Phonic BW4: a woody to warm your cockles

Pros: Sustainable wood
Hand crafted
Affordable price
Sound belies 4 BA’s (that’s a good thing)
Bass is quite good and clean
Treble hits the right spots
Vocals are very accurate.

Cons: Fit may not be for all (rating reduced due to this in my personal case, but YMMV, so take that as you may).
Cool Bamboo case is extra (worth it)
Not quite enough bass reach for me
Not really much of anything else

PhonicIEM BW4 ($650usd): A woody to warm your cockles.

PhonicIEM

When ordering, use the code “ngoshawk” for a discount. I in no way benefit from this code, nor would I accept it. This is simply something Kenneth proposed to help anyone who might be interested. I consider this a very noble and worthwhile offering, especially with the current world situation. I applaud his willingness to do this.



After seeing one of the Phonic models on Instagram, I reached out to the proprietor of Phonic, who gracefully offered the model of my choice for a discount. After perusing the pages and noting that the BW4 was retuned with a bit more bass, but still bent towards audiophiles, I settled on that in African Padauk, along with the 2-pin connection for the OCC copper premium upgrade wire of 22 AWG type-2 Litz construction. Complete with the vintage leather case (which smells divine), the unit was unfortunately shipped without the new Bamboo, satin-lined case due to increased shipping costs. That case looks phenomenal, but to be honest, once the unit comes out and goes into the portable case, the bigger case becomes a showpiece. That’s the way it goes, and I do not fault Kenneth at all.

From the site regarding African Padauk: [T]he wood density is about 0.72g/cm3, which is the lower density of the five types of wood, strong low frequency, and strong dive ability. African Padauk is also often used for furniture, with a unique woody scent.

From custom order to delivery, I was kept apprised of the process, complete with pictures (hence all of the extras), which was quite nice as well. The process took about two weeks total, which knowing the world situation of various iterations is pretty incredible. I still have orders from much earlier, which are “in route” having been ordered much earlier.

Using locally sourced wood as well, which includes reclaimed wood, Phonic espouses to be as environmentally friendly as well, and their history lies in custom guitars, which Kenneth states does carry over into making the custom IEM’s. Wood choice makes a real difference according to the website and in choosing one can tailor the choice of wood to their preferred sound signature. Since I prefer a warmer, bass-oriented signature, the African Padauk was the top choice.

After ensuring that the unit functioned with a listen of about 30 minutes, the BW4 was placed on the Shanling M0/M6 Pro for burn in of approximately 100 hours.

Specs:

Driver: Four balanced armature drivers
Frequency Response:20-20k Hz
Resistance: 16 ohms
Sensitivity: 114 dB @1kHz


Included:

.BW4
.Vintage Leather Case
.4 sets silicon tips of various bore and size (sound ranged from quite open and airy, but without depth, to fairly detailed and bassier)
.OCC Copper 22 AWG cable, 2-pin w/ custom y-splitter, jack and slider
.Normally included now: Bamboo satin-lined ornate case (I hope to order one when things settle down)



Gear used/compared:

Shanling M6 Pro
Cayin N6ii
MacBook Pro/ifi Pro iDSD
XDuoo x10t ii/ifi xDSD

Noble Savant II ($499)
Fearless S6Rui ($425)
Hidizs Mermaid MS4 ($249-$335)



Songs:

Dave Matthews-Come Tomorrow, Away From The World
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World, Midnight Radio
twenty one pilots-Blurryface, Trench, Regional at Best
Van Morrison-Three Chords & The Truth
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Ziggy Marley
Damien Marley
Bob Marley
Santana
Stevie Ray Vaughn
Whatever my fancy of the moment

More background:

Looking online for anything regarding Phonic, I found a review of the BW3, as well as images, which had recently arrived to the customer. Not much else could be found. I will also admit that two things drove this purchase: 1. The look of the wood, which had drawn me into another purchase (the Sendy Aiva), and 2. That the tuning of the 2nd gen BW4 had more bass.


