digitalDrummer continues its exploration of low-cost in-ear monitors
ONCE THE DOMAIN of big-name German or American manufacturers, in-ear monitors are coming out of China in larger quantities and with serious quality features for their budget prices.
digitalDrummer was among the first drumming magazines to review the KZ ZS10 Pro and, shortly afterwards, the CCA C12. Both multi-driver units delivered a lot of bang for buck; admittedly, with minimal frills.
The slightly more expensive FiiO FD1 ($80) takes a different approach – one we could describe as quality over quantity.
What’s in the box
Where the IEMs reviewed previously came in minimalist packaging with little or no documentation and no accessories, the FiiO FD1 comes close to the “name brand” offerings: there’s a substantial well-designed cardboard container in which you’ll find the IEMs carefully threaded through a foam housing.
The packing includes a decent quality clear plastic hard case and seven pairs of tips (three pairs of two different styles of silicone tips and one pair of memory foam tips). While not quite at the Shure level of tip diversity, it’s certainly a generous starter pack which should suit the majority of users.
The shells are plastic, fairly lightweight and decent-looking – maybe a tad less impressive than the metal-face design of the previous two review samples. They are smaller than the CCAs and the KZs – probably because they have less crammed into them seeing the design centres around a single driver in each. The result is an easier fit in the average ear which, when coupled with well-fitted tips, means decent isolation.
What was surprising was the quality monocrystalline copper cable supplied with the FD1. These are serious cables in a different league to the CCA and KZ leads which are often the first upgrade undertaken by owners. The leads terminate in right-angle 3.5 mm jacks. Another advantage over the cheaper models previously reviewed is the clear labelling of the left and right cable – both the KZ and CCA had me guessing, while the FiiO left no doubt about L and R. If there’s one criticism, it’s that the leads are a little short for comfortable e-drumming, especially if you have a large kit where the module is far away. The 1.2 m lead is just not long enough – but, FiiO is not alone in this shortcoming that also besets some of the prestige brands.
Where the cheapies seem to be going for maximum driver counts, the FD1 has one – a 10 mm beryllium-plated dynamic driver unit. I had been convinced that multiple drivers were needed to ensure clarity and separation and recently tested another single-driver in-ear which I found muddy and somewhat choked. However, it seems that more is not always better, and in the case of the FD1, the single driver does an excellent job – as we’ll explore below.
Where the rivals were significantly lacking in instructions, the FiiOs were accompanied by fairly detailed set-up guides – even though everything was already connected and ready to rock.
It’s really just a matter of checking the fit of the tips, switching them if necessary, removing the sleeve on the jack (nice touch!), plugging in and playing.
While there is a choice of tips, it is somewhat limited and there were none of the triple flange tips which I tend to choose. Luckily, the FD1 has the Chinese ‘standard’ 5 mm barrel fitting and there is an increasing range of tips designed for these in-ears.
Sounds like …
As usual, I tested the in-ears with a range of modules, focusing mostly on the kit sounds. I tend to run most in-ears at 12 o’clock but the 32 ohm FD1s had plenty of grunt, and I got an earful at 9 o’clock.
Overall, listening to the preset drum demo tracks, the sound was exceptionally clear and well-defined, full and well-balanced at ‘normal’ EQ settings. Each instrument was detailed and easy to pick out from the mix – from the thumping bass to the driving toms and tingly cymbals.
In A-B comparisons with both the KZ and the CCA, the FD1s really shone in midrange – with a warm, full sound. The other two sounded almost “empty” in the middle in comparison. The highs were about the same in all three – which was surprising given the lack of separate hi-frequency drivers.
At the low end, the FD1 didn’t have the raw thump of the CCA, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. I got accurate reproduction of even the lowest-tuned kick drum – not an in-your-face slap, but rather a solid “doof”, pretty much like you’d hear through a decent drum monitor.
When mixed with backing tracks, the drum parts were still detailed and easy to follow, with a wide, realistic soundstage.
What was most pleasing was the rich fullness of the sound – nothing jarred, but nothing was overlooked. It was all there – in great detail. And it was not at all fatiguing to listen to.
Isolation was on par with the other two samples, but that was more a reflection of the tips than the overall design. When I fitted my triple flange aftermarket tips, I got a much better seal – and significantly improved blockage of external sounds like stick noise and the acoustic thump of the kick beater.
Comparisons with the sub-$50 Chinese rivals is inevitable, and you’d expect more from an extra 30 bucks.
In the case of the FiiO FD1, you certainly get more in terms of packaging and inclusions. The packaging is on par with offerings costing twice as much and is far more reassuring than the no-frills presentation of the cheaper earphones.
But the packaging is not that important with in-ears – the build, fit and inclusions are what matters.
The FiiO comes with more (and arguably better) tips, and while you’ll probably only use one pair, the wider choice means a better chance of a decent fit.
The monocrystalline copper cable is a significant step up from the basic cable provided at entry-level and many KZ and CCA buyers soon update to better leads, often costing $30 or more.
There’s one aspect in which the FD1 is seemingly “inferior” to the rivals we tested previously – the number of drivers. On paper, the five or six drivers in the rivals should seriously outperform the single 10 mm dynamic driver, but this is a case of less is more. The FD1 drivers are not lacking in power or clarity. In fact, they deliver as much treble, almost as much bass and far more midrange than the rivals.
So, on balance, the FD1s are neat, compact, well balanced and sonically accurate in-ears that work exceptionally well with electronic drums and even with backing tracks which you might be playing through your module. They come very close to the performance of mainstream, big brand in-ears costing five or six times as much.
Of course, we’re yet to determine their robustness, but with no circuits or components exposed to outside contact and a solid and dependable cable attachment with a quality lead, it’s hard to imagine many failures – even though the warranty only covers you for a year.
For those keen to try the in-ear experience, the FD1s offer a reasonably economical entry point in a product range where you can’t really try before you buy, not matter how much you are prepared to spend. So, your potential loss is minimised – but you’re much more likely to enjoy them anyway.
Driver: 10 mm beryllium-plated dynamic driver unit
Impedance: 32 ohm
Sensitivity: 109 dB/mW
Frequency Range: 10 – 40,000 Hz
Cable/Connector: 0.78 mm 2-pin
Street price: $79