Mar 1, 2011 at 11:49 PM
Portables Reviewerus Prolificus
- Mar 2, 2009
- Reaction score
Portables Reviewerus Prolificus
- Mar 2, 2009
The wooden-housing segment of the IEM market has been expanding rapidly over the past couple of years. Ignoring most of the field, my first Got Wood? review pitted Woodees’ original IESW101B model against Thinksound’s first release, the TS01. I found the two to be worthy competition not only for each other but also for the rest of the field, though like all mid-range earphones they were not without flaws. The latest models from both companies feature revised acoustics and cosmetics, iPhone-compatible microphones and remotes, and higher price tags - easily enough alterations to warrant a fresh look. However, since I’ve already reviewed the Thinksound TS02+mic in full, I decided to spice up this review by adding a more mainstream competitor – the Skullcandy Holua – and two lesser-known wooden earphones from Europe – the Xears TD-III ‘Blackwood’ from Germany and the Fischer Audio Daleth from Russia.
Thinksound TS02 - $80
Woodees IESW100L ‘Blues’ - $70
Skullcandy Holua - $50
Xears TD-III ‘Blackwood’ - €42 (est. $57)
Fischer Audio Daleth– est. $29
Packaging & Accessories
*Fischer Audio packaging not shown
The packaging of the Thinksound TS02+mic is made almost entirely out of recycled cardboard. Thinksound went the extra mile to eliminate unnecessary plastic waste – even the cable tie has been replaced by a small snippet of cotton rope. The accessory pack remains unchanged from the TS01 and Rain models - four sets of silicone tips, cable clip, and unbleached cotton carrying pouch.
The Woodees Blues comes in more customary packaging – a glossy cardboard box with enough room to hold half a dozen earphones. The accessory pack is similar to the old Woodees models and includes four sizes of single-flange silicone tips, a shirt clip, and a black velour drawstring pouch.
The Skullcandy Holua comes in a small plastic blister pack and includes the richest accessory set of the bunch – single-flange silicone tips in 3 sizes, Comply (T400) tips, and a hemp clamshell carrying case with a questionably protective mesh on one side.
The Xears approach has always been as follows: “Packaging? We don’t need no stinkin’ packaging”. I actually don’t mind this kind of cost cutting as it reduces not only design & packaging costs but also shipping & handling charges. The earphones come sealed in plastic and a padded carrying case is included, along with three sizes of silicone single-flange tips, a set of bi-flanges, and Soundmagic-style foamhybrid tips.
Lastly, the Daleth comes in Fischer Audio’s usual flattened carboard box and includes nothing but the bare minimum of three sets of single-flange tips and a shirt clip.
Design & Build Quality
The Thinksound TS02 is a straight-barrel earphone similar in appearance to the other Thinksound models and available in two color schemes - Black Chocolate and Silver Cherry. In both cases the housings are made partly out of wood (from renewable sources) and partly out of machined aluminum. The rubbery PVC-free cable, long strain reliefs, and beefy 3.5mm plug are all shared with the other Thinksound models, as is the lack of a sliding cable cinch and mild driver flex exhibited by the TS02 upon insertion. The TS02 is the only earphone here available in both regular and iPhone-compatible configurations.
If the construction of the TS02 is all but identical to that of the older Thinksound models, the build of the new Woodees Blues has been re-imagined from the ground up. The housings are still the same size and shape – easily the largest of the bunch – but the cheap-looking orange accents are gone, replaced with sturdier-looking gold-plated metal bits. The wooden part of the housings has been painted black and the Woodees logo, which rubbed off far too easily on the old model, has been moved to the strain relief. Sadly, left/right markings have been moved off the earphones completely although the microphone/remote unit hanging off the right earpiece makes this a non-issue. The striped nylon-sheathed cord is one of the best cloth-type cords I’ve come across – soft and flexible but prone to neither kinking nor tangling. The cable is protected by long rubber sleeves and features a sliding cinch, which is limited in range of motion by the microphone unit, and gold-plated Y-split and 3.5mm plug. Mild driver flex is present upon insertion.
