Product name: Brainwavz S-Zero and M1 In-Ear Monitors
Cost: S-Zero: 39.50 UKP, M1 24.50 UKP. (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Andy Norman - TNT UK
Reviewed: February, 2015
This is the latest in our occasional series on headphones. Not only that, I think this is the first time TNT-Audio has considered earphones, often now referred to as In Ear Monitors or IEMs for short. But it is the way a lot of music gets listened to - so let's see what we can get.
The topic of the review is two pairs of economical IEMs from a firm that was new to me: "Brainwavz". As ever, I'll be looking for value for money and absolute audiophile quality. Either pair is a potential first step up from the buds packaged with a portable player, so economy is important. The sound from many portable players can be quite good and warrants better headphones than those supplied with the players.
Brainwavz got in touch with TNT-Audio with the offer of a pair of their S0 (or S-Zero) IEMs for review. As a hi-fi company that was new to me I was surprised at the range of products they supply. At least a dozen IEMs at various price points, three pairs of full sized headphones, a headphone amp and a range of accessories. The company, which has been in business since 2008, describes its corporate mission as "to produce innovative, high quality audio products with a dedicated focus on high-end sound at a realistic price". Which makes it just the sort of thing we look for at TNT-Audio! Luckily for us they subsequently sent a pair of their M1 IEMs as well. This gives us the chance to compare their products at two different price points as well as exploring how these products fit with the few IEMs I'm familiar with. Conducting a few searches on the Internet I found that Brainwavz has been expending considerable effort to get their products known in the market-place through reviews in blogs and promotion through on-line retailers. So the other question for me was whether they warranted the attention or if it's just hype.
First an admission: I'm not a great fan of IEMs. I do sometimes use them, when I need to be discrete or want a shirt pocket solution, but even for commuting, I generally prefer over the ear designs. My problem with IEMs tends to be the extent to which sound depends on fit and I find myself continually adjusting them for both comfort and sound (especially to get some body to the sound). Nevertheless, they are immensely convenient and a lot of people love them, so it's worth a look to see if Brainwavz are bringing a good deal to the market. Of course it could be that I've just never used a good enough pair - but I've not found the same issue with economical on ear designs, having successfully bonded with Koss Porta Pro's, Sennheiser PX100 before my most recent regualr pair, of AKG K-450's.
My regular IEMs are Ultimate Ears 600vi. These are slightly above mid market earphones that, at the time I bought them, had a fairly good reputation for their audio quality. I also have a pair of the first generation Sennheiser CX300's which had a reputation for a sound quality that belied their price. As a source when travelling I mostly listened to an iPod, a couple of generations old. I checked my perceptions on a couple of tablets as well as rigging the earphones up to my Musical Fidelity X-Cans fed by a PC and Arcam irDAC. What I was hearing stayed pretty consistent between the portable devices but the earphones didn't really deliver with the headphone amp, which surprised me. I guess it just set my expectations too high - these earphones are really designed for use with portable devices, so I did my listening with them and my opinions are on that basis. Source material was usually Wav files on the iPod or highest rate streams on Spotify.
Both pairs of Brainwavz IEMs come in similar, good quality, retail packaging. This is excellent for a product at the price (and thus exceptional for the cheaper M1s). The well designed display packaging holds, along with the headphones, a small, zipped, carrying case filled with different sized and shaped tips, including a pair of medium sized Comply Premium tips (which, separately and on their own account, claim improved isolation, comfort and sound quality). There is also a clip for tidying the cable when it's in use and a small velcro strip for when it isn't. The case is small enough to be practical and the accessories are decent quality. I really liked the fact that I could customise the earphones to my taste with the different tips without having to buy anything extra. Both were geared towards music listening in their design, neither being equipped with volume controls or microphones for use with phones or players.
The S-Zero is slightly the more expensive of the two designs reviewed, at least in the UK. In the photograph it is the upper pair with the red covers on the earphone connections. I have recently seen both pairs listed at the same price, USD44.50, on US sites. Anyway, here are the specifications of the S-Zero.
Rated Impedance 16
Frequency Range18Hz ˜ 18kHz
Sensitivity 100 dB @ 1 mW
Plug3.5mm Gold Plated
When looking at loudspeakers, the frequency range is normally an important specification. With headphones however it is not customary to publish the point at which the frequency reproduction falls off in amplitude. With speakers this fall off is normally expressed as the point at which the volume at the lowest and highest frequencies fall by three decibels and it can give an idea of how deep the bass will go. Without that information the specification is pretty meaningless. It is worth noting that the cable is a copper Y-cable and is, unusually, flat. The left and right indicators are not well designed, looking very similar in low light. One of my favourite things about the UE600's is that left and right are subtly different colours, making identification a breeze. I'm surprised more manufacturers don't adopt that - it works well enough for audio interconnects. One thing that might bother some people is that the cable cinch, which controls the point at which the Y separates is fixed by the design. It doesn't bother me but I know some people like to control that.
