Starkey M-Fidelity SA-43: Expansive Space + Options
Starkey M-Fidelity is located in Norway and makes a full line of custom IEMs from single drivers through their flagship 3-way 4-driver SA-43. Starkey designs the SA line of products including hearing aids, custom IEMs, hearing protection, and accessories. Starkey labs US and UK both carry Tunz monitors, which are different from the Starkey Norway SA series. I have not heard the Tunz monitors, but they range from single to triple driver designs. With enough interest in the SA series, Starkey US and/or UK may pick up some models which could reduce pricing, at least for the lower end models. .
The SA-43 is the flagship product with 4 BA drivers and comes standard with switches that allow you, the user, to tune the monitor with flat or enhanced bass and a flat midrange or a bump in the vocal area they call presence, although you can opt to not have the switches. It uses an acrylic shell with a silicon fill and white sound tubes, and when combined with the switches offers a unique look. The backplates can be made in various colors but no artwork is available at this time. I previously reviewed the SA-12 which is a canal sized custom IEM and you can see a summary of all the custom IEMs I have reviewed, as well as information and a manufacturer list, here.
How to Order/Warranty/Options
Order information is on this page.
The cost is NOK 5832 ($1014 as of 3/13/13) with a detachable cable and NOK 5592 ($973) without. They come with a 2-year warranty and a 30 day refit period.
Options: Both switches, one switch, or no switches; switch colors: beige, military green, light brown, medium brown, and dark brown (clear and black in the future); faceplate colors; permanent cable (cost savings)
The SA-43 has an acrylic shell that is filled with silicone encasing 4 balanced armature drivers consisting of dual bass drivers, a midrange driver, and a treble driver with dual sound tubes. The crossover points are 50 Hz and 5.3 KHz with 2nd order crossover points (12 dB per octave). The outer part of the shell has two switches: one switch turns on and off one of the dual bass drivers, increasing/decreasing the amount and depth of the bass and the other switch changes the amount of midrange in the vocal area resulting in either a flat response or enhancing the 3K “presence” frequency range. The dual sound tubes are white and have a filter at the end to stop debris and wax from entering the sound tubes. Stated frequency response is 30-18,000 Hz with a 104 dB sensitivity and 50 ohm impedance.
The SA-43 comes with an impressive amount of accessories including: Large zipper case (that holds everything, about the size of a double CD case); mid-sized zipper case; small leather case; 8 replacement filters and replacement tools; cleaning tool; instruction manual; shirt clip; alcohol wipes; 1/4” to 1/8” adapter. While the accessory kit is impressive, I prefer other accessory kits such as the Minerva kit. The mid-sized carrying case isn’t the deepest and doesn’t hold the SA-43 all that well, however with the solid build quality it doesn’t seem like a problem, however I stil would not want to abuse it. The small case seems a little too small and like it wouldn’t offer a great deal of protection and the larger case is a little too large for my taste. The shirt clip is a little large for my liking as well.
The cable is a standard silver variety twisted cable that comes with many custom IEMs. There is slight discoloration from oxidization after about 2 months (my year old EM3 Pro cable is severely discolored, so it does take some time to become fully discolored, depending on the environmental conditions). It doesn’t have the tightest twist, but should last a good amount of time as it is the same quality as offerings from other companies.
The shell is free from defects with a rock solid design due to the internal silicone fill. The shell inspires confidence and should be resilient to drops and at least some physical abuse (not recommended ;)). There are bubbles in the silicone fill which are fairly uniform throughout, so this is not an issue with manufacturing, but just how it is. The switches are very easy to operate and appear to be durable, but they are plastic so I wouldn’t abuse them! Overall the SA-43 is built like a tank!
Note: Starkey has adjusted the fill rate for the silicone which has almost eliminated the bubbles. Also the wax filter now has an oil/moisture repellant nano coating eliminating almost all wax entry into the sound tubes (I didn't know it was an issue before).
