Final Audio Design is a Japanese firm that has been creating high-end audio products since 1974, and has—for the past two decades—been actively working to produce and perfect very high-performance earphones. For this review, we will look primarily at one of Final’s more affordable offerings: namely, the £69.99 Adagio III earphone. But, we will also briefly explore a model from the upper end of the Final range: the £1,000 FI-BA-SS balanced armature-type earphone. As we look at both ends of the price/performance spectrum we will focus on a number of questions. First, what sonic characteristics set Final Audio earphones apart from others on the market? Second, are there identifiable shared points of performance between the affordable Adagio III and the premium-priced FI-BA-SS? Third, how does the Adagio III fare in comparison to like-priced competitors on the market? Finally, what kinds of sonic benefits can those willing to invest in top-tier models such as the FI-BA-SS expect to enjoy?
Final’s Adagio III is a dynamic driver-equipped earphone featuring vented earpiece enclosures. Cleverly, Final has molded the Adagio III’s earpieces in two colours of ABS material—red for the right earpiece and white for the left. This channel identification solution is so simple and effective that I couldn’t help but wonder why more manufacturers haven’t used it before now. In keeping with a growing trend, the Adagio IIIs use compact, relatively small-diameter 8mm dynamic drivers said to provide “a powerfully vibrant sound, delivering deep spatial expression and a vibrant ‘live sound’ atmosphere.” Moreover, the Adadio III, like many of Final’s earphones, uses a so-called Balanced Air Movement (BAM) mechanism that is claimed to help the earphones produce “powerful bass and deep 3D spatial expression.” As Final explains, everything about the earpiece enclosure design, from its smooth, almost teardrop-like shape to its rear-firing BAM vents, is intended to “optimize highly efficient airflow in the [earpiece]” and to prevent “sound leakage.” Completing the picture, the Adagio IIIs come with three pairs (size S, M, and L) of sound-isolating rubber ear tips and come fitted an elastic signal cable said to eliminate “touch noise.” While the Adagio III is modestly priced, it is plain to see that some careful thought has gone into its design—thought that, as you will learn in a moment, pays significant sonic dividends.
From the outset, I was struck by how open, transparent, lively, and generally well balanced the Adagio IIIs sounded—especially so in light of their moderate price. Candidly, many earphones in this price range are afflicted with regrettable sonic compromises. It is not unusual to find models, for example, that produce way too much bass (a popular but ultimately fatiguing colouration) or that offer dramatically elevated upper mids and highs (an aberration that, I suppose, is meant to suggest the earphones are “detailed”). Happily, the Adagio III suffers from none of these maladies, at least not to any significant extent, and thus sounds far more sophisticated and refined than it has any right to for the price.
The Adagio III’s essential sonic character hinges on a revealing and generally smooth mid-band response curve (where the heart of most music resides). After a few hours of run-in time, bass also proves to be nicely fleshed out, but never loose, bombastic, or overblown. Instead, the Adagio III’s low-end response sounds pleasingly taut and punchy with surprisingly deep extension when the musical material so warrants. Highs are reasonably extended with much better than average clarity for the price class, but with a trace of top-end roll-off (at least as compared to true, premium-priced top-tier earphones). My one critique is that the Adagio IIIs can sound a little too energetic on certain hard-edged midrange transients. Still, the Adagio IIIs sound so good that one is instinctively tempted to judge them using criteria normally reserved for much more costly ‘phones. Relative to their like-priced competitors, however, the Adagio III’s are unequivocal slam-dunk winners—easily among the finest, if not the finest, affordable earphones I’ve heard to date.
To experience the Adagio III’s virtues in play, let me suggest a track such as “Split Window” from bluegrass/jazz bassist Viktor Krauss’ album Far From Enough [Nonesuch CD]. Not only does this track feature the deep and richly textured sonorities of Krauss’ acoustic bass, but it also features a panoply of evocative midrange and treble instruments, with delicate treble “atmospheric” touches reminiscent of those one might hear on recordings from the eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell. When reproducing this track, many affordable earphones provide a workable rendition of the basic structure of the music, but with many of the subtle textural details planed off—as if the listener were hearing the music through a pair of wet socks. But with the Adagio III, most of those delicious subliminal subtleties are present and accounted for. In short, if you know how costly upper tier earphones are supposed to sound, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how close the Adagio III can get to that lofty level of performance. While true top-tier models can do a few things the Adagio IIIs cannot, the fact is that these ‘phones give you a generous taste of upper level performance at a very sensible price.
