Update: There's a caveat to this review, because according to new information the featured Final Audio IEMs may very likely not be moving armatures. Of course this doesn't have any reflection on the descriptions of sound signatures and differences given here, but to my dismay my whole tagline has been shot down. So I owe you an apology for jumping to conclusions too soon and without hard evidence. I'm still utterly amazed about how Final Audio pulled it off to create a proprietary driver that sounds so close to a moving armature, therefore I'll be calling their BAs "Moving Armature Copycats" (MACs) from now on.
Changed the thread title from misleading "Moving Armature Shootout" and added the e-Q5. For more info on the e-Q5 see post #2. Left post #1 unchanged as a document of my own stupidity.
Dynamic drivers (moving coil) and balanced armatures have been around for what seems like forever. But with the arrival of the Ortofon e-Q7 and Grado GR8 last year, a brand new technology called moving armature had emerged. With the appearance of no less than 3 new IEMs from Final Audio Design, the Grado GR10 and Ortofon e-Q5 in 2010, MA based phones are finally building momentum.
So let's see how four MA based IEMs, the e-Q7, FI-BA-A1, FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-SS fare in direct comparison. For those interested in technical details, there's a nice explanation of moving armature technology here (thanks to ClieOS).
I don't hear much above 16kHz so take my comments about treble with a grain of salt. I try to judge IEMs impartially, yet according to fellow Head-Fier rawrster this is impossible and I think he's right. Anyway, I try.
Oh and sorry for less-than-stellar pics, I'm no pro and those shiny Final Audios are tricky as hell to photograph!
Top: FI-BA-A1 and FI-BA-SS Bottom: FI-BA-SB and Ortofon e-Q7
Final Audio Design FI-BA-A1 (heaven-a):
Balanced Air Movement technology
Cord length: 1.4m
Price: about $270
Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS:
Balanced Air Movement technology
Stainless steel housing
Cord length: 1.4m
Price: about $1100
Final Audio Design FI-BA-SB (heaven-s):
Balanced Air Movement technology
Cord length: 1.4m
Price: about $400
Max. Input: 20mW
Cord length: 1.2m
Price: about $300
So what is it about "Balanced Air Movement Technology"?
It's simply Final Audios way of saying that their IEMs are vented. They make a big marketing fuss about it:
Here's a shot of the vents:
Note that if these IEMs were traditional balanced armatures the vents would serve no purpose at all, because BAs are self-contained. This is not the case with MAs, so the vents could in theory do something to the sound. Being an inquiring mind I wanted to know, so I covered them.
To my utter surprise the SS model (with several vent holes) sounded noticably more muffled, while the A1 and SB (with only one vent) didn't change at all. Was Final Audio cheating with their less pricey models? Now I wanted to know for sure:
And sure enough, feeding light through a funnel into the vent showed why: the strain reliefs aren't sealed, so air can flow here too.
Speaking of strain reliefs...
Strain relief woe and cable disaster:
The e-Q7's build quality has already been covered extensively here on Head-Fi. They have proper strain reliefs and and high-quality (if somewhat stiff) cables. The Final Audios have pretty much what the title says:
Let's start with the A1 (second from left). Their cable is extremely thin and has no protection against bending. It is quite flexible and light, so it's easy to wear over the ears when you're out and about. Well at least in summer, because in frosty temperatures it stiffens within seconds and becomes highly microphonic. Needless to say it also tangles quite easily.
On to the SB (third) which feature a medium stiff flat cable that offers good protection against bending. It inspires much more confidence than the A1's, doesn't tangle and stiffen much in low temperature. However, due to it's design it doesn't easily stay on the ear, so you can forget about running if you want to wear these over-ear.
Last not least the SS (rightmost) which have again a very thin cable without bending protection. Compared to the A1's it's of significantly higher quality, tangles less easily and stays more flexible and less microphonic in frosty surroundings. Nevertheless we're talking about a $1100 phone, so this kind of cable without proper strain relief is just not adequate.
Don't bore us - get to the chorus!
Ok, ok, so how do they sound? All listening was done with a Samsung R0, which was an impulse purchase during my vacation after my Cowon i9 had decided to give up the ghost. Turns out this is a very capable and clean sounding DAP (as long as you don't use DNSe). Here are my listening notes:
Brasstronaut - Six Toes (Mt. Chimaera, 2010, Indie/Jazz)
The top spot goes to a young band from Canada, IMO these guys are simply incredible! Stunning production and musicality, a rare mix of instruments and an eclectic fusion of several genres. A great song to judge headphones by!
