At the time this review was written, the Super Dolphin earphone was listed for sale on AK Audio Store’s Aliexpress website. Here is a link to their listing of the product:
I’ve had some recent opportunities to review some excellent gear. Reviewing in-ear monitors is normally my cup of tea. The more high end stuff I hear, the more I am able to make sense of products I am covering.
We know what the premier brands for in-ear monitors are. These companies have made a big splash with their multi-driver monitors, offering various builds and driver variations. As we see new premier products hit the market, one thing remains fairly consistent. Multiple armature driver earphones seem to be the configuration for most of the premier manufacturer’s flagship models. Being able to manipulate and shape sound with various driver counts and components has made the hobby of high end earphones a very interesting realm to dabble in.
Smaller and lesser known companies have taken note of this multiple driver trend. In the last year we’ve seen a lot of small companies emerge, making similarly designed earphones in terms of driver counts. For these new companies there is definitely a learning curve. Much of what I’ve heard from these lesser known manufacturers are monitors that sound decent while being offered at cheaper prices. Of the earphones that I’ve heard that fall into this criteria, there is a decent price to performance ratio and a unique opportunity for customers to own an earphone with a high driver count without shelling out barrels of cash. Although they may be selling four, six, eight or more drivers in each channel, they usually aren’t selling the same refined and complete sound quality we hear from Noble, Empire Ears, JH Audio and so on (for the most part). Many times it’s an “almost but not quite” kind of thing. When you factor in price, it’s kind of a wash. I’m not saying that these companies can’t produce an earphone that sounds just as good as the top dogs at a better price, I’m just saying that I haven’t heard it yet. I make this an open invitation for these companies to prove me wrong.
The fact that people are taking leaps of faith in buying these lesser known bargain priced multi driver earphones in hopes that they find a TOTL sound is an indicator that many people want to see this happen. It has happened for hybrids and dynamics. I have little doubt that we will start to see some incredible multi driver earphones that rival anything on the planet for less than five hundred dollars. If you build it, they will come!
Today we will review the “Super Dolphin” earphone from the AK Audio Store. When my good friend Tamal said that he had a demo pair and wanted to hear my opinion on them, I wasn’t about to turn the opportunity down. I am as curious as anybody to listen to this type of stuff and see for myself if they can bring it in terms of audio performance. Today I will give my take on them, and go over them with a comprehensive review.
I was given a free loaner of the Super Dolphin in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I am in no way affiliated with AK Audio Store. I would like to take this time to personally thank Tamal and the reps from AK Audio Store for the opportunity to experience and review the product.
I AM NOT a numbers and graphs audiophile or sound engineer. Personal audio enthusiast? Absolutely! Headphone junkie? Possibly…
There’s something about quality DAPs, DACs, Amplifiers and Earphones that intrigues me. I want to hear any earphone that looks promising, in hopes that I can share my impressions with enthusiasts and help them find the audio product they’re looking for. My Head-Fi profile has a list of audio products ranked from favorite to least favorite. For me, this hobby is more about getting great price to performance ratio from a product, and having a variety of different gear to mix and match. With personal audio gear, we tend to pay a lot of money for minor upgrades. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that just because a headphone has a higher price tag, it doesn’t mean that it has superior build and sound quality.
I’m always looking for great audio at a great price. I’m after headphones and IEMs that give me the “WOW” factor. I can appreciate different builds and sound signatures as long as they are solidly built, with ergonomics and sound that is pleasing to my ears. It’s my pleasure to share my experiences with audio products and make recommendations based on gear I have owned and used.
The Dolphin earphone was a demo model that did not come in a retail package. Because of this I am leaving this portion of the review blank.
Specifications and Accessories
1X Pair Dolphin Earphones
1X Premium Cable (options of MMCX or two pin)
1X Clamshell Case
1X Set of earphone tips (non-specified)
The housing shape is somewhat similar to the universal line from Unique Melody but slightly larger. There is an abalone print on the faceplate. It’s a bulky black acrylic shell with a somewhat custom-ish shape.
