by Dan Browdy
I was recently at lunch with a friend when the subject of orbital mechanics came up. It turns out that the popular depiction of moving around space while in orbit is, as you might imagine, extremely oversimplified. Getting into orbit takes so much energy that anything you do once you’re up there has to be supremely planned and efficient or you risk not having enough fuel to return to safety. Every piece of equipment and machinery used must reflect that ultimate need for efficiency and optimization. Every gram of weight that can be removed must be. To that end, anyone hoping to reach orbit makes liberal use of the metal with the highest strength-to-density ratio of any element: titanium.
Echobox Audio’s solid titanium Finder X1 in-ear monitor ($199) was first announced back at CES 2015, along with its sister product the Explorer digital audio player ($499). Back then, there wasn’t too much fuss in the digital world from the crew at Echobox Audio. However, Echobox made a concerted effort to engage the personal audio community in the development of these products and has since built up a dedicated following as a result. When the Finder X1 launched on Indiegogo last November, it ultimately crushed its funding goal.
The first people to receive these headphones were the backers and they were greeted with a box proudly proclaiming titanium the “metal of the stars”. After the conversation above, it seems clear where that claim comes from. But what advantages does it offer us down here on Earth? Evoking rocket science is a bold move so I was curious to see how well these performed. Within the black cardboard box is a thoughtful selection of accessories. Six different pairs of tips are provided, including a set of Comply foam tips. There are also two sets of tuning filters (more on those later) and a solid little case in which to shuttle your Finders and tips. But the real focus of this stellar event is the Finder X1 itself.
The construction of the Finder X1 is striking in its minimalistic elegance. As mentioned previously, the outer shell is solid titanium. This not only gives it that tell-tale space grey color, but also contributes to its svelte physique. These are some of the lightest metallic IEM’s I’ve ever held and they’re surprisingly small. The diameter of the IEM’s at their widest point is the same as the tips I’ve got on them. That, combined with the tapered back end, gives the entire thing a classic streamlined shape. The metal is perfectly smooth except for two small decorative etchings down by the tip of the tail. It evokes images of re-entry capsules trying to reduce atmospheric drag.
The smoothness of the entire enclosure is enabled by a subtle feature: the cable strain relief is actually inside the enclosure. The cable emerges from a small grommeted porthole, colored to indicate left and right channels. I haven’t tried intentionally pulling on the cable to test the strength of the configuration, but I’ve felt no looseness in any of my day-to-day use. This configuration also allows the freedom to wear the Finder X1 cable-down or cable-up and over-ear. The cable is made from silver-plated copper and sheathed in a smoky translucent casing that pairs well with the color of the titanium. It’s smooth and pliable with a slight tendency to hold its shape. However, it also seems remarkably resistant to tangling, which is a huge plus for me. The cable can have some slight microphonics at times, but I don’t find it particularly egregious or even intrusive. What little there is can generally be alleviated with a good seal and/or wearing the IEM’s over-ear. The cable is terminated in a straight, gold-plated 1/8” TRS plug. The plug is housed in metal as well, adding to the overall quality of the unit.
Safely nestled within the titanium fuselage of the Finder X1 sits its 9.2mm PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone) dynamic driver. According to Wikipedia, “PEEK is used to fabricate items used in demanding applications” and “is one of the few plastics compatible with ultra-high vacuum applications”. The polymer of the stars, it would seem! One more rare-ish feature included with the Finder is the ability to shape the sound via filters. These filters screw on to the end of the sound bore and allow for some minimal shaping of the sound. The Finder X1 comes with the bassiest filter installed and two more filters available for swapping. These filters seem to be targeted toward the bass performance exclusively. Increasing or decreasing only the lower registers without changing the performance of the mids or treble allows for tuning that doesn’t affect the overall performance of the unit.
The sound of the Finder X1 is overall balanced, and slightly on the brighter side of neutral. Once a proper seal is acquired, the bass is punchy and plentiful enough to satisfy any non-bass-head. It’s surprisingly well-extended towards the nadir and yet it doesn’t intrude into the mids. With the stock bass filter attached, it can get pretty big and boomy. Swapping to the more neutral filters tones it back slightly but the effects are subtle and don’t change the overall feel of the tonality.
The treble is lively and slightly forward. It extends well into the high frequencies with lots of energy but without feeling harsh or exaggerated. Well, after some burn-in that is; the initial sound of the treble was a bit tizzy but it smoothed out considerably after a running for 50 hours or so. The extension covers parts of the range that are rolled off on a surprising number of headphones I’ve tested, making this a great performer. The mid-range frequencies feel a bit thin compared to the booming bass and splashy highs. They are well rendered but overall they’re recessed a bit behind the other frequencies. Compared to other headphones in the same price range, the Finder X1 does a good job of keeping the frequencies well-balanced, despite the slightly u-shaped presentation. This is certainly about as balanced a frequency response as I’ve heard for under $200. Thanks to the stratospheric highs and tight bass, there is a wonderful sense of air and detail throughout. On my portable rigs, modest compared to my desktop rigs, these headphones do not leave me wanting for more resolution.
Listening to the 2012 remaster of David Bowie’s “Starman”, the sound of the picks on the guitar strings is delightfully crisp. The slightly recessed mids push David’s voice back a bit behind the guitar sounds floating through the track. This subtle retreat isn’t present on “Skyfall” by Adele however, her voice is in a different range and it never falls behind the powerful orchestra and driving drums. Of course with that slight u-shape, it was clear to me that these would be great for electronica. “Lift Off” by SOLAR FIELDS has a fantastic rolling bass line that rumbles with authority on these, while the splashy highs keep things from getting dark. “Ursa Major” by Benji Vaughan is similarly well-represented. I find myself impressed at this level of performance in such a small, inexpensive package. I prefer balanced sound signatures (rather than particularly warm or bright) and this suits my tastes. It’s similar to the signature of my Hifiman HE-560.
The Space Race
The Finder X1, with its all-metal housing, tuning filters, wide selection of tips, carrying case and $199 price point, seems like a unique headphone. But there is another IEM out there with some striking similarities. It’s all-metal, with a unique dynamic driver, robust construction and tuning filters. It comes with a pile of tips and a nice carrying case and it’s priced within $50 of the Echobox. I’m speaking of the RHA T20.
On paper, they have a lot in common, but in the hand and in the ear, they’re not as similar as you may think. Physically, the T20 is significantly heavier. Obviously being all-metal and not titanium adds a lot of weight. It also has a thicker cord and memory wire over the ears. Both are nice features, but add more weight. Sonically, the T20 feels slightly n-shaped to the Finder’s slight u-shape. The treble is laid back, making for easier listening, and the mids are pushed forward a bit as a result. It’s a very nice sound but it’s the opposite of what you’ll get from the Finder X1.
I really like the Echobox Finder X1. Small, light and robust, it’s the kind of IEM you can just wind around your fingers and stuff in a pocket or purse without worrying. The balanced sound signature is right up my alley and rare at this price point. And if you want to tune the sound just a bit to your preferences, the filters easily allow for that.
Taking cues from space flight has surely paid off for the crew at Echobox Audio. I’m looking forward to seeing how their Explorer DAP performs when it launches later this summer.
More info: [http://www.echoboxaudio.com]