Brainwavz Alara – Planar Open Headphone Review

INTRODUCTION

Brainwavz seem to be on a roll just recently. Their last 3 releases (at least the ones I’ve known about) have been the B400 IEM, HM100 circumaural closed headphones, and now they have a first full sized planar headphone. The Alara is their latest release, and I have had a chance to take it for a test drive over the Xmas break.

So what is different about a planar headphone (from a traditional dynamic)? Instead of using a moving voice coil (to pull the diaphragm in and out from one ring within the driver), a planar uses an ultra thin diaphragm suspended between two plates of magnets. This typically results in very low distortion, and fast transient response. There often is a typical downside – planars tend to be heavier, and can sometimes suffer from perceived reduction in sound-stage.

Although I’ve heard a few planars (mainly Audeze LCD series or HifiMan) the only one I own is the Audeze Mobius. So for this review, I’ll be simply taking a look at how the Alara performs against my open dynamics, and also briefly comparing to their HM100.

ABOUT BRAINWAVZ

Brainwavz Audio was formed in 2008 as a subsidiary of GPGS Hong Kong. Their goal has always been to develop a full range of audio solutions (mostly earphones and headphones) that cater for a variety of different tastes, uses and price brackets. They originally started with predominantly OEM designs from other companies, and more recently have been working to develop their own stand-alone products.

In their own words:
At Brainwavz we have a simple mission, to produce innovative, high quality audio products with a dedicated focus on high-end sound. Our strength, success and product range is built on the unique relationship with our customers. A relationship that has produced a simple and obvious result, we give real users real sound quality.

DISCLAIMER

The Brainwavz Alara headphone that I’m reviewing today was provided to me freely as a review sample. Marlon has asked me to keep it for my personal use, or for follow up comparisons, and I thank him for this. The retail price at time of review is USD 499 – 550.

PREAMBLE

If you haven’t read any of my reviews, I suggest starting here, as it will give you an insight into my known preferences and bias.

For the purposes of this review – I’ve used the Alara from a variety of devices including (among others) my FiiO portables including X7ii, X5iii, M9, my iPhone and also the Luxury & Precision LP5 Gold. I also used my desktop set-up iFi stack (iUSD, iTube, iDSD), both with and without the VE Enterprise Tube amp. Finally I also tested them portable but amped (using the Q1ii, Q5, A5, XRK-NHB and IMS X1).

In the time I have spent with the Alara, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (break-in). This is a purely subjective review – my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt – especially if it does not match your own experience.

THE PACKAGE

The Alara comes in a large retail outer measuring 170 x 245 x 120mm. The box is predominantly white with some good photographs of the Alara and a list of specifications and accessories on the back.

Inside the box is a sturdy fabric/mesh covered carry case. This contains the Alara and accessories. The full accessory pack includes:

  • The Alara planar headphones (fitted with pleather + velour pads)
  • The carry case (with detachable strap)
  • 2.0m stereo cable to 3.5mm jack
  • Screw on 6.3mm adaptor
  • Spare pair of pleather + velour ear-pads
  • User guide including warranty card

THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

MEASUREMENTS

The graphs I use are generated using the Vibro Veritas coupler and ARTA software. In this particular case, I used no calibration apart from an adjustment to take the 4k Hz resonant peak of the measurement hardware out. I don’t have a headphone measurement rig, and have no ear simulator – so you can’t use the graph as a representation of how the Alara sounds. What I use is a head width simulator coupled with a latex soft face (or the headphones) with a hole so the veritas can sit flush.

My main aim is to take a reference headphone – my HD600 – and then compare the Alara on the same rig and under the same conditions, and show the differences. The graphs are provided merely as a point of discussion, and later in the review I’ve included measurements of different headphones using the same set-up.

BUILD

External

The Alara is a very nice looking headphone – simple yet stylish and reasonably low profile for a planar. They have typical planar heft – coming in at 484 grams (includes the 2.0m cable). But the weight distribution is pretty good overall.

The headband is nicely rounded with very soft foam padding encased in the black leatherette. When worn this sits nicely on my head with no obvious pressure spots. The top of the head-band has the Brainwavz name embossed. The two ends of the headband terminate in a pair of black plastic sockets which are screwed in place. It reminds me somewhat of a Beyer (DT880) type headphone assembly.

