If there’s any trend to boxed smartphones over the last year or two, it’s that many ship without any headphones/headset in the box. Now, partly this is to save the manufacturer $10 or so, partly it’s to help save the planet, but either way the assumption that you already have a decent set of smartphone-compatible headphones many not necessarily be correct… By the way, stick around for this end of this review – there’s a giveaway!
What’s also interesting is that while you can pick up manufacturer (e.g. Samsung) headphones on the likes of eBay for under £10 (sometimes real, sometimes less so), there’s a huge gap to the big brands (and believe me, you pay for the brand labelling) like ‘Beats’, whose headphones start at £80 or so and go if into the stratosphere from there. What about the middle ground? Where a pair of 4-pole smartphone-aware headphones with really good audio quality came in at a price low enough that they didn’t rape your wallet, yet not so low that you doubt the quality of the design and components?
Which is where the new ROCK JAW ALFA GENUS (sorry about all the capital letters, that’s how they spell it) and Arcana v2 (being given away below) come in, of course, rather resplendent in deluxe packaging and in their alu-wood twin material design.
Included here are three spare sets of ear buds (of varying sizes, and in addition to the buds already fitted), two extra sets of ‘filters’ (of which more in a moment) and the ALFA GENUS headset itself, with somewhat unique glossy ‘twisted’ wires, claimed to be ‘tangle resistant’. Plus a handy velvet carrying pouch and a three year warranty.
This is all starting to sound like good value for just under £45 (here on Amazon), especially if the audio quality matches the rest of the package.
Of course, there’s a huge, over-arching, limiting factor when it comes to music on smartphones and other portable players – most pop and rock music gets ‘ripped’/downloaded at quite low bitrates, with everything optimised for undemanding music, undemanding ears, noisy environments and small file sizes. Listen to music at 128kbps in MP3 or even AAC encodings with really good headphones and you will hear the defects and approximations caused by the low bitrate encoding.
Making testing headphones and headset accessories somewhat harder, since the tester has to seek out music that’s of suitably high quality in the first place. I used tracks encoded at over 200kbps and also music videos with very high quality audio tracks – a lot of videos have great audio, simply because the file sizes are already large, so it makes no sense to cut down audio quality just to shave off a few extra Megabytes.
The ALFA GENUS earphones themselves are unusually long, to encompass professional speaker drivers, with the main barrel being wood (actually ebony, in this case) and the rest being (I think) aluminium. Those who like to listen to a podcast in bed while lying on their side might have a problem with how far the buds protrude, but then this (i.e. mono podcasts) isn’t the core use case.
The default sleeves were a perfect fit for my ears, though it’s reassuring to have the other three sizes though, in case I pass the ALFA GENUS onto someone else in the family in the future.
But onto testing – I ran through around 30 music sources, music and video, comparing the Arcana v2 with my existing manufacturer in-ear buds (mainly Samsung, in this case):
- Overall volume was slightly higher in the ears
- Bass was slightly fuller and more rounded
- High frequencies were much better
- Stereo separation was noticeably better
This last is controversial, since, quite clearly, stereo separation is a function of the device driving the sound rather than the headphones themselves. However, the effect is definitely there and I can only conclude that the extra separation is because more can be heard overall, i.e. you’re hearing instruments in the stereo mix that were previously inaudible. Wow, was that a tambourine on that ZZ Top hit? And there’s a cello part that I’d never noticed… And so on.
Also very impressive was the high end. I’d become use to the slightly ‘dull’ sound of manufacturer headsets and all of a sudden I was back in business with crystal clear cymbals and shimmering vocals.
One unique feature of the ALFA GENUS design is that the outlets of each earbud, i.e. where the sound comes out, are actually screw-in cylinders (‘filters’. The silver set that are supplied fitted are just that – cylinders, and pass the raw sound through unimpeded, but the gold set have a ‘ported’ (i.e. baffled) design plus foam, designed to reduce bass and provide an even EQ. While the black set have a more complex set of obstacles to the sound, in theory reducing bass more and let the ear pick up more ‘details’.
That’s the theory anyway. In practice, the default silver set were just about perfect for every musical style I tried them on – there were slight differences with the other two filters, but you’d need a scientific instrument of some kind – or a way of switching backwards and forwards instantly – to be able to tell the difference. Are the filters a bit of a gimmick? Possibly. But then if you’re a real audiophile then you probably have better (ok, ok, younger) hearing than me and will be able to tell which filter is which from the sound.
Along with the headset, there was an instruction leaflet, with sensible advice on not cranking up the volume too high for too long, in order to protect your ears – this advice should be given out with every pair of headphones!
In testing, I was able to pick up and hang up calls with the textured button on the inline pod, plus pause and play (and skip) my music and podcasts – although not tested by me, ROCK JAW does also claim iPhone compatibility, by the way.
In addition to the pod, there’s a handy spring clip to retain the wire and clip the assembly to a lapel, something which I used to have years ago on my old Nokia headsets and which I’d missed. With lapel support, the weight of the wires don’t keep dragging down on the ears and ruining the audio seal.
It’s hard to fault the ROCK JAW design, presentation, functions or performance. At well under £50 in the UK, all-in, including that manufacturer three year warranty, I don’t think the ALFA GENUS or Arcana v2 products can be beaten if you too have got a bit fed up with some of the less than glittering performance from in-box headsets and can’t face stumping up close to £100 for something with a better known ‘brand’. And if your handset didn’t come with anything (as is the modern trend) then something like the ROCK JAW unit is a no-brainer.
Right then, the giveaway: all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning a brand new boxed set of Arcana v2 (essentially the same as the ALFA GENUS but without the changeable filters, Google ‘rock jaw’ and you’ll find more information on the company’s web site), delivered to your door, is to leave a comment below – one will be chosen at random by the ROCK JAW folks in exactly a week’s time. [If you leave duplicates or otherwise try to game the system you’ll automatically be excluded from their choice!] Enjoy!
UPDATE. The week is now up and ‘foxprorawks’ (Matt McQueen) has been picked at random as the winner. Well done, ROCK JAW will be in touch with you, Matt!
[Update 2/tip: ROCK JAW are offering 20% off and FREE next day delivery in the UK & free worldwide shipping, when ordered direct from their web site, all until the end of August 2015!]