Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Brainwavz S3: And...We Just Ended

Intro


TL;DR: Brainwavz' latest (and last) S-series IEM, the S3 proves itself to be a very weak farewell to the S-series with its iffy quality control and excessively warm sound.

Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank Pandora at Brainwavz for providing the review sample of the Brainwavz S3 you see in this review. Please note that I am neither affiliated with Brainwavz or any of its staff, nor am I being paid in any form for writing this review. All opinions expressed in the following review are strictly my own unless otherwise specified, and all photos are taken and own by me. Finally, please take the following review with a grain of salt. Thanks!

With the recently-released Brainwavz Jive that met universally positive reactions from the audiophile community, many of us there hoped for one thing: a higher-end follow-up to the Jive. With a beautiful sound signature at a thirty dollar price tag, a higher price tag would allow Brainwavz to improve the sound even further and provide a more robust build to make one hell of a competitor in its price bracket. And, well, just about a couple weeks ago, they announced the release of the Brainwavz S3, an 80-dollar IEM that may or may not be that successor the audiophiles have been waiting for. Is it? Find out after the jump.




== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories

The Brainwavz S3 arrives in the standard-issue S-series packaging: smooth, solid, fancy box with a flap on the front that opens to reveal the IEM case and the Comply eartips. The rest of the box is labelled with the usual stuff: marketing, features, specifications, pictures, the works.

Opening up the box, you get the full Brainwavz accessories package: eight pairs of silicone eartips in various sizes, a pair of Comply T-series foam eartips, a shirt clip, Brainwavz’ standard IEM case, and an impressive two-year warranty. All in all, it’s par for the course with Brainwavz’ latest IEM.


Design, Build, Microphonics


At first glance, there is something that can be universally agreed on: Brainwavz didn't call the S3 the “Silver Bullet” for nothing. I mean, look at it. It might not be an actual bullet, but it's silver, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. I even think they're the best-looking IEMs Brainwavz has made so far. The combination of silver, black, and red is used in such a way that doesn't look too flashy and remains easy on the eyes while still being quite eye-catching. One thing I noticed is that the housings seem to take design elements from the rest of the S series, as you can see in the comparison image above. Looks-wise, they've definitely become one of my favourites.

However, I can't say I'd say the same about their design. One of my major concerns is with driver flex – an issue echoed by many other reviewers that have also received the S3 early. The housings, as I found, have only one vent per housing for its single dynamic driver. Though I can't say having only one vent is a problem, I could say it is a problem in this case in particular. To take this into perspective, all of the other Brainwavz IEMs I've reviewed exhibit some degree of driver flex, but none of them has this problem occur in both channels and one that creates a very strong vacuum seal when I insert them normally. Foam eartips seem to rectify the pressure issue, but unless you decide to purchase more, the included Comply eartips will wear out before long, leaving you with the silicone eartips and the driver flex.

Nonetheless, the S3 is still built quite impeccably, despite the driver flex issue. The cables, strain reliefs, and Y-split are identical to that used on the S0, and the housings are still made from solid aluminium. The brand-new Clearwavz remote and mic work very well and are built as solidly as the rest of the IEM. The housing is really robust and the buttons have a tactile, audible click when you press down on them. All in all I feel the S3 is more than capable of handling some level of abuse, but the driver flex issue still worries me quite a bit.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation

The Brainwavz S3 is actually quite easy to fit – however, their driver flex issues tend to cause discomfort due to the vacuum seal of the silicone eartips. As I stated earlier, you could use the Comply eartips to deal with the problem, but either way the S3 is quite comfortable to wear. Their isolation is pretty typical for an IEM – able to block out voices and home ambience to a whisper. So far, nothing too outstanding here.


== Sound ==

Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back vented in-ear monitor
Driver Type
Single 8mm dynamic
Frequency Response
16 – 22,000 Hz
Rated Input Power
10 mW
Sensitivity
96 dB @ 1 mW
Impedance
16 Ohms
Weight
N/A
Cable
1.3m flat OFC cable
Connector
3.5mm (1/8”) straight gold-plated TRRRS connector
Accessories
3x sets red/grey single-flange silicone eartips (S/M/L)
3x sets black single-flange silicone eartips (S/M/L)
1x set black bi-flange silicone eartips (M)
1x set black tri-flange silicone eartips (M)
1x set Comply T-400 premium foam eartips (M)
Shirt clip
Velcro cable tie
Instruction manual & warranty card (24 months)


Equipment, Burn-in

The source equipment used in this review is a fifth-generation iPod Touch and an iPad 3 directly running the Brainwavz S3, and a PC running iTunes 12 and Foobar2k powering the Jive through a Schiit Fulla DAC/Amp. The EQ apps used in their respective test is TuneShell on iOS and Electri-Q on the PC. The eartips used on the S3 are mainly the included Comply eartips, although I will provide impressions ohe stock eartips in the following assessment. The list of the test tracks I listen to while reviewing the Jive can be found here, although I will include links to specific songs in the review for a more direct point of reference.

