Saturday, October 17, 2009

[REVIEW] Fischer Audio - From Russia, with love.

[Prelude]
Just a few weeks ago, I have no knowledge what-so-ever regarding Fischer Audio. I would be crazy to even consider recommending any of their IEM models to you. After all, there are literally hundreds of small companies dumping ships-load of zero quality knock-off and generic Chinese made headphones into the market. It is often a very difficult job to sort through these 'offering' and find the handful of brands that actually do pay attention to detail and take the time to fine tuning the sound of their products. I am happy to report to you that Fischer Audio is just one of these companies that do things right.

Before the review begin, I want to take the chance to thank Fisher Audio for sending me the IEM for review and especially Alex (company rep.) for the communication and his boss for finding me. If you guys are reading this: Please do consider selling your products internationally.



[Spec]
There will be 6 models of IEM being reviewed here: The FA-999 is the latest entry of FA's "Premium" series, targeting budget orientated consumers who are interested in the bang-of-the-bucks deal. The Omega is one of FA's "Signature" series. It is a step up of "Premium" series and targeting people who are seeking a better sound with a limited budget. The Paradigm v.2, Enigma, Silver Bullet and Eterna are all in the "Fundamentals" series , which is more audiophile orientated.


FA-999
Frequency range: 20-22000 Hz
Sensitivity: 101 dB
Impedance: 16 Om
Input power: 60 mW
Cable Length: 1.1 M
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, M, L) and manual.




Omega
Frequency range: 12-22000 Hz
Sensitivity: 105 dB
Impedance: 32 Om
Input power: 60 mW
Cable Length: 1.25 M with Oxygen-Free Copper cable
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, M, L) and manual.





Paradigm v.2
Frequency range: 10-20000 Hz
Sensitivity: 104 dB
Impedance: 16 Om
Input power: 60 mW
Cable Length: 1.25 M
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, M, L), soft pouch and manual.




Enigma
Frequency range: 8-22000 Hz
Sensitivity: 102 dB
Impedance: 18 Om
Input power: 60 mW
Cable Length: 1.25 M
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, M, L), soft pouch and manual.




Silver Bullet
Frequency range: 12-22000 Hz
Sensitivity: 102 dB
Impedance: 18 Om
Input power: 60 mW
Cable Length: 1.25 M
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, M, L), soft pouch and manual.






Eterna
Frequency range: 8-22000 Hz
Sensitivity: 110 dB
Impedance: 18 Om
Input power: 350 mW
Cable Length: 1.25 M with Oxygen-Free Copper cable
Includes: Single flange eartips (S, L), Bi-flanges eartips, Silicone ear guides, soft pouch and manual

*All come with 3.5mm L-shaped, gold plated mini plug.

[Packaging and Build Quality]
Besides FA-999, which has a blister pack over the paper box, all the models are well packed in a hard paper box with transparent window access so you can get to see what you are going to buy. As you can tell from the pictures, the packaging are neither top notch nor shabby. It is what I'll describe as better-than-average.

For most of the models, you will get a decent soft pouch, though I do hope FA will include a hard case for the better models. I won't even mind paying a little bit extra since it really 'completes' the whole package. This is especially true to Eterna since its ear guides are rather big and a hard case can really be helpful. Being the lower end models FA-999 and Omega don't have any pouch, but Omega does have a Velcro strip on the cable to help managing cable when unused. While most of the models have very well built mini plug, the cable are less impressive. Beside Omega and Eterna (which have thicker yet flexible cable), the rest of the models use what seems to be the same type of black cable mostly found on Sony or Panasonic earbuds back in the 90's. While the cable isn't much to look at, they are still adequate for the job.

