音茶楽 Flat4-楓 Ocharaku Flat4-KAEDE earphone in review

Ocharaku FLAT4-Kaede-iso

I have a hunch that Mr. Yamagishi, the former Sony headphone and speaker designer behind Ocharaku was drinking tea before he ever sipped into the idea of the Tornado Equaliser. That singular technology has since revolutionised the upgrade earphone market among price-conscious portable audiophiles in Japan. And with the introduction of Flat-4 SUI – and TE’s successor, TEE – in 2011, the technology has found itself in a new, better pot. Twin Equalised Elements (TEE) is the new leaf that Mr. Yamagishi turned over to create SUI and now KAEDE. If you’re interested in a few different views of KAEDE, check out Ω image’s KAEDE post.

Transducer: 010e002 Φ10 mm dynamic x 2 (per single channel)
Prime technology: Twin equalized element
Output sound pressure level: 104 dBSPL/mW
Frequency characteristics: 3.5 to 35 kHz
Max. input: 400 mW
Impedance: 18 Ω
Weight: About 17 g
Plug: Φ3.5 mm gold plating stereo mini-plug
Cable length: 1.2 m (type Y)
Accessories: Comply-foam ear tips T-200 size L (Size M is attached to the main unit.)
Wooden storage box, cloth, Instruction Manual & Guarantee

Ocharaku
Japan, Tokyo, Setagaya Ku, Kyodo 2-17-2
Tel: 03-3428-5557

In early December, I visited Ocharaku. Mr. Yamagishi’s polite personality and eager explanations do wonders to his two foremost product lines: imported tea and luxurious hand-made earphones. I can’t wait to get the chance to go again. In fact, I’m queued up to purchase on of his modded Audio Technica CKM55 earphones.

Accessories and Package
With nothing more than a few comply tips and a royal blue cleaning cloth to adorn its bits, KAEDE comes somewhat thinly attired. But then again, what high-end earphone system ever comes surrounded by accessories? The prize is KAEDE, not the packed-in bits and nibbles. KAEDE comes in a delectable wooden tea box, that itself comes wrapped in a bit of fancy packboard. From the outset, the impression you get is one of careful, tense planning.

Fit and Isolation
I fear that many of my observations of Final Audio’s 1601 apply to KAEDE. Many, but not all. Unlike the 1601, KAEDE is light, and stays put no matter how you move your head. Similar to the 1601, however, is KAEDE’s somewhat awkward fit. It sticks out of the ears like Frankenstein bolts. Comply tips keep it secure, but there is no neck cinch, so the cable can get caught on this and that. Also, KAEDE is an open design. It lets in a bit of noise, but not enough to ruin a train ride. Its isolative properties are halfway between those of the 1601 with tips and an Audio Technica CK10 strapped with low density foamies. Whilst riding in to Akihabara and plugged into an iPod nano 6G, I had to raise the volume by 1/3 to 1/2 over my usual listening levels.

Usually, I drape earphone cables over my ears. Due to the angle at which KAEDE protrudes from the ear, over-ear cable draping is uncomfortable and precarious. Big ears? You’re in luck. Small ears? You’ll have to stick to wearing KAEDE straight down.

What isn’t precarious is the sound tube, which has a smaller diameter than another favourite of mine, ortofon’s e-Q5. Even people with small ear canals should comfortably be able to comfortably wear either KAEDE or SUI. Another plus is the soft angle at which the tube extends from the earphone body, which makes for comfortable wear.

Cable
Both Flat-4 earphones come with a quality 4-element cable. It is thick, malleable, and fairly resistant to body oils. It is similar in tensile strength to the excellent ortofon cable. Noise transfer is minimal, however, without a neck cinch, touch noise reaches the ear.

Inside the earphone, the cable is knotted. I’ve given it a few good tugs (don’t tell Mr. Yamagishi) and it held firm, but I don’t suggest doing it. Other than a small rubber o-ring, there is no stress relief at the earphone, the plug, or the y split. While KAEDE is meant for luxurious listening, and not for a beat ‘em up bout with the gals, it would behove Ocharaku to install more protection, especially in an expensive earphone like KAEDE.

Build Quality
Ocharaku’s earphones aren’t meant to be worn whilst exercising, or at a party. While sturdily made, they will break if subjected to the rigours of wind sprints on the back of your steel Marinoni in Canada’s yearly 70º temperature swings. (Ocharaku was designed by a Tokyoite, after all. Tokyo is a city that generally sees fewer than 25 degree swings from summer to winter.) Being fashioned in maple wood, KAEDE is even more susceptible to: rain, sweat, sun, corrosive acid, and kryptonite. Each earphone goes through a long curing process that hardens the wood and outer resin. The finish is beautiful, and damn it, it better stay that way.

