Class-leading build quality and industrial design, Balanced and coherent signature, Extended and sparkly top-end, Very wide soundstage with holographic imaging
Obviously coloured tone won’t suite all, Angled housings may cause issue for some
The Andromeda 2020 isn’t just a homage, but an entire overhaul that addresses the original’s weaknesses whilst compounding upon its core charm.
Campfire Audio was born in Oregon, USA from a passionate team of locals. They brought their expertise from ALO Audio while introducing new smarts for in-ear designs and incorporating local metalwork to achieve a stunning union of qualities. For many, the Andromeda was what really put them on the map, an IEM that impressed users and critics in all regards. It is a musical and unique earphone that is simply very engaging and easy to like. The model has been subtly refined over the years but never drastically altered. This changes with the new 2020 incarnation that makes use of 3D printed solid-body acoustic design to provide a new interpretation of Campfire’s original hit. The Andromeda 2020 promises a more balanced sound, sharper imaging and a more detailed presentation at the same competitive asking price.
The Andromeda 2020 costs $1099 USD, not a small cost, but very welcome in the sea of modern flagships costing multiples more. You can read more about it and treat yourself to a set on Campfire Audio.
I would like to thank Caleb from Campfire Audio very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Andromeda 2020 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
Drivers: Dual Low BA, Single Mid BA, Dual High BA + T.A.E.C
Housing: Machined Alu Shell, Anodized Emerald Green, Stainless Steel Spout
Connectors: Custom Beryllium/Copper MMCX
Frequency Response: 10Hz–28 kHz
Sensitivity: 94 dB SPL @ 1kHz: 7.01 mVrms
Impedance: 12.8 Ohms @ 1kHz Impedance
The Pitch –
Tuned acoustic expansion chamber is a 3D printed sound chamber for the 2 high-frequency balanced armature drivers. It’s a tubeless design mitigating the loss of extension and resonances of a traditional tube and damper system. It also provides the impression of a larger soundstage
3D Optimised Acoustic Construction/Solid Body
With a sophisticated driver array, it’s important to ensure all work in harmony. The Andromeda 2020 employs Campfire Audio’s new solid-body acoustic design whereby the drivers are arranged with a 3D printed array that gives them finer control over the sound output by each driver in addition to reducing resonances for an overall more refined and resolving sound.
Campfire Audio always impress with their unboxing experience and the Andromeda 2020 continues suit. There’s a stunning foil-laminated sleeve that opens up in origami-like fashion to reveal a hard box inside. Here, buyers will find the sustainable cork carrying case in matching green. It has a faux shealing interior that feels soft and protective alongside a smooth metal zipper. The earphones are inside within one of CFA’s dual-compartment pouches that keeps the earpieces separate to prevent scratches.
There are an additional 2 of these pouches, one containing 3 pairs of CFA silicone tips, one holding 3 pairs of foam tips. A separate bag contains 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips that were my preferred option. They offer a flexible sound tube for a slightly more personalised fit and deliver an especially coherent sound too. The extra cases are very welcome as they can be used on other IEMs too and are very pocketable. Campfire Audio score bonus points with their inclusion of a metal pin and cleaning tool.
I think most readers will be acquainted with Campfire Audio’s legendary milled aluminium BA shells. The Andromeda 2020 continues this legacy, in signature emerald green with silver nozzle and faceplate screws – a timeless combination. However, as compared to the 2018 Andromeda, the only other variant I also have on hand, the finish is noticeably smoother, the edges more refined and general fit and finish a step up even from the class-leading examples of industrial metalwork that came before.
Indeed, the sharp edges are now subtly rounded, the colour a shade lighter and the finish more even. The rounded MMCX block and milled perimeter that possessed clear ridges on the previous models are now flawless; simply a more refined aesthetic with the same tough angulation and loads of character. The nozzle has been changed, not in dimension, only design; the 3 bore design superseded by a grill similar to that on the Atlas and Ara. However, all the highlights users otherwise enjoy remains.
Up top are the same reinforced Beryllium MMCX connectors and, as always, they provide an especially confident click and very low tolerances. The cable is the smoke jacket variant as seen on the 2019 CFA models and newer. It has a softer jacket than their previous models and a twisted as opposed to square braid in addition to pre-moulded ear guides over memory wire. The result is a more supple and easily conforming cable, it is lighter and more comfortable. The same high-quality right angle plug remains and the internals are Litz SPC as well but with double the strand count that aids both ergonomics and sonic performance.
Excellent build and cable, Ergonomic and compact design, Hugely dynamic yet controlled bass, Natural voicing, Focused detail presentation, Good coherence
Full and high-energy sound won’t suit all, Coloured midrange
The Dorado fills an interesting niche but does so with excellent execution. Very few fun-themed earphones strike with such poise and delicacy as the Dorado 2020.
Campfire Audio began life in Oregon, USA as cable manufacturer ALO Audio. They soon branched into IEMs, utilising their former experience to kickstart what has now become a long and successful career. Of the myriad models they’ve launch since, the Dorado was the company’s first hybrid that existed at a time where hybrids were not so commonplace. The same cannot be said for the modern market and here, quite admirably, CFA once again demonstrate their trend-setting prowess. For the new Dorado 2020 serves as a simplification of its progenitor, exchanging the 3-driver setup for a more refined crossover-less single DD + BA design. It combines elements from their past releases into a more coherent whole whilst staying true to the ethos behind the original Dorado. Once more, the 2020 variant seeks to bridge the gap between their more balanced high-end BA line-up and Solaris, and their bassier Vega and Polaris II.
The new Dorado is available for $1099 USD. You can read all about it and treat yourself to one on Campfire Audio.
I would like to thank Caleb from Campfire Audio very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Dorado 2020 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
The Dorado 2020 takes the company’s hybrid designs back to their roots with a single DD + single BA driver setup sans crossover. The company reasons this provides improved resolution and cohesion. Indeed, crossover-less designs have become popularised recently for their phase coherence yet at the cost of more sophisticated acoustic design. Campfire Audio have proven themselves masters of such design, their Andromeda Gold and Ara being the pudding of proof.
Campfire Audio work with OEMs to develop their own DD and customised BA drivers for their desired sound signature – especially imperative given the crossover-less design. Campfire Audio custom design their dynamic drivers and also own these designs, which permits stricter QC and means their performance is not replicable by other brands despite the increasing trend towards single-DD flagships with similar diaphragm constructions.
They implement an oversized Neodymium magnet to increase flux density, permitting higher efficiency and lower distortion that have been subjectively associated with increased dynamics. The dense ceramic shell and brass spout on the Dorado 2020 should also translate to decreased vibrations and resonances leading to shorter decay and a more defined sound. It may appear simple, but it’s clear that serious thought went into refining and distilling this design.
Campfire Audio always do a great job with their unboxing experience, reinforcing the premium status of their products. The Dorado 2020 is no different, emplying the same colourful foiled box that folds open to reveal a protective hard box. CFA show support local business and their environment with their locally printed and sourced packaging in addition to upcycling marine plastics for their accessories.
Inside is the canvas zippered carrying case that exudes a classic and dapper vibe with metal CFA tag and pastel orange colour scheme. In the accessory box are two mesh IEM bags, one containing 3 pairs of foam tips and 3 pairs of CFA silicone tips and the other 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips. The earphones themselves also come in an additional mesh bag, these are quite brilliant due to their compact size and separate compartments that separate each earpiece, preventing scratches whilst maximising portability.
It’s very easy to appreciate the delightful combination of colour and texture offered by CFA IEMs and the new Dorado is certainly no different. The gold PVD shell of its predecessor makes way for an otherworldly black ceramic with tinted brass nozzle. It’s a svelte package that doesn’t scream for attention but still manages to be visually distinct. As with the new Vega, the construction is a dense ceramic formed through an 8-day process. The results are superlative with immaculate hyper-gloss finish and perfectly even seams throughout their 3-piece construction. The look and feel is dense, sturdy and ultra-premium as we’ve come to expect from Campfire Audio.
