Pushing the boundaries needs courage to take new ways and develop new technology. Final Audio and oBravo are brave enough to take these steps in search for the portable audiophile heaven. Both earphones are unique with their driver design and no other company has anything similar.
Final Audio is a company from Japan, established in 1974 by the late Kanemori Takai. « Music is power, this is the basic premise behind final audio design ». Mr Takai died 2014 but a lot of today’s products share his DNA like the outstanding Piano Forte series.
oBravo – a subsidiary of Stymax International Co. Ltd. – was founded 2006 in Taiwan. Mr David Teng plays a key role in developing its products. He has a strong focus on the « Air Motion Transformer » driver technology invented by the German physicist Oscar Heil.
Final Audio is proud of the LAB II. This becomes obvious when you look at the product page, because there is a ton of information. On the first view, the LAB II has a simple design. It has one dynamic driver in an open earphone. But don’t be fooled. Let’s take a deeper dive into the design and specification of the LAB II.
The dynamic driver they use is an in house made driver with a diameter of 15mm. Such a big driver can move a lot of air. The diaphragm has a thickness of only 6μ. That means, it has half the thickness of a common driver for a dynamic earphone. Thus, it is lighter and more responsive. The diaphragm is driven by a coil with a big diameter and some neodymium magnets. The frame is made of an aluminium magnesium alloy. It is light but at the same time strong.
The overall design of this driver is state of the art, using a light and stiff diaphragm, big coil and – like the Focal Utopia driver – very open at the back reducing interference.
The case is made of pulverized titanium created with a 3D printer. Layer for layer the case is build up by melting the titanium particles together with the laser. This technology lets you build structures that normal casting can’t do.
Final Audio use this technology because they use a mechanical equalizer in front of the driver. This may sound strange at first, but shaping the sound in that way is a common technique. For example, like Bang & Olufsen does with their acoustic lens, or like Audeze does with their Fazor technology. The LAB II makes a great step forward with the complexity of this tool.
The upper case is made of two shells that are open. So, you can actually see through them. The second case houses the driver and the mechanical equalizer. The outer shell is open, the inner is closed and it’s the housing for the equalizer formed out of 3 trumpets (called by Final Audio the concentric equalizer). The inner surface of the two cases is not smooth, but structured. A welcomed side effect of the 3D printing technology. Like the Piano Forte VIII-X series, this structure helps shaping the sound as well. The outer case has a chemical finish as a mirror polish.
The cable is a silver coated OFC wire with PFA isolator, terminated with a nice small 3.5mm plug.
Due the complexity of the driver and the case, the production failure rate is high. A great amount of the production of these parts is waste.
The oBravo eamt-1c is a semi-open 2-way earphone. It is housing a 13mm driver for the lows and a AMT driver for the mids and highs. Sadly, there is not a lot information on oBravo’s internet page but the AMT driver alone lets audiophile and technology driven people get alert.
The AMT, or air motion transformer, is a driver technology invented by Dr. Oskar Heil – a German electrical engineer. It is a folded membrane like an accordion. Similarly to a planar magnetic driver, the current flows through the membrane. Enclosed by neodymium magnets, the diaphragm moves like an accordion when current flows. Due to the big size of the membrane, the driver is capable of moving a lot more air than a similar sized dynamic driver. oBravo is the first company using a custom-made AMT driver in an earphone. This driver sits in front of the dynamic driver.
Even though there is no information on the product page, I am quite sure that the 13mm neodymium dynamic driver is a custom made optimised for the lows. Due to the 2-way system a small crossover network may be needed as well.
The case is made of aluminium, wood and ceramic. The drivers are placed under a ceramic dome that shapes the sound. As described by oBravo, the ceramic dome is for the top analytical model (eamt-1c). An acacia wood dome makes the sound a tad warmer for the warm model (eamt-1w) and the aluminium dome is used for the standard neutral model (eamt-1a). The dome, as well as the wood panel at the back, has venting holes.
DAP, DAC and Amps
I like the AK380cu for its form factor, quality and handling. But the amp is the Achilles’ heel of this DAP. It is better than the AK240’s amp but the player is underrated when the ear/headphone is only a little bit demanding. I like to pair it with the ALO Continental Dual Mono a great portable amplifier – with an okayish integrated DAC – that lets you tune the sound by swapping the tubes. In general, using dual triode tubes make the amp sound a bit more on the tube side. Whereas the single triode is more neutral. I now use a military Mullard CV468 single triode tube from 1959, which is a technically excellent made and neutral tube with a little tube touch. This is the gear I use 90% of the time with my earphones.
To double check my impression, I also used a Chord Hugo, Mojo and Schiit Yggdrasil with desktop amps to see what these earphones are capable to deliver. I like to build amps by myself from time to time. Some of the desktop gear used are DIY amps with designs from Kevin Gilmore (Dynalo) and Krell (KSA5) to name a few. Generally, I use half the time the full-size headphones with desktop gear, and the other half portable gear. This, although I’m 90% listening at home. I simply like portable audio gear.