Great bass, well defined and textured, smooth mids (if a bit forward), plus inoffensive treble with good detail and maybe slightly limited extension. Excellent clarity throughout the entire frequency range. Very easy to depict specific instruments, good staging. These have been my kings of transparency for quite some time, let's see how they hold up against the new contenders.
Eerily close to the e-Q7 in bass characteristics. The mids are a tad less forward and the highs a bit more present and extended. The difference isn't too significant, yet there's a bit more tingle (but also very slight sibilance) to the A1. For some reason (maybe the less forward mids) they strike me as just a teeny-weeny bit less clear than the Ortofons, of course just nitpickin. Overall these are every bit as stunning as the e-Q7, with maybe even slightly better timbre.
Bass has noticably more impact and slightly more extension than the A1 and e-Q7. Highs are even more forward and tingly (but also slighty more sibilant) than the A1. From that I'd expected the mids to appear somewhat recessed, yet surprisingly these also seem more forward than the A1, somewhere between these and the e-Q7. Clarity is top notch and on par with the Ortofons. Overall the most lively and dynamic presentation so far.
Bass is very close to the SBs and treble is equally forward and even a bit more extended. Sadly sibilance levels are also closest to the SBs. By contrast mids seem to be slightly less forward and closer to the A1. Detail and clarity throughout the whole FR are outstanding. Separation and staging is quite similar to the others, yet the SS sound a bit airier to my ears. All former three phones appear to have a similar level of refinement, but the SS render everything a tad more delicately and sophisticated. Overall about as lively and dynamic as the SBs but with slightly better resolution and layering.
Husky Rescue - Sound of Love (Ship of Light, 2010, Downtempo)
These are also recent favorites of mine, their music is at the same time strangely restrained and wonderfully atmospheric. Contrasting a fragile voice, driving bass and drums and at times distorted guitar, this song is great for testing speed, clarity and transparency.
Great bass again, maybe a bit too light for this song, but speed and quality is top notch. Vocals are forward yet very nice. The top end seems a bit missing, mostly noticable during the tingly opening and by some lack of aggression on the distorted guitar. The strange fragile atmosphere of the song is still wonderfully portrayed.
Again reminiscent of the e-Q7 as far as bass is concerned, but noticably more tingle and better guitar. Vocals are more laid back than on the Ortofons, which suits the song nicely. Somehow these seem to be the most restained sounding of all contenders, but the difference to the e-Q7 is miniscule.
Very sweet tingle through the opening, bass comes in a bit more prominent than on the A1, but not at all obtrusive. Guitar has more grit than on both former phones, vocals are again somewhere between the A1 and e-Q7. These are noticably more lively and engaging than both the A1 and e-Q7. No problem with sibilance in this song.
Wow! From the tingly opening these set the gold standard for the song. Bass has excellent speed and texture and just the right quantity, vocals are delicate and beautiful, and the guitar has just the right amount of aggressiveness to make your neck hair stand up. Sibilance is no problem here and overall these stand out with the most refined and atmospheric presentation.
Diana Krall - I've grown accustomed to his face (Quiet Nights, 2010, Vocal Jazz)
Perhaps the best sounding album I've heard this year, lots of subtle detail here. Brilliantly recorded piano, vocals, strings, cymbals. These MA based IEMs are so good that you really need excellent recordings to make out the differences. With everything else it's just pearls before swine.
Very nice, delicate and atmospheric, bass is spot on and vocals are engaging and intimate. Lush strings with good, realistic timbre. Yet with this recording I can relate to those who have said that the e-Q7's highs are somewhat coarse. It's not only due to the slight roll-off, but there's also a certain lack of resolution and sparkle with brushed cymbals. I still believe that those shortcomings are very slight in comparison to what the Ortofons have to offer overall, but they're here.
Again these are quite close to the e-Q7 in most aspects, so let's concentrate on the differences. Vocals are not quite as forward, yet still intimate. The highs are where I notice the biggest difference with this song, their better extension provides more realism to piano. Cymbals have better sparkle, but on the other hand I don't think the A1 have an edge over the Ortofons in detail resolution. There's still that same very slight coarseness to cymbal rendering, a tiny bit of oversimplifying things, which makes me think these could be the same drivers, just with different tuning.
First thought, these sound like a luxury version of the A1 with this song. Everything sounds lusher and richer, bass reaches slightly deeper, vocals are more intimate. Piano has more weight, strings more shimmer and cymbals more sparkle. Yet overall detail resolution, while already on very high level, still seems the same. Same drivers again, in a more echoey enclosure? Quite likely.