Unboxing…sort of:

The unit shipped quickly, but only in the vintage leather case (did I mention it smelled glorious?). So… unzipping the FedEx padded envelope, I took the vintage leather case out and recycled the padded envelope.

Opening the case, I was met with the strong smell of leather and Danish oil, which is used to coat the IEM. Quite stunning in look, I will admit that Kenneth’s pictures will most likely look better than mine. The 4-strand copper cable compliments the BW4 quite nicely, and after listening, I saw no need to switch to the PWAudio Helix Initial from my Legend X.


Fit-n-Finish:

Handmade from two pieces of the African Padauk (the shell and a cover), one side of your brain might rightfully think that the left and right IEM may not be perfectly identical. The other side of your brain would of course slap the first side saying, “that’s the appeal! The fact that they may not be identical gives you the full-on experience!” Well, the BW4 is well-made and the two IEM’s are about as close as one could expect. Crafted from a single piece of the chosen wood, the cover is also cut from the same “cube” in order to match parts closely. It works. Fashioned into the shell, replete with a smaller nozzle, complete with lip to hold the tip; the medium length nozzle fits well into my average-sized ears. I do worry about the narrowness of the nozzle, but as it flairs out as you approach the shell, I really think it will be fine for the long haul.

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There are small “flaws” where the cover attaches to the shell, but I do believe this adds to the character, and the cover does fit tightly and without rough edges. Laden with the “Phonic” script laser engraved into each shell, the customer can do a custom logo as well. I thought about the “ngoshawk” logo and picture of the bird but determined that the stock logo would suffice. I may on a future model opt for the ngoshawk bird and logo (foreshadowing).

The Danish oil has its own flavor of smell, which gives one the sense of being in a fine Danish coffee shop on a winter day. It is not greasy or oily either. The oil does seem to penetrate well into the pores to highlight the darker colors making my unit look like it has stripes. I will add right away that my home does not have air conditioning, and summer heat here on the plains of North America violate one’s sense of what “high humidity” might be combined with heat. We regularly set the countries mark for heat index in these fine summer months, rivaling the hottest around. Think the heat of Death Valley combined with the humidity of Alabama, and that pain would be close. Since arrival, the BW4 has darkened somewhat in color as a result. Tonality has not changed, only the color due to the penetration of the oil into the pores I would surmise. I love that look.

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A word about tip choice here as well. The stock silicon tips are good, coming in four flavors, but even with the new tuning towards a more robust signature, I felt the need to try my Comply’s. This brought about a wonderful bass note, but with fit issues on the nozzle. While they stayed put, the tips did not stay as well as silicon tips. Moving through some Final-E tips as well as SednaEarFit Azla tips, I settled on the Accoustune AET07 tips for the remainder. Full bass and an open airy note, the clarity was really quite good. More on that later. Fit inside my ears is a bit shallow, and can change due to positioning, but a solid sealed fit can alleviate this. Since the nozzle is a bit short, the fit is not as deep as I would prefer as well. But the BW4 is so darn nice at which to look, I did not mind.

The fit of the over-ear is good, but not excellent. I found the over-ear guide coming out sometimes and it was a bit looser than I would like. But it is certainly acceptable to me. The slider above the y-splitter works easily and could be used with 8-wire, which splits to 4-wire above the splitter. Good length and workmanship of both the 2-pin connectors and 3.5mm se jack highlight a really nice-looking cable. Thicker and a bit longer, the jack feels sturdy and is easy to manipulate.

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Sound:

As stated above, the unit was played on two sources continuously for approximately 100hrs, with periodic checks. With each subsequent check I found the sound to my liking. Might this be “new toy” syndrome or might it be real?

When time afforded for a dedicated listen, the first thing noticed was of a solid bass line, which drove deeper than I expected. Not deep of rumble type of bass, but good quality of reach was heard on Drunken Soldier. This diverse song is also good for judging speed, decay, and how the unit handles complicated music, which could be translated into separation and an airiness of note. The BW4 passed most with flying colors.

