Final Audio FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1 earphones in Review – Top Brass

If Final Audio Design were in charge of the world’s marketing, everything from cars to cakes would glisten with the magicalest of molecules. The clearest timber would resonate in plastic pencils and cooking pots. Flowers would reflect the warmth of a thousand suns. Thankfully, however, Final Audio Design cook up wonderful audio equipment like the 1601 series earphone and today’s FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1. With these new models, Final Audio took a new approach, creating practical listening devices for the busy, but discerning audiophile.

Feel free to discuss the FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1 earphones in our forums. And if you’re in the mood, contact Musica Acoustics to purchase the FI-BA-SB or FI-BA-A1. Musica Acoustics also stock a lot of other very good earphones.

Driver: Balanced Armature
Sensitivity: 112dB
Impedance: 16Ω
Cable length: 1,4m
Weight: 23g (SB); 15g (A1)

Fit and Package
The SB and A1 earphones are very much classmates of the ortofon eQ7. While ortofon shoutier approach with their jewellery case packaging, Final padded their earphones in simple sponge. Which package looks better? Honestly, I’ll side with ortofon here. On the other hand, Final Audio pack better fitting earpieces with their earphones, but only 3 sets of each, and apart from a large, but nice carrying case, nothing else. If you own an iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll be able to cram it in alongside your 300-400$ FAD earphones inside and call it a road trip! Hell, even my larger Teclast T51 fits in, somehow.

We can put this all away for now. Final Audio have put their behind in their pants… I mean their past behind them. Lovely though it can sound, the 1601 series earphones are about as comfortable as your little sister’s shoes. In contrast, the FI-BA-SB and A1 earphones are small and comfortable. The SB (brass version) is not ‘light’ but both it and the A1 slip in comfortably. The included tips anchor the earphones securely and the sound nozzle is capped by a long metal flange that allows the earphones to slide into even the smallest ears holes without pain. ortofon’s eQ7 on the other hand, has the awkward tendency to cram metal up against the soft wall of the ear.

Both the SB and A1 models fit comfortably inserted with the cable routed either up over the ear, or down; but with its thick flat cable, the SB model can be more tricky. Its incredibly sturdy double-decker cable lacks a neck cinch and can jump away at all the wrong moments when you are out and about.

Build Quality and Cable
Both the SB and A1 are wonderfully crafted (as are all of their metal earphones) – but then again, nicely fit metal bullets are pretty well invincible. But until now, Final Audio have fallen flat in one area: cable quality. The 1601 series’ nylon cable gets away with a lot: it should be microphonic as hell, but thanks to the solid metal cable tubes, it ain’t a problem. What is a problem is that all 25g of earphone (and I suspect, more) is balanced precariously in the ear by weakness itself.

FAD have learned a lot since then. They have, I am sure, listened to their customers because both the A1 and the SB sport pragmatic cable designs. The A1’s cable is thin, yes, but the earphone is also light. Dropping it won’t tear the cable or threaten the y-split. Still, 300$ of eargasm is dangled on the likes of the 40$ Sunrise AS-Feeling just doesn’t seem right. Thankfully, the plug-side stress relief is much much better. It’s made from sturdy, bendy rubber with excellent flex points. Sourness returns, however, at the earphone, where the cable delicately disappears into the aluminium housing with nothing but a curiously dual-bored rubber grommet to lead the way. True, the grommet does protect the cable from the metal housing, but the tiny little cable looks like the last member of a black, decaying family of teeth.

The SB model, loses the barest of points there, at the housing, but overall, has a MUCH stronger cable. Flat cables have the advantage of tangling less than round cables, but overall, they make more microphonic noise and can be a b*tch to wear whilst out and about. Well, most of that still applies to the SB model. The FAD FI-BA-SB’s cable is thinner than Monster’s Beats Tour and Jays’ a-Jays flat cables. Before the rather thick y-split, the flat cable piggybacks in a durable double-layer. FAD’s cable is also stronger, less prone to crystallisation from sweat and skin oils, and more tensive than either of its flat comrades and certainly than the FI-BA-A1. The plug-side stress relief is top notch as is the plug itself, and where the A1 feels thread-bare and weak, the SB is sturdy. FAD finally (and I mean FINALLY) nailed great build quality. It isn’t perfect, but among flat cable earphones, it is by far the most impressive.

If you don’t want to read the entire review, let the next few sentences massage your wallet. FAD nailed these earphones. If you like bass, dynamics, and clear, uppity treble, you’ll love both earphones. Both earphones are voiced by space, pace, and beautiful echos. In typical FAD fashion, however, certain acoustics can be caustic, if atmospherically sophisticated. Consider it Final Audio’s marque. Their 1601 series earphones are HEAVILY accented toward the midrange with both bass and treble falling off in rapid succession.