Now these at last must be different, even better drivers (well, for the price they should!). Overall the sound signature is still unmistakably MA, but to my ears these have noticably better resolution. Brushed Cymbals are significantly more realistic and there's a gorgeous quality to the vocals that wasn't there with the others. A different league? Hard to say, with top notch recordings and in quiet surroundings I'd say yes, but I doubt anyone would notice the difference while on the go. But here with this song, an absolute delight!
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" - Last Movement/Finale (Rattle, 1987, Classical)
It doesn't get much more bombastic than this. A full force orchestra plus choir stretching any phone's performance ability to the limit. A spectacular recording with fantastic depth. Goose bumps galore for the listener. An aural tour de force!
The Ortofons scale nicely with the orchestra's mounting dynamics. Vocals stay clear and unaffected by everything else. MA based phones retain most of the natural timbre of their dynamic counterparts, and the e-Q7 is no exception. Interestingly even the Ortofon's slight treble roll-off doesn't do much damage here, though tbo I've heard better cymbal crashes than these. There's also maybe some slight compression/distortion during the loudest passages, but nothing serious. Overall still a great performance.
The A1's better highs extension earn them a slight edge over the e-Q7 with this track. Some tiny details here and there that went unnoticed with the Ortofons. Cybal crashes sound more realistic and there also seems to be no compression/distortion during the loudest passages. On the other hand the A1's overall presentation is slightly less energetic and more reserved (if at all possible with that kind of music, lol). Nevertheless I'd give a slight nod to the A1 over the e-Q7 with this classical piece.
Highs extension is at least on par with the A1 and cymbal crashes are again more realistic than on the e-Q7. Treble is hotter than on the A1, meaning that choir passages sound more lively and gripping, but also that the overall presentation seems a tad less controlled during busy passages than on the A1. The SB can go a bit louder than the A1 and there's a hint of compression/distortion during the loudest passages, but like with the e-Q7 it's nothing to worry about, as normally one wouldn't listen at such volume levels. Kettledrums have noticably more impact than on both the A1 and e-Q7. If I were pressed to decide between the more emotional SB and the more restrained A1 with classical, I'd probably pick the SB, but that's solely a matter of personal preference.
Once again the most expensive phones are also the best. Their detail and clarity are simply mind-boggling. They portray voices and instruments with extraordinary beauty, none of the other contenders comes close. The SS are already quite lively and highly musical during quieter passages and scale well with the orchestra's crescendo. Their treble is hotter than the A1's and only a tad less so than the SB's, yet they seem to keep better control than the SB during busy passages. Overall very likely the best IEM with classical I've ever heard.
Well, I realize it may be not everyone's favourite pastime to read lengthy listening notes, so I'm going to try something new: here's the same photo with different variations of brightness, contrast, saturation and sharpness to illustrate the main characteristics of these IEMs:
The e-Q7 have good contrast and paint a vivid picture, but they have the least treble of all contenders, so the pic looks a bit dark.
The A1 are more restrained, so the picture looks less vivid, but their better highs make it lighter. Detail also seems a bit better, but it's in fact due to better lighting (treble).
The SB have contrast and saturation, they paint the most vivid picture. Sharpness (detail) is about the same as with the others.
At last the SS have noticably better detail. They are almost as vivid as the SBs with high contrast and brightness.
Ever since I first heard the e-Q7 I've been impressed by moving armatures. To my ears they are the best compromise between what I love in dynamic drivers (bass texture, timbre) and balanced armatures (detail, speed). With MA based phones finally building momentum it seemed like the obvious choice to arrange a shootout just between MAs.
Now what have I learned from it and what advice to give to prospective buyers? Well, apart from the $1100 FI-BA-SS they're all eerily close. You might not think so, because I've been mainly concentrating on their differences, but compared to any DD or BA based phone they sound much more different than compared to each other.
So what to do if you already own the e-Q7? Is there an upgrade path? I'd say if you're happy with your Ortofons, then stay with them. There's nothing the A1 or SB can do, that the e-Q7 cannot. They just need a little bit of equalizing.
And what about the FI-BA-SS? Yeah, this one's definitely better. But is it $800 better? If you're the type who wants the best and can affort it, I can definitely recommend them. Just don't expect miracles. And don't expect to hear the difference in a noisy environment, in case you intend to use them for commuting. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to discourage anybody, just trying to put things into proper perspective.
So maybe the Grado GR10 is the way to go? Well, afraid I can't help you, I haven't heard that one...
Edited by james444 - 12/27/10 at 4:12am