I was surprised with the airiness of note involved in Dave Matthew’s Broken Things. Not what I was expecting, but certainly a nice treat, the BW4 was coming across as a fine addition. I will note that when switching tips, the sound varied considerably, and I have become more in tune with this (as opposed to those who did much, much earlier than I…). The best reach of bass came about with the Comply, which is pretty much standard. What I did not expect was that the Acoustune came quite close, and with better airiness of note. Once Dave goes into the melodic part about halfway through, you can sense the air of note as well as very good instrument separation. This also bodes well and compares favorably to some of my other wares.

With mids that are slightly above center, and to me slightly forward, the vocals come across at the center stage. Yes, slightly forward and lifted, but darn near dead center across the horizontal plane. But they are not so forward as to drown out the support coming in behind. To me this is where the BW4 could be improved a bit. I do enjoy the airiness, but the instruments that come out in the mid-section tend to play second fiddle. Nothing wrong with that mind you, but this adds to the V-shaped sound. I prefer a bit more balance, that’s all.

From the last paragraph you may sense that things might be falling apart, but they are not. Thankfully, the treble does not come across as overly bright, even with the V-shape. To my ears, there is a bit of taming going on up top, so the treble does not come across as harsh or brittle. Again, there is good body up top, but without that brittleness, which can come from top-heavy treble IEM’s. I thoroughly enjoy the treble note here and appreciate that Phonic did not put too much emphasis or energy up top. Mind you, this does not mean it is shy, no. Humbly vibrant might be an apt description.

Soundstage develops a nice sphere of reference, but to me is on the more intimate side. Certainly not claustrophobic and very good spatially, but not the widest. Support instrumentation does pull the stage outward beyond one’s ears realistically instead. Sometimes a very wide soundstage is brought about artificially, and some who espouse this aspect as a positive miss the point to me. Wide soundstage is nice to have, but not at the regret of presenting it artificially, simply TO be wide. I prefer a naturally wide soundstage, and the BW4 presents itself humbly and naturally. The BW4 follows the characteristic of the song naturally, without artificially adding anything 3D, which can give a false sense.

Layering is also natural, giving a good sense of height, but again not overly artificial. There is that slight push of the upper mids mentioned above, and with the speed of the BA’s note, the extensions give a good, naturalness to the layers. I would call this a naturally somewhat laid-back signature, but with enough speed to garner your respect. A good indication of this signature comes on Sweet from the same Dave Matthew’s Band album (Away From The World). The Ukulele comes across as a delicate compliment to Dave’s voice, but on a distinct layer. Seamlessly with about a minute left, the rest of the band comes in without losing the sound of the Ukulele or its place. Nicely done.

Clarity & detail are afforded in good measure as witnessed in many songs listed above. This adds to the air of note to me and compliments the sound quite nicely. This isn’t the detail monster of a Forte or Da Vinci X, no; but it is appropriate for the chosen shell and BA tuning. This is not meant to compete with those TOTL’s, no; it is meant to provide the listener with a solid natural, rich sound and does so, fitting my taste.

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Comparisons:

PhonicIEM BW4 ($650) vs Noble Savant II ($499):

The Savant was a purchase backed by some research and conversations with a reviewer I respect as having heard more than I ever will. He recommended the Savant over the Sage as he knew my tendencies for a warmer signature with good bass. @Wiljen also reviewed this model, when I sent it to him and came away pleasantly surprised. My review is still “forthcoming.” Running the Effect Audio Ares II balanced cable, which came with my Legend X, the price works out to very comparable here.

When I first listened to the Savant, I messaged the reviewer noting that I would be just fine with three IEM’s if I had to pare my collection down, naming this one of them. That feeling still holds true. On Sweet, the detail is superb. Air can rightfully be gauged in metrics. Without the bass push of the BW4 though, the single DD, single BA equates itself well by other means. That detail is exceptional for the price, with a naturally wider sound stage than the BW4. This is the first (and probably only) Noble I have owned and see no reason to upgrade. On Broken Things, the bass does not reach as deep but the quality and speed of it make up for that lack. The bass reach is better on the BW4 but falls slightly behind in speed. To me this really isn’t about competition, but rather complimenting. And the two complement each other nicely. I still really like the Savant, but the BW4 is making me rethink that “3-IEM only” desert island…

