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[Review] Impressions of the Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS versus the SM3, FX700 and e-Q7

post #1 of 259
Thread Starter 

Tagline/Disclaimer:
Don't read on or you may risk spending more money on a universal IEM than you ever imagined.

 

Let me start with saying thanks to takoyaki7 for his great review of the FI-BA-SS. Up to this point I had known about the FADs, but not taken them into serious consideration because of my rough ride with the other FADs, namely the 1601SB. But takoyaki7's comparison with my favourite phones, the e-Q7 and especially his conclusion that the FADs were better, meant that my fate was sealed.

 

As most often with my pictures, they don't really do the beauty of the phones justice - you'll have to wait for dfkt's take on the FADs for improvement

 

final1.jpg

 

final2.jpg

 

 

Technology/Manufacturer specs:
Single ultra-wide frequency balanced armature driver

Balanced Air Movement technology

100% stainless steel housing
Impedance: 16Ω
Sensitivity: 112dB
Cord length: 1.4m
Weight: 20g per piece


Price paid:

Don't ask (if they pique your interest you'll find out soon enough).

Bought via PriceJapan.com

 

In the Box:
Sorry for omitting to take a picture of the box and accessories, but takoyaki7 has one here. Nothing spectacular if you ask me, the box looks like a cheaper imitation of the Audio Technica ones. The case is large enough to hold your DAP, but very impractical if you only want to stow away the phones. There's the usual three sizes of single flanged silicon tips and that's about it. Nothing here betrays that these are among the most exclusive and expensive IEMs in the world.

 

Design and build quality:
The "shaved" stainless steel housing feel extremely solid and quite weighty for such a tiny phone. The cables are a big improvement over the abysmal 1601SB's cloth cords, but nothing special compared to other top-tier IEMs. They look ok, but don't inspire the same confidence as the SM3's braided cord or the IE8's kevlar reinforced cable. Compared to the FX700's extremely short cord I was delighted to find the cord length suited for westerners. The L-plug is has proper strain relief for the cable, but there's no such counterpart where the cable enters the body. Let's assume there's at least an internal strain relief in the housing.

 

Microphonics is average when worn straight down (w/o shirt clip) and no problem when worn over the ears.

 

Trying to distinguish left from right can be quite annoying. Granted, there are classy looking laser-etched L/R markers on the underside, but they are hardly readable in bright sunlight (due to the highly reflective steel) and in darkness you're completely out of luck. This was already elegantly and more practically solved with a small notch on the 1601 and it's beyond me why FAD decided to ditch that solution.

 

final3.jpg

 

final4.jpg

 

final5.jpg

 

 

Fit:
The FI-BA-SS are tiny, rounded and easy to fit downward or over-ears. I can't imagine anyone having fit-touble with these, even with narrow ear canals. At first glance this seems to explain why there are so few tips in the package, you just pick your size and stick them in. But first impressions can be deceptive and wearing them for longer and on the move I realized there's a problem: the steel earpieces are rather heavy at 20g and exert considerable pull on the tips. This may be exacerbated by fast walking or running and cause the tips to flex and make noise. The solution I found is to piggyback the larger tip over a smaller third party one, thus making it stiffer, but using de-cored olives under the silicons works just as well.

 

final6.jpg

 

 

Isolation:
As you can see from the circular-drilled holes on the back, these are vented IEMs but nevertheless they offer decent isolation. I'd rate their isolation roughly on par with the e-Q7 and Audio Technica CK100, a bit below the Shure SE530, but sufficient for traffic noise, bus commuting and subway rides. Due to their sturdy steel housing and considerable weight there's slightly more than average bone-conduction of walking noises and the like.

 

Sound quality:
Disclaimer/words of caution: I don't hear much above 16kHz so take my comments about highs with a grain of salt. Other than that I've tried to be as objective as possible.


