Brainwavz S0

Close-up of the S0

So, a while back, I got an e-mail from Brainwavz, saying they had a special new budget IEM up their sleeve – the Brainwavz S0, priced around ~$50.

Having previously reviewed the Brainwavz Delta, which I liked a lot, I frankly got curious enough to take my headphone reviewing “career” out of hiatus (yes, it’s just a hobby and nothing else), I replied to the PR e-mail, asking for a pair for review.

A quick e-mail exchange later, a message arrived, saying “Your Brainwavz S0 has shipped” (which is where my disclaimer belongs: This review sample was provided to me by Brainwavz public relations).

So, let’s get going:

The package

Being a bit more upmarket than the Deltas, these come in less of a budget-oriented package: Display window behind a lid that attaches magnetically to the package.

Package with display window opened

Inside the package

Included in the package is the following:

  • The Brainwavz S0 themselves
  • A shirt clip
  • Carrying case
  • Velcro band for organizing headphone cable
  • A variety of silicone tips plus a bonus pair of Comply foam tips.

The case

The carrying case, opened

In most of the cases where I’ve gotten a carrying case with my headphones, it has ended up staying at home, for one of two reasons. In the case of a headphone like the B&W C5, the included carrying case is tiny, because they want you to pocket the headphones in the case when not using them.

The problem with B&W’s approach is twofold:

  1. The case is still on the big side for comfortably pocketing in skinny jeans
  2. It’s also small enough for me to worry that I do more damage by trying to fit the headphones in the case than storing them without

Then, there is the curious case of the a-Jays Five. In hard-shell plastic, and has storage slots for the earbuds, so it fits precisely. In theory, I like this approach best – it’s what Apple does with the EarPods, and is, theoretically, a neat idea.

In practice it doesn’t work, because the case is about the size of a hockey puck – so it takes up a considerable amount of space in a backpack, and packing and unpacking takes forever.

The Brainwavz carrying case is a sort of happy medium between the two. It’s bigger than the C5 carrying case, which means that I won’t have to worry about the case kinking the cable or crushing the headphone. It’s smaller than the hockey puck, so will fit in my backpack when travelling without displacing other stuff.

The tips

Seven of the eight extra tips

The S0 ships with 8 pairs of extra tips, for a total of nine tips

  • Medium-sized Comply foam tips (I believe the T-400) – not shown in the pictures, as I discovered them only after tearing down my photo studio setup.
  • Five pairs of single-flange tips, in two color codes: Three reds and two greens – note that the Brainwavz site does not list the greens, so I don’t know whether you’ll get those when purchasing. (More about these later, as the red and green sound different)
  • Double-flange tips
  • Triple-flange tips

Getting to the meat of it: The IEMs themselves

Close-up of the metal housing

The construction housing is metal. Brainwavz don’t disclose which metal, but I assume steel. When comparing weights on a scale, they weigh in at around 3g per earbud, tips included, which is three times the weight of the HiFiMAN RE-400, but still a fair bit less than the C5.

The cable is a flat, silicone-type covered cable. For a flat cable, it feels pretty solid, and there is good strain relief in all locations where this matters: On the earphone end, in the y-splitter and on the plug.

The plug, bless Brainwavz, is straight. Some people seem to like 45-degree type plugs, but I’ve never liked them, since they are just as bulky as the straight plugs, and they seem much more prone to applying torque to the connector when plugged or unplugged. I much prefer 90-degree slimline or straight plugs.

Comfort and ergonomics

… and herein lies my niggles with the S0. Ergonomically, there are two problems.

First out is the cable. While flat cables are excellent for avoiding tangling, they’re also an excellent means to cause microphonics – the S0 cable is microphonic enough to make wearing the headphone cable-down on the front is impossible, except when stationary.

This is all well and good, because the shirt clip can solve “worn in front, cable-down”. Which is a terrific idea if you live in Florida, Southern California or the Canary Islands, where you can wear shirts all year-round. Unfortunately for me, I live in a country that looks like this for a few months of the year. In other words: From October until April, I wear jackets when going out, and wearing a shirt clip is not possible.

You can solve this two ways: Run the cable behind the neck, cable-down, or run the cable over the ear. Both are acceptable compromises, but the flat cable makes over the ear feel, and look slightly awkward at first.

If Brainwavz releases an S0r2, I would’ve wanted a different cable, and I personally would gladly have preferred some tangle-proneness over microphonics.

So, I said two niggles? The second one is also related to the flat cable. With the standard silicone tips, the S0 inserts pretty deeply in to the ear canal. Due to the flat cable being vertically oriented, the strain relief comes quite close to the tip of the earphone, and close enough for the strain relief to catch on my earlobe. For prolonged periods of wear, this caused a bit of chafing for me when wearing cable-down, since the flat cable is causes minute movement of the earphone.

Note that I am a big fan of the Comply TSX series of foam tips (not included), and have done my listening almost exclusively with them. These do away with the problem completely by providing the fraction of a millimeter’s clearance between the strain relief and my earlobe.

The sound of ear tips

Before I start writing about the sound, I’ll have to rewind a bit to the included accessories. I mentioned that the silicone tips that ships come in two colors: Red and green. The green tips have a narrow nozzle opening, and provide more bass emphasis than the red tips, where the nozzle is strictly sylindrical.

My impressions are made from listening strictly with the pre-fitted red tips, or with the Comply TSX-400 tips. The bass-heaviness of the green tips is way out of my comfort zone, as I don’t like bass heavy headphones, and the bi and tri-flange tips have never sat well with my ear canals.

I did not use the included S-400 tips as the fit was slightly too small for my ears, but from experience, there is no discernible audible difference between the TSX and S series.

Also, in my testing, the difference between foam tips is very minor, if even existent – there were time where I thought I heard differences, only to not hear that difference when I went back to verify.

The sound of music

Note that I haven’t subjectively assessed tonality with test tones. I haven’t measured them. I have listened to them over a large set of songs in many genres, for extended daily periods over a period of a few weeks. Mostly songs, albums and artists I know extremely well, but also tracks that are entirely new to me. Listening has mostly been through an iPhone 5S, mostly playing Apple Lossless – either from the built-in music player or through WiMP HiFi (In the UK and US, this service is known as TIDAL). I have also done listening in my desktop setup with the ODAC and O2 – both of these sound similar enough to

Sound-wise, I have long held the HifiMAN RE-400 as the champion of sub-$100 IEM’s, offering a glimpse of what high-end audio is about: Tonally neutral, without any veil, and plenty of detail. That is also roughly my order of priorities, with the derivative feeling of “sound stage” as the next on the list. It should be noted that I’m placing “sound stage” in mock quotes here, because it doesn’t actually exist with headphones. No matter how hard you try, sound still stays in a line between the left and right ear, instead of what you experience with a good 2-channel stereo setup, that places sounds not only along a width, but also front-to back.

When I tested the Brainwavz Delta earlier this year, they vere tonally neutral enough, but in the detail department, they suffered next to the RE-400, with the HiFiMAN’s having much more detail, and feeling more open. In that comparison, the bass, while having tonally the same character felt a tad less dynamic, or if I’m to put it into words, “slow”

Back then, I also acquired a pair of JVC HA-FX40. They were fairly evenly matched with the Deltas: Better in the treble and detail department, but did so at the expense of the mid-range, using a v-shaped frequency response. Choosing between those two are merely a matter of which compromise you want to make in the $15-20 headphones.