The Skullcandy Holua is the smallest of the earphones, similar in size to Thinksound’s older TS01 model. Skullcandy clearly took the wood theme close to heart – the Holua is the only earphone with wooden nozzles and stems. The housings feel reasonably solid but the cable, though similar in thickness to that of the Woodees, tends to kink. It’s not the worst nylon-sheathed cable I’ve come across but it leaves a bit to be desired. In addition, the hideous plastic mic/3-button remote unit looks like it came out of a cereal box and there are no proper strain reliefs anywhere on the earphone. Left/right markings are missing as well, though the presence of an inline mic makes this a non-issue. The driver flex is worse than with the Thinksounds and Woodees but not as bad as with the Xears.
The Xears TD-III ‘Blackwood’ is a wooden take on the Xears TD100/TD100-II design. Styled after Monster’s Turbine line of earphones, the TD-III is the most restrained and arguably the most handsome of the Xears earphones. As with all of the other earphones here except the Holua, the nozzles of the TD-III are made of metal. The black finish on the wooden part of the TD-III has more of a hand-painted feel next to the glossy Woodees. The strain relief is a bit too hard for my liking but should still be more protective than the wooden stems of the Skullcandies or the hard plastic relief of the Daleth. Happily, the TD-III comes in a standard y-cord configuration, foregoing the j-cord used by the older TD100. The plastic-sheathed cable is smooth and has no memory character but lacks a cable cinch. It doesn’t feel particularly upmarket but does a good job of staying untangled. One thing that bothers me about the TD-III is the driver flex – it is the worst of the bunch, though not by a large margin.
The Fischer Audio Daleth is the cheapest of the five wooden earphones by far and competes only just when it comes to build quality. The reddish hue of the wood and slim, filterless nozzles differentiate the Daleth from the other earphones. Sadly, the rubbery cable used by Fischer is the thinnest of the lineup and has the most memory character. The hard plastic strain reliefs and lack of a sliding cable cinch are nothing to brag about, either, but the Daleth does have the only L-plug here. Driver flex is slightly milder compared to the Xears and Skullcandy models.
Fit & Comfort
*Left->right: Xears TD-III, Woodees Blues, Thinksound TS02, Fischer Audio Daleth, Skullcandy Holua
All of the earphones feature a conventional, straight-barrel form factor. Their fit differs only in insertion depth (as a function of nozzle length and housing diameter) and stability (as a function of weight and tip quality). The Thinksounds and Fischers can both be inserted fairly deeply as they have slim housings and long nozzles but the stock tips on the Daleth could be better. The Woodees are on the opposite end of the spectrum, with large housings and fairly short nozzles. The Xears and Skullcandies are both rounded at the front and can seal comfortably despite being slightly larger than the Fischers and Thinksounds. All of the featured earphones can be worn over-the-ear but the large size and long strain reliefs of the Woodees may pose problems with cable-up wear for some users. In addition, the sets with microphones and in-line remotes may be less convenient for over-the-ear use. In the end, long-term comfort will always depend on the individual user but I find the Thinksounds and Skullcandies to be the two to disappear in my ears quickest, followed by the Xears, then the Daleth, and then the Woodees.
Isolation & Microphonics
All five of the featured earphones are dynamic-driver IEMs but the Xears and Woodees do not feature prominent vents (though the latter are most likely vented through the strain relief). The TD-III does isolate slightly more than the others, especially with the included bi-flange tips but on the grand scale, all five rank "above average" in isolation.
Microphonics are present but not terrible in any of the earphones. The Holua and Daleth are the worst offenders but even their cable noise is easily remedied with over-the-ear wear. The Thinksounds, Woodees, and Fischers all include shirt clips, which help mitigate microphonics further, and the Woodees even have a sliding cable cinch. I wouldn’t recommend any of them specifically for gym use but for everyday wear the cord noise should be tolerable.
Xears TD-III Blackwood
Fischer Audio Daleth
| 8mm Dynamic|| 10mm Dynamic|| 8mm Dynamic|| Dynamic|| Dynamic|
| N/A|| 16Ω|| 16Ω|| N/A|| 16Ω|
| N/A|| 105 dB/mW|| N/A|| 124 dB/mW|| 98 dB/mW|
| 20-20k Hz|| 20-20k Hz|| 18-20k Hz|| 6-28k Hz|| 16-22k Hz|
| 1.2m (4ft)|| 1.2m (4ft)|| 1.2m (4ft)|| 1.2m (4ft)|| 1.25m (4.1ft)|
| 3.5mm I-plug|| 3.5mm I-plug|| 3.5mm I-plug|| 3.5mm I-plug|| 3.5mm L-plug|
| Optional mic w/1-button remote|| Mic w/3-button remote|| Mic w/3-button remote (certain models)|| N/A|| N/A|
MSRP (Street price)
| $79.99 / $89.99 for mic’d model ($80/$90)|| $129.99 ($80)|| $99.95 ($50)|| €42 (est. $57)|| Est. $29|
Sound[size=7.0pt]Testing note:[/size][size=7.0pt] All on-the-go listening was done using a Cowon J3 portable player with a wide range of tracks in mp3 (bitrates ranging from 128 to 320kbps) format. Critical listening was done via an optical-fed iBasso D10 using only WMA and FLAC lossless files. All of the earphones tested were burned in for at least 80 hours prior to any critical listening.