The cable too impresses, coming paired with CFA’s Smokey Litz unit with SPC wires. The Dorado 2020 and cable both use custom Beryllium connectors that are harder-wearing that regular MMCX. Indeed, this has been my experience, I haven’t experienced issues with CFA’s connectors and I find them to offer tighter tolerances and a more affirmative engagement too. The cable itself is of pleasing construction with excellent strain relief on the right-angle 3.5mm plug and comfortable pre-moulded ear guides. The wires themselves are very supple with minimal memory and are, thereby, easy to coil for storage. The insulation also doesn’t appear to harden over time and carries minimal microphonic noise. Altogether, a reliable and easy cable to live with.
Fit & Isolation –
Those familiar with CFA’s older Vega or Lyra II will find a very familiar experience here with regards to overall shape and size. That means, they are superbly comfortable as they are compact enough not to contact much, if any, of the outer ear, thereby mitigating hotspot formation. In terms of nozzle design, the new Dorado also addresses the uncharacteristically long and wide nozzles that could impede a comfortable fit and seal on the original. With its sleeker, more aptly angled and tapered nozzles, fit and seal are worlds apart; the wearing experience on the new Dorado is much more conventional even with standard silicone tips, it fits deeper and is more stable during wear.
The seal is strong and the fit very stable when combined with the over-ear cable design. I was able to skip and jog without the earphones jostling loose, of course, they aren’t weather sealed in any way so this is not advised for consumers. Driver flex is apparent as on the new Vega and a lot of CFA’s DD earphones. As always, it doesn’t affect the listening experience nor did I find it to cause failure or performance degradation during my weeks of testing. In terms of isolation, the Dorado 2020 isolates slightly less than the new Vega but well above average for a hybrid earphone. They are easily suitable for public transport and general commute, especially with their robust, punchy low-end tuning. They would suffice in a pinch for air travel with foam tips, but I would still recommend a fully-sealed or CIEM for frequent flyers.
Low noise floor, Flexible braided cable, Ultra-premium build quality and aesthetic design, Smooth and refined sound, Spacious stage
Slightly higher OI can limit versatility, Type-C plug isn’t case friendly, No accessories included
The Dual DAC Cable ultimately showcases greater refinement in both feel and listening than even its premium competitors, however, its higher output impedance especially makes it a far more situational buy.
Astell & Kern are one of the most renowned DAP makers on the market with a legacy of innovative designs. One example includes new SR15 which implemented a rotated screen in order to accommodate the ergonomics of handheld use. Upon such a foundation, the company has decided to address the death of the headphone jack in smartphone design with their new Dual DAC USB cable. This dongle-style DAC/AMP sports AK’s signature aesthetic and sound design with a full metal chassis and Dual Cirrus DAC setup – one handling each channel. In turn, the company promises the same premium experience provided by their DAPs scaled down into a hyper-portable form factor and at a reasonable price. As always, the company demonstrate their prowess with a carefully considered premium design that showcases profound attention to detail.
The Dual DAC Cable retails for $169 AUD or $199 NZD at the time of launch. You can read all about the DAC/AMP and treat yourself to a set here.
Sample Rate: PCM up to 32bit.384kHz, DSD64 (1bit, 2.8mHz) Native, Stereo, DSD128 (1bit, 5.6mHz), Stereo/DSD256 (1bit, 11.2mHz), Stereo
Input: USB Type-C
Output: 3.5mm Headphone
Dimensions: 17 x 50 x 10.3 mm
Weight: About 25g
Behind the Design –
Full Metal Housing
Reminiscent of their DAP designs, the Dual DAC Cable implements a design drawn from the concept of light and shadow. It features a robust zinc alloy build that provides a solid feel and daily durability. It has a noticeably different feel to aluminium with a premium weight and density alongside a different surface finish. The angular design was optimised for comfortable grip and one-handed use, AK also focused on providing a flawless, smooth finish.
AK’s dongle features two of Cirrus Logic’s CS43198 MasterHIFI DAC chips supporting native DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz playback. This is Cirrus Logic’s power and space-efficient chipset superseding the CS4399. It has been designed with proprietary digital-interpolation filters and low jitter. Two chips have been implemented, one for each channel.
AK forgo Cirrus’ integrated amplifier in favour of their own independent module – a prime differentiator from the vast majority of competing hyper-portable designs. The Dual DAC cable is built atop a micro 6-layer PCB with custom micro-resistors and tantalum capacitors designed to provide stable operation and improved capacitance for a dynamic audio performance. AK’s amplifier circuit offers 2Vrms output (no load)
Silver-Plated Copper Shielded Cable
An often-neglected part of dongle design, AK’s Dual DAC Cable features a custom-made large-gauge 4-core cable with copper noise shielding. It resembles a litz design with a combination of SPC and copper wire entwined around a centre aramid fibre damping core. Separate shielding is then applied over the cable to further shield the device from noise from the playback device.
The Dual DAC Cable comes within a compact rubberized box and is nestled within a foam inlet. The experience is streamlined and no-frills. Given that the cable is soldered onto the device, no other accessories are included. For the more premium pricing, a carrying pouch would have been appreciated and perhaps a USB-A adaptor.
Visually satisfying design has always been a defining trait of Astell & Kern’s products and this same ethos is embodied here. For though the Dual DAC is one of the larger dongles I’ve reviewed, it is also one of the most premium. Furthermore, given its slim design, it doesn’t feel too substantial when stacked with a smartphone. The 2-piece Zinc alloy construction surely makes a strong first impression, feeling immediately more robust in the hand than competing plastic and aluminium designs. This experience is reinforced by an extrusion-moulded Type-C connector with matching zinc housing and the cable too impresses greatly; in my experience, one of the most overlooked aspects of dongle design.
AK’s custom 4-core braided cable is especially flexible, which in addition to the weight of the dongle itself, makes the device very easy to stack and handle alongside a smartphone. It also places less stress on the Type-C port of the playback device – and I found the dongle to provide very reliable connectivity here too. Solid rubber strain reliefs are to be observed on both terminations, however, one niggle is that he Type-C connector is quite large and features no protrusion. This means you will need a smartphone case with a large cut-out in order to use this DAC/AMP. Overall, beside the bulky connector, I found the look and feel of this dongle to be highly appealing and a prime differentiator from competitors.
As with most competitors, the Dual DAC Cable is marketed as being plug and play on Windows, OSX, IOS and Android devices. Though I was unable to assess compatibility with Apple’s products, I experienced no difficulty using the dongle with either my Windows 10 laptop or Xperia 5 II smartphone, neither requiring unique apps or drivers to interface. On Android, however, a music playback app supporting DSD is required should you want to take advantage of this function.
The dongle also lacks an auto-power function which, to me, is a positive as it maximises compatibility and reliability. Once plugged in, the dongle powers on, denoted by a white LED indicator on its face. There’s no jack-mounted switch or timer which streamlines usability at the cost of power consumption (though realistically, the dongle would be unplugged when not in use). The dongle itself has no controls so the source devices handles playback and volume. I found the dongle to offer a good range here, suitable for sensitive in-ears with enough headroom for less sensitive headphones too.
As there is no integrated battery, the dongle is powered by the playback device. This may limit compatibility with some older smartphones that do not support power output, however, should not be a problem on modern Smartphones and laptops. Power drain was not substantial despite the robust amplifier – I found the Dual DAC Cable to draw less power than most competitors such as the Cozoy Takt-C. This suggests that the circuitry has been well-implemented to optimise efficiency. Do note that the dongle does not support 4-pole in-line remote signal but will support audio-playback on 4-pin remote cables.
