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Japanese wooden luxury IEMs finally reach North America – featuring deluxe materials and impeccable construction: they’re like sticking a Bentley in your ears.
Starting in 2008, the Victor Company of Japan, Ltd, (usually referred to as JVC or the Japan Victor Company) released their first IEMs made with wood fiber diaphragms, the HP-FX500. Since then they have released several generations of wood dome diaphragm IEMs including the HA-FX650, HA-FX750, HA-FX850, HA-FX1100, and HA-FX1200.
- Super high-quality build with impeccable fit and finish.
- Generous assortment of ear tips and accessories.
- Warm and engaging sound.
- Big deep bass response.
- Protruding cylinder body style may not be for everyone.
- Fairly expensive in today’s world of bang-for-the-buck IEMs.
- Revealing nature exposes a bit of grain in the lower treble regions with some music.
- Relatively thick bass may not be for everyone’s tastes.
In 2016, the FW series (the fourth generation of JVC’s wood diaphragm IEMs) was released in Japan. The FW range consists of the HA-FW03, HA-FW02 and the flagship HA-FW01. It’s this flagship, the ($300+ USD) HA-FW01 that we’ll be discussing today.
Over the years, the JVC wood diaphragm IEMs (or ‘woodies’ to aficionados) have received many positive reviews, known for their warm, rich tone, and beautifully made bodies (also constructed of wood). Favoring a sound signature with an expansive low end more favorable to a bass-head then to a reference purist, the JVC woodie lineup has garnered a lot of fans.
But until now, if you wanted one of these legendary IEMs, you had to import from Japan, as they weren’t widely available for purchase in North America. This has recently changed with the North American release of the HA-FW01.
We’ll be taking a look at how this premium (but going on 4-year-old) IEMs measure up to the current IEM market. As you know, the infusion of Chi-Fi IEMs boasting incredible technological advancements and rock bottom prices has dramatically changed the expectations of what is possible in the last couple of years.
Even with the build of a luxury car, can the HA-FW01 still compete?
- Driver Unit: 11mm single wood dome dynamic driver
- Frequency Response: 6 – 50,000 Hz
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Sensitivity: 104 dB / 1 mW
- Max. Input Capability: 200 mW (IEC)
- Plug: 3.5 mm 24 Gold plated stereo mini plug (straight)
- Cable: 1.2 m OFC braided, cloth-covered, L/R isolated grounding
- IEM Connector: Detachable MMCX connector
- Weight: 14g (without cord)
- Warranty: One-year warranty with online registration
Packaging and Accessories
The HA-FW01 come with a reasonable bundle of accessories, including:
- Red velvet lined transport case with magnetic closure
- Cable clip
- Cable keeper / winder
- 5 sizes of JVC Spiral Dot ear tips (S/MS/M/ML/L)
- 2 sizes of foam ear tips (S/M)
The generous assortment of ear tips would have been improved if the holder that supported them in the box was removable and usable in future or (even better) as part of the transport case. Unfortunately, once taken out, they become a jumble of similarly sized tips that are difficult to differentiate.
JVC claims that their Spiral Dot ear tips feature internal dot profusions that diffuse unnecessary sound by lessening turbulence and resonance.
JVC touts a natural fit due to “the adoption of a material with mechanical properties similar to that of human skin.” (Yuck?)
In practice, I find the Spiral Dot ear tips to be entirely adequate (if not exactly an obvious technological revolution of design) and I appreciate the inclusion of sizing options beyond the standard three (Small, Medium, and Large).
The included foam ear tips do impact the isolation and sound signature, and I’ll leave it up to the user to find what sounds and feels best for you. While I’m often a fan of Comply style tips, I found myself going back to the Spiral Dots for most of my listening.
I’m a fan of the black faux-leather case with its magnetic clasp and dark red velvet interior. To nit-pick, I’d prefer a real leather exterior (or more convincing ‘protein leather’), but it looks and functions well. The rubber cable winder and black plastic cable clip are both of decent quality and utility.
The HA-FW01 cable is an attractive and unusual affair, featuring a metal 3.5 mm connector (a plus in my book), an Oxygen-Free Copper (OFC) core, and a black fabric sleeving. The sleeving material is soft with a nice texture.
Overall, I really like how this cable looks and feels. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of issues with the sleeving wearing prematurely and occasionally causing twisting or tangling. Thankfully I didn’t encounter any issues during my review period.
Some folks will lament that the 3.5 mm jack is straight and not L-shaped (as is the case with the lesser 02 and 03 models). It has a ‘rose-gold’ clad metal exterior that feels very premium.
