• Budget Beats? Here's the Brainwavz M100 Earphone

    Budget audiophile brand Brainwavz Audio is back at it, closing out 2016 and kicking off 2017 with a bevy of new earphone offerings. Their timing was just right. Shortly before leaving for an eight-day cruise around the Caribbean, Brainwavz hit me up looking for my thoughts on the recently released M100 high fidelity audio earphone.

    Claiming to be crafted from aircraft grade metal, and boasting hand-crafted 8mm dynamic drivers tuned to present a “wide soundstage, well defined bass and clarity,” the M100 seemed like the perfect lightweight and durable travel companion. In the carry-on it went. Thanks Brainwavz.

    A four-and-a-half hour flight is never fun, but it did give me plenty of time to start putting the M100 through its paces.

    Unboxing & Accessories

    The M100 comes in a pretty minimalistic black and white carton containing a plastic inner tray that keeps packaging modest, although not as minimal as it could be. It's simple and functional and it’s what I’ve come to expect from Brainwavz. Inside, you’ll find everything neatly packed and organized—basically the opposite of my camera pack.

    For the $89.50 you’ll part with to add the M100 to your portable audio arsenal, you get an array of accessories—something Brainwavz thankfully never skimps on. The M100 includes their branded zippered hard case, Velcro cable tie and shirt clip, a set of premium Comply foam ear tips, a set of bi-flange silicone ear tips, and two sets each of standard S, M, and L silicone ear tips (Because you know you're going to lose one, or maybe three. Don’t judge me). No complaints here.

    What I can complain about is the cable. More specifically, the three-button in-line mic/remote that didn’t fully function with my Motorola Android smartphone. Brainwavz says the remote is compatible with Apple devices and “most Android phones,” so I guess I fall outside of “most.” This isn’t the first time my Droid hasn’t played nice with in-line mics or remotes, and it’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s still a disappointment. Your results may vary. This caveat aside, the cable is a simple twisted braid of OFC copper terminated with a gold-plated 3.5mm plug that’s extremely lightweight, falls nicely and has minimal microphonics, which is most welcomed when, say, you’re hiking through a humid rainforest to see a dormant volcano (Deploying the shirt clip is highly recommended).

    Performance

    About that hike; the M100 is a simple cylindrical earphone that's intended to sit comfortably with the tip and nozzle in your ear canal while the majority of the housing protrudes out from it. As you can guess, this doesn’t bode well for the active audiophile. In fact, the M100 popped out of my ears several times regardless of whether I routed the cable up and around my ear or wore it straight down. Swapping out the silicone ear tips for the Comply foam tips did help, but I’d recommend an in-ear monitor to real active audiophiles—like the Brainwavz XF-200 (review) if you want something super affordable to bang around in or my preferred Shure SE215 (review).

    While we’re on the topic of ear tips, let’s get my regular disclaimer to beginner audiophiles out of the way. With the large assortment of ear tips offered with the M100, it’s important to test each set. Tip selection is critical with earphones and IEMs, and I strongly encourage you to take the time to choose the ear tip that fits each ear best—emphasis on best and not just one that “fits”—because the audio quality, comfort and isolation improve greatly with the ideal tip. For me, the Comply foam tips worked best. When you’re trying to block out the drone of a jet plane, for example, the Comply tips offer far greater noise isolation and improved comfort for long listening sessions, plus some much needed bass control.

    About that bass, the M100 is simply a mid-bass monster. As in, it’s about all you really hear. Sure, the M100 has some sub-bass and mids and a hint of treble, but the clear emphasis is on a rising mid-bass hump that dominates the rest of the M100’s dynamic range. Having reviewed Brainwavz’s more affordable and balanced M1 (review) and S0 (review) earphones, I honestly found the M100’s tuning to be disappointing from a versatility standpoint. Despite the marketing claims that the M100 is “suitable for most genres of music,” I feel that the thick mid-bass bleeds too far into the somewhat muddied and polite descending mid-range and treble frequencies to be suitable for any type of critical listening of high fidelity audio. Rather, this tuning is more suited for less complex rap, dancehall, deep house and electronic/EDM where unruly and even boomy bass is often welcomed and seemingly “fun.” I like fun. I also like to hear all of what was recorded in the studio.

    What’s most interesting about the M100’s tuning is how the mid-range and treble responses fall off, rather sharply, in fact. To visualize it, the M100 isn’t U- or V-shaped—it’s slanted. As soon as you get out of the mid-bass range, the upper frequencies slowly get sucked out until right near the start of the treble region and then the bottom falls out. It’s no secret that I generally favor a slightly darker, warmer and fuller sounding earphone or headphone over something analytical, but the M100 sacrifices too much mid-range and treble presence and detail for my taste. If you’re super sensitive to sibilance or high frequencies, though, the M100’s darkness may sound just right to you, just know that the utter lack of upper frequency response also inhibits the M100’s ability to inject any air or sense of space and dimensionality into the soundstage. The sound is right in your ear, right in your head—those favorable phantom images we hunt for in our quest to reach Audio Nirvana be damned. I’m still looking for that “wide soundstage, well defined bass and clarity” Brainwavz promised.

    Regardless of whether I pushed the M100 with my smartphone or Hidizs AP100 DAP on the go, or my ALO Audio The Island DAC/amp or JDS Labs OL DAC and 02 amp back home, my impressions remained the same. Strong vocalists came off as a touch flat and recessed; bass notes were untamed and often flubby during complex tracks; snare drums didn’t really bite or crack; cymbals lacked shimmer; guitars struggled to separate themselves from bloated bass lines; brass instruments sounded veiled. Of course, this is in “stock” listening form. You can EQ the hell out of the M100 to make it sound quite different. But who wants to do that, especially when you would have to try to match your preferred EQing across each device you listen on providing that’s even an option. No thanks.

    Now I realize these listening impressions may seem a bit harsh, but, to me, the M100 sounds like something meant to compete with Beats or Bose earphones at a lower price point. The M100’s sound is what I’ll call safe; it’s bassy and overly warm, the muted mids pull back vocalists that should be front and center, and the sharply rolled off treble effortlessly hides the grain and harshness of poor recordings and compressed streaming audio. It’s basically what most  mass consumer brands aim to achieve. But audiophiles are a different breed and have much different expectations for what sounds musical.

    Bottom Line

    After nine days of traveling throughout the Caribbean where the M100 got its fair share of salt, sun, sweat and more, it still looks new. The build quality and material choices are simply solid. In those regards, Brainwavz has put out another quality product. For $89.50 you basically get a stealthy, well-built, durable earphone with a plethora of accessories, a two-year warranty, and—unfortunately, in my opinion—a bassy, unbalanced sound signature that’s best suited for bumping Sia and Sean Paul remixes (If that’s your guilty pleasure, you’re in luck). Where the M100 really falls short is when it comes to true “high fidelity audio.” You want bass? More specifically mid-bass? You got it. You want balance and detail and clarity that seamlessly spans multiple genres, you’ll be better served by some of Brainwavz’s other offerings or elsewhere.

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