Excellent bass weight and extension, Clear and natural vocals, Rich and lush presentation, Good soundstage expansion and layering, Gorgeous build and design, Great carrying case
Separation suffers from its fullness, Average technical performance in-class, Reasonably limited range of headband adjustment, Thin earpads can affect long-term comfort
Though its unique combination of qualities and thoughtful execution, the Phoenix is able to carve out a reasonably uncontested niche in the audio market for bass lovers who still value clear vocals and a spacious soundstage.
SIVGA are a Chinese audio company founded in 2016 who focus on stunning wooden designs and competitive pricing. They work hand-in-hand with Sendy Audio, their premium division, who recently achieved renown for their well-received Aiva planar magnetic headphone. The Phoenix is their latest creation, an open-back over-ear headphone featuring a huge 50mm dynamic driver. Signature to Sivga, the Phoenix features a premium bill of materials with special mention going to its gorgeous zebra wood cups. Sivga promise a rich and natural sound from its custom dynamic driver with moderate pricing placing it in direct comparison to some of the most acclaimed planar magnetic options on the market such as the Hifiman Sundara. Still, this is a unique approach and one that does feel well executed to boot.
The Phoenix sits just below the planar P-II in Sivga’s line-up at $299 USD. You can read all about it and treat yourself to a set on Sivga’s website. See also Sendy’s website for their premium planar offerings here.
I would like to thank Collin from Sivga and Mark from Capisco Ltd very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the Phoenix and Upgrade Pads for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
The Phoenix’s dynamic driver features a uniquely developed polycarbonate film and independently developed diaphragm structure. The company specifies a clear focus on rigidity in order to reduce modal breakup at high frequencies. Meanwhile, a lightweight construction with copper-clad aluminium voice coil promise an agile transient response for a detailed, extended and low-distortion sound. This is enhanced by the adoption of a 3mm thick rubidium iron boron magnet that provides strong driver control and low-end drive. A 32-ohm impedance makes the Phoenix easy to drive.
Sivga create a premium unboxing experience for the Phoenix with a gorgeous wood-grain and carbon-fibre textured hard box that slides open to reveal a zippered hard case. The case is excellent, moulded specifically for the Phoenix to provide a perfect, extra-secure fit during storage. It has a faux-leather texture and feels very well-constructed, four feet on its base enable the case to stand upright as well. Inside are the headphones and cable within a drawstring hessian pouch. Sivga also provide a 1/4″ adaptor for use with desktop amplifiers. Altogether, a well-considered and high-quality experience!
Immediately, it’s hard not to appreciate the gorgeous painted stainless steel and zebra wood build that stands out as a defining feature of this headphone. The Phoenix appears premium in materials and provides a timeless retro aesthetic with adjacent chrome and woodgrain drawing the eye. The metal hangers and headband are reasonably lightweight but feel sturdy in the hand, reinforced by well-weighted and smoothly articulating hinges. Due to its compact dimensions, the Phoenix also is far from a heavy headphone at just under 300g despite its construction mostly employing robust metal parts.
This experience is complemented by a slide-to-adjust suspension headband with a wide, padded goat leather strap. It feels super soft and, being authentic leather, should also hold up better over time than faux so long as it is appropriately maintained. The pads are super soft with memory foam interior that conforms well to the individual’s head shape. The sides are pleather, and the face made from a soft suede that provides a comfortable and slightly more breathable experience.
The cable attaches via 2.5mm mono plugs which is a less popular choice these days but still commonly available on aftermarket cables. Unfortunately, I am not so enthusiastic about the Phoenix’s stock cable which is thin and flimsy, barely thick enough to be an IEM cable. Albeit, the cable is very light and unobtrusive, it is also very compliant and doesn’t irk during listening. The connectors are metal and terminations have a nice strain-relief, the 3.5mm plug, in particular, employing a robust spring loaded one. Still, the thinness is a concern for longevity to me, I would like to have seen a more robust cable that better complements the build of the headphones themselves.
Fit & Isolation –
Looking over the design, I was expecting a very comfortable fit, however, the Phoenix’s compact dimensions means there are some concessions for all-day at-home listening. The headband has fairly limited adjustment relative to most competitors. I personally felt I required slightly more length as I was just able to fit the headphones with the setting maxed out. Otherwise, the headband is comfortable and didn’t form any hotspots for me over time. Though do keep in mind, that If you find yourself maxing out the slider on most headphones, the Phoenix may not fit.
In addition, while the earpads are soft and compliant, they are also very shallow. The opening is large enough to engulf my ears by a hair, however, the lack of width means the drivers are constantly pressed against them, causing soreness after an hour or two of listening. The discomfort was mild and I was able to listen for longer, though the Phoenix does feel more to me like a portable headphone than a full-size open-back as a result. The lightweight build and slim pads to me seem contradictory for an open-back design that is not ideal for portable use, and yet it almost appears geared towards it.
This may be the intention of the design as it does isolate considerably more than most open-back headphones, albeit not nearly to the extent of a closed-back model yet alone the stronger ANC performers out there around this price. This does mean they do in a pinch for basic commute. Still, they do leak sound which is not ideal for public transport. I feel the pad design is intentional to deliver the best sound, that said.
For those concerned about the earpads, Sivga do offer OEM protein leather replacements that offer an additional half-centimetre of width for only $15. The pads are held in place by a twist lock like most competitors making pad swapping easy – though of note, they do rotate clockwise rather than anticlockwise to disengage so take care to twist in the right direction during removal. The company was kind enough to send over a pair for evaluation. Though they aren’t as breathable as the stock pads with an entirely faux leather construction without the velour of the stock pads, but do successfully provide more of an over-ear fit. For my ears, they were noticeably more comfortable for longer listening sessions as they reduced contact between the driver and my ears. I think this is a fine option and a reasonably priced extra, though do note that they will change the sound quite noticeably as I will touch on in the sound analysis below.
Highly linear sound, Excellent detail retrieval throughout, Hard-hitting yet even bass, Wide BT codec support
Settings menu overly-complicated to access, Volume buttons are inefficient, Large footprint
The D70s’ strength lies in its ability to effortlessly resolve the minutiae and do so without any fatigue, all the while upholding an almost perfectly even-handed presentation
I’m sure by now the vast majority are no stranger to Topping. The company has been making source devices for quite a few years now and have recently received widespread accolades for their chart-topping measurements and cost-efficient, scalable designs. The D70s represents the successor to Topping’s original D70, sitting just below the D90 in their dedicated DAC line-up. It utilises two of AKM’s AK4497EQ chips and features an upgraded XMOS 16-core XU216 microcontroller in addition to BT5.0 with LDAC support. Topping promise less jitter and native MQA decoding for a hearty jump in measurable performance over its predecessor.
The D70s retails for $649.99 USD at the time of writing. You can read more about it and treat yourself to a unit on Apos Audio (affiliate).
I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the D70S for the purpose of review. The company is a sponsor of THL, however, all words are my own and no monetary incentive has been provided at any time for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAC free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
All great sources are built atop a quality power supply and the D70s is no different, using the same linear, regulated toroidal transformer as the D90. It has 8 independent voltage regulators and 7 Nichicon electrolytic high-grade caps built for audio application that provide clean and stable power.
Dual AK4497EQ DAC Chip
At its heart lies two of AKM’s 2nd highest DAC chip, the AK4497. However, Topping were able to beat even AKM’s own reference design in terms of measurable performance, to the extent that it almost matches the flagship AK4499 as used in the D90. Besides this, the D70s implements the same Accusilicon AS317 femto-clocks and Altera MAX II CPDL FGPA module with Topping coding.
The D70s utilises XMOS’ latest USB chipset that enables full-MQA decoding and native playback. In addition, they pair the AKM DAC with AKM’s AK4118 chip handling digital inputs for maximum compatibility and performance. On the Bluetooth front is the CSR8675 receiver chip from Qualcomm with wide codec support and BT5.0.
