As is their wonderful way, the crew at Brainwavz recently sent me their newest IEM, the S3, for a review – this time ahead of release so keep an eye out at your favourite Brainwavz stockist because these babies are coming very soon. As always, what I found in the sleek-looking packaging was a beautifully made, well accessorised pair of IEMs that are also very well priced at around $115 (AUD).
The S3s sit between the already-released S1 and S5 models in Brainwavz’ “S” series line-up of in-ears. What separates the S3s from the S1s and S5s is their tuning. I reviewed the punchy and fun-sounding S5s a while back and the S3s bring quite a different feel to the music as you’ll soon discover.
- Drivers: Dynamic, 8mm
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Sensitivity: 96dB at 1mW
- Frequency range: 16 – 22,000 Hz
- Plug: 3.5 mm gold-plated, 4-contact (TRRS)
- Cable: 1.3m flat cable
The S3 is designed specifically as an iOS compatible earphone and therefore sports controls specifically for the iPhone and iPod. There isn’t an Android version of the S3 available as far as I can tell so look towards the Brainwavz Jive if you’d like an Android-compatible earphone.
Design & Comfort
The S3s are crafted from aluminium just like the S5s, but the S3s are left in their shiny, natural glory (possibly with a clear anodised layer for protection). They have red printed labels for the left and right channels and the brand is printed in red on the side of each bullet-shaped earpiece, but other than that they are shiny and silver.
They’re a simple tapered, bullet shape that’s not quite as pointy as the S5, but are still tapered as you can see in the pictures. Size-wise, they’re average – not tiny like the M1, but not large like the R3. They’ll stick out a bit from most people’s ears, but nothing too dramatic.
The flat cable of the S5s has been repeated, but slightly differently and while it’s comfortable enough and mostly tangle-resistent, I can’t help but prefer the feel of a round cable. The flat cable just always sits slightly strangely, but it’s an observation more than a problem and it wouldn’t for a second prevent me from buying the S3s.
The nozzle on the S3 is a fairly standard 5mm and fits the Comply T-400 range of foam tips, but Brainwavz supply a bunch of options with the S3 as you can see in the picture. THey also provide a pair of medium T-400s from Comply, but they’re not shown in this pic. With a range of triple flange, dual flange and single flange tips as well as two different choices of material and opening diameter, there are plenty of options to ensure the fit is just right for your ears.
In addition to the range of tips, the S3s include Brainwavz’ usual red and black semi-hard zip-up case, a shirt clip, and a handy self-securing cable tie. Just quietly, I think all manufacturers should include something like this with their earphones – it’s a simple addition, but a highly valuable one.
If I had to sum up the sound of the S3s in a single word it would be “clean”. They are a slightly analytical sounding earphone, but they still have enough smoothness and soul to be very enjoyable. They’re certainly not for bass lovers, but will cater to the many people out there who love to hear lots of detail and clarity in their music.
Despite being detailed and clarity-focussed, the S3s don’t overdo the treble. Their treble is smooth and well-tuned to provide plenty of air and resolution without straying into strident, splashy sounds. Cymbals and other similar high frequency sounds are prominent and clear, but don’t overpower the rest of the music. The quality of the treble is equally well-managed with a smoothness and refinement that allows the more analytical tuning of the S3s to be enjoyable and musical. The treble can occasionally be a touch grainy or dry, but it’s a very minor qualm and not worth worrying about unless you’re particularly treble sensitive.
The mids from the S3s are slightly variable, but overall very enjoyable. On most tracks the vocals are delivered with clarity and texture, good weight and a sense of presence in the overall musical experience. The extra treble presence helps to highlight breath and texture in vocals as well as the percussive edge to sounds like pianos and guitars so there’s a nice sense of energy to the music.
Occasionally, depending on the exact mix, I felt like the vocals and mid-range instruments (like guitars) got a little bit lost behind the treble, but it wasn’t often and wasn’t bad so much as different from the normal presentation. My guess is that there’s a slight dip in the frequency response somewhere in the mid-range that causes certain voices and instruments to sound just a tiny bit recessed. Now, I have to stress that this is a subtle issue and the S3s are actually much more balanced sounding than the fun, but peaky S5s so don’t get turned off by this, but recognise that the S3s are not mid-forward, vocal / instrumental-focussed earphones so much as slightly treble-focussed with good balance overall between the treble and mids.
If you’re a bass-head, the S3s are not for you – look at the S5s. The S3s are quite lean in the bass as is often the case with earphones tuned for detail and resolution. Personally, I like more bass in my sound than the S3s provide, but I know a lot of people who like the leaner, cleaner sound of this type of tuning.
Bass extension is excellent as is control and decay of bass notes, but the levels are lower than the mids and treble so unless you use an EQ or bass boost you won’t really notice the bass on its own so much as hear it as part of the overall sound. So, to summarise, the quality of bass from the S3s is excellent while the quantity is lacking for my tastes, but others will find it just right in favour of a greater sense of detail and clarity rather than warmth.
By keeping the treble and mids more prominent than the bass, the Brainwavz engineers have crafted a focussed-sounding IEM that presents an average-sized soundstage that is mostly stretched from left to right with a small amount of forward projection. Sounds are well-placed in the soundstage with a reasonable sense of space and seaparation. One thing the S3s do very well is isolating sounds. There’s not a huge sense of space around each sound, but each sound is clearly defined so the vocalist is clearly highlighted separately from a guitar, or piano, or drum.
Brainwavz S3 vs Brainwavz R3
Jumping between the Brainwavz S3 and R3 models shows a similarity in terms of clarity and resolution, but also some differences. The R3s have a noticeable increase in bass and therefore warmth, but this also results in a smaller, more intimate soundstage. The S3s are both more comfortable than the strangely-designed R3s and offer a greater sense of clarity and detail than the R3s at the expense of a little warmth and bass presence. Both sound very good for the price so the decision would come down to comfort (an easy win for the S3 and sound preferences – warmth vs added clarity)
Summary & Conclusion
The S3s offer a much more balanced sound than their more expensive S5 siblings and many people will love the sense of clarity and resolution that they create. The S3s are definitely an earphone for people with a love of clarity and treble or those with warmer source devices. I’m personally more a fan of warmer sound signatures, but there’s no denying that, with the right recordings and sources, I thoroughly enjoyed the sound of the S3s.
If you enjoy quality treble, clarity and clarity in your sound and you’re not into big bass, the S3s might be a good option for you and for $115 (AUD) they are an excellent option as an upgrade from stock iPhone buds. The S3s are very well-built, packaged with a great range of accessories and are fully compatible with iDevices.