Pros: Clarity, build, light weight, value, sound signature, filter tuning system
Cons: L/R markings hard to read
INTRODUCING ROCK JAW’S ALFA GENUS SINGLE DYNAMIC DRIVER IEM (Updated 8th Sept)
Special Note - I've updated the review 8th Sept 2014 - amendments are marked in red for easy identification.
|The Alfa Genus From Rock Jaw||Alfa Genus Paired With Fiio X5|
RockJaw UK is a relatively new headphone/earphone manufacturer to the Head-Fi scene, so it was with particular interest that I noticed their early posts on the forums, and when they asked for potential reviewers to test their audio product range, but more importantly wanted active feedback to shape their tuning toward the final product configuration – I immediately jumped at the chance.
I received the courier pack just under two weeks ago – and after quickly trying the other products sent (most of which needed quite a few changes in various forms), I’ve mainly used the Alfa Genus IEMs – which is what I’m reviewing today. I’d estimate that so far I’ve logged around 50-60 hours with the Alfa Genus. I intend to log many more. Read on – and find out why!
I’ve listed price at USD $84 (current Amazon UK price is 49 GBP at time of writing) – however this is not what I paid for them (they are a review sample).
I was provided the Alfa Genus as a review sample. I am in no way affiliated with RockJaw - and this review is my honest opinion of the Alfa Genus. I would like to thank Bob at RockJaw for making this opportunity available.
PREAMBLE - 'ABOUT ME'. (or a base-line for interpreting my thoughts and bias)
I'm a 47 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile – I just love my music. Over the last couple of years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current set-up. I vary my listening from portable (HSA Studio V3, Fiio X5, and iPhone4) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > coax > NFB-12 > LD MKIV > HP). My main full sized headphones at the original time of writing were the Senn HD700 and HD600, Beyer T1 and DT880. Most of my portable listening is done with IEMs - and up till now it has mainly been with the Dunu DN-1000 or the HSA BA100 IEMs (since then I've also acquired a pair of Sony XBA4, Altone200 and Fidue A83). 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 general rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, folk music, classic rock, indie and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I tend toward cans that are relatively neutral/balanced. I am neither a bass nor treble head (you could argue that I do like clarity though). I am not treble sensitive (at all), and in the past have really enjoyed headphones like the K701, SR325i, and of course the DT880.
For the purposes of this review - I used the Alfa Genus straight from the headphone-out socket of my Fiio X5, iPhone 4 and Studio V3 (Studio V3 has since been sold - so not tested with new filter). I did not bother with amping them, as IMO they do not benefit from additional amplification. In the time I have spent with the Alfa Genus, 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 Alfa Genus arrived in a smart but simple (no frills) retail box – with an inner container housing the IEMs and accessories. Rock Jaw have already stated that they are reviewing current packaging – and this is likely to change in the future.
|Retail Box Front||Retail Box Rear|
The packaging I have is ideal for a retail presentation - an easy to display rectangular retail box - with an 'average' footprint. The retail box is easy to read, and contains the normal marketing type hook/message on the front “interchangeable sound tuning filters – your sound, your way”. On the rear of the box is a lot of information including easy to read specifications.
|Inner Storage Case||Opened Sleeve Showing Accessories|
The inner container is interesting – it’s plastic, but slides open to reveal the IEMs, tips and filters. While I can’t really see people using this case for transportation –I think it would be ideal for longer term storage. There is no smaller carrying case for day to day storage or transport – but we understand from contact with Bob that they are looking to add this to their IEM range in the near future.
EDIT 8th Sept - Rockjaw has announced new packaging for the Alfa Genus, and I have shown below Bob's photos. Final-final packaging will be black instead of grey.
|New case design||New internal case and carry pouch|
|Accessory Package Alfa Genus - Profile||Accessory Package Alfa Genus - Overhead|
The accessory package is relatively small – 3 silicone tips (S, M, L), a shirt clip, and two sets of tuning filters.
|Paper Manual||Warning On Excessive Volume|
In addition there is a comprehensive double A4 sized printed sheet with full instructions on use, maintenance, fit, and warning on excessive volume (a nice touch IMO). The one thing I would change here is to maybe consider reducing the size of the guide to booklet size – and really think about whether to include the section on “running in process”. Science tells us that there are little to no audible changes “burning-in” headphones – and the suggested 100 hours is IMO a little ridiculous. I would personally like to see this left up to the user – and not suggested by the manufacturer – unless they have measurements that clearly show an audible change over time.
|Filters For The Alfa Genus||Alfa Genus With No Filter Attached|
The two included filters are silver (enhanced bass), and ebony (‘audiophile’). The difference with the filters is that the ebony ones have a very small vent between the two rings in the centre. More on this later when I discuss the sound signature each conveys.