I’ve had the FI-BA-SS for about two weeks now and spent a considerable amount of time comparing them to other top IEMs like the SM3, FX700 and e-Q7. There was no noticable burn-in effect over this time apart from treble becoming ever so slightly less harsh, but that could perhaps be fit/placebo/brain burn-in. All music was auditioned unequalized straight out of my Cowon i9 and repeated with the Sansa Fuze. TBO even though the Cowons are said to have bass roll-off and the Fuze's bass FR is dead straight, I noticed no significant difference when switching between them. Here are some of the songs I picked and the listening notes I made:

 

Cecilia Bartoli: Cadrò, ma qual si mira (Classical Aria)
Usually I'm not much into arias, but got me Bartoli's Sacrificium CD thanks to a fellow Head-Fiers recommendation. I can still remember thinking "OMG this is nerve-racking" at first listen, but little by little this has been growing on me to become one of my very favourite recordings. This is highly emotional stuff, here are the lyrics to give you an idea:

Cadrò, ma qual si mira
Parte cader dal monte
Della sassosa fronte
Che quant’a lei s’oppone
Urta, fracassa e seco
Precipitando va.
E se non resta oppresso
Dalla fatal ruina,
Sente da lunge anch’esso
Attonito ’l pastore
Lo strepito del colpo
Ch’impallidir lo fa.

I shall fall, just as one sees fall
part of the rocky summit
of a mountain,
which strikes and shatters
anything in its path
causing it too to plummet.
And if he is not crushed
by that dreadful collapse,
the terrified shepherd
also hears from afar
the noise of the fall,
at which he grows pale.

SM3:
Very mid-centered, detailed, atmospheric but a bit warm and thick, strings sound pleasant yet a bit subdued, Cecilia's voice is smoother, darker and less emotional/agressive than with the other phones. Almost no sibilance even with the sharply spoken word "fracassa". As for soundstage, cembalo and strings wrap themselves around my head, but her voice seems to come straight from my cerebellum. Overall very refined and technically impressive, but slightly shy in conveying the pure emotion of this aria.
e-Q7:
Mid-centered like the SM3, but less warmish. Second in detail compared to the SM3, but feels speedier and more light-footed. Cecilia's voice sounds leaner and more emotional, yet slightly less smooth and refined than with the SM3. Very pleasant strings and cembalo for a BA phone, no complaints about soundstage and imaging. Overall a very moving presentation, but perhaps not the most refined one.
FX700:
Not quite up to the best BA phones in detail, nevertheless to my ears the "King of Strings". Exceptional timbre with instruments and voice, yet a tad too much "bassment" with strings for my taste. Slight sibilance when Cecilia spits out the word "fracassa". Excellent soundstage and remarkable airiness, of all contenders closest to a concert hall feeling. Good compromise between refinement/smoothness and aggressiveness/emotion. Overall a fantastic phone for classical for those who prioritize atmosphere over detail.
FI-BA-SS:
Almost painfully clear and transparent, undoubtedly the most emotional phone with this aria. Similarly light-footed as the e-Q7, strings are speedy and very refined. Excellent detail, soundstage and airiness! Vocals are also extremely refined, but most emotional/agressive. You can easily picture the spit flying from her mouth when she hisses "fracassa". These phones are not for everyone with this kind of material, in some way they are like an antidote to the SM3. I love their powerful presentation, just stay away if you're overly sensitive to sibilance.

 


Manu Katche: Motion (Instrumental Jazz)
This is a very high quality and transparent recording with nice drums, sax and cymbals, perfect for testing.

SM3:
Excellent drum speed and impact, bass is fast, detailed and precise, sax comes in very smooth, but I have to say it again, the mids feel a bit too warm and thick and the highs (cymbals) too recessed for my liking. It's not that much, because when I listen to these phones a bit longer my brain seems to adapt. Yet while switching between the contenders it becomes very obvious. Nevertheless their highly detailed, refined and ultra-smooth presentation make for a very relaxed listening experience with this track. Last not least, the SM3's spatial presentation is less conspicuous with this instrumental track than with vocals.
e-Q7:
Mid-centered like the SM3, but less warmish (I ruthlessly copied that sentence from above and again it fits like a glove). Bass impact is noticably less than the SM3, but texture is very good. Sax sounds nice with good timbre, but you can tell it's a bit less refined and smooth than with the SM3. Same goes for cymbals, which are clearer and less recessed, but sadly also slightly less refined and detailed than on the SM3. Soundstage, imaging and separation are all very good, but overall I'd say the SM3 has a slight edge with this track.
FX700:
Very impressive drum impact and decay, plus speed is almost up to BA level. I really like the bass reverb of a DD phone with this track. Sax comes in with excellent smoothness and accurate timbre. Cymbals surprise with very high quality for a DD, better than the e-Q7's and on eye level with the SM3's while clearly less recessed. Again the FX700's soundstage and airiness make for a great atmosphere. Granted, the SM3 are even a bit more refined and may have slightly more detail, but overall I rate these two on par with this track.
FI-BA-SS:
Drum impact is midway between the e-Q7 and SM3. Bass has very good speed and detail. Sax is smooth and breathy, cymbals are crystal clear and very refined. These phones have strikingly high detail resolution, at least on par with the SM3 and noticably better than the FX700 and e-Q7. Sound signature wise they are closest to the Ortofons, so they might best be described as a high-definition version of the e-Q7s. Everything sounds extremely clear and transparent, I hate to say it, but they make the SM3 sound downright muffled in comparison.