The headband sliders are steel with very short extension (just 25mm per side). The sliders are not marked, but have a smooth action with some obvious click for each extension. The sliders terminate in the black hard plastic yoke assembly. While the yokes appear nicely built, they are plastic so there may be some concerns around longevity (time will tell), The yokes swivel side-to-side in their assembly about 5-10 deg both ways which allows easy seating of the cups onto your head. One small note here and a comment where the design (for me) is a little ill though out. I have a large head (I’m 6 ft tall and reasonably solidly built). With no extension of the sliders at all the Alara fits comfortably on my head. If anything they might be sitting slightly low (so no adjustment possible). The headband is simply a little too long in its default position. For those with a smaller head, you might have issues.

The ear-cups are circumaural, and are very comfortable for me. Internal measurements on the pads are approximately 60mm x 50mm x 15mm – so just enough room for each ear. The outer pad measurement is approximately 100 x 85 x 45mm. The pads are attached to a removable studded plate (simple pull/push on or off) which makes pad changing very easy. The cups all black, all metal, and embossed with the Brainwavz name and logo. At the bottom of each ear-cup is a socket for the replaceable cable. The frame has L/R marking which is mirrored on the cable – but somewhat hard to see (black on grey would be easier than white on grey Brainwavz!). The sockets are 3.5mm stereo sockets (o pretty easy to convert to balanced).

Cable

Brainwavz supplies a 2m cable. The cable is OFC wiring with an outer sheath, and terminates with a 3.5mm straight gold-plated screw threaded jack. This allows the 6.3mm adaptor to be screwed in place for a very secure fit. The cable is encased in a cloth like fabric which is a little more difficult to manage, has slight microphonics (the cable material), but ultimately would be more likely to be used for a stationary listening position.

Pads

Brainwavz supplies two sets of the same pad. The pads are easy to swap out (gently lever/pull off, remove from headphone, change pads, push on after lining up the “studs”). The pads are soft pleather over memory foam, with the pleather perforated internally. The outer material against your ear is velour – and its very soft.

All in all, I would describe the build and design as pretty good – with my only real concerns being with the black plastic yoke (IMO light-weight metal would have been a better choice), and the length of the head-band.

COMFORT / ISOLATION

Isolation with the Alara is about average for an open headphone – i.e. it will leak sound out, and allow ambient noise in.

Comfort for me is personally is very good. The ear-pads fit completely around my ears, and the foam cushions provide softness without becoming irritable. The headband is nicely curved to minimise individual pressure points. I do find them a little on the heavy side, but to be fair I’ve had some several hour sessions with the Alara and not felt stiff or sore afterwards.

Clamp is moderate – enough to stay in place, but not enough to cause undue pressure. As a glasses wearer there is some slight pressure from the cups (pushing the glasses to the bridge of my nose), but nowhere near as bad as the HD600/650 from Senn or the HM5/HM100. I know that the clamp can be adjusted over time simply by carefully bending the steel extenders, or by simply stretching for a few days across some books.

SOUND QUALITY

My testing for this section was done with the FiiO X7ii (AM3A module), no Eq or Viper engaged, and paired with the FiiO A5 amplifier. I used the X7ii + A5 simply because it provides both a very transparent window to the music with low impedance, and also more than enough power. Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list https://www.head-fi.org/f/articles/brookos-test-tracks.17556/

Relativities

  • Sub-bass – very good extension, with practically no roll off into the sub-bass. The sub-bass rumble in Lorde’s “Royals” is audible and clearly defined, and I find it quite balanced with the rest of the signature. Definitely no bass bleed from the sub-bass. I would call it neutral sub-bass rather than overly enhanced.
  • Mid-bass – good impact, and very slightly elevated compared to the sub-bass (small mid-bass hump). There is good impact and it is both quick and clean.
  • Lower mid-range – essentially flat and perfectly balanced with the bass. Male vocals have good presence and richness in timbre and I’m not finding male vocalists thin or lacking.
  • Upper mid-range – slightly elevated compared to lower mid-range (mainly in the 3-5 kHz area, which helps add euphony in the presence area for female vocals. There is a dip from 1.5-2.5 kHz but it doesn’t appear to sound unnatural to me (perhaps the tiniest bit of stridency with a very few female artists). I think the dip is countered by ear geometry – so I suspect the Alara is in fact tuned very flat.
  • Lower treble – very good extension without dropping off, even after 10 kHz. Cymbals have good presence with good decay. This isn’t an accentuated treble – and one which I find perfectly balanced.
  • Upper treble – seems to be nicely extended. Its hard for me to judge this area, because my hearing tops out well under 14kHz nowadays, and the measuring equipment is not accurate enough from about 9 kHz up. No signs of brittleness, and I personally don’t find anything missing.