I’ve always maintained that the TS02 is a very musical and enjoyable earphone - not a paragon of clarity by any means (at least not compared to the similarly-priced models from HiFiMan and Etymotic) but an excellent set for relaxed listening. The bass is deep, full-bodied, and very smooth - they aren’t total bass monsters but they provide a weighty punch that competes with the TD-III for the most bass impact in this lineup. Texture and detail are quite good – not obscured by excessive impact or lack of body. The TS02 doesn’t extend unflinchingly into the sub-bass the way Hippo VBs and FS Atrios do but there’s no lack in rumble or tactility, at least not for my tastes. In addition, the reverb of the TS02 is surprisingly realistic, which may or may not have something to do with the wooden housings.
The midrange is warm and liquid and lags slightly in emphasis behind the bass. The mids aren’t notably recessed or forward. Clarity and detail are good but not class-leading – the TD-III performs a bit better on this count. However, like the other Thinksound earphones, the TS02 has a certain inimitable lushness to its mids that always keeps me entertained. Other earphones carry more air in the mids but the TS02 doesn’t lag too far behind most at its price point. Moving towards the upper mids, the TS02 remains smooth and controlled – a big improvement over the TS01. Even straight out of the box there’s almost none of the TS01’s harshness and unevenness, just smooth and competent treble with good sparkle and definition. Those who like a more laid-back presentation may want to look at the TD-III since the TS02 is quite crisp.
The presentation is broad and quite engrossing overall. The soundstage has good depth and width. There’s a thickness of note that prevents them from being as precise as the Ety MC5 or RE-ZERO but positioning and imaging are still pretty good. The TS02 is not the widest-sounding or most three-dimensional earphone in its price range but it is one of the most coherent – it never sounds disjointed, which again makes it a good all-rounder with a popular but nevertheless enjoyable sound signature.
In contrast to the TS02, Holua, and TD-III, the Woodees Blues are on the balanced side of things – a fairly uncommon signature for wooden earphones. The Blues competes with the FA Daleth for the least amount of bass in this lineup, trailing the TS02 noticeably when it comes to depth and rumble – which is not to say that the Woodees are anemic-sounding. Their bass is still very present and full-bodied, with plenty of impact and good clarity and articulation. The TS02 simply has an easier time of portraying great quantities of bass due to its longer attack and decay times, which make its low end sound softer and fuller than that of the Woodees. On the other hand the bass of Blues is tighter and punchier – ‘enhanced’, but never blown out of proportion. Of the earphones in this lineup, a bit of bass ‘boom’ aside, it is the most linear and arguably the most true-to-source, which goes a long way with me.
The midrange of the Blues is warm, lush, and sweet. Due to their leaner low end, bass bleed is less significant with the Woodees than with the Thinksounds, Xears, and Skullcandies. The detail and clarity are impressive as well, competing with the TD-III for the top honors. The treble transition is quite smooth, with only a touch of unevenness and very mild sparkle. Treble clarity is not quite as spectacular as midrange clarity, especially next to more treble-heavy earphones such as my Sunrise Xcape, but the Woodees do sound as effortless as the TD-III when it comes to extension and really don’t lack treble quantity by my standards.
The soundstage of the Blues is above-average in size and quite airy. They lack the sheer space and depth of the TD-III but seem to have a cleaner, more well-separated presentation due to the greatly diminished bass quantity and leaner overall sound. Positioning and instrumental separation are adequate and the Woodees strike a good balance between the more intimate sound of the Skullcandy Holua and the overly-ambient presentation of the Fischer Daleth. Among the five earphones tested here, the Woodees would be the ‘safe’ choice as they do very little wrong and are unlikely to offend with their balance or voicing.