Since the SA-43 has switches that no other custom IEM (that I know of as of this writing) has, there is a usability factor unlike other custom IEMs. The switches are easy to flip and as such are easily accidentally changed when inserting. I have thought I had a channel imbalance or a poor fit in one ear only to find I turned on or off the presence switch on one channel when inserting. Luckily that doesn’t happen much! It is easy to feel which position the switches are in and changing them is very easy. However, due to the switches, the SA-43 is not a good choice for sleeping as you will have a good chance of flipping a switch if you lay on your side.
The use of wax guards is not unique and they should be changed out from time to time, however unlike the Fabs wax guards, the SA-43 (and SA-12) wax guards can be easily cleaned with the included cleaning tool. I typically clean out the wax guards every time before I use my SA-43 and have not had to change them yet, nor had them clog, which is nice. There are spares provided and you can always buy more, but not having to change them often is the best solution!
The cable strain relief is pre-bent similar to what the UE IERM uses. This bend provides a very secure fit with my ears but does require me to bend my ear a little more than usual to get the memory wire on right. And just like any acrylic shelled full Concha custom IEM the SA-43 twists back and up for insertion and forward and down for removal.
As I have gained experience with custom IEMs of various build ranging from hollow acrylic to filled acrylic to full silicone I have experienced different levels of isolation. The SA-43 provides the best isolation I have experienced, which is just slightly better than my pure silicone shelled custom IEMs. This could be due to the two separate materials with different acoustic properties - as acrylic and silicone – performing somewhat similarly to a dual paned window. The attenuation on an airplane was possibly 3-4 dB better than the Mi-3 in the higher frequency region. If you want top isolation with the durability/ease of use of acrylic, the SA-43 is a winner.
The SA-43 received 100+ hours of burn in as is customary before I do my serious listening. You can read about my technique here. This is the only IEM I have had where I can A/B with itself with the simple flip of a switch without taking anything out of my ears, however I still A/Bed it with the SE 5-way, LS8, JH16, EM3 Pro, and EP-10 Plus due to pricing. My listening was done from the 801 (amped or headphone out), HUD-MX1 (amped and headphone out), and modded iPod amped. See below for specific source matching performance and additional sources.
From the get go I was impressed with the SA-43 for numerous reasons, even when comparing it to other expensive custom IEMs such as the SE 5-way Reference and LS8. The SA-43 offers impressive spaciousness that is enveloping to go with a neutral sound signature when the switches are off. Of course you can flip the switches and get different presentation variants.
Bass: The bass of the SA-43 is really quite impressive and while the specifications state a lower frequency of 30 Hz I could clearly hear the bass at 20 Hz with roll off starting at about 24 Hz when the enhance bass switch was on. With the switch off the overall level at 35 Hz is several dB lower with a slow roll off until 26 Hz where the roll off is very steep with almost no output at 20 Hz. The tone of the bass/midrange changes slightly when the switch is turned on/off, but nothing major, but noticeable when trying to listen for differences.
Enhanced bass switch off: With the bass switch off the SA-43 is fairly neutral but still not lacking as it can still provide plenty of bass power and rumble. Texturing and detail are quite good, with a tighter presentation than dynamic drivers but with less sub-bass rumble. There is no lack of speed and with a powerful source the bass really performs and the SA-43 can output more bass than the SM3 when a song calls for it although there is much less quantity normally (great dynamics/headroom from the SA-43)..
Enhanced bass switch on: Depending on the track, you may or may not know the enhanced bass switch is on as it provides a headroom boost in addition to a relatively small enhancement in the deep bass region to go along with a substantial sub-bass rumble capability. Songs that high level of deep bass are portrayed with more power and rumble while keeping the same texturing and detail as with the switch off, although there is even more punch and dynamics. Songs with less powerful, yet deep bass will still have a similar bass level regardless of switch position.
Either way the bass is a win-win. I often found myself changing the bass switch depending on the song and my mood/situation.
Presence switch off: With the switch off the midrange is very flat and offers a neutral presentation extremely balanced with the rest of the spectrum and neither mid-forward or mid-recessed. The midrange gets out of the way of the music and lets you relive the experience. Details come through as they should, tone and timbre are exceptional, and the placement of everything within the space results in an incredible experience. The midrange is very similar to that of the JH16 with the switch off.
