There is simply so much going on in today’s audio world. New and exciting products are released on a regular basis, wowing users with great panache and in many cases, quickly subsiding back into anonymity. Don’t get me wrong –FOTM is one of the reasons why pursuing high-end audio is so exciting! However, every once in a while, something comes along that seems like it just might exhibit a stroke of lasting genius.
Enter the Final Audio Design Lab I: a limited run earphone (150 production models total) that was priced at the astronomically high MSRP of 1500 USD. In many ways, the Lab I is a very direct reflection of the unique (if not maverick) Final Audio Design philosophy. Founded in 1974, the company has been producing audio equipment that “exceeds common sense” for over 35 years. In 2009, after two years of collaboration with Molex, it entered the in-ear market with a lineup of truly novel products.
The Lab I seems to defy expectations in every sense. At 1500 dollars, it makes no intention to emulate any of its competitors, which include numerous highly capable, well-known CIEMs. In addition, the limited run means that getting your hands on one now might be harder than finding the Fountain of Youth. So does it actually live up to its name? We’ll see.
DISCLAIMER: This unit was loaned to us by Yoko @ Final for the purposes of this review. We are neither affiliates nor employees of Final. All media rights are reserved.
The Lab I comes in a monolithic faux snakeskin box. There’s a certain gravitas to the whole package that immediately captures one’s attention. The top right corner features Final Audio Design’s logo, and on the back is a quick summary of the Lab I (not that a buyer of a Lab I should be needing one). Opening the box reveals a luxurious faux fur material on which the Lab I rests. Simply stately.
Removing the fur platform uncovers the extra eartips and an unassembled leather pouch. The unassembled leather pouch is truly the epitome of eccentricity. It’s a raw statement that characterizes Final Audio Design’s bold philosophy. Whereas most earphones in this price range seek to deliver a full package in which the user simply has to remove the earphones, plug-in, and enter audio heaven, the Lab I’s package tells the user to “go figure”. It took me well over half an hour to assemble the leather pouch (I am a little OCD about these things), during which time I didn’t even touch the earphones. After tying a simple overhand knot to finish the process, I felt like I had in some way been involved in the process of making the earphones. The fruit of my labor was a high-quality leather pouch that I probably wouldn’t be using. In fact, I did a bit more tinkering before finally settling on a Pelican case with foam inserts (which I now transport the Lab I in).
While practicality (and the limited number of eartips) may not be one of the strengths of the Lab I’s packaging, the experience as a whole is distinctive and tactile. From the textured snakeskin to the soft fur to the leather pouch, handling the package itself was incredibly rewarding, and it’s an unboxing experience like none other.
Let’s start with some technical details. The Lab I features a 3D printed Titanium 64 housing, which is also classified as Grade 5 titanium. This particular alloy is known for its strength and corrosion resistance, both of which are very desirable traits for an earphone. According to Final Audio Design, the 3D printing process actually required a significant amount of human resources, which came in the form of “digital craftsmanship”.
The actual printing process required irradiating metal powder over an extremely small area with a laser, and then proceeding to melt and harden it. This leaves the surface extremely rough and pocked with marks. However, Final Audio Design worked closely with a coordinator with knowledge in specially processed metals to create the finely polished surface seen in the final product.
The checkered design on the Lab I is meant to show off the fruit of this labor-intensive process. The main squares feature a beautiful mirror like finish while the sunken ones feature the grainy texture of the unfinished product. It’s really a testament to how much engineering went into the build of the earphones alone.
The Lab I’s fit is rather interesting. The earphone does not have an ergonomic fit that is present on many other earphones in this price range. However, they worked with my ears, and I didn’t even have to change the eartips (which, while limited in selection, are very good quality). Isolation is relatively good, and will block most environmental sounds (not that you should even be bringing these outside).
The cable is flat and high quality, but unfortunately is not detachable (really wish it was though). Microphonics is surprisingly limited, and there is very little memory maintained in general. The 3.5 mm jack plug is well built (and looks just as good as the earphones), but I wish it was titled at 90 degrees instead. The split is similarly durable.
Naturally, the design portion of this review is arguably one of the more subjective points I will raise. Personally, I really liked the overall look of the Lab I, but the luxurious, “jewelry” styling of the housing might not be a hit with everyone. One has to keep in mind that the Final Audio Design Lab I was not supposed to achieve mass appeal though. It is a statement piece, a earphone that is meant to show off what can be done when a company pours all its resources into producing a top of the line flagship model.
Once again, I’ll begin this section with a few technical specifications. The Final Audio Design Lab I makes use of full range dual balanced armature drivers (i.e., wired in parallel with no crossovers) and balanced air movement technology to achieve “overwhelming realism” through “weighty bass tones”.
The bass performance of the Lab I is stunning. One of its greatest strengths is the natural depth of its sound. The bass feels like it is being drawn out from a fathomless source, and when released, creates an incredibly profound sound that is truly enveloping. A bit abstract? I’ll try explaining this in slightly more objective terms. The quantity of the bass is significant (even weighty), but not in the least bit bloated. However, the defining characteristic of the bass is not to be found in its quantity, but a certain aspect of its quality. The Lab I’s bass has its strength not in fast attack, but in extremely well controlled decay. The titanium housing and the specially engineered form of the earphones do an amazing job of creating an impactful sound while instantly being able to stop decay/reverberations when necessary. In Odesza’s Kusanagi, the low frequency notes are powerfully rendered, but are very well controlled, making room for the triangles and vocals. The result of all this is a magnificently compelling sound that is also surprisingly composed.
The mids are good, but sometimes unpredictable. Occasionally, it might appear to even be a little laid back, giving the misconception that the mids are slightly veiled. However, when paired with songs that feature strong leading vocals, the Lab I suddenly springs to life, and renders the mids with marvelous enthusiasm and energy.
The treble is clear and precise, being well integrated into the overall SQ of the Lab I. It retains enough texture and detail to satisfy a discerning listener, without creating the generally exhausting sound that is associated with many brighter earphones. The treble also helps to open up the soundstage of the Lab I. While it isn’t huge by any means, the airiness and excellent instrument separation prevent it from being overly enclosed or claustrophobic.
After many, many hours of close listening, I came to realize that the Lab I’s SQ is actually filled with a huge amount of detail that might be initially missed due to its equally impressive macrodynamic performance. While re-listening to all my bossa nova albums, I became increasingly aware (and impressed) by the microdynamics going on behind the main sound. Triangles and other percussive instruments were very well reproduced, and the Lab I’s never seemed to miss a beat.
It is safe to say that the Lab I has a truly unique SQ. Its ability to effortlessly reproduce music stands in stark contrast to some earphones that sound almost contrived due to their emphasis on producing a “certain” sound. It is the product of endless refinement and reflects an intelligent taste. In short, the Lab I is one of the most elegant earphones that I have ever used.
The Lab 1 reminds me of a certain Frost poem (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening) In the poem, an unknown narrator stops by the woods on a dark night to marvel at the beauty of snowfall (think of an idyllic New England countryside during winter). Although it might initially be difficult to make things out in the darkness, sustained observation reveals beautiful details that might otherwise be missed during a casual once over. Observe long enough, and perhaps you might find yourself lost in the wondrously magical woods that is the Lab I.
TYPE: Dual Balanced Armature Full Range Driver with BAM
SENSITIVITY: 1I2 dB
IMPEDANCE: 8 ohms
WEIGHT: 26 grams
PRICE: 1500-2000 USD (depends on seller)