Like stealing the king’s ransom, reviewing arguably the world’s best earphone is no easy task. Final Audio Design is no ordinary name in hi-end audio; its staple audio system have been hailed as among the best in the world, clear and true on the other; but overall, they are certainly pricey. Their new earphone products are marvels of esoterica: just like their speakers, they produced in small quantities with one aim in mind: mind-blowing sound. Of course, Final Audio’s top earphone range, the 1601, is made for the choicest of audiophiles. The same company produces the Opus 204 speaker system which not only costs 500 thousand dollars, but by merit of its solid steel chassis, weighs 800 kilograms per channel! In the same vein, the solid steel FI-DC1601SS is heavy and expensive, but ultimately, wonderful.
Speaker: 16 mm dynamic driver (moving coil)
Sensitivity: 108 dB/mW
Cable: 1,2 metre nylon sheathed
Weight: 22 grams per channel
Final Audio put huge emphasis on two design items which many earphones manufacturers don’t spend enough time on: air and echo. The 1601 series is open via front and rear-mounted sound ports which enable air to flow equally on all sides of the driver. Because moving coil drivers are extremely thin, uneven pressure can default to unbalanced, compressed sound.
Another issue which Final Audio tackled in the creation of their earphones is bass echo distortion. From the cheapest 1350 M1 to the most expensive 1601SC model, Final Audio’s earphones belt out fast, controlled, and mature-bodied bass which is always well-defined. It is clear of sizzle and awkward thumps, but unlike many moving coil based earphones, its bass presence is lean.
Final Audio’s Mr. Masakazu Kose explained that the Opus 204 speaker system and the 1601 earphones were designed with similar goals in mind. But whereas speaker systems need to be positioned perfectly within a room to sound best, earphones need only to manage acoustics properly within the ear. In order to accomplish this, Final Audio’s 1601 series is 100% designed and made in Japan; Final Audio are in control from the first step to the last. Both the driver and housing are uniquely used in Final Audio products. Including the cheaper, plastic models Final Audio’s earphone line is well made. The metal 1601 series is an expensive, alluring thing of beauty which is as fickle as a high end road bike.
Ice Cube – Raw Footage
Again this album debuts to test a new earphone. The reason isn’t just because I am a fan of Cube’s smart, egotistical lyrics. Like a lot of contemporary American rap, it is completely low-fi: chalk full of poorly extended instruments, duffy bass, and to a fault, vocal-focussed engineering.
MC Solaar – Mach 6
This album remains my benchmark for well-engineered hip-hop. It is quick, lyrically tight, and varied in speed with a good selection of instruments and vocalists without throbbing for bass. Headphones should be able to jive with this album, but if they don’t it is because they are engineered for Ice Cube.
Braveheart – The Soundtrack
At once soft and tender, at times, this album crashes violently in sudden thundering crescendoes. Braveheart needs a delicate, yet mid-oriented earphone whose head stage is above-average and which renders bass deeply. But overstepping low notes will crash the delicate midrange – headphones must step lightly around this otherwise powerful album.
Phantom of the Opera – The Original Canadian Recording
While the London recording is good, the Canadian version, which debuted with Colm Wilkinson and Rebecca Caine is superior. Wilkinson’s Phantom: pained, wispy and haunted is translated admirably. There isn’t a better Phantom than in the Canadian cast.
Marcus Schulz – Progression
It is hard to recommend a better benchmark trance album than this debut by the American DJ. From the deep introduction in Mainstage to the gripping melodies of songs such as Spilled Cranberries, this album is a winner in the world of trance and a great benchmark for just how well a headphone handles tight melodies.
So, are these earphones worth the price of admission?
I will leave that question at a rhetorical door and skip along another path. The 1601 sits aloof. It is an addictive earphone with pleasant echo and succinct layering. What it isn’t is neutral. It breathes music in shiny and congruent puffs of spice. It is fast, light, with clean PRaT – an earphone which doesn’t embarrass itself in front of the in-laws.
Its mid range is fulcrum; highs and lows are clear, but less voluminous than the wide mid section. Final Audio have a love affair with the centre. In this territory, the 1601 SS is a guitar fiend. Jesse Cook’s energetic performances are rich; the 1601 captures the edgy grit of a vibrating guitar string perfectly and throws special focus on his finger work. The same goes for percussion which is layered with beautiful echo. Strangely however, bass drums puff in and out timidly in comparison.