Presence switch on: The presence switch increases the output in the 3K region which results in bringing the midrange forward making vocals - as well as many instruments - more prominent. While this sounds fine when listening from the start, there is a large difference vs. when the switch is off and the tone/timbre doesn’t always sound as natural. But, with the presence switch on the effect does make most vocals more involving as it brings them into clear focus. Detail is still good and while instruments are placed in different positions, the instrument separation and overall space is unchanged.
While I find myself turning the bass switch on and off depending on what I am doing and even particular songs (not that I need to, but I do because I can!), I change the presence switch much less. It is either something that is on or off since the difference is substantial and upon initial change requires some time for my ears to adjust.
Treble: The treble is unassuming, neither recessed nor bright. It is clean, detailed, and has a very natural sounding decay. Extension is good, on par with the JH16, extends further than the EM3 Pro and EP-10 Plus but not as extended as the LS8 or SE 5-way. Other than with the iPhone 3G the treble is another strong point and again very transparent and unassuming.
Presentation: As mentioned above, the first thing that hits me was the spacious presentation of the SA-43, not just side-to-side but in all directions. This spaciousness comes with great instrument separation, imaging, and transparency resulting in fantastic recreation of the music that is very involving and real. Recordings I never thought were all that good, especially 80s rock and classic rock sounded amazing and more dynamic than I remember. When powered by a quality source and power the dynamics are outstanding, again leading to an amazing overall presentation. Conversely, if the SA-43 is powered by a weaker source the quality of the presentation will drop due to a reduction of dynamics resulting in less transparency.
The detail levels present in the SA-43 is good, resolving more than the EM3 Pro and EP-10 Plus but falling a little behind the JH16 and LS8 while falling further behind the resolution leader, the SE 5-way. There is nothing too thin or too thick about the notes, which is part of the overall great presentation, leading to very nice clarity. Any speed note can be reproduced accurately, therefore the SA-43 does perform well with all genres of music. The overall sound of the SA-43 can change more with recordings and sources than average due to the high level of transparency and presentation qualities.
Comparisons (with similarly priced custom IEMs):
EM3 Pro: (presence on, extra bass on) The EM3 Pro has a very ‘on stage’ presentation that isn’t the largest, but is very 3D and almost a round presentation. The SA-43 is much more spacious but doesn’t quite offer the depth of the presentation, although this actually sounds more realistic most of the time. Both create an ambiance for some recordings adding to the realism vs. just presenting the instruments, but the SA-43 is far superior in clarity and has a higher level of detail. While the EM3 Pro excels with many genres, the SA-43 puts everything together in a more coherent way with all genres resulting in a more realistic presentation across multiple genres.
EP-10 Plus: (presence on, extra bass on) Without EQing the EP-10 Plus, the mid-bass is very thick and overshadows the rest of the presentation to my ears. While not horrible sounding, it is not worth the price without EQ to me, especially when compared with the SA-43. Listening from the D1 with my new space testing track, the Chemical Brothers - Coachella 2011 (bootleg) the EP-10 Plus sounded like I was near the back of a concert with the mid bass turned up too loud and while I could hear the crowd around me, I couldn't hear it clearly like I can with the SA-43. The SA-43 sounds as spacious, but presented from a much different perspective. Bass rumble of the EP-10 Plus does surpass the SA-43 bass rumble, but the SA-43 sounds tighter. Both share the trait of impressive spaciousness but the SA-43 doesn't have the excess mid-bass and is more detailed and technically better.
LS8: (presence off, extra bass off/on) There is a large sensitivity difference between the two so volume matching was important to make sure they were on equal playing fields. Right off the bat the LS8 is a great performer with exceptional clarity and punch and showing off both in comparison. With the bass switch off, the SA-43 has less bass than the LS8 to go with less punch and rumble, but kicking the switch on changes that and the SA-43 shares the punch and has more emphasis and slightly more rumble. The mids/treble of the SA-43 is on the neutral side vs. the enhanced/exciting midrange and exceptionally extended treble of the LS8 giving you something different with both, excitement or realism. The SA-43 presentation is a little on the wider side than the LS8 but they are about equal with a lower end DAP. With a higher end source the SA-43 soundstage continues to grow and surpass the LS8 by a good margin. The LS8 has better clarity and detail while the SA-43 has a more spacious, transparent, and neutral presentation.
