Saturday, April 15, 2017

Brainwavz BLU-200: Cut the Cord

Intro



TL;DR: It's a solid Bluetooth IEM that does the job, but its hyperactive, in-your-face sound signature leaves me reaching for its more laid-back predecessor.

Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank Pandora at Brainwavz for providing a review sample of the Brainwavz BLU-200 in exchange for my honest opinion. I am neither affiliated with Brainwavz or any of its staff, nor was I paid to write this review. All opinions and photos shown in this review are my own unless otherwise specified. Finally, please take the opinions expressed here with a grain of salt. Thanks!

I’ve always disliked Bluetooth IEMs. It’s a dislike that is almost pathological in nature and has stuck with me long before I even entered the audiophile world. The main reason why I would avoid Bluetooth IEMs in general was the fact that having them around would mean having to deal with another battery to keep track of during the day, and unless they're actually capable of lasting the whole day, one would still have to revert to a wired backup pair if the wireless ones die out. And, well, they die out not even halfway through the day – which, for a guy whose music is pumped into the ears a third of the day every day, sucks. That, and they didn’t really sound that good. At least, not until recently.

Earphones like the Brainwavz BLU-100 changed my perspective and general opinion of Bluetooth earphones, and now that I have Brainwavz’ new follow-up to that entry, it's time to cut the cord once more to hear this new installment to Brainwavz’ collection.



== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories



The Brainwavz BLU-200 arrives in a minuscule box containing the hard case that contains the whole assembly – the earphones, two sets of silicone eartips, a pair of Comply foam eartips, a pair of sport hooks, a charging cable, and Brainwavz’ standard 2-year manufacturer’s warranty. The package is about identical to that found in the BLU-100, so not much else is worth pointing out. Moving on.


Design, Build, Microphonics




Brainwavz took some feedback from the reviews of the BLU-100 concerning the fit and altered the design of its successor in response. Their housings are sleeker and more streamlined, with a more smoothly tapered shape as it enters the ear. How this improves the fit we will cover in the next section. The rest of the design remains unchanged, and carries most of the good and bad we have seen from its predecessor.

Build quality is also pretty good and remains unchanged from the BLU-100. Unless will be taking lots of hard impacts, they should otherwise hold up very well. As for the cable noise, The BLU-200 now includes a slider to adjust how much of the cable dangles and flies around behind your neck. There wasn’t any slider in the BLU-100 I reviewed last year, and that became a bit of a nuisance at times, so having this now is a welcome addition.

However, I noted some slight driver flex when using them, which may cause slight discomfort. Using the included Comply foam eartips does, however, resolve the issue.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation


The more tapered housings of the BLU-200 does help to give you a secure fit, although much like its predecessor getting the right fit is mostly tip-dependent. The included eartips, however, are notably better than the previous versions and make a more secure seal in the ears despite the rather hefty housings. If it doesn’t help, however, Brainwavz did include some earfins which should help keep them in the ear. Comfort-wise I can’t say if there has been any improvement from its predecessor, but they still feel comfortable in the ears nonetheless.


Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back Bluetooth in-ear monitor
Driver Type
6 mm dynamic
Operating Range
Up to 30 feet (10 meters)
Battery Life
60 mAh battery for:
·         4 hours talk/music playback time
·         180 hours standby time
·         ~2 hours charging time
Bluetooth Features
Bluetooth 4.0 with AptX support
Supports A2DP, HSP, HFP Bluetooth profiles
Can connect to 2 devices simultaneously
CVC Echo & Noise Cancellation
Voice/LED prompts
Accessories
3x sets grey silicone single-flange eartips (S/M/L)
1x set Comply S-400 foam eartips
Micro USB charging cable
Hard carry case
User manual
1 year manufacturer’s warranty

Does this spec sheet look familiar? Well, it should – I copied most of it over from the BLU-100 spec sheet. And by looking at its predecessor, Brainwavz seems to have done the same in terms of internal BT tech. Then again, as they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


Connectivity


Pairing the BLU-200 is about as easy as it gets – or as easy as your phone makes it. In real-world use, I’ve experienced very few hiccups while out and about, which leads me to believe the BT tech in the BLU-200 is….well, just as good as the last one. It does have this new feature when you can pair the device with two sources at the same time. Personally I fail to see what situations this feature can be used for, but right now, I find it as little more than a gimmick.

