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2013.05.24
 

Final Audio Design Heaven V Impressions by Romy W. aka MuppetFace

 

HEAVEN V -AGING

There’s something about Final Audio Design (or ‘FAD’ for short) that speaks to certain people. Perhaps it’s the exotic materials and finishes that adorn their products; perhaps it’s the esoteric and downright mysterious nature of the company itself. In any case, what fans of the company will likely tell you is that there’s a strong emotional response at work, and that’s something that extends to the sound of these earphones as well. This isn’t just soulless audio jewelry for those who are largely disinterested in music. It’s creators have paid just as much attention to how these reproduce music as to how they look, and the end result is a complete expression on the part of its creators as to what an earphone can be. At the risk of sounding even more pretentious: this is art made for experiencing art.

 

The underlying philosophy at work here is holistic, and it eschews separating music from that which reproduces it. Just as the instrument is an extension of the musician, recorded audio and audio equipment are in a sense inseparable. In FAD’s world listening is never without a surrounding context. Listening is an activity that is complementary to the performance of music itself; just as an instrument is a tool that becomes an extension of the musician, the earphone is a tool that becomes an extension of what the listener is hearing. This is not an approach that holds the device should “get out of the way,” but rather one that holds its task is to assist in replicating a specific character, ambience, and mood. It’s a bold approach that bets everything on FAD’s unique vision of how thingsshould be heard. Put another way, FAD has a list of priorities—aspects they feel are most important to the reproduction of “music” rather than simply sound—and by focusing most on these specific qualities, it seems they feel they can more authentically recreate the musical experience.

 

Take, for example, the Piano Forte series of dynamic earphones. When some folks hear these uniquely shaped earphones for the first time, they are immediately surprised by how different they sound: extremely mid-centric, rolled off in the bass and treble, thick and euphonious. It would be a mistake however to think that FAD messed up and produced something unintentionally off-kilter. On the contrary, they’ve invested quite a bit of energy in tuning them this way on purpose. Their specific goal for these dynamic drivers is to recreate the experience of listening to vintage horn speakers in a large open space. If you’re familiar with Japanese culture, you may be aware of clubs that do something similar: they replicate a vintage atmosphere from the interior decor to the dress of the employees, right down to the sound systems which use vintage equipment. It’s all about theexperience. It’s also more than just a novelty for some: it’s a presentation that carries with it a certain something, an almost indefinable spark that makes for a more authentic listening experience. It’s not for everyone, though.

 

Which brings us to FAD’s other product line, the balanced armature based Heaven series. This may be presumptuous on my part, but I suspect these earphones carry with them the potential for a broader, more generalized appeal. Certainly it’s a less specialized objective: the descriptors on FAD’s website indicate these have been tasked primarily with conjuring up the energy of live performances. The lineup itself consists of several different models, the older of which are designated alphabetically; you can still find the Heaven C and Heaven S on sale,  though they’ve since been updated with newer more sleek counterparts that get Roman numerals to differentiate them. Most recently FAD has introduced the Heaven V into the lineup between the previously released Heaven IV and Heaven VI, and with its siblings it shares the same basic design elements of a cylindrical housing, a ribbon style cable, and a single balanced armature driver. This latter detail is especially intriguing. At a time when manufacturers are competing to see who can cram the most drivers into just about any given tight space, the designers of the Heaven series opt for the approach of “less is more.” Really, I think this speaks to the resourceful of FAD’s engineers and their understanding of the subtle nuances that go into tweaking and tuning singular drivers to creature such an array of different models.

 

Without venturing too far into the realm of pseudo-science, FAD seems to feel certain materials are better suited than others for replicating the subtle qualities of music. I’m not intimately familiar with the actual principles behind this, but at first blush it seems similar to the “tonewoods” that luthiers select for crafting instruments. The idea is that the different materials—in this case select metals—impart a certain character to the sound, though unlike wood whose vibrations are well-suited for creating music, metals seem a better choice for this application due to their being less resonant. Either way it’s the housings of the Heaven series that differentiate the models primarily, and they range from stainless steel at the entry level to chrome copper at the top; the Heaven V’s enclosure on the other hand is made from brass. Beyond this, FAD offers two different finishes on the exterior. More on those later.

 

The Heaven V fits nicely in the middle of FAD’s new lineup of balanced armatures. As its numerical designation would imply it’s situated squarely between the less expensive Heaven IV and the more expensive Heaven VI, and having spent a fair amount of time with both of those models, I think this is a fairly apt descriptor for where it falls in terms of sound as well. The sonics of the new Heaven lineup in general can be described as clear and energetic, though they also feature a certain organic quality with just a subtle hint of the warmth that FAD is known for. Overall I’d say they lean more toward being euphonic than detached and analytical, but they never become mushy or wooly by any means thankfully. Personally I find their general signature quite musically satisfying and fun while at the same time saturated with a fairly impressive level of detail and layering. All this from a single balanced armature no less. Speaking of which, those who find balanced armatures rather underwhelming in the lower region may be surprised to hear just how robust the Heavens can sound; this is largely accomplished through FAD’s Balanced Air Movement technology, a proprietary feature found on many of their different models that lives up to its name in its ability to push air.