Similar to Topping’s amplifiers, the D70s comes within a large card box with the device itself safely secured within a laser cut foam inlet. There are adjacent cutouts for the remote, power wire, BT antenna and USB cable in addition to a user manual and warranty papers on top. The unboxing experience is simple, effective and utilitarian matching the ethos of the product itself.
As compared to the original D70, the successor boasts a slightly more sophisticated design and proud MQA certification on its faceplate. It retains the aluminium shell that provides rigidity in addition to enhanced isolation. Robust silicone feet provide a planted and stable feel on the desk. The fit and feel is also impressive with rounded edges and a nice, uniform sand-blasted finish across its exterior. Though this remains far from a modern design, especially coming from SMSL’s competing devices, with visible screws and a simplified black and white OLED display with 4-button navigation. The faceplate is squared off and protrudes noticeably from the housing rather than sitting flush. In turn, I find this design to be nowhere near as sleek as the D90 or even the former D70 to my eyes. However, this can also suggest that the device is intended to be stacked or contained.
Otherwise, it feels solid and robust; Topping are clearly capable of providing strong build quality and the D70s’ BOM are well considered. The device does have quite a large footprint, being the largest Topping DAC in fact, which is something to consider if you have small desk. It is clearly larger than my THX789 and the SMSL SU-9, especially in width. The control scheme is button-based as opposed to the rotary encoders we’ve seen implemented elsewhere. On the rear are the inputs and outputs. A power switch sits adjacent to the plug and a voltage selection switch is located on the right-hand side since this device uses a linear power supply that cannot automatically adjust for different voltages. The D70s supports AES, COAX, USB, Optical, I2S and Bluetooth inputs while providing XLR and RCA outputs.
The D70s provides, to me, a versatile experience albeit not the most intuitive one for the user. It excels best, in my experiences, as an all-in-one DAC used not just for headphones but also speakers and perhaps even a media/TV setup. This is because the device is, by far, easier to navigate with the included remote, which can be inconvenient to constantly have on hand during use in a regular headphone/desk setup.
Accessing the sound setting menu without the remote requires powering off the device using the rear-facing power switch, holding the sel button and switching the DAC back on. Otherwise, when on, the sel button simply changes sources, the arrows the level of the pre-amp output unless set to pure DAC-mode (in which volume control is disabled). It’s frustrating that holding the sel button whilst the device is on offers no further functionality here as would be intuitive.
Apart from this, the D70s provides a streamlined experience and users shouldn’t feel the need to constantly tweak these settings during daily use. It also features an auto-power on feature which is super handy for use with a PC setup. A small niggle, the volume control via the front-facing buttons is noticeably slower than a rotary-encoder, however, source selection is quick and clearly denoted by the large OLED display. The DAC also constantly provides status of the inputs/outputs in use, the volume setting and the sampling rate it is currently using.
The Bluetooth input is also easy to use, simply change to the BT source input and it becomes discoverable by any BT source. The D70s promptly paired to my Xperia 5 II over an LDAC connection. On the phone I was able to prioritise either signal stability or sound quality in addition to LDAC’s usually auto-scaling function. The wide codec support of this DAC is a huge plus, providing the convenience of wireless with surprisingly low-quality degradation. Of course, this is not how the DAC will be assessed but is surely handy when listening to music during social events. I found the connection to be stable and the range easily sufficient to traverse a large room without any form of intermittency or artefacts on behalf of the external antenna.
Excellent build and cable, Ergonomic and compact design, Powerful yet technically-apt sound, Coherent and naturally voiced midrange
Mediocre separation, Vocals may be too full and laid-back for some
The Vega 2020 offers splendid ergonomics and build combined with a rich and engaging yet coherent tuning built atop a strong technical foundation.
Campfire Audio are an audio company born in Oregon, USA who have made a huge name for themselves with their industrial metal designs and engaging sound tuning. The Andromeda is likely the model known to most, but perhaps more impressive, is that the Vega remains their 2nd highest selling model of all time despite having been discontinued for a few years now. The company is reinvigorating their DD line-up, receiving the same treatment as the Andro and Solaris. Similar to their original incarnations, these models feature more engaging and generally bassier sound profiles than their BA counterparts but have certainly made some strides over their predecessors in execution. The Vega 2020 introduces new materials, an updated driver inspired by that from the Atlas, and a slight reshuffling of the product order; the hybrid Dorado now assuming flagship status. In a market ripe with innovations and complexity, the Vega takes things back to basics with a focus on simplicity and cohesiveness.
The new Vega is available for $899 USD. You can read all about it and treat yourself to one on Campfire Audio
I would like to thank Caleb from Campfire Audio very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Vega 2020 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 94 dB @ 1kHz
Impedance: 32 Ohms @ 1kHz
The Pitch –
The new Vega is constructed from ceramic rather than aluminium and implements a stainless steel as opposed to plastic spout. Campfire Audio utilise an 8-day process to increase density and achieve a uniform finish with tight tolerances. A dense housing is essential for dynamic driver designs as it helps to mitigate vibrations and resonances; friends in the industry have recorded shorter decay times in CSD with denser housing materials. The new housing feels notably more robust than the original Vega indeed, the brass spouted Dorado 2020 taking this one step further.
The Vega 2020 implements a derivative of the same 10mm driver used in the Atlas, a step up in size from the 8.5mm driver in the Vega. It uses the same A.D.L.C (amorphous diamond-like carbon) coating that enables a lightweight yet rigid diaphragm. This reduces modal breakup at high-frequencies for better extension while the long-stroke of the dynamic driver permits a powerful, extended bass response. An acoustic dampener controls back-pressure to optimise the impulse response.
Campfire Audio’s unboxings are always a pleasure and their updated line-up employs a similar experience to other models released this year. Opening the rear lets the colourful shell slide away from an internal hard box. The box contains a new carrying case, switching out the cork construction for a delightful seafoam green canvas made from upcycled marine plastic. Alongside the silver metal zipper and Campfire Audio tag, it exudes a classic American aesthetic.
Inside are the earphones with shells protected within a mesh IEM bag that prevents the housings from scratching each other. In a separate box are two more pouches, great for use with other IEMs. One contains 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips, the other containing 3 pairs of foam tips and 3 pairs of Campfire Audio silicone tips. A cleaning tool and CFA pin are also included. It’s a very comprehensive package, E-tips are a personal favourite in both sound and ergonomics, and a premium experience that rewards buyers.
Campfire Audio have always had a knack with their colour choices and their latest crop of IEMs exemplifies this, they are appealing in-ear designs with loads of character. The Vega 2020 has a clean white porcelain finish with silver stainless steel spout. Rather than raw stainless steel or PVD, CFA’s new earphones are made from ceramic treated through an 8-day process refined from the original Lyra. The result is a flawless hyper-gloss surface that is smooth and free from imperfections. The tolerances are also just as tight as their new Alu shells, with excellent faceplate matching and no sharp edges.
They are also supposedly more scratch resistant than PVD and that has been my experience when pocketing the earphones without a case, I haven’t noticed any scratches or chips. That said, like the ie800 that employs a similar construction, be careful not to drop these earphones as they can crack. When compared to the original Vega, the stainless steel spouts make this a substantially more premium experience while the ceramic shells are palpably denser. It feels like a very high-quality piece of design and the shape and colours surely possess the timeless appeal CFA are renowned for.
The cable too is just as agreeable, CFA’s new Smokey Litz wire as seen on all post 2019 models. The custom Beryllium MMCX connectors make a return, promising to be harder-wearing than regular connectors, they provide a confident lock and low tolerances; I haven’t had one fail on me during my years with CFA IEMs either. The cable itself is very easy to live with, with a very supple jacket and robust braided construction. The right-angle plug is very well relieved and the pre-moulded ear guides comfortably route the cable over the ear for a more stable fit. It has minimal microphonic noise transmission and isn’t too tangle prone.