The Alfa Genus now comes with three sets of filters - bassy (silver), bright/detailed (ebony), balanced (champagne). More info on these later in the review.
|Third set of filters - champagne (center)||Original filters had no damping - new filter is both vented and damped|
The shirt clip is a nice touch for those who need it – but personally I found it difficult to remove from the cable (very tight fit) – and would prefer it come as an included accessory rather than an attached one.
Silver – enhanced bass, ebony balanced or ‘audiophile’ – detachable screw in
16 ohm ± 15%
20Hz – 20KHz
108dB ± 3dB
3.5mm gold plated
|Silver Filter - Click For Larger Image||Ebony Filter - Click For Larger Image|
Just a quick note here – I asked for these from Bob, and duly received them – and Rock Jaw were quite happy for me to include these in my review. It is refreshing to see a company willing to disclose (within reason) information that helps their potential customers in their decision making. The graphs are raw data – but should convey a general idea of the tuning of the drivers with the two filters. At time of editing I don't have info for the third filter's frequency response - but common sense would indicate it sits somewhere between the two original graphs.
In communicating with Bob, it is clear that Rock Jaw’s underlying philosophy is to maximise (as much as possible) build quality, practicality, versatility and sonic ability – and to minimise anything which adds cost without benefit. This shows clearly in the overall package.
The Alfa Genus appears solidly built using quality materials, and is very light weight (my digital scales show just 14-15g with fitted filter and large tips). Comparatively, the BA100 is a similar weight, with the DN1000 coming in at almost double the weight at 26g.
The body of the Alfa Genus is made up of an ebony tone-wood shell, with an aluminium front face (which actually holds the driver). The front face has a recessed thread to allow the filters to be attached.
|Alfa Genus Ebony Wood And Aluminium Build Quality||Photo Courtesy Of Rock Jaw - Early Testing And Fitting Driver Units|
The strain relief from the IEM housing is aluminium (rigid) with an added flexible rubber sheath. This is really well thought out as it assists in both adjustment while wearing, and removal, without putting undue stress on the wires. One criticism here is that the L/R indicators are printed white on a silver surface, and are extremely difficult to see – especially in low light. I would prefer these to be much more visible.
|Rear Of Alfa Genus - Note L/R Markings||Splitter, Jack and Cable|
The wire is a twisted pair (OFC) coated in a shiny PVC type sheath. Although the wires are relatively thin, the twist and sheath add strength, and far for me (I wear over-ear), have very low microphonics. I’ve been walking/jogging with these – and although I get the usual annoying foot-impact sound (bone induction) – actual cable microphonics are minimal. The splitter is generic, rubber, small but functional. There is no adjustable chin slider / cinch – which is a shame, as for some this will be even more important than a shirt clip. This can be easily rectified with a little bit of DIY heatshrink – (the plug is small enough to slip this over).
The plug is a 90deg plug that is very petite – but does aid some DAPs which may not have a lot of room with their 3.5mm sockets – especially with covers attached. The cable stress relief at plug and splitter is again generic – but adequate for normal wear and tear. I genuinely like the cable – and only additional comment would be that I’d like to see some sort of attached cable tie – similar to the DN-1000.
FIT / COMFORT / ISOLATION
I have one ear canal slightly different to the other one (my right is very slightly smaller) - so I tend to find that usually single silicon flanges don't fit overly well. The silicone tips included look similar to the Sony hybrid tips (no foam filling though) and fit the Alfa Genus extremely well. I did have issues getting a full seal with them, but found over time that by utilising reasonably shallow insertion, the seal was actually better than a deeper insertion. The tips are very comfortable for me, and because the Alfa Genus is so light, after a while I hardly know I’m wearing it.
With the stocks tips, isolation was OK – but not stellar. With no music playing, I could hear people around me – but with music at a moderate level – they isolate reasonably well.
|Test With Monster Super Tips||Stock Tips|
I tried some foam complies and also some Monster Super Tips to see if I could get a better seal. I definitely achieved a better seal – but – the tips would not stay on the Alfa Genus when removing them from my ear. There is not enough nozzle length, or maybe the nozzle itself is not wide enough, to successfully keep foam type tips intact on the IEM when a deep insertion is achieved. The only way to achieve this in the current configuration is to push the tips all the way to the base of the nozzle. Unfortunately (for the ebony filter), this blocks the filter port, and turns them into bass cannons. A fix would be either using dampers rather than ports for tuning the filters, or positioning the port at the base of the filter. Bob is already working on future fixes.