All this gear is purchased by myself. I like to get a good grip of my own impression. This is only possible after I’ve been using it for some months – There is no sponsoring in any way.
Box & Accessories
The LAB II comes with a golden round Box, which is nice to look at but not practical. Then you get some spare meshes for the front of the earphone and some cotton swab to clean them. Paperwork / guarantee card is also included.
The box from oBravo is big, holds the earphone, and brings 3 sizes of comply foams and 3 sizes of silicon tips. Then you get a 3.5mm to 6.5mm adaptor and some funny metal pins for holding the ear tips not in use (???). Some ear-clips (3 sizes) are included for a securer fit. Another thing which is useless for me from my perspective. Paperwork / guarantee card is also included.
I don’t use these boxes. They are nice to look at but not practical for everyday use. I use some small cases with a silicon bed for a secure hold.
ergonomics and handling
The LAB II doesn’t need ear tips. It is a completely open design. You “lay” them in your ears and due to the form the stay there. Alas, it is not a very secure fit. Overall, they fit better than what your feeling tells you when wearing them. Because they don’t need ear tips, you have no isolation, you won’t use them in noisy places. Also, due to their design they are not made for walking around or commuting. The cable is attached via a MMCX connector. It’s a medium soft rubber cable with no microphonic effect, a little too heavy for the earphones.
The oBravo eamt1-c needs ear tips. It is a semi open design and needs a sealing. Normally, I test some tip I know I like and then it’s fine when the sealing is good. You can than adjust the sound a bit using foam or silicon tips. But the eamt-1c is the pickiest earphone (or IEM) I’ve ever had. I realized when I was using a short or medium long ear tip a lot of the bass went away. Only the Comply foams from oBravo and the JVC Spiral Dot tips worked for me. So, you need to find some long tips with a good sealing and fit. That took me 4 days, and the changes weren’t small. With the eamt-1c, the length of the tips is as important as a good sealing. The good thing is, you can adjust the amount of bass with the tips. It’s perfect for me with the ML sized JVC Spiral Dot tips. When I use the L sized JVC Spiral Dot tips I get a bass booster. Because the tips stay securely, walking around or commuting is no problem. Some surrounding noises are audible when wearing them; a “safety plus” when walking around, not so great for a flight. The cable is attached via a custom made MMCX connector. You can’t use a standard MMCX connector. It’s a very soft fabric sleeved cable with some microphonic effect.
Describing the sound of these two earphones is not easy. Both are playing in the league of top of the line full-size open headphones and they are performing so well, that mostly nuances make the difference. They play neutral with a wide soundstage without big hiccups in the frequency range.
Let’s begin with the Final Audio Lab II. For me personally, the performance of these earphones is outstanding. Although they are completely open in the back, the bass goes way down and only the deepest tones (mostly from electronic music) are missing. The highs extend well without being harsh. But the covering of the frequency range is only a small part of the experience. What makes the LAB II really outstanding is its wonderful soundstage combined with a natural presentation covering the smallest micro dynamics.
Driving these earphones is super easy because they are very gear friendly. I like the Astell & Kern AK380 very much. The DAC part is great but – as the AK240 by the way – the amplifier part is weak. If the amp puts the output stage under stress, the bass goes muddy and will lose contour. With the LAB II the performance is very good. Like the Piano Forte Series, it is an easy to drive earphone that scales up with better gear nicely.
The soundstage of the LAB II has an out of the head experience not covered by any headphone I know. It is ultra wide with a good depth. But it is special in a good way. The best way to describe it is: It is like sitting in an IMAX cinema. The screen is right in front of you and the picture is a bit curved and a bit too big. I think that is the price you have to pay for this outstandingly big presentation. The placement of the instruments is good and coherent, the stage opens nicely in front of you but it is missing to pinpoint the exact placement that other headphones can deliver.
What I really like about these earphones is the coherent and natural sound. Over the whole frequency range, they deliver an extremely good resolution without stressing certain parts. The resolution of the driver competes with the best drivers I know. In this small form factor, it is an outstanding achievement. The music flows in a very effortless way. This alone makes them a real flagship product. But on top of this they have the ability to reproduce the smallest micro dynamics with a delicate natural timbre and a decay seldom heard. Goosebumps are a certain. The reproduction from female voices is especially outstanding – best I’ve ever heard.
Remarkable is also the cable, using a nice silver litz cable added more resolution but the soundstage wasn’t as nice as the original Final Audio cable. It’s as good as many expensive after market cables, no need for changes.
But the rumble in the deep bass is missing. As the frequency range covers most of the instruments that exist, there are limits with this driver design. A good comparison are loudspeakers. The LAB II are not the man-sized 4-way loudspeakers that let the room shake. They are more like the best 2-way monitors that let the room sing.
