This review has been translated and adapted from a review by Bai He (白河). Mr. Bai He is an industrial designer, a founder of Zinc Audio in Hangzhou, as well as a key opinion leader in the Chinese market.
A small disclaimer, while we have omitted some of the infographics used in he original Chinese review, the original version can be found here for your perusal
Translated by Asher Yeo
The 1985 Winner of the Oscar’s Best film award, ‘Amadeus’, had a segment in which King of Austria, Leopold II introduces Mozart to the court Musician and director to the Italian opera, Antonio Salieri. Here's what he says:
“Here is our illustrious court Composers Maestrol Salieri"
“Maestro” is an Italian word that serves as the root of the English word “Master”. It represents the highest level of mastery and is widely used in artistic circles, especially within the realm of classical music.
As classical music aficionados will know, musicians in history that have been bestowed the title of ‘Maestro’ by time have been far and few between. A Maestro is not only good at his craft, he is influential and knowledgeable.
Even though Salieri is nowhere as popular as Mozart is in the modern world, but he was one of Mozart's most outstanding contemporaries, living up to his title of 'Maestro'.
Aside from traditional masters of classical music the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, among the ranks of Maestro, we can also find interpreters of music: Conductors and Composers like Celibidache, Karajan, Gould and Milstein. Only the most refined are suitable for the title "Maestro".
For the longest time, I have been searching for a pair of earphones with the same interpretive abilities as the maestros of yore. My search ended at the Shanghai International Audio Visual Show this April where I told final Audio's Kudo San "This is it! This is the sound I've been searching for!“.
The pair of earphones I am speaking of is final Audio's new flagship: B1 of final's new B Series.
My friends know my habits when it comes to testing gear. "If it's not good with classical music, it doesn't make the cut." is the oft-repeated mantra the people around me are familiar with,
If musical gear cannot achieve the precision, realism and natural presentation a live classical performance can achieve, it's probably still going to sound manufactured and unnatural (by my own standards) in other genres.
When I first heard the B1 at SIAV, I sat down at final Audio's booth and plugged the earphones into my WM1Z.
Being a creature of habit, I put on the EMI recording of Tchaikovsky 5 played by the Munich philharmonic and conducted by Celibidache. Despite how noisy the exhibition grounds were and despite me later knowing that the unit hadn't been burned in properly, I still heard elements in the music that blew me away. I followed up with Bruckner's Symphony No.8, Brahms, Wagner.
Piece after piece, section after section, the next I knew, I had been seated at the booth for a good half hour, I stood up and told final Audio's Gaku Kudo what I wrote above. "This is it! This is the sound I've been searching for!“.
Then I excitedly posted "BEST of SIAV DAY 1" on my Wechat timeline.
After a bit, I came to realise that B1' s reception among the enthusiast community was miles away from what I had envisioned.
"Average resolution", "Okay soundstage", "recessed bass" were some terms I heard being bandied about. That was when I realised that, during my 30-minute long listening session, I completely neglected to listen for these oft-mentioned rubrics. I was fixated on the music, and what came through the earphones was the music I wanted to hear.
I have only just received the final tuning of the B1, B2 and B3 in the past months. And I have gotten the opportunity to savour them properly (especially B1). When finally I put on my reviewer's hat, diving into B1's sound, I realised that these earphones truly had a maestro-like ability to interpret music. I found this to be a frightening realisation.
Geared for Classical Playback Across All Frequencies
Classical music is quite the tough mistress: Earphones that subscribe to modern tuning conventions will find it difficult to satisfy her demands.
High frequencies are the first benchmark in classical music playback. Friends know that I am in the habit of modifying the gear I love, adjusting the EQ so that the resulting sound isignature s better aligned to my preferences: These modifications are almost 100% centered on tweaking a earphone's highs.
The mainstream perception of high frequencies has shifted slightly, no thanks to the proliferation of mainstream music. 80% of earphones possess high frequencies that are a little too bright for classical music playback. While string instruments tend to sound lively and beautiful under these tuning circumstances, giving the listener a breathtaking listening experience, brass instruments can sound harsh and grating.
