Audiofly AF180 Review: The AF180's currently stand as Audiofly's flagship in ear monitor. These IEM's are ideal for on stage musicians and with a great build quality, overall package, and superb sound quality, these triple BA driver earphones are the business.
Australian born and bred brand ‘Audiofly’ debuted their first in ear monitor design back in 2011 when a group of semi-professional musicians became tired of limp foldback monitor mixes that lacked definition. With the knowledge that professional musicians had relied upon custom in-ear-monitors for years, the group wanted to allow the semi-professional market to experience the benefits of in-ear-monitors in a universal form factor that could, most importantly, be obtained for a fair price. Following this Audiofly witnessed the demand for such a design, first hand, and begun to expand their range to cater for different tastes and requirements. In late 2014 they announced their universal flagship in-ear-monitor, the AF180, and today we shall explore their capabilities.
AF180 Driver Configuration:
The Audiofly AF180 in-ear-monitors use a quad (4x) balanced armature (BA) design with passive crossovers tuned to route the relevant frequency ranges to the associated drivers. Currently the routing configuration is unknown, as is the brand of BA’s that they are using, however it has been speculated that Audiofly are using Knowles balanced armatures as apposed to Sonion. With this said these details hardly matter, it’s all about how they perform and what signature they embody. What is certain is that they have a reported frequency response of 15Hz - 25kHz and an 18Ω impedance, which makes them ideal for use with portable devices and wireless radio packs.
Unboxing, Features, and Build Quality:
Out of all the IEM’s that I have come across, Audiofly’s AF180 package is clearly different, it is an embodiment of their ideal and has a friendly package that cuts against the grain of the boutique cult and sets out to eliminate all consumer confusion. It certainly all feels very regimented despite the warm graphics, explicit diagrams, and fastidious script detail. With this said, there is one annoying oversight to the whole deal. This is that to get into the package there is a thick plastic ‘sheath' pull-tab that, once open, can never be undone. Even though this will probably sit at the back of drawer I just don’t like the over-engineering, this almost devalues the premium nature and feels too consumerist for the price that has to be paid.
Once into the package you can see that a lot of thought has gone into protecting the AF180’s and, just like the outer package, Audiofly have highlighted their Australian heritage with some stereotypical aesthetic details. Besides from the IEM’s, there is a 5½” x 4” x 1” premium dark brown leatherette hard-case with striped elastic closure mechanism, a detailed insertion guide, three single flange soft silicone tips, three triple flange tips (similar to Etymonic Research ETY plugs), an airline adapter, one earwax hook and brush, a standard ¼” to 3.5mm adapter, and finally three sizes of premium Comply T100 sized memory foam tips, along with their own guide. All of the included accessories appear to be of a high standard, with the exception of the aircraft adapter (because there is one main company that produces them for the industry), but this is no new news. The inclusion of the Comply tips is an excellent deal sweetener and shows attention to detail. On their own, Comply tips are rather expensive, but it should be noted that the Comply tips are commonly known to reduce the high frequency extension and prominence and, before use, should be tested with all the other tips to ensure a proper seal.