Fit & Isolation –
The overall dimensions and shell design is identical to the original Vega and Lyra II so if your ears agree with those, you would have no issues with these. In isolation, these are very compact and ergonomic shells. Once fit correctly, they barely contact the outer ear and their small size lets them disappear during longer listening with zero discomfort. That said, the nozzle design has changes, now more in line with their BA earphones, so it is noticeably longer than the plastic Vega nozzle. That said, there is no step that limits how far the ear tip can be pushed onto the nozzle, so overall, the fit depth is actually similar. The upside is that CFA are able to control the acoustics of the sound output a little better to achieve a more consistent sound between listeners with this design.
As before, the seal is very good which, combined with the lightweight design and over-ear fit makes them perfectly stable even during active use. Driver flex is clearly apparent when inserting the earphones but caused no degradation to sound performance during my testing. Isolation is improved noticeably over the original Vega. It’s still not as good as a sealed BA monitor but they are easily sufficient for commute and daily use. They would do in a pinch for noisy environments such as air travel and the metro when combined with their full and punchy tuning too.
Great ANC with usable modes and minimal artefacts, Stable fit, Well-considered V-shaped signature, Excellent foreground detail retrieval, Wide soundstage, Stable connectivity
Larger charging case, Large housings won’t suit those with small ears, App has questionable functionality
The 1More TWS ANC may not best market leaders, but gets very close for considerably less with a more technical sound on top.
1More are a US-based audio company who have built a strong cult following with their triple-driver hybrid in-ears and more well-received products since. The ANC TWS is one of their more coveted products and also one of their most unanimously lauded. It is especially feature packed, offering advanced ANC and a hybrid DD + BA driver setup not commonly seen on this form factor. So, it came as little surprise when 1More announced that their ANC TWS would be the first TWS in-ear to achieve THX certification. What was less obvious to consumers is that there’s more to this than a simple badge on the box; consider the THX certified models – that being manufactured around June 2020 onwards – as V2 hardware. This revision will also features a revised balanced armature driver, similarly, the firmware has been upgraded according to feedback by THX engineers alongside adding support for 1More’s QuietMax technology first introduced on their neckband model. This is a very nice refinement of an already very competitive TWS in-ear.
The 1More TWS ANC is available for $179.99 USD at the time of writing. To read more about it and 1More’s technologies see their product page here. To purchase one for yourself, please see here (affiliate).
I would like to thank Ari very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the 1More ANC TWS for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
Dimensions: 38 x 18 x 28.5 mm (earbud), 81.32 x 30 x 38.5 mm (case)
Bluetooth Version: 5.0, 10m range, apt-X and AAC supported
Battery: 55 mAh (earbuds), 410 mAh (case), 5v 1A charging
Runtime (50% vol): 6hrs (ANC off), 5hrs (ANC on), 22hrs total (incl. case ANC off)
Impedance: 32 ohms
The Pitch –
The ANC TWS’ design opens up several avenues for enhanced ANC performance. QuietMax consists of dual-band ANC, intelligent wind reduction and methods to reduce wearing pressure. On traditional single-driver earphones, ANC diminishes sound quality as the driver must handle two duties. With the ANC TWS, 1More attempt to circumvent this by delegating the DD to ANC duties and allowing the BA driver to cover a wider frequency range with ANC on. 1More are also utilising two mics to offer feedforward and feedback ANC so it can detect noises within the ear canals in addition to ambient, offering additional attenuation.
The dual mic system is also handy for wind noise reduction, as the earphones are able to reduce the sensitivity of the ambient noise feedforward mic and rely more on the in-ear feedback mic to mitigate artefacts. There are also two ANC modes that vary not in intensity, but bandwidth. One is a wide-band attenuation to cancel a wide range of sounds including voices, the other focusing more on lower wearing pressure and the cancellation of explicitly more constant low-frequency background noise. Overall, this is a very intelligent approach to ANC with clear benefits to real world performance. This technology is further explain here.
When the TWS ANC first launched, it was slammed for sounding very different when ANC was activated, becoming overly bass heavy. This has since been remediated to some degree with firmware updates, now creating a more consistent sound profile – the more balanced one offered with ANC off is now mostly retained with ANC on. Furthermore, the V2 hardware units have also been updated with ANC and audio tweaks based on feedback from THX engineers. 1More explains THX certification and how to identify your hardware version on their website here.
1More always provide a stunning unboxing experience and the TWS ANC is no different. The box looks premium with high-quality print and renders. There’s a brushed metal tab on the magnetic tab that opens to reveal the earphones and case within a foam inlet. A separate box contains the remaining accessories. There are 3 sizes of retentive loops, 1More’s interpretation of stabiliser wings, in addition to 3 pair of soft silicone tips and 3 pairs of harder silicone tips. I found it especially important to find the right combination of both due to the size and shape of the ANC TWS. Also take note that the tips are directional, try rotating them 180 degrees if you can’t get a good seal.
If you’re familiar with 1More’s other TWS designs, you’ll find a similar experience with the ANC TWS. A key differentiator from the lower-end models is the all-black colour scheme with slick carbon-fibre faceplates and red accented grills. It gives the earphone a seriously sporty aesthetic that’s reminiscent of automotive design and also very distinct. They are one of the largest TWS in-ears I’ve tested personally, but are very lightweight, being mostly plastic in terms of construction. In turn, they don’t feel especially dense or high-quality in the hand, but the positive trade-off is a more stable and less obtrusive fit; you feel the size much less in wearing. They have no official IP rating, but 1More claim the design is suitable for workouts and light moisture if not any kind of submersion.
The majority of the housing sits outside the ear while the portion that sits in the ear is compact and covered by a silicone cover. The user is able to choose between 3 sizes of silicone rings, the smallest having no retention for those with smaller ears. The experience can be likened to that provided by Master & Dynamic’s MW07 earphones; they feel soft in the ear and achieve a nice, locked-in sensation once tilted appropriately. This works in tandem with angled nozzles and oval ear tips, though do take note that users will be limited to the stock ear tips since the nozzles are also oval and elongated which can affect purchase with third party tips. Infrared sensors are also apparent to auto-pause when removed from the ear.
Fit & Comfort –
The earphones are clearly on the larger side, most apparent when looking at photos of the inner face as shown below. Accordingly, they protrude noticeably from the ear, so a far cry from svelte competitors such as the Airpod Pros and Pixel Buds though roughly on par with something like the WF-1000XM3. In turn, they aren’t suitable for sleeping on and do pick up a little more wind noise than the smaller aforementioned designs. In addition, they are not the best choice for those with smaller ears as I found them very unstable without the stabiliser rings attached. Due to their larger design, finding the right sized stabilisation rings and eartips is imperative. With the large rings and stock medium tips, I was able to achieve a consistent seal and stable fit for my ears.
I was able to run and skip without requiring adjustment, a surprisingly good result given that the medium rings installed out of the box were very awkward for me. I do also personally find the rings more comfortable than wing style stabilisers and even the small fins on the MW07 earphones. They form no hotspots and spread the force evenly over a large area, where the fins and wings tended to push on certain parts of my ears harder causing mild discomfort over time. If you have average sized ears and above, the 1More ANC TWS will provide a very comfortable and stable fit.
Though not nearly as compact as the Airpods case or even the Pixel Buds case, the 1More charging case has well-considered dimensions that make it more pocketable than most. It’s long but also slim and narrow, so it slides into the pocket comfortably next to a wallet or phone. The case feels great to handle, high-quality and solidly built with a gunmetal anodized exterior and silicone base that keeps it steady when placed on a table. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend repeating this, but the case is bottom heavy so it tends to fall towards the rubber base when dropped, offering some shock protection. The hinge feels solid as well, not the smoothest and the reverse lock feels stiff, but it works reliably and hasn’t popped out or caused other issues during testing.