That previous experience also set my expectations for this headphone. Based on my previous experience with the Delta, I had expected to spend my listening time comparing the S0 to the Deltas, and to the JVC (Despite the latter’s departure from strict neutrality), and I had imagined that they would be a slightly improved S0.

I simply couldn’t have been more wrong, and after my initial three minutes of listening, I decided that a comparison against the Delta or HA-FX40 was meaningless, because, if you are making a comparative review, if I am to use a martial arts metaphor, it would be a knockout on the first punch.

The one word that best describes my reaction when I put them on is: gobsmacked.

I had intended – as I usually do after having taken pictures of headphones – to listen for a song or two, before I take them off and go process the images.

That was not to happen. Coming back from a travel, I had come immediately off exclusively listening to the RE-400 for a full week. In fact, I had only removed the RE-400’s a few minutes prior to putting on the S0.

My initial reaction: gobsmacked

The same subjective neutrality as the RE-400, but very, very unlike the Delta, no perceived lack of detail, and no obvious rough edges. I played through all of “Wish You Were Here”. I moved over to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Beats – a set of dance/techno mixes of various songs from the Tubular Bells trilogy. That too was listened to straight through. Trentemøller – Into the Great Wide Yonder.

By this time, I had stopped trying to listen analytically – I was just gobbling through records one by one, and forgetting that I was to actually write a review of these. The one impression that I was left with when I went off to bed was “agreeable” – no obvious deficiencies in the sound, and an overall euphonic presentation.

In short: They were competing head-to-head with the twice as expensive RE-400, instead of being a minor improvement on the absolute budget end of the spectrum.

Over the next weeks, I used the S0 in a variety of settings, ranging from in the comfort of home, to a shared office, or on public transport, and during this period, I was also able to form a more solid opinion than simply “good”, and I’ll make some notes here:

Bass

Let it be known that I’m not a particular fan of the Olive-Welti target curve for headphones – I find that most of the headphones that follow it fall down on the bass heavy side of things, which is why I’ve loved my RE-400’s so dearly. That said, the RE-400 can sometimes lack a bit of low-end impact, which is why I sometimes deliberately choose a non-neutral IEM if I’m in the mood for something a bit meatier – I’ve typically used the a-Jays Five, which is everything but neutral, or the JVC’s mentioned further up in this review.

The S0’s are no Olive-Welti cans – they are subjectively bass neutral, and compared to the RE-400, they actually improve on them. Subjectively put, it seems both more solid and better extended, and are actually more reminiscent of the HE-500 than the RE-400. Taking a test tone to them solidifies this impression – subjectively, the HiFiMAN IEM’s start fading gently at 50Hz, and are noticeably down by 30Hz. The Brainwavz’ are subjectively flat down to 30Hz, where they start falling off (listening at the same perceived volume in both cases).

In addition to that, if you listen/test at high volumes, the S0’s also feel cleaner in the bottom end. Take a pure sine wave to them, turn up the volume, and the S0’s sound cleaner – in relatively short bursts of high SPL sine waves, there are less perceived harmonics – it simply sounds cleaner.

What does this mean in practice? For many recordings of actual music, the differences are fairly subtle, but where the music has a rich bottom octave, the S0 feel a bit more meaty, and if you frequently listen to dubstep and electronica, the S0’s are a clear winner in the bottom end.

Midrange

I’m going to have to call a draw between the RE-400 and S0 here: They are equally well-defined, and both are as buttery smooth as you can expect from anything in this price range – nothing is recessed, and nothing sticks out. There is none of the attenuated upper bass and midrange you often find on bass-emphasized or v-shaped cans, nor is the midrange exaggerated like some speaker audiophile reviewers seemed to enjoy in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Time for an aside here: In the the mid-90’s, I was among a loosely organized group of audiophiles who would visit each other, and relative strangers to tweak, listen, and opine about each other’s systems. One one of these occasions, I was exposed to a combination of Rotel and Mission speakers, with a Marantz CD player. The combination of mid-range distortion, and focus on the middle and upper end of the midrange, and low end of the treble that listening was physically painful at anything but the lowest levels.

The S0 is none of that. As I said, put side by side with the RE-400, they are an even match, both for detail and evennness of response, and both are on par in this area with the Sennheiser HD 558, slightly losing out to the HE-500 (with Focus pads).

Treble

Bass is what sells headphones. Treble is what kills them – there are headphones that I find downright unlistenable due to their treble response – I for one can’t even listen to any Grado any more, due to their massive 2000 Hz peak, and when I wanted to try out the Monoprice 9927, I couldn’t even listen to them long enough to write a sensible review.

Nor can I listen to a headphone that doesn’t have treble – it kills clarity, fine detail and life from the music. Miss this area, everything is just that little bit lacking

In the treble area, the S0 is doing some tightrope walking. Put side by side with the RE-400 or HE-500, there is some emphasis (subjectively, I’d say between 1-2 dB), being slightly less emphasized than the Sennheiser HD 558.

In practice, this isn’t going to be a problem – with normal recordings, they never tip over to being overly sibilant. There’s no s or z sounds ready to shred your eardrums, and you’re not going to notice it much in most conditions.

The one recording where this difference is obvious is Kari Bremnes – Byssan Lull. That link goes to a Youtube upload – while not lossless or even transparently encoded, it still replicates the frequency range in question in a close enough fashion to use as an example. The recording may be available on WiMP, TIDAL, Spotify or in the iTunes store, if you want a better-quality copy.

This recording in many respects goes back to what I mentioned earlier about what was favored by some speaker audiophiles during the 90’s – the entire album has both the midrange and treble recorded a little on the hot side, and if you crank it, it can sound pretty harsh, even on truly neutral systems.

The S0 sound a bit harsher on this recording than the RE-400 or HE-500, but less so than the HD 558, and less so than many high-end speaker systems, but if I was to shift my music taste to exclusively listen to Kari Bremnes, I might choose a different headphone. I’m not at all sure which of these two is the more correct representation of this track, though.

Air and soundstage

I said it above, but I’ll repeat it: Headphones do not have what I consider sound stage or imaging capabilities when served recordings that aren’t binaural (outside of using various DSP solutions that emulate it), so I’m merely referring to it as a sense of:

  1. Spaciousness
  2. Perceived width of the between-the-ear image of the sound

In that respect – the S0 is good. There is a good sense of spatial separation between instruments along the left-right axis, and the stage is reasonably wide for an IEM. It’s on par with, or even a tad above the S0, but still not reaching quite up to neutral and open over-ears. If I’m to attribute it to anything, it’s that treble remains relatively perceived flat up to 15-16 kHz, and it offers a tad less isolation than the RE-400.

Conclusion?

Yeah, I write too much, so let’s just do a TL;DR in the form of pros and cons

Pros:

  • Neutrality
  • Bottom end-solidity
  • Clarity
  • Build quality
  • Packaging and accessories

Cons:

  • Microphonics
  • Flat cable
  • May be chafe-prone when worn cable-down

The slightly more interesting thing is if I would recommend them? That answer is a resounding yes. These have, in the few weeks I’ve listend become my “daily driver”. In the past, I’ve usually brought the RE-400 with me, or mixed it up with the a-Jays Five or HA-FX40, if I’m in the mood for something “fun”. By virtue of their better extended bass, they sound more solid with electronic music, while remaining supremely usable with acoustic or electric music. The build quality is also seemingly very, very solid, and I never fear they’re going to fall apart on me.

