First Listen: Brainwavz S0 Earphones ReviewNovember 01, 2014
Earphones, earbuds, in-ear monitors, whatever you want to call them, in full disclosure, I’m not really a fan. That's not to say that I haven't tried my fair share of these things, though. I've had probably a dozen or more earphones over the years from the likes of Apple, Philips, Samsung, Sennheiser, Skull Candy, Sony and others, I'm sure. So, I know what you're thinking... you get what you pay for. Well, my most recent in-ear experience is with HiFiMan's Re-Zero earphones that were gifted to me by none of than The Spirited Uncle M. And, while they have served me well for my commuter and travel needs, I'm generally thrilled when I can get any IEM out of my ears and settle back into a comfy pair of full-size headphones.
Nevertheless, when Audrey from Brainwavz asked if I'd like to audition and review their latest in-ear monitor, the S0 (Zero), I graciously accepted the challenge, because, really, who wouldn't? When a well-regarded company like Brainwavz asks you to do something, you listen (within reason of course). And listen I did.
When first getting my hands on the S0, I was pleasantly greeted with the high-grade packaging I have come to expect from Asian audio manufacturers. I’ve been working a lot with Cayin, Dunu, Fidue and T-PEOS products lately for a project I am assisting CTC Audio with. The Brainwavz packaging is on par with its competitors, presenting quality construction and materials, nice printing, and a novel magnetic outer flap that opens to reveal the product and all of the details about it. In your hands, you’d think you’re getting a product that retails for far more than $50.
Another thing I have come to expect with the IEMs competing in this price range is a variety of accessories to customize use and fit. The S0 doesn’t disappoint here. Included with the S0 is a Brainwavz-branded cable tie, hard carrying case and shirt clip, and a variety of tips that include 1 set of Comply S-400 foam tips, 1 set of black silicone bi-flange tips, 1 set of black silicone tri-flange tips, 3 sets of black silicone narrow channel tips, and finally, 3 sets of grey silicone wide channel tips.
The hard case has two pockets that will secure all of these things in place while you’re on the go. Finding the tip that is right for you is really key, so experiment. I ended up using the tri-flange tip the most, getting the best comfort and isolation with it.
Once you get the S0 in your hands, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with their sleek high-grade aluminum housing and overall build quality. They feel solid, the strain relief points are robust, and they simply look good. Internally, the S0 sports a 9mm dynamic driver comprised of a neodymium magnet and CCAW voice coil.
The cable is 1.2m of flat insulated pure OFC copper that is intended to be worn down instead of over the ear. It is terminated in a 3.5mm gold-plated plug, but there are no adapters included as the S0 is intended for use with mobile devices. As for cable microphonics… yes they are there. The shirt clip helps, but doesn’t alleviate the entire problem. Sitting still while working, obviously no problem. Hustling to the train on the other hand left every rub and bump traveling into my ears. On occasion I also picked up some cell static while texting. That said, I can’t really recommend these for use at the gym or on a run.
The S0 comes with a 12-month warranty, but their build leads me to believe that you should be problem-free.
Brainwavz claims that the S0 presents a “balanced sound signature with each part of the sound spectrum represented accurate and clear,” and “are designed to sound good with any genre of music.”
This is where I have to draw the line. Clear? Yes. Balanced? No. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but buyers beware, these aren’t going to sound like the AKG reference headphones you use at home. I’d steer the discerning audiophile away and offer these to the new head-fi enthusiast looking to make incremental upgrades from typical consumer brands instead.
The S0’s 9mm dynamic drivers are rated at 16-ohm, with a frequency response range of 18hz-18kHz and a sensitivity of 100dB at 1mW. These stats will tell you right off the bat that they are super easy to drive, but will likely lack real deep bass extension and some sparkle in the highs. So how do they sound?
My initial audition was based on running through several hours of tracks from The Sound Apprentice Spotify playlist. A mix of songs from the likes of Fink, Bonobo, Odesza, Minus the Bear, John Butler Trio, Mammal Hands, Miles Davis, Glass Animals and many more all made their way through the S0 on my Samsung Galaxy S3, through my work PC utilizing an ALO Audio “The Island” DAC/amp, and later through my big home rig… the Sony DVP-S9000ES mated to my Ray Samuels Audio “The Raptor” headphone amp.
Without a doubt, the S0 benefits from a true headphone amp of some kind. Expect to get a cleaner presentation and more definition and better impact. That said, the overall sound signature of the S0 didn’t change much, being only influenced slightly by the characteristics of the amp itself.
When you first listen to the S0, you will likely immediately notice that there is a prominent mid-bass hump—or at least I did. Bass overall extends fairly well, but it does fall short of producing a real low-end that rumbles your eardrums. I also found that the bass was slightly boomy. Kick drums, for example, had the impact but sounded a bit hollow, or un-dampened and resonant. For rock, I felt the bass notes to be a bit slow as well, but for electronic music and acoustic, it gave off the impression of an intriguing “live” sound.
Transitioning from the mid-bass hump into the real soul of the mids was, again, not what I had expected based on the claims of the S0’s balanced presentation. My ears found the real heart of the mids to be a bit recessed and lacking of the meatiness I crave to get my feet tapping. The mids that were present were certainly clean with acceptable detail, but never really balanced out with the bass. Vocals have a natural sound, but tend to fall behind the rest of the instruments.
As for the treble, it certainly rolls off. Again, the highs that are there are clean, but they don’t extend too far, which gives the S0 a darker, slightly veiled sound signature. To those that are treble-sensitive, this may be exactly the sound you are looking for. For long listening sessions, the mellow highs may also be welcomed because you will never suffer any fatigue. That said, for those looking for cutting highs with a wide soundstage, you’ll be left wanting for more. In other words, these probably aren’t for the fans of big brass sections or sensitive saxophones. Rather, fans of hip-hop and electronic music will likely be happier with the S0.
What I can say is that the S0 centers the soundstage very well. I found no imbalances in the channels, and you do get some three-dimensionality.
I have truly mixed feelings about the S0. The looks, build and accessories are all terrific. The cable could be better, and the sound is anything but balanced. But, these don’t sound bad. Not at all. These just fit a niche I think for those that favor a bias towards the lower end of the frequency range that helps tame a lot of today’s overly bright recordings.
In all, I’d say that the Brainwavz S0 in-ear monitor is for those that simply like mellow highs and a slight bass emphasis. The V-Shaped response really gives you that live hall experience.
For more information, please visit Brainwavz or grab yours from Amazon. Many thanks to Brainwavz and Audrey for reaching out to me and allowing me to audition the new Brainwavz S0 in-ear monitor.