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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.