The Holua feels right at home competing against bass-heavy wooden earphones from Thinksound and Xears but sounds overly bassy next to the leaner Woodees and Fischer earphones. Quantitatively, the Holua has a bit less bass than the TD-III but its low end is slower and more boomy in character. Next to the competition the Holua sounds slightly muddy and lacks resolution. It does have good extension and may be the most realistic-sounding of the Skullcandy in-ears but in this lineup it is handicapped severely by the relative lack of bass control.
Expectedly, the bass does bleed into the midrange, which otherwise has good presence and decent clarity, warming it up. On tracks with sparse bass, the midrange clarity of the Holua manages to keep up with the FA Daleth, if only just. In terms of balance, the mids are a touch forward but still manage to be very slightly veiled at all times. On the upside, the midrange and treble are very smooth – more so than with the metallic-sounding Skullcandy TiTans or the entry-level Ink’d buds. The lower treble is balanced with the mids, mostly by virtue of several flattened peaks, but upper treble is slightly recessed. Treble extension is pretty average and the resolution is not particularly noteworthy, either.
The presentation of the Holua is good for a Skullcandy product but really doesn’t keep up with the other earphones tested here. The soundstage is below average in width and depth and fails to escape the mild congestion that plagues most mainstream entry-level earphones, though not nearly to the same extent as the cheaper FMJ. Instrumental separation is mediocre as well, especially when a track is muddied up by the bass. I will admit to being overly critical here as the Holua is clearly out of its element when compared against the SQ-focused Woodees, Thinksound, and Xears models. It is still the best Skullcandy earphone I’ve heard and puts up a decent, if uninspired, performance. It is not quite the shift towards sound quality that I was hoping for from one of Skullcandy’s priciest in-ears but, at the very least, I can easily listen to the Holua for any length of time without losing the will to live (which can’t be said for the cheaper FMJ model).
The Xears TD-III ‘Blackwood’ is at the same time the bassiest, smoothest, and most spacious earphone in this lineup. From memory, it sounds quite similar to the Xears TD100 – the now-discontinued metal model I fell in love with back in August of 2010. Like the TD100, the TD-III has deep, full-bodied, and very impactful bass. The overall bass quantity of the TD-III is just a touch ahead of the Thinksound TS02 and Skullcandy Holua. Texture and detail are on-par with the (noticeably dryer-sounding) TS02 – an impressive feat for an earphone that sounds as smooth as the TD-III does. The attack and decay times are on-par with the Thinksounds - enjoyable even on fast-paced electronic tracks but still conducive to a slight thickness of note and faintly ‘lingering’ bass. Like the TD100, the TD-III will be a bit too bass-heavy for some but, as with the Monster Turbine, I really don’t find its bass offensive in the least.
There is a touch of bass bleed but nothing offensive – the Holua fares far worse and even the significantly leaner-sounding Woodees don’t exactly shame the TD-III when it comes to resolution and control. The mids are warm, slightly forward, and extremely lush and sweet. Detail is good but the thickness does reduce the clarity ever so slightly compared to higher-end sets such as the RE0. The TD-III still has the best midrange clarity of the sets reviewed here which, combined with the liquidity of the sound, makes for a magical experience. The treble is, for the most part, very smooth and easily competes with the Woodees Blues in clarity and detail. Compared to the Woodees, the Xears set is a tiny bit less sparkly but still has very good treble presence. Like the midrange, the treble is a bit thick and lacks the air of some of the more analytical earphones. It is far from dull, however, and manages to keep my attention quite easily when necessary.
When it comes to presentation, the TD-III, like the TD100, manages to impress yet again. Soundstage width and depth are very good – easily the best in this lineup - and instrumental separation is quite decent for a mid-range dynamic. The earphone is capable of delivering an excellent sense of distance but leans slightly towards intimacy. As a result, the musical experience provided by the TD-III is spacious but cohesive. The characteristic note thickness of the TD-III makes it more musical and satisfying but reduces air slightly. Imaging is still good, however, and the overall tone of the earphone is not made darker because of it. All in all, for an earphone with the bass power of the TD-III, the overall sound is surprisingly well-balanced and enjoyable. It is colored and exciting and I quite like it despite all of my analytical biases.