Super Dolphin has a slightly wider than average nozzle. Three ports for sound are located on the end of each nozzle. Tip rolling is fairly easy to do, although narrower bored tips might need a little bit of stretching to get them to fit.
AK Audio Store offers customers the option of MMCX or two-pin connections. My review sample comes in two-pin and works excellent. If you are considering which one to get, I personally would prefer the two-pin. Your mileage may vary.
Cable, Y-Split, Cable Jack, Strain Reliefs
I LOVE the Super Dolphin cable. I assume the cable is silver tinsel plated copper with clear frosted jacketing. The cable is braided up to the Y-split, then twisted up to each channel. The cable is very flexible and avoids kinking and knotting. There is virtually no spring and minimal memory. The Y-split is made of frosted clear rubbery plastic material and comes with a chin/neck slider that sits flush with it and works well. Each channel’s two-pin jack is angled and has a sturdy connection, and about two inches of the cable has a pre-shaped portion of cable with memory to help promote a consistent fit. I really like the way this is done, as it promotes a better fit than standard memory wire. The cable jack is a ninety degree design with the same frosted clear jacketing as the Y-split and two-pin jacks. Of all of the in-ear monitors I’ve come across, the Dolphin cable makes the top ten for favorite CABLES I've used.
The Super Dolphin does not come with a mic/remote. Because they are a detachable cable earphone, this leaves the door open for and upgrade cable with these features. As is, the Super Dolphin is designed for music enjoyment. Plug in, play music, repeat.
Ergonomics, Fit and Microphonics, Isolation
These earphones are flat out bulky. With a shallow fitting tip, the Dolphin will provide a good fit, fill the concha of the listeners ear, and depending on the listener's ear it will most likely stick out of the just a bit. It has a somewhat custom fit, and doesn’t necessarily look bad when wearing them. If abalone finish is your thing you’re going to like them.
Super Dolphin is easy to wear once you get a good sealing tip with a shallow profile. I was able to pop them in my ears, secure them with the over the ear fit and chin/neck slider, and enjoy them for extended periods without having to readjust them or tinker with the cable. Isolation is better than the average universal in ear monitor, but not as good as a custom monitor. Microphonics are non-existent thanks to the over the ear fit.
I did my demo with my usual gear. I used an LG-V10 for smartphone use, and either my Shanling H3 or iBasso DX80 DAP/Bushmaster D14 DAC/Amp for high fidelity portable use. For desktop use, I used my Toshiba Satellite Laptop in combination with a ifi micro iDSD playing at 32/192 kHz. I tested them with several other sources as well. I used Google Music in its highest download quality (320 KBPS), and also streamed FLAC via Tidal streaming service. I also used purchased and downloaded tracks in MP3, FLAC, WAV and DSD. I make sure that any gear I test has sufficient playtime before writing a review.
I used my usual same songs for testing gear:
“Limit to your love” by James Blake (bass speed, punch, response)
“Doin’ it Right” by Daft Punk (sub bass)
“Get lucky” by Daft Punk (bass to midrange transition resolution, male vocals)
“Madness” by Muse (soundstage, separation)
“Some nights” by Fun (soundstage and male vocals)
“The soundmaker” by Rodrigo y Gabriela (texture and imaging)
“Bassically” by Tei Shi (bass to midrange resolution, female vocals)
“Skinny Love” performed by Birdie (female vocals, acoustic playback)
“One” by Ed Sheeran (male vocals, acoustic playback)
“Outlands” from the Tron Legacy Soundtrack (symphonic presentation, imaging)
“Sultans of swing” by Dire Straits (detail, separation, balance)
“And Justic for All” by Metallica (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
“Ten thousand fists” by Disturbed (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
Note: Other tracks were used, but the listed songs were primarily used to assess and break down the gear’s response.
