I recently had the pleasure to review the Brainwavz S5 IEM and the team at Brainwavz were obviously OK with my objective thoughts (I really liked the S5, but wasn’t shy about its short-comings) and offered to send me their R3 model for my next experience.
The R3 is a dual driver IEM, but not a dual balanced armature as you might expect. No, the R3 is a dual dynamic driver IEM using two opposed dynamic drivers firing into a single sound chamber / nozzle. It’s an unusual design, but one I had heard good things about so I was keen to check it out for myself.
The R3 model retails for about $139 here in Australia so it’s at the higher end of Brainwavz’ range, but still very affordable in the IEM world and I have to say that it performs exceedingly well for its price – better even than the S5 in terms of price:performance ratio I think.
- Drivers: 2 x 10mm dynamic per side
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Frequency response: 16 – 22,000 Hz
- Sensitivity: 110 dB at 1 mW
- Cable: 1.3m, copper
Design & Comfort
I can only assume that the R3 was designed around the engineers’ desired driver placements because it’s a strange-looking IEM and one that can be problematic for comfortable insertion and ongoing use, but that might also just be my ears – if you’ve read my other reviews you’ll know that I often have trouble with universal IEMs due to the size and angle of my ear canals.
The R3’s housings are best described as bottle-shaped with the cord coming out of the bottle top and the nozzle emerging from the side of the bottle. The nozzle is a normal diameter (I can use most of the same tips as the FIDUE A83s, HiFiMan RE272, Brainwavz S5, etc.) however it’s quite long due to the need to extend out far enough from the non-ear shaped bottle housings of the R3s. I’ve got no problems with the long nozzle or look and feel of the housing – they’re actually great and were it not for this next bit I’d be a huge fan, but…
But the housings are completely impractical for creating a good comfortable fit that’s secure in the ear for extended periods and during movement. The biggest issue is the fit’s dependency on the angle of your ear canal. With apologies for the ear selfies I’ve had to use here, you might notice when you look at the first picture here that the way the cable exits the housing means that the angle of the IEM is important to ensure that the cable wraps comfortably up and around the ear. The natural angle created if I insert the R3 comfortably in my ear means that the cable points backwards towards the top fold of my ear and therefore cannot in any way be comfortably secured there.
The good news is that the R3s can be successfully and comfortably worn cable-down and it allows much more angle flexibility. You can see in the second ear selfie that the R3s want to sit at a significant 15-20 degree angle in my ears so you can see why the over ear option is not really possibly with my anatomy. Perhaps others have more flexibility with this than I do.
Now, before you click away to another page, let’s discuss a few good things.
Other than their slightly troublesome fit, the R3’s housing is unique and really well put together. The R3s feel like they’ll last for a very long time and will withstand almost anything you could throw at them. The chrome finish looks great and they feel good in the had and in the ear (once you get a good fit).
Other Design Elements
The R3s have a thick, round cable that’s quite heavy to the touch, but surprisingly light to wear. It’s a bit springy and not the most comfortable cable I’ve used, but it’s OK and probably preferable to the S5’s flat cable. The Y-split is solid and functional and the cable cinch is similarly suitable although I find that it doesn’t slide easily along the cable, but that also means it stays where you put it which is a bonus.
The final 10cm of each cable before it reaches the IEMs is a black rubber instead of grey with a secondary strain relief at the join. I’m not sure what purpose that serves because it’s no stiffer than the grey cable so it’s not memory wire for over-ear use and doesn’t provide any benefits I can see. Still, it doesn’t hurt and adds a nice touch of extra interest when looking at the R3s so no complaints.
The 3.5mm plug at the other end of the cable is a rugged, molded plug at a 45 degree angle that I really like. Right angle plugs and straight plugs both have issues in different applications, but I generally find these angled plugs to provide the benefits of both without the challenges.
Like the S5s, the R3 comes packed with plenty of tips (single, dual and triple flange silicone tips plus a set of Comply T-500 foam tips) plus a nice looking hard case (the same as the S5) and a 3.5mm-6.3mm adapter. This type of accessory set is becoming more common with all different IEMs at all different prices, but it’s still worthy of applause because it makes getting a good fit much easier for new buyers who might not have a stash of all different tips from previous purchases and there’s nothing worse than investing in a nice set of IEMs only to have them get destroyed in the bottom of your bag due to lack of an appropriate case.
With a 32 ohm load, the R3s are in the sweet spot for IEM impedance in my opinion. Really low impedance models like the FIDUE A83 or Shure SE846 can cause all kinds of issues with some devices whereas a 32 ohm load is really comfortable for cheap and expensive players alike so the R3s should play really nicely with your phone, budget MP3 player, or audiophile DAP / stack. I’ve tried the R3s with the Colorfly C4, Fiio X5, E12DIY portable amp, and even the Bottlehead Mainline desktop headphone amplifier and the R3s always sound great. They’re easy to drive, but not too easy so they don’t show up noise from basic devices while still having the sensitivity to make the most of highly detailed audiophile sources.
I really like the bass from the R3s. It’s smooth and full, but not enhanced – just naturally present. The bass sits in perfect alignment with the rest of the frequencies from the R3 and allows for a cohesive and realistic listening experience. Being a dynamic driver IEM, the bass is full and rich with a slightly slower feel than a balanced armature (BA) unit, but there is no mistaking the R3’s bass for being slow in general terms. No, the R3 strikes the perfect balance of fullness and speed. Bass notes are crisply delivered on time and on target while leaving room for everything else in the spectrum to shine equally. Although not finely textured like the quickest of BA units, the bass is clean and detailed making faster basslines and deep percussion highly enjoyable. Listening to Muse’s Absolution via the Colorfly C4, the bass and kick drums were deep and tight. Moving to Ozomatli’s Embrace the Chaos album, the deepest rumble of the bass drum on “Pa Lante” was missing, but it takes an exceptional earphone / headphone to really get that right. The R3s certainly came close, but just didn’t have that list tiny bit of power down at the lowest of frequencies. I’d much prefer that though to an excess of bass that can cloud the rest of the spectrum and disrupt the entire musical experience.