With a little more experimentation I have been able to get foam filters that successfully fit the Alfa-genus without blocking the ports. The foam tips that came with my Altone200 worked quite nicely. I understand the sizing might be similar to Comply T500 tips - but might need someone else to corroborate this. In any case, I actually now prefer the stock silicone tips with the Alfa Genus - although YMMV.
Even with a relatively shallow insertion, the Alfa Genus do not extend past my outer ear, and are so comfortable that I could sleep with these intact.
So what do these sound like ……… ?
The following is what I hear from the Alfa Genus. YMMV – and probably will – as my tastes are likely different to yours (read the preamble I gave earlier for a baseline).
Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list http://www.head-fi.org/a/brookos-test-tracks.
Silver Filter – General
The silver filters – as long as you get a reasonable seal – are very warm and bass focused. For people that prefer a very bassy sound they may be ideal – but I found the bass overpowering.
With straight rock songs (3 Doors Down “Away From the Sun” / Alter Bridge “Broken Wings”) I just found that there was a lot of bass bleed into the lower mids, and the whole presentation became a little congested.
Even on the Studio V (bright DAP) with Beth Hart’s “Lift’s You Up” (bright recording), the resulting presentation was quite warm and bass emphasised. I have to admit though – this particular track wasn’t too bad – and there was a phenomenal bass slam with it.
Switching to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was an eye opener with the silver filters. There was enough sparkle and the vocals were actually quite clear – but the bass! – visceral is the only way to describe it. I’d actually imagine that some rap, hip-hop, EDM, lovers who are true bassheads will really enjoy these.
In order to cover all genres, I also tried the silvers with some indie acoustic (Angus & Julia Stone and Yesper), some classical, opera, and some jazz (Portico Quartet and Miles Davis). Again – a very warm presentation each time, with the mid-range (especially lower mids) politely subdued, and unfortunately a lot of the detail which I love these recordings for, somewhat pushed to the background. There is enough sparkle to retain some interest – but these filters are just a little too much for me personally. I have no doubt though that some people will love this sound.
For the rest of this review, I gratefully returned to using the ebony filters. And what a transition!
Champagne Filter (NEW) - General
|New champagne filter fitted||New champagne filter fitted|
The new 3rd filter to be included now with the Alfa Genus is champagne coloured, and represents a mid-point between the bassy (silver) and detailed/audiophile (ebony) filters. The other noticeable difference (physically) with this filter is the addition of acoustic dampening material inside the filter. So how does this new filter sound, and does it bridge the gap?
Again with straight Rock songs (3 Doors Down / Alter Bridge) first - and I can see already that a lot of people will enjoy this presentation. Bass is full and well presented without the bloat, and vocals retain their clarity. The most impressive thing is the amount of detail hasn't suffered - but the treble comes across very smooth. It really is quite a lush and full listening experience. Very non-fatiguing.
Trying a couple of brighter recorded albums I have in my library (Beth Hart's "Live at Paradiso" and Genesis' greatest hits album "Turn It On Again"), and for my personal tastes, these are getting close to perfect. With these albums when using some of my brighter IEMs things can get a little peaky - but the Alfa Genus gives a beautifully balanced and vivid presentation - but none of the glare.
Testing on bassier mainstream music - Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and Lorde's "Royals" and once again great mix of bass impact, and vocal clarity. The Eminem track in particular is very good (and I'm not really a hip-hop fan). The only issue I have (and this is my own personal preference coming to the fore) is with tracks like "Royals" where the vocals are recorded on the warmish side anyway - I personally would prefer a little more brightness int he upper mids and lower treble. But that''s the beauty of this filter system. I simply need to change them - and I essentially have a different IEM!
Moving to Indie - Yesper's "Cannibal King" - and the champagne filter again just gives a lush and smooth (but clear) presentation, and this feeling is repeated as I've tried other genres. Portico Quartet's "Ruins" is brilliant (although again I prefer just a little more brightness) - but it's a very good filter for jazz - really smooth. Norah Jones really does shine, and even more so Gabriella Cilmi. Classical is good - but I've been conditioned to my T1's and brighter IEMs for a while now - and I can't help wanting just that little more treble extension.
Finally onto my litmus test - Pearl Jam (male vocals). Ahhhhh. Yep - this is the one. Does Vedder's voice justice - more so than any of the other filters.
Although for my own personal preferences, I think I'll still probably use the ebony filters for most of my listening with the Alfas, if it involves extended listening of my Pearl Jam collection (I own almost all of their albums) - it will definitely be with the new champagne filter.
