part of the cable is of reasonable thickness – but the surface is quite smooth and soft. It doesn’t seem to retain a lot of memory (a plus in my books), and does not easily tangle if wound for storage properly. I asked Jack what it was made of and received this reply:
“The material is high quality OFC (oxygen free copper). Yes, we hope to have the best user-friendly cable with durable design and not only flash.”
So I’m still not sure what the outer material is – but I like it. Microphonics are low when worn over ear – slightly worse when worn down.
The cable comes with an integrated mic and single button toward the right side earpiece. I tested this with my iphone, and when taking a call the audio was clear – both for myself and the caller. The button answers the phone with one click, and hangs up with another click. I didn’t experience much of that hollow “tin shed” feeling when taking a call via the cable – so this particular set-up is pretty good.
The other nice thing about the button set-up when playing music (with i-devices anyway) is the added functionality. One click plays, or pauses. Two quick clicks advances to the next song. Three quick clicks goes back one track. Pressing and holding activates the voice commands on the iphone. Unfortunately I haven’t set mine up yet (voice commands) – but I can see how this would be very handy (eg calling without taking iPhone out of pocket etc). The only thing missing is a volume control – but that is nit-picking really, especially as the other functionality is so good.
As far as comfort goes, like their previous IEMs – these are very small, very light, and disappear into my ears. It would be possible to sleep with these in. For my ears, they do not protrude past the outer ear.
The fit (for me) is excellent. I’m using the stock large tips, and they are extremely comfortable and give me an excellent good seal. There was no sign of driver flex (I don’t think you can get flex with a BA unit anyway as they are a sealed unit). The nozzle itself is quite long – so you have the choice of using the tips at the end of the nozzle (leaving a long stem), or further down. Personally I preferred further down the stem.
Isolation is very good for an IEM. Superior to the other HSA IEM’s I’ve reviewed – but still falling marginally short of my Shure SE535’s. I’d imagine with the right foam tips, that they’d be on par, or close to it.
Overall extremely positive on build and fit – no foam tips or chin slider would be my only grizzles – and I guess that is simply personal preference.
Notes On The Driver
I’ve had a good chance to correspond with Jack regarding the BA100 – and what I have learnt has impressed me. Whilst HSA don’t build the BA units, they have designed them from the ground up – and they contain some proprietary HSA internals which are evidently only being used (to the best of Jack’s knowledge) by themselves. The normal fault rate (ie the ones that are not selected for the finished product) for BA drivers can be as high as 2/3, and there can be an up to 6dB imbalance between generic type drivers. HSA’s BA100 (with its proprietary designed internal tech) has a targeted matching of 1dB or lower. Production so far is actually averaging 0.2dB – and this helps HSA with a far lower fault rate – and therefore lower manufacturing cost. The other advantage – the one that really matters – is the sonic advantages from such closely matched drivers. The picture (below) is taken by Jack and shows the driver matching.
Jack also tells me that he is aware of only 5 BA driver families that have the manufacturers name on them (the rest are generic). They are Sonion, Knowles, Sony, Cresyn – and now HiSound Audio. This speaks volumes regarding the quality of the finished drivers.
So what do these little suckers sound like ……… ?
The following is what I hear from the BA100. 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 both Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” and Dire Strait’s “Sultans of Swing” as there is a lot of micro detail in both track, and the recording quality for both is excellent.
Edited July 2014 (after more comparisons with sub $100 IEMs from RockJaw and Brainwavz S5)
The BA100 displays good detail with a nice crispness, and good balance so that detail is present without having the treble overly highlighted. The more I wear these, and my ears get accustomed to their signature – the more they feel natural. It’s only when switching to my 535 Ltd Eds that I realise that the Shures to me are an additional step up in clarity and detail. But for their price point – the BA100 show a level of clarity that is very good for a sub $100 offering (without an over the top treble glare). The one thing I noticed in switching between the 535 and BA100 was that the BA100 may have a slight treble roll off in the upper registers. Cymbals are still fully present – but they are more apparent with the Shures. I have no complaints about the BA100 though. The overall presentation of detail for an IEM in this price bracket is very good.
Sound-stage & Imaging
For this I use a binaural recording – Amber Rubarth “Sessions Form 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 always going to be difficult to get a reasonable stage size from an inner ear monitor. The stage is quite small / close – with an average impression of space. The Shures and the BA100 are quite closely matched with the track “Tundra”. Both show good separation and imaging is pretty accurate with both. Switching to Bonamassa – and both IEM’s once again really excel with this exceptional live blues album. The acoustics of the Vienna Opera Hall are well represented by both the BA100 and the SE535 – and once again I’d be hard put to find a winner on pure stage and imaging. The only thing that draws me to the Shures is the way they pull you into the music – they are just a touch more engaging to me (able to convey more emotion). What continues to stagger me though is the way the BA100 performs against an IEM over 6 times its price.
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 BA100 actually has a nice top end with just enough shimmer to make it interesting. Whilst they have a slight crispness to them – it is not overdone, and never borders on sibilance. If anything it is quite a polite treble. It is actually very pleasant and in extremely good balance with both upper and lower mids. Cymbals are heard –but not over emphasised. If anything I’d describe the treble as sweet and very smooth. Treble heads and extreme detail freaks – look elsewhere – these may not be for you. For my personal preference I would have liked just a little more clarity and shimmer – but once again that is personal preference only, and easily fixed with EQ.