The magnets that hold the lid closed are strong so you don’t have to worry about losing the earbuds when dropped or placed in a bag. Similarly, the earbuds seat themselves very snugly into the case and there is plenty of room for large tips and rings. The case charges via Type-C and supports Qi wireless charging. There’s a status LED on the front and a pairing button inside. Of note, the case will power the earphones off even if completely discharged, but it will not power them back on when removed requiring the user to hold the MFB on the earphones to power on manually. The case offers around 3 full charges and I found it to match that figure comfortably during testing. Fast charge is also available, offering 2 hours of listening time with 15 minutes of charging.
If you’re able to operate any other TWS earphone, you’ll have few troubles here. The 1More’s are easy to use with intuitive controls. Upon opening the case, they enter pairing mode or automatically reconnect to previously paired devices. Pairing can also be manually initiated with the button inside the case. Auto pairing was quick and reliable on my Pixel 4. Once setup, I was also very impressed with the connectivity. They offer among the best range of any TWS earphone I have on hand, able to traverse around 3 rooms with double brick wall before becoming intermittent, but even then, they held onto audio most of the time. With my phone on person, I experienced no issues with cut-out or interference, even in busy areas such as the CBD or public transport. Connected over apt-X, latency was also a strong performer with minimal lip sync making them suitable for videos, movies and some gaming.
Here I am experiencing a mixed bag, the physical controls work well, and the touch controls are among the better performers I’ve tried. I appreciate the use of touch for more complex actions such as ANC mode, and more reliable physical controls for volume, skip track and call accept/reject functionality. However, there are a few caveats that irk during daily use. For one, there is no ability to customize the control scheme, aggravating as I can’t set a dedicated button for instant pass-through mode. The touch controls also have a noticeable latency but have voice feedback announcing the ANC mode, passthrough, etc. Meanwhile, the physical controls lack any kind of auditory feedback, aggravating since skipping tracks requires a 2s hold, but only initiates once the button has been released. So, if you hold the button for too long, the earpiece powers off, too short and it only changes the volume; an unreliable control that I struggled to acclimatise to during my testing. You can’t palm the touch-sensitive faceplates like the Sennheiser MTW2 so they’re a bit difficult to tap when running per say, they are also nowhere near as responsive as the class-leading Google Pixel Buds with capacitive touch panel. That said, the touch controls are reliable enough, hitting about 95% accuracy during daily use.
1More Music App
It’s good to see some app integration here as it permits some functions that other more audio-centric earphones lack. That said, the experience is quite limited which seems like wasted potential here. The app is limited to basic controls of the features available. There’s a slider that adjusts the ANC mode between the 3 settings and a pass-through toggle just below. You can also adjust whether the IR sensors auto-pause music or both pause and play, however, you cannot disable this feature. OTA firmware upgrades are available alongside a quick guide for fit and controls. There is no eQ or other sound mode setting and no ability to change audio feedback. There is an addition 1More app available, however, this essentially only offers firmware updates and automatic burn-in for those wanting to extract maximum performance from their earphones out of the box.
Given 1More’s bold claims with the introduction of QuietMax, I was very curious to try their technology for myself – especially, since impressions online vary wildly. Of course, effectiveness will vary greatly based on seal, so ensure you have the best setup of tips and rings, I do personally get a very good seal with these. I also have not tried the non-THX V1 earphone so these will be purely impressions based on the newest revision.
Well, if my prior comments had you concerned about 1More’s ability to deliver on claims, the ANC performance will surely redeem them, it is superb. I found them almost on par with market leaders such as the Airpods Pros and Sony WF-1000XM3, which is to say, very effective and instantly noticeable. Those models cancel out just a little more midrange, so voices sound a bit more muted on both, however, low-frequency noises were similarly attenuated to near silence on the 1More’s, if not a little more so. The only downside is that high-frequencies are a little more apparent when ANC is on than these models, with a noticeable whoosh. That said, the 1More’s are also less susceptible to artefacts. A common area where I experience difficulties with the other models was chains rattling in the gym, the change in pressure when doors close on the train and a pop when the rope strikes the ground during skipping. The 1More’s had no issues with any of these noises where the Sony’s and Airpods would pop and clip noticeably.
As mentioned in my rundown of QuietMax, the ANC TWS offers two modes of ANC; one wideband, one low-frequencies and less aggressive in general. They are very useable with well-defined use cases for each – if somewhat inconvenient to toggle between. It should be noted that wind noise is still noticeable on these earphones, but was better controlled than competitors even on the more aggressive ANC setting (mode 1), and it was roughly halved in volume on the low-frequency ANC setting (mode 2). The worst performer here was the Sennheiser MTW2 that almost amplified wind noise despite being by far the least aggressive in terms of actual noise cancellation. The first mode does a sensational job at silencing background hums and drones, think road and traffic noise, AC, computer fans and distant chatter, in addition to a good job at lowering the intensity of voices and keyboard noise. Meanwhile, setting 2 cancels those hums and drones at about 80% of the effectiveness of the first mode, while leaving voices less attenuated. However, the 2nd mode also vastly lowers artefacts and there is almost zero wearing pressure, where some becomes apparent on the 1st mode when in louder environments.
I think this is a good trade-off and a very useful addition for frequent flyers who may prioritise long-term comfort over the best ANC performance possible. For reference, the level of pressure on the Apple and Sony competitors is similar to the 1st mode and only the Sony’s offer the ability to adjust ANC intensity. However, as aforementioned, it is a pain to cycle through each setting, of which there are 4 – ANC Mode 1, ANC Mode 2, Pass through (aware mode), ANC Off. Most notably, reaching pass through takes a good 5 seconds or so as there is an accompanying voice chime between each setting paired with a second delay, presumably adjusting the dual-driver duties. This means it is essentially useless for catching quick conversation and announcements as it simply takes too long to cycle around to this mode. You can manually select each within the app, however, you’d need to keep it open in the background as there is no quick-setting toggle or slider in the notification shade.
Despite being more inconvenient than most to access, the actual effectiveness here is very good. It doesn’t amplify sounds like the Sennheiser’s but passes ambient noises in a very natural manner akin to the Airpod Pros. They don’t clip on louder ambient sounds and don’t sound thin, sharp or shouty either as some do – for instance, the Sennheiser’s would amplify high-frequencies excessively to the extent that jingling keys would deafen. The 1More’s sounded almost open, not super clear once again, but a natural effect that leaves speech easy to distinguish even with music playing – so long as it is at a reasonable volume. Overall, if you’re looking for an earphone with effective and adjustable ANC and a very sound pass-through when you need spatial awareness, you won’t be disappointed with the 1More’s.
With an extensive microphone setup, call quality is easily good enough for day to day use but still clearly a setup below market leaders. That said, I would only recommend these other models over the 1More if the buyer were using them primarily as a headset as I find the ANC TWS to offer a fairly well-rounded experience with good performance elsewhere. Recipients noted my voice was immediate and discernible in noisy environments with good ambient noise cancellation albeit could be a little clearer. There is no pass through/sidetone during calls and also no ANC during calls as the Huawei Freebuds 3 are able to retain. However, other competitors do not offer this functionality either.
Great build quality and cable, Comfortable and compact design, Balanced yet engaging signature, Outstanding fine detail retrieval in-class
Fit stability can still be improved, Mediocre noise isolation, No balanced to single-ended adapter provided in the box
The Spring 2 compounds slightly on an already strong design, allowing it to remain a versatile and competitive buy, even at its elevated price.
BQEYZ surely sounds like a generic company, something you wouldn’t bat an eye scrolling past on Aliexpress. However, make no mistake, this company makes a serious and considered effort to create quality products. My first experience, alongside many, was with the Spring 1, an earphone that implemented a tri-brid design at a very accessibleb price. Perhaps more impressively, it did so effectively with an appealing tuning and real benefits over a simpler driver setup. Perfect that earphone was not, however, and hot on its heals comes the new Spring 2. It revises the ceramic tweeter of the original to provide a more balanced sound and implements a brand-new BA driver too. The housing has been subtly reworked to provide a more ergonomic fit. This all comes at a slightly higher $169 USD asking price.