If I wanted to change the headphones, I would do very little to the sound signature. I am however hoping that Brainwavz release a version with earhooks/loops, or with a round cable (from the splitter up), as that would likely solve the chafing issue I noticed with silicone tips.

If you want to buy these, they are available from MP4Nation for $49.50 with free two-day shipping to may destinations. If you prefer ordering through Amazon, here is that link.

The Delicious Brainwavz Delta

Money shot

My relationship with IEMs is somewhat troubling. While I’ve been using them for over a decade, I’ve never been able to find a budget-minded mdoel that I’ve liked, and have gravitated towards IEMs from about $100 and up, thinking that’s where the best price/performance ratio is to be found.

However, as a moderator of /r/headphones, I’ve seen a lot of people who aren’t willing to carry $100 worth of IEMs with them, since they inevitably destroy or lose them. Thus, enter the budget IEM. (I’ll define anything below $30 as “budget” here).

While I’ve given the Apple EarPods a positive review in the past, they aren’t technically IEMs: While they sit in the ear canal, they are an open design with virtually no isolation, giving it some very real limitations in sub-bass response, and they aren’t the best option in situations like airplanes or the library, where you want to shut out noise, or not bother everyone else with the sick beats you’re listening to.

So, I started looking at budget IEMs. Ranging from a pair I bought on eBay for $1.52 to pairs in the $20-30 range.

First out is the Brainwavz Delta. Amazon operates with a “list price” of $39.99, but the median street price seems to hover right around $20. So, let’s have a look at them to see how they work out.

Packaging

The packaging is pretty much you’d expect from a $20 headphone – cardboard box with plastic window, with the headphone and supplied accessories inside. One big plus: Brainwavz have opted for frustration-free packaging – there’s no welded plastic requiring tools for opening – simply remove a seal, and open the lid. While I think Apple’s packaging of the EarPods is slightly better – as it doubles as a carrying case, it’s hard to fault Brainwavz here: The packaging includes everything you need, and they have instead spent the money on the contents of the package.

What’s in the package?

The contents of the package is as no-frills as the box it came in – here’s what’s included:

  • User manual
  • The Deltas themselves
  • Four pairs of tips: Small, medium and large silicone tips, plus a pair of Comply S-series foam tips.

Had there been any more in the box, I would’ve accused them of spending money where it doesn’t matter. The selection of tips cover most cases, and anyone should be able to find a good seal with the included tips.

While the Comply tips in the package doesn’t suit me or my preferences, many like them, and get both a better seal and more comfort, so a huge plus for including them.

Construction

This is where things start getting good. If you inspected these headphones, without knowing anything about them, you’d never think they were $20.

Image: TRS connector

The TRS conenctor is a 45-degree angle. I’m not super fond of this form factor, and either prefer a proper 90-degree connector or a straight one – this one adds the bulk of the straight connector, and is no easier to use than the 90-degree angled connectors does. That said, the connector itself is good quality, and it has properly good strain relief – even better than I’ve found on many more expensive IEMs.

Image: splitter

Much the same goes for the y-splitter: It’s solidly made, has good strain relief, and has a good-quality adjustable slider.

And now, on to the earpiece itself.

Image: housing

This is where I say “Wow”. The housing is all metal, feels very solidly made, and looks good. . I’ll just repeat myself from a few paragraphs back: You’d seriously never think these were $20 headphones by looking at them.

Image L/R print

Markings for left and right are printed and visible on the earpiece itself, rather than on the cable. It’s perfectly adequate, but if I have a wish, it’s one that applies to all headphone manufacturers – I want left-right markings that is tactile, so I know which one to put in without having to turn on a flashlight or find some light somewhere.

If I put on my “overly critical” glasses, I would like a thinner strain relief, like that found on the HiFiMAN RE-400. That said, it isn’t a huge problem – unlike the RE-400, these aren’t deep-insretion IEMs, and the strain relief doens’t get in the way.

Inside the housing, behind a thin (metal) mesh, you’ll find an 8mm dynamic driver with a rated impedance of 16Ω.

Comfort and use

Overall, the Deltas are very comfortable. While they weigh more than the RE-400 or the a-jays five, with a slightly larger housing, you never notice that they’re there.

Also, as I hinted at above: 95% of all buyers should be able to fit these and get a seal with one of the four pairs of included tips. And when you get a fit, a huge positive surprise is in microphonics.

Over the years, I’ve tried headphones that are virtually useless because of excessive microphonics, forcing you to wear them in one particular way, and I even own a pair that tries to deal with the problem using a loop of memory wire pinned to your pinnae. With the Deltas, no such thing: I can wear them hanging down in front or behind my neck, and I can wear them looped over my ear – microphonics is never an issue. (As an aside: The Deltas sound better than the B&W C5 – a headphone purchase I now consider to be a huge mistake)

Isolation and leakage is also perfectly adequate – subjectively, they seem to be on par with the HiFiMan RE-400, trailing slightly behind the a-jays five and B&W C5. Making comparisons to stuff more in its own weight class/price range: They are far ahead of a budget IEM like the Monoprice 8320. If you crave more isolation, the solution is Comply foam tips, but unfortunately for me, the included pair were too small to provide a seal

Sound

While I don’t believe in burn-in, the headphones have been playing straight for days without any critical listening, and testing is done on a variety of gear in various combinations:

  • iPhone 5S, iPad 3
  • O2 headphone amplifier
  • Focusrite Scarlett 8i6

On Brainwavz’ product page, they make the following claims about the sound:

clear instruments & vocals
balanced bass

and they go on to write:

The Brainwavz Delta produce vocals and instruments with detailed clarity, letting your music sound as good as their artists intended.

Which I, when I first read the blurb chose as “largely neutral”, perhaps edging towards “detailed”. So, do the Deltas live up to Brainwavz claims, and my expectations?

The short answer to this question is “yes”.

The bass itself, while not as tight and controlled as with the HiFiMAN RE-400 is still leaps and bounds ahead of what I was expecting from a $20 IEM: It perfectly matches what I expect from a headphone that markets itself as neutral. Subjective extension is good – down to 30 Hz, or so whereafter it gently starts rolling off.

While I could’ve wished for a tad more punch, speed and authority in the bass, I absolutely can’t fault them – it’s only when I compare to my other references I’m noticing, and I’m primarily a full-size planar guy, so my expectations here are way too high.

Moving on to the midrange. In the past, many people have championed the Monoprice 8320/9927 as the IEM to go on when on an extreme budget. Prior to writing this review, I picked up a pair, so that I would have a comparison that was actually fightning in the same weight class as the Deltas. I hated every minute of the hour or so I spent with them before I threw them in a box in disgust. The midrange was erratic, uneven, harsh, and they were hugely sibilant. Any music with vocals with a language that happened to use ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘ch’ sounds felt like being repeatedly stabbed in the ear.

Prior to receiving the Deltas, but after being exposed to the 9927s, I feared I was being set up for a harsh-sounding midrange. Said fears were soon alleviated: Much like with the bass, there are no obvious problem areas that make the headphone sound offensive or unpleasant – it gobbles up most recordings – without making them harsh, hard or tiring to listen to. If I am to fault them for anything, it is that the upper midrange can feel a little bit recessed when compared to my full-size cans, a-Jays or RE-400 – it’s not a massive problem, though.