Resolution / Detail / Clarity

  • Clarity is excellent, and there is a high level of detail in all of my usual test tracks. With Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go”, the micro details such as audience interaction and fret-board slides are easily heard. Portico Quartet’s “Ruins” is likewise brilliant with every detail of the cymbal brushes and snare taps present, yet perfectly mingled within the music. I think this is attributable to the nicely neutral frequency response.
  • Cymbals hits (especially hi-hats and crash-cymbals) are present, and the trailing decay is audible and not at all little splashy. My test track for this is Pearl Jam’s EWBTCIAST, and the cymbals have a nice shimmering decay which sounds perfectly natural.

Sound-stage, Imaging

  • My usual first track for checking width, depth and shape of perceived sound-stage is Amber Rubarth’s “Tundra”. While there is projection just outside my perceived head-space (violin), the overall impression is more of intimacy than space, and everything sounds incredibly clean and clear – but also quite close.
  • Directionally the track is consistent and stage shape has perfect balance of depth and width. Imaging of all 3 instruments is extremely precise with good sense of separation, and the transients are extremely clean.
  • I use the applause sections of “Dante’s Prayer” and Lakme’s “Flower Duet” for a feeling of immersion. Very good headphones can give you a real sense of being in the audience. The Alara is draw droppingly realistic with this. Grandly spacious – no. But there is a great sense of depth and width, and the presentation really is extremely clean and clear. There is a life-like sense of flow around me.
  • The last track in this section is Amanda Marshal’s “Let it Rain” which has a natural 3 dimensional feel (the way the track was miked). The Alara handles it really well, the sense of instruments being around you is very good.. I also use this track as my sibilance test (its quite a hotly mastered track – and it is present in the recording). The Alara does reveal the sibilance but it isn’t highlighted.

Strengths

  • Overall balance end to end in the frequency response – quite exceptional.
  • Bass balance of impact, timbre, speed and definition.
  • Imaging is a strong point – very clean and easy to pick directional cues
  • Very good at lower volumes with extremely good clarity
  • Both male and female vocals are rich, display good timbre, and (more importantly) sound realistic.

Weaknesses

  • There might be very slight (and it is marginal) dissonance with a couple of tracks (female vocalists – e.g. Hannah Reid from London Grammar). This is really nitpicking though, and I remain unconvinced that it might actually be the track mastering.
  • Perceived sound-stage is reasonably intimate for an open head-phone.

AMPLIFICATION REQUIREMENTS

The Alara is one of those headphones which looks harder to drive on paper than it really is. The on-line Digizoid Headphone Power Calculator tells me that at 20 ohms and 94 dB sensitivity, it requires 1.59 Vrms, 79.5 mA and approx 126 mW to reach 115 dB SPL (on the verge of pain). This halves if you’re simply wanting to top out at 110 dB (mW required actually drops by 2/3). Because of the low sensitivity, the Alara requires more current than voltage, and as long as your DAP can supply the necessary power output (high current), there is no reason why you can’t drive the Alara straight from a DAP or portable. So lets start with the lowest volume output – my iPhone SE – and work from there. From my testing (volume matched and compared subjectively to the X7ii + A5 combo) using the track “Trains” from Porcupine Tree’s album “In Absentia”:

  • 55% volume on the iPhone produced ~70-75 dB. The iPhone was definitely loud enough, and sounded really good. The X7ii + A5 combo sounded slightly more dynamic at the same volume level. Somewhat cleaner and better defined.
  • 65/120 volume on the X5iii (low gain) achieved ~70-75dB and while the X5iii was slightly warmer than the X7ii + A5, it was a combination which was on par with the X7ii +amp.
  • With the M9, the volume required was approx 70/120 on low gain to achieve ~70-75dB, and again the M9 had no problem driving the Alara with good control over the drivers.
  • 67/120 volume on the X7iii (low gain) achieved ~70-75dB and I noticed no difference in dynamics when addding the A5.
  • The final test was with Luxury & Precision LP5 Gold. This is a DAP with a very powerful internal amp (it drives my HD800S easily), and for the Alara only required ~25% of the pot for equivalent volume. Completely subjectively, it was also one of the best sounding combos – but that could well have been placebo on my part.