Ebony Filter - General
I’ll make this a short summary before I go into more detail and specific genres. The ebony filters give the Alfa Genus a more balanced frequency response but with a brighter than strictly neutral tonality. Bass is definitely there, but now it is fast, and detailed, and clean – reminds me very much of the bass on a well amped K701 (quality rather than quantity). The mid-range is very clean, and very clear, with slightly more emphasis on the upper mids, and a very clear and reasonably extended treble.
Note : At this point all further testing was done with the ebony filters fitted
Overall Detail / Clarity
For this I used both Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” 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 Alfa Genus displayed reasonable detail retrieval with a crisp and bright sound, and I was actually very much reminded of Grado or AKG type mids – which just have the ability to captivate and hold my attention. The more I listened to these tracks, I realised that the emphasis is probably more on the upper mid-range than the actual treble itself. Cymbals and high-hats are definitely presented, but not where most of the focus lies.
Sound-stage & Imaging
For this I used Amber Rubarth’s binaural recording “Tundra”. I used this because it’s a pretty simple way to get comparative data on sound-stage.
It’s usually difficult to get a reasonable stage size from an inner ear monitor. The stage is often quite small / close – with an average impression of space. The Alfa Genus for me is a typical IEM in this regard. The sound – while crystal clear (the drums are fantastic in this piece BTW), is still very much ‘in your head’ – but still very enjoyable. Directional cues are good – so for a value priced IEM its imaging is actually pretty good, and with the ebony filters it’s an enjoyable journey.
I also played Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer” and the Alfas were once again extremely clear – but where full sized open headphones (HD600 / DT880) give this track a wonderful sense of space, the Alfas were far more intimate. I also like this track for its ability to portray a sense of realism. The applause at the end of the track is so well presented that with some headphones (HD600) I can actually close my eyes and imagine myself in the crowd. While the Alfa didn’t get me quite there – it definitely gave an inkling of space with this section – so that is an achievement in itself.
Genre Specific Notes
Again for tracks, albums, artists – please refer to this list: http://www.head-fi.org/a/brookos-test-tracks
Rock – IMO the Alfa Genus loves this genre with the ebony filters. Guitars are crisp, clear, captivating. Bass is present – but doesn’t overpower other frequencies, and the driver itself is fast and keeps up with more complex passages quite well. Both male and female vocals are presented incredibly clearly – and always seem to be brought to the foreground.
Alt Rock – Again a winner with the ebony filters. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is a complex track that can trip a headphone up with its many contrasts – the Alfa Genus just took it in its stride – with perhaps my only complaint being that the very forward mid-range did portray just a touch of stridency during the sax and guitar solos. With Porcupine Tree’s “Trains” however, there was no issues at all – the tonality was almost perfect for me – with the only thing I would have really liked being just a touch more mid-bass for impact. This again is one area where the new champagne filter really shone - and the ability to switch between the two (champagne or ebony) depending on mood was very much appreciated.
Jazz / Blues / Bluegrass – clean, clear, crisp – great transparency and cohesion. Focus definitely on the full mid-range with Miles Davis’ “So What” being rendered with a great deal of focus.
Rap / EDM / Pop – Probably lacking a little impact with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, and it does detract a little from presentation of this genre. Lorde’s “Royals” on the other hand has copious amounts of bass – so this driver (in this configuration) has no issues with sub-bass. Again with EDM tracks like Lindsay Stirling’s “Electric Daisy Violin” I was left just wishing for a little more impact – it doesn’t need a lot, but just a touch more bass would help impact and immersion. With most of these genres I’m finding really clear (still forward though) vocal presentation which you just don’t expect at this price point. With these genres in particular, I do think a lot of people will love the new champagne filter, as it does solve the issues I had with wanting a little more lower mid and mid-bass.
Classical / Opera – The Alfas handle this genre very well. Ideally I’d like a greater sense of space, but it’s very easy with the right music to get lost and lose track of time, and that is a pretty good indicator in my book. I started listening to Zoe Keating’s “Escape Artist” (modern classical cello) and before I knew it, I’d gone through 3 tracks and almost 20 minutes had elapsed. Wilhelm Kempff’s rendition of Moonlight Sonata was equally compelling. But again – I did get the feeling that with Moonlight Sonata that the mids just might be a touch more forward and energetic than ideal.
The Alfa Genus is easily powered straight out of virtually any portable device, and I didn’t experience any issues with thin-ness or hiss from the 3 DAPs I tested (iPhone 4, Studio V3, or Fiio X5). Of the three – my personal preference with the ebony filters would go to the X5 – as it seems to add just a smidge of bottom end which is missing.