Coming in at twelve Ohms, the Dolphin falls in line with other multiple driver earphones. They are very sensitive and benefit from low powered DAPs and sources with the power output of a standard smartphone. Using a higher powered source will cause the Dolphin to have a background hiss and also pick up some EMI. Anything more powerful than a DAP in low gain is overkill.
I enjoyed the Super Dolphin most with my low powered and more colored sounding sources. The Dolphin sounded really good with my Fiio E18 in low gain, with my Rockboxed Clip Zip, and my LG V10. I wasn’t able to turn the Dolphin up to half way on my V10 before it was too loud to listen to. I will touch on this later in the review, but I preferred to use the Dolphin with any source that has a bass boost option.
The Dolphin is a dry and somewhat cold sounding earphone that emphasizes mid-range/upper mid-range tones. They have a bass line that extends and is decent in tone, but is south of neutral and somewhat flat in it’s presentation. I consider the Dolphin to be an earphone for those who strive for accuracy and detail.
The Dolphin is the “anti-basshead” armature earphone. If I had to compare the Dolphin to something, I would say it is along the lines of a good pair of bookshelf speakers that are in need of an added subwoofer to bring the sound to life.
NOTE: I was informed that AK Audio Store has made improvements to the earphone’s bass response. Because I haven’t heard this “improved tuning” or heard anyone speak of it besides AK Audio, I will wait to edit the review. As it stands my impressions will be based on the review sample I currently have.
I’ll be flat out honest here, the Dolphin bass is shy, sterile and somewhat two dimensional. I can pick up the bass and don’t feel like the response is missing at any frequency range, but at the same time the balance in relationship to other frequencies is skewed for my preference. Turning the earphones up shows me that these earphones are capable of producing a decent amount of bass with plenty of impact, but when you get to a volume loud enough to get a sense of impact the other frequencies seem boosted to the point of it being fatiguing.
At the end of the day, it’s an already linear bass response that has been turned down the bass to below neutral. Bassheads are going to hate these things. Havi B3 Pro1, Etymotic and Hifiman RE-00 lovers will most likely be able to appreciate them, although they may have a touch less bass than the ones I just named (depending on the seal and fit achieved).
NOTE: The Dolphin is an entirely different earphone with a bass boost applied from your source. With the added oomph, the dolphin comes to life and offers a level of sound that I can appreciate much more than the stock tuning. Lower frequencies seem to balance out with upper midrange frequencies, and I can finally say that the sound is overall closer to what I perceive as neutral. Dynamics, textures, and even spatial queues improve with a bass boost.
Midrange is thin at lower mid-range frequencies and gets slightly more emphasized and aggressive as you move towards upper midrange frequencies. Male vocals and deeper sounding instruments have a slightly cold and dry presence. A positive about this is tuning is that it sounds very detailed.
As we move to upper midrange things seem to be more emphasized in every track I’m listening to. This creates a really nice effect with female vocals. Every sound at upper midrange tones pops. At moderate listening volumes the Dolphin has nice energy and midrange takes center stage. At louder volumes they can get a bit fatiguing and shouty.
Treble is fairly neutral, with a hint of sibilance around the 6 kHz range. At moderate volumes it is natural and engaging. At louder volumes it is okay aside from the sibilant ranges. To be honest, there are parts of the Dolphin tuning that are tuned up when they should be tuned down, and vice versa. I wish the 6 kHz region could have been tuned down just a touch. It would have made the Dolphin easier to listen to. Other than this mentioned spike, I find the treble to be adequate and overall natural sounding.
Soundstage and Imaging
Although tuned in back of the mix, the Dolphin has decent bass extension. Combine that with a very detailed response, I’ll say that these earphones present a decent sense of space. Although not huge, there is a sense of imaging with these earphones that I can appreciate.
