New personal record! After many fancy and/or pricey IEMs it’s time to review the most inexpensive phones I got my hands on so far – phones that are still worth writing about, that is.
Like Nationite, Brainwavz is a brand created by MP4Nation – purveyors of what I assume to be higher class Chinese-made/designed DAPs, PMPs, and other paraphernalia.
The cheesy “Brainwavz” brand name might suggest these in-ear phones being targeted at the average teenage Skullcandy demographic: muddy, bloated midbass and no clarity or “musicality” whatsoever are some of the images that come to mind with a name like this. While this is more or less true for the cheaper and older Alpha Brainwavz (which come bundled with Nationite players and are indeed a clone of a Skullcandy IEM housing), the new Beta Brainwavz “Pro” however are in another league. They do quite a few things right. Not only in their price segment, but also in the grand scheme of IEMs.
The Beta Brainwavz Pro go for about $30 to $50 – depending on if you preordered them or if you want them bundled with a FiiO E5 amp, among other options. I don’t really dig that confusing business model, but that’s how it is. You snooze, you lose.
Read on if you’re interested in why I think these cheap IEMs are worth a review.
- Beta Brainwavz Specs
- Driver: 11mm CCAW (copper-clad aluminum wire) dynamic driver
- Impedance: 24 Ohm (+/- 20%) @ 1kHz
- Sensitivity: 110dB @ 1mW
- Frequency response: 8Hz – 28kHz (yeah, right…)
- Cable: 125cm, Y-style, 45° angled 3.5mm gold-plated plug
- Accessories: Silicon tips, foam tips, shirt clip, fishbone winder, screw-on filters
Design, Build, Specs
One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the lackluster generic design of the Beta Brainwavz sure doesn’t strike me with awe. Anyway, what’s more important is the build quality – and the Betas appear to have about the same build quality as some $200 Yuin or Head-Direct phones, and they certainly are much more solid than the shabby MylarOne X3i/XBi. Let’s hope I don’t have to eat my words and the Betas really hold up for a little longer than your usual Chinese designed IEMs. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of brand IEMs are “made in China”, but they are designed and quality controlled by the respective American or European companies, which usually is a big difference to “designed and made in China” gear. Either way, the Betas look confidence-inspiring enough so far, for the price.
The main part of the housing is plastic; the sound nozzles however are aluminum, with inlaid metal meshes, protecting the drivers from dust and grime. Kudos to MP4Nation for not going the cheap route (like Head-Direct, Yuin, or MylarOne), and not using shabby paper filters on the Betas. A second set of meshes/filters can be screwed onto the nozzle, purportedly to shape the tone of the Betas, shaving off a bit of treble. I however didn’t really notice any difference with the secondary meshes in place. They sure come in handy though to give a more secure fit for the silicon tips.
Speaking of silicon tips: you get two pairs of some weird conical tips, white and orange – both the same size. They don’t fit my ear canals (medium-large-ish) or the ears of my girlfriend (small). The only silicon tips that give me a proper fit are the white double-flanged ones (which by the way are the exact same tips that come with the Head-Direct RE0). I can’t speak for other people’s needs, but I would suggest MP4Nation/Brainwavz to rethink their strategy concerning the included tips, giving a better variety of the standard tried-and-proven rounded tips in various sizes, and ditching those conical things. This being said, the double-flanged tips fit my ears fine, they give me a sufficient seal. Most important of all, I find the Beta Brainwavz to be comfortable.
Once you (hopefully) find tips that fit your ears you’ll notice that the isolation of the Betas is about average. The silicon tips give you a bit of isolation, making the phones acceptable to use on public transport, on the street, and so on. The included pair of foam tips is too small for my ears, so I can’t judge its isolation capabilities. In general foam of course isolates better than silicon, but gets really dirty really fast. Soaking the tips for an hour in 3% hydrogen peroxide solution usually cleans them pretty well.
The Beta’s cable is the standard rubbery affair with dual cabling, separate ground line for both channels. It’s very “microphonic”, transmitting a lot of noise to the ear buds – just as most other IEMs in that price range. As with every other phone, this can be remedied by simply using the cable up around your ears instead of letting it hang down. The included shirt clip might help as well. The strain relief on the plug is fake, it’s just slipped over the cable but not molded/welded to it.
Let’s move on to the 3.5mm plug… I really don’t understand this silly fad that’s currently rampant among cheaper IEM models: the 45° angled plug design. It’s not a straight plug and it’s not a 90° angled plug – so what is it? A 45° angle appears to be a bad compromise in every case, whereas a straight plug or a 90° angled are more practical in most aspects and instances, even if it might not be perfect either. I rather have any of those than a 45° compromise that tries to get it right for everyone but fails every time, since it still sticks out too far or gets caught in your clothes. Please, Brainwavz/MP4Nation, get rid of this 45° plug – there is a reason we’ve only had straight 0° or angled 90° plugs, in all of the 100 years of headphone history. I don’t care which one you choose, anything is better than 45°.
Enough of the outer appearances, let’s take a look at the technical specs. The frequency response claim is – of course – a joke. No human ear can hear an 8 Hertz wave (humans can only feel it), and no headphone can reproduce one. Same goes for the 28 Kilohertz upper threshold – even if you’re a baby, you might hear up to about 22 kHz or so. As an adult you’d be lucky to hear up to 17 or 18 kHz. Of course, on paper Brainwavz’ claim could be right – but they forgot to include the all-important +/- dB margin that must go with such frequency response data to make any sense. So the whole claim is basically nonsense, but it doesn’t matter much since the Beta Brainwavz indeed do cover the whole audible frequency range more or less, just like most other IEMs out there, no matter what price range.