RESPONSE TO EQ?
IMO - the Alfa Genus don't need a lot of tweaking. But it's always nice to see what they are capable of if you do decide to apply EQ. So I switched back to the iPhone with the Equaliser app, and gave them a little increase in the mid-bass – and they responded extremely well. The addition of a little more mid-bass impact worked well for me.
COMPARISON OTHER IEMs – DN-1000 & BA100
|DN-1000, Alfa Genus and BA100||Test Rig - Simple But Excellent Sonically|
Track – a favourite – Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town”
Vs HiSound Audio's BA-100
Both are very, very clear – with a lovely balanced presentation. The major difference I think is in timbre and body – with the Alfa’s having a slightly fuller overall presentation, and the BA100s having a little more treble emphasis, and a little less mid-range. I like both – and could easily live with either.
Vs Dunu DN-1000
Again, both very clear headphones, but the balance with the Dunus, the additional bass impact, and the added sense of space is simply superior. But let’s remember the DN1000 is a triple driver hybrid at almost 2.5 times the price of the Alfa Genus. The Alfa Genus does have a feeling of extra clarity over the Dunus – and if there was a little additional bass impact, my personal preferences might place these two IEMs a lot closer. And that really says volumes about the $84 Alfa Genus – it really is tuned well IMO.
QUICK NOTES ON MY EXPERIENCE WITH ROCK JAW
Although I’ve only been conversing with Bob from Rock Jaw for a couple of months, I can already see that this is a company to watch for the future. They aren’t simply rebranding/repackaging a generic driver with a few tweaks. They are instead developing and tuning their own drivers, and they are genuinely interested in working with the community to improve their products. They’ve listened to all of our suggestions, and actively introducing changes for their current models. One of these changes will be the addition of another filter for the Alfa Genus – which should sit sonically between the silver and ebony filter- giving a little more bass impact, but retaining the clarity and overall balance which is very much the trademark signature of the Alfa Genus. Other changes will include carry pouches, and possibly more variety in tips.
Rock Jaw have also been very open regarding information they’ve provided to date – and have dealt with all of the early testers in a very open and encouraging manner.
Because of my location, I have offered to pay for freight, and have also offered to return all of the samples following the reviews. Rockjaw has politely but firmly declined these offers – telling me instead that the feedback we are giving will be invaluable for their future development.
One of the things I've really enjoyed in dealing with Rockjaw is their patience (they didn't rush the latest changes until they felt they were right), and also their willingness to engage and listen to their customer base. I feel really privileged to have been involved with the development of the Alf Genus, and to watch as it has developed into its mature form.
ALFA GENUS - SUMMARY
Firstly my apologies. Those who’ve seen my reviews before will know that I tend to write reasonably long rambling ones. So if you’re still with me to the end – thanks.
The Alfa Genus is a light weight, well built, tuneable IEM (via filters) which has no real business being priced at its current price point – to me it represents incredible value. The sound signature (ebony filters) is very much mid-range focused, but with a bright clear presentation. It is an energetic IEM with an intimate presentation that in some ways reminds me of my HD700 (without the similar bass impact).
The litmus question for me would be “would I buy these for myself”, and “would I recommend them to my family”. The answer to this question is a resounding YES – and in fact I have already asked Bob if he would accept payment for this pair. I really do like them that much. Of course Rockjaw has declined – but that’s a debate I will have with him again at another time.
The only caution I would suggest with these is that if you are treble sensitive, it may pay to consider something a little darker in nature. Grado, Beyer or AKG lovers may find them ideal though.
The addition of the new champagne filters has really made these into an IEM for everyone, and I simply cannot think of another IEM at this point that offers even close to a similar amount of tunability and versatility. I would definitely recommend these to anyone - they are quite simply a steal at this price point, and should make any reviewers 'wall of fame'.
Congrats Bob and Rock Jaw - these are a winner in my book.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO ROCK JAW
Here is a very short list of what I’d change if I could. Some of this has been discussed with Rock Jaw already, and is already down for future alteration.
- Change paperwork to remove “burn-in” information
- Add carry pouch if it fits price profile (done with the latest offering)
- Add 3rd filter to bridge gap between “extreme bass” and “audiophile” (achieved with new filter - and very successfully)
- Change filters to use dampers – or port filter tuning ports at base – so foam tips can be used (correctly sized foam tips do work - just needs some playing around)
- Add chin slider to cable
- Make L/R marking on Alfa Genus easier to read