LEAR LUF-BA1

Rating:
2.5/5,
  1. HiFiChris
    Dull Paint
    Written by HiFiChris
    Published Feb 5, 2018
    2.5/5,
    Pros - •everything below central midrange (neutrality-oriented)
    •ergonomic shell design, removable cables
    •s@xy aesthetics
    Cons - •everything above central midrange
    •timbre issues
    •middle and upper treble way recessed
    •several other tonally much better-tuned single-BA alternatives available around the same price
    Vorwort:

    LEAR, unter der Leitung des freundlichen Tatco Ma, ist eine in Hong Kong ansässige Firma, die In-Ears verschiedener Typen (dynamisch, hybrid und Multi-BA) herstellt und dabei auch schon innovative Modelle hervorgebracht hat, wie etwa den NS-U1, einen In-Ear mit akustischer Crossfeed-Implementierung.
    Besonders der LHF-AE1d, ein preislich sehr fair gestalteter und höchst versatiler sowie authentisch klingender In-Ear mit einem dynamischen Treiber je Seite, hat es in der Vergangenheit fertiggebracht, mich sehr zu überzeugen.

    Nun hat die Firma einen neuen In-Ear vorgestellt, den LUF-BA1, ein Single-BA Modell mit proprietärem Treiber, der nach den Vorgaben von LEAR gebaut wurde, und dessen ergonomisch geformte Gehäuse aus einem Durchschnitt von über 2000 gesammelten Ohrabformungen entstanden sind – also fast so wie bei den Modellen von iBasso und InEar.

    Wie der In-Ear klingt und was er technisch zu bieten hat, habe ich in dieser englischsprachigen Rezension zusammengetragen.


    Introduction:

    LEAR was founded in 2008 and is a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of custom and universal fit in-ear monitors, ranging from dynamic driver to hybrid and Balanced Armature products.

    In the past, I got the chance to review their unique NS-U1 dynamic driver in-ear, the first product ever to implement an acoustic crossfeed directly into an in-ear, as well as the LHF-AE1d, a very convincing and versatile single dynamic driver in-ear with an authentic and natural sound and adjustable bass quantity.
    LEAR was also honoured with numerous prices and awards – likely deservedly so, at least judged by the two products I already know from them.

    DSC04975-small.JPG

    Now in the second half of 2017, the company has launched a new product, the LUF-BA1, which is a universal fit, Single-BA in-ear monitor. Following LEAR’s logical naming scheme, “LUF” stands for “LEAR Universal Fit”, whereas “BA1” means that one Balanced Armature driver is used per side.

    What makes the LUF-BA1 somewhat more special is that its shells are ergonomically shaped based on the data collected from over 2000 individual ear impressions, along with that the Balanced Armature driver that is being used and is attached to a horn-shaped tube and nozzle, was self-developed and then custom-built for LEAR to their specs and requirements.

    How does it fit, what does it sound like and how does it perform? Let’s find it out in the course of this very review.


    Before I go on, I would like to take the time to thank LEAR for sending me a sample of the LUF-BA1 free of charge for the purpose of an honest review that was written without any external influence/directions and only contains, as always, my pure, honest words.


    Technical Specifications:

    Price: HK$998 ≈ US$128 ≈ €112 ≈ £99
    Drivers per Side: 1x Full Range Balanced Armature
    Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
    Impedance (@ 1 kHz): 24 Ohms
    Sensitivity (@ 1 mW): 116 dB
    THD (@ 1 kHz, @ 94 dB SPL): < 0.3
    Solder: Hi-Fi grade 4% Lead-free Silver Solder
    Sound Tube: Horn Design
    Cable: 1.2 m, OFC, replaceable (MMCX connectors)
    Available Colours: 2 (Blue, Red)


    Delivery Content:

    The LUF-BA1’s packaging is quite nice, as it shows the proprietary driver and horn design.

    DSC04969-small.JPG

    Inside, one will find the ear pieces, cable, carrying case and various silicone and foam tips.


    Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

    The LUF-BA1 is available with either red or blue faceplates – I however specifically requested to get the review unit sent with the left side in blue and the right in red, in order to show you guys and gals both colours, and because I like the looks. Thanks for making this exception, Tatco!

    DSC04971-small.JPG DSC04970-small.JPG

    The glossy faceplates with golden LEAR logos look nice and are seamlessly integrated into the ergonomically shaped shells. The same goes for the coloured side-markers on the inside, however the right one has a slight notch so it’s tactile in the dark.
    Build quality in general is really good and the LUF-BA1 is on the same level as the comparably shaped InEar StageDiver SD-2.

    DSC04973-small.JPG

    The included cable consists of four twisted conductors and is very flexible as a result. It does not lack a chin-slider.


    Comfort, Isolation:

    The LEAR LUF-BA1’s shells are based on the average shape of more than 2000 ear impressions and are therefore ergonomically shaped – comparable to the iBasso IT03 and InEar StageDiver SD-2, but with closer proximity to the latter.
    In my large ears, there is plenty room for the ear pieces and they fit well, which (the latter) should also be the case for most other people.