One thing that doesn't come with most of the models (except FA-999) is the shirt clip. However, since microphonics is generally pretty low on the plain looking black cable FA used, it really isn't a big problem at all. Out of all the models, Silver Bullet is the only one with full metal housing. The housing is gorgeous to look at and has some weight to it (feel like steel btw), but the included eartips are really too soft to get a good seal. Weird enough, I only found the eartips on the Silver Bullet package to be too soft. Those on other models are actually pretty good. Their isolation are all very decent. Basically they are Eterna > Enigma > Paradigm v.2 = Omega = Silver Bullet (w/ generic single flange) > FA-999. To give you a rough idea, the isolation on FA-999 is about -20dB, which is about average on my scale and enough for daily use.

Granted none of them is built like tank, I find the overall build quality is very solid for their asking price - except for Eterna, which has a better build quality than the rest of the group and comes with ear guides, as you can see on the pictures above.

[Sound Quality]
As always, I put in roughly 40~50 hours of burn-in (each) before the audition. I do not find any major change on most of them except FA-999, which shows a noticeable better bass control after the process.

FA-999 is one for the basshead. It sounds warm, smooth and very full with a pretty good bass response going down to the 20Hz. Treble rolls off early at 16kHz and the the air killing fullness makes it veil. Bass can be a bit boomy on bass heavy music. Overall, FA-999 is a decent deal for its asking price of $21.

Omega sounds fairly balanced without any major flaw. Good treble and airiness though lacks very fine detail, Vocal is neither too close nor too far, bass is very solid and goes down deep with good slam and speed. Soundstage is better than average. Overall, Omega is definitely the best sub$30 IEM I have ever heard. The SE530 like design and the good fit also add more points to the listening experience. For an asking price of $22, it represents a big jump in SQ over FA-999.

Paradigm v.2 is the vocalist of the group. Slightly warm with very decent treble and bass response (which also goes down to 20Hz but much less in quantity compared to Omega), the strength of Paradigm v.2 lies in its clear vocal and mid range, yet remains fairly neutral without too much coloration. Soundstage is about average. Overall, the $31 Paradigm v.2 is a solid performer.

Enigma sounds warm and full with a good treble and an excellent bass response. Vocal is slightly more laid back but not to a point of being recessed. Soundstage is very good but the warmness does reduce the airiness a bit. It plays well with all type of music genres but really excels in none. Overall, the $40 Enigma does well worth the price.

Silver Bullet is all about soundstage and airiness. Once you replace the stock eartips with any good quality single flange, you will find a slightly warm sound with good airy and well detailed treble, better than average bass that is a bit low in speed and impact and a recessed yet not totally out of place vocal. The sound signature resembles that of TF10 except Silver Bullet is even more laid back with bigger space. While not everyone will like the very airy and specious presentation, the overall performance is still commendable for a pair of $53 IEM.

Eterna is a pair of very musical sounding IEM - it is not about accuracy of the sonic reproduction, but the 110% dedication to fun and music enjoyment. It has a slightly warm and an upfront presentation. Treble is there but not on the center stage. Midrange is full and vocal is sweet. Bass has a really good body, depth and decent speed though it still misses the deepest of sub-bass compared to that of real bass monster (i.e. Atrio). Airiness and soundstage are almost spot on for a pair of IEM, neither too far or near and yet still retains clear separation and layers. This is by far one of the best dynamic universal I have heard (placing it alongside with IE8 and just slightly ahead of RE0) and to best them all - it only costs $59. I dare to say I even prefer it over almost dull sounding SE530 and almost on par of TF10 (only because TF10 offers better accuracy with less coloration). To add more points to Eterna, it is almost as comfortable as UM2 and has a really good build quality. If I have to pick a weak point from Eterna, it is the lack of hard case since it is rather bulky with the ear guide in place. Highly recommended with a Sonic Diamond™ Award.



[Conclusion]
It is kind of strange to just discover Fischer Audio even though they are in business for quite a few years now (not to mention they really have a good line-up of products). In our first email exchange, I remember Alex @ Fischer Audio introduced the companies' products as 'not quite good as Ultimate Ears but definitely better than Philips.' Well, I am quite happy to prove him wrong. They are in fact every bit as good as many of their larger competitors. At the end, the only remaining question is of course "where to find one?" Hopefully this review will give Fischer Audio a bit more incentive to venture out to the international market. For now, those who are in Russia and Scandinavia should really start looking around for stores that carries these lovely babies.