Unique Melody Miracle V2 Universal ($1049 USD on many sites)
I am going to do this comparison because I feel as though this is the type of earphone the Dolphin mimics in terms of design and driver count. Although nowhere near the price, the similarities are there in terms of build. This comparison is not only to explain differences, but also justify why the Miracle V2 can be the price it is, and what the Dolphin does to warrant their lower price tag (and set the Miracle V2 for what the budget multi-armature driver earphones could strive for moving forward).
Comparing the two, the Miracle V2 is an overall more cohesive sounding earphone. All frequencies seem to be in better balance with each other, creating a more natural sound experience. Bass is more forward on the Miracle V2, packing more body and impact than the Dolphin. Lower midrange of the Miracle V2 has a touch more body, and upper midrange is slightly less aggressive. Treble is slightly less harsh on the V2. The midrange and treble of the V2 is smoother and easier to listen to at louder volumes. Staging is wider and deeper on the V2.
Build quality is a draw, but I give an advantage to the Dolphin in terms of cables. Accessories goes to the Miracle V2.
NOTE: This comparison is not done to shame the Dolphin, but more to explain that the Dolphin is not a substitute or cheaper version of something like the Miracle V2. You may be getting a decent sounding six driver earphone, but the tuning and sound refinement is not on the same level as elite flagship in-ear monitors. To be honest, I look forward to the days when I can write a review on a product like the Dolphin and say that this is the case.
Hifiman X RE-00 Massdrop edition ($35 USD on Massdrop)
I feel this is an important comparison to help readers understand the tuning of the Dolphin. For those who don’t know, the RE-00 is one of the flatter (measurement wise) and most perceivably neutral earphones on the planet.
Comparing the two, the RE-00 actually sounds like the Dolphin when used with a bass boost. Yes, the Dolphin has less bass impact than the very linear RE-00. The Hifiman earphone has a touch less upper midrange tuning, and somewhat similar treble tunings. Super Dolphin has much better micro details and separation. Dolphin also seems to work better with low powered sources than the sixty-four Ohm RE-00.
Accessories goes to the Dolphin, as the RE-00 offers next to nothing. I give the Dolphin a decisive advantage for having a very nice two-pin detachable cable.
The Super Dolphin is a step in the right direction for AK Audio. They have brought to market a multi-driver earphone that will be a nice option for those looking for a bass light and vocals forward tuning. While I don’t think this tuning is going to make them a giant killer of an earphone for the masses to run out and buy, they definitely offer something unique that some will appreciate.
The six drivers aspect is cool if you are looking for something with multiple armatures and don’t want to shell out a ton of money. Truth be told, I don’t care how many drivers a company is selling, if it doesn’t create an enjoyable music experience I don’t care if it has one hundred drivers in each side.
Do I think this is the best earphone you can buy for under three hundred dollars? For my preference, the answer is no. Even still, they will cater to a small demographic of music lovers who feel that most in-ear monitors tend to exaggerate the bass. There is definitely people out there who will appreciate the tuning of the Super Dolphin.
If I were to make suggestions in how to improve on the product, I would hope that future tunings have more bass presence (approximately a 5 dB increase) and a slight reduction in upper midrange and sibilant ranges. Doing so would even out the sound and make them more neutral and add more life to the tuning. Aside from that, keep the cable (it’s great) and maybe try to make the shell a bit smaller. I know all of this is possible. If AK Audio can pull this off without sacrificing the detail and sound separation we will have a game changer for sure.
When rating a product I have to take all criteria into account. I give the Super Dolphin four and a half stars for build and design, four stars for for overall fit, two and a half stars for accessories, and two and a half stars for sound. Add a bass boost and that sound rating jumps up and least one star or maybe more. All things considered I will give the Dolphin three and half stars. They aren’t going to change the landscape of how we should price top of the line gear. They may have the driver count, but they don’t have the same balance and sound refinement, at least not yet. I look forward to seeing what the folks at AK Audio come up with in the future. After hearing these, I think it’s possible we will soon see them release a “Giant-Killer Whale” that will proceed the “Super Dolphin.”
Thanks for reading and happy listening!