In sharp contrast to the Adagio III (a product built with an eye toward delivering high levels of performance for not too much money), Final’s FI-BA-SS is a handmade, flagship product plainly put forward as a cost-no-object design. Accordingly, the FI-BA-SS sports a custom designed balanced armature-type driver created expressly for this model. Where some earphone designers equip top models with multiple sets of balanced armature drivers (sometimes grouped as miniature sets of woofers, mid-band drivers, and tweeters), the Final Audio Design team has—in the interest of superior top-to-bottom coherency—instead opted for a design featuring one single, full-range balanced armature driver. By eliminating crossover networks and unnecessary complexity, so the theory goes, sonic purity is maximised.
Final promises the FI-BA-SS, unlike some competing designs, is fully able “to produce deep bass without the distortion and muddiness normally reproduced by [other, single-driver] BA unit earphones.”
Like the Adagio III, the FI-BA-SS uses the firm’s signature Balanced Air Movement (BAM) earpiece enclosure technology. Accordingly, the FI-BA-SS features a “highly-rigid stainless steel [earpiece] housing” equipped with rear firing “BAM vents”. Like its lower-priced sibling, the Adagio III, the FI-BASS comes with three sets of rubber ear tips and is fitted with a noise suppressing elastic signal cable. As befits its status as a flagship model, however, the FI-BA-SS also comes with a semi-hard-shell case large enough to accommodate the earphones plus a portable digital music player.
How does the FI-BA-SS sound? These remarkable earphones are so sophisticated that I am concerned a capsule description of their sonic character might not do them justice. Nevertheless, let me make an attempt. In shorthand terms, the FI-BA-SS offers everything we liked about its inexpensive little brother, but with even greater extension at both frequency extremes (especially in the treble range) and with its imaginary “refinement,” “resolution,” and “sophistication” knobs turned up to 15. If the Adagio III earphone is a gifted child, then the FI-BA-SS is the stunningly accomplished adult it might grow up to be—an earphone that is at once suave and very, very revealing.
It is instructive to see how the FI-BA-SS performs on the Viktor Krauss track mentioned above, as compared to the Adagio III. Where the Adagio III captured many of the delicate textural subtleties of the track, the FI-BA-SS captures absolutely all of them (or as near as makes no difference) and does so with ultra-fine-grained resolution. The Adagio III sounds quite good in its own right, but with the FI-BA-SS one quickly finds that many sonic “veils” have suddenly been lifted. Like the Adagio IIIs, the FI-BA-SS can sound slightly too energetic on hard-edged midrange transients, though I suspect extended run-in might mitigate (or even eliminate) this minor drawback. More importantly, the FI-BA-SS offers a truly impressive degree of you-are-there clarity, plus an uncanny quality of effortless, top-to-bottom coherency. In fact, I suspect Final’s flagship ‘phones may well be the class leaders in terms of delivering cut-from-whole-cloth sonic integrity. Then, add in the FI-BA-SS’ superior frequency extension and surprisingly robust dynamics and you’ve got a top-tier contender that is formidable indeed.
To sum up, we consider Final Audio’s Adagio III one of the best moderately priced earphones we’ve yet found—a no-brainer recommendation at their price point. The much more costly FI-BA-SSs are, as you would expect, superior earphones in every way (though you can certainly hear FI-BA-SS “design DNA” in the Adagio III). The Adagio III gives you a view of the sonic mountaintop at moderate cost, while the FA-BA-SS actually resides at the mountaintop, inviting comparison with all comers.
Type: Dynamic driver-equipped earphone.
Driver complement: 8mm dynamic driver in Balanced Air Movement (BAM) earpiece/enclosure.
Maximum SPL: 100dB
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Frequency response: Not specified.
Type: Balanced armature driver-equipped earphone.
Driver complement: Custom-made balanced armature-type driver in vented stainless steel earpiece/enclosure.
Maximum SPL: 112dB
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Frequency response: Not specified.
Final Audio Design Co., Ltd.
2-7-5 Kamiosaki, Shinagawa, Tokyo 141-0021, Japan
Tel: 81 3 6459 3122
Tel: 01903 768910