Mr. Yamagishi is adamant that his upper level earphones are made in batches from the same base wood in order that as many sonic anomalies as possible may be avoided. Hence the limited edition status of KAEDE. There will be no more than 200 units made. Ever.

Sound
Don’t be fooled by your skepticism; KAEDE is worth every bit of attention it draws. And no, it doesn’t sound like your favourite balanced armature earphones. In particular, its sound is open, clear, and, at strange moments, prone to mush together a few details. But when it gets things right (and that is 95% of the time) it gets them so right that you’ll be scratching addendum after addendum in your Oxford under ‘perfect’, ‘just right’ and their ilk. It is that good.

Openness
While not engaging the outer ear at all, KAEDE (and SUI) maintain a multilayered, generally out-of-the-head sound. I almost hesitate to compare it with headphones of any format. Why? Because, if not for the bit of Comply fuzz squishing against your canals, the sound truly is out of the head. Speaker-like, if you will. That sound isn’t as 3D and sculpted as a good balanced armature. Pitted against a FitEar ToGo! 334, both Ocharaku earphones have some difficulty delineating the smallest details in lows and mids, but in a larger sense, the sound is open and extremely out of the head. You and I will be sipping Oolong tea on the sweaty shores of Mars’ largest surfing beach before the 334 catch up to the vastness of KAEDE’s sound. If the 334 casts a beach ball sized shadow of sound around your head, Ocharaku’s earphones fill a sonic shadow the size of a big box wrecking ball.

Bass

KAEDE’s bass is thick, organic, and detailed. It is the spiritual successor to Victor’s FX500. But where Victor’s hero could at times, resonate uncontrollably, Ocharaku’s flagship obviates transient crowding of any sort. At all times it is clear and emphatic. On one extreme, it precisely renders the opening seconds of Markuz Schulz’ Mainstage in audible puffs and yawns. At the other, it keeps pace with the trash trance of DJ Tïesto’s Kaleidoscope, never once stepping into the mids. Despite its strong presence, it never blooms nor bulges. Tangible detail on this level is only possible from high-end dynamic driver earphones, and among them, KAEDE retains the clearest image, bar none.

Mid to high bass impact generally, is excellent. A slight delay in the upper mid bass dampens my opinion only slightly. But combined with its tangible and detailed lows, KAEDE conveys a live rawness to most acoustic music. SUI’s bass is only slightly colder than KAEDE’s. Both are excellent.

Mids and Highs
Separation of bass from midrange melody elements is spot on. Only Inception’s dream within a dream within a dream concept can describe melodic depth in contemporary terms. The presentation is very much like a speaker setup. Positioning is incredible. Bass has an anchored position near the back of the ear near the neck. It never strays too far from that position. But it never ever mixes into any other frequency. Mids and highs swim around the head, sometimes drifting far, sometimes posing close to the ear.

Actually, it is this element that may pose the most problem to listeners. Because KAEDE’s mid frequency sound stage is so engulfing and contrasty, it takes time to adapt to. I’ve spoken with several users who, at first, wanted to return their KAEDE. After a few days, they warmed to KAEDE and now love it. Contrariwise, I fell in love right away. This earphone stuns with its truly out-of-head experience.

Go to a small venue concert. You will notice that the vocalist and all instruments are mic’d. They come in over the house, but in such small places, if the speakers are set to lower volume levels, you get music via the speakers, music via the stage, music via naked instruments and throats. Invariably, guitars and vocals are mic’d more strongly than drums and bass guitar is. Melody and vocals run to the forefront. Percussion can shimmer at the ear and guitar bumps into the middle of it all, eclipsed only by vocals. In an almost separate channel, bass nudges in. This multi-layered, live sound is what KAEDE is all about.

Let’s get back to frequency evaluations. In upper mids and lower treble, KAEDE remains strong, delineating each vector clearly, cleanly, and with verve. Unfortunately, in order to get this sound from a TEE earphone, KAEDE is your ticket. SUI lacks crisp edges along vocal lines, cymbals, guitar, percussion; the list goes on. While I appreciate SUI’s overall presentation, KAEDE can’t even be graded on the same scale. Still, especially fast beat-driven music may lose shape in the cavernous expanse KAEDE throws. It is the first time that a wide earphone has tripped me up with regards to trance music.

KAEDE’s high frequency extension is excellent and sound pressure stays high through the reaches of all treble-tipped instruments. SUI has a noticeable suckout.

Sound in a Nutshell
KAEDE’s sound is multilayered, deep, wide, and well extended. Apposed to each other in any recording, bass, mids, and treble stand out, sometimes quite aloof. Ocharaku’s flagship earphone tends to infuse edge into almost any music without being fatiguing. It’s not an over-active treble, it’s succinct layering. The price you pay is low isolation and unwieldy fit. If you can get by those two hurdles (and the price), there’s nothing really like it.