PhonicIEM BW4 ($650) vs Fearless S6Rui ($425):

While the S8 might be a more apt comparison pricewise, the S6Rui is what I have and still like. The S6 was most likely the first IEM where I liked seeing the insides through the clear shell. Set neatly in place, the S6 comes across as a very cleanly built IEM, with a very nice cable at which to look. The 6-BA’s complement each other giving the Rui a nicely balanced signature, with a clean quality bass sound, that does not hit quite as hard as the BW4. But the mids and pleasantly rolled treble make this a delight in which to listen. Many models have followed, and other reviewers have espoused the sound characteristics of those models, which to me reaffirms the place, which the S6 should hold. This is a fine unit, which gives better clarity and a bit better definition of sound, without being overly analytical. What falls short for me is the narrowness of soundstage. This to me would be a case where the sound was engineered to stay slightly cozy, lest you lose yourself too much. Kind of like keeping your dog on a leash when you get to a field where the dog wants to run. Unleash it!

And that narrower soundstage falls behind the BW4, which fits very well into my schema of listening. The S6Rui is a wonderful unit for the price, especially when you factor in the build quality and the looks quality. Another IEM, which sounds different enough from the BW4 to compliment it, especially with the slightly more energetic sound signature.


PhonicIEM BW4 ($650) vs Hidizs Mermaid MS4 ($249-$335):

Privy to an early release of the Mermaid, I appreciated the MS4 from the off. Coming with a then fairly unique USB-C cable as well as a 3.5mm se cable, the MS4 took me as coming across naturally, with excellent bass quality and detail of sound. The mids thankfully were (and are) not too far forward, giving a sense of placement that was also against the norm at the time. Now on sale for less than upon first examination, the MS4 is still to me one of the best at the current price. With three BA’s and a large 10.2 dd, the quad-driver unit functioned well then and still makes it into my rotation.

The MS4 is another that to me has a somewhat narrower stage, but this is countered by excellent height and depth. You get the sense of being in a cathedral of yore. Excellent speed of the bass makes up for a lack. And according to many, the bass is very good (I prefer a bit more but cannot fault what is there). Vocals are crisp and clean, and there is a very nice sparkle up top without being obnoxious. The sound comes across darn-near brilliantly on Mercy as the whole DMB orchestra gives that cathedral-like sound a concert in your head. The MS4 is better at live music than the BW4, but yet again, this is another, which complements the BW4’s sound signature. I still really like the MS4, and the more I listen, the more I appreciate the overall presentation.

Sources:

Starting with the Shanling M6 Pro, I settled on the Comply tips, then sent the BW4 off for burn in. Listening a good bit during the time, I found that while the Comply’s were my favored flavor, they would not stay put. The lip is the same diameter as the nozzle, and wider than others I have encountered. Not wanting to use the smallest bore Comply’s as they were very hard to try and get on, I switched to the Acoustune and happily listened. An air of note came about through this synergy as espoused above. The bass was present in sufficiently close enough levels to the Comply that I was satisfied (and should have been!), while giving more air than the foam. I highly recommend these tips for opening up a warmer signature IEM due to the slightly wider bore.

Brass instruments came across clean and natural. And about as crisp as the BW4 could present. Switching to something more upbeat, Ride gave a tale of two quality tones. Bass and vocals came across present in sufficient sound, as did the airy note. Presentation was quite good, with the supporting cast coming out when needed, but staying in the background a bit more than other IEM’s of similar price. Here again the vocals play a bit forward, while the rest of the mid-section play second fiddle. Pushing the M6P to high gain, I was able to listen without raising the vocals. This song begs for volume, and the pair obliged. Car Radio added to this very nice sound, giving that full natural sound, which seems to be the character here. My happiness grows.