I have burned-in the Brainwavz S3 for about 50 hours prior to writing the review, with several listening sessions in between. Over this period I noticed no changes to the sound of the S3, and I doubt anything else would occur after that. Without further ado, let's get to the sound.


Sound Quality

Bass:
Let's talk about bullets – they're small, fast, and hits quite lightly. Well, in terms of bass performance, the S3 is more akin to that of a Bullet Bill than a bullet. (If you don't know what a Bullet Bill is, it's those cannon shells from Super Mario Bros.) Basically, the S3’s bass is big, sluggish, and has a weighty impact. Now that I think about it, it feels like the S3 took the warmth of the S0 and the impact of the S1 and combined them into one IEM. And the result? One of my most disliked bass responses in any Brainwavz IEM I've ever reviewed so far.

Now, the thing is, I actually really like Brainwavz’ IEMs. The S5 was excellent. The R3 even more so. The Jive I just reviewed even more so than that. And, well, the S3’s low-end response is just so warm and thick that it distracts me from the music. The kick of the bass drum overpowers in quantity and not impact, and acoustic and electric bass notes get emphasised to the point where they ring out through the whole recording (ProleteR – Valentine’s Day, Masashi Hamauzu – Can't Catch a Break). And, in addition, the S3 isn't the type of bass that bassheads would prefer. Despite not lacking in sheer quantity, the S3’s bass lacks raw impact and has considerable roll-off at the deep end. It’s more of the bass one would prefer when listening to the bright vintage recordings from bygone decades. And for an EDM freak like me, the kind of bass I'm hearing from the S3 is about the complete opposite of what I'm looking for.


Midrange:
The S3 had a warm, thick midrange, much like the S1 and a host of other IEMs I've reviewed in the past. And the one thing I found common amongst all of them is that I didn't like any of them. I'll be honest here: I don't like a warm, thick midrange – and especially not one as thick as the S3. It just sounds so warm. Guitars have a very flabby feel to them, lacking the tactility in recordings I hear from joust about every other IEM I have. Pianos, as on other warm IEMs I have, sound horrible as always (Yiruma – Indigo), each song sounding like I'm listening to them from behind ten layers of theatre curtains. Singers just sound like they're gargling pitch. It's just really irritating to the ears having to listen to the warm mess that is the S3.


Treble:
The S3 seems to take from the treble of the S0 here in that it is also about as laid-back as the latter IEM. This, I think, is why I seem to dislike the S3 so much. It's just so laid-back that the bass overwhelms the rest of the sound. And the thing is, I love my treble sparkly and bright – a contrast to the more weathered ears that are the other reviewers of the S3 on Head-Fi. So there's that. There's really not much more to say here.


Soundstage/Presentation:
The S3 has about as decent of a soundstage as you would expect from an S-series IEM: far from expansive, but not too congested, either. Spatial imaging is good and up to par with Brainwavz’ other IEMs. All in all there’s really not much to say other than it’s decent.


Genre Proficiency:
Personally I never found bassy IEMs with smoothed-down treble any good at, well, anything. EDM tracks overwhelm in the low-end, but are mostly decent. Modern pop recordings are also a bit more tolerable compared to the next genres I mention. Slow jazz is almost entirely gobbled up by the acoustic bass on the recordings I listen to (Francisco Cerda – ‘Round Gunpoint). Solo piano recordings sound thick, muddy, and notes are almost lost in the warmth of the S3. And last but not least, we have classical music, which is absolutely horrendous to listen to on the Brainwavz S3 (Gareth Coker – Fleeing Kuro).


Summary:
I will go on record to say that this is probably the worst-sounding IEM I’ve ever heard from Brainwavz.  Yes, I definitely just wrote that, and yes, you’re definitely reading this. The S3’s overall sound signature is a complete mess, with emphasised bass that almost completely covers what’s left of the already laid-back treble. And, unlike other reviewers’ impressions, it seems that, the more I listen to the S3, the more I notice everything I dislike about it, and I end up hating them even more. I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed in a Brainwavz IEM as in the S3. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with a Brainwavz IEM at all. This is definitely a new low for me, and that I’m not going to lie about.


Other Media

Games:
To be honest, they don't sound too bad with games. Or casual games, at least. FPS games with their bass-heavy explosions are simply intolerable. If you're thinking of playing CS:GO, don't even think about it. You'll do yourself a massive favour. If you play FarmVille, though, I don't see anything that's too wrong with that.