    DSC04970-small.JPG

    Microphonics are pretty much inexistent due to the good and flexible cable and over-the-ear cable fit.

    Noise isolation is, not all that much surprisingly for a closed shell in-ear, on a pretty high level.


    Sound:

    My main listening source was the iBasso DX200 (AMP1 module).

    I used the largest included single-flange silicone tips for listening.

    DSC04974-small.JPG

    Frequency response measurements can be found here: […]

    The measurements were performed with my Vibro Labs Veritas coupler.
    Below is the information about the measurements with that coupler:

    Please note that my measurements weren't recorded with professional equipment but with my Vibro Veritas coupler that was pseudo-calibrated to more or less match a real IEC 711 coupler’s response with applied diffuse-field target, hence the results shouldn’t be regarded as absolute values but rather as a rough visualisation.
    Especially at 3, 6 and 9 kHz, there are sometimes greater deviations from professional plots – but for a general, rough comparison between various in-ears and a rough idea of how they sound, the results are sufficient, and in the mids and lows, they are even (very) accurate.

    LUF-BA1 FR.jpg vs others.jpg

    Tonality:

    Tonality is, frankly, somewhat weird – from the sub-bass to the upper midrange, everything is fine and the LUF-BA1 takes on a rather neutral approach with a bit of added warmth, not unlike the InEar StageDiver SD-2 that also boasts ca. 5 dB more of what a diffuse-field flat bass response (Etymotic ER4SR/S) would look like.
    The LEAR’s presence range is somewhat boosted in relation to the following highs wherefore its midrange, while with a rather natural vocal timbre, can become somewhat exhausting over time. However, above 5 kHz, it is clearly recessed and sounds dark in the upper middle and upper highs. And just this combination is what makes it a bit weird sounding.

    - - -

    As mentioned, the bass and lower midrange is a bit more on the warmer side, just like the InEar SD-2’s, but with a boost of ca. 5 dB compared to a strictly diffuse-field flat in-ear in the bass, the LEAR can still be considered as basically quite neutral with a bit of added lower midrange warmth. Extension into the sub-bass is flat without any roll-off on the LEAR (and also SD-2).
    It’s certainly a well-made and natural bass implementation.

    The LUF-BA1’s midrange timbre is relatively realistic and neutral for the most part – there’s a bit of added warmth in the lower mids, and some added proximity due to a lifted upper presence range around 3.6 kHz to 4 kHz (higher voices aren’t on the lean, bright or thin side, however they can unfortunately appear somewhat nasal at times) that makes the midrange appear quite intimate in the mix.
    That presence range lift by the way doesn’t only make voices sound quite intimate, but it also makes the LUF-BA1 become quite unforgiving to bad recordings.

    The problem the in-ear has is however found in the middle and upper treble – above 5 kHz, there just isn’t much going on anymore but a quite strong recession, resulting in a quite dark and dull treble response. Cymbals lack glare, and the presentation clearly lacks airiness and appears quite constrained.
    It’s not that the driver wouldn’t be capable of delivering good treble presence and extension – sine sweeps and EQ tweaks clearly show that it definitely does. It’s just a tuning choice that has turned out to be bad: since the majority above 5 kHz is lacking about 10 dB and more (which means that the highs are only half as loud as the rest), the treble just lacks perceived extension, air and has got a dull, lacking feeling to it.
    (An analogy that comes into my mind is a more or less classic car whose paint has become dull – still beautiful, but not as it should be.
    Not that many years ago, I have seen a Mercedes-Benz W124 “Vor-Mopf” in a car park – a vehicle that, to my eyes, is a timeless beauty. It was a red car, but its entire paint had become dull, which is a shame. And that’s what the LUF-BA1 is to me – a basically beautiful in-ear, but dull).

    - - -

    The lacking middle and upper treble can be fixed quite easily with an EQ that doesn’t distort (or, even better, with an EQ that lets you lower everything below 5 kHz evenly, but most portable devices’ EQs don’t and will only lower rather narrow bands, resulting in a wonky response instead of even lowering/level drop). Then, but only then, the LUF-BA1 is a beautifully sounding in-ear that doesn’t lack extension, air and treble presence at all. But this, like all of them, is a review that evaluates the in-ear in its stock form...

    - - -

    Personally, it doesn’t take me all that long to get used to the in-ear’s tonality at all, but I really question if I could live with it on the long run, and I have to say that I definitely couldn’t – it’s just too dull above 5 kHz, and somewhat too forward around 3.5 kHz in relation to the rest in order to appear natural sounding. I would therefore call the LUF-BA1 “dark but still somewhat exhausting”.
    It might have worked out well as a dark in-ear with a reduced presence range compared to as it is now, or as a pretty neutral in-ear if it, the LUF-BA1, had much more level above 5 kHz and a less elevated upper midrange/lower treble. It is not fully a bad in-ear (it really doesn’t sound off by much except for the lacking highs above 5 kHz as well as a bit over-energetic upper midrange, and it can pull it off with some strong EQ help) but it clearly lacks something, and this something is everything above 5 kHz. Too bad.