A quick sum-up can be found here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

[Pictorial Review] FiiO E1

This just come in this afternoon, one of the very first final production FiiO E1. In case you have no idea what E1 is, it is an [all-in-one] line-out dock + headphone amp + remote control for iPod and iPhone. In case you still wonder: No, you can't use it with any other DAP.


FiiO E1 next to my hardcase'd Nano 4G. Remember, this is still a sampling package so there is no retail box what-so-ever. You can expect a more updated look by the time E1 hits the market (which ETA is mid October).

Spec
●Output power: 80 mW (32 ohms Loaded) / 16 mW (300 ohms Loaded)
●Signal to Noise Ratio: >= 95 dB (A Weight)
●Distortion: < 0.009% (10 mW) ●Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 60 kHz ●Suitable Headphone Impedance: 16 ohms - 300 ohms ●Power Supply: use iPod / iPhone power ●Dimensions: Line control 48mmx14mmx10.7 mm ●End-to-End: 845mm ●Cable length: 780mm




Here are from an IM conversation I have with James @ FiiO (as I quote him):
Quote:
1, E1 is design for audiophile, but we hope more people will like to use it, that is why we add in-line remote function, we hope more and more people can enjoy the music by a quality setup.

2, the SQ is almost the same with E5, but without any EQ, cause it will suitable for any kind of music.

3, E1 is powered by the power output from the dock of iPod/iPhone, at the one hand , if you need more power to drive the earphone, it will decrease the play time of iPod/iPhone, but at the other hand, because the amp build inside the iPod/iPhone will not output any energy, so it will not affect so much.


As you can see, the dock connector itself is slightly bigger than just a pure LOD as most of the amp's hardware is built inside the connector. As you can see on the connector, there is not release button on the connector. Just pull the connector out when you want to disconnect E1 from your iPod.



My hardcase is actually stopping the dock connector from full insertion, but it still goes in deep enough to work. It is actually still secure enough that I can put in my pocket and walk around the house w/o the dock disconnecting.


The back clip is rather shallow and actually a bit difficult to press on. You can mis-press the front buttons when trying to open the clip (especially on one hand). While it is a bit inconvenience to use at the beginning, eventually I figure out a few ways to use the clip w/o pressing on the front panel. Well, practice makes perfection.

Build Quality
I think FiiO as both a company and a builder has grown by quite a lot. The build quality of E1 is simply superb, consider this is the same company that makes the E3 just 2 years ago.

As mentioned above, the dock connector housing is a bit bigger than your average LOD in order to fit the PCB and most of the chips inside. The cable used is fairly soft though it is thinker (for the extra wires needed for the remote, I presume). The length of the cable is a little bit over 2 feet, enough to reach out from the pocket or backpack but not too long to tangle around. The remote is well made and all the buttons are responsive. The volume control buttons are individually marked by a rising bar and a ditching bar so you won't confuse over them and can change the volume without seeing.

Navigation
There are a total of five buttons on the remote. The center round button is for Play/Pause. The two silver buttons (square rocker) surround the center buttons are for volume control. The outer two buttons are for Next /Previous song in a single press and for Forward/Backward in long press. The only downside about the buttons design is there is not 'hold' key, so you can accidentally press on the next/previous keys (as they are the largest and on the side).

Learn from the mistake on early E5 (which either not enough on one step and too loud on the next), E1 volume incrementation of each step is much smaller. From what I counted, there are a total of 62 steps with the last step as mute. Once connected, the volume will automatically set to 15/62. This can be a bit loud (but not very loud) if you are using very efficient headphone. The volume will reset back upon disconnect/connect or else it will stay at the last position when your iPod coming back from sleep. If you find 15/62 too loud, I'll suggest you turn the volume down first each time you plug the connector in. Note that the volume is digitally controlled by an independent controller on the amp circuit so the setting on your iPod will have no effect on E1.