The MMCX connectors feel high quality and connect with a solid click. The ends are engraved with L and R and match easily to the color-coded (blue and red) IEM body sockets. Although a bit thick around the connector, the whole affair feels like a suitable and sturdy accompaniment to match the luxurious impression of the HA-FW01.
The cable is not balanced, but does feature a L/R-isolated grounding to “…achieve natural spatial expression with little crosstalk between left and right signals.” JVC does offer a fully balanced upgrade cable as a potential replacement if desired.
The cable sports a small black Y-split which has JVC and the HA-FW01 moniker on the sides. For those that appreciate cable cinches, there is a simple one included on the cable that matches the Y-split. These are not ‘over-ear’ cables and they hang downwards when the IEMs are inserted in the ears, so the cinch does help keep the cable controlled around the face.
The build is what really separates the HA-FW01 from a host of Chi-Fi competitors. Their fit and finish are exquisite. These things radiate high-quality construction and elevate easily into the luxury category.
The only real aesthetic niggle that I have with them is that the wood grain really doesn’t show up as prominently as it does in some of the promotional material.
It’s fairly difficult to tell that the exterior body is made of wood, unless closely handling and inspecting them. The black color really hides the material. And yes, the *ahem* rose-gold metal highlights do serve as an extremely attractive highlight.
The nozzle is shiny plastic, is labeled L and R, and it features three oblong vents. The exterior nozzle ends have a deep notch for ear tip retention and a fine black mesh screen inside. This notch fits the Spiral Dot ear tips perfectly and they snap smartly into place.
JVC states that the HA-FW01 feature an “…ergonomically-designed form with a secure fit”. Which is a good thing, as these are quite large IEMs. They are also of the protruding cylinder style (which has been compared to the Frankenstein monster’s neck bolts) rather than the currently popular peanut IEM shape.
Surprisingly, despite their fairly robust size, they aren’t as heavy as I’d expected.
I weighed the HA-FW01 against the MoonDrop Starfield IEMs, which feel smaller and are more ergonomically shaped. Without ear tip nor cable, each Starfield IEM weighs 9-10 grams, while the HA-FW01 weighs only 6-7 grams. The hybrid KZ ZSX weighs in at 5 grams.
The combination of the Spiral Dot ear tips, coupled with the well-balanced, cylinder-shaped, body fitting smoothly into the ear, means that the HA-FW01 is quite comfortable for extended listening sessions. They seem to stay in place and don’t require fussing with to get comfortable or to combat slippage.
Technology and Internal Design
JVC has released a lot of verbose marketing materials that are rife with technical (sounding at least) terms, so a good place to start may be to discuss some of their touted features of the HA-FW01.
JVC HA-FW01 Technical Terms
|Based on the same technology of the Spiral Dot ear tips, small dot profusions were added within the IEM nozzles. These bumps are designed to diffuse and disperse the sound more naturally and to reduce resonance and turbulence.
|High Energy Magnetic Circuit
|To improve “performance and reality” a dynamic high-energy magnetic circuit was developed which uses a new plate shape.
|Quad Metal Harmonizer
|Resonance is further addressed by a combination of different materials such as stainless-steel rings in the front and rear, a brass inner housing, and an aluminum cap.
|Designed to maximize clarity by controlling and suppressing the vibrations of the rear of the housing, a ‘wooden stabilizer’ made of laminated layers of wood was added to the internal structure of the IEMs.
Why Would Wood Work Wonderfully?
According to the promotional material for the HA-FW01, JVC has much to say on the “Story of WOOD”.
“The sound propagation speed of wood is… especially fast along the direction of the fiber grain, and not so fast against the grain…
Taking advantage of the characteristics of wood, that it doesn’t easily generate standing waves, we were able to achieve natural sound reproduction that is less likely to generate unnecessary resonance.” – JVC
JVC found that the mass of the diaphragm needed to be lightened to improve the “expressiveness” of the sound (their word), so they developed a proprietary slicing machine to create wooden sheets that are only 50 microns thick (from a previous 80 microns).
“For the housing and wood stabilizer, a laminated layer made of thin slices of wood, layered one after another at offset angles and compressed, is used. This laminated layer uses wood that has been precisely processed in Japan to achieve better sound quality.
This is a characteristic of WOOD that no other earphones feature.” – JVC
JVC claims that they had many serious discussions on what sound signature that they wanted for the HA-FW01. Accordingly, they undertook a passionate quest for developing IEMs with an original character, that convey “vibrant and easy-to-understand sounds”.