McIntosh Ross: Winter Is Coming (Folk/Rock)
A cosy slow song with male and female vocals. Not the best on this overall very recommendable Ex Deacon Blue singers' album, but I chose it deliberately to test mids resolution and voice/instrument separation.

SM3:
Nice elastic drums, good rendering and separation of voices, guitar, keyboard, cymbals. Maracas(?) are only faintly audible and it's quite hard to make out the delicate background banjo line once the rich vocals and other foreground instruments set in. Overall presentation is exceptionally soft and soothing, yet a bit like wrapped in cotton wool.
e-Q7:
Drums are equally elastic as with the SM3 but a tad lighter. On par rendering and separation of voices, guitar, keyboard. Cymbals sound a bit less refined and detailed, but maracas are better audible. Much easier to follow the background banjo line than with the SM3. Overall presentation is slightly less polished than the SM3's, but at the same time more transparent.
FX700:
Drums are elastic but a tad too obtrusive with this subtle song. Rendering and separation of voices and foreground instruments is once again excellent, cymbals are almost up to the SM3 and maracas are better. Background banjo is somewhere between the SM3 and the e-Q7. Speaking of which, the whole presentation is somewhere in between these, not quite as soft and soothing as the SM3's, but less analytical than the Ortofon's.
FI-BA-SS:
Drum impact and texture is good, but there's a bit less of that elastic quality to it than with the others. Yet apart from bass the FADs are in a league of their own with this song. Rendering and separation is extremely clear and detailed, I can easily make out every nuance in vocals and instruments, cymbals, maracas and background banjo are spot-on. Overall presentation is every bit as transparent as the Ortofon's but clearly more refined.


Muse: Uprising (Rock)
A powerful rock song with driving rhythm, pounding drums, excellent bass and the unmistakable ingenious guitar, keyboard and voice of Matthew Bellamy.

SM3:
Drums have impressive weight, drive and definition. Equally good and snappy bass. Mids stay unaffected by bass, vocals are forward and sufficiently clear. Good separation of instruments. Electric guitar is perhaps a tad too tame for my liking, but overall these are fantastic phones for the song.
e-Q7:
Drums have slightly less weight than on the SM3 but again good drive and definition. Same goes for bass. Vocals stay even clearer than on the SM3. On par separation. Keyboard is a bit more pronounced and electric guitar noticably more agressive (which I like). Overall slightly different but every bit as fantastic as the SM3.
FX700:
Strongest drum impact with very impressive drive, but a bit less definition than the SM3 and e-Q7. Minor bass bleeding into the lowest mids, yet vocals stay sufficiently clear. Only slightly worse separation than e-Q7 and SM3. Electric guitar is more agressive than on the SM3 but less than on the e-Q7. Overall not at all bad, but I prefer both former phones with this song.
FI-BA-SS:
Drum weight is about on par with the e-Q7, but the FADs sound overall slightly brighter and even more agressive, so bass is somewhat overpowered by higher frequencies. Speed and definition are good, vocals and instruments stay perfectly seperated and very clear, but the electric guitar pierces slightly above the threshold of my liking. If I had to chose between these and the SM3's highs with this song I'd pick the latter.


Markus Schulz: Cause You Know [Is this the End] (Trance)
A shigzeo classic and one of the most sonically impressive albums I know, regardless of genre. Perfect for testing bass and highs extension, speed, detail, soundstage, more or less everything.