The mid-range is how I like it – nicely balanced with the rest of the spectrum. If anything – maybe slightly forward just a touch. Vocals are wonderfully clear – and acoustic guitar has a nice edge to it. Both male and female vocals are realistic. The more I use the BA100 the more I really like them. I concentrated for a while on some really good acoustic – first Nil’s Lofgren’s acoustic live. What I loved was the naturalness of the presentation. The guitar sounds the way it’s supposed to with good bite – without being showy. Another album I really love is Seether’s “One Cold Night” acoustic album. Once again, a very balanced presentation – one that I can listen to for hours. They really do nothing wrong.
Edit July 2014 - after a lot of comparison with other IEMs in a similar bracket, I've come to realise that the BA-100 son't have the fullness throughout the mid-range that I initially thought. When I use them exclusively, and my ears adjust accordingly, then everything seems perfectly balanced. But comparing directly with another IEM like RockJaw's Alpha Genus, or Brainwavz's S5, and I've begun to realise that the BA-100 does sound a little thin through the mid-range. Despite this - I still enjoy the overall tonality.
The BA100 was again a surprise to me. I was expecting a full range BA to possibly be either on the bassy side, or be too bass light. But the overall balance of these IEMs is quiet superb for the price. What I have found is that the bass is nicely balanced and textured. It’s not overdone – thumps when it needs to, and also reaches reasonably low. To my ears, it doesn’t seem to have elevated mid-bass (maybe slightly above dead-flat – but never loose or flabby). There is a very slight boom on a few tracks that the Shure doesn’t have – and it’s in the bass line that the Shure separates itself just a little.
Don’t get me wrong the BA100’s bass is articulate and present where it should be. It’s just that the Shure is noticeably better – as it should be.
Once again I tried Lorde’s new release “Royals” (16 yo NZ 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 quantity.
While I was doing this I had a rapid switch with the 535, and I’d estimate the BA100 has very similar quantity (maybe very slight roll-off compared to the Shures). It also just doesn’t have quite the same texture or clarity.
Of the albums I tried (and I’ve listened to a lot in the last week to try and get a good feeling for these IEMs) – the most enjoyable bass for me (overall cohesion) was definitely the Seether album. It was captivating – and once again I’ll refer to that term ‘balanced’ and also ‘natural’. Another one that stood out was Porcupine Tree’s “In Absentia” (Trains was sublime).
The BA100 is easily powered out of an iPod Touch G4 or iPhone4, and on most tracks I am under 50% on the volume slider. I did try them out of my desktop set-up (NFB-12). Had to muck around a little to get both channels - because of the 4 pole connector – but eventually got it working. No real difference that I noticed. Again YMMV.
What About Response To EQ?
For me – these are bordering on perfect without thinking about using EQ. Overall they are very balanced – and if anything remind me in some ways of the HD600 (without the mid-bass) - but also slightly lacking the HD600’s overall realism. But the resemblance is there. I did give them a little lift in the upper mids and highs using the Equaliser app – and they responded extremely well.
I couldn’t find a lot to fault the BA100. IMO it punches well above its current price of $60-$70. It appears to be an incredibly well built IEM (modified rating July 2014 - build not as good as first indicated), that is light weight, comfortable – and sounds (to me) pretty good for the price.
Sonically it is really well balanced – and has a nice natural sound with nothing over emphasised, or missing. My one critique sonically (and this is my own preference) would have been for a touch more sparkle – but that is easily achieved with EQ. I have found the midrange to be on the thin side in comparison with other IEMs.
What makes it more intriguing is the fact that they design their own drivers from the ground up. This bodes well for future offerings, as if they can produce something this classy for this price – then I’ll be very interested to see what they can do in the coming years with newer models.
I would have no hesitation recommending these IEMs to family and friends – and I guess that says a lot for how highly I regard them. Whilst I’ve found other HSA offerings to fall slightly short in fit, design, or sonically – these just really tick all my boxes.
They won’t dethrone my 535’s – somehow the Shures just convey a touch more raw emotion that pulls me into the music – where the BA100 sit a little back (are maybe a little more polite). But what the BA100 does bring to the table is good balance and tonality for a BA of this price.
Once again before I completed this review – I did a side-by-side with my SE535s. Whilst the 535’s remain a step above (especially on clarity and definition) – if I was taking into account value, the BA100 would kill the 535s. For someone on a budget – these are a no brainer.
July 2014 - unfortunately I no longer have the SE535 for comparison - but I have A/B'd them with the sub $100 Brainwavz S5 and Rockjaw Alpha Genus, and both would now get the nod from me over the BA100. I still remain interested to see what HSA can do with their next single BA IEM. With a little more fullness, and better quality finish, they would definitely deliver something I'd be interested in.
Recommendations to HiSound Audio
Here is a very short list of what I’d change if I could. Hopefully this may be helpful to you Jack.
Again - lose the fish. I know it’s probably going to stay because of the carton designs. But it really is useless.
Add a chin slider – please. Really – they should have one.
July 2014 - although they are not an expensive IEM, more care needs to be taken with the coating over the body, and also the cable rubber connecting to the body of the IEM.
Once again Jack – thanks for the opportunity with these. If you do a more expensive offering in the future (dual driver etc) – my only request would be to please include volume buttons on the cable (if it is to have smart phone controls), and include some type of foam tips. Removable cable for your flagship as well :)