What this means is that virtually all of my higher end DAPs are easily able to drive the Alara to very listen-able levels without distortion, and without needing extra amping. This surprisingly includes my iPhone SE – which manages quite nicely at around 55% volume. It would not be my 1st choice though.

So does the Alara get better with amping? For this I used the Q1ii, Q5, XRK-NHB, and E17K. With each of the amps I didn’t really notice any audible signs of greater driver control (once volume matched). What I did notice was that the slight added warmth (2nd order distortion) of the XRK-NHB was a pleasant addition to the tonality. This continued when I used my desktop set-up (iFi stack). I really liked the Alara with the iFi stack, but adding VE’s Enterprise tube amp took them to a slightly higher level for me. Does the Alara need a lot of amplification though? In my opinion – not really.

RESPONSE TO EQ?

I like the Alara’s default frequency response, and TBH I really wouldn’t want to change it. I did initially think the dip on my measurement rig at 2kHz might be an issue. But using my desktop set-up and JRiver Media Center’s parametric EQ, nulling this dip out did not really enhance the sound. I can hear the dip in frequency sweeps – but it really doesn’t detract (so maybe its associated with the external ear / pinnae). Either way – I personally don’t think added EQ is necessary.

I did try to experiment with added sub-bass just to see what the Alara would do, and it really did respond magnificently. But here some added amplification helped.

COMPARISONS

Comparing headphones is always hard – especially when you don’t have another open planar for direct comparison. But I could compare it with a recognised reference (HD600) which should give readers an understanding of how it sounds comparatively. To give more alternatives, I also used my HD800S, and Brainwavz HM100 dynamic.

In all cases I used the X7ii + A5 combo. With the graphs – please re-read the measurement section earlier in the review. The graphs show comparative measurements on the same rig – and without an ear simulator. The comparisons were all done without EQ, and volume matched using a calibrated SPL meter and fixed 1kHz test tone first. They are very subjective (my opinion only).

Alara vs HD600

Build / Design

Both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal. The HD600 clamp is stronger (when new) but can be relaxed with gentle stretching. Both have detachable cables, and both have very good padding. Both have replaceable ear-pads, but the HD600 is more modular in design.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are extremely comfortable and very ergonomic – with good head support and circumaural pads. The Alara is significantly heavier – although I still don’t find it fatiguing over long periods. The HD600 has longer extenders and can be used for smaller heads – the Alara has a longer headband by default which lacks adjust-ability for smaller heads.

Overall Sound Quality

The first noticeable point is that the HD600 needs significantly more volume / power. The second thing is that the HD600 is airier / brighter, and leaner through the lower mid-range. The Alara has better overall bass extension and impact, more body to the lower mid-range (male vocals sound significantly better to me), and is more balanced in end-to-end frequency response. The Alara also has a better sense of imaging (the HD600 is slightly hazy in comparison). The Alara is quicker with transients and sounds cleaner. In terms of sound-stage, the HD600 has a slightly larger overall stage, however I would call neither expansive. Both are great sounding headphones – just with different frequency signatures.

Alara vs HD800S

Build / Design

Both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal. The Alara clamp is stronger but can be relaxed with gentle stretching. Both have detachable cables, and both have very good padding. Both have replaceable ear-pads. The HD800S has angled drivers to enhance sound-stage.

Comfort / Ergonomics

The Alara is more compact (but heavier). The HD800S is larger in size but lighter. Both have very good padding and are both comfortable and very ergonomic. The HD800S has longer extenders and can be used for smaller heads – the Alara has a longer headband by default which lacks adjust-ability for smaller heads. Overall comfort goes to the HD800S – it remains one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve experienced.

