Audiofly AF180 Review
Thanks to www.hifiheadphones.co.uk for the loaner.
First Impressions: Well the box seems nice The buds though, hmm new I know these are grown up monitors but still, just what colour is that supposed to be? On the plus side no one is going get mugged for these. Oh dear god, what is this case!!!! My word, it is super pretty, sooooo pretty but come on, just who is ever in a million years are going to cart them about in this thing!! Look at the size of it, it’s practically the size of a small briefcase. Frowny face.
Okay let’s be honest, no one cares if the case is crap these are nearly £400 IEM’s with three way, quad driver setups in each ear. Come on, 4 drivers in each tiny little package is got to make to be impressed. Sooooo what are the first audio impressions? Well boys and girls, unshockingly these sound pretty damn excellent. Instantly I’m thinking the IEM these are going head to head with is the W4. They are both crazy pricey and both 3way quadruple drivered and aurally, they both have a super linear feel whereas the UM3x is W shaped these feel ultra level at any frequency. Oh god this is going to have to be a really nit-picky review because I can already tell these are going to be hard to pull apart, they sound essentially flawless. I warn you now, this is likely to be a long one.
Source: Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., FiiO E7/E9 combo, HiFiMAN HM-601, Nexus 5, 1G Ipod Shuffle and Firestone Audio FireyeDA.
Lows: Inside these there are two tiny little low end BA working their little itty bitty hearts out to make the bass. If you think that two drivers at work mean these must have gargantuan bass then think again. You know there are certain thing BA driver’s excel at and something dynamics, normally for a low end people want a lot more air moved and BA just don’t, they however offer bass that can be utterly solid and punchy, they also have an agility level that even the best dynamic just cannot touch. When you pair up two you start to get that greater air movement and yet you keep the instantaneous delivery of a BA driver. Its instant delivery and here you gain that ultra-controlled nature and can take it right all the way down. The quantity it can spit out too belies its monitor flavour. Play tracks with moderate bass and you would never really think of it as anything more than a hair over inflated. It feels just like any other good BA IEM. Then you slap on some trashy pop junk and BOOM. The bass comes leaping out of the background and starts kicking arse left right and centre. it’s like some svelt ninja, Bruce Lee style just battering each and every note that comes at it. It powers out a vigorous and energetic thump yet it feels sooooooooooo effortless. It gives the impression no matter what you hurl its way it can casually batter the bejeasus out of it. The speed, the power, the nonchalant manner in which it is conjured up is quite glorious.
In comparison to things like the 530 or W4 the 180 is when called upon far more vigorous. it’s somewhat closer to the like of the UM3x in terms of eagerness to punch but with a far more linear depth. It retains the UM3x’s lithe agility but is capable of a level of solidity that the UM3x just can’t match. The bass here is one of supreme quality, somewhat eager, maybe a touch too eager for a strict monitor but it’s so competent. Its talent and composed nature until you ask it to leap out is so very much up there with the best. Tonally it reminds me much of the KC3 (Klipsch Custom 3) and the Senn IE7.
Mids: Excellent. Again I’m drawn to thinking of the W4 and UM3x here. The mids share a half-way point between them both, with monitor like behaviour and with a bit of the UM3x’s focus, they stand out a fraction from where the ultra level W4 rests. So qualitatively they are once more just what you would expect from the very, very best of IEM’s. They are just superb and frankly they beat both the Westones. However as much as they steal the faintest whiff of wonderment that the SE530 has they just cannot match its weirdly better vocals than that straight out of the singer’s mouth. The 530 isn’t strictly neutral vocally as it injects a liquidity that is, despite its age, arguably the hands down most glorious mid range of anything, ever. These in comparison are leaning back towards the monitor. They are more neutral, more realistic yet with a teeny tiny dose of warmth and richness. This mid range is very easily the sort you could listen to all day and everyday with any vocals. It’s very enjoyable but more than that it’s exceedingly inoffensive. You could say a little bit of dryness wouldn’t hurt though. My head is well aware the mids are in every way pretty much without flaw and while it has some soul head to head with the RE-262 or SE530 its a little too polite, too uncaptivating.
Quantitatively it’s just a hair behind bass and fractionally ahead of the highs. it’s really all rather balanced.