The SB and A1 models have powerful and extended baselines that are matched by equally long-limbed high frequencies. The upper midrange and lower treble are accented. For most music, these accents are like day-old curry and simply tastier than they were the day before. Where they can be caustic is in chaotic alternative and fast, but lost psychedelic. Cymbals bleed in the upper ranges in ringing bursts. Fan of Broken Social Scene? Get used to a healthy dose of treble fatigue.

Strangely, no matter how expressive the high end, mathematical genres such as trance, electronic, and even hot, treble-happy 1980’s heavy metal, are perfectly fine.

The FI-BA-SB and A1 earphones follow in the footsteps of the 1601, if at a respectful distance. Their echos are clean, open, pleasing, and sharp. They neither claustrophobic or dark and thankfully, the rubber tips exert much less influence on the sound. This clear echo is ahead of peers like the Earsonics SM3 and way ahead of Sennheiser’s IE8.

The FI-BA-SB and A1 earphones impress themselves as heady mixes of two of my favourites: ortofon’s excellent eQ7, and Audio Technica’s CK100. Final Audio’s newest earphones best the eQ7 in treble presentation. They are less grainy and echo more sweetly. Genres that rely on space rather than just speed, jump out more, but retain overall sweetness. The FAD earphones are better tuned to jazz and vocal. In the low end, the Final Audio earphones exert more slam than the ortofon – dynamic earphone fans, pay attention! There is enough air movement to get your feet tapping, and just that extra bit of curry in the high end to satisfy those who get hot for the exotic.

Overall, the SB model offers a slightly spicier listening experience than the A1, though both the SB and A1 sound very similarly. Neutral freaks may prefer the A1 while atmosphere freaks who’ve kept their supply of chaotic alternative depressively low, may prefer the SB. Both offer good sense or space, but neither are the champion of head-swimming soundstage like the 1601 is. Actually, despite being ported, both earphones block out a lot of external noise. On the train, I keep my iPod at same volume level as I do in my room. This has me wondering – what purpose do the ports serve? If I plug them with my fingers or yellow tack, there is the barest change in sound. Overall, however, the sense of space is mostly bound up in the great dynamics of these earphones that puts their soundstage slightly ahead of the ortofon eQ7.

Amp users, you have a little room to play, but just a bit. If you own a recent iPod touch, you might find that the bass comes out a tad more and that, in comparison, treble smooths out a bit. Honestly, I doubt that you’d hear much a difference at all. (However, it is always imprudent to rule out the power of placebo.) On the other hand, these earphones are damn sensitive. Even on older recordings, I keep my iPod touch at the third volume step.

Keen mines will rightly assume that these earphones hiss a lot. They do. The iPod touch 2G is notably hiss less with many earphones, but in quiet passages, I can hear a bit of hiss thanks to FAD’s uber-sensitive design. This brings up the last issue: FAD are still stuck on 16 ohm drivers. Most portable players still have trouble outputting perfect resolution to 16 ohms, often spilling bass and boiling the stereo image into the perfect soup. FAD would be smart to differentiate their expensive, high earphones from the masses by designing their drivers with more resistance. I’d be happy with less hiss.

Out and About
So here we are, at the end of another long review and here I am about thirty minutes from home and suited up with my sneakiest of Adidas shoes. The difference between the SB and A1 earphones is most obvious when walking. Both earphones sport freaking long cables. 1,4 metres is enough to stretch to the bottom of any purse and bunch awkwardly into any pocket. There is always lots of slack in the cable. Whatever. These earphones are not good for exercise, but the A1 in particular, are very good for out and about use. The light, cheap cable and easy fit means that microphonic noises are minimum. The SB version is really microphonic when walking around. You can loop the cable over the ear for less noise, but you might need a vegetable tie to keep the cable from flapping all over the place.

Finally, despite the ‘ported’ design of both earphones, wind noise is minimal and as mentioned earlier, these earphones block a lot of noise. It’s not the same level of noise isolation as the Audio Technica CK100 or the Earsonics SM3, but Final Audio have finally designed earphones almost perfect for out and about.

Final Audio have obviously listened to criticism aimed at their earlier earphones. Both the SB and A1 model are excellent for use at home and very good for use out and about and are comfortable and isolate well. Their sound is big: bright, clean and deep with great instrument separation. If you can stomach a bit of hiss and don’t mind keeping your iPod/iPhone at low volume levels, there is a lot of great music enjoyment to be had with either the SB or A1 earphones.

Headphone Summary
Title: Final Audio FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1 Developer: Final Audio Design
Reviewed Ver: FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1 Speaker type: Moving Armature
Price: ~300$ (A1) – ~400$ Cable:
  • A1 – thin rubber spindle
  • SB – double decker flat rubber
  • Beautiful workmanship
  • Bright, clear treble and smooth mids
  • Big, but controlled bass
  • Best in class comfort
  • Decent accessory kit
  • SB model is heavy
  • A1 model’s cable is of third-rate quality

You can buy the FI-BA-SB and FI-BA-A1 from Musica Acoustics

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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