SE 5-way Reference: (presence on, extra bass on) The SA-43 has a little more low bass emphasis as well as little more midrange emphasis, but has less headroom compared with the SE 5-way in the bass department. In the treble region the 5-way has much greater extension that gives it more air, but both sound natural. With the presence switch on the SA-43 does sound mid-forward of neutral, as does the SE 5-way, but the 5-way does it differently with better dynamics and the capability to recreate both thick and thin notes more accurately. The overall space of the SA-43 is larger than the 5-way with a little more transparency, but the shape is fairly close and both recreate the presentation with great instrument separation, proportion, transparency, and realism. With that said, the 5-way has better resolution of both instruments and within the presentation space even though it is a little smaller. Overall the 5-way is more refined and gives a clearer picture into the recording but the presentation is fairly similar and both are exceptional choices.
JH16 Pro: (presence off, extra bass on) The midrange of these two is very similar while the JH16 has more bass and treble emphasis. The boost in the bass is at a higher frequency than the SA-43 and with the 4 bass drivers the JH16 can deliver more deep bass rumble than the SA-43. For example with Billy Idol – Prodigal Blues there was a fairly large difference in deep bass rumble but with Massive Attack – Angel the difference was small. Instruments have more micro-detail on the JH16, however the SA-43's presentation is more realistic overall with better instrument placement and a more realistic soundstage size. The JH16 sound a little compressed front-to-back and top-to-bottom in comparison with about the same width which was easy to hear with something such as Virtual Barbershop. Notes on the JH16 decay a little faster than with the SA-43 leading to a more analytical sound, and with lower end DAPs the JH-16 attack is quicker, leading to a punchier sound. But with an amp the difference is minimal.
LCD-2 (v1): (presence on, extra bass on): I only compared the two with the Anedio D1 DAC since the LCD-2 performs so much better with that source than anything else I have, and the SA-43 performs at an amazing level with the D1. I was shocked that the SA-43 had nearly as spacious presentation on The Chemical Brothers - Coachella 2011 (bootleg) which has great space as you can hear crowd details all around and the bass is thunderous. The LCD-2 did have larger overall space but the SA-43 had a more coherent presentation from left to right and is more transparent. Bass of the LCD-2 did win out fairly easily, but the rest of the presentation was, as mentioned, surprisingly close with the SA-43 treble sounding a little more airy and neutral vs. a slightly darker sounding LCD-2. This is the type of track that will excel with cans so I was very impressed by the SA-43.
Volume performance: Not the most sensitive custom IEM, the low volume performance is among the best of the BA IEMs I have heard as the bass kicks in at low volumes. The lower sensitivity makes it difficult for many DAPs to drive which results in less potential for hiss and channel imbalances with analog volume control at low volumes. The SA-43 can play very loud quite easily.
Sound Summary: The SA-43 is extremely transparent with an amazing presentation of music resulting in realism and involvement that is uncommon. Everything is put together extremely well and the results are greater than the sum of the parts! Transparency, imaging, dynamics, tone, timbre, and space are all top notch to go with good detail levels. The SA-43 does so much right it is hard to stop listening, and let’s not forget the sound switches that let you choose a sound signature you prefer for your music, mood, and/or environment.