Highs: The detail level, well you won’t be shocked to read that it’s excellent. The detail level is every bit as good as you would expect at this price. The treble isn’t the most in your face though. Next to the W4 this sounds positively laid back but to the 530, well the 530 takes a battering. The 180 is clearly superior to the 530 and pretty much anything outside the IEM top table stuff. Still if you pair this and its slight warmth up with a rich, warm DAP then while you will get all the detail and oodles of refinement but you won’t get dazzled. The treble here is wonderfully detailed but its rather soft, delicate and refined shimmer is where it excels. Oh and believe me for a BA driver the highs here are quite possibly the best I’ve heard from any BA. It’s so good it’s getting dangerously close to the quality you find in the best dynamics! Shimmer and trail off are truly outstanding for a BA.
Quantitatively however this may be a touch lacking for some. Its only ever so slightly behind the mids and lows but when you add that to its genteel style its rather un BA like for some. Many out there love the hard, bighting treble that is to be found in the infamous DBA-02. The treble there was brutally thrust at you, like being set upon by a crazy person with an ice-pick. Personally I hate treble like that so I’m completely enthralled by how its presented here. The treble is of a nature you could easily listen to this all day, every day.
Soundstage: For a BA it is unusually large. You can tell there is a whole heap of drivers at work just from the fullness and the expansion found here. They sound full and grand and symphonically grandiose. Still, when you play something rather intimate these do a great job of that too. Not overwhelmingly intimate as these want to pull to the grander side of things. Instrument separation is pretty good but more so everything feels very well integrated. Where ever the crossovers sit they blend with each other superbly.
Fit: Hmm, on the whole pretty good. I have to confess I bloody hate built in ear guides and these are no exception to that rule. Why companies think they are a good idea I have no clue. it’s not like the one here is “bad” but given these cost rather a bit they should be taken to point on anything the don’t shine at. The cable is removable so if you hate it you will likely be able to find a replacement. While it was a mild irritation I can’t say it really cause any real problem. I just found that the ear guide wanted to sit at an angle that meant it wasn’t really behind my ear as it didn’t want to be bent tight enough. Other than that these were good. Bare in mind these don’t really want to be sat deep either. Additionally these seemed usually position fussy for a BA, I found this quite noticeable from time to time in my right ear.
Comfort: Again that ear guide got mildly annoying. Otherwise these were pretty much perfect. The shape of the buds fit the ear nicely and pretty much vanished once they were in.
Microphonics: Those ear guides, I guess I must have little ears as they didn’t want to bend tight round my ears so sometimes they would transmit a bit of cable noise upward. There is of course a chin slider so that did solve that as an issue. To be fair it was only a slight issue, I’m just being picky.
Amped/Unamped: As this is a high end IEM I would expect that more often than not these will be paired up with something good. They are good enough that you really ought to. If for some reason you aren’t, well, these do just fine out of a phone too. Switching over to the Nexus 5 and google music the most noticeable differences are the diminishing of the bass and of the sound stage. The bass just lurches to a listless, half-hearted effort. The sound stage shrinks considerably too. mids are okay but given how the do with more oomff I’m not wowed. To clarify these are still very, very good even out of a phone but really if you’re going to buy these, get something good to drive them. Sure a phone will drive them and they will probably amaze your non audio friends but……suck it up and buy an amp or a DAP with a great hp out.
Isolation: It is an all BA affair so take a wild guess. Yes the isolation is first rate and while it is naturally a bit short of an Etymotic brain implant, it’s just the sort of thing that you good use for a daily Tube commute or trip to New Zealand. Oh and naturally also, look where the hell you’re going when wearing these because you will in no way hear that wheeled wagon of death coming for you until you’re bouncing off it. Open eyes people.
Build Quality: Well the build is first rate. The cable feels lovely with the cloth covering and the removable cable too means even if you kill it you can swap it. The little buds feel fine, little solid blobs of plastic. It’s all actually quite nondescript.
Accessories: Hmm, that case. Oh that case, it’s a pretty thing isn’t it? Unfortunately its utterly bloody useless. Really Audiofly, just really???? what exactly is anyone meant to do with that thing???? I can only think that they believe these will live in a mixing studio so you can have the giant thing live in a drawer. I would humbly suggest that when you order a pair of these you then get on ebay and spend £2 or £3 on a little case that can fit in your pocket, one actually usable. The one these come with while lovely to look at is as good as having not given you one. Not what I expect from a near £400 IEM. Otherwise you get the normal, a heap of tips, a 6.25mm to 3.5mm jack, airplane adapter and a little cleaning thing.