Final Audio and Slow American Rap like Ice Cube don’t see eye to eye; the wall of bass style of music which earthquakes beneath his vocals gyrates wanelly. The genre requires throb and bloom; the 1601 has neither – at least down low. Change to the closed silicon tips and the sound thickens, plundering mid-frequency detail for more low-down nitty gritty.
MC Solaar’s faster tracks, on the other hand are more at home with Final Audio’s signature. Faster, higher bass is clear and Solaar’s silky voice is striking. Poppy female backups meander between addictingly defined and piercing. But then again, Final Audio engineers probably didn’t have French rap in mind when creating their earphones.
Whether this musical presentation is for you or not is personal; for me it has been a learning experience. Most of my headphones are most powerful in the low frequencies and lose focus starting from the high mids. While the 1601 can belt out a pretty powerful low end with some help of the EQ, it is neither as deep nor wide as upper bass/lower mids. It slaps the Shure SE530 and Audio Technica CK100 silly for mid-range focus; and it doesn’t look back as it passes Beyerdynamic’s DT880.
The overall effect of this uniquely focused midrange is compounded by the hard steel inner walls. At times, it is perfect, and at other times, vocals and surrounding instruments get too friendly. The 1601 is not a studio monitor; its sound is uniquely coloured. After hours with the SS, I am addicted. Even when distinct portions get chummy, the overall midrange richness is overwhelming. High frequencies are satisfying, but not sharply fatiguing as the Victor FX500 can sometimes be. Actually, I wouldn’t mind a bit extra ring sometimes.
As you might guess, certain instruments are energetic. The metallic inner body is a fantastic echo chamber for piano, cymbals and high vocals. All of these items linger brightly, reminding the listener that Final Audio Design are audiophile visionaries first and strict engineers second. Pianos bleed slightly into the surrounding soundscape and guitar echos sweetly, turning out beautiful acoustic details.
With default steel ear pieces in place, bass remains just south of my preferred lower threshold for trance, but this genre laps up the layered and spacey image which the 1601 casts. Low resolution drum machines and main melodies are spot on. Space is perfect. It takes only a few seconds to transform the earphone into a good trance conduit. The solid silicon sleeves work well for this, but as we will see later, there is a better method. While trance as dependent as jazz and pop on a focused midrange, this genre glows under the eerie, spacey midrange.
The 1601 SS is spacious. Sound moves freely in and out and its virtual stage is expressive and expansive. And despite some congestion between some some instruments, depth between each frequency band is amazing. Live music is more live and chaotic and its atmospheric highs bring music into compelling virtual reality. Among all portable earphones these ears have listened to, the 1601 series is simply the most open. Fans of the spacious DT880 should love the 1601’s rich and wide environment. This is what the 1601 should be noted for: its spacious echo is incredible, expanding out of the ear in comparison to most earphones, perhaps to all.
But, it isn’t brought into its own without EQ – its bottom and top end need to be lifted to really shine. It is hard to say if this a good or bad sign. Most headphones I use need an amp to really come into their own, but the 1601 needs not an amp, but THE amp. The one I’ve found which fits best is the Graham Slee Voyager whose dry midrange tames the 1601′s propensity to ring. With the Contour switch engaged, the 1601 betters itself so completely – a tight, fun bass and sweet treble sparkle. There is a little hiss, but it isn’t horrible. The problem of course, is that if you don’t have this amp, the 1601, white beautiful, isn’t as good a match for most music. It still remains fun for slower vocal music and still puts out a wonderfully layered sound, but it isn’t what it can be.
A couple of tips
The 1601 series comes with a large variety of ear pieces. For sheer detail retrieval, the default steel pieces are best, but draw less bass from the drivers as sound diffuses in all directions when leaving the sound tube. The solid silicon tips direct sound directly into the ear and thicken the overall sound, but lose out in clarity. Final Audio have also designed unique semi-open silicon tips which establish a good middle ground; sound remains open and detailed, but beefs up.