 

As the middle child of the family, the Heaven V is split rather evenly between its siblings; on the one hand it’s not quite as even-keeled as the Heaven IV, while on the other hand its coloration is not quite as overt as the Heaven VI. To help put this into context, the Heaven IV sounds relatively linear by FAD’s standards and, like their other stainless steel earphones (even the Piano Forte IX in a relative sense), a bit thinner than its brethren. “Purity” is the operative word here. In comparison the use of chrome copper on earphones such as the Heaven VI seems to result in a somewhat thicker, more lush and “romantic” sound. Which brings us back around to the Heaven V and its shaved brass housing. There’s a certain energetic quality present among the brass units, a liveliness that is captured here and makes itself known above and beyond the more sedate Heaven IV. Vocals pop. Highs shimmer. Yet compared to the previous brass model, the Heaven S, the current iteration is more restrained; in particular the highs lack the tizzy quality found on those of the Heaven S, and as a result the top end is slightly less hot. I do find the Heaven V’s highs have some occasional glare, but they aren’t sibilant or harsh to my ears, and overall they have a bright but non-fatiguing quality in my opinion.

 

In terms of bass response, I don’t hear the Heaven V as particularly heavy or elevated. It’s about on par with the Heaven IV in terms of quantity but somewhat punchier in execution; tight and well-controlled if a bit modest. The Heaven Vi in comparison hits harder and has a touch more low end presence. As previously mentioned the Heaven VI has a slightly thicker sound, though details are not smeared as a result. Really the entire Heaven line excels at detail retrieval, and it does so without sounding artificially analytical and shoving detail down your throat. The Heaven V is no different. In fact, I’d say both it and the Heaven VI come fairly close to the significantly more expensive FI-BA-SS—FAD’s flagship balanced armature earphones—in this regard. The same holds true with regard to imaging: simply put, the Heaven V and Heaven VI are imaging champs. Instruments are clearly defined in space around the listener, convincingly solid entities with extension and heft. Positioning is still better defined and textures more lifelike on the FI-BA-SS, but considering the price gap it’s awfully close.

This is perhaps the biggest reason I would choose the Heaven V over the Heaven IV. The field of sound on the latter is less three-dimensional and more flat, more compressed; the Heaven V by comparison does a better job making one feel as if he or she were “there.” On their website FAD mentions that the Heaven V was tuned with live music in mind, and it would seem they’ve succeeded in their objective, as the earphones do a particularly admirable job with live material. The rendered stage isn’t overly expansive but rather more moderate. Within that space however the presentation is very holographic, and while I wouldn’t characterize the sound of the Heaven series in general as particularly airy, on the Heaven V instruments have a satisfying sense of air between them in my opinion. The sound is immediate without being claustrophobic, open but not cavernous.

 

So what’s up with the Heaven V Aging? Often times, FAD will make different variations of a particular model as far as the exterior finish goes. In my experience these different variations are purely cosmetic; for instance the Heaven VI comes in both polished copper or gold plated versions, both of which differ in appearance but sound the same. There was some speculation as to whether this is the case with the Aging version of the Heaven V, as FAD has given it an additional title. Are we dealing with a totally different earphone here? Having listened to both the regular and the Aging versions side-by-side, I can say that—to my ears at least—there are no major sonic differences between the two. The Aging concept goes beyond an additional choice in exterior finish however. As mentioned above, FAD deals in artistic expression and offers its customers a multi-sensory experience. The Aging designation seems to be based around the concept of patina: as certain objects age, they gradually change in appearance and develop a character over time. Observing the earphones now, they look somewhat rustic with a deeply grained metallic finish. Almost frosted. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say, and to my eyes these earphones as they appear now are some of the most attractive among FAD’s plethora of creations, though I’m mot sure exactly how they’re supposed to change over time. Also unique to this particular earphone is the carry case. Instead of the svelte metal cigarette case that typically houses the Heaven series now, one gets a round swatch of leather and some cord; there are instructions for threading the cord through the leather to produce what is essentially a mini rucksack of sorts. It’s a fun and bizarre if somewhat useless accessory.

 

As for the Heaven V, it too is quite lovely with its black chrome finish. This finish is a first for FAD I believe. Both earphones utilize ribbon-style cables that are more flat above the Y-split and somewhat more ovoid below; the result is a cable that is attractive but [mercifully] doesn’t coil as severely as the one found on its predecessor, the Heaven S. The flatter cabling above the Y-split feels a bit too flimsy for my liking however. Overall though these earphones seem robust and solid, and the materials used in their construction are top notch at this price point. Comfort wise the earphones don’t feel too big in the ears, though the vacuum effect upon insertion—something common among earphones like this in my experience—takes some getting used to. It’s also a bit odd that FAD insists on angling the strain relief outward rather than inward (like the Ortofon Q7) or even downward. This makes it a bit awkward if you want to wear them upside down and tuck the cable behind your ears. Overall I’d rate the ergonomics as decent, Personally I prefer this newer form factor to that of yesteryear’s Heaven models, but I can see others feeling the reverse to be true. On the other hand I think most will agree the packaging of the Heaven line has improved considerably over the span of its various iterations.

 

I think the newer Heaven lineup represents an intersection of two approaches for FAD. In many ways, they’re the most readily accessible and have the broadest potential appeal of their earphones. As a result some might feel this goes against the notion of what FAD is all about, a compromise of their unique and often polarizing vision. Personally I don’t find this to be the case. If the unwavering attention to detail and the novel approach of the Aging concept are any indication, these earphones are most definitely a product of FAD’s artistry. Sonically they’ve created some of their most nuanced entries yet, combining their well-established flare for the dramatic with a newfound level of polish and refinement. The Heaven V in particular sits right at the heart of the new lineup; it represents a nice middle ground approach, and I personally feel it would make a fantastic introduction to the world of FAD for newcomers as well as a nice addition to the collections of FAD-o-philes alike.