Fischer Audio Daleth
The Daleth may be the cheapest earphone here but its signature is, if nothing else, quite unique and ambient. The bass is nothing special – similar in quantity to that of the Woodees but less extended and a bit less controlled. Most of the impact comes from the slight mid-bass lift but the Daleth is nowhere near as muddy as the much-bassier Skullcandy Holua. There is less bleed and less warmth than with the Holua and the mids are less veiled. However, the Daleth has a strange way of presenting music – though the vocals are clear and nicely-centered, there seems to be no point source in the soundstage from which they originate. The resulting sound is enveloping and yet strangely lacking in focus – veiled, but without a drop in clarity. The best I can do to describe it is say that it lacks crispness and sounds a tiny bit ‘smeared’ and too soft of note.
There is a bit of emphasis on the upper mids and lower treble – not so much as to limit the smoothness of the earphones but enough to balance out the tone – the Daleth is only slightly warmer than neutral and noticeably cooler than any of the other earphones here. For the most part the treble is not lacking in clarity or detail but, like the midrange, could stand to be crisper. On the upside, the FA Daleth does have a fairly ‘large’ sound, which is made extremely obvious via juxtaposition with the intimate-sounding Holua. In absolute terms, its soundstage is similar to that of the Woodees but the Daleth tends to cluster elements closer to the center, much like the TD-III. There’s no doubt that it can portray distance well, but much of the time it refuses to. The layering and positioning of the Daleth really don’t compete well with the Woodees, Thinksounds, or Xears, which is not at all unexpected as the Daleth is less than half the price of the next cheapest earphone. All in all, “big but vague” describes the presentation of the Daleth quite well – for the money it is a fairly impressive performer and, potentially, a good match for vocal-centric music even next to the pricier models in this lineup. However, its unique voicing will make its signature hit-or-miss with listeners.
Though we’ve seen a great influx of wooden in-ear earphones in the past couple of years, there’s still a particular sort of signature pursued by all of the ones I’ve tried with varying degrees of tenacity. That signature seems to consist of enhanced bass, warm and lush mids, and smooth, inoffensive treble. To an extent this characterizes all five of the earphones reviewed here, so which are the ones worth buying?
My lowest recommendation, unfortunately, falls on the Skullcandy Holua – though it is the second cheapest earphone here in terms of street price and the only one besides the Woodees with a 3-button iPhone remote, it really doesn’t offer anything I couldn’t live without in terms of performance. It’s not a bad set per se – the accessory pack, fit, isolation, and even build quality (with Skullcandy’s lifetime warranty factored in) are about on-par with the rest of the IEMs tested here – but similar sound quality can be had for less money.
The Fischer Audio Daleth comes with a similar number of caveats, first and foremost - the sound signature. Its sound, slightly mid-centric and yet lacking crispness in the midrange, won’t please everyone but still offers up a good performance for the asking price. Similarly, though the accessory pack, build quality, and isolation all rank near-bottom in this lineup, the low price of the Daleth maintains the value-for-money factor very competitive. It’s worth noting that those looking for solid build quality and an easier-to-grasp sound signature may want to check out the Fischer TS-9002 instead of the Daleth.
The Thinksound TS02 and Woodees IESW100L “Blues” come next, quite evenly-matched in nearly all aspects. The smaller Thinksounds do offer a slightly more easy-going fit and the ‘green’ factor, as well as an optional 1-button microphone/remote unit while the Woodees come standard with a mic and 3-button remote. Aside from that, it all comes down to differences in sound quality – the Woodees are leaner-sounding and quite balanced next to the bottom-heavy Thinksounds. They offer a bit more clarity and airiness to counteract the more impressive bass depth, smooth and lush midrange, and convincing timbre and dynamics of the Thinksounds. For those in search of a wooden, iPhone-enabled earphone in the $60-100 bracket, there’s really no wrong way to go between these two.
Last but not least, there’s the Xears TD-III. Right out of the box the TD-III annoys with moderate driver flex and perhaps offers up more bass power than I would like. Its accessory pack, fit, and general build quality don’t shame the competition, either, but it has one ace up its sleeve – the sound. A year or so ago, the sound quality of the TD-III would have been so completely out of place in its price bracket that the competition would be rendered irrelevant. Even today, the TD-III sets itself apart from the already-impressive Woodees and Thinksound models by offering better top-to-bottom extension, a more spacious soundstage, and significantly more liquid-sounding mids. For those demanding the total package, the Thinksounds or Woodees will clearly be the better buy, but for those who prioritize sound quality by a large margin as I do and don’t mind the bass emphasis, the TD-III is the one to have.