You can read more about the Spring 2 and treat yourself to a set on BQEYZ’s Aliexpress store here.
I would like to thank Elle from BQEYZ very much for her quick communication and for providing me with the Spring 2 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
BQEYZ have years of experience as an OEM for other companies and the infrastructure to produce their own shells and drivers. This can be observed in their coaxial DD + piezo unit that is custom-made for the company. Ceramic tweeters offer high efficiency and low distortion but also a sharp timbre due to lower-treble resonances inherent to the materials. By increasing from a 7 to 9-layer unit, BQEYZ promise a smoother response and, in turn, improved texture and detail. Furthermore, drivers are precision matched to within 1dB for precise imaging.
The experience here feels similar to the Spring 1 with a similar compact box with clean, text-based art. Inside are the earpieces protected within a foam inlet with the zippered carrying case located below. The updated model includes the same metal tuning tip organiser that is perfectly sized to slot into the elastic pouch in the lid of the zipper case. There are 3-pairs of atmosphere tips and 3-pairs of reference tips in addition to a pair of memory foam tips. A brush cleaning tool is now included to remove wax debris from the nozzle, a thoughtful addition. The cable is also now offered in balanced, though no single-ended adaptor is provided should you choose one of these options.
The Spring 2 very much resembles its predecessor with a few key changes as per user and reviewer feedback, good to see. As before, the company use their in-house CNC workshop to create a robust metal shell. The housings are now slightly more sculpted with a small anti-helix protrusion to provide a slightly deeper and more stable fit. It retains a similar 3-piece all-aluminium construction and, much like its predecessor, impresses with even seams and anodized finish. It feels hard-wearing and robust, the accented red chamfers providing a distinctly more aggressive aesthetic than the Spring 1 while the new green model will suit those wanting more vibrance. It’s good to see the metal sound tube and filter return as this is a common point of failure on plastic shells.
The cable too sees an upgrade. BQEYZ retain use of 0.78mm 2-pin connectors but now provide the option of balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm terminations. The connectors are recessed so take note for compatibility with third-party cables. The cable is a 4-wire design with very high 224-strand count and crystal copper conductors. In use, it’s very supple and ergonomic, and more so than the Spring 1 cable. It’s also less plasticky, with almost zero memory and minimal microphonic noise transmission. The jacket is smooth and the plugs have ample strain-relief. I found the pre-moulded ear guides to be well-shaped to comfortably stabilise the shells, providing a great experience here overall.
Fit & Isolation –
Despite the revised design and perhaps also due to the size or shape of my particular ears, I found that the Spring 2 feels mostly similar in use. The nozzle design is identical as is the overall silhouette. In turn, they are similarly compact and don’t contact much of the outer ear so no hotspots form over extended listening. Fit stability remains good, slightly better indeed from the Spring 1 but still not providing the locked-in sensation and seal provided by a lot of competitors. Still, the over-ear design and compact housing permits a good fit depth and stability that presented no issues for me during daily use. As they remain vented like the original, noise isolation is just average. Some may enjoy the added spatial awareness this affords, and they are sufficient for public transport and commute, but will struggle in especially loud environments such as the metro or air travel even with foam tips.
Few competitors create as well-rounded a package as the Blessing 2, this is a balanced and refined earphone that punches well above its asking price.
If you frequent any kind of audio for a, you will be well acquainted by now with Chinese cult-hit Moondrop. For the company has achieved huge renown in a very short time, no small feat, with their excellent VDSF tuning based on the coveted diffuse field neutral curve. The Starfield assumed such a tuning, that permit surprising refinement at a reasonable price. However, though tonality impressed, the quality of the driver did leave me wanting. The Blessing 2 looks like a fine solution, assuming a very similar tuning realised through an elaborate 5-driver hybrid setup. The Blessing 2 implements 3D printing for physical band and low-pass filtering used in conjunction with electronic RC filtering to deliver a phase-coherent 3-way setup and very specific control over the frequency response. That’s a load of engineering for a midrange IEM.
The Blessing 2 retails for $319 USD. You can read more about it and purchase one for yourself on HiFiGO and Apos Audio.
I would like to thank Nappoler from HiFiGO very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Blessing 2 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. I paid a slightly reduced cost for the earphones in return for honest evaluation and will attempt to be as objective as possible.
Impedance: 22 ohms @ 1 kHz (+/- 15%)
Drivers: 1 Dynamic Driver & 4 Balanced Armatures on each side
Frequency Response: 9 Hz – 37 kHz
Effective Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Treble Driver: Knowles SWFK
Midrange Driver: Softears D-MID-A
Bass Driver: 10mm Paper Cone Diaphragm Coil
Quality Control Range: +/- 1 dB @ 1 kHz
Sensitivity: 117 dB/Vrms @ 1 kHz
THD: <1% @ 1 kHz
Interface: 0.78 mm – 2 pin
The Pitch –
Hybrid Acoustic and Electronic Filters
The Blessing 2 implement physical band-pass filtering that isolates one pair of the BA drivers to exclusively cover the midrange frequencies. The BA drivers are a custom 2 in one unit from Soft Ears Japan tuned to their specifications. Similarly, Moondrop use a physical low-pass filter to limit the DD to bass under 400Hz in addition to controlling pressurization. An electronic RC filter is also utilised to reinforce this. SFWK tweeters provide extended high-frequencies and special attention was given to unite the sensitivities of all drivers acoustically rather than electronically for a phase-coherent design.
Neutral has become a more subjective term over the years as more minds contribute to different curves simulating different acoustic environments. Most famous are the Diffuse and newer Harman curve, both have their share of fans and critics. Moondrop’s first IEMs traced the Harman Curve incredibly well, a selling point for the company and sound foundation for developing their own curve called virtual diffuse sound field (VDSF). Similar to its name, this is Moondrop’s appropriation of the diffuse-field neutral curve, not the Harman Curve. Comparatively, they’ve toned down the highs and upped the bass which is, to my ear, a combination between the two aforementioned curves. Though both diffuse-field and Harman are considered by most critics not to showcase great balance, the VDSF curve is a refined and mostly natural-sounding tuning that is a very effective mashup.
Moondrop always package their products professionally and the Blessing 2 is no exception. The outer sleeve houses specifications and Moondrop’s famous anime splash art. Inside is a clean grey box adorned with Moondrop’s logo. Opening the box reveals the carrying case and separate card box with additional accessories. The earphones are protected within a foam inlet inside the zippered case, it has a nice textured vinyl exterior in svelte grey and ample interior space for the earphones and a small DAP too.
The box contains the rest of the accessories, a 6n OFC Litz cable, airline adapter, papers and 6 pairs of silicone ear tips. The tips have an interesting design, the bore fits exactly onto the Blessing 2’s nozzles but the size of the sound output has been reduced likely to slightly attenuate high frequencies and create a more balanced sound.
The Blessing 2 is a very attractive earphone to my eye, an impression enhanced by a certain amount of customisability on the user’s end. The 3D printed shells are as you’d expect; perfectly smooth, seamless and unibody, they’re also resin-filled for a nice quality heft in the hand. Meanwhile, the transparent design showcases the acoustics inside and driver setup, you can study them for hours. This is topped with CNC machined faceplates with a brushed finish. Buyers are able to order wooden variants and custom artwork for an additional $30, or choose from 8 set options provided by Moondrop.
The cable too inspires confidence, I’ve personally had a great experience here. Up top, they utilise a standard 0.78mm 2-pin connector with wide aftermarket support. It’s a 4-core braided unit with soft, smooth jacket and very supple feel, the cable is slightly thin but feels well anchored at all terminations. There’s also zero memory so the cable isn’t too tangle-prone, and it conducts minimal microphonic noise. The well-relieved right angle plug and metal Moondrop y-split cover add a premium feel while the pre-moulded ear guides provide a comfortable and stable fit. I personally enjoy the contrast created between the copper cable and silver housings.
