The term in-ear monitor isn’t very sexy. Originally designed for use on stage, in-ears were once relegated to obscure audio brands with a focus on professional applications. However, with an influx of headphone brands jumping in to create more affordable offerings for the consumer market, the modern in-ear monitor might just be your ticket to portable audio nirvana. Think of it as a “prosumer” in-ear headphone.
The latest offering to fit that description comes from Audiofly, a headphone outfit based in Australia. The company recently unveiled the AF180, a pro-style pair of in-ear monitors that, like others in their class, trade standard dynamic drivers for a four-pack of tiny balanced armatures, which combine to create a powerful, vividly accurate sound. Combining comfortable design with a sound signature that comes remarkably close to that of full-sized headphones, the AF180 make a very attractive option for music fans with highly particular tastes.
Hands on video
Out of the box
The AF180 come in a package befitting their kingly $550 price tag. Opening the book-bound case reveals the headphones within, packed deeply in heavy foam cushioning behind a transparent plastic cover. As we pulled the ‘phones out, we were immediately struck by their attractive earpieces and sparkling Audiofly logo. The pieces fell especially light in the hand, and bear a slight resemblance to the Nuforce Primo 8 in-ears we reviewed a few months back, but with a more elegant look and feel.
The AF180 don’t attack you with that “balanced armature bite.
Like the Primo 8, upper portion of the AF180’s detachable cable is malleable, designed to bend over and around the ear. Further down, a slim plastic tube slides along the headphone’s fork to secure the threads together and prevent tangles.
At the bottom of the box we discovered a rustic leather case bearing a bevy of accessories, including two pair of silicone ear tips in three sizes each, three sizes of Comply foam tips, gold plated ¼-inch and airplane adapters, and a cleaning brush (because earwax buildup is gross, people). The case, which looks like a prop from a Docker’s ad, employs an elastic band as a novel way to secure the lid. We noticed several scratch marks in the leather (presumably from previous reviewers’ handling of the band), and found ourselves wishing Audiofly had simply opted for a magnetic seal instead.
Features and design
With their glossy sheen and grey-blue color, the AF180 are the most attractive in-ear monitors to grace our ears yet, out-styling both the slightly garish Primo, and the more utility-centric Westone W40, both of which are top competitors in their class.
Inside their sleek housings, the AF180 conceal a four-pack of balanced armature drivers, which work in concert to reproduce a claimed frequency response of 15Hz-25kHz. Audiofly has designed the AF180 so that each armature takes on its own chunk of the spectrum. Audiofly doesn’t specify as such, but we’d be willing to bet a hefty sum that the design utilizes two of the four drivers for the bass, as is customary — we’re especially confident after hearing the AF180 in action.
The AF180 are the most comfortable and secure in-ear monitors in their class that we’ve reviewed.
To be clear, the AF180 sample we received had clearly passed through the hands (er … ears?) of at least one reviewer before reaching us, and we have no way of knowing how tough they were on the headphones. That being the case, we will stop short of calling into question the AF180’s build quality – especially considering the rest of the design is spot on. We should also point out that this isn’t the first time we’ve had trouble with an in-ear monitor’s cables – the NuForce Primo 8 also gave us some trouble initially (though the replacements have been problem free).
We’ll say this in an effort to put the issue into perspective: Neither the AF180 nor the NuForce Primo 8 are designed to be “road warrior” headphones. As is often the case with prosumer gear, much of the “commercial design” is stripped out in order to make the product more consumer-friendly. That seems to be the case here, though we will note that the Westone W40 manage to strike a balance here the others don’t.
In short, take care of the AF180, and they’ll take care of you. If you’re looking for an in-ear you can cram into your pocket unprotected or use while mowing the lawn, you’re best looking elsewhere.
Audiofly does offer a heavier cable with a mic and three-button control piece, but unlike the W40, it does not come included in the package. That’s especially disappointing given the fact that the AF180 will run you $50 more.
Comfort is obviously subjective, and many users, including some of our colleagues, don’t enjoy the wrap-around design commonly employed by in-ear monitors. However, while the style can present a challenge at first, the AF180 are the most comfortable and secure in-ear monitors in their class that we’ve reviewed. Perhaps just as important, they also offer an impressive level of passive noise isolation, blocking out a majority of ambient noise with music playing at a reasonable level.
Balanced armature drivers are known for their lightning-fast response, which allow them to offer a startling level of precision, but they sometimes exhibit a little too much bite for those unaccustomed to the sound. As our reference in-ears, the W40 are absolutely radiant with detail, but they do lean just a touch bright for some listeners. The AF180, on the other hand, don’t attack you with that “balanced armature bite.”
The AF180 are extremely sensitive, so turn your devices down before you get down!
In fact, if ever there were a pair of armature-based headphones that could convert die-hard dynamic driver fans, it’s the AF180. Offering a warm and ruddy touch to the mids, a laser-accurate upper register, and a golden bloom of taught bass, the 180 uniquely mix a laid back vibe with a trove of accuracy, lending just the right touch to almost any genre of music. One warning before you get started, though: The AF180 are extremely sensitive, so turn your devices down before you get down!
As is often the case with high-end gear, we experienced some of our most engaging moments entrenched in the rich woody sounds of our favorite acoustic tracks. Ray LaMontagne’s Are We Really Through, provided the perfect vehicle for the warmth the AF180 can produce, inspiring absolute reverence from the rich ring of the bass before surprising us with a silver flash of brilliance as the acoustic sprung from deep within the right channel.
We were also especially aware of the spacing around instruments, such as in Nickel Creek’s Reason’s Why. The ‘phones carved out each subtle flick of Chris Teelie’s mandolin pick, every press of the strings on the stand-up bass, and even breath sounds in the room. We heard maybe a shade less presence in the lip movements of Sarah Watkins’ vocals as compared to the W40 here, but even critical A/B listening revealed only a subtle difference.
When we turned to our favorite complex productions from the likes of Muse and Radiohead, the engaging buttery flavor and deep dimension continued, but again we heard just a shade less presence than expected in the upper midrange. The copper-coin jingle of the percussion in the left side of “Reckoner”, for instance, was ever-so slightly dulled at the attack — we’re being nit-picky here, but there was enough there to emphasize the AF180’s laid back approach. That may be a plus or minus depending on your preference, or musical catalog.
We’re not sure we’ve heard piano sound better on any comparably-priced headphones.
The AF180’s rich, silky bass response may have come as our favorite surprise, but their deft handling of piano might rank as a close second. The trait was best exposed for us on Ben Folds’ Songs of Love, where we were simply enamored with the tone. It was at once enameled yet soft, and utterly clear, offering a toy piano attack with a grand piano finish. In fact, we’re not sure we’ve heard piano sound better on any comparably-priced headphones.
With best-in-class bass, crystal clarity, and enough detail and depth to keep you up at night, Audiofly’s AF180 are a formidable addition to an already fierce group of quality quad-driver in-ear monitors. While they’re certainly pricey, and possibly a shade relaxed in the midrange for some, the AF180 deliver all the joys of an armature in-ear, with none of the drawbacks. We highly recommend giving them a listen.
- Smooth, powerful bass
- Brilliant detail, especially in the treble
- Excellent spacing, dimensional soundstage
- No “balanced armature bite”
- Great passive noise isolation
- Laid back sound leaves some presence off the mids
- Included cable feels flimsy in spots
- Pricier than the competition