Since I am also mid-review of the M6P, the Cayin N6ii E01 came along for the ride as a natural (to me) competitor if Shanling wants to be considered with the big boys. The N6ii is a superb unit with the “stock” A01 unit to me, but since the E01 arrival (I do not have the E02, which came out a day after purchase of the E01…), I have not gone back. Switching between Class-A and Class-AB gives me the same sort of feeling and character of sound capabilities that switching between single and dual-DAC does on the M6P. The E01 module is a phenomenal unit, and while a balanced output would be nice, I agree with the other reviewers when they state they are happy without one. There really is not need. That said, I would love to hear an E02 module.

Listening first in Class-A, Virginia In The Rain comes across as vibrant and mid-forward, and I backed off of the high gain setting. On medium gain, and a volume of 35/100, the BW4 hit its note, giving me an even more open sound than the M6P could. Switching to Class-AB, which is the more vibrant yet, the sound was an exceptional treat. In this pairing, I favored the N6ii. As a side note, I prefer the M6P with my Legend X… To me, this comes down as much to the module inside the N6ii as the beneficial aspect. Switching to the A01 (after all, it takes less than five minutes) confirmed this. The A01 still sounded quite good, but too close to the M6P, which I then preferred. I am lucky to have this complementary option. I do tend to prefer the richer, more full sound of the Class-A, even if it eats into the battery at a higher rate. Car Radio again confirms this pairing as not only my favorite setting on the N6ii, but another top notch pairing all together.


Switching to the MBP/ifi Pro iDSD combo, I was met with a mild hum until the music started. This is due to the logistical set up of the ifi as much as it is the connections. Playing Tidal and The Farewell Courtyard (from FEYMAN), I sat back and just listened. Using my preferred GTO filter, and +9dB gain along with SET+, I remembered why I love the tube sound so much. Raising the volume allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the sound emanating from the trio. Not used nearly enough, the ifi again showed its mettle in bringing out not only my preferred signature, but the best of whatever listening accoutrement was attached. And yes, I know that by making all the changes, I am essentially tailoring the listening device to my favored signature much like someone would EQ to their preferences. I am OK with that, since I rarely change the ifi settings.


Just for giggles, I switched to the Shanling M0, which has become my portable/running companion, but not before getting my fix of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band and Midnight In Harlem. Such a fine voice she has, and such a fine song. When the world settles down, please do your best to catch them live. It is a phenomenal personal experience. OK, I digress. The M0 is not without its quirks, as it has twice shut down in my pocket due to, I think close proximity from my car key fob. Henceforth I always hold it when I run, should I forget my arm band.


As a small portable unit, the M0 is quite good and I use it exclusively to run or burn IEM’s in. Sweet comes across as a pleasant surprise, but without the authority that the other sources can provide. This makes perfect sense due to cost alone. But what stands out to me is how well it pairs with the BW4. This would be a perfectly fine combination for quick listens or that time when you could not take your larger DAP’s with you. As far as portability goes, the M0 would (and does) fit nicely into the bottom half of the vintage leather case (which still smells wonderful). So, in a case the size of a handball, you can take a good sound source, and the BW4.


Phonic filter graph.png

Filter change:

As mentioned early, Kenneth sent a filter tool and two different filters to try. While he sent the filters specifically for the BW4, I decided to try the brown filters in the 9.2, as it comes standard with the gray. Not wanting to lose any of the pieces, I waited until the review was written up to this point, so I could focus on any potential changes. The sources of choice were again the R3P and M6P.

He included the gray (330 Ohm) and brown (1k Ohm) filters to assess the change. Looking at the graph, this may aid that purported “veiled” sound with which I heard. Changing filters is quite straightforward using the included tool. Carefully screw the threaded end of the tool onto the threaded end of the exposed filter, then gently lift the filter out. It should be snug, but with a steady effort this can be done without reaming the hole out. Something of which I was quite cognizant as I attempted the change. I shant have worried as the change was simple and proceeded without fanfare.

