Phonic BWD9.2 ($385-435): Reclaimed wood makes for a very solid base.
From my BW4 review: 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 reclaimed Taiwan Acacia: “With the concept of “Hong Kong Wood, Hong Kong Design, Made in Hong Kong”, Phonic has collaborated with a local wood recycling company, “Hong Kong Timberbank”, to launch the “Hong Kong Local Tree Series”, which aims to collect wood recovered from different sources in Hong Kong for the manufacturing of headphones, to make unique headphones and support sustainable development. The Hong Kong Timberbank is a group of designers, artists and woodworkers who actively promote the use of recycled tree materials from Hong Kong in local design as a creative business opportunity through design and business thinking.”
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 Taiwan Acacia was recommended. It looks stunning.
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.
*For the BWD9.2, I agreed to pay the extra shipping cost for the bamboo case, so that I had the full experience with one of Kenneth’s units. I do not regret that at all, as the case is stunning and will be detailed below. Even if I state that the bamboo case becomes a “showpiece” as stated above, it is worthy of addition to a fine shelf next to your wares. It can be used for other purposes as well, since the leather case will be with you most of the time. It was well worth the cost to me.
After ensuring that the unit functioned with a listen of about 30 minutes, the BWD9.2 was placed on the Shanling M0/M6 Pro for burn in of approximately 100 hours.
As part of my continued good luck, Kenneth and I arranged for another model of his at a discounted price. The agreed was very generous of him and I truly appreciate it. As part of this model, he also sent along a filter removal tool and a total of three sets of changeable filters. The YouTube posted within the review is direct from Kenneth and a “how to” for filter changes. I will do my best to provide my version of what I hear as changes, much like I did with the Erlkönig and the four sound settings.
This review has been delayed a bit by a late summer burst of family funerals. This brings into reality how fragile everything we cherish truly is, and for Kenneth’s patience I will be eternally grateful. We have had some very good heartfelt conversations through this process, and it is extremely comforting to know that a company takes that kind of caring compassionate attitude towards its customers. I will not forget that.
It certainly helps that both models have so far changed character in looks, turning from very good looking to stunning. I am very happy with the way the Taiwan Acacia has turned out with regard to looks so far.
Driver: 9.2mm dynamic driver
Frequency Response:20-20k Hz
In The Box:
3x silicon tips
Filter tool (w/ 3 changeable filters)
Little Dot Cu Cen ($415)
Noble Savant II ($499)
Cayin N6 mk2 (E01 module)
Shanling M6 Pro (Dual DAC mode)
HiBy R3 Pro
Joey Alexander-Warna album and others
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
twenty one pilots album, Trench
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World
Mark Knopfler-Down The Road Wherever
As stated above, due to shipping cost the bamboo case is extra. A sign of the times, but I paid the extra to have the case. From the website views, with the excellent photography, the case looks stunning. In person it does as well. With a mix of satin, bamboo and patterned fabric mimicking a jewelry box, the case could easily substitute for an ornamental box sitting on your living room shelf.
Even if the box is a showpiece, the effect exudes quality all around, finished by the plastic ivory-like shafts used to keep the case closed. Opening the lid reveals a lined case, in which sets the leather case holding the IEM’s and tips. Cradled in soft foam, with more satin fabric, the case is well protected, replete with an ornamental ribbon crossing the lower left corner of the lid. This is the extra of the ribbon, which keeps the lid from flying all the way open, and upon closing the ribbon slides smoothly into the protected part of the case. A true craftmanship approach set in typical Southeastern Asian history. Yet more personal touch.
Opening the box is indeed a treat but what lies inside adds to that special feeling, exuding understated luxury. Pulling out the zippered leather case, which is dead center inside the bamboo case, you hold the IEM in your hand. Unzipping the case, which is not unlike the typical Campfire Audio cases, reveals a felt lined case with a mesh pouch on the top half. With plenty of room for a small DAP such as the Shanling M0 or similar, and the IEM, you would be able to take only that case and be satisfied. This is a nice touch as of late since most have a multitude of DAP’s varying by purpose. Opulence yes, but at least manufacturers are allowing protection of that opulence by cases.
As stated, the IEM came with extra filters and a changing tool as well as the venerable extra sized tips. I settled on the included large silicon’s. On the BW4 I did switch to the Azla Sendafit Light, which have become my de rigor silicon’s of choice. But here I stayed stock and am quite happy.
