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4.0 out of 5 stars Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS Earphone (IEM) Review (update 16 Oct 2013),
This review is from: Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS Earphones (Electronics)
Gear used: Desktop PC and Macbook Air with HRT MicroStreamer DAC/amp; iPod Touch 5g with v-moda verza DAC/amp and FiiO E12 amp (using FiiO LOD cable).
My first impression of the FI-BA-SS IEM was amazing clarity, but a distinctly different tonal quality to string instrument sounds than what I've heard with my other earphone (Sennheiser IE800) and headphones (ATH ESW9a and 11, Beyer DT770LE, Soundmagic HP200, and v-moda M100). Much of my music is electronic genre (test examples listed below), and most of those tracks were just too bright with the FI-BA-SS, so I ran a long series of test tone sweeps as well as discrete test tones from 15 hz to 16 khz. NOTE: My results or conclusions are not absolutes based on the FI-BA-SS in isolation, but rather on the relative strength of those tones compared to how they sound on my other headphones, and also comparing those headphones to other headphones I've had such as the Sennheiser HD800 (based on prior testing).
The FI-BA-SS output at 15 to 20 hz has no fundamental tone that I can discern. For comparison, the Senn IE800 IEM is weak at 20 hz and faint at 15 hz, but the fundamental is clearly evident by the weight as well as the sound. The on-ear v-moda M80 is another headphone that has significant fundamental tone at 15 hz. The FI-BA-SS output rolls off smoothly below 100 hz, and is down approximately 3 to 4 db more at 30 hz than the Senn HD800 headphone. To make certain that my ear seal or lack thereof wasn't going to compromise this result, I got what was apparently a perfect seal, then pressed the earpieces inward until my ear canals closed up. The bass signature didn't change until the sound dropped out when the canals closed, so this result should prove accurate enough. My final impression of the bass is excellent quality and detail with no peaks or dips, but it won't satisfy users who require a strong bass.
I find the FI-BA-SS midrange to be unremarkable, which is to say, crystal clear and free of any colorations or distortion. I have no doubt that the superior midrange quality has a lot to do with being a single-driver design without electronic crossovers. The Senn IE800 is another excellent example of how crossover-free designs contribute to midrange purity. The FI-BA-SS highs roll off smoothly above approximately 8 khz, and while this may also be a sticking point with some users, I didn't find it to be a major concern. The one concern that I do have is the large (~6 to 8 db) emphasis at approximately 3 and 4 khz, which made most of my electronic music tracks unworkable without EQ. Again, this is not an absolute, but a comparison of the FI-BA-SS to the other headphones noted above. Individual hearing sensitivities and choice of music may render this unimportant for some users, but I think it will prove accurate for most.
Final impression: With the 3-4 khz emphasis EQ'd down 6 db or so, I find the FI-BA-SS sound to be extremely good. What's really surprising with this IEM is that in spite of the apparent weakness in the upper treble and lower bass (based on test tone analysis), the EQ'd sound is excellent from top to bottom. It may be the case that the single-driver design and quality of implementation with this earphone reveals those details in ways that test tones can't capture, and thus the advantage over other designs, where those details are obfuscated by a fair amount of non-musical sound. The FI-BA-SS is a very pricy IEM, and my personal opinion is that the price is in line with its design goal, not as a general-purpose earphone for a wide range of genres. Still, with EQ as noted, the sound can be very enjoyable for general-purpose listening.
In other reviews I've done I've included the following music examples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to other reviews and see how the FI-BA-SS compares with each individual track. Note also that these music examples were evaluated with the FI-BA-SS EQ'd down approximately 7 db between 3 and 4 khz, due to the emphasis in that range I noted above.
Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has great detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural, without favoring either. The FI-BA-SS plays this well.
Ben Heit Quartet - Suite-Magnet and Iron (Jazz with a Bebop flavor): The piano that leads off sounds realistic and the saxophone sounds appropriately soft. The FI-BA-SS plays this music extremely well.
Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and forward, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The FI-BA-SS reproduces the space and detail well.
Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice sounds good and the percussion instrument in the background is clearly a tambourine, something that's not evident with many headphones.
Crystal Castles - Wrath of God (Electro-Pop): The bass in this track has a decent impact but modest detail, while the ambient electronic effects are clear and distinct. The FI-BA-SS plays this track extremely well given the limited quality of the recording.
DJ Shadow - Building Steam With a Grain of Salt (Electronic/DJ): This track opens with what sounds like very high and very low piano notes, and the FI-BA-SS renders those notes beautifully. The ambient voices are slightly indistinct, but well reproduced given their background presentation.
Franz Ferdinand - Ulysses (Pop-Rock): The very light bass in this track is played with good detail by the FI-BA-SS, and both the voice and percussion are crisp and well-balanced.