SM3:
Very authoritative drum shot intro and deep bass sweep. Excellent speed and detail in synth effects. Good sense of airiness and floating spacey vocals, though overall a bit too dark for my taste. Highs are detailed but feel slightly subdued. "Surround soundstage" works great with this track.
e-Q7:
Drum shot intro and deep bass sweep feel tame compared to the SM3. Synths and floating vocals are on par, but with ever so slightly less detail and refinement. Treble is more forward than on the SM3 and gives the track a friendlier and less dark feel, which I like. Nothing to complain about soundstage and imaging, but overall I still prefer the SM3 by a slight margin.
FX700:
Wow, no one does the drum shot intro and deep bass sweep better than the JVCs! Speed and detail are a bit below the SM3, but 3D presentation and airiness is most impressive with this track. Treble sounds nicer and less subdued, though again slightly less detailed. This is a very close call, but overall I think I'd take the JVCs over the Earsonics with this song.
FI-BA-SS:
Surprisingly good drum shot intro and deep bass sweep! Not quite on FX700/SM3 level but still very impressive. After the Muse track I expected the FADs to fall short on this one too, but boy was I wrong! Turns out these are fantastic trance phones, extremely fast and detailed with amazing synth effects and airiness. Floating vocals, the sense of vast space, they get everything right. Clear winners of the round!



Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony, The Explorers Pt2 [BBC Davis, Hampson, Roocroft] (Classical Orchestra)
I have an eclectic musical taste, but about half of my actual listening is to classical. That's why I decided to include a second classical piece to reflect this preference. This one is pretty much my favourite classical work of all time. I believe I must have heard it well over a thousand times and the beautiful chorus passages never fail to give me the goosebumps. It's also the reason why I risk taking expensive IEMs to the beach. If you happen to see someone with the FADs or such, sitting on the shore and staring blankly out into the sea - that's me, listening to Vaughan Williams' masterpiece.

SM3:
First thing that comes to mind, timbre is very good for a BA phone. Rendering of strings and brass sounds realistic, but then again the vocals seem a tad too dark and chesty. Good portray of orchestra dynamics. Nice sparkle with triangle shows that highs are very refined, oh how I wish they'd be a bit more forward! Peculiar soundstaging, did I mention I don't like this with classical? But overall still a high quality if slightly colorless presentation.
e-Q7:
First impression, these show noticably more emotion than the SM3s. Timbre is once again excellent, vocals sound spot-on and triangle is sparkly, though it's noticable that detail resolution is slightly below the SM3. Isn't it amazing that differences in refinement are apparent even with instruments as simple as a triangle? Soundstaging is more to my taste, overall I prefer these over the SM3 with classical, even though they may be technically inferior.
FX700:
First impression, timbre on the FX700 is still unmatched, though others are close. Fantastic strings, brass, percussion. Bass strings may be a tad too prominent, but nothing too serious. Triangle sparkles, voices are spot-on, yet slightly less forward than on the former two IEMs. Detail resolution is about on par with the Ortofons, meaning lower than the SM3. Very good illusion of 3D space, as close to a live concert feeling as it gets with IEMs. Overall an excellent phone for this track.
FI-BA-SS:
One word: amazing! Impeccable timbre and clarity, incredibly detailed with beautiful layering of instruments and voices. Fascinating airy presentation, the illusion of vast space. Nothing left to be desired, everything is spot-on, musical and highly emotional. No doubt I've never heard anything like this with classical.

 

final7.jpg

 

final8.jpg

 

 

Final thoughts / conclusion:

No doubt you've noticed the repetitive usage of "slightly", "a bit", "a tad" in my listening notes. Switching among these excellent phones I'm frequently lost for words in trying to describe the minute differences I'm hearing. I believe anyone who'd get only one of these would be more than pleased, as they are all extremely good and lacking severe weaknesses. That's why IMO the ultimate decision between different top-tier IEMs is most often determined by personal preference.

 

Having said that, the FADs have taken me somewhat by surprise. Not only did they exhibit none of the touchy characteristics of their 1601 siblings, they have been sounding utterly fascinating from the first time I put them in. Their highs may be a bit harsh at times and prone to emphasizing sibilant recordings, but overall I cannot deny that these phones ooze a sonic quality that may well put them in their own league above the others. Maybe not with more agressive musical genres, but with Classical, Folk or Trance they are such a revelation that I'm struggling to explain the differences solely with personal preference.