Coaxing more bass from the 1601 is as easy as fitting wide-mouthed, low-density ear plugs around the earphone’s sound tube, being careful to not let the foam fall in front of the metal opening. The effect on soundstage and layering is minimal: vocals lose a little clarity and the earphone breathes more slowly, but whereas the silicon tips gum up the sound, low density foams just draw it in more tightly. In any configuration, though, the 1601 SS never loses speed or integrity.
Build Quality and cable
At 22 grams per side, the 1601 is on the heavy side of solid; nothing shy of Chuck Norris’ hammer will dent it. There are no stress reliefs on the body, and apart from a semi-soft sleeve around the straight plug, the cable is as is. But one step outside will reveal why I don’t think these are really portable earphones: wind drives in with driver-flapping ferocity and the open design severs only the smallest of outside noise. And if you ask, walking with 22 grams in your ear is an interesting balancing act. Shunting silicon or foam tips fastens the 1601 better, but this earphone remains partial to the precarious.
At home, the 1601 is great. In the past, I have lamented the use of nylon cables; headphones such as the Zagg Z-buds and Maximo iPS-HS5 are hampered by horrid microphonic noises and severe cable kinkiness. The 1601 series is also clothed in nylon, but comparisons stop where they start. The cable isn’t as brittle or abrasive as the aforementioned headsets and doesn’t kink as angrily. But above all, it softly slithers into its solid steel sleeves with very little noise. Go ahead, pet it – it won’t bite. Because this earphones is best used at home or office, its lack of stress relief isn’t a show stopper, but is a sadly lacking feature.
A heavy earphone like this should have a real cable though. Portable cables work on portable earphones; but the 1601 is a HOME headphone and it needs a home headphone cable, something like the thick Sennheiser HD650 would do the trick.
Fit and Purpose
But this brings up the last point: for all intents and purposes Final Audio’s 1601 series isn’t an active-use earphone. I find it perfect for use whilst up and about in the house or office, but its looks are deceiving. That said, my soft ears have enjoyed it on flights and even whilst travelling across town to find a good cup of anything but Starbucks, but in order to do so, I have to put the volume up waaay louder than needed. But while it works for both of those purposes, it is the sort dependable earphone which you introduce to your parents, to your wife, or keep under your pillow.
Still, home life can be interesting. It is 16 ohms at 108 decibels of sensitivity. If those numbers don’t mean anything to you, this should: hiss. For most modern digital audio players, the 1601 isn’t annoying, but from dirty portable sources, amps and laptops, it is a somewhat subdued cobra. And many HiFi components will overpower it with hiss and imbalance. Adding a bit of resistance helps; 75 ohms is enough to tame all but the most noisy of sources. It is nigh on perfect out of the iPod touch, but better with a warm beefy amp like the Graham Slee Voyager.
Remember, it is always best to demo before you buy. The large body of the 1601 makes it awkward to small ears. If you find normal earbuds stiflingly large, the 1601 is not for you.
The 1601 SS is the most enthralling earphone I have used. It is pompous, sonorous, spacey, and at times, frustratingly temperamental – it is 100% audiophile. Final Audio have engineered it with a signature sound in mind. Light strings, guitars, slow electronic music, vocals, harp, etc., are rendered in otherworldly beautiful voices which are unique to Final Audio. And unlike some metal-bodied earphones, sibilance isn’t a problem. But like Audio Technica’s CK100, the sound signature will appeal to certain tastes, and not to others. Its bright, shiny sound is better than Ezra for some music and can be too meek for odd genres. I would wager that this earphone will have as many enemies as it has fans. It isn’t for the average audiophile – it needs someone willing to tinker, to get under the bonnet and find that sound. And, unlike the majority of makers, it isn’t competing for best price/performance ratio. It remains the best rich echo earphone/headphone I have heard, but it doesn’t compete as a portable, and because of its low Ω and hiss, it cannot compete with home headphones. It is in a class, a category, by itself.
But even at around 800$, it is hard not to recommend to people who have the dosh to lay down. I think Final Audio should consider including low density foams in their package for fit and slightly more linear sound. And for the home audiophile, the high sensitivity, low ohm driver is almost confined to portable amplification. As long as those caveats don’t present too much stress, this earphone is simply brilliant.
I do heartily suggest the Graham Slee Voyager for users who really want to get the best out of the 1601 series. A bit of contour and this combination is unstoppable.
Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette
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