The audiophile taste can, in my opinion, be divided in two parts. A western and an eastern understanding of what the most important factors are to be great. Simply put, the western want to hear the last details. The highest value is technical performance and purity. The eastern value musicality and naturality as the main goal, then the technical abilities. The LAB II has this eastern mentality. Close your eyes and you are in front of the musician. It is the real deal – not a perfect holodeck reproduction. The ability of the LAB II to deliver this experience does not make them technically perfect earphones but to a piece of audio art. Thus, they become a part of the music itself. It is sad that only 200 of these gems are produced.
Listening to the oBravo the first time is like a rollercoaster. You are being hit by an ultra-deep reaching bass and highs that extend up into heaven. No tone is missing here. The soundstage is near perfect in all 3 dimensions. With the first beats, you realize that the eamt-1c are a kind of racing machine. They are pushing the limits further.
But this came with a price. They are not easy to drive. Having one driver is always easier than two or more. Not only the need exists for a nice cross-over but the drivers need to have the same resolution and speed to sound coherent as well. Listening to the eamt-1c out of the AK380 plays louder than what is good for your ears. But don’t be fooled. This doesn’t mean that they play as they can. Out of the AK380, the dynamic bass driver loses detail and speed. The result is an unbalanced sound with a disconnected bass like a cheap loudspeaker system with a subwoofer and two small monitors. You need a player / amp that has very good control of the driver to let these earphones shine. This, and the tricky selection of the right ear tips, make them demanding earphones more pointed to experienced users.
When everything is fine tuned, the soundstage turns out excellent. The width of the soundstage is perfect and the stage opens in front of you with perfect depth and exact placement. I’m very impressed by the placement of the music and instruments in the depth. It is only outperformed by headphones like a SR-009. It’s the technically best soundstage I heard from any earphones as of today.
From time to time I go to the opera. It is a good hearing school. You are realizing that not only the dynamic range of recordings is often compressed but that real music can sound sharp and ear piercingly. The AMT driver shines with its ability to reproduce these sounds in a superb way a guitar has this scratchy/metallic tone when the string is hit. A hi-hat has this nice simmering when played. But don’t think these earphones are bright sounding. They are placed exactly at the right point of not being harsh or unnatural. The music is energetic throughout. It is nice that this playful, speedy AMT driver is paired with an excellent dynamic bass driver. Driven good, these two drivers melt together perfectly in a dynamic power duo. They play coherently with a great live-like timing and flow. Mostly known of electrostatic systems. Maybe it’s the overwhelming performance of the bass and the highs that the mids seem a tad tamed. I mean more in the sense of a little different taste than a deficit. Although being a real technical top performer, the eamt-1c plays not as dry as some electrostatic head-/earphones. The sound has a nice natural timbre with a tad warmth, which makes them very enjoyable.
Is this now the western audiophile counterpart of the LAB II? Not really. The oBravo sits in the middle. While being outstanding with its soundstage, dynamic and full covering of the music range the resolution doesn’t cry for the last details. That’s a good thing. Most often the last details are distortions and background noises that aren’t really a part of the music. So, you do not miss anything important. They play energetic, exact, big and natural and are so in contrast to the LAB II the man sized 4-way loudspeaker of earphones.
And the winner is…
When someone asks me which one to buy, I would say “go for the LAB II”. But not because it’s the better earphone. But because it is so easy to drive, to enjoy and to handle.
The oBravo eamt-1c is a tricky earphone and you need time to get the full potential out of it. It took me a lot of try and error to let the eamt-1c sing. And, I still think this earphone has not reached its limits yet. A great pairing is the Chord Hugo. But driven by my DIY Krell KSA5 it is even better. But then you have a super portable earphone that needs big gear to shine. So, what is the point? In some ways, it is like a race car. Fast as hell but you need the tools around and a racetrack around the corner.
The Final Audio Lab II is a piece of audio art. It is a masterfully designed and tuned emotion machine. Connect it to your smartphone and you are stunned how nice it sounds. Grab your best DAP and you discover your music in a completely new way. With the first accord, you hear from this earphone, frequency charts become obsolete and music fills your heart.
And so, personally, both are winners for me. For Rock, Pop, Electronic and Opera I mostly take the oBravo eamt-1c, for Jazz, R&B, Gospel, Soul and Country the Final Audio LAB II.
The two earphones are extreme and expensive. I don’t think they make big money out of these two. It is the passion of Final Audio and oBravo to push the limit further for portable audio. As many formula one team owners are saying: “see this technology soon in your car”. This would be my biggest wish to Final Audio and oBravo. Making this experience available for a wide consumer market at a moderate price.
Well done, Final Audio and oBravo for creating two uniquely special earphones.