Having the experience of the BW4, one would think that the same form and fit would come about with the BWD9.2. One would be wrong. In comparison, the BW4 is quite a bit larger, and going betwixt the two, I can definitely tell which pair I have in blindfolded. While the 9.2 fits quite well and with ease, once adjusted; the BW4 takes a bit of time and adjustment. I noticed this from the start and as mentioned in my BW4 review, suggested a slight change for better fit. But, in my average-sized ears neither bothered me, but the 9.2 bothered me less.
Both do protrude from my ears, almost too far for me, but they look so darn good that I do not really care. Not flashy good, no. Subtly spectacular, like a finely finished reclaimed wood floor. We redid both of our children’s flooring some time ago in a previous abode using old tobacco barn Oak from Minnesota (yes, Minnesota). Complete with worm holes, and square nail holes, the patterning was beautiful without finishing. In the subtle sense. Once a poly coat was applied, the floor took on a simply spectacular look, but not ostentatious in any manner. It did indeed take our breath away due to its sheer beauty, and that is the sense I get from both of the Phonic IEM’s. They have indeed changed character in a most positive light since arrival.
In talking to Kenneth, he noted how the wood would indeed grow darker in color, but subtly. I admit the initial look was quite stunning, but through the change, similar to our children’s floor, the resulting look is spectacular. Stunning.
As stated, fit is better than the BW4, but not on par with my Noble Savant II or similar. Quite acceptable, but those with small canals may be in for a spot of trouble. Most likely not, and if in doubt, contact Kenneth and he will most certainly try and accommodate within reason due to sonic characteristics. Here is where the choice of wood comes into play, which can change the acoustical chamber of your personal unit, within reason. Favoring a warmer signature, I opted this time for the reclaimed Taiwan Acacia. Lighter in color, it has aged impeccably. Growth rings have taken on a certain highlighted characteristic almost separate from the “softwood,” but in concert together to form an artistically complete piece. Again subtle, but noticeably nice.
Once seated in my ear, the IEM did not move or change sound when I was in movement. Some cheaper ones of late are sorely lacking in that stability department, prone to sound signature changes with even a remotely small movement. A definite downside to many of late. Here though? No problem. Seated and sounding quite good. And with a copper cable similar to what used to come on the “lower” 64Audio models (but still darn good), the sensation of unobtrusiveness exudes nicely.
Finish to me looks like the BWD9.2 is indeed handmade. But not in the 7th grade 4H project way. No, the construction and finish are well above that. While the fit and finish of where the shell cover attaches to the shell is visible, it is not inordinately unkempt. I can see some discrepancies but put this down to the individually made aspect of each unit. The site promotes that only about 15-20 are made per month, so you get the sense that the craftmanship is not only singular in nature, but timely and personalized while showing any differences. Kenneth did tell me that during my unit, the AC went out in their shop during an untimely overly hot week, which would play into any craftsman. To put that into perspective, I refereed a soccer game last week where the turf temperature hovered at or above 120 degrees F, with little wind save the convection current created by the heat coming off the surface. It was brutal and I was essentially done after my first game. I refereed three more after that due to contractual obligations, but I completely understand and do not fault any of the discrepancies in the BWD9.2’s construction as a result.
Two perfectly placed vent holes lie on the top side to aid in bass reproduction, and the care with which they are placed is impeccable. 2-pin cable connectivity is very good with the right amount of force needed, and I could even add a bit of pressure to ensure the connection was stable. Ending in a right-angle jack, the cable is tactilely sound with no stiction problems, or microphonics. Another ilk in house has horrible microphonics and will be downgraded accordingly. Refreshingly tight of wind, the cable is stable, and tangle free as well. A quality mid-grade cable of which I am happy.
Subtle of build and character. Stunning at which to look, and simple of construction make the BWD9.2 refreshingly straightforward of personality. Does that translate into capable and quality sound as well? Read on.
From the webpage description, smooth comes into play for the uppers. Good bass lends itself to Pop & Live music as well in verbiage listed. I would agree and the bass seems to come about at the right time and in the right amount. This is in no way bass-heavy or bass-quantity, no. It is bass-subtle, but there when needed. Coming on in the right amounts depending upon the song, the bass line definitely supports the sound. You can most likely tailor in more quantity with your DAP’s or EQing, but there really is no need. I do wish for more, but do not lament the lack.
I did find that when DAC Turbo (both DAC’s running at the same time) was enlisted, the bass was a bit punchier, but not really present in a larger quantity. Running Dual DAC 90%+ of the time, I played with the setting more often in this review that others of late. A sign that maybe I was looking for something to aid the BWD9.2? Or maybe just trying to tease out potential flaws, without much luck (more on that in a bit). Succinct and present would be two apt adjectives for the bass in the 9.2. I can live with that.
