Editor’s Note: This is part of a legacy series of reviews; CYMBACAVUM concentrates mostly on the high-end, but once in a while, we also look at things that are a little more down to earth in price, even if the RedGiants are out of this world!
UPDATE, 2013/03/25: Sound + Vision Magazine has measured the A03 Ossicle here (However, the measurements should be taken with a grain of salt, as the site doesn’t necessarily measure with accepted ear simulator standards with respect to in-ears.)
What is a star at the end of its life?
It’s a burgeoning mass of spent gases — a giant red fireball, simmering in the sky. Its gentle glow belies the immense power it stores, able to burst into an array of primary elements, releasing, in the form of a mesmerising planetary nebula, critical star & planet-building materials into the vastness of space.
Such is the fate of a red giant, and although our own sun is not due to evolve into one for another few billion years, a RedGiant is indeed upon us…
Last year, during my break over Chinese New Year, through some nonsensical Google queries, I happened across the fortuitous color of RedGiant. A local shop had been selling their earphones, with a particular model was advertised as ‘dual dynamic’. Although there have been numerous dual dynamic models released over the last few years, none had quite been styled quite so uniquely as the model that appeared before my eyes. I was curious, however, why there seemed to be no retailers outside of a couple of stores in Taipei. There wasn’t even an online store. Thus, I decided to contact them, and after some more digging, I found their e-mail address.
Rob, who was on the other side of the e-mails, was a friendly Canadian man with an interest in other-worldly pursuits. Through our e-mails, I found out that RedGiant was an extremely young audio company with its design studios based in Taipei. RedGiant had only made its first public appearance at Computex in June 2011, having been the newly convceived offspring of other branding projects. Rob was pleasantly surprised that I’d found out about their brand and hoped to sit down with me, but unfortunately, our schedules couldn’t align. Instead, he dispatched his deputy Joe to talk to me about their products. Joe headed the design team in Taipei and was available more conveniently.
Thus, in mid-February, Joe and Ann (in charge of RedGiant sales for Taiwan) sat down with me for over an hour, explaining their product philosophy and the ins and outs of their earphones. The coffee shop in which we met was not really suitable for critical listening, so they decided to let me go home with their top-end A03 Ossicle and entry-level A00 Malleus to test out.
As the flagship offering from RedGiant, the A03 Ossicle is an earphone indeed delivered by dual dynamic drivers, with a tweeter measuring 8 mm across and a woofer at 14.3 mm. It also comes with an Apple-compatible in-line microphone. At just under $150 USD, the RedGiant promises to bring competition to dual dynamic offerings from JVC and Radius that hover around the same price point.
BUILD QUALITY, PACKAGING & ACCESSORIES
Packaging. The A03, like all other RedGiant products, comes in RoHS-certified clean paper packaging with one of the earpieces proudly displayed in a transparent plastic window on the upper left hand corner of the box. While not exactly the easiest to open, the packaging does contain clearly numbered labels that direct you in the steps required to open up the package — no guesswork here. Still, I would’ve preferred more simplistic packaging instead of a mini-game of ‘Pull the Tabs’. Its saving grace is that the packaging is also not without its cute, quirky touches. On the side of the inner box, there is a mini-joke that pays homage to Einstein’s postulations. Not recommended for faster-than-light travel. Indeed! The instructions also show how to fold together the included carrying case (although it comes pre-assembled) — another sign of attention to detail and a clue to RedGiant’s industrial and graphic design roots.
Build. Once the packaging is opened, we see that the A03 is fully plastic in construction, from the hard plastic of the white outer shell to the soft material of the inner shell. The extensive use of plastics on the A03 does not preclude this RedGiant from being a well-made item, however. In fact, the soft plastic of the inner shell feels remarkably similar to the high-quality interior dash trimmings of Lexus’ sedans. Its soft texture feels great to the touch, giving the user a sense of confidence when putting it against the ear. The nozzle opening is guarded by a porous metal grille that is amongst the better quality ones I’ve seen in IEMs. All in all, the fit and finish is quite polished, if not exactly luxurious in appeal. The cables are thick and well relieved in their connections, topped off with a robust-looking L-type connector. In my opinion, the overall build quality goes above and beyond the call of duty for the sub-$150 price point.
Accessories. The RedGiant A03 is appointed with a respectable set of accessories, including an extensive and well-meaning fit kit (if not exactly the most suitable). It contains two separate sets of tips. The first is labeled as ‘Natural Acoustic’, which is a hybrid silicone, dual-density design not unlike that of the Sony hybrids but much softer and pliable. The other is the ‘Extreme Bass-Sealing’ variety; it’s also silicone in construction but of a singular, much harder, density. As it can be deduced from the descriptive nomenclature, the former is designed to be acoustically natural, while the latter is designed to shore up bass levels. Both tip types come in four different sizes: SS, S, M, and L. In an effort to enhance the fit range of the A03, RedGiant also included two different-sized pairs of silicone elastomer rings, designed to be slipped around the stems of the included ear tips. Even then, however, I thought that perhaps RedGiant had fallen short with this fit kit. While the natural acoustic tips were very comfortable, they were simply too soft. I often had a difficult time with obtaining a seal because the tips would fold and collapse upon entry into my ear canals. It was only when I applied the elastomer rings that I got a better fit. The bass-sealing tips were easier to deal with in terms of insertion and obtaining a seal, but they did color the sound in a way I didn’t appreciate. Most of the time, I wound up using a pair of double flange silicone tips similar to the ones offered from MEElectronics. Eventually, I migrated over to Comply T-400 tips, as they were simply easier for long-duration wear, even though they did suck out some of the gorgeous airiness the A03 originally had.