 

Though the FADs can be characterized as highly analytical phones, since you'll hear all sorts of mp3 compression and dynamic compression/clipping artefacts with bad material, they also have considerable fun factor just like the e-Q7, with pleasant, slightly forward mids and fast, well-defined bass. The prize for the most forgiving high-resolution IEMs goes undoubtedly to the SM3, but the FADs are equally or even more resolving (really can't say that for sure, as I think I've reached the upper resolution limit of my hearing) and offer exceptional clarity and transparency in comparison.

 

Last not least the price. If you've come so far, I honestly believe it's no more a matter of being worth the price difference or not. We all know the story about diminishing returns. As for me, I've asked myself "do I want them?" and after that "can I afford them?". Well, you can guess the answer to both questions and here I am, happy as a clam. 

 

P.S: I'm going to lend these to dfkt next week, so we'll have a third opinion soon...


Edited by james444 - 7/24/10 at 6:46am
post #2 of 259
Thread Starter 

reserved for updates.

post #3 of 259

Good Review. Look likes SM3 is the way to go for me. FI-BA-SS is just tad brighter, airy and transparent for my taste, I prefer SM3 warmth and more emotional, but yet detailed presentation, it would fit me well

 

Is FI-BA-SS selling 90000yen by the way?


Edited by gameboy115 - 7/24/10 at 8:17am
post #4 of 259

Look like we have another winner here. Look promising. And another great review, James.

post #5 of 259
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by gameboy115 View Post

Is FI-BA-SS selling 90000yen by the way?


Psst, my wife may be snooping round here!

post #6 of 259

Great review James!

   I am also loving my FI-BA-SS and I agree with just about everything you say! Their clarity is pretty much unmatched and I do find them very "fun" too.

  Have you tried them with complys? I use the gray 400s. I find those do an excellent job of keeping them in the ears on the move, and also calm down the treble just a bit, but I do like the stock tips too. I am curious to try your method too

    I also agree the aesthetics of these really have to be seen and felt in person. I just love how solid and classy they look and feel without being ostentatious.

  


Edited by takoyaki7 - 7/24/10 at 9:44am
post #7 of 259
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by gameboy115 View Post

Good Review. Look likes SM3 is the way to go for me. FI-BA-SS is just tad brighter, airy and transparent for my taste, I prefer SM3 warmth and more emotional, but yet detailed presentation, it would fit me well

 

Oops, I just re-read your post and wondered where did I say the SM3 are more emotional? In fact they strike me as highly refined and polished, but rather emotionally restrained.


Edited by james444 - 7/24/10 at 12:00pm
post #8 of 259

90000 Yen?!

 

Why not get a pair of JH-13 then?

post #9 of 259

ahahaha well some people have it all and want something different, I suppose. 

post #10 of 259

Great comparison review James. I really enjoyed it! Of course, I had three of the four you reviewed, and I am currently down to two - SM3 and FX700. So I pretty much agree with you assessment of how the various sound sigs compare based on the one I have heard. For me, the SM3 and FX700 complement each other, and I am quite content with both. The FADs do seem interesting and seem like the kind of IEMs I would like (especially being a HD e-Q7), but knowing how much you did pay for them I don't think I could make that type of investment outside of customs. But I really enjoyed your insights. Now, I do know that cheaper brass and aluminum (I think) versions of this FAD are coming out soon (will be in the $300 - $400 range I believe). Those would peak my interest, although I do think my next major purchase will finally be into the customs range (if I don't turn the SM3 into customs). Thanks again James.

post #11 of 259

Well written review James. No offense, but I don't think that in a critical review like this you can evaluate these IEMs out of portable source like Sansa Clip or Cowon whatever. Also, all IEMs should be equipped with custom tips to prevent fit issues which may significantly degrade sound quality.


Edited by Pianist - 7/24/10 at 1:32pm
post #12 of 259

Thanks for the review, have been waiting for this, now I am wondering how the FAD will compare against customs.
 

post #13 of 259

That much for a universal just speaks about your lack of sanity :) I'm glad you like them and nice review as always. I think I'm pretty happy with universals so no fear in buying them at all :) They do look very shiny however

post #14 of 259
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by uhnoel View Post

 

Why not get a pair of JH-13 then?


