Friday, June 4, 2010

[REVIEW] Fischer Audio FA-002 and FA-003: Two to Tango

First of all I’ll like to thank Fischer Audio for the samples. Before these, the FA I know is really more of a portable headphones oriented brand with their main audience in the lower to mid sector of the market. But with the new Master series, FA is aiming on a higher ground. Giving those big brand names pretty much dominate big cans market for now, making budget conscious cans doesn’t quite seem to be the smartest of moves unless FA do believe they have something special up their sleeve, and I certainly think they could have hit the jackpot with the new FA-002 and FA-003.

FA-002 / FA-003 (same for both)
Frequency range: 10.5-26500 Hz
Sensitivity: 105 dB
Impedance: 64 Ohm
Input power: 120 mW
Cable length: 3.0 M
Plug: 3.5mm with 6.3mm screw-on adapter, gold plated
Extra: one additional pairs of cushions


Review Gears
FooBar 2K (ASIO) + NuForce μDAC + FireStone Audio Little Country hybrid OTL
w/ Grado SR-325i, Audio-Technica ATH-AD700, AKG K81DJ, Panasonic RP-HTX7
Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
To make it clear: Both of my packages are in the ‘simple’ packaging, meaning they are in paper box instead of black nylon zippered case with cut-out foam inside (as you might have read on other FA big cans review in forums). The rep from FA told me that the two different kind of packaging reflect the difference in the targeting customer. The ‘simple’ paper box is actually more expensive to produce since it is custom designed and made, but it is environmentally friendlier (for those who like to be green) while the nylon zippered case packaging is more practical. Suffice to say the paper boxes actually do look classier than the zipped case (as far as I can tell from picture), and the general feeling resemble those of SBA-01 and DBA-02 (which are also in the Master series): It is simple and elegant.
Inside the box, you will find the headphone itself, 3m long detachable cable (with colored 3.5mm mono plug for each channel), 3.5mm to 6.3mm screw-on adapter, an extra pair of soft leather cushion, and simple manual and warranty. The 3.5mm mono plugs have a snap-on ring at the base so they will fit securely once you push then into the headphone. The 3.5mm stereo plug (for the source) does have a metal body but it is a little hard to tell in the picture.
For FA-002, you get an open grill on both side of the speaker since it is an opened design, kind of like HD650 in a sense. Underneath the grill there is a layer of thin foam separating the transducer from the open. For FA-003, there is a piece of metal where the grill is supposed to be as it is a closed design. The metal plate is actually just for show as the ear cup itself is fully sealed with damping material inside. Judging from the spec you might think FA is using the same transducer in closed / opened design but I have listen to both enough to tell they sound slightly different from each other, beyond just the design. The transducers do however share similar construction, which are around 40~ 50mm in diameter. You can remove the ear cup by removing the small 4 screws in the corner, and that actually open up a lot of ‘mod’ space for those who don’t mind to get their hands dirty.
For street price around US$170~180, these cans are neither built as good as Audio Technical nor as humble as Grado. You can definitely get better built cans for that kind of money if that is your concern, but it doesn’t mean these FA cans will break in half in one use. At least with care they will last for a long time. There are some really minor issues that I would like to see improvement, such as a stronger but more flexible metal headband, better paint job and such. However, after being a Grado user for a few years, these ‘issues’ are more of a nitpicking rather than actual problem.
The earpads are made out of soft leather with foam inner lining which is pretty comfortable but obviously not quite as comfortable as what my AD700 can offer. It is also very deep so the whole ear can be fitted inside without a problem. The headband will apply a little force and the whole fit is quite secure. You can actual move your head around without worrying much but it is not a dead clamp. I can use it for hours without any issue unless it is in a hot day as the leather pad does keep more heat than velvet pad. To switch out the leather pad is also easy, just hold the plastic ring in the base of the leather pad firmly and gently twist it one side and you can twist it out and exchange it for another, which is included in the package. The cable has both channels join on the 3.5mm plug so making it balanced will be very easy since re-termination at the end is all you need.
Overall I am happy with the build quality and the general packaging. I can see other companies offering a better packaging and build in this price range but FA has nothing to be ashamed of with what they have, especially once we move on to the next section.
Sound Quality
Now before I start, I want to make it clear that I am not particularly into big cans. So takes my sonic impression of these cans with a grain of salt if you wish to. Note that beside SR-325i being fed by my Little Country hybrid OTL, the rest of the cans were fed directly by NuForce μDAC since the tube amp is tuned for SR-325i and doesn’t sound as nice with others. Both FA-002 and FA-003 received around 75 hrs of burn-in before the review.
FA-002 has an opened design. It is on the warm side, but not too much. Treble extends fairly well in a smooth fashion but still retain a decent degree of sparkle. Mid is rather forward for an open headphone, but not quite what I would call rich. Still, vocal is rather sweet and full of texture to listen. Bass is tight, punchy and has a good sense of speed, though not big in any sense but it does reach deep in a smooth rolling off fashion under 100Hz. The soundstage is not quite as wide as AD700 while not quite as narrow as SR325i (or any lower end Grado for that matter). I’ll describe it as above average / decent.  In fact, I like it as it is, even more so than the soundstage on AD700. While movie might not sound quite as ‘surround’ as it can be, the distance is about right for music, especially on vocal. Being a more or less dedicated IEM user for quite some time now, I rather enjoy a closer and stronger image myself. While AD700 has a great soundstage, it often sounds a little too distance to me. FA-002 is what I would describe as a good vocal / mid range headphone.
FA-003 has a closed design. Different from FA-002, FA-003 is more neutral in sound signature. Treble and bass extension is almost as good as FA-002 but in a flatter fashion, smooth overall without any graininess or uneven peak / valley. It is a more laid back sound but not really dark. Detail and sparkle are still presented though in a much gentler way. Bass is tighter than FA-002 but still well controlled. Impact can still be felt though I would call the quantity a little light, at least when compared to most other closed headphones. Soundstage on the other hand is quite good for a close design.  It won’t compete with an opened headphone but it is better than most closed headphone I have heard (for what I can remember). As a close cans, isolation is excellent on the FA-003 as I can hardly hear any leak from the deep earpad and the damped earcup. Being a more neutral sounding headphone, I do find FA-003 to be not picky when it comes to music genre.
One of the strangest things about FA-002 and FA-003 are that they sound like what they are not supposed to. FA-002 in many ways has the flavor of a closed design headphone while FA-003 is the opposite. Both are not particularly hard to drive from a portable source though I do feel they benefit from a clean sounding source with a little more power. While μDAC is doing a good job with both, I can tell they can still use a little more power when I fed the line-out over to 3MOVE.
I can’t tell you whether these will beat something like HD650, but at least I don’t think they are lesser in any meaningful margin compared to the close-to-US$300 SR-325i. In fact I prefer both to Grado, sound signature wise. Given that they cost less than US$200 individually, the bang for buck factor is simply too hard to ignore. I guess it is only fair to say Fischer Audio really knows how to make an entrance to the big cans world - with not just one, but a double K.O. in the price/performance game.

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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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