Halie Loren - Sway (Jazz vocal): Bass instrument(s) here may sound boomy with some headphones, but not with the FI-BA-SS. The trumpet sounds natural but slightly soft, and the voice is excellent.
Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion hits hard here, and the FI-BA-SS handles it well. The bass tones beginning around 0:45 into the track are the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind that require good deep bass response from a headphone, and while the bass isn't strong with the FI-BA-SS, the deep bass here is clearly audible with decent impact and weight.
Kaskade - 4am (Electro-House): The bass that kicks in around 1:01 into the track, which is very subtle with most headphones, isn't particularly noticeable with the FI-BA-SS. The percussion and female voice balance well with neither overwriting the other - the FI-BA-SS gets this right.
Katy B - Perfect Stranger (R&B-House-Garage): The bass notes that begin at 0:27 into this track are very heavy with most headphones, but not with the FI-BA-SS. The voice is forward and bright, but it doesn't overpower the instruments or get lost in the mix.
Machine Gun Kelly - All We Have (Rap/Hip-Hop): The strong bass beats that begin at 0:23 into the track do sound like drum impacts, although they're not sharp impacts. The male and female voices have a good balance, and the FI-BA-SS plays this very well given the limited quality of the recording.
Massive Attack - Angel (Trip-Hop): This track begins with a steady low-frequency sound and some strong deep-bass impacts. The voices blend well with the music and have just the right presence, although the recorded quality of the instruments isn't great. The FI-BA-SS plays this pretty well given the limited quality of the recording.
Morcheeba - Bullet Proof (Trip-Hop): Bright percussion and medium-strength bass impacts make up most of this, with some dance-club spoken intonations thrown in. The FI-BA-SS plays the percussion very well, and the voices sound good too.
Peter Tosh - Get Up Stand Up (Reggae): The bass here has a decent but moderate impact, and the lead and backup voices have good separation that's not too narrow or wide. The FI-BA-SS renders the bass with good detail and the voices sound very natural.
Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that may lack clarity and proper harmonic detail on some headphones, but the FI-BA-SS reproduces those effects fairly well.
Rachmaninoff - Prelude in C-Sharp Minor Op3 No2 (Classical, Piano): Grand piano played mechanically from an original recording by the master himself. The bass is unusually light here, but the FI-BA-SS renders the notes extremely well given the limited quality of the recording.
Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the FI-BA-SS renders the tones and transients superbly.
Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are fairly strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The FI-BA-SS delivers the impacts with decent weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a realistic sound.
William Orbit - Optical Illusion (Billy Buttons Mix) (Electronic): This is about as close as I want to get to easy-listening music. The string tones beginning at 0:18 have a subtle quality, and the moderate bass adds a good underpinning to the music. The short poetic rap at 4:14, preceded by an etherial female voice, works very well with this track.
---------- FI-BA-SS REVIEW PT.2; OLDER MUSIC TRACKS ----------
Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled extremely well by the FI-BA-SS.
Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Very good overall sound and particularly striking how the FI-BA-SS reproduces the triangles, bells and other background instruments that are often obscured with other headphones that have limited high frequency response. Of special note for this earphone are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts won't overwhelm you since they're soft and well in the background, but you can really feel the weight they carry.
Blues Project - Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled very well by the FI-BA-SS.
Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the FI-BA-SS.
Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound - this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track. Sounds very good with the FI-BA-SS.
Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the FI-BA-SS renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.
Def Leppard - Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best - good ambience and high energy - the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together. The FI-BA-SS plays this very well.
J.S. Bach - E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The FI-BA-SS plays the tones seamlessly through the upper limits of the organ, which cover nearly the full range of human hearing. Of special note are the pedal notes - tracker organs have low-pressure pipes and don't typically produce the kind of impact around 30-35 hz that modern organs do. A headphone that's lacking in the low bass will sound especially bass-shy with this type of organ, but the FI-BA-SS reproduces this music well.
Jamming With Edward - It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds absolutely delicious with the FI-BA-SS.
Jennifer Warnes - Rock You Gently (1992?): The strong deep bass percussion at the beginning of this track has been cited as a test for weakness or distortion in certain headphones. The FI-BA-SS plays those notes with fair impact and good control. Having played this track a number of times now, I'm impressed with the FI-BA-SS's bass reproduction and detail throughout the track.
Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The FI-BA-SS reproduction is soft but very clean. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in, for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrumental separation and detail, and the FI-BA-SS plays them well.
Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones. Sounds great with the FI-BA-SS.
Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the FI-BA-SS plays it perfectly.
Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon - Speak To Me (1973): Strong deep bass impacts will be heard and felt here.
Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on this recording are very strong, but they're not bad with the FI-BA-SS.
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Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS Earphones by Final Audio Design