As it stands the AF180’s come with a single removable cable and Audiofly have opted for a MMCX style coaxial connector, which they name the ‘Soundpatch™’, but is the same as used with Shure and Westone IEM/CIEM’s. This cable can be upgraded with third party aftermarket equivalents, however Audiofly have two of their own variations; the ‘Audioflex™ SL’ cable and the ‘Audioflex™ CT’ cable with microphone, although the AF180’s only come with the SL variant. The use of the MMCX style connector is a great choice in this situation, because it is much more durable than the typical 92 Pin (dual pin) connector which is more prone breakage under stressful conditions. However, the included SL cable is unique and appears durable, but with a length of 1.5m the cable is longer than most others and feels a little too long. The construction begins with an injection moulded (onto the cable) 3.5mm connector which is placed at a right angle - great for reducing stress on the female output jack, but does not have a mega reliable flexible cable restraint. The purity of the copper core conductor is currently unknown, as is the shielding materials, however Audiofly use a tough high tenacity filament external nylon Cordura™ fabric, which is light and resistant to tears, scuffs, and abrasions. At this price point is not uncommon to see Nylon cables, however kevlar based designs are more prominent and affective against heavy use and, as we reach the Y splitter, it appears to be crafted in the same way as the moulded 3.5mm jack. Past the Y-Splitter is a single clear toggle so that, when not being used, can be slid up the cable to inhibit the driver housings from bouncing into each other and potentially dislodging the BA’s in side. Besides this small detail, past the Y-Splitter the cable circumference is significantly reduced and, instead of the Cordura™ fabric, the cable uses a twist rubberised design so that the cable can stay where it needs to be without flapping about. In general the Y splitter feels as if it is in the right place and, before the cable reaches the MMCX coaxial connector, there is a 2½” thick rubber section, with a flexible internal wire, to act as a guide for the cable to drape down the back of the ear. In a demonstration of sheer attention to detail, at the top of the ‘Right’ cable connector, Audiofly have printed the letter R in braille [ ⠗ ] so that in poor light, such as on a stage, the right channel is tactilely defined and can easily guide the musician to place the right shell into the the right ear. It should be noted that all of the cable terminations, including the 3.5mm connector and MMCX connector, are 24t gold plates to ensure maximum conductivity and the internal coaxial pin is very well insulated and constructed with the use of a solid PPE sheath. I have found that the cable is particularly prone to tangling but, when worn, this is not an issue.
In terms of aesthetics, the AF180 comes in only one shell/faceplate colour; a turquoise dark green with the small Audiofly logo. There are no groundbreaking aesthetics here, the AF180 is designed to be as inconspicuous as possible on stage, and employing advanced graphics would simply result in a higher manufacturing cost that, ultimately, would be passed down to the consumer. In terms of the build, the faceplate is made from polished resin and the shell is crafted from injection moulded ABS plastic. In comparison to other brands, the driver housing is very small, but this form factor makes the AF180 universally accepted by ears of all shapes and sizes by comfortably resting in the conch of the ear. Moving on to the nozzle now, the Audiofly AF180’s have a 9mm long design in order to allow the eartips to bury deep into the inner ear at the first bend of the external auditory canal. Thankfully Audiofly have placed a very substantial looking fine mesh filter to inhibit ear wax and debris from entering into the BA’s. However, due to a small 3mm bore size, which is comparable to Shure IEM’s, the AF180’s do not cater popular aftermarket eartips very well because they either fall off, get stuck int the auditory canal, or do not create an appropriate seal.
In summary, the build quality of the Audiofly AF180’s is good. They have a durable lightweight construction that allows them to be highly portable and potentially shoved into a gig bag. Throughout the entire product the sheer attention to detail is admirable and Audiofly have greatly taken into consideration the comfort of the user and their likely environmental positioning. For stage use it is advisable to use standard silicone tips, because the Comply tips can be difficult to insert quickly.
Various lossless WAV’s, various FLAC’s, various DSD/DXD’s, iPhone 5s, MacBook Air 2013, Chord Electronics Hugo, Lynx Studio Technology Hilo D2A/A2D converter system, iTunes, Sonic Studio Amarra, iPod Classic, Channel D Pure Music, ARCAM irDAC, Schiit Asgard 2, The Chord Company Signature Tuned ARAY, iPad Air, Sansa Clip+, various standard computer outputs (mainly Realtek), and The Chord Company Digital Anthem Tuned ARAY [COAX].
