I’ve owned approximately 439 pairs of headphones over the course of my audiophile life — models from AKG, Etymotic, Focal, Grado, Nakamichi, Oppo, Sennheiser, Shure, Signet, Sony, SoundMAGIC, Stax, Superphon and Yamaha. The variations have included in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, open-back, closed-back, dynamic, electrostatic and planar magnetic. A good pair of headphones can sound like an outrageous pair of loudspeakers in a perfect room. And for certain living situations and types of music — say, if you live in an apartment and dig deep-pedal organ works — headphones are a must.
Also, I like headphones.
Read (and write) enough audio reviews over the years, you’ll come to recognize key words and phrases that describe the kind of sound you like. Audio reviews are highly subjective, of course. That’s why a favorite critic is one whose views you agree with most of the time. So when I read strong reviews of the Final Audio Design model Sonorous III (hereinafter, “S3”) by Chris Martens in hi-fi+ and Srajan Ebaen in 6moons, I took notice. Though very different in style, each of these reviews does an excellent job of placing the S3 in proper context both in the Final product line (where the S3s rank second from the bottom), and against other highly regarded models from various manufacturers at various price points across the market.
Yes, the $399 S3 ranks “second from the bottom” in the Final Audio headphone line. Sue me. But the S3 tech derives largely — and in the most important ways — from Final’s nearly $4,900 Sonorous X (S10).
The S3 uses an ABS plastic housing (think high-end camera lenses) instead of aluminum, and imitation leather instead of real leather to shave costs. And while the S3 drive units aren’t fabricated from the same precious materials as those on the S10, the design principles are identical. In short, Final didn’t build a “great car” in the S10 and a “cheap car” in the S3. Instead, they took the essence of their flagship “car” and simply swapped in vinyl for leather, and a standard paint job in place of the premium ride’s 27-step lacquer finish. What they ended up with was a really, really good pair of ‘phones that punches significantly above its price class.
Check out the above-captioned reviews for the technical details.
Swap out different types of cables and ear pads on various headphones (you don’t do this?) and you’ll hear striking differences in sound reproduction. Surprisingly, many headphone manufacturers haven’t figured this out yet. A good and comfortable ear pad fit is essential to sealing out external noise (in a closed-back headphone such as the S3) and sealing in the music which might otherwise disturb others. Ear pads also need to be comfortable, durable and easy to change when they eventually wear out. Final takes things a step further with the S10, and trickles their techniques down to the S3.
With the S3 ear pads, Final tested the acoustical properties of the leatherette and the foam. Then they used a thickness of foam that spaced the drivers a precise distance from the listener’s ears. Then they lined the inner surface of the ear pads with acoustical material designed to complement the characteristics of the drivers. And finally, they vented the easy-to-replace ear pads with small holes to release excess low-frequency pressure without reducing perceived bass response.
I like it when people are thorough.
Read the Chris Martens review, and you’ll see that he substituted an optional, thinner ear pad on his S3 and achieved what he felt was even better sound than was produced with the “stock” pads. So natch, I ordered the thinner optional ear pads to see for myself. The thinner “B” ear pads move the S3’s drivers closer to the ears, which heightens the sense of midrange presence, and alleviates what Martens felt was slightly excessive bass response. But for me, the standard ear pads did the trick. Where the thinner pads enabled the S3 to produce the leading edge of bass notes, the stock pads enabled them to deliver the full load. High frequencies — superb with both ear pad configurations — were even smoother (or at least more to my liking) with the standard ear pads. And the midrange — which was brought forward by use of the thinner “B” pads — sounded fine to me (i.e., not “recessed” at all) with the stock pads.
Your mileage may vary, but in general I’d say that if you have ears that your mother lovingly referred to as looking “like teacup handles” (I prefer to think of them as “Obama ears,” thank you very much), you’ll almost certainly prefer the standard ear pads. But if you have little, tiny baby ears, you might prefer the optional “B” pads. I’ve never met Mr. Martens, or seen a photo of him, so I don’t know how big his ears are.
I’d read that the S3s tend to “open up” after about 70 hours of break-in, so I ran them in initially with about six hours of pink noise and frequency sweeps from my Tellurium Q System Disc (get one!) before first listening. But even just barely exercised, the S3s sounded great. Among their most startling characteristics was their ability to portray a soundstage that was both wide (L to R) and deep (front to back) — a stunning capability in headphones in this price class. What this meant for me is that on studio recordings I could hear the room itself in addition to the artist. Because of this spatial characteristic, I also heard entirely new lines of melody and rhythm — not merely just the occasional previously unheard nuance. The S3s put me in the studio.
That said, I felt S3 to be a tiny bit pokey in their portrayal of transient dynamics, i.e., sudden changes of pace or key were not always as sudden as they could have been. For now, I’m chalking this up to the S3’s need for additional burn-in.
More than anything, the Final S3 is extremely satisfying to listen to. Through it, you can hear all kinds of musical detail, but at the same time the presentation is relaxed — what audio critics often describe as listenable. But don’t get me wrong. The S3s are not what audio critics often describe as “musical” — which is just a euphemism for “overly smooth.” The S3s are neither sharp nor smooth. They are precise.
Although a cliche, the greatest testament to a piece of audio equipment is when you forget that you’re listening to it and just play the music. Through the Final S3, I played everything I could get my hands on until it was time to go to bed. That’s the mark of a great product, and one I’m looking forward to improving as it matures.
Purchased from SoundApproach, with excellent service, a 10 percent discount and free shipping.
- BlueSound Node 1 internet streamer, playing TIDAL premium
- Oppo BDP-83 universal disc player
- PS Audio NuWave DSD digital-to-analog converter
- Naim NAC-122x preamplifier
- Naim NAP-150x power amplifier
- Naim HeadLine 2 headphone amplifier
- Naim NAPSC power supply for the Headline 2
- Omega Compact Alnico Monitors
- Analysis Plus TOSLINK and coaxial digital cables
- Naim SNAIC pre/power cable
- DNM solid core interconnects and speaker cable
- Shunyata Research power cords
- IsoAcoustics, Vibrapod and Base vibration control products
- Skylan speaker stands
- 18 x 17 x 11H listening room, with extensive acoustical damping