So some thoughts about the Lab 1
I am actually getting drawn into my GS-X mk2 + HD800 rig - which is good. It and the Lab 1 arrived at pretty much the same time. The Lab 1 (and the M with which it synergizes so wonderfully) pretty much dominated for three weeks. Now this weekend the switch is on as was inevitable. So time get my Lab 1 thoughts down.
Some frustration in the Lab 1 mix…
The Lab 1 is a strange, intoxicating but also frustrating IEM. First the frustrating part. It comes with five sets of tips. It is almost as if Takai-san knew that it would be difficult for people to get a good fit. In my experience it is. I have been switching primarily between the Large stock, isolation Sony Hybrids and Comply Ts-400. The thing about the Lab 1 is that the sound changes a fair bit depending on your fit, even with the same tip. I have read where some people have heard recessed vocals. I have heard this. This is a lighter weak fit – although that can do damn interesting things in the soundstage. A little tighter creates an ideal three dimensional rendering in the forward backwards axis. This is one sweet spot. Sounds layer in a manner most intriguing and magical. And if I sit calmly and breathe shallow, I can hold that fit for an entire album. Okay, it is not quite that bad, but I seriously have a hard time keeping that particular sweet spot for any remotely active listening session. A little further in is more stable and produces wonderful forward vocals. The soundstage is a little less three dimensional although the sound does have a remarkable way of being pinpoint precise on the left right axis while occupying a larger space forward to back.
Then there are the Comfort Complys. These are the only tips where I can simply insert and forget. Hell, I can walk around with the Lab 1 and the Complys. The sound is very close to my head on the forward backwards axis with some sounds even coming behind my ears. The individual sound elements also render a bit differently with those big tip openings and the difference is not easily explained. The soundstage is huge in a different almost cavernous way and lots of good things are going on. The bass, which is highly variable with fit, is as good as it gets which is very good indeed. Note that I am not promoting the Complys – right now I am listening through the GS-X with the Isolation Sony Hybrids. I keep switching…
Here is the thing though – as amazingly different as these tips and fits are - the fundamental qualities that make the Lab 1 unique and special are still there with anything but a truly lousy fit.
It is difficult frankly for me to be entirely sure what precise rendering Takai-san was expecting people to get from the Lab 1 given the certainty that we are all getting different fits and the extent to which these IEMs have quite a range of expressions. But what I have concluded is that Takai-san probable expected as much. His remarkable accomplishment is the consistent element in it all: the unique way that the Lab 1 presents sound compared to any other IEM that I have heard. So what is that? FAD has a certain sound – or rather certain sounds – but those won’t help us here.
Not a typical Final Audio IEM…
When one thinks of the Final Audio sound, there is the mid-centric quality of the 1602 series, the euphonic quality of the chrome copper IEMs (and also brass in a different way), the unique acoustic modelling, and at the extreme a syrupy thick, cavernous and euphonic quality where all of this comes together, exemplified most by the PF X which I still consider to be the defining FAD IEM, at least until now…
(*There is also the etched detail of the FIBASS but I never really got the allure of that; others do love it though.)
The Lab 1 is none of the above but it is in my view a real contender for Takai-san’s greatest – and final – audio statement.
The Lab 1 is not euphonic like, say, the Heaven VI. Tonally it has more in common with the HD800. Nor is it mid-centric. Depending on your fit, the mids vary from remote to forward but still nicely balanced in the mix. The sound is not all syrupy. That rigid titanium produces a sound that is almost shockingly proper by FAD standards. Larger tip openings can expand the sound stage to almost cavernous and in my view there is nothing wrong with taking a stroll down that path. However the acoustic modeling that weirdly affects frequency response in the 160x series is clearly not there...
What makes the Lab 1 special (as best as I can explain it)
The Lab 1 is perhaps the most mysterious and intriguing of the FAD IEMs. Here is the thing: it greatly defies being tied down. As I have said before - a cop out really - the FAD leaves the sense of listening to an IEM behind. This is not because the sounds are somehow escaping the IEM sphere close to the head. The Lab 1 has a good size soundstage but nothing exceptional and unprecedented. No, there are two things going on that blow me away.