Value: Let’s just skip right over the should anyone spend £370 on IEM’s thing. So these to my mind sit clearly in the top end of IEM’s. At this price point actually from about £100 and up things become so much more about pairing up what you’re looking for, tonally, stylistically and whatnot much more than it is about one being “better” than another. If all you care about is audio quality then the likes of the DN-1000 get you maybe 90% of the same performance but for considerably less. Still it’s not like any “comparable” product is what I’d call cheap so it would be imbecilic to think that saving £50 or £100 and getting something just as good is the way to go. At this lofty height it is entirely about pairing up tonal balance with what you are after. If you want the sort of performance these offer then you have to pay for it and it that sense, it offers pretty much the same price/performance ratio as does everything at this level. These cost top tier money and they give you top tier audio quality.
Conclusion: Well the AF180 are clearly one of the very best IEM’s out there right now. The price is undoubtedly high but you get what you pay for so get over it. Either you want to spend this level of money or not and I’m not going to sit and tell you that spending near £400 will truly gain you anything earthshattering that £100 on a DN-1000 or GR07 wont. diminishing return begins to really brutally kick in around the £120 mark. So I’m not going to say these are truly “worth” about 4 times that because, well nothing is. This is just a fact of life, is one Iphone worth 4 moto G’s? Okay, fill in some more examples yourself as I can’t think up prices of things but I’m sure you get my meaning.
So, how should I compare these, other than to a summers day? Word play aside it’s not a terrible idea, perhaps though a little more towards that of an early autumn evening. Summer has slowly given way to a darkening of nights, the fauna no longer a crisp and vibrant green but has now mellowed. Foliage is a more darkened green, given way to a gentle goldening with a smattering of reddened hues. The days still warm, the evenings gently so. Softened from the heat of a summers day with it bright glaring sun and vibrant blue sky. The sky now a paler blue that glows orange when evening comes. I’m sure those of you living in sensible climates know what I mean and if not then I’m sure you have a grasp of what vision I’m trying to paint. The AF180’s are the aural equivalent.
The more and more time I’ve spent with them, the A/B’ing back and forth the more convinced I am that these are one of the most gentle and sumptuous sounding IEM’s out there. Its acoustic signature is not unlike that of the long passed Klipsch Custom 3. Warm, rich, a hint towards the mellow and bassy but with flowing, oozing mids. There it and others like the IE7 and SE530 tended to fall down was that they not only toned down the treble (to help mask their imprecision) but also provide a sound you could hear all day. The gently softened things to be gentle on the ear and in the process they masked some of the detail retrieval there. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing per say, it’s a stylistic choice, but the 180 manages to retain that. Its treble while fractionally tamed is superbly capable for BA. Its magnificently detailed yet sooooooooooooooo delicate. Its shimmer and decay are so unspeakably good that the more prominent treble like that of the W4 feels a hint more coarse. Now I wont say that the 180 is technically superior to the W4’s treble but it’s much more clever. It allows the 180 to offer all the detail you could want but retains a serenity the W4 has not. Side by side the 180 feels the more beautiful of the two.
As with all things we come down to would I buy it? It’s no great secret that I personally like mid centric stuff and go for the rich/warm over a bright or aggressive treble. So would I buy one? Oh hells yeah I would!!!! My IEM fav list has in no particular order been, SE530, RE-262, RE-600, IE7and the KC3. They are all middy, a bit bassy and with slightly genteel treble. The AF180 has zero trouble in getting itself added to that list. Its acoustic profile is perfect for me. The slight issues I had, the slightly fussy fit and those ear guides are so easily outweighed by that gorgeously and effortlessly symphonic gooey lusciousness. It pretty much bang on hits every acoustic mark I want and as such it’s just about the perfect matching of detail retrieval and beautiful presentation. I know it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, its treble hasn’t that bight some want and its bass isn’t going to cave your skull in like a big dynamic can. However I would challenge anyone to find something that they would categorically state offers technical superiority and has anything like an as amenable and beauteous a presentation as this.