Thanks to the present, but controlled bass, the R3’s mids are able to shine through and take centre stage. I wouldn’t call the R3s a mid-centric earphone so much as a neutral earphone (this reminds me that I need to write a piece about what neutral means to me versus what it means to others, but I won’t go off track here so please watch out for my article on neutrality if you’re interested).
You could perhaps argue that the mids on the R3 are slightly laid back, but they’re certainly well-balanced with the bass and treble even if they’re just a hair behind. It’s certainly not enough to make the mids sound distant or veiled and I really like the overall presentation a lot – it’s very easy to listen to without sacrificing detail or articulation in any way.
Guitars and similar instruments sound crisp and clean and both male and female vocals have an excellent sense of texture and clarity while still keeping an easy smoothness.
The treble from the R3s is really interesting in that, up to this point in the review, I haven’t really thought about the treble. I would say that’s a good sign of perfectly balanced treble that’s neither drawing attention to itself nor lacking in energy and leaving the presentation dark and muddy. The treble is lively enough to provide raspiness and air to vocals, percussive sounds and incidental textures like fingers on a fretboard, but it’s not over-enhanced. There is zero fatigue from the R3, but there is also zero lost clarity – that’s an extremely impressive feat.
Listening to “Calling Elvis” by Dire Straits I can clearly hear the raspiness of Mark Knopfler’s voice and the snare, high hat and cymbals have good energy and clarity so that I can feel them and notice them in the mix, but I’ve not once in all the time I’ve spent with the R3s felt like there was too much or too little treble. I’d actually go so far as suggesting that this is one of the best treble balances I’ve heard from an IEM in quite some time. I’ll discuss some comparisons shortly to demonstrate this in further detail.
Similar to the bass detail and speed, treble speed and resolution may be a tiny bit behind the sharpest of BA IEMs, but the R3s are no slouch. Not only do they not leave me wanting more from the treble, they actually leave me thoroughly enjoying the treble because it’s fully detailed and energetic, but remains smooth enough to be enjoyable and actually worth exploring. I find sharper, faster treble renditions sometimes lead me to almost tuning out treble detail so as not to fatigue my ears, but the R3s let me focus on the individual textures of a cymbal or snare without feeling on edge as I do it.
Staging and Imaging
The stage from the R3s isn’t exceptional, but for a $139 it’s very good. It feels spacious despite being modest in size and it is evenly proportioned in each direction with good depth and width. Imaging is very similar – it’s not exceptional, but it’s definitely commendable. Instruments are well separated and clearly defined in their own virtual space. Thanks to the well-balanced presentation of each section of the frequency range from the R3s, the finished product is a well represented auditory image with good clarity and separation.
At the time of writing this there’s quite a bit of hype around the A83 (triple hybrid IEM) on Head-Fi and deservedly so, but given its $300+ price tag and slightly troublesome fit I was keen to compare it with the R3.
On direct comparison, the A83’s balanced armatures revealed extra details and texture in the mix that the R3 couldn’t show me, but that came at the cost of a drier tone and a less natural overall sound with the A83’s treble sounding slightly forward and forced compared to the R3’s outstanding balance. The staging and imaging is also better on the A83 as you’d expect with the greater availability of subtle details and auditory cues, but does that make the A83 a hands-down better earphone? I don’t think so. If I were looking to hear every nuance then I’d reach for the A83 every time, but if I wanted to simply play and enjoy my music I’d probably reach for the R3s on each occasion due to their more natural treble presentation and more natural overall sound. Technically, the A83 is a better earphone, but practically the R3 might be better for some people.
As much as I like the S5s for what they are, they just don’t compare with their slightly more expensive siblings – or at least not for my tastes. Yes, the S5 offers an excellent bass punch that the R3s can’t match and for some genres that’s an instant trump card, but the R3’s balance won me over permanently and left the S5s sounding peaky and occasionally unnatural to my ears. For wide-ranging musical tastes or those who listen to rock, blues or jazz I would recommend the R3 every time over the S5 despite it’s funkier fit and higher price.
Unfortunately I sold my RE272s shortly prior to the R3s arriving, but at around half the price of the RE272’s when they were new (if memory serves), the R3 is an excellent replacement. There’s no doubt that the RE272 offered superior transparency and separation over the R3, but the R3 is a smoother listen and has much better bass presence than the RE272 so it’s a fair trade in my mind. To be honest, if I had the 2 sitting side-by-side I would probably reach for the R3 on almost every occasion because of it’s smoother presentation and fuller bass note.
The R3 is an outstanding earphone for the $139 price tag. I would definitely recommend trying a pair before you buy them if you tend to have fit issues like me, but when worn cable-down the R3s are easy to fit so that might solve any concerns if you’re happy to wear them cable-down.
I haven’t heard a lot of budget IEMs and there are some awesome options out there, but of those I have tried, the R3s are among the most enjoyable of the lot and definitely might be the most neutrally voiced of the lot. If you’re looking to spend <$150 on a pair of IEMs and you want an IEM that can handle wide-ranging genres while providing a smooth and natural presentation then the R3s are a must try!