Removable ear guides are not actually included in the accessories package, but rather integrated into the design of the earphones themselves as a pair of soft and pliable silicone tubes.
Lastly, a modular carrying case made of felt is included to round out the package. The felt case struck me as a bit odd, as it was quite large, but not quite large enough to carry an iPod along with the earphones. However, its modular design was well thought-out, as it allows the user to package their earphones either in a highly secure manner, specialized pockets for each earpiece and all, or lets you just stuff it all inside without organization. The soft, pliable material won’t provide much by way of shock and impact protection, however.
DESIGN, FIT & ERGONOMICS
Appearance. As it is in the night sky, this RedGiant is unmistakable in the looks department. The outer plastic shell is an intersection of angles, edges, and curves. It channels the futuristic, space-inspired concept quite well, and a friend of mine even mentioned that it reminded him of stormtrooper helmets.
More quirkiness is apparent on the inner face of the housings, as there is an HTML tag for where the <HEAD></HEAD> goes in-between. It doesn’t mean, however, that the Ossicle only appeals to the geek-chic crowd; I’m sure it provides plenty of aesthetic appeal for the mainstream as well.
Fit. Although the housings are quite light, once anyone takes a step back and looks at the earpieces in their entirety, it’s apparent that the A03 Ossicle is positively massive. This is arguably the most controversial aspect of the A03, and I’m sure much will be made of the fit and ergonomics of the Ossicle as time goes on, so I’ll go ahead and say that the design of the A03 is in fact not designed to fit everyone’s ears. Much like a pair of demo customs, the A03 Ossicle is designed to be a one-size-fits-most item. Part of the reason why the A03 isn’t all-inclusive is that it fills the entire concha of the ear; people with smaller ears are simply unable to put them in their ears.
With smaller than average ears, I was afraid that the Ossicle would not fit in my ears; luckily it did —- but barely. I gave the A03 to a male friend with smaller ears than me, and they couldn’t fit. The experience was basically like putting a square peg in a round hole: it just doesn’t work. Interestingly enough, however, no female that I tested the fit with had problems wearing the Ossicle.
For those that do get a good fit, once they’re put in properly, it does feel fairly comfortable; it is only after a couple of hours that the fatigue will set in. Although the front of the housings are tapered to allow them to fit under the tragus of the ear, I find that it is still a little too thick for my ears, and so, after continuous wear, the tragus will invariably feel sore after removal of the A03. Comply tips will help with the comfort, but won’t eliminate soreness altogether.
In RedGiant‘s defense, they didn’t completely ignore comfort when designing the A03 Ossicle. They merely felt that the large housings would best be able to implement their dual dynamic system in a way that satisfied them. As mentioned before, it is an inner-shell, outer-shell design; the drivers are largely housed in the inner-shell, but port out to the outer-shell. In order to compensate for potential fit issues, they included the large fit kit. Interestingly, the A03 is actually designed with a dual-tiered nozzle system for better fit. The silicone sleeves can be fit higher or lower depending on which rung you use. RedGiant‘s official line is that the dual-tiered nozzle is designed to compensate for people with different length ear canals, but I don’t really find much of a difference, except I usually find that silicone tips work better on the upper rung, while Comply tips work better with the lower rung.
Seal and Isolation. In the most comfortable configuration for wearing the A03, the housings are actually not flush against the wall of my concha and anti-helix, but rather canted at an angle outwards, in order to provide the best seal. However, this position takes away from the stabilizing aspects of the ear-hugging design and thus takes away some of the outer ear involvement that is crucial for allowing the A03 to sound as large and spacious as it can. Keep in mind, however, that fit varies from person to person, and I’m merely communicating my own experience. Isolation is also lacking for a closed earphone. At first, I believed that isolation was relatively poor because I wasn’t getting a good enough seal, but it soon became apparent that the large surface area of the plastic shells actually acts as a good sound conduction surface, and will transmit outside noise into the sound mixture inside the outer shell. I also found that the plastic outer shell colors the sound in a distinctively plastic manner, much like the difference between plastic, wood, and metal housings for other earphones. As a consequence, I’ve made two suggestions to RedGiant to remedy the A03’s isolation and fit problems: (1) to implement an articulating nozzle like the GR07, and (2) to change the material of the outer shell to something with more acoustic neutrality, such as carbon fiber or even a different composition plastic (metal would make the shell way too heavy). The articulating nozzle would really help with the fit, as the current angle of the nozzle will definitely cause people problems, while a CF-made outer shell would improve noise isolation and give it a better aesthetic appearance. I have my doubts that the second suggestion would ever make it into production, unless they decided to do a special, limited-edition of the A03.
Once the A03 gets into your ears the right way, however, the real magic happens…