Trying the brown (1k Ohm) filter first so I “stepped” the 5kHz push up instead of making a large jump, I put on the same DMB songs of which I have used. I added the Tedeschi Trucks Band as well as Lindsay Stirling for a good variety of song sensations. My immediate impression was that the filter did indeed squish the sound stage width, and it was a bit off-putting to me. But, once I acclimated to the difference, it was quite tolerable. That slight push at the 5k mark brought the upper mids into a bit more focus besides the sound stage difference. To me though, the mids did not need that added push. It certainly did not make them shouty nor too far forward. I currently listen to twenty one pilots (after Feynman) and find nothing on the downside. Another positive side of this is that changing the filters (or removing) takes all of two minutes at most, but PLEASE do so over a container. I did have an incident where I dropped one and spent 15 minutes finding it. I was being careful as well…

The gray gave a larger push in the 5k region, and to me was a bit too much. The mids became a bit too far forward for my tastes and the sound stage was affected as well, from my off the cuff feeling, a bit more so than the brown, too. I do appreciate the ability to change, but if I only had one with which to choose (limited sample, yes…) it would be the brown 1k filter. If you are interested in that, I suggest you talk to Kenneth at time of purchase. He is very open to changes and considerate of your tastes as well.

I went back to no filter and Feynman’s excellent 1-800MYLOVE and thoroughly enjoyed the open nature of the sound. But, in hindsight I can see situations where even I would prefer to have that filter option. The BW4 is an energetic foal and taming it with the filter is a nice thing to have in the corral.

Finale, part 1 (July5):

This part is written very shortly after the above words were scribed, and yes on about 120 hours of time. This included close to 35 hours of listening both dedicated and quick checks. The BW4 is good. For a small manufacturer to share their wares takes great risk. To listen to the customers and change the sound signature of what is essentially their flagship, takes great humility and commitment. Lately, I have seen more manufacturers doing this with their craft wares. Not the mass-produced mind you, but the “smaller” craft oriented. Of this iteration, with added lower character emphasis, I do approve. With better bass than some of what I consider my top listening devices, and counter enough to them that this added emphasis down low does not flaunt itself as the only positive, I approve. Complimentary and humble enough to note that the signature cannot and will not please all gives the listener the freedom with which to explore the positives of the BW4, and hence the proprietor the passion and humility to change for the better.

Right now, I do wish it had a bit wider soundstage, but not artificially so, for that would ruin the sense of placement to me. Keeping it natural is probably one of the BW4’s highest characteristics, and to lose that might very well ruin the progression made so far. And, I would hate to lose the sound signature it already has, for it really is an excellent complement to what I already have.

Part two will be written in another week or two, as I want to give you the full vision of what the BW4 might bring after 250+ hours. Therefore, I will step away and just listen.



Finale, part 2 (July15-Sept15):

After a week of letting the BW4 simply play, my conclusions from above still hold. This is a very fine unit, that with the proper tip can bring a very pleasing sound. Soundstage is still a bit narrow, but this is by far not intimate. Call it “mid-table” in width. Still good.

The fit of the shell to your ear may be a bit problematic, but I am confident that if your fears are passed along to Kenneth, he could work something out. While for me the shell fit was on the larger size, I found that I had no problem. I could achieve a good fit and seal with the proper tip. I also worry about the narrowness of the nozzle, but as you can tell from the pictures, the nozzle angles sufficiently to alleviate my fears of fragility.

Last since these are hand-made, the quality is very good, but not perfect. The shell cover seals almost perfectly to the shell, and I never had a problem, but those Type-A people out there may need to discuss this with Kenneth. Me? I didn’t worry and call it the benefit of handmade craftmanship. Let’s put it this way: we have an antique 5-drawer chest in our family dating from 1793. Is it a bit rickety now? Of course. Do the drawers stick a bit? Somewhat. But to see that craftmanship after close to two and a half centuries is incredible. I liken the same for the Phonic models. Each unit is made with the care of a craftsman, and any perceived “flaw” simply adds character to me. And that is worth the price for such a fine sounding unit such as the BW4.

I thank Kenneth and Phonic for working with me to get their wares in a timely manner for review. To be able to help a small company during this global period is a wonderful opportunity to not only sample a product that you may not have had the opportunity to do, but to help someone in this time of need. Yes, I take that seriously, and shop local when we can. This would be a case of extending my shop local mantra to a bit broader aspect, and one in which I now have a prized unit. Thank you, Kenneth!

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