Sound Quality and Function:
There’s no denying it, the AF180’s sound great. Audiofly have outdone themselves, and the entirety of the current retail market, in the production of, what I would have to call, a targeted semi-professional universal [IEM]. The AF180 encompasses an honest, believable, performance in a convenient and roadworthy format that musicians will instantly be able to relate with. The ever so slight dark sonic signature appears to be bang on target with moderately favoured bass and low-mid frequencies, before entering a natural extension between the true mids and super highs [approximately 16kHz]. Past this point there appears to be a drastic tapering to keep the treble smooth instead of sibilant and distracting, but the overall characteristics make the AF180 a great on stage monitor by mildly offsetting the issues of front firing PA speaker arrays and allowing the rhythmic elements to come across clear and defined with supporting elements at a distinguishable inoffensive level. In terms of passive noise rejection the AF180’s fare well. They have a great ability to block out ambient noise leaving you to focus on the sound and not necessarily your environment - great for gigging! On the other end of the spectrum, once in your ears, you can rest assured that your music won’t be embarrassingly interfering with fellow passengers if on public transport. At this level I award the Audiofly AF180’s a 8 out of 10 score.
Noticeably the AF180’s manage to hold their ground really very well across a variety of common sources (ie. iPhone, MacBook, PC, and iPad, iPod Classic, Sansa Clip+) and appear stable, they don’t seem to have difficulty with amplification - on an iPhone 5s the AF180’s are loud and it would be painful to listen to music on the maximum level. The probable reason for this is their efficient 18Ω impedance along with the fact that they have been specifically adapted for this environment as well as anticipating the variable nature of low-to-medium class radio packs. It’s all good and well that the AF180’s appear to have a universal performance, but the design mechanics are also important. There’s no use having a great sounding pair of in-ear-monitors if they can’t stay in your ears when your jumping around the stage like some mental rabid animal. Thankfully, the AF180’s grip to the form of your outer and superficial inner ear when used with the standard silicone tips so, essentially, I have found no issue here. On stage the Comply tips do not work well, they get sweat logged and [from particularly energetic performances] become difficult to insert which leads to questionable comfort. The ABS shell and rugged materials at the business end mean that if they do fall out of your ears then you can feel moderately comfortable knowing that they are largely difficult to damage, the exception is the small size of the sound bore.
With regards to the soundstage, the horizontal x-axis (aka. left to right panning), again, appears very natural. Frequencies don’t feel at all like they are stuck to the side of your ears and neither do they feel thrown or distant, the AF180’s embody a great airy like quality however, the bass frequencies do have a slightly more intimate positioning as does the mid-midrange, whilst the higher frequencies have a further afield presentation. Instrument separation across this axis is good, but some of the detail is lost in the low-mid/mid-midrange. With this said I do have to clarify that this is a critical opinion and the qualities expressed seem much lighter as the wording would suggest. At the other end, the transient detailing on the y-axis (aka: dynamic range / aka. contrast: from white to black) is very nice. The AF180’s, although moderately dark sounding, carry great finesse and, as each frequency boundary is clearly defined, the micro details, with much less gain, can still be discerned amongst dominant rhythmic elements which gives thanks to the speedy nature of this IEM. To focus on the speed of this IEM for a second, I do have to say that the only exception to this rule is in the bass frequencies. The speed here is markedly less in order to take a slower smoother approach to create a fluid and bold symbiotic backing that envelops the range. On the super high end I do wish that there was a little more presence here because it could open up the entire spectrum and bring out the sizzle, but still their current positioning leaves no room for the AF180’s to be described as sibilant - the whole point of these IEM’s is to be worn for extended periods.
I really like the Audiofly AF180’s. In terms of sound quality they are excellent and are on par with quad driver boutique equivalents. There is a minor concern with the cable construction as it appears to be a little thin, and the design and build quality is very consumeristic, but if you’re looking for a sales guarantee backed balanced armature IEM that can cater for both your onstage requirements, and your day-to-day listening, then your best bet is to pedestal the AF180’s. All in all The Pro Audio Web Blog awards the Audiofly AF180 in ear monitors a very respectable four-and-a-half star rating.