Movies:
No. Just no.

 

EQ Response

The S3, luckily, is responsive enough to be EQ’d to a more tolerable sound signature. A few adjustments to the low-end frequencies really opened up the sound of the S3, and at that point I found myself a little dismayed that this wasn't how the S3 was tuned in the first place. Basically just cut down everything from 400 Hz down to taste if you're lazy and use an iOS device, the Bass Reducer preset works just fine.


Value

The Brainwavz S3, retails for about $80 at Brainwavz’ parent company, MP4Nation, and their offical storefront, brainwavzaudio.com. At this point I'm actually having a lot of trouble gauging the value of the S3 for the money since, as you can already tell, I dislike the IEM to no end. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all. So if you happen to like the Brainwavz S3’s sound signature, then by all means, go for it.


Comparison

Versus Brainwavz S0 ($50):
The Brainwavz S0 is Brainwavz’ cheapest product in the S-series lineup, and one which I hold in very high regard. The S0 did not fail to impress me with its smooth sound signature that was really pleasing to the ear. Against this smooth operator, the S3 did not stand a chance. As I stated earlier, the S3 bore some similarities to the S0 sound-wise, especially in the treble. However, the S3’s bass boost made them sound much darker and more bloated-sounding compared to the S0.


Versus Brainwavz S1 ($80):
The S0 was Brainwavz’ first IEM designated under the S series, sporting the distinct style and consumer-oriented sound signatures present in later models. The S3 carries both characteristics over quite well, but I really was not fond of the sound signature. Directly comparing the two, I found the S1 to have a rather artificial treble boost around 8-10 kHz, so in terms of the most natural signature the S3 gains the upper hand. But overall the S3’s bass was just too overpowering to bear.


== Conclusion ==



I have already said it earlier in this review, but I’m going to have to say it again: the Brainwavz S3 is my most disliked IEM from Brainwavz. A horrendous low-end coupled with a sound signature that could only be described as mediocre at best, topped off with major driver flex issues make for an IEM I simply cannot recommend.

Category
Score
Comment
Packaging, Accessories
8/10
Brainwavz’ trademark packaging and accessories package still doesn’t fail to impress me.
Design, Build, Microphonics
6.5/10
The S3 combines a sleek look with a solid build – however, the IEM exhibits a driver flex issue at a level I can only describe as dire.
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7/10
The S3 fits quite comfortably – that is, if you manage to get it fit right without the drivers crackling in your ears all the time. With stock eartips they manage to block out noise pretty well.
Microphone
N/A

Bass
5/10
The S3’s low-end is just…horrible. Noticeable sub-bass roll-off, copious amounts of upper bass, and not enough treble to balance it out – if that isn’t the worst bass I’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what is.
Midrange
6/10
The S3’s midrange is about decent at best. It's warm, thick, and overall isn't very good to listen to with anything beyond electronic genres.
Treble
6/10
The S3's treble would actually be okay were it not for the IEM’s overpowering low-end.
Presentation
6/10
Their soundstage is actually quite decent. Good size and imaging, but the low-end echoes through most of it that details are clouded to a degree.
Gaming, Movies
5.5/10
The S3 is an IEM I definitely cannot recommend for either gaming or movies. After all, they sound bad enough with music; why bother?
EQ Response
7/10
A simple EQ tweak really unlocked the potential of the S3 which, sadly, never came to be in the final production model.
Value
5/10
The Brainwavz S3 is an IEM I cannot recommend at its $80 dollar price tag.
Total
6.2/10
As nice-looking and as well-buit as it is, the Brainwavz S3's sound signature fails to impress.


Suggestions for Improvement

Sometime during the writing of this review I heard that the Brainwavz S3 would be the final model being released under the S series. With that being said, I don't think I can say much on improving the IEM unless Brainwavz decides to re-release the IEMs with a sort of 2nd-generation moniker. So, I guess I'll leave it at that.


Shout-Outs, Gallery

Again, I would like to thank Pandora at Brainwavz for providing the sample of the Brainwavz S3 for review. As much as I dislike the S3, it’s still no doubt a well-made IEM. In the meantime, you can check out more pictures I took of the Brainwavz S3 here and my other Brainwavz reviews here.

As always, this has been thatBeatsguy of DB Headphones; thanks for reading!

About the Company

“At Brainwavz we have a simple mission, to produce innovative, high quality audio products with a dedicated focus on high-end sound at a realistic price. Our strength, success and product range is built on our unique relationship with our customers and users, a relationship that has produced a simple and obvious result. We give real-users real sound quality. 2014 will see Brainwavz pushing forward with an expanded product line, continuing with unique and innovative products, from earphones to headphones to audio accessories.”

Company website: www.brainwavzaudio.com

Changelog


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