Also, you cannot pair it to two sources and have the BLU-200 play two different songs from the two sources, which is a bummer. Then again, who said gimmicks needed to be useful?



== Sound ==

Equipment, Burn-in


The BLU-200 was reviewed using a 5th-generation iPod Touch and an iPad Air 2, and the EQ Software used is TuneShell. As always, my test tracks are available here, although I will link specific songs in the assessment for a more direct point of reference.

The BLU-200 was listened to for about 50 hours prior to making the final assessments in this review. No changes have been noted.


Sound Quality




Bass:
To start off, let's first listen in on the lower frequencies. The bass of the BLU-200 seems most likely geared to make a big first impression. It's big, chunky, and noticeable – good for catching the listener's attention, but not much else. It has good punch and maintains its composure during heavy bass lines. However, its unimpressive sub-bass extension does not help it much to impress the more bass-inclined listeners (Haywyre – Dichotomy; Daft Punk – Doin' It Right). It also struggles with articulation, making speedy drum passages sound muddy and wanting in detail (Megadeth – Holy Wars...The Punishment Due).


Midrange:
The midrange of the BLU-200 definitely comes across as sounding noticeably "shouty," in that it sounds accentuated in the upper midrange. This leads to the upper octaves sounding rather obnoxious and in-your-face (Anna Yvette, Laura Brehm – Summer Never Ends). Male vocals do not seem to have this problem, most likely due to the lower vocal range, but the level of midrange accentuation varies on a song-to-song basis (compare The Weeknd – A Lonely Night with above song). Unusually, they sound much more pleasing with guitars and other acoustic instruments (Sungha Jung – Coming Home; Francisco Cerda – 'Round Gunpoint), with a more natural presentation with little of the aforementioned "shouty" tonality. From a more technical standpoint, the BLU-200 struggles with conveying nuances in the music, especially in tracks where emotional expression comprises much of the appeal (Yiruma – Kiss the Rain). This doesn't do the BLU-200 much help, especially when its tonality seems more fitting for acoustic tracks.




Treble:
The treble of the BLU-200 resembles its bass quality in many ways, most prominently that it does not do much to impress the listener. Its detail and prominence is decent at best, and lacks extension in the higher frequency ranges. Overall it does the job, but one should not expect too much from it.


Soundstage/Presentation:
While listening to the BLU-200 before writing this review, its soundstage has been something of an oddity to me. I found my pair to somehow have a skewed soundstage, with sounds coming more from the left side that from the right. From testing with a tone generator, it did not turn out to be a channel imbalance, but this may be something else entirely. I even thought it to be simply my ears, but from testing other earphones, my hearing balance was fine. Nonetheless, I found nothing very noteworthy in the soundstage. Size is mediocre at best – far from spacious, but not too congested.


Genre Proficiency:
From what I found, the BLU-200 sounds quite good with music that does not use too much of the upper midrange, where the BLU-200's emphasis turns tunes to torture. For this reason, I found them to sound better with acoustic rather than electronic tracks – unusual, considering its predecessor was less picky with genre choice.


Summary:
I'll be honest – I did not expect the BLU-200 to sound so...off-putting. Its sharp upper midrange claws at my eardrums with a large chunk of my music library, while its skewed soundstage keeps me uneasy and on my figurative toes. I find it difficult to not take them off partway through a song.