I have a hard time when others describe sound signatures as “V” or “W” or other nomenclature. I try to isolate the three “tiers” distinctly placing them in front of, behind, above, or below the others. Prevalence does play into those other descriptors, but I often hear very differently than what some describe. To each ears their own, I guess. And in that domicile, the BWD9.2 sheds well in the mids. A bit more forward or present than I prefer, I do acclimate to the forward-nature of the 9.2. Coming from another is especially hard here, and I think it is because upon the initial exposure to the 9.2 from another, the mids sound a bit veiled of “covered.” Veiled to me is almost too strong a word, for when acclimated, the mids come across as quite pleasant. Not the best, not the worst, just subtly present with a bit of shyness. This is especially prevalent in male vocal songs such as pretty much any twenty one pilot song. Tyler’s voice sounds a bit constrained as a result, but not to the point where it becomes tedious. Tolerant, and tolerable I enjoy the sound, nonetheless. This is after all meant for live and Pop music and in that vein the mids work.
Moving to a live Dave Matthews song, who’s voice may naturally be a bit restrained (not constrained but go with me), the mids seem to work here. The DMB is one of my current favorites and I am wearing two albums out or to death using them across reviews. As a result, I have a very intimate knowledge of those songs and what they should sound like. Thinking that way, the BWD9.2 presents that characteristic of live music well. Not superbly, but not poorly either. I would call this on the better side, closer to superb than poorly. So yes restrained, not constrained in sound, but with a purpose. Again, after acclimation, I can and do tolerate it for the sound still fits inside my venue of sound preferences.
The Treblehits me just about right. Not overly bright, not dull by any means, there is a slight amount of sparkle, but it is subdued. There is definitely no piercing or shrillness to the top end, which is quite acceptable to me. I do sense a bit of what I will call for a lack of better terms veiled note about the treble, but I think that comes about after changing from something that has better presence up top such as the Phonic BW4. Subdued might be a better term, but not a lack of presence. I hear all note clearly, and with decent clarity, but feel going back to back with a brighter IEM could lead one to the conclusion that the treble is in fact dull and somewhat lifeless. Once you acclimate to the sound signature, that “feeling” goes away, and I appreciate the tonality of the treble.
The BWD9.2 sits to me on the more intimate side as opposed to the BW4. Excellent width, depth and height are trademarks of the BW4 without being too cavernous to support the signature. In the 9.2 though, there is a certain intimacy, which still projects good depth and width, but with a slightly lower ceiling. Not expansive in width, but enough to give the notes room to spread out as the song call for it. Imaging as a result is better than average and above many in this price point. Distinctness of placement still holds its nerve, even with the smaller feeling. Layering as a result is quite decent and can aid in a good amount of clarity wrought from the signature. I can discern pretty cleanly the layers of instrumentation, but it is not class leading to me. Again, that is all right as I like the presentation wrought from all of the component sensations working in concert together to form a very pleasant tonality.
This is a good representation of a signature that tries not to offend but is not class leading. I liken this back to the Meze Rai Penta. At the time of my review, I lamented the fact that Meze did not take as big a chance on the Rai Penta as they had with the groundbreaking Empyrean. My hopes at that time were for a near-game-changing sound in that same vein. It did not happen, and I let my disappointment show. But, in thinking (often) of the Rai Penta, I came to appreciate how solid it was, and inoffensive. The goal was to make a versatile IEM, which could very well have been its strong point: not offend anyone and provide all with a quite pleasant signature. I can say the same about the 9.2. It does not offend me in any one category, while excelling in a few. The true strength of the Rai Penta was its ability to be a jack of all trades. The same could be mostly said for the 9.2, especially in the live sound market, or pop. It shines in those genres, and as mentioned above has many more positives than negatives in other genre. This is a true benefit of its character, and I appreciate its honest presentation of not hiding its flaws by covering it up with another area that could hide those discrepancies. No, they are there and present, but that could be termed a positive: you know what you are getting in much the same manner as the Rai Penta.
Phonic BWD9.2 ($385-435) vs Little Dot Cu Cen ($415):
Unbeknownst to me, Little Dot has been producing IEM’s for a fair bit of time. The opportunity to review their current line up came my way and I of course said yes. Purposed as the second from the top, the Cu Cen shares the same shape as the TOTL Kis (fast becoming a favorite), but with a different driver set up. I will admit, that this is a tough price art which to propose a second in command. There are a whole host of proper opportunities at this price point ranging from single DD to multi-BA models from various companies. As such, you really need to do something remarkable to set yourself apart.