Clip+: While the SA-43 sounds good with the Clip+, it doesn’t sound like the beast of a custom IEM that it is. This is due to the normal spaciousness you get with a better source being shrunk down to average levels as well as the overall dynamics not being as good, especially in the bass region. This doesn’t mean the SA-43 is lacking in bass, but just that there is less punch and excitement. 3/10
iPhone 3G: Very poor combination that lacks detail and dynamics, the imaging/instrument placement/spaciousness is dramatically affected negatively, and the bass quality takes a plunge. The bass switch doesn’t do all that much and there isn’t a whole lot of rumble, even with the switch on. I listened to about 10 tracks and never want to hear that combo again. The SA-43 sounds like a $20 IEM at best IMO from the iPhone 3G. 1/10
iPhone 4S: While the 4S sounds better than the 3G, it still lacks dynamics and the presentation, while more detailed, is rough and not all that spacious. It may get you by for on the go, but adding an amp can help with bass response, clarity of the presentation, and dynamics. 3/10
Cowon J3: Better match than the Clip+ and especially the iPhone 3G with more dynamics and the imaging and instrument placement, although it doesn’t sound all that spacious and is missing that special something that a higher end source brings to the table. 4/10
RoCoo: Better dynamics and spaciousness than the J3, but lacking power to get the bass drivers moving as I would have hoped resulting in a leaner presentation than I am used to with the SA-43. 4/10
RoCoo BA: With a bright presentation, the RoCoo BA changes the characteristics of the SA-43, giving it a brighter sound but at the same reducing the spaciousness of the presentation, giving the SA-43 a more normal presentation. Overall the presentation quality is much better than that of an iPhone or Clip+, with better detail and dynamics, but it still doesn't bring the SA-43 to the level of certain amps. But, for the size, the RoCoo BA can't be beat with the SA-43. 5.5/10
801: The 801 is a great match as allows the SA-43 to strut it’s stuff including spacious presentation, great bass, excellent dynamics, good note sustainment, and an overall great sound. The SA-43 scales very well and it shows with the 801! 8.5/10
DX100: Excellent match with the SA-43 that brings out the excellent imaging and depth of presentation along with great detail and bass control and depth. The resolution of the SA-43 kicks up a notch and surpasses the 801 while sounding a bit wider, however the presentation depth is slightly less. 9.5/10
Portable Sources with Amps:
iPhone 4S ->
i.Fuzen: The i.Fuzen has a great form factor but has a darker sound than the headphone out of the iPhone 4S. The bass is warmer and more prominent, and while the dynamics are better, the overall sound quality is marginally better. Space is a bit larger than the HPO, but the lower levels of treble take away from the overall presentation and complexity of the sound. 3.5/10
Shonyun 306: Quite refined and detailed, but with a more mid-forward presentation, the 306 has a slight bit smaller presentation than the other amps. Bass weight isn't the greatest, but the quality of the presentation is higher than the price point. 5.5/10
Neco V2: Very good bass weight and control, but the upper midrange is a bit on the peaky and harsh side with the V2, making it less enjoyable overall than the 306. Dynamics are good. 4/10
EHP-O2: Similar to the V2, except a bit smoother with a bit less presentation depth. Bass weight and control is great, but the overall presentation is a little on the rough side. Dynamics are good. 4.5/10
uHA-120: A bit brighter than the V2 and O2, the 120 is also more transparent with better smoothness and similar quality bass. The 306 has a smoother yet equally detailed presentation. Still not the most refined, but a step up. Spatially it is about on par with the V2, which is slightly better than the O2 and 306. 5.5/10
Stepdance: The clarity and openness of the presentation is kicked up a notch compared with the other amps listed above. Bass is powerful and full, treble is smooth, detail levels are high, and dynamics are great. 6.5/10
Pico Slim: Brighter and a bit less spacious than the Stepdance, the presentation is brought forward. The presentation is precise and smooth with nice layering even though the presentation space is a bit smaller and the sound isn't quite as open as the Stepdance. This is a good pairing, but a different preference than the Stepdance. 6.5/10
Arrow 4G: Not quite as smooth or refined as the Stepdance and Pico Slim, but very good width, sacraficing a bit in the depth of the presentation. Deep bass isn't quite as powerful as the other amps. 6/10
Cruise: Another presentation that is on the brighter side, the Cruise is dynamic, but not quite as smooth as the PS or SD. While there is no hiss with the Cruise, the sound isn't as spacious or as refined as with the PS and SD. 6/10
Portaphile 627: This amp has the best bass weight and control as well as the best layering of the amps I have tested. There are overall improvements to refinement and musicality, however with they aren't great with the iPhone as a source. 7/10
Modded iPod ->