That certainly doesn't mean that a "dark or overly warm sound" is the sound that's more ideal for classical music. As much as darker treble can contribute to a more comfortable listening experience, it also causes the instruments to lose much of their texture and vibrance. When it comes to the playback of classical music, the main challenge is presenting the treble in a measured manner without subscribing to use an overly dark sound, or defaulting to an overly bright sound. B1's Treble is exceedingly appropriate in this sense.
The B1 also has an outstanding sense of space and harmonics, so much that it might just be the spiritual successor to the nuanced way the FITEAR ToGo 334 and UM Mason V2 handles their highs.
In classical music playback, the mids play as big of a part as the highs. After all, our ears have been primed to pick up mids.
Classical mids need to be full and rich in order to fulfill the requirements in the playback of most instruments. The B1's mids have that fullness, but without the necessary power to drive these monitors, the fullness originally apparent in the B1 can take quite a hit. When driven with the appropriate device, the B1 can present classical mids in the most amazing manner. (The cello and piano sound particularly good.
A lot of listeners feel like the B1's lows are it's biggest weakness, the general consensus is that a lot of bass is lost in the mix of the B1's other sounds.
The ideal presentation of bass frequencies in classical music is a little more nuanced.
For one the way the listener experiences bass in the concert hall goes beyond sound itself.
Readers who listen to classical music played live will know that during particularly dramatic, bassy segments, you can actually feel your body responding physiologically to the music, the same goes for high-end hi fi systems. (You almost feel like you're experiencing heart palpitations).
However, the playback of classical music demands that bass be presented in a way that acknowledges the spatial magic that happens in a concert hall while remaining relaxed and clean enough to manage the big, dramatic rises and falls of the sound in brass-focused moments.
These are the requirements classical music has towards the playback of low frequencies and these types of lows are extremely rare in the sound signatures of earphones.
The UM Mason V2 is one that gets close to this: Its bass is full but relaxed, but what’s sacrificed is that the lows become less atmospheric.
The B1’s lows are refined and actually manage to be more relaxed the lows found in the Mason V2, the lows extend nicely and are less artificial than the contrived bass found in traditional hi-fidelity earphones. There is a natural harmony to the bass, making these lows perfect for classical music, it’s not contrived or artificial. While there’s definitely room for improvement, it’s already great.
Perhaps you’d feel like the B1’s high aren’t as extravagant as you like, or that its mids aren’t smooth or rich enough or that the bass lacks punch. But all bands of the B1’s frequencies seem to be tailored specifically for classical playback.
Grounded but Spectacular
When we talk about classical playback, people tend to think of a wide soundstage and stunning, sweeping highs and lows, rich details, ecetera. But all these labels really don’t apply to the grounded nature of the B1.
That’s because, if you’re a classical enthusiast that’s often exposed to live classical music, all these labels with diminish in importance the moment you hear the final B1. That’s because, over the traditional review rubric, classical music playback tests the overall interpretative ability of the earphone. In a market saturated with high end earphones, there’s a glut of earphones that are competent at almost everything. That makes tuning a major differentiator, as manufacturers tweak and adjust aspects of the sound as a whole.
Almost every one of the ridiculously priced earphone offerings in the market can manage all frequency band well, have a great soundstages and dynamism. however, these earphones miss the mark on factors as basic as being natural. It’s like a person whose facial features are stunning individually, but these same features can look atrocious when combined, no matter how you throw them together.
Friends have recommended me 64 Audio’s U18T and the VE13 for listening to symphonies. But when you compare the playback on these earphones to live classical music, you realise that these expensive monitors don’t cut it for classical music playback. This is the reason why I rarely write earphone reviews: it’s exceedingly rare for the classical playback on a pair of earphones to appeal to me. The last one that did is the UM Mason v2 (not the v3), which is now officially out of production.