I don't really like going custom. Why? First of all, I have no fit problems with most universals. Second, and that's the main reason, I want to be able to let my friends participate in my hobby and try out my phones. When I met dfkt he told me how he loved his UE11 and said "It's a pity that you cannot try them!". See what I mean? Nevertheless I'd be very interested in how the FADs would fare against the JH-13 or EM3.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ypoknons View Post

ahahaha well some people have it all and want something different, I suppose. 

 

Nope, not something different. Over the years I've heard enough phones to get a good conception of what I'm looking for. Until now the e-Q7 were the best sounding IEMs that fit my preferred sound signature, the FX700 a close second. The darker and warmer SM3 deviate just a bit too much, even though they are an upgrade in refinement to the former two. The FADs fit my bill perfectly and clearly surpass the e-Q7 while retaining a very similar sound signature.

As for "some people have it all", I'm not a rich person but I think it comes down to personal preferences and priorities how you spend your money. I have colleges/friends who drive cars five times more expensive than mine.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ericp10 View Post

Great comparison review James. I really enjoyed it! Of course, I had three of the four you reviewed, and I am currently down to two - SM3 and FX700. So I pretty much agree with you assessment of how the various sound sigs compare based on the one I have heard. For me, the SM3 and FX700 complement each other, and I am quite content with both. The FADs do seem interesting and seem like the kind of IEMs I would like (especially being a HD e-Q7), but knowing how much you did pay for them I don't think I could make that type of investment outside of customs. But I really enjoyed your insights. Now, I do know that cheaper brass and aluminum (I think) versions of this FAD are coming out soon (will be in the $300 - $400 range I believe). Those would peak my interest, although I do think my next major purchase will finally be into the customs range (if I don't turn the SM3 into customs). Thanks again James.


Thanks Eric, tbo I still don't get it by what logic the same amount of money would be better spent for customs. Shigzeo said about the FAD's 1601 that they do some things better than the JH13, dfkt rated the FX700 and SM3 higher than his UE11. As long as these customs aren't conclusively in a different league I prefer staying with universals. Though I'm very interested in shigzeo's take in the FI-BA-SS, because he has heard the JH13 and EM3. From his sonic preferences I predict he'll utterly love  them and I can already picture his headline "tiny shiny miracle", lol
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Pianist View Post

Well written review James. No offense, but I don't think that in a critical review like this you can evaluate these IEMs out of portable source like Sansa Clip or Cowon whatever. Also, all IEMs should be equipped with custom tips to prevent fit issues which may significantly degrade sound quality.


Thanks, I agree with you that in a perfect world we should only use custom tips. However in reality most of us don't, therefore fit with universal tips is an important issue. Obviously you're hinting at the SM3, all I can say is I've gone to great lengths to find the optimum tips with them, more so than with any other IEMs before. Btw it's worth mentioning that I've had no real fit issues whatsoever (meaning bad seal/comfort), just an unusual variation of sound signature within different tips. The ones I did this review with are the best I've found - as you can see in the pictures I've even slaughtered some of my Ety-gliders in the process to use them for spacers. I'm aware that some Head-Fiers say they get better clarity and treble presence with some other tips, but I have not been able to reproduce it.

 

Anyway, no one should form an opinion based on a single review. I'm looking forward to dfkt's take on my FADs, and given the fact that the SM3 are his favourite IEMs I'm well aware that his conclusions will likely be different from mine.

 

As for portable sources, I believe IEMs are made for portable sources and most folks I know (including myself) mainly use them this way. So what's wrong about evaluating them out of the a portable source? While I don't hear much difference between the Sansa and the Cowon, IMO each of them is good enough to assess the differences between various IEMs.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by silverkaze View Post

Thanks for the review, have been waiting for this, now I am wondering how the FAD will compare against customs.
 


x2.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rawrster View Post

That much for a universal just speaks about your lack of sanity :)


It's just a matter of perspective. From my wife's point of view the e-Q7 was already expensive enough to declare me insane, so welcome to the club.

post #15 of 259

Great work James.  Most enlightening.

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