Other Media




Games:
Lately I have been playing a lot of rhythm games, particularly on my iPad. These rhythm games involve tapping things on a screen in time to the music, so in order to play well, one needs minimal audio latency to play. Wired headphones and earphones do the job easily, but Bluetooth earphones definitely have a hard time keeping up. The lag between seeing the notes to be played in the game and hearing the music, even if that lag is a tenth of a second, is far too great to be able to play a music game without having some trouble. In fact, one can liken playing rhythm games with Bluetooth earphones to playing darts after fifteen twirls – in other words, it's a nuisance. Of course, that doesn’t mean this is the case with all games – other games seem to sound quite fine with the BLU-200, although while gaming with Bluetooth earphones, one will need to be more mindful of their battery meters – both of the earphones and of their source devices.

Movies:
For movies, a low audio latency also is required of wireless earphones for the audio and video to remain in sync. After all, nobody likes to watch a movie where your senses receive the events in the movie one after the other in a jumbled mess. For this purpose, the BLU-200 does its job well. The audio lag is still slightly noticeable, but unlike rhythm games, they do not retract too much from the overall experience. Sonically they still aren't completely impressive, but they're definitely good enough.


EQ Response

When I have an issue with an earphone, oftentimes they can be fixed with a bit of tweaking with an EQ. But for this special case, I will make an exception. Yes, the BLU-200 responds to EQ – fairly well, in fact. The only problem with this particular case is that the BLU-200's problem – more specifically, its skewed soundstage – cannot simply be fixed with an EQ alone. For this I cannot give a definite score.


Value

The BLU-200 retails for a price of $55 as of thiswriting, which is $5 dollars more expensive than the BLU-100 before it. At this price you will be receiving a pretty solid Bluetooth IEM with all the features you need, along with one of Brainwavz' trademark accessory sets. Technically it's just about as good as its predecessor.


Comparison


Versus Sport-Fi X7 (~$100):
The MEE X7, like the BLU-200, a Bluetooth IEM. However, their similarities end there; the X7 is in a league of its own with its higher price, better fit, better build, and better sound. From looking at the big picture, they simply knock the BLU-200 out of the park. However, the BLU-200 does manage to hold its own against the X7, pointing out their clearer midrange, laid-back bass, and most of all, much better Bluetooth circuitry which results in very little connectivity problems, if any.


Versus Brainwavz BLU-100 ($50):
Now, let us look at the father-and-son matchup – the BLU-200 up against its predecessor. Instead of starting out long-winded as I normally do, I'll just cut to the chase – I like the BLU-100 better. Yes, I like the old one better than the new one. The BLU-100 just does what it needs to without overdoing anything. The BLU-200, as an example, has an upper midrange that does more to annoy than to amaze. The BLU-100, in contrast, does neither, but it does not end up badly. It just performs, and that's makes the BLU-100 that much more appealing than its successor – it doesn't try too hard to impress.


== Conclusion ==



The Brainwavz BLU-200 is a bit of an oddity in my opinion. Its an IEM that tries its best to sound good, but in doing so, it trips over itself and ends up sounding worse than it should. The harsh upper midrange, though painful to listen to, is negligible. At least, in the face of its unusually skewed soundstage.

But does that mean it's a bad IEM? No. In fact it's factually quite decent – it still manages to retain some of the characteristics of its predecessor and still sound good in some cases. However, it does not manage to inherit the do-everything quality that I liked so much from the BLU-100. It is because of that that I would be more likely to recommend the old IEM than the new.



Category
Score
Packaging, Accessories
8.5/10
Design, Build, Microphonics
7/10
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7/10
Connectivity
8/10
Bass
7/10
Midrange
6/10
Treble
7/10
Presentation
5/10
EQ Response
7/10
Value
7.5/10
Total
7/10


Suggestions for Improvement

I’d probably suggest keeping the BLU-100 around for sale, but since they’ve already done that, there’s none I can suggest improving beyond what I’ve already mentioned in the review.


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