Fit & Isolation –
If there’s one thing that may polarise about the Blessing 2’s design, it’s likely the fit. They are ergonomic in their design for sure, but definitely also on the larger side. They aren’t ridiculously proportioned nor do any design decisions come at the cost of ergonomics. This is a rounded, smooth and generally comfortable design with well-angled nozzles that promote a deeper, more stable fit and strong seal. I didn’t experience any hotspot formation, albeit due to the size, they don’t disappear in the ear. Those with smaller than average ears may experience difficulties due to the height of the earphone as the tops lock-in somewhat to the anti-helix area.
With the right tips, they achieve a deep and comfortable fit. In turn, though reasonably large and quite wide, the fit is lower-profile, hugging the contours of the ear. You can’t sleep on them due to the width but wind noise is not too bad despite the presence of a faceplate vent. Similarly, isolation is well above average and easily suitable for commute and public transport. You would benefit from a fully-sealed design in especially noisy areas such as the metro or air travel, but the Blessing 2 is passable here too, especially with foam tips.
The SH-9 is SMSL’s midrange headphone amplifier featuring THX AAA-888 technology and is marketed as a direct upgrade to the SH-8 that launched 2 years ago. It retails for $289.99 USD at the time of writing.
Modern design and UI, Digital volume control with zero channel-imbalance, Balanced and detailed sound, Well-rounded soundstage, Sub 1-ohm OI
Some hiss on very sensitive IEMs, Delay on changing volume and gain, Could do with a little more body and dynamics
Pairing the SH-9 with SMSL’s matching DAC, the user is treated to a delightfully modern and natural sounding stack that doesn’t disappoint.
Where most industries seem to be moving towards integration and convenience, the audio world almost seems to celebrate the analogue, purpose-built legacy long left behind. SMSL’s SH-9 serves as a refreshing change; a modernisation of the headphone amplifier with trick colour-screen GUI and the latest THX AAA module inside. Following the SU-9 balanced DAC, the new SH-9 plays AMP duty to their previous release like the 8-series before it. The SH-9 implements the same modern design with high-res colour screen and handy rotary encoder. It implements 2 mono-amplification blocks to provide balanced output – though take note that the output power and noise characteristics are the same between single-ended and balanced outputs so this is mostly useful to optimise connectivity and prevent ground loops. Similar to the SP200 before it, the SH-9 uses THX’s lauded AAA-888 amp stage and it appears as if SMSL have learnt a thing or two since as the noise figures are noticeably lower on their newest amplifier despite power figures remaining the same.
You can read more about the SMSL SH-9 and treat yourself to a unit on Apos Audio. Be sure to peruse their Ensemble range for discounts when purchasing the SMSL 9-series stack.
I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the SH-9 for the purpose of review. Apos is a sponsor of THL and affiliate links may be used in this review. However, I personally receive no monetary kickback or incentive for sales or a positive review, all words are my own. Despite receiving the AMP free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
Output Power: 6W x 2 (16Ω), 3W x 2 (32Ω), 440mW x 2 (300Ω), 220mW x 2 (600Ω)
Dimensions: 187.5 x 154 x 40mm
Behind the Design –
If you’re anything Like me, you were probably introduced to THX by the infamous deep note that resounded at the beginning of countless films in the 80’s and 90’s. THX are an audio and video certification company but also develop their own technologies according to their stringent standards. Their AAA (achromatic audio amplifier) technology has perhaps been most lauded, consisting of patented feed-forward error correction topology, super low noise and high efficiency. In practice, we’ve seen a wealth of new Amp designs featuring THX AAA tech at their core boast excellent measurable performance in addition to huge power output. Though tough competitors have come to challenge the throne, THX’s AAA amps are surely nothing to scoff at. You can read THX’s technical breakdown here.
The unboxing experience is much like the SU-9 with a clean card sleeve containing specifications and model designation that slides off a hard card box. The amp lies within nestled inside a protective foam inlet. Beside is a power cable that can be changed for your region in addition to the remote control. No other accessories are included such as a 1/4″ to 3.5mm adaptor though I’m sure most users are already in possession. It’s a simple yet effective unboxing and enough to get the user started.
Coming from my brutish THX 789, the SH-9 was a breath of fresh air. This is a sleek metal-clad design modernised by a front-facing colour screen and a high-tech complement to SMSL’s matching DAC. Indeed, those familiar with the SU-9 DAC will find a very familiar experience here with identical dimensions and UI, both also featuring right-hand rotary encoders. And this is a key part of the SH-9’s design, featuring digital volume control. You do miss the weight and smoothness of a standard analogue pot but there’s also no noise or channel imbalance throughout the volume range.
The unit has good heft and sturdiness, and benefits from a clean and even black finish alongside nicely rounded edges for a premium feel. Of note, colour matching between the SH-9 and SU-9 units I have on hand is perfect which is good to see as this isn’t always the case with these products that can vary between batches. Similar to the SU-9 there are only 3 silicone feet on the base which makes it a little less stable when stacked. I have a space limited desk and place my B&W MM-1 speakers on top of my audio stack where rocking can become irksome. Still, an additional foot is easily added, albeit a strange niggle to me.
The IO experience also accompanies that of the SU-9 with two 3-pin XLR inputs on the rear to take advantage of its balanced design alongside RCA single-ended. Do note that there are no preamp outputs, however, the SU-9 does have RCA outputs for those who purchase the entire stack. Besides this, there’s only a 3-pin power input as the SH-9 does have an internal power supply. This is a plus for those requiring larger cable lengths for their setup as this cable is easily swapped out. At the front, the experience is fairly standard, with XLR balanced output, ¼” single-ended output, colour screen and rotary encoder that handles volume and UI navigation. It’s a streamlined and refined package that looks decades newer than the 8-series before it and most competitors in its price range for that matter.
As expected, the SH-9 is a breeze to setup and operate, simply plug in the power, inputs and enjoy. While the GUI does bring greater flexibility over a standard button-based interface, I also didn’t find it hamper quick operation of its basic functions; the controls and menu layout is well-considered in my experience. Besides this, the SH-9 provides a refined experience as you would expect from any high-quality source device. There are no noises or pops when plugging/unplugging headphones nor when powering the device on or off. Similarly, the adoption of digital volume control means there are no noises introduced when changing volume nor is there channel imbalance at low volumes. I did note that the unit got quite warm over hours of use, especially with SU-9 on top, but never hot or uncomfortable to touch. Still, it may be better to place the AMP on top which will give it more surface area to dissipate heat.
With the SH-9 and SU-9 both lined up on my desk, I was able to enjoy the fluidity between usability the company had created. The control scheme is essentially identical to its DAC counterpart with rotary encoder that enables the user to adjust volume with a push granting access to the menu system. This means the SH-9 is able to achieve a clean and button free aesthetic with gain, input, vol mode, screen brightness and software information accessible by the onscreen menu. However, this also introduces additional steps, say, when moving from a headphone to IEM and adjusting gain accordingly, the user has to navigate through the menu rather than simply pressing a physical button as on most amps. The volume control is also less sensitive than a physical pot so it can take some time to adjust between different gear but there are 256-steps of fine control making it easier to set and forget. Besides this, the SH-9 is a simple and fluid device to operate and using the remote can speed up interacting with the device. One upside to purchasing the full SMSL stack is that one remote can be mapped to operate both the DAC and AMP. As before, the screen is bright and sharp and the UI is quick and without issues such as freezing or lag. I also didn’t notice any coil whine on this unit as I did on the SU-9 and didn’t find a negative gain setting necessary as the digital volume system offers a bit more fine control at the lowest volumes for sensitive IEMs than pot designs. Overall, a good user experience.