Arrow 12HE: Surprisingly good match that has nice width, more so than the Pico Slim and Stepdance without giving up much in the 3D qualities of the presentation. More laid back than the Stepdance and slightly more laid back than the Pico Slim. Only ever so slightly less transparency than the Pico Slim, but the additional spaciousness adds to the presentation. 9/10
Pico Slim: This is an amazing combination I can listen to all day. I did so today! This combo is transparent, dynamic, fast, neutral, and offers excellent resolution, all of which is readily apparent in so many of my 7000 random tracks that play. 9/10
Stepdance: A/Bing with the Pico Slim the Stepdance isn’t as transparent as the Pico Slim, resulting in a little less realism. The presentation is a little more closed in and forward than the Pico Slim and a even more so than the Arrow 12HE. Deep bass is controlled better with the Stepdance and the overall resolution is about the same as the Pico Slim. 7.5/10
Arrow 12HE: The Arrow 12HE loses a slight bit of resolution/refinement compared with the Pico Slim and Stepdance. The frequency response of the 801 HPO and the Arrow are nearly identical and the performance is nearly identical. 8.5/10
Pico Slim: Slightly more expansive than the headphone out of the 801 but with more upper midrange and treble presence/less bass emphasis. Better instrument separation with a very slightly more forward presentation, there is not a big difference between the two except with very low volume listening (and I mean very low level) where the 801 analog volume pot has a channel imbalance. 9/10
Stepdance: Similar to the Pico Slim, the Stepdance is slightly brighter. There is not a big difference between the performance of the Slim and the Stepdance as with the iPod except the bass performance is just about the same. Small difference in sound quality except at extremely low volume levels with a potential channel imbalance with the 801 vs. the digital control of the Stepdance. 9/10
Shonyun 306: Nice match that is spacious, well controlled, and detailed with a natural tone. Outperformed many other amps, some that cost more than the 306. Sound quality is almost on par with that straight from the DX100 (except the bass region), meaning this amp will most likely sound equally impressive, depending upon the DAC of course, with other sources. 9/10
HUD-MX1 (OPA1611): With the MX1 powered by the wall wart it is a great match with the SA-43. It puts out enough power to really get the SA-43 moving, sounds very spacious and other than lacking detail of the 801, compares favorably. Sure, it doesn't raise the sound to the Anedio D1 level, but it sure does a great job for the price. Without the wall wart it is still a good performer but the dynamics aren't quite as good and the whole presentation is taken down a bit with less size and instrument separation, although it still isn't all that bad. 6/10 with USB power, 8/10 with wall wart.
D1: Wow is all I have to say. OK, I will say a few other things…the D1 pushes the SA-43 to stellar heights including adding to one of the SA-43’s biggest strengths, the soundstage. With the D1 and a spacious recording I couldn’t believe I wasn’t listening to headphones, and extraordinarily good ones at that! This combo is simply amazing. 10/10
Source Summary: Quality of the source is very important with the SA-43 in order to achieve the full potential. If you are only going to use low end DAPs or your phone, chances are the SA-43 won’t knock your socks off. Basically, the SA-43 scales well and can perform at a very high level when fed from a high level source, but is still very impressive with many sources with driving power.
The SA-43 is special in the way it recreates the space of a presentation along with stellar transparency, putting everything together to make not just music but an experience. Isolation is also top notch as the silicone filled acrylic shell isolates slightly better than my two pure silicone custom IEMs. Not only that, you can customize the frequency response to your liking with a switch that controls the extra bass driver and a switch to add midrange "presence." Spatial presentation is top notch in size, proportions, instrument placement, and timbre. Add great dynamics, speed, tone, and pace and all genres of music sound captivating and involving. Detail levels, are right around the middle of the pack; there are some that do better and some that do worse. It is very important to note that the SA-43 requires a good source or you will lose the great space and some dynamics resulting in a more average performance. The included accessory pack is extensive however I am not very fond of the carrying case Overall the SA-43 is an incredible custom IEM!
- Exceptional recreation of the space in size, shape, placement, separation, tone/timbre, and transparency
- Switches to control the frequency response which allow you to select the sound signature you want
- Excellent isolation due to silicone fill of the acrylic shell
- Lower quality/powered sources will not give you the spacious, dynamic presentation the SA-43 is capable of delivering
- Silver colored stock cable will turn green over time with oxidization
- SA-43 doesn’t fit all that well into the included mid-sized and small carrying cases
Edited by average_joe - 3/13/13 at 11:54pm