Overall Sound Quality

The first noticeable point is that the HD800S needs again needs more volume / power. The second thing is that the Alara is warmer with more noticeable bass although the lower mid-range is quite similar. Some of the noticeable bass warmth could be because of the Alara’s less treble emphasis comparatively. Again the Alara has better overall bass extension and impact, and again male vocals do sound better to me (although I prefer female vocals on the HD800S). Imaging is pretty close on both headphones – they both give very consistent and clean spatial cues. In terms of sound-stage, the HD800S has a significantly larger overall stage, and is expansive where the Alara is more intimate. Again both are great sounding headphones with similar frequency signatures (HD800S is brighter and airier, Alara is warmer and richer). The fact that the Alara is not embarrassed in this company speaks volumes for the headphone (especially when comparing cost/value).

Alara vs HM100

Build / Design

Both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal. The HM100 does have the wooden cups, and is a closed design vs Alara’s open design. The HM100 clamp is significantly stronger but can be relaxed with gentle stretching. Both have detachable cables, and both have very good padding. Both have replaceable ear-pads.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are extremely comfortable and very ergonomic – with good head support and circumaural pads. The Alara is heavier – although I still don’t find either fatiguing over long periods. The HM100 has longer extenders and can be used for smaller heads – the Alara has a longer headband by default which lacks adjust-ability for smaller heads. OOTB the Alara is more comfortable.

Overall Sound Quality

Both have similar overall volume at the same power output. The HM100 is airier / brighter, and much leaner through the lower mid-range. It also sounds quite closed in. The Alara has significantly better overall bass extension and impact, more body to the lower mid-range (male vocals sound significantly better to me), and is more balanced in end-to-end frequency response. The Alara also has a better sense of imaging (the HM100 is hazy in comparison). The Alara is quicker with transients and sounds cleaner. In terms of sound-stage, the Alara has a slightly larger overall stage, however I would call neither expansive. Both are great sounding headphones – but after direct comparison, I do find myself enjoying the Alara a lot more. It simply sounds more natural.

VALUE

The Alara is not a cheap headphone, and the price of $500-550 sits it squarely in the price range for a second hand Audeze LCD2 or HifiMan HE500/560. For an extra 2-3 hundred dollars you can add in an EL-8 or go brand new on an LCD-2. As far as budget planars go, the Alara is a little more expensive than the HE-400S and M1060. Unfortunately I can’t comment on these headphones because although I’ve heard both the LCD2 and EL-8 it was during “NZ Meet” conditions and I haven’t got an opportunity to compare side-by-side.

I can compare with my current full sized headphones, and for my tastes, while the HD800S clearly bests them for overall comfort and staging ability – the Alara is not embarrassed in overall performance. Sonically it is very good. And I prefer it to my HD600s.

When you look at the overall package of the Alara – aesthetics, comfort, build, and most of all sound – I could imagine this headphone in a slightly higher price bracket. For the RRP of $500-550 you’re getting a very well balanced headphone with planar transient speed and low distortion.

BRAINWAVZ ALARA – SUMMARY

I’ve always wanted a decent planar and was sorely tempted to try a Monoprice M1060 when I first heard about them, but it was difficult to justify with the amount of headphones I have (my wife only has so much tolerance).

The Alara from Brainwavz was an instant hit for me. A beautifully balanced headphone sonically, with a depth of bass extension which is highly addictive and quite different to my experience with dynamics. Couple this with a genuinely neutral end-to-end frequency response, and you have a headphone which is very pleasurable to listen with (critically or in a relaxed setting). The icing on the cake for me is that for a planar its relatively easy to drive.

The overall build quality seems very good (maybe a slight question over the plastic yokes – time will tell), and the comfort is excellent. The one design flaw comes with the long head-band. Those with smaller heads may find a lack of adjustment options. Fortunately the Alara fits me perfectly.

The asking price of $500-550 is not cheap, but for me the Alara justifies the expense and for the overall package, it competes well with other headphones in similar price brackets. I just want to close with thanking Marlon for allowing me the chance to review the Alara. IMO it is the best Brainwavz release to date. If I was informed tomorrow that the Alara was the only headphone I could ever own – I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Amos asked me (before I left for our family Xmas holiday) to give some thought ot a “best of” summary for 2018.  I haven’t written it yet – but for me, the top prize goes to Alara. I’ve reviewed some great products in 2018 – but the Alara is something extra special.  Nice one Brainwavz.

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