The B1’s soundstage isn’t top-tier, it’s also not small by any sense of the word, but it’s certainly stripped down compared to the Z1R and FW10000. But classical music isn’t a genre that tests an earphone’s soundstage in terms of width, but it’s coherence and dimensionality. The UTOPIA’s soundstage width may be panned by almost everyone, but is still loved by listeners of classical music, this is because the UTOPIA’s soundstage possesses a sort of dimensionality. The B1 handles its soundstage well, it’s natural and dimensional. The “live experience” is at the core of B1’s tuning, and what’s contributing to this effect isn’t only the B1’s soundstage, it’s also the way the B1 handles resolution. The B1’s soundstage and imaging is quite similar to FOCAL’s earphones, it’s a bit forward, allowing the listener to get a “live-experience”.
Sophie-Mutter’s “The Wanderers Song” is a Deutsche Grammophon 4D recording that’s a staple in the music libraries of classical music fans. I don’t listen to this recording much, because I don’t quite like the way Mutter interprets the music. The reason why this disc is so widely collected is because it was recorded in 1993, just when DG-Records overhauled their recording technology, making Mutter one of the first musicians to be recorded in 4D. Because of the stellar quality of the recording itself, it was the perfect recording on which to test and boast about the technical merits of a rig, making it a sought after recording by enthusiasts.
In my playback of this recording, on the last crescendo, the B1 displayed stunning resolution. In comparison with 2 other monitors that handle classical music beautifully, the Z1R and the Mason v2, the B1 is meticulous in its presentation of the violin, layered and detailed. The Z1R, at double the price of the B1, beats out the B1 in terms of soundstage and power, but loses to the B1 in terms of its presentation of layers and details. The Z1R’s resolution is comparatively fuzzier and more backwards sitting. (Please note that this is a Z1R I’ve tuned for a long time… adding damping and cable rolling TT)
Speaking of detail, the way the B1 presents detail is reminiscent of the D8000, it doesn’t overemphasize explosive details or the amount of data it presents at a time. If you’re not listening to a widely lauded classical track or a “publicly-lauded reference track” you might feel as if the details were slightly fuzzy. I once described the D8000 as high-end fuzz-fi. It’s a comfortable, fluid way a earphone presents its details.
The B1 is more or less similar. The B1’s sound isn’t as full as the D8000’s, it’s a little bit more direct in the delivery of its details as compared to the D8000, but it’s still layered. No matter how big the orchestral piece, the B1 delivers the detail in clear manner, it might to be superb in the sheer amount of detail, but you’re unlikely to feel cheated out of detail.
In fact, the details are all present, but they’re natural, not overly extravagant or messy. It’s almost perfect in it’s playback of most classical recording mainstays. The reason why it’s perfect is similar to how the D8000’s detail presentation was perfect: It’s not about the detail, or the explosiveness, but about the way these details are presented.
The B1’s speed and dynamism loses a little to the Z1R in terms of excitement, but this doesn’t come through when playing recordings of symphonies that are already grand and dynamic in and of themselves. If you’re extremely used to live and home hi-fi playback, though you’d certainly feel like the B1 is lacking. When playing speedy tracks like Paganini’s concertos, the B1 is competent in its speed, it’s fast without being jittery, it retains a great fluidity.
Transparency is also important in terms of classical playback. A properly transparent pair of earphones can bring out the layers in a classical piece. The B1 is really one of the best in terms of transparency, perhaps even leagues above its price. When listening to the Beethoven’s 7th, 2nd Movement,the B1 seems to bring to life details that went unnoticed in previous plays.
When driven properly, the B1 can indeed sound clean and rich.
B1 is as impressive in its standard as the rest of final Audio’s high-end products. Upon first listening, the B1 seems to be a little far from top tier, but upon further listening, you’d realise that it adheres to final’s previous standards, except that the B1 now sounds a lot more natural.
A Sonic Experience at the Peak of Classical Music
If you’re a hardcore audiophile, then you’d probably feel as if the B1 isn’t hi fi enough. However, I personally feel as if the meaning of Hi-Fi has been moving away from High Fidelity, “Hi-Fi” these days seem to mean the sensory excitement a listener derives from his gear and not the faithful replication of sound. I often tell audiophiles “If you listened to the sound of a cup shattering on a STAX SR-009, it’s going to be a great deal more exciting than listening to a cup shattering in real life.” Granted, that’s a semi satirical statement. But it’s reflective of the way Hi Fi has been defined in recent years. Listeners chase after sonic excitement more than reality. This is true even for modern listeners of classical music. People often use the word “grand” to describe a symphony, it’s widely agreed that how grand a piece sound depends largely on big bass fluctuations and the dynamism of a pair of earphones. However, after years and years of listening to classical music live, I’ve yet to have a run in with a piece of live classical music that’s “grand” in the way that’s described above.