The first is the natural sound. The vocals are not colored, nor thick and dominating at the center of the world. They are just gorgeous. Relaxed, easy… so clear and accessible. This is one natural headphone in the center of the soundstage.
And secondly, somewhat conversely, it is almost supernatural once you get away from the soundstage’s center. How to put this… even after three weeks I am not sure. From song to song, elements in the soundstage render in unexpected but inevitable pleasing ways. For music with complex elements – let’s take Phil Manzanera’s Primitive Guitars as an example - it can be otherworldly. Sounds occupy layered space, subtly separated in three dimensions, almost shimmering in suspension. It is exciting. Yet here I am listening to James Taylor’s Greatest Hits and its not otherworldly so much as just spot on right. Sweet vocals up front and everything just lovely and distinct in the soundstage. What these situations have in common can be summarized in one word: ambience. The Lab 1 has tons of it.
I have heard IEMs that are faster, that drive harder, that have more sparkle, that are more of just about anything. But I have not heard an IEM that can produce such a sweet natural headphone experience that continually surprises at the periphery. Ambience, sir, the most yet from a company that is known for ambience. Here is the one way in which the Lab 1 is not only ‘typical’ but also the penultimate FAD IEM.
Well, after a few weeks that is about the best that I can do to explain it.
A thought in relation to the bass. You will note that I do not do a review above in terms of treble/mids/bass. I don’t actually do reviews but rather write impressions which are just what occurs to me in how a component moves my soul or fails to. Hence my discussion of the divinity of the mids. I can say that the treble absolutely depends on what you feed the Lab 1 – super sweet with the M, but I prefer to EQ off about three db with a good Baxandall equalizer when listening with the GS-X mk2, a brutally honest amp. (The result is then superb; listening to Jeff Buckley’s Grace that way right now.) The bass is another story again. It can be excellent – for example in the sweet spot described above and also consistently with the Complys. It is not especially fast and slamming or even all that textured but it goes deep and it is rich. The quantity is spot on and it complements the music so well. In many ways I think that this is how bass should be although I can enjoy a good Kaede grinding bass or IE800 slamming bass too. However… the difficulty with fit can mean that the bass is all over the place sometimes. Pushed too far in and it bloats – that is just wearing the Lab 1 wrong – and too far out and lightly fitting, while doing fascinating things on the left and right of the head, does so at the expense of solid bass. Walking around with silicon tips, I therefore find myself fiddling a lot sometimes.
(As a footnote that I want to fit in somewhere, and here a tight fit is key, the Lab 1 can create one hell of a satisfying wall of sound with hard rock.)
In addition, this is not the best isolating IEM, doubly because it is so difficult to hold a good fit. Of course, I speak for myself but I notice that there is a lot of tip rolling going on. That tells me that the issue may go beyond my huge ear canals. Even with the Complys, I still get better isolation from the Heaven VI which remains, driven by the M, my go-to IEM on planes and trains. The Lab 1’s ambience can easily get lost in truly loud environments. The Heaven VI’s forward euphonic sound and greater isolation trump it in such situations.
But – and here is a negative ‘of sorts’ – it does kind of spoil you. Before the Lab 1 showed up, I was very happy using the Heaven VI as my business trip IEM in all situations including quiet cigar sessions where I could really listen. And the Heaven VI, while not cheap, is relatively inexpensive and also bullet-proof, the perfect portable really. Except that the other day I was sitting in a hotel lounge up north having left the Lab 1 back in Shanghai and I was jonesing for the Lab 1. It has set a new standard for portable music and while I would rather leave it at home for practical ‘rather not lose or scratch / damage it’ reasons, it won’t be so easily ignored.
It could be worse.
I am sure that there are other things that I wanted to say but this will have to do. The Lab 1 can be finicky and frustrating at times but it is a fine IEM, a gorgeous listen, simply a superb headphone.
Edited by cooperpwc - 8/31/14 at 8:08am