Previous JVC woodie models had reported issues with excessive upper bass bleeding into the midrange, causing a somewhat muffled sound quality. The focus on resonance control with the HA-FW01 is likely in response to these concerns, in an effort to boost clarity and detail.
I’m happy to report that I hear no lack of texture or intelligibility. The thinner diaphragm also likely leads to improved reproduction speed and transients. The dynamics of the HA-FW01 are truly impressive.
JVC even makes recommendations as to what they would like you to listen to with the HA-FW01.
The combination of low impedance and high sensitivity means that the HA-FW01 can be easily driven directly from any source (such as a phone) although its impressive detail retrieval means it benefits from more resolving sources.
It should come as no surprise that these IEMs have stand-out bass performance. Certainly, audio appears very large in presence, yet they are able to retain excellent detail and timbre. When the music calls for it, they hit quite hard.
If you are looking for a purely balanced sound, look elsewhere, because the HA-FW01 have a fun, warm, and rich sounding presence. They feel big and wide, more timpani than snare drum.
The midrange is no shirking violet either. It’s quite forward in the mix, but does retain decent naturalness. Voices and guitars are reproduced deeply and with ample detail. Depending on the track, however, things can tend towards a bit of grainy harshness and congestion. If the music’s midrange is very busy and boosted, this comes through in the HA-FW01.
I’m (of course) looking for flaws and for the majority of my listening, things sounded great. It’s perhaps an unwanted consequence of outstanding detail presentation. If the track has grain, the HA-FW01 doesn’t hide it. My overall impression is one of realism and extraordinary retrieval.
Treble extension is quite generous, imbuing the music with a feeling of sparkle but with minimal sibilance and without excessive brightness. Clarity and detail continue to be very good all the way through the higher registers.
The HA-FW01 deliver impressive impact while maintaining great separation and layers within the music. They provide a balance of dynamics and transparency that envelops the listener. If you like to get lost within, and to really feel the power and presence that great music can provide, it’s well worth a listen to these IEMs.
Maybe it’s simply a case of psychoacoustics, but the word that I’ve struggled not to use to describe the sound of these wooden wonders is ‘organic’. Suffice to say the HA-FW01 cannot be described as sterile or clinical sounding. They bring a power and presence to the music that is compelling and encompassing.
Back to my luxury car analogy.
Open the bank-vault-like door of a Bentely and gaze upon the luxurious interior. Sink into the lushly stuffed, buttery soft leather seat and grasp the ornate steering wheel. It responds to your touch with the solid feeling of granite warmed in the midday-sun.
Or for quite a few less shekels, experience luxury at a much smaller scale. JVC offers audiophile jewelry that slips comfortably into your ears and allows you to lose yourself in warm organic power, delivered with aplomb.
Sure, there are plenty of (much) more expensive IEMs currently available. They boast scalpel-like precision and amazing stats. But they seem so sterile. So cold. The HA-FW01 is no stripped-down supercar and is the better for it.
There seems to be something about these IEMs that brings out the inner poet. Certainly, JVC was inspired to reach for words and phrases to inspire awe.
They are a luxury item. And to be honest, I struggled a bit with rating the HA-FW01. I’m a huge proponent for bang-for-the-buck and maximizing value for the money. Paying for prestige, or a brand name, or even a sumptuous build quality seems shallow if these things are considered before sound quality.
If they didn’t sound very good, I’d be especially hard on the HA-FW01. New contenders like the MoonDrop Starfield IEMs at slightly more than ¼ the price, offer a different (but exceptionally good) sound for the money. The Starfield also look great, sporting a beautiful paint job.
However, in the end, the Starfield just don’t exhibit the same feeling of opulence or intrinsic worth.
Look at the HA-FW01 as an indulgence. You will delight every time you open the case, and reverently insert them into your ears. Luckily the sound quality is equally luxurious. You can easily imagine a deep-throated throb covertly revealing the immense power of a finely tuned, idling machine.
They are likely more than you need… but everyone deserves a treat once in a while.
The Challenge of In-Ear Monitor Reviews
I’d like to add a caveat. IEMs are notoriously difficult to review and compared to full-size headphones, it is problematic to trust that the review findings will be applicable to all readers.
While the size of one’s ear may impact the comfort or the sound of full-size headphones, small details like the inner shape of a reviewer’s ear and the fit of an IEM greatly impacts not just the listener’s comfort but dramatically changes the perceived performance of an IEM.
This is compounded by the plethora of ear tip sizes, materials, and shapes (which may or may not be included with the IEM) all of which uniquely fit different people. Most significantly, the quality of the ear tip seal within the ear changes the sound. So, beware dear reader, what suits one reviewer may not be applicable to you.