In my consciousness, there’s something oppressive about this sense of manufactured grandeur. For instance, if your troops were grand, you could potentially crush the enemy with this sense of grandeur. Enemy troops would feel crushed by your troops grandeur, while your troops would celebrate this sense of grandeur.
Grandeur, when interpreted on my personal terms, will have nothing to do with big, sweeping changes in mood, punchy lows or explosiveness. What I look for in grandeur is the a sense of the sound remaining stable and pliant even with the huge ups and downs in classical music. This sort of grandeur is the sort of grandeur we can celebrate.
This is the sort of presentation one might expect from a competent pair of IEMs. Why are the recording levels for classical music so low? It’s to showcase the fluctuations in mood in a classical piece. In large symphonic pieces like those from Mahler and Bruckner, playback gear needs to flexible enough to flow with the fluctuations in a piece and not solely geared towards the grandiosity of the symphony, earphones that can achieve this effect are few and far between, and B1 han dles this aspect the best. The larger the symphony, the more the B1’s merits shine through.
The basic requirements of classical playback is that it’s relaxed, full and lively. The B1 is beyond reproach in all 3 of these aspects. On a friend’s recording of Kleiber’s Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement, you can truly feel how relaxed and charismatic the B1 sounds. Even when the B1 isn’t properly driven, it doesn’t take to sounding too peaky or sibilant.
mastery of the ultra-soft segments in each piece came through perfectly, rich and stable. The touchstone of classical playback is the clarinet, not the piano. It’s a breathy instrument with high expectations for both richness and fullness, the sound of the metal keys and breathing also puts the detail-playback for the B1 to the test. I’m personally also particularly sensitive to the Clarinet, particularly since I’ve played it since grade 4 and occasionally play it since.
In my experience, as long as the clarinet sounds good, other instruments won’t have too big of a problem as well. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 sounds realistic, natural and smooth with the B1. Listening to Brendel’s piano after allows it’s realism, detail and vibrance to shine through. Although I feel like the 334 still beats out the B1 in it’s piano playback (yes, you haven’t heard wrong, I think the 334 is great for instrumentals). B1 is outstanding in how meticulous it is less contoured, fans of strings might feel like the B1’s playback goes a little too soft on them and get disappointed. The lack of contours might be an attempt to make the B1 sound sweeter. It really isn’t a problem, though. I’ve once described good sound as being like water, flowing, flexible and natural. This is why like the sound of EAR Yoshino and Jadis. A lot of people aren’t quite sure why the HP4 commands the prices it does, but I personally feel like it’s expensive because of its smoothness.
Perhaps after reading all this you’d start to think that the B1 was bulletproof. It really isn’t. It’s indeed bulletproof, if we’re talking about the realm of classical music, but it may very well sound lacklustre when handling other genres. If you’re looking at pop music, I don’t recommend using the B1, the B1 lacks the ability to express the texture of pop music, possibly expressing it in a way that can seem grating. Also, due to it’s propensity to focus on the instrumentals within a track, the B1 can make vocals seem separated from its background. That really doesn’t mean that the B1 isn’t good at handling vocals: In Acappella tracks for instance, the B1 holds its own by recreating a live environment. In short, the B1 is better for natural sounds, not so much for sounds produced by digital mixing.