    (Well, it could still somewhat work with some badly mixed and mastered Metal and Rock recordings or if you are especially sensitive to treble – for everything and everyone else, there are alternatives with a superior and more realistic treble tuning at the same price and below.)

    Resolution:

    The LUF-BA1 doesn’t lack resolution though – like expected for a good single-driver BA in-ear, it sounds very coherent, has got great speech intelligibility as well as midrange resolution, good note separation and a tight bass with good control.

    The bass of the LUF-BA1 is an interesting area – it obviously belongs to a Balanced Armature in-ear in terms of speed and control, but is overall a bit more on the softer and textured side wherefore it has got a slightly dynamic driver touch to it, although just to a small extent.

    The highs are clearly recessed, so there isn’t much to separate to begin with. Increasing the lacking highs using an EQ, the LEAR shows that its driver is definitely capable of reproducing well-separated and detailed highs. But instead it is tuned for a recessed, subdued treble response…

    Soundstage:

    The soundstage is quite circular with a good front-rear projection, but ultimately on the smaller side of average, not unlike the Shure SE425’s with maybe a touch more width and a little less depth.

    Due to its tuning, the LUF-BA1 can reproduce an intimate recording well and very close to the listener, but with good layering at the same time.

    Separation is good, but doesn’t really stand out due to the quite limited soundstage dimensions.

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    In Comparison with other In-Ears:

    Etymotic ER3XR:

    Both have got quite similar midbass and sub-bass levels, however the LEAR is somewhat fuller/warmer in the lower midrange and sometimes appears a bit nasal in the upper mids. The Ety is, as a result, flatter and more neutral in the mids.
    The LUF-BA1 is more forward in the upper presence range wherefore it sounds more exhausting and has got the more intimate vocal area.
    Above 5 kHz, level on the LEAR is quite recessed whereas the Ety sounds mostly neutral with just a touch of relaxation.
    In terms of tonality, the Ety clearly wins due to its more realistic tuning above the midrange.

    The ER3XR has got the slightly tighter bass in comparison whereas the LEAR’s appears a bit more “dynamic” due to being a little softer.
    Midrange resolution is comparable, but the Ety ultimately features the cleaner presentation and separation.

    The Ety’s soundstage is somewhat larger and a bit more precise.

    Brainwavz B150:

    The B150 sounds a bit fuller, bassier and warmer than the LUF-BA1 that however extends flatter into the sub-bass.
    The B150 has got the more relaxed presence range compared to the LEAR’s more elevated that creates a more intimate presentation but also makes it sound more exhausting.
    The B150 doesn’t lack treble presence past 5 kHz whereas the LEAR does.

    The LEAR’s bass is very slightly tighter and faster but control is quite similar.
    Otherwise, resolution is comparable as well with just a very slight advantage for the LEAR in the mids.
    The Brainwavz has got the superior treble separation because there isn’t much actual treble coming from the LEAR to begin with (both are however comparable if you boost the LUF-BA1’s highs).

    The Brainwavz has got the larger, more open soundstage while spatial precision is relatively on the same level.


    Conclusion:


    To sum it up, the LEAR LUF-BA1 is built really well, looks beautiful, has got an ergonomic shell design, performs well on the technical level and is tuned very well from the lows up to the mids, however lacks tonal balance due to a too recessed treble above 5 kHz to be considered natural, harmonic or realistic. Also, its upper midrange sometimes tends to sound nasal.
    It can become a well-tuned in-ear with a proper EQ treble boost above 5 kHz, but the question is if that’s really the point given there are other single-BA (and even very few multi-BA) in-ears around the same price that are already tuned tremendously well without the need of any further EQ-ing to bring out the tonal balance. And this is why the LUF-BA1 is, in my eyes and ears, an unnecessary product.

    - - -

    Unfortunately not more than 2.5 out of 5 stars this time – it is built very, looks absolutely great, has got good ergonomics, performs definitely well on the technical level and is tuned very well from the lows to the mids, but the overly dull highs with the exhausting lower treble lift make it lack tonal coherency and balance, and at its price point, the highly competitive $100 range, there are plenty of in-ears with a tonal tuning that makes a lot more sense and is more natural and realistic.
    Sure, the LUF-BA1 looks very good, but why would you want to have to dial in very strong EQ corrections in order to make the in-ear sound balanced if there are other in-ears available at the same price that don’t need that and already sound balanced out of the box, with a tuning that makes sense?

    - - -

    LEAR’s dynamic driver LHF-AE1d is a well-tuned and natural sounding dynamic driver in-ear. Their NS-U1 is a well-sounding in-ear, too, and quite innovative. Their single-BA LUF-BA1 could have been a well-tuned in-ear as well if it wasn’t for its lacking, dull highs and a bit too forward (high) upper midrange/especially exhausting presence range.

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    In the end, I definitely wouldn’t recommend the LEAR LUF-BA1 un-EQ’d – unless you are specifically looking for an in-ear with a forward presence range but subdued treble.
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