Audiofly’s AF78 Earphones Hold Their Own in the Fight for Top Sonic Honors [Review]

We bumped into neophyte Australian headphones-maker Audiofly in January, during a press-only event at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and gave two models in the four-model lineup a whirl. Their mid-level AF45 set sounded great for $50; but the next one I tried — the top-of-the-line AF78 ($200)left me slack-jawed with disbelief; its sound knocked my socks off, even amid the cacophony of noisy journalists.

What makes the AF78 unusual is its speaker arrangement.

Many mid-to-high-end canalphones are powered by tiny armature speakers, while moving coil drivers are found pretty much everywhere except the very high end. Armatures are generally better at producing clean highs and mids, but can lack deep bass; moving coils, on the other hand, are generally not as good at reproducing the clarity of an armature. But the AF78 is part of an elite group of models  — like the Scosche IEM856m I reviewed last year — that employ both a moving coil speaker and a balanced armature in each ear, in an attempt to give the listener the best of both worlds. And it works spectacularly.

Aesthetics:

The AF78s look like they’re built to last, and no wonder: In addition to building guitars, Audiofly founder and head honcho Dave Thompson spent a few years in the outdoor industry. As a result, the AF78′s think Kevlar cables are housed in Cordura cable sheaths. Add tastefully accented earpieces into the mix and the result is one of the coolest-looking sets on the market.

Ergonomics:

Despite the relative bulk of the earpieces — a common characteristic of hybrid armature/moving coil sets — the AF78s felt really comfortable in my ears. They weren’t terribly stable when I bounced around a lot, and they can’t be worn upside down like some other sets (with the cables routed over the ears), so they’re not great for active pursuits. But they fit perfectly during anything that didn’t require vigorous movement.

Sound:

For the price, the AF78s blow almost everything else I’ve tried out of the water. As advertised, music retained all the mid- and hi-end detail one would expect from a balanced-armature set, yet there was ample bass; not overwhelming bass, but just enough of a kick to make more pop-ish songs sound fantastic — something I often find lacking in most armature sets. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard ’80s pop — think Duran Duran, Mr. Mister — sound as good as it did with these ‘phones. Go figure. They didn’t quite have as full a sound as, say, a triple-armature set like Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10, mostly because the AF78′s single armature can’t match the three armatures in the TripleFi, one of which is solely dedicated to midrange. But the bass was definitely more pronounced, and with better definition — yet without sounding as heavy handed as the bass in Scosche’s IEM856m, which also employs a moving coil/armature hybrid setup. Bottom line: I loved the combination of clear, crisp highs and perfectly tuned bass.

One small problem here though, and one fairly big one. The small problem has to do with the set’s ear tips: they simply didn’t do a  good enough job of sealing out environmental noise. The specs sheet for the AF78 claims a 23 dB reduction in ambient noise, and that seems about right — but that’s a low figure compared with many other sets this expensive. So unless you plan to swap out the tips for a pair of Comply tips (yes, they’re available for the AF78, starting at $15), this is probably not the set for a train commute.

The larger problem has to do with the Cordura cable sheaths, which got to be be really, really annoyingly noisy when they rubbed against my shirt. This was obviously only an issue when moving, and easily dealt with by running the cable underneath my shirt so  it couldn’t move; still, you may not want to or be able to do this.

Extras:

Our set didn’t have a microphone/control button, but an extra $10 will get you just that. The sets we played around with at CES included the extra features, and though I didn’t try the mic, I recall being fairly pleased with the button action. Also, while our sample set arrived in a cloth pouch, retail versions will come stashed in a tin box.

Verdict:

With the AF78′s perfect blend of clean highs and mellow bass, it’s love at first listen — especially for the price. But the noisy Cordura sheaths and unsophisticated eartips stop the set from reaching five-star sonic heaven.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

The right earpiece sports a Braille character to indicate it should be placed in the left ear (though the earpieces are shaped in such a way that makes inserting them in the wrong ear very difficult anyway, and there are printed L/R markers if you don’t read Braille).

That braided Cordura cable sheath is like your favorite jock stereotype: rugged and good-looking, but also noisy.

Our set came with a cloth case, but yours should include a storage tin.

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