Saturday, May 14, 2011

[REVIEW] NineWave NW-Studio Pro

No doubt high end earbud is getting harder and harder to come by these days. The stall of earbud development in Japan at the late 90s (probably a result of their economy crisis) pretty much marked the last golden days for earbuds user. Even though the introduction of Yuin PK1 in 2005 somewhat resurrected the high-end earbud market, it never does recover enough to match the exponential growth of the IEM market. The good news is perhaps the popularization of portable electronic devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc)in recent years helps not only the IEM development, but also creates just enough user ‘pocket’ to allow high-end earbuds to flourish largely out of the public’s sight. NineWave (9w) as one of a handful of high-end earbud makers is actually quite young as a company. Only just incorporated a year ago, their first earbud, the NW-Studio Pro (retail around $175) created some buzz among earbud user when it was debuted at the headphone convention at Japan last year. How does it measure up?







SPEC
Driver Unit: 13.5mm dynamic transducer
Frequency Response: 20Hz 20kHz
Sensitivity: 110dB ± 3dB
Impedance: 32Ω ± 15%
Cable: 980mm
Plug: 3.5mm 24 gold plated
Weight: 12g ± 0.5g





Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
Packaging is simple and elegant. If it was to be sold in a clothing and accessory store, I won’t doubt there will be people mistaking it as a brand name purse. The beautiful leather case really showcases what it means to be ‘high end’ in the earbud world, not just for the sound but the whole product as well. But at the same time it is also practical, housing all the accessories and the earbud itself with ease.



Beside the case, 9w doesn’t cutting back on other accessories in anyway. Three pairs of foam pad are included and they are extra thick and rather large, reminding me a lot of the Grado flat pad. I like the foam pad a lot, but also wish 9w had included some donut foam pad as well. There is also a gold plated 3.5mm to 6.5mm adapter and a 95cm extension cable.


The Grado flat-pad-like foam pad.

Build quality is top notch. I simply haven’t seen an earbud that is so elegant and simple in design yet so beautifully finished, making the best of other companies look like ugly duckling in comparison. The whole body made out of aluminum alloy, which I assume to be machined out. The cable is quite adequate for the job. It is soft and doesn’t seem like the type that will harden up too much (which is a problem with early Yuin). The only complain I have is with the cable length. The main cable measured end-to-end of 105cm and the extension is 95cm. That means the main cable is slightly too short and the extension is a bit too long. If it is a proper two piece cable design, I would expect something like a 40cm+80cm, or 50cm+70cm combination. If it is a one piece cable design with further extension, then I would expect the main cable to be at least 120cm in length, if not 130cm. It is not a big issue overall but it just makes the earbud a little less than perfect practicality wise.

Sound Quality
The earbuds received over 50 hours of burn-in before the review. No significant change was detected.

The first thing that NW-Studio Pro surprises me is the bass. While it might not be the deepest bass I have ever heard from an earphone, the sheer punch is quite impressive as far as earbuds are concerned. If there is such a thing as a basshead earbud, I reckon Studio Pro will be much closer to that title than anything I have heard on the same caliber. Yet the overall quality is still pretty high as texture and lower end rumble are still well rendered. Mid is actually a lot more forward even compared to the warm and mid centric AS-Charm. It is very warm and very sweet, intimate to almost in-the-face, definitely one for the vocal lover and those who like their music full. Treble extends decently to 16kHz with good detail and sparkle, but not quite as crisp or well defined compared to that of a well amped PK1. The only real issue with the treble is the slight peak over 10~12kHz which roughen up the presentation. It isn’t harsh in the conventional meaning (as it is out of the usual ‘sss’ region), but it could have been smoother if it is just a few dB lower at that area. Overall the treble seems to be more of a supporting role to the mid than to an attraction of its own. To get more crispiness, a good idea is to give the earbud a pair of donut foam pad. It still won’t beat PK1 on analytical presentation, but it is more exciting and detailed to listen to. Soundstage is decent and perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses of the overall presentation – it is actually quite good on its own, but not something to write home about especially compared to that of PK1. Of course you simply can’t have intimacy and soundstage in the same room. They just don’t work out that way.

Compared to PK1, HR1 or even to a lesser degree, the AS-Charm, the Studio Pro sounds quite differently. While others are trying to put out a grander sound, Studio Pro is trying to get closer to the listener. This makes it a little difficult to compare side-by-side to others earbuds where the strengths and weaknesses of each other are on the opposite ends. However on the big picture, I would think Studio Pro is no lesser in overall quality. It is more dynamic, intimate and good for the mainstream music. This serves well for Studio Pro as an alternative choice for those who are not into a more neutral sound. At only 32ohm, it also has the benefit of working well without any extra amping.

 
Size comparison (from left): NW-Studio Pro, AKG K319, Yuin PK1.

Verdict
There isn’t much more to say about NW-Studio Pro except that it is a brush of fresh air in the earbuds market for the recent years. I would think it is time for us to slowly move away from the PK1-like old design and into something new and better looking. Earbuds lovers don’t always need to choose plain and black to distinguish their audio choice from the general public. On the other hand, NW-Studio Pro also shows us that we don’t need overly flashy design with outrageous price tag for a good earbuds. It can still be conventional, well finished, on an affordable level, and need not be controversial. What can an earbuds lover asks for more?

See Earbuds Round-up for a rough ranking.

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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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