The A03 is different and proud of it. There's simply nothing ordinary about this in-ear monitor. The large enclosure for the double drivers measures a whopping 1 inch across, not much in the context of, say, a 100-pound subwoofer, but in your pinna, the A03 feels like a massive piece of gear. A flexy silicone sheath swathes the last 3.5 inches of cable near the earpiece, to better facilitate over-the-ear cable routing. If you choose, you can also wear the A03 with the cables dangling from the earpieces in the traditional fashion.
In order to help assure you get a good fit from the A03, Red Giant includes eight tips: black "Extreme Bass Sealing" silicone tips in four sizes, and "Natural Acoustic" tips in four sizes with red interiors and a softer material. Also included aretwo sets of yellow silicon rings of different sizes that surround the tubes and are intended to provide a better seal. While I really, really liked having a choice of tips in two different materials, I found it tough to figure out exactly what effect the silicone rings were having. Overall, I found it considerably more difficult to get a good fit from the large A03 compared with conventional, single-driver IEMs.
Red Giant supplies a large but nice felt carrying case for the A03. The cable has a small in-line remote that controls iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, etc.). I have to say that for $149, the A03 seems like a great deal. It's nicely made, comes with lots of accessories, and obviously is the result of a major design effort.
Although one of our West Coast listening panel, L.A. jazz musician Will Huff, was unable to give the A03 a spin, I and voice actress Lauren Dragan were able to give it a good, long listen. We both relied mainly on our iOS devices as sources: for her, an iPhone 4, for me, an iPod touch. I also used a NuForce uDAC-2 USB headphone amp/DAC connected to a laptop computer.
Hearing the Giant
Lauren's often critical of in-ear monitors such as the A03; from her, "not bad" can be high praise. So I had high hopes when the first words out of her when I asked about the A03 were, indeed, "Not bad." Followed by "The highs are crisp and clean, and the mids are nicely balanced with the highs. But the bass can overwhelm everything else. When I listened to Kanye West's 'Love Lockdown,' I couldn't hear the piano because the bass was so prominent."
Considering I had such a different experience with the A03, I think Lauren got a substantially different fit than I did. In a flight from L.A. to Houston, a couple of trips on L.A.'s Orange Line, and several hours sitting around the house, the best fit I got from the A03 left me with insufficient bass, a somewhat thin sound, and what sounded like a large peak and dip in the midrange around 1.5 kHz. The latter characteristic made piano and voice sound unnatural, sort of as if the instruments had been recorded in an empty shipping container.
I decided to try to hear what Lauren was hearing by using my fingertips to hold the earpieces more firmly in my ears. I heard it, or at least I think I did. On one of my go-to test tracks, Steely Dan's "Aja," holding the earpieces in more firmly made L.A. studio bassist Chuck Rainey's precisely plucked bass line sound as if it were being played by Booker T. and the MG's Duck Dunn through his classic Fender P-Bass/Ampeg B-15 rig. Not that the sound was unappealing; in fact, Dunn played with Steely Dan at one point. But not every bass player should have that big, fat sound.
I did find that by pushing the earpieces in just the right amount, I could get a nice, even tonality from the A03. The bass, while still fat, seemed nicely in balance. The mids sounded surprisingly flat and neutral, more like what we hear with the very best balanced-armature IEMs. The treble did that elusive trick of sounding crisp and detailed, yet never bright or etched. I also heard a nice sense of space, with more ambience than I hear from most IEMs.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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