As for the treble: For a $20 can, it’s good. Put side by side with other cheap offerings, I can’t fault it at all. The top of the midrange and treble is really also the area where differences against my full-sized cans and daily driver IEMs shows. There’s a fairly distinct lack of detail and air, when put side by side with any of the cans I use on a daily basis.

That said, it’s really only in detail retrieval where it becomes evident that you aren’t dealing with IEMs in the $70-100 range. While I mentioned it in the context of the upper midrange and treble, it is evident in the lower frequency ranges as well, but far less pronounced – it’s generally just perceived as a softness in transients.

That said, The Deltas are a fair bit ahead of anything I’ve tried in a similar price bracket. Put them side-by side with a full-sized budget favorite like the unmodified Tascam TH-02, and it’s less piercing than the Tascams with their treble peak, and when side-by-side with the Monoprice 8320/9927, there’s no contest – the Brainwavz are actually pleasing to listen to.

Conclusion / TL;DR?

If you’ve gotten this far. I think the conclusion is a given. In the process of reviewing these, I’ve had to try a number of other headphones in the same price range, some of which are best forgotten about. I’ve tried a competitor with so poor quality control that if/when I write a review of it, I shall have to write to separate reviews – one for the left ear, and one for the right. I’ve tested headphones that feel like they’re falling apart on me, or that felt fallen apart when they arrived in the mail.

The Brainwavz Delta is none of that. In many respects, the build quality rivals or exceeds that of more expensive headphones, and the sound quality is much better than I had expected from a $20 headphone. They’re going on my very short list of sub-$30 recommendations, and if you’re looking for a beater or budget IEM, these are, in my very humble opinion the ones to get.

Does cables matter, a small self-test

Whether there is an audible difference between cables is an eternal debate among audiophiles. Here is a short self test for you.

First, start by downloading this file – the archive contains three FLAC files. While downloading, continue reading this post (It’s not really possible to TL;DR it, I’m afraid):

This archive contains three different recordings in FLAC format of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Discipline” from the album “The Slip” (NiN is chosen because they are one of the few bands that release their stuff under a permissive license, in this case CC-BY-NC-SA

The first file is made by recording the output from a Focusrite audio interface, using an RCA cable that has been cut in half, and spliced together by hand (no soldering, just twisting the wire together), as shown in this image:

RCA cable cut in half, and spliced together by hand

The specific cable is a 1m RCA cable from Monster Cable, bought for about $5 in a bargain bin in the mid-90’s, and is connected from output to input using no-name RCA -> 6.3 mm (1/4 inch) TS-to-RCA adapters.

The second file is made with a Safecon AC36/5M cable from Morgan Instrument TS cable with 6.3 mm (1/4 inch) gold-plated TS connectors.

The third file is the original recording.

Each of the recorded files have randomly been assigned a name “Specimen A”, “Specimen B” and “Specimen C” and does not necessarily reflect the order in which they are mentioned in this document

The files were recorded in the following way:

First, the cut/spliced Monster cable was first connected to the “Line 3″ input on the Focusrite 8i6 interface, while the Morgan cable was connected to the “Line 4″ input, and the song was played back and recorded in to Reaper 4.32 on OS X. The left and right channels were imported in to separate tracks

Next, the cables were swapped, and a new recording was made, recording the Morgan cable to track 3, and the broken Monster to track 4.

Then, each of the “broken cable” recordings (Line 3 from the first recording, and line 4 from the second) were imported in to Audacity (version 2.0.2), assigned to left/right channel as needed, and aligned with the original file, so the beginning and end of the file matches.

Likewise, each of the Morgan cable recordings (Track 4 from the first, and track 3 from the second recording) were combined into a single file and aligned.

(Note that a tiny bit of audio has been trimmed from the end of the file, since this is a much easier way to align it.)

The Focusrite interface by default has -10 dBFS gain on the rear line inputs, and so the volume was normalized to match that of the original recording for each of the copies, so they can be directly compared against the original file, and the resulting file was then exported as a 16-bit 44.1 KHz WAV file to match the original.

Finally, the files were converted to FLAC.

That was the where my work ends, and yours begin – it’s time for you to do an ABX test. If you don’t have an ABX tool, here are some examples:

  • OS X: ABXer – Download
  • Windows: foo_abx component for foobar2000 – Download

Note that I don’t know of an ABX tool for Linux, so if you know one, please post it in the comments – alternatively, foobar2000 and the foo_abx component is known to work in WINE.

To perform the self test, do three test runs:

  1. Compare A vs B
  2. Compare A vs C
  3. Compare B vs C

For each of the tests, you need to run ten trials – post the test logs in this thread. If you don’t want to post the test logs, but want to know if you can hear the difference: The generally accepted criteria for a “positive” result is that out of 10 trials, you need to have identified the “X” correctly nine times.

For fairness sake, and to not introduce bias: I have not attempted to identify the files through a blind test myself, and will not divulge what I think.

If you run the test, please post your results below – full test logs are preferred, but if you don’t post the full log, please include the following info:

  • Number of trials for each of the three tests. Number of correct responses.

If you are absolutely certain you can hear a difference (This basically means that you need to be correct on 9 out of 10 responses) on any of the three tests, feel free to theorize about which recording is which

Audiophilia, explained like you’re thirteen

In 1986, when I was 13, I spent the summer working as a paperboy for a local afternoon newspaper. One monday, a new shop had opened along my route which caught the interest of a 13-year-old computer geek. In big bold words over the door were the word “Hi-fi”, so I walked in to the store.

When I walked inside, along the left side of the room, there were rows of weird and wonderful electronics. “KEF”, “Harman Kardon”, “Mark Levinson” and a bunch of other names I had never ever seen before. Grey and black boxes, all about 19 inches wide, and loudspeakers all along the floor. Brands I had never heard of before – all I knew was Japanese and European consumer brands like Kenwood and Philips. And the somewhat rich, or snobby, neighbour had a Bang and Olufsen music system.

In the inner half right of the room were a huge pair of panels, semi-translucent with a light wooden frame around them, and a gigantic black wooden box situated mid-way between the panels. Music was coming from them.

Wonderful music.

Not that I remember which tune was playing – what I remember was that the speakers gave a sense of the musicians being there. In the room. There was a stage. People were on it. The drummer was sitting at the back, and the bass player was in front of him, and off to the side. The guitarist was in front of him. And centre stage, there was a singer.

I was mesmerized. Up until now, my primary experience with music had mostly been through a mono cassette deck, or when I visited my older brother, through a Kenwood turntable and amp, and a pair of small speakers, placed on the floor, about twenty inches apart. I was awestruck. I had no words. I had absolutely no idea that a stereo system could even do this.

The owner, in his mid to late 30’s, was, given the fairly new status of his shop, quite happy to satisfy my curiosity, would play record after records. Jazz. Rock. Pop. 60’s, 70’s and 80’s music.

He told me to go sit on the big black box between the speakers. I had sort of understood the purpose of the box, but I still wasn’t quite prepared. The big black box was, as the more observant reader will have noted, was a subwoofer. Fifteen inches in a sealed enclosure. I wasn’t quite prepared. He turned up the volume, and my entire body would shake with the rhythm of the kick drum and the bass.

Geir gave me a hobby for life.

In retrospect, his shop was doomed to failure. I grew up in a municipality of 12-13 000 people, mostly consisting of industrial workers – which wasn’t particularily well paid. My paperboy route never allowed me to actually purchase any of his gear, and by the time I had the money, the store was bankrupted and gone.