Impedance and sensitivity are ok on the Betas. They do hiss a tiny bit with most MP3 players and amps, but not annoyingly so. I’ve heard much worse. More importantly, they do go loud enough with any player and don’t need an amp. I also didn’t notice any huge sound improvements with any amp I tried them with – be it the cheap FiiO E5 or some more capable ones, like the Headsix, iBasso T4, or Minibox-E+.
I have to mention the Betas I got for this review are preproduction models. The final version that’s going on sale will come with a fishbone cable winder, a case, and possibly some other gizmos I’m not aware of. The phones will also have the Brainwavz logo printed on them.
Now let’s take a look/listen at the sound quality, the thing that – hopefully – matters the most with these (or any other) phones. The Betas might not sound their best right out of the box, they could need some time to “burn in”, so don’t judge their sound quality in the first few minutes. Give them a few hours to settle down.
Bass is very acceptable on the Beta Brainwavz. It’s not exaggerated by an
y means, but it’s not lacking either. It has enough punch without being bloated as to overpower the midrange too much. The bass does not extend as deep as with some other IEMs – just remember the nonsensical 8Hz frequency response claim I was riffing on above – but it is perfectly adequate even for sub-frequency-demanding electronic music like Drum’n’Bass or Dubstep… a little EQing of course always helps – at least in my opinion as a certified basshead.
The midrange… ah yes, that’s where most of the serious business takes place. Too bad it’s not really that great, but not overly bad either (considering the price of the phones). It’s slightly “hollow” or “nasal” sounding in the upper midrange, the 1 – 4 kHz range where vocals and most lead instruments are placed at. It lacks quite a bit of clarity there, appearing slightly muddy and veiled – but it makes up for that with a rather even frequency response. One thing where that lack of precision and detail might come in handy is with badly overcompressed music, as found in the record charts and on MTV. The Beta Brainwavz take the harshness out of those “hot mastered” tunes and make them more bearable. Most ultra-precise phones, like the Phonak Audéo or the q-Jays, make such music impossible to listen to. Just don’t expect the Betas to extract the finest details from classical symphonies, movie scores, or dense Death Metal riffs – but for Pop, Hip Hop, or maybe even Jazz trios they should work well.
The Beta’s treble is a bit recessed compared to their midrange and bass, but it’s not rolled off. It’s a bit like the Future Sonics Atrio or the Shure SE530 in that aspect – but of course not on the same level of quality. Personally I do think the quantity and quality of treble reproduction is quite ok on the Betas. I’ve heard some phones in that price range that can get harsh, grainy, or shrill, like the Sennheiser CX300 or Sony EX51 – the Betas however are always well behaved and never sibilant. Of course this also plays together with the lack of clarity I mentioned above in the midrange paragraph. In that price range you apparently always have to make compromises. Anyway, I personally appreciate this more “laid back” treble representation than an overly forward one that makes my ears ring in the long run. Furthermore, same as the bass, you can always tune your sound settings according to your taste – the Betas respond rather well to a little EQing.
What else is there to say about their sonic abilities? They do have a rather decent perceived soundstage, as is the case with most other dynamic driver IEMs as well – something many armature based IEMs struggle with. It’s of course still a linear affair between your ears, but the Betas do have a somewhat wider than average extension to the left and right.
So… are the Beta Brainwavz IEMs “giant killers”? No, of course they aren’t. But they deliver a somewhat better sound quality than the old “you get what you pay for” proverb would suggest. In general, they are a bit below the sound quality of phones like the Sennheiser CX300, V-Moda Vibes or the MylarOne X3/XB – but of course the Betas also cost less than most of those. They are however better sounding than the Jays s-Jays. For $30 they are decent phones, no doubt. Not sure I would pay more for them, though.
Don’t get me wrong – they are among the better, more natural sounding $30 IEMs I’ve heard so far. There’s not a lot wrong with them, and they perform admirably well for the price, despite their lack of clarity and precision. I’m just trying not to fall for some hype that might blow their performance out of proportion – something we’ve seen with phones like the JVC Marshmallow or similar products. Too much hype might just backfire; I’m just trying to be realistic here. Personally, I do know what the UE11, SE530, Phonak PFE, and others sound like – and the Betas are certainly nowhere near that league. This is by no means meant as bragging or arrogance. I just want to have a clear point of reference – sort of a reality check, so to speak.
Enough of the disclaimer… If you’re in the market for a low priced, rather realistic sounding in-ear phone and you can live with a little veil, lack of clarity, and somewhat rolled off treble, those are your phones. These flaws could also mean that the betas are not fatiguing to listen to and that they can be enjoyed even with less than optimally mastered audio material. The Beta Brainwavz sure can be recommended for the audio aficionado on a budget.
- Nice, rather realistic sound reproduction for the price range
- Decent soundstage
- Acceptable construction for a Chinese designed IEM (so far)
- Somewhat veiled/nasal/hollow sounding midrange, a bit recessed treble (but hey, it’s a $30 IEM we’re talking about, and it still sounds fine for the price)
- Awkward, useless 45° angled plug
- Less than optimal selection of silicon tips (redundant conical tips, not enough different sizes)
The Beta Brainwavz can be purchased from MP4Nation, either alone or bundled with a FiiO E5 amp, and some lower introductory price for the time being.