While the Cu Cen is indeed good what with its single 8mm DD, and single BA, it does not do enough well enough to supplant my favorites at this price. Namely the 9.2 and Savant II. It does produce excellent vocal transparency and presentation, but that is too much of a niche. Where the 9.2 favors Pop & Live music, it also works quite well for other genres. The Cu Cen does not do enough well to cover its isolation for that excellent vocal sound. Mind you this is a minor niggle, but again for those looking at this price it will either be their first foray into mid-fi higher ground, or they are looking for something that purports itself well enough for multiple genre, and hence works across the board better. Here, that is the benefit of the 9.2, making it an easy choice for me.
Phonic BWD9.2 ($385-435) vs Noble Savant II ($499):
The Savant II was my first purchase of a Noble, but not my first heard. The Kaiser is a remarkable IEM, but its signature did not suit me. I completely understand the fanatical following Noble has as a result of their TOTL IEM’s, but the sound was not for me. In conversing with a respected peer, he suggested I try the Savant II over another in the noble line of similar price. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the sound. Where the Kaiser to me sounded somewhat fragile and thin, the Savant II filled those missing sounds with wonderfully tuned bass and lower mids, which were present but not overwhelming. Add in just enough treble sparkle to balance the top end, and I had the making of my favorite choice in the $500 range. It still is (until you read my BW4 review…).
Where the Savant II has dual BA’s, the Phonic has a single 9.2mm DD. Each companies approach is similar, though. Tune it for an unoffending sound, which could cater towards a specific genre, but not offend others. Afterall many cannot (or won’t) spend for multiple IEM’s. Those of us who are lucky to do so should appreciate what those who cannot or won’t provide: the ability to try and find one single IEM that would suffice for the majority of our listening. And here, both would do that (though I would personally opt for the BW4 if it came down to a single choice within Phonic), provide a very, very good sound that could be used for the majority of our sound listening. Where the BWD9.2 would pull slightly ahead of the Savant II might be in the depth of sound, which lends itself to Pop more appropriately. I still love the Savant II, but if I had to choose one, I could very well lean towards the 9.2 for its versatility. Luckily, I can have both.
No matter the source, the 9.2 scaled well. Whether it be the fabulous HiBy R3 Pro (an absolute masterpiece at this price point) or the superb Shanling M6 Pro (my current favorite), the 9.2 showed the character of the DAP without tainting its character. The R3P came across as clean and detailed, but with a bit held back (the price does have limits, but not many), while the M6P was tamed just a bit of its warm, richer sound. Both allowed the positives of the 9.2 to shine forth without overshadowing either the DAP or the IEM. That is about all that can be said.
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. I found little difference between the two, as my ears could not determine much difference. I will say that the standard gray is a very good choice. If you want a bit more push in the 5k region, the brown adds nicely to that. I did not try the 9.2 sans filter, as it came with a filter; hence my deferring to the manufacturer. A decent opening of the mids did come about, but not signature changing. More subtle here, and I would expect that from the others. 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.
So, there it is. A long-winded opinion on something of which I had no previous experience. I took a flyer on the BW4 and like it immensely. Open, airy (in conversation almost too open of a sound stage), and thoroughly detailed.
The BWD9.2 shows what can be done at the simpler level. A single DD eschews the driver/variety war, which now permeates the market. Five (3?) years ago the driver war took on ridiculous levels. Within the last year, micro-electrostat drivers seem to be the flavor of the year. I have heard various iterations of that avenue. Some good, some not good at all (seriously). But here, we hearken back to a simpler time. A time of a single well-tuned unit that purports to flavor your fancy. By and large it does. I like the tuning of the 9.2, even with that mild “veilness” of which I write. It does not really bother me, and here is where that private convo with Kenneth can take care of personal tuning choices. Coming from the BW4, I notice it. But after acclimating myself once again to the singular nature and sound of the 9.2, I like what I hear. Plus, it is a rarity for a company to be so thoughtful and personal (save the CIEM market), which to me is a real treat. You are buying into their wares and their philosophy, and it is thoroughly refreshing to see that Phonic will work with you. Part of this is finding the right medium with which to meet, and I can state that Phonic is willing to do so.
I profusely thank Kenneth and Phonic for working with me on the duo (and the delays on my end). The personal touch and willingness to try things differently from off-the-shelf gives a very personal touch and I will not forget that.