But, Geir gave me a hobby for life. He taught me that music could be represented in a realistic and engaging way.

At least, he got a free newspaper day for the few years his shop survived.

If you’re wondering what the big translucent speakers were. Martin Logan CLS were their name, and I still long for them.

M-Audio Studiophile AV40 Mk II

Note, this is an old review of the M-Audio AV40 powered monitor speakers, previously published on reddit. I’m reposting it here, because I want to collect my earlier writings in one place. I have since replaced them with a pair of M-Audio BX5 D2 which overcomes some of the shortcomings of the AV40’s.

I bought these on a whim when ordering stuff for my Raspberry Pi, and hearing positive things about them, figuring that if I didn’t like them much, I could always just sell them. I ordered from a Norwegian web store, and got a price that was comparable to the lowest price I have found on Amazon, around $120.

The AV-40’s are, as many will already know, active near-field monitors for desktop or studio. That they are meant for people who also create or master music becomes clear when you open the package. First of all – whenever I have been buying speakers, I’ve become used to the manual been no more comprehensive than what you find on the label on the back of the speakers. Not so with the AV-40’s. In the box, there was no less than two manuals – a general user manual, and one devoted to speaker placement. Also in the box is speaker cable to connect the speakers to each other, a RCA-to-minijack cable, a minijack-to-minijack cable and some adhesive pads that you can optionally put at the bottom of your speakers to provide some minimal isolation from whatever surface you place them on. The speakers themselves were actually a tiny bit smaller than I had expected them to be, but they are not by any means tiny.

The left speaker contains the amplifiers, inputs and outputs, plus a volume control, and you connect the left speaker to the right via the enclosed speaker cable. The cable is relatively short, which is an actual plus for desktop use, but if you’re planning on placing them far apart, you might need to order some extra cable. The speaker terminals are of the rather flimsy clip type, and it’s doubtful that you’ll get anything fatter than 14 or 12 gauge wire to fit.

On the back of the left speaker, in addition to the power cord, power switch and RCA connector, you will find a pair of 1/4″ TRS connectors. The manual doesn’t say, but I’m assuming these are not balanced. On the front of the left speaker is a volume control, an AUX in and a headphone out jack. I have not tested any input than the RCA inputs on the rear of the speaker, and neither have I tested the headphone output.

The volume control glows blue when the speaker is powered up. I hate blue LEDs, and while the light in this case is indirect, it draws too much attention to itself when powered up, and the lights are dimmed. At some stage I think I’ll disconnect the LED or replace it with a red one.

The speakers themselves are a two-way bass-reflex construction with a 4″ woofer, and a 1″ tweeter, both with individual, non-removable metal grilles. The tweeter is slightly recessed into the cabinet, and the baffle is slightly horn-shaped around the tweeter, without them being actual horns.

One of the first things I do when I get a pair of speakers in my hand is to evaluate the enclosure by giving it some solid knocks with my knuckles on the top and on the sides. It’s a good way to see if the cabinet has been slapped randomly together or not. Usually, the deader the sound made is, the better. This cabinet feels pretty dead, and is more rigid than I had expected from a product in this price range

So, how do they sound?

Well, let’s start with the bad: Powered on the speakers emit a slight hiss somewhere in the mid range and above – you can hear it in both drivers, but it’s more prominent in the woofer than the tweeter. And when I say “slight” I mean that given no input signal, they make a more piercing noise than the fan on my 13″ Macbook Pro. I haven’t yet investigated why this is, but from a bit of googling, it seems to be a common trait of the design, rather than a malfunction. The end result is that if I’m not listening to anything, I just tend to turn them off completely.

Note that in actual use, this is not really a problem – as soon as I’m playing anything the noise is unnoticeable.

So that I can get the rest of the speaker’s bad points out of the way – when listening at really low volumes, there is a slight channel imbalance where the right speaker is louder than the left. By itself, this isn’t really a problem, and most potentiometers exhibit this behavior. If you want something that avoids this, you need to hand pick the pots used. Hand-picking components is one of the things that makes high end equipment expensive. Arguably, a better solution is to ditch the potentiometer and rely on a grid of resistors that are connected and disconnected – which is what Thule used to do before they went bankrupt. But, I digress.

So, if this is common, and in particular with budget equipment, why is the non-linearity a problem? It has to do with the pot M-Audio has chosen. In a desktop environment where you have the speakers at about an arm’s length from you, the volume settings are “quiet, but with channel imbalance”, and “bloody loud”. If I try to regulate myself out of this problem by using the volume control ony my MBP, I have to lower volume until about half. (I haven’t been able to find any actual documentation about Apple’s volume control, but I assume volume control is done in software, which makes this less than ideal).

Enough of the bad, and on to the actual sound.

Both of the enclosed user manuals tells you to put the speaker at ear height instead of directly on a desktop. Whatever else you do, listen to that one bit of advice. The tweeters are what I would consider to be extremely directional. When I stand up from my desk, it frankly sounds like you’re listening to a pair of speakers where the tweeters have been disconnected.

So, in other words, you’re going to need stands. A speaker stand that is to be placed on the desk, and not angle the speakers upward would have to be around 20 cm (8″) tall for my desk. Currently, I have my right arm in a cast, so I’ve opted for a slightly different solution: I’ve placed an inch-thick piece of wood under the speaker, and pushed it so far back that when I’m seated, I can just about see the top of the speaker. This works remarkably well, and once the cast is gone, I plan on building some low stands (4-5 cm at the back) that angle the speakers ever so slightly upwards.

In addition to the height, I’ve placed the speakers so that I can just about see the “inner” side of each speaker. The listening is then pretty close to on-axis.

So, how do they sound?

In some respects, I would say “pretty bloody fantastic”. The sound stage you get from these speakers is pretty amazing – even when placed just 60 cm from you, there is a sharply defined sound stage, with both width and depth. I honestly hadn’t expected that. Neither had I expected that I would be unable to acoustically determine the position of the speakers given the right recording.

As for the tonal balance of the speakers. This is a difficult one – on low volumes, it can actually sound a bit dark, but when you turn the volume up, the entire characteristic changes, and it changes towards being brighter, without being overly bright.

Also, when listening to them, keep in mind that these are studio monitors that happen to work for home use. Just don’t expect the speakers to be kind to bad recordings. It’s not that they are particularly detailed in an absolute sense, but they are detailed enough to expose many flaws in many recordings, and they are way better than similarly priced 2.1 systems. In many respects, but this has to do with near-field use and the smaller enclosures, they easily beat my Argon 6240A standmount speakers.

Also, while the speakers are reasonably neutral from the midrange and up – voices sound particularly good on these, the bass is not. They measure with a notable lump around 130-140 Hz and fall of rapidly after that. It gives you _some_ illusion that there is bass, but put on difficult tracks, like Björk’s “Hyper Ballad” or Yello’s “Blender”, and compare with a set of good floor-standing speakers, and you’ll notice that something is just missing. With that being said, even if they lack in the bass department compared to many alternatives, it’s a reasonable compromise: what is there is never out of control, and the bass it plays, it plays much better than I have ever heard from a similarly priced 2.1 system.

So, would I recommend these? For the price, the answer is a resounding yes. These speakers are not trying to be more than they actually are, which is refreshing for the intended use. Voices, and acoustic recordings are very pleasant, and they are also good performers (given the price) with most of what I’ve thrown at it.

