Tag Archives: audio
The A1 is a simple product with a clearly defined but limited purpose: It takes the too low (but ideally clean) audio output from a mobile device and adds a bit of oomph and control to it.
In the case of my current phone, a Sony Z3 Compact, this is much needed for most headphones. I’m talking real life IEMs and on-ears here, not even exotic hard to drive ones. While this is an especially bad example, headphone outputs overall have gotten worse in regard to what they can put out in recent years generally.
With the A1, something not wildly efficient like the Sound magic E10 becomes usable. Somewhat to my surprise they’re even enjoyable. I can turn them up to a level where the resolution becomes decent, and they benefit from better control over the bass.
Apart from the oomph, the output also stays clean better under load. The Z3 can drive my Shure SE535, which are exceptionally sensitive, to more than decent volumes, but with the A1 a bit of coarseness in the treble is gone, and the bass control and extension improves. I generally find it more enjoyable to listen to music and get lost in a track much easier when I use the A1.
So: If your mobile headphone output is somewhat lacking in volume with your headphones, the A1 is well worth a try. If you’re content with the volume, but wonder what you can do to improve the playback quality on some good, but not really hard to drive heaphones then the A1 makes so much more sense than getting into other areas such as the ridiculousness of cable upgrades.
Disclaimer: I bought any products mentioned here myself.
Good speakers and headphones cost money. Over the years I’ve moved on from the ~80 € class of in-ears to a pair of 200 € ones and, recently, to the ~400 € Shure SE535, and each of these has been a step up in sound quality and (this is the important part) significantly increased my enjoyment of music. I also felt that the price/quality ratio remained reasonable up to my latest purchase, even though there were diminishing returns.
With IEMs not something that you can easily try out in a shop, and over-400€ devices being a niche market anyway, there is no way for me to find out what spending even more would give me bar spending even more – and I’m both happy enough with the Shures and so financially constrained that this presently has zero appeal to me.
On to the low end
Why the introduction about the high end for a pair of decidely cheap IEMs? With what I’ve spent on IEMs I’m already in the freak enthusiast zone (though in less deep than many), and any explorations there have limited appeal for others. Very few people will ever spend 400 € on some itty bitty pieces of technology they cram in their ears for listening to music. Many more may be enticed to spend 37 € (current price on Amazon Germany) for something like the E10 – if there is a respective payoff. So exploring the low end is both more financially viable and beneficial to a wider range of people (though less enjoyable for my ears).
The first question
The first question to answer for low end IEMs then is: Are these a step up from what most people will be replacing with these, i.e. the in-ears that come with smartphones?
They are. I compared them to what came with my Sony phone, and the difference is vast. At this level of difference it’s not even worth talking about specifics: There is a whole lot more music in the E10.
Are they better than competitors at the price? My last pair of in-ears in this price category is long ago, but I have a pretty good memory of the Sennheiser CX 400 (at roughly twice the price), and I always felt that the music didn’t really come together as a whole on these like it does on the E10 – even if they individual frequency reproduction may have been better than on the E10. This at least indicates that they are competetive. (There’s also the fact that What-HiFi have them as their sub-50€ pick – and that Web site seems to have generally reasonable reviews and judgements.)
So we have that out of the way: They are worth the money for the sound, and are a good pick for anybody willing to upgrade from the crap that included headphones (almost) invariably are.
Some more specific points:
- Comfort is OK. I had to experiment a bit with wearing them, and now run the cables along the tops of my ears without having them in the usual twisted-in position that lends itself to this. Microphonics are very good (i.e. there’s little of them) like this, while they were pretty bad when worn with the cable straight down.
- They’re not for devices with lowish audio output. My Z3 Compact can barely get them to minimum listening level (which is a common problem with this phone).
- They benefit from a better source. Adding the Fiio A1 in between the Z3 and the E10s changes things drastically. The combined price of this combination would, however, be better spent on other, better in-ears.
- They benefit from better earpieces. I had some old Complys lying around (tried on my Sennheiser IE80, didn’t work for them). These improve sound isolation and comfort.
- They definitely require burn-in. I initially had them play for 10 or so hours overnight and have used them occasionally since, and the sound seems to still improve. As usual with burn-in this is not a problem – the improvement is automatic through normal use as well. So go ahead and start using them immediately if you don’t believe in burn-in. From my experience with numerous headphones and speakers it’s just a bad idea to judge their sound when they’re fresh out of the box.
The sound in detail
These are not great headphones. From my experience so far, there a no giant-killers in sound transducers. You get what you pay for (except for with fashion brands and probably high-end snake-oil, where you may get significantly less). With anything in the price bracket of the E10, you’re basically talking about judging faults. Nothing here will have deep, controlled bass, well-defined sparkly treble without harshness or mids that can tell you which microphone a singer was using.
The secret of good cheap headphones is balancing the faults and restrictions. Ideally they combine their faults into something that delivers music without drawing the listener’s attention to what’s missing and wrong.
The E10 have a lot of faults: Bass is not particularly deep and firmly entrenched on the boomy side of things. Treble rolls of very early. They generally lack detail.
They balance this with decent soundstaging and general coherence in the sound. What is there works well together, and the outcome is a musical presentation which is, for the most part, enjoyable. These things can groove and flow, and I have gotten completely lost in the music with these. That is all that you can expect at the price point.
Recommended at the price. If you’re still listening to music using the crap that came with your device and have 40 € to spare, then order the E10. They will improve your life. (Or research other options – these are just something that I found works, and there are sure to be others that do the same.) If you have even more to spare then consider buying something better instead. At these price points significant improvements can be had for just a bit more.
Full disclosure: I bought these myself and have no affiliation with SoundMAGIC (or Shure, for that matter).