The IEMs seem nicely made. There's a fair bit of plastic around the connections but the body of the earphones is alloy. The flat cable works well to reduce tangling. The jack plug is the straight type. Personally I prefer an angled jack as it less likely to get damaged in use but the quality is OK. It's difficult to tell how they'd bear up to regular commuting use - they don't seem especially robust but there are no obvious weak points either.
I've used the S-Zero on and off for the last couple of months and enjoyed them overall. Most of my listening has been blues and rock with a bit of country and folk thrown in for good measure. At first I had trouble getting the sound to settle to anything I could live with. The quality of the bass and the overall image improved massively when I changed to the Comply tips. These gave a much better fit and the image filled out a little. The bass is certainly adequate and doesn't seem exagerrated. The tonal quality seem well balanced and the overall sound is pretty dynamic. Compared to the Ultimate Ears, the sound is weightier, which I like and it doesn't descend to boominess. The top end is clear but not harsh or unduly rolled off. The beautifully recorded guitars on Mary Chapin-Carpenter's recent albums, for example, were rendered accurately, with a sweet spaciousness that worked well.
Whilst I enjoyed the tonality, I was less sure about the stereo imaging. American singer songwriter Meg Hutchinson has a distinctive voice. Listening to her with the S-Zeros made me recognise how much of that distinctiveness comes from her own harmony vocals. There's plenty of detail and everything sounds clear enough yet I found the overall image to be a bit small. It's all present and correct and fine for casual listening, but I think I might find the image a bit constrained if listening for prolonged perioids or especially critically. Of course this could partly be a function of fit or the shape of my inner ear so it's difficult to be very precise. But it seemed consistent across a range of albums. They sounded OK with classical recordings but I thought that some harshness was exposed in the treble on recordings of violins. Overall though the natural and fairly full bodied sound created a pleasing musical image, even if not quite what I'd expect from a "high end" one.
I didn't have much trouble with microphonics - that could be a consequence of the flat cable too. There is some microphonic noise but it wasn't intrusive.
In summary, I think the S-Zeros offer good material and sonic value for money and I would expect them to be competitive at their price point. My ears tend to be pretty fussy - and I found them very listenable for everday use.
Frequency Range20Hz ˜ 20kHz
Sensitivity 110 dB @ 1 mW
Rated Input Power10 mW
Cable1.3m, Y-Cord,Silver Plated
The M1's are similarly well made and supplied with pretty much the same range of accessories as the S-Zero. The cable is a very different design though. It is tightly twisted and covered in what appears to be glossy black plastic. It actually looks a lot nicer than that sounds and, being slightly stiff, it didn't tangle badly. The wire itself is sliver plated copper design which is unusual, and especially so at the price. I did find the design more microphonic though, to an extent that could be intrusive if I was moving around. Having said that, IEMs are probably not the best design for listening when moving around anyway.
As with the S-Zero, the tonal balance of the M1s also improved massively for replacing the regular tips with the Comply ones that were supplied. With the regular tips I found it difficult to get a sound that was full enough to be listenable. But with them, the sound really came together.
The sound stage is immediately wider and more open than the S-Zeros. At the same time the bass seems a tad recessed. It's defintely a lighter take on the music but still one that is interesting and lively. It's an open and fairly natural sound. I've been listening to blues guitar a lot recently. The Aynsley Lister album Tower Sessions can be pretty powerful but there's a lot of subtlety to his guitar tone as well. The M1's presented that subtlety well but the lighter bass cost it something of the drive. On that album my notes say "listenable but not special". But I came to like them more. I have a lingering fondness for Joni Mitchell's less well known 1980s albums. There's a lot of sonic variety there and mixes between electric and acoustic sounds. The M1s managed to give a good representation of the range of the music and I started to find the light touch quite appealing. There was a sense in which the M1s sounded like single driver speakers - accurate but light - whilst the S-Zero behaves more like a floor stander - more substantial, warmer.
Overall I was pretty impressed with the M1's. I didn't spend as much time with them as I did with the S-Zeros but there was no immediate indication that they were the cheaper pair. The build quality is very good and the materials excellent for the price where something much more basic might be expected. I would choose the M1s if the price were close but only because I prefer the warmer sound. Overall there's not much to choose between them. I can't claim expertise on the dozens of pairs of IEMs available in the market but I can say that if I'd bought these I'd think I'd got a bit of a bargain.
The S-Zero is a decent sounding pair of earphones with a slightly dark tonal balance. The M1 is a livelier sound but also appealing. Although I do get a sense that they're designed with the audiophile in mind - the tonal qualities are pretty well judged - ultimately I find it difficult to enjoy the earphone experience at an audiophile level. Both pairs seemed to me to offer good value. I preferred the S-Zero but could live with either pair for casual listening whilst travelling.
Brainwavz - with its slightly comic spelling - doesn't seem immediately the most serious of brand names. And it could easily get lost amongst the plethora of Chinese earphone makers. Nevertheless, the quality of these two pairs suggests that they warrant plenty of attention.
© Copyright 2015 Andy Norman - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com