A closing note on soundstage – as I was writing this closing paragraph, Madonna’s Ray of Light album was playing. I’ve owned that album for 14 years. I have either completely forgotten, or never heard, but there is a very three-dimensional soundstage on that album. One that, much like Roger Water’s “Amused to death” places sounds far outside the boundaries of the speakers. Pulling that off in a 120 dollar speaker is quite an achievement.

Final verdict: I will not be selling these off first chance I get (It’s been a few months since I wrote this, and while I don’t have them any more, I never sold my pair, but instead passed them on to my son as a gift).

Apple EarPods review

Hi, and welcome to this site, starting with a review of the Apple EarPods.

Yeah, I know. Starting an entirely new blog about audiophile matters with a post about a pair of headphones from Apple  just seem wrong. And you’d probably label me as stark raving mad.  You’re still free to do so, but I’m still going to make the EarPods the first product reviewed here. Also, I’m going to be ridiculously detailed, so prepare for a wall of text

Had you asked me about it a month ago, I would have said the same.  Over the years, I’ve owned a few iPhones and an iPod Nano.  The old Apple Earbuds always sat unused in the  box the products came with.  They really were that terrible.  Lacking in bass, muddled mid-range, terrible sound leakage and distorted like nothing else.

In stark contrast, the new headphones are genuinely good – provided you understand what they are and aren’t.  No, they’re not going to replace a good high-end IEM or headphone, but they are worth the $29 asking price, even as  standalone product.

Out with the old, in with the new

However, it is important to understand a few things about the old headphones, and Apple’s thinking in bundling them (This is of course pure speculation, since I’ve never met Jonathan Ive or Steve Jobs):

Companies like Sony (Ericsson) and HTC have bundled reasonably high-quality In-ear monitors with their products.  Apple’s headphones have always been of the open type, which doesn’t create an airtight seal.

Over the years, Apple have sold over 600 million iPhones and iPods, which easily make the Apple Earbuds the most iconic headphone ever, and I suspect the choice of an open earbud-type headphone has been intentional.  There are a few upsides to Apple’s design choice:

  1. Open headphones allow you to remain aware of your surroundings.  Provided you aren’t blasting away at uncomfortably loud levels, you’ll be able to hear traffic around you. Which means that you aren’t going to get run over by the bus, and when you pause the music, you can go to Starbucks and order a coffee without shouting at the clerk.
  2. Fit and comfort.  Provided that the headphones stay in place, and they are a reasonable fit for your ear, an open headphone is often more comfortable than a sealing headphone type, for more extensive periods of time
  3. Sound quality.  Yes, Apple sort of failed on that one with the old earbuds, but some of the world’s absolute best headphones, like the Sennheiser HD800 are open headphones with little or no isolation from the world around you.  The main advantage to an open headphone is sort of implied by the name: They present a larger sound stage and provide less of the “in your head” experience that a closed headphone or IEM can often provide.

Now, on to the drawbacks:

  1. You remain aware of your surroundings.  This is not always desirable – on public transport or in other situations with noise, you may want to block that out.  There are two ways to do that: Provide better isolation – which is what an IEM does, or you can crank up the volume to drown out sounds around you.  The latter is a bad option for a number of reasons: An open type headphone tends to not only let outside sounds in, but also leak sound around you, and the poor fellow stuck in the seat next to you might not appreciate your dubstep habits.  The other reason is that turning the volume up tends to, long term, be extremely bad for your hearing.  Repeated exposure to SPL levels of above 85 dB is considered harmful to your hearing.
  2. Fit and comfort:  A well fitted open type earbud can be extremely comfortable, but ill-fitting earbuds, like many experienced with the old pair, feel like they are going to fall out, or they can cause discomfort and pain when wearing for prolonged periods of time.
  3. Sound quality. While I mentioned the sonic advantages of open type headphones in the paragraph above, closed headphones and IEM’s also have advantages, and mainly in the bass department – even cheap sealed headphones like the Sennheiser CX-300 II can provide excellent bass response provided the silicone tips provide an actual seal.

But, enough about the general description, and time to get specific

Packaging

Apple’s product packaging is, as always, top notch: Very little extraneous material – a white cardboard box enclosed in clear plastic, containing a warranty leaflet, user manual, , and the EarPods themselves neatly packed away in their carrying case.  Over the years, many manufacturers have created theft-proof packaging, often requiring that you use a box cutter to open the package.  Thankfully, Apple haven’t fallen in to this trap: No tools required to open the package.

The carrying case itself is brilliant: It’s a hard plastic case about the size of half an iPhone, with a slot for each of the earbuds and one for the mic/volume control, and it fits neatly into a jeans pocket without it being too noticeable.

I’ve had a great number of In-Ear Monitors over the years, some much more expensive than the EarPods, and none of them have had a carrying case this elegant – the only product coming remotely close was a pair of Audio Technica earbuds that I bought sometime during the eighties.

If you want to prolong the life of your EarPods, I suggest you bring this case around with you, as it’s a much safer way to store your headphones, and it easily mitigates any tangling problems.

Build and build quality

It’s hard to evaluate the build quality of an entirely new product – only real-life use will tell if they last longer than the old earbuds or not.  However, you can get a good impression of it, by reading iFixit’s teardown of them.

Some things to note, though (and a quick summary of the iFixit teardown):

  1. The earbud material is the same white plastic that the old earbuds were largely made of.  It won’t survive an office chair rolling over it, but should withstand most types of daily use, but don’t give off the same high-quality impression you get from metal enclosures in higher end alternatives from the competition
  2. The strain relief on the earbud is much improved over the old earbuds.
  3. The microphone and iPod controls are much improved over the old headphones. The tactile feel of the buttons is good, and they are easy to press.  This is in stark contrast to the old controls which, at best, were as wooly as the keyboard from the Sinclair ZX81.
  4. The new cable, while I haven’t had an actual chance to test this thoroughly, seem more tangle-proof than the old one, thanks to a slightly less rubbery feel to the cable.  And, as noted above, I would suggest using the enclosed carrying case – it’s really quite compact, and protects the headphones from both impact, cable strain and tangling.
  5. The minijack connector is the same 3.5 mm TRRS connector as on the old earbud.  I don’t like it much.  I don’t much care for it – due to it being made of the same plastic as the earbud itself, it’s slippery, and thus hard to both connect and disconnect.