More interesting note on my Nano 4G: assuming you select an album to listen, if you are on the first or last song of the album but not playing the music, a press of Previous (first song) or Next (last song) will bring you back to the menu selecting 'cover flow', If you press Play now, it will start the first album in 'cover flow'. Beside volume which works independently of iPod, the rest of the buttons are useless unless you are in the music interface. So you will still need to select an album or a playlist to play first, then use the buttons to Play / Pause / Next / Previous / Forward / Backward.

Sound Quality
While James has already stated that E1 has the same performance as E5, I do find improvement in E1's overall sound. First of, if you are using an easy-to-drive headphone or something not really resolving, the improvement might not seen to be very drastic, but it should still be noticeable. I think those of you who own or tried an E5 probably can associate. For this part of the review, I am comparing E1 to HO (Headphone-Out) and E5 with LOD (no bass boost) on Nano 4G with my trusty, very resolving RE0.

One thing about RE0 and Nano's HO is the lack of synergy. While RE0 isn't particular difficultly to drive, it does tend to perform better with amp. However, RE0 sounds really struggling with Nano. Every note sounds underpowered and sloppy. An E5 + LOD has a much better synergy with RE0 but does color the sound a bit. After all, E5 has a warm and full mid/bottom and lacks very well defined upper end detail and airiness. However, it is in between the HO and E5 + LOD that I find E1 to be better.

E1 can handle RE0 with fairly good authority, not as much as T4 nor 3MOVE but still well controlled. Its mid is not as upfront as HO or E5, which renders a colder and just slightly recessed vocal. However, it is not thin either. In comparison, E1 has better extension on both ends. Bass might not have the same quantity as E5 but the quality is better. It is punchier with much better definition. Treble shows more sparkle and detail while soundstage is wider. In sum, I'll describe E1 as having a clean, very neutral and transparent sound.

The lack of additional warmness might seem to be a downside for some, but I really think E1 is more 'universal' and will be less picky on synergy. Again, I want to remind everyone that I am using a RE0 for most of the audition and it is highly resolving. You might not be able tell as much difference on some other gears. So take this with a grain of salt.

Summary
In all, I am happy with the new E1. While I would really like a Hold key and an easier access backclip, they are all minor issues. As I expected E1 to sound similar to E5, I am actually surprised that I find E1 to be better even though it is nothing ground breaking. Still, a sonic improvement is always a good thing regardless how small it is. For those who want an all-in-one solution and don't demand high-end performance, E1 will be a option worthy of your attention.

ETA is expected to be mid October (after China National Holidays) , price is unknown yet but like E5, it won't be expensive. Most likely $30 or less.

Additional:
I also got these two iPod LOD samples from FiiO. The black slim version is under FiiO's own brand and the white one is called HPC-D3.5, OEM'ed by FiiO under Oyaide's spec as part of the company's low-end entry to the LOD market. For those who don't know Oyaide, it is a Japanese company well known for its cables and power related components.



These are just the sample packaging.




The cable on Oyaide's LOD is thick yet remains very soft and bendable. I believe it uses some sort of special formulated cable. Well, you can go to the Japanese site linked above and find out more detail yourself.



The last pictures are the comparison of the dock connectors b/w Oyaide's LOD and E1, just to give you an idea of their relative sizes.


Nano 4G - FiiO's slim LOD - E5


Nano 4G - Oyaide's LOD - E5

These are both very well made LOD.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Eye Bleeder of the Year: Grado iGi

Let faces it, what can be more disappointing than an almost-legendary company like Grado selling a pair of IEM of such design? I mean, does it really necessary to use the same generic housing made famous by SkullCandy? While Grado's top-end IEM, the GR8, is already not much of a looker, the new iGi is just plain copycat job on the design. Now I don't have problem with generic housing, but at least uses something decent and befitting your company's reputation. It really hurts my eyes just looking this as Grado's new IEM.

Amazon's Deal

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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