If you really really love minute detail in treble, the stuff only balanced armature earphones supply, I cannot recommend KAEDE. It has loads of detail, but most of that is shown off in contrasting each frequency channel in contrasty vectors. Minute details are present, but not magnified as they seem to be when spit out by balanced armature earphones. Yet, because KAEDE retains excellent control over its tangible sound signature, detail, as it applies to feeling and the sonorous movement of air, is there in spades. It’s just a different sort of detail. And I’ll be honest and say I dig it completely. If I had to live with one earphone, I would choose KAEDE in a heartbeat, despite losing some isolation.

Regarding Sensitivity
At 104dB both SUI and KAEDE are semi-sensitive earphones. They can detect noise from many sources, though at much lower volumes than the likes of FitEar’s earphones and certainly less than Sleek Audio’s CT7. Once music kicks in, noise isn’t a problem like it can be with other earphones. For this reason, noisy players like Sony’s Walkman and the first generation iPod shuffle are fully listenable with only minor annoyance.

Regarding Amping
Unless you have a source with a very high headphone output, or that is extremely underpowered, an amp isn’t necessary. Neither earphone pose too much a load on any modern headphone output. Mr. Yamagishi mentioned that he wanted people to enjoy music on any source. He didn’t design KAEDE or SUI as high end products to be fitted to high end gear. He designed them to sound great on anything. And they do. I would recommend not using an amp unless you are keen on a certain brand of sound the amp adds to the sound. In the majority of cases, you won’t get better sound by using an amp.

Out and About
As a semi-open earphone that rings in at over 700$, KAEDE isn’t ideal for use out in the Big Apple where a tech savvy thug could make it disappear in a New York minute. A few minutes’ chase and much muscle-flexing later, the KAEDE is back in your paws. But, the thug has sweated on it, and in his/her haste to outpace you, bashed it against walls and broken parking meters. The cable still looks good, but that beautiful maple exterior is pock-marked like old Luna. Bugger that. At least you can still slide your iPod into your pocket and string the KAEDE’s cable through your shirt. There’s plenty of slack there. After beating down a would-be crook, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. And there’s a new rawness in your music.

Conclusion
Flush the image of mass-marketed robot-assembled plastic speaker-filled nubs out of your head. You’ve entered boutique audio street. KAEDE is an extremely limited edition earphone. There are only 200 in the world. I got to sweat on one for three weeks. I only wish it was longer. The loving craftsmanship that went into it, the finely tuned sound, the awkward fit: each of these mark it in and out of its niche. This is not a thrown-together luxury product. It is quite possibly the world’s most realistic up-market earphone for audiophiles. Mr. Yamagishi got its sound, materials, and curing just right. It outperforms its direct competitors from Final Audio. Its only real fault is that for most people out there, it is impossible to get ahold of. Bugger. For you and me, Mr. Yamagishi’s got some great stuff cooking. Until then, count your pennies.

kiss-icon

Pros:
Excellent sound quality
Best in class performance
Swimmingly open
Luxurious finish
Excellent quality cable
Attractive box and tea case

Cons:
So-so plug quality
No stress reliefs

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

  • yos

    Very nice review shigzeo, Finally it’s out!
    Btw, Have you ever compared it to the FAD’s Piano Forte X-CC?

  • Kage

    Hi shigzeo,

    The Ocharaku KAEDE, by your descriptions, sound like a tad-less capable version of my FutureSonics mg6pros. Could be good if I was able to pinpoint a ‘universal’ type ‘demo’ for them, since my ears are not very universal for people who want to try them…

    Will be waiting to see if a demo unit is available in my country.

    Thanks for reading.

  • http://twitter.com/shigzeo shigzeo

    Kage: I’m sorry I missed this comment. I’m not very good with Twitter yet.

    With only 200 units around the globe, I doubt, barring someone near you purchasing one, that you will find a demo unit.

    I’ve heard the MG6pro’s and enjoy them very much. They are, however, not quite ‘there’ when comparing to KAEDE. Isolation, however, is an area where KAEDE falls flat in comparison. Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/shigzeo shigzeo

    Hello yos. Finally. Yes. Finally.

    The X-CC is an excellent earphone by many benchmarks, but it doesn’t present layers quite like the KAEDE does. Depending on listening preferences, that may be a god thing.

    If layers upon layers (and a little bit of WTF) is something you dig, KAEDE it is. Otherwise: fit, fiddly diddly, and price, are obvious comparison points between the two earphones.

  • Sinocelt

    You’ve found something you prefer over FitEar’s offerings?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shigzeo Naoki Wright

    This is late. I’m very sorry. ‘Prefer’ is a partisan word. I prefer Kaede at home, in a quiet environment for certain music, but out and about, FitEar is still my go-to. That, or the Grado GR8 (no kidding) and the ATH-CK10.

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