Sound

So far, I’ve spent over 1200 words on this review, and haven’t yet mentioned much about how they sound. That’s about to change. During my testing, I’ve tried them with, and compared directly to the following gear:

  • iPhone 4
  • Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2D headphone amplifer/DAC
  • Fiio E5 portable headphone amplifier
  • Bowers and Wilkins C5 In-ear headphones. A review of these is coming up later – they serve as my day-to-day in-ear headphones and served as my benchmark for this review.
  • Sennheiser HD 558 circumaural open headphones
  • Nuforce NE-700X headphones (Note, the link is for the NE-700M, which is identical to the X, except it sports an iPhone-compatible microphone/remote
  • Apple’s old stock earbuds

In addition to the above products, I have owned over dozen different pair of headphones over the year, but neither have been used in this review

As important as the gear used to evaluate the headphones, I’ve used a number of reference recordings – in my case, they are ripped from CD to Apple Lossless using an AccurateRip-compatible CD Ripper. The recordings in question are:

  • Yello: Baby – in particular, I’ve used track number 9, Blender.  The track has a notoriously difficult to reproduce kick drum starting some 53 seconds in to the track. [Youtube preview here] – though I really suggest you try the CD.
  • Roger Waters: Amused to Death – If a top five list of the world’s best produced albums existed, this album should firmly be placed among it – played on a good speaker setup, it creates a three-dimensional sound stage where sounds come from far outside the speakers, and are placed both above and behind you, in addition to coming from the next room.  It proves thoroughly that you don’t need five or seven speakers to do surround.  [Amazon MP3 link here] – but again, there’s no competition for the CD. However, for this review, the reference track is track 12 – Three Wishes – from the CD, in which both a Genie and Roger Waters speaks, and it’s a very taxing test of bass reproduction, and distortion. Youtube preview
  • Joss Stone: Mind, Body and Soul – the track Less is More has a sub bass sine/kick that easily reveals if a speaker or headphone is bloated in the bass department. Youtube Preview
  • Katie Melua:  Piece By Piece – in particular, the tracks “Halfway up the Hindu Kush” and “Spider’s Web” were used. The former track for the reproduction of an upright acoustic bass, and the latter to get a sense of spaciousness.  Youtube Preview
  • Kruder & Dorfmeister: The K&D Sessions – in particular, the track “Jazz Master” is among my reference tracks. It’s very sonically rich, and revealing of harshness in a recording, or bloated bass. Youtube preview

Construction

Before you can discuss the actual sound of the headphones, you need to consider the construction.  In that respect, the EarPod is unique.

It’s not an earbud, and it’s not an IEM, and I’m not entirely sure it’s anything in between either.

Where the old earbuds had a metal mesh grill covering the diaphragm,  the new ones have foregone this in favor of having vents placed at various places on the earbud:

  1. A “forward”-firing dual-port vent that mainly fires directly in to your ear canal, and a side-firing vent that fires in the same general direction the old earbuds fired.
  2. At the back of the earbud house, there is a small vent that mainly prevents the chamber to act as an acoustic suspension
  3. At the base of the stem, there is are two ports, mainly for enhancing the bass.

Each of the different stems are tuned to different frequencies, not unlike what you could find in a bass reflex enclosure.

I could go on about them, but instead, I’m going to point at Apple’s marketing, which seems fairly concise and honest on the matter.

In the very first discussion I read about these headphones, a conspiracy theorist made the claim that all of the external facing vents were there to leak sound to your surroundings, so more people would buy iPhones.

I’ll leave the forum poster anonymous, but just leave this message: Your mom should have taught you to be a little less paranoid, because all of the vents have different functions.

If you cover up the single rear-facing vent, bass and midrange becomes more pronounced and forward.  Likewise, if you cover up the double vents on the stem, all the bass the EarPods otherwise play promptly vanishes.

Cover up the single side-firing vent, and the speakers instantly sound more muffled, and it’s the same story with the two main, forward-firing vents – you’re left with midrange and bass.

Incidentally, I also tried covering every vent, apart from the front-firing vents – to get an impression of what the driver actually sounds like.  It’s about as pleasant as the waiting muzak when you’re placed on hold in a support call. A very forward midrange, and no appreciable treble, and absolutely no bass.

Which leaves me with what I said above: Each of the vents have a specific task, as you’ll learn below.

Bass

Let’s get this out of the way first.  The old Apple earbuds were very much like watching a faxed copy of a beautiful picture, made with one of those old fax machines that scanned everything by dragging the paper through the machine, scanning line by line.  You could possibly make out some of the larger lines, and there was a whole lot missing in all departments.

It would sometimes sound as if bass was there, but to a reasonably trained ear, it was easy to discover that the bass played was mostly induced second and third harmonic distortion (read: the overtones instead of the actual bass), and they generally sounded nothing like the actual music does.

Now, enter the new EarPods.  I had originally intended to insert a few select expletives here, because that was my reaction.

I’ve waded through album after album. Miracluously, Apple have actually pulled this off.

The Earpod is the first (open type) earbud I’ve heard that actually reproduce something I’ll qualify as having real bass.

In terms of sound, it’s hard to describe.  It’s not the kind of bass you get from a system with  4 subwoofers and a gigantic rack of amplifiers.   It’s more like I would expect from a good pair of 2-way floor standing speakers with moderately sized drivers (6.5″), placed in an acoustically well-behaved room.

Further up in this review, I mentioned a few test tracks for evaluating bass using my ears instead of a microphone.  Most of the tracks are songs I know from evaluating a bunch of system, ranging from about $100 to $300000.

The Roger Waters track, “Three wishes”.  The EarPods get a clean bill of health.  On bad speakers or with bad headphones, it’s pretty much impossible to separate Roger Water’s voice from that lovely reverse reverb bass sounds of the Genie.    The same track, played on the old earbuds is a resounding fail. They give up, even before trying.

Also, my NuForce NE-700X’s fail on that track, as the bass is so bloated that the rumble of the Genie completely dominates and drowns out everything else.  Yes, in this department, the $29 EarPods completely outperform and publicly shame a $65 of IEM’s that have received a good number of positive reviews.

It’s much the same story with all of the other test tracks.  Blender is a demanding track, because it has a kick drum, that according to my spectrum analyzer is tuned to 41 Hz, which is definitely in the sub bass region. Speakers and headphones often fall in to one of two categories with this track:  Either you can barely hear the bass drum, or it dominates completely.  In the past, I’ve used that bass drum to directly affect purchasing choices. I’ve thrown out candidate amplifiers based on their ability to reproduce that kick drum accurately, because it is so telling of whether the gear can play the rest of the bass frequency range accurately.  And again, the EarPods pass with flying colors.  Which, again neither the Nuforce NE-700X’s or old earbuds do – the former is lifeless, and the latter drowns out everything with the kick drum and its overtones.

It’s the same story with the rest of the test tracks mentioned above. The EarPod passes all of my subjective tests, and performs noticeably better than the more expensive Nuforce alternative, and from my memory, it also completely outshines the Sennheiser CX-300 II in that department – it makes the acoustic bass on Katie Melua’s track sound like an actual acoustic instrument instead of a synthetic reproduction.

So, what happens when we compare to something more upscale?  I mentioned the Sennheiser HD-558, and Bowers & Wilkins C5.

Well. In short, the EarPods lose, but in the bass department not by all that much.  If I were to place each headphone on a bassiness scale, the EarPods would fall somewhere between the HD 558’s and C5’s, with the C5 being the bassiest of the three, and all three fall within a scale that can be considered “neutral”

However, accuracy is not merely an exercise in flat frequency response – you also need to consider distortion in various forms, and in this respect, the EarPods fall short of both of the rivals.  Both leave you able to separate out each individual note, and other instruments in the same frequency range, where this is more difficult with the EarPods.

But overall, I’m going to give them a resounding pass in the bass department.

The rest of the frequency range

This is where my real criticism of the EarPods start.  And ends, actually.

While a bit difficult to quantify, when comparing to more expensive headphones, you get the sense that something is missing.  Where the B&W’s allow you to count the number of singers in a choir, and you can very nearly do the same with the Sennheisers, the EarPods are a resounding “Nope. Forget it” in this department.

Allow me to explain through a digression: Before we had the means to produce precision optics, many cameras suffered from what we now call soft focus – where the image still is completely recognizable, but sharp edges and details are lost.

Now, soft focus can be a desirable effect, and people will gladly pay for specialist soft focus lenses, or play with Gaussian blur in Photoshop, or they will even coat their lenses or filters in petroleum jelly (a.k.a Vaseline) in order to achieve this effect.