The B1 is frightening for one other reason, and that is its impedance. A sensitivity of 94dB makes these earphones hard to place. The B1 relies on a large amount of power to be driven well. In the DAPs I’ve used for testing, only the Cayin N8’s Vacuum Tube Mode can drive the B1 to a satisfactory level. The Lotoo Paw Gold Touch does well in driving the B1, but it’s reference tuning can often be at odds with the flow of the B1. With any other DAP, the B1 reveals a fraction of its true potential. But even without the necessary power needed to drive the B1, it remains one of the stunners in it’s mastery of classical music. (My experience with the B1 driven by the WM1Z at the SIAV was already verging on spiritual)
Unravelling just a bit of the B1’s true capability is enough to stun. I plugged the B1 into the Low Impedance jack of the EAR Yoshino’s HP4 and pitted it against the way it sounded paired with the full-blooded Ether 2 from MrSpeakers. The B1 still sounds great when paired with these unique amps, so much that it surprised everyone in the Zinc Audio studio. Until today, the B1 still delivers plenty of surprises, I’m still not quite sure of its full potential, just as well, really, a maestro should have unlimited, untapped potential.
The B1 is underrated, made by what some netizens might see as an unnecessarily luxe brand, using a 1 DD, 1 BA combination that’s eschewed by most enthusiasts and it retails at somewhere in the ballpark of 1000USD, you’d probably think I was mad for lauding it as much as I’m doing.
But what’s undeniable is that, final has always made use of a scientific process when designing its products. From the D8000 to the E5000, final Audio has delighted me with the amount of easter eggs and surprises in the sound of their products. Through B1, I’ve seen the care final Audio puts in the tuning of its products (unlike Takai San, Hosoo san is a perfectionist and a lover of classical music, which explains final’s new tuning). You could probably interpret final’s previous incarnation as “overly esoteric” and “borderline neurotic”, but final’s new sound is slowly taking a more musical, human touch.
*FINAL B1，A TRUE MAESTRO！
The BEST classical IEM available on the market?
Not you’ve read what I think perhaps, you’re thinking that I’m overexaggerating the B1’s strengths, I feel like I’ve already exercised a healthy amount of restraint. That being said, here’s a disclaimer, the Zinc Audio isn’t commercialised, and will never be. There’s never any exchange of interests between us and the manufacturers we review and most manufacturers don’t want us to talk about them anyway. We’re only keen to talk about the products we love .
Reading 1000 reviews isn’t as good as listening to the real thing just once. It’s easy to listen and enjoy, but it’s a little harder to listen to pair of monitors from the point of view of a reviewer. Everyone has their own pet subjects and pet peeves, myself included. A lot of earphones I’ve found mediocre have earned the love of a lot of audiophiles, and that’s okay. But our stand has always been that the gear serves the music, and our reviews aim to tell you how well it does that.
If you happen to be in Hangzhou, you’re more than welcome to pay a visit to Zinc Audio to give the B1 a spin.
Bonus: What about the B2 and B3?
I’m very very much into the B1, so I’ve talked about the B1 this whole time. So I’ll talk a bit about the B2 and B3 for the bonus section. The numbering is a little weird, with B3 being 2BA the sub-flagship and the B2 being the IBA entry level model. Is B2 and B3 as outstanding as the B1?
Final isn’t known for being particularly orthodox, but they’ve been slowly been compromising a little more to fit in better with the market. So having a series of earphones that are unorthodox in chasing the live experience does seem more in line with final’s typical modus operandi.
B3 is the sub-flagship of the B Series, it’s compatible with a wide array of genres and takes to both instrumentals or vocals beautifully. The B3 bass is a fair bit faster than the B1’s, its vocals are a great deal more detailed than the B1’s, it’s almost meticulous in its vocal presentation: All these things made the B3 the real attention grabber during the SIAV. B3 is similar to the make 1 in pricing, save for the fact the B3 is missing a BA driver. The B3 has more subdued sound than the make 1, so fans of anisong might feel like the make 1 is better. I have a great overall opinion about the B3 as well. I feel like the B3 sounds refined, gentle and balanced, overall a very meticulous sort of presentation.
The B2 is nowhere near as full as the B1 or B3, it sounds lean, contoured and raw. The B2 focuses on bringing out a visceral sort of emotional nuance, the vocals are incredibly intimate and the lows are relaxed. Expect less detail but more speed.
Between the B2 and B3, I personally prefer the B3, it’s the most balanced member of the B series. But it’s nowhere near B1 in the way it handles extreme frequencies in classical music. For a person like me who listens to classical music 95% of the time. I stan the Maestro B1, no questions asked.