The EarPods are the sonic equivalent of the soft focus lens.  When compared to higher-end alternatives, you can’t directly point out what’s wrong – because the overall tonal balance is still about right – even if they come out as a bit darker sounding than both the Sennheisers and B&W’s.

You just get this sense that something is being glossed over, or is missing.

The downside to this, if you have ever heard more expensive alternatives is that you’re left with that constant feeling that something is missing.

If your sole frame of reference is the old iPhone/iPod earbuds, you’re not going to be missing anything, because the EarPods are several of magnitude better in this department, and you’ll probably sit there, saying to yourself “Wow, I’d never heard that sound in that recording before”.

The upside to the EarPods approach with the slightly dark tonal balance, and soft-focus sound is that they tend to sound incredibly inoffensive.  You can throw almost any recording at them, and the recording will be bearable.  With a lot of high-end audio gear (and some studio gear), this is completely impossible.

Keep in mind, though, that I’m now pitting the EarPods against products six times the price. If I pit them against products in their own weight class, they really aren’t all that bad. I would rate them as better than the Sennheiser CX-300 II, and on par with the Nuforce’s, but with a more pleasant overall tonal balance than either.

Sound stage

If you like me are a loudspeaker person, rather than a headphones guy, you’ve probably always been left wanting when talking about “Sound stage”.

Ironically, the most concise definition I have heard about sound stage, was when Steve Jobs introduced one of Apple’s bigger flops, the iPod Hifi, a glorified iPod dock, which was, due to it’s drivers being only 13 inches apart simply couldn’t have one.

He defined the sound stage as the speaker’s ability to disappear in the room, and present a virtual stage where the performers are placed.

I am of the opinion that no headphone has ever gotten this right at all.  Even with expensive headphones, sound sits firmly placed inside your head, rather than with sources of sound placed in the room around you.

Yes, there are a few novelty recordings like the virtual barber shop where a decent pair of headphones will provide you with some illusion that sounds are placed in a physical space around you, but this never works for actual music – binaural recordings tend to sound odd when played on regular speakers, so nobody does them for music,

Whenever I evaluate a product, I always apply a mix of casual listening where I don’t obsess over the detail, but rather try to get the big picture, and concentrated listening where I do  obsess over details.

I usually start with the obsessive detail listening, to move to casual listening when I’m fatigued from listening to details. It’s during this latter, casual phase, where I usually pick up cues about the actual sound stage and imaging capabilities.

And it was during this casual phase, I got the shock of a lifetime.  I’ve had a lot of headphones over the years, and had other, horribly expensive ones, like Stax, on extended loans.

The electrostatic Staxes are supposed to be good in the sound stage department (The exact model number escapes me at the moment, but during the mid-late 90’s, they retailed for $4-500), and they were better than any headphone I’ve since owned.

At best, I could close my eyes with the Staxes, and imagine that I was sitting in a club, having my back turned to the band.

Well.  The Staxes just got solidly beat. By a $30 piece of plastic bundled with every new iPhone and iPod.  During the casual listening phase,. I tend to listen to more quiet music, often including acoustic instruments.  At some stage in this listening, I had to do a double take, because I was wondering if I’d accidentally turned my studio monitors on. Because, I could swear that there was flesh and blood musicians sitting behind my desk.

I don’t know how on earth Apple has pulled this off.  Knowing Apple, they probably have multiple patents in the area.  Dear Apple: Please license your patents to other manufacturers. Cheaply.

In my over 25 years of having audiophilia as a hobby, I’ve had a few moments I’ll just refer to as “Martin Logan moments”, which is when I have heard something that completely defies belief, and it stems from the first time I, as a 13 year old paperboy, walked in to the local high-end asylum who had a pair of Martin Logan CLS electrostatic speakers set up.

This EarPods are, in two senses, a Martin Logan moment.  The sound stage I was presented with in the demo room (It was nice of the owner to indulge a eyeglass-wearing complete nerd’s curiosity) was that of flesh-and-blood musicians sitting in a room when clearly they weren’t. It made me understand that music could be reproduced in better ways than a mono speaker.  The EarPods are the same. I now have hope that headphones will not remain a facsimile of real music reproduced live or on terrific speakers.

As an aside. The asylum owner ended up getting the newspaper for free every single day.

And he gave me a lifelong hobby in return for that.

Considerations

I haven’t touched much on usability in this review, as I’ve primarily been focused on the sonic aspects of the EarPods, so let me sum it up in a few points here:

  1. Microphonics: If You’re used to having an extra bass drum being played by a deaf and drunk drummer, you’re an IEM guy with headphones suffering from microphonics (for the rest of you: Microphonics is when cable movement induces noise in your ear).  The EarPod has none. I’ve tried to provoke the cable into inducing unpleasant noises in my ear. I’ve failed, and the EarPods have passed.
  2. Isolation: The EarPods has none. Turn the music off, and apart from a slightly muted treble, you can hear the world. This is good if you’re worried about being run down by the bus because you couldn’t hear it in time.  It’s bad if you use public transportation every day, and use headphones to block out noise (I have often just put IEM’s in my ears, without playing any music, just for some silence on a bus or train)
  3. Amplification: They’re actually quite picky.  When I tried them with my FiiO E5, I got absolutely no bass, to the point where I was wondering whether my E5 was faulty.  With my iPhone 4, I get fairly audible distortion whenever the volume control passes 75%.  With my reference amp – the Objective2 headphone amplifier, they are louder than I’m willing to listen to before distortion is audible – it’s made me wish for a phone with a headphone out near the quality of the O2.
  4. Comfort: This will obviously vary from ear to ear, but for me they are really comfortable for wearing long-time – they weigh next to nothing, and once you’ve overcome the initial “these are going to fall out” feeling, you won’t really feel you’re wearing them.

Conclusion?

If you’ve gotten this far, I’m surprised. This review has now passed 4000 words, and I honestly don’t think a longer headphone review has ever been written.

Also, if you’ve gotten this far, the conclusion is pretty much given:

They’re absolutely, no questions asked, worth $29 as a stand alone purchase, for anyone. Any review that tells you otherwise is downright lying. Either because it’s popular to hate Apple, or to hate cheap gear, or because the reviewer is deaf.

If you are a fanatically obsessed with soundstage, and as a consequence don’t really like headphones, they’re also a no-questions-asked purchase.  As I said, in this respect I prefer them over a $500 pair of vintage Staxes, and my current references (Sennheiser HD 558, B&W C5) isn’t even considered competition.

If detail retrieval is important to you, the best-in class at about twice the price will be better matches for you.

If isolation is your top priority. Look elsewhere – these were never made for that.

If you produce music: You have absolutely no choice.  Since 2001, 600 million people have purchased a device with the old device.  You’re going to need these to do a fact check on your mix, much like you need to test on an average mono speaker.

If you don’t really care about audio quality: I don’t know how you got this far in this review, but yes: Buy them. They’re worth $29.

Updates

  • Edited title to correct pluralization, they are called EarPods, not EarPod as the review title initially indicated
  • Some of you coming in via web search have come here looking for frequency response measurements. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording/measurement dummy head, so you won’t find those graphs here. However, Rin Choi has measurements of both frequency response, impedance and distortion. In addition, PC Pro has additional measurements showing the difference in leakage between the old Apple earbuds and the new EarPods.