As I discussed in the Arcana v2 review, if there’s any trend to boxed smartphones over the last year or two, it’s that many ship without any headphones/headset in the box, partly this is to save the manufacturer $10 or so, partly it’s to help save the planet, but either way the assumption that you already have a decent set of smartphone-compatible headphones many not necessarily be correct…
While you can pick up manufacturer (e.g. Nokia/Microsoft) headphones on the likes of eBay for under £10 (sometimes real, sometimes less so), there’s then a huge gap to the big brands (and believe me, you pay for the brand labelling) like ‘Beats’, whose headphones start at £80 or so and go off into the stratosphere from there. What about the middle ground? Where a pair of 4-pole smartphone-aware headphones with really good audio quality came in at a price low enough that they didn’t rape your wallet, yet not so low that you doubt the quality of the design and components?
Which is where the ROCK JAW ALFA GENUS (sorry about all the capital letters, that's how they spell it) come in, of course, rather resplendent in deluxe packaging and in their alu-wood twin material design.
Included here are three spare sets of ear buds (of varying sizes, and in addition to the buds already fitted), two extra sets of 'filters' (of which more in a moment) and the ALFA GENUS headset itself, with somewhat unique glossy 'twisted' wires, claimed to be 'tangle resistant'. Plus a handy velvet carrying pouch and a full three year warranty.
This is all starting to sound like good value for just under £45 (here on Amazon) or a few quid more here, direct from the manufacturer, especially if the audio quality matches the rest of the package.
Of course, there's an over-arching, limiting factor when it comes to music on smartphones and other portable players - most pop and rock music gets 'ripped'/downloaded at quite low bitrates, with everything optimised for undemanding music, undemanding ears, noisy environments and small file sizes. Listen to music at 128kbps in MP3 or even AAC encodings with really good headphones and you will hear the defects and approximations caused by the low bitrate encoding.
Making testing headphones and headset accessories somewhat harder, since the tester has to seek out music that's of suitably high quality in the first place. I used tracks encoded at over 200kbps to check these out.
The ALFA GENUS earphones themselves are unusually long, to encompass professional speaker drivers, with the main barrel being wood (actually ebony, in this case) and the rest being aluminium. Those who like to listen to a podcast in bed while lying on their side might have a problem with how far the buds protrude, but then this (i.e. mono podcasts) isn’t the core use case.
The default sleeves were a perfect fit for my ears, though it’s reassuring to have the other three sizes though, in case I pass the ALFA GENUS onto someone else in the family in the future - my daughter tried them and found the smallest size about right.
I ran through a few dozen music sources, music and video, comparing the ALFA GENUS with my existing Nokia in-ear buds:
- Overall volume was slightly higher in the ears
- Bass was slightly fuller and more rounded
- High frequencies were much better
- Stereo separation was noticeably better
This last is controversial, since, quite clearly, stereo separation is a function of the device driving the sound rather than the headphones themselves. However, the effect is definitely there and I can only conclude that the extra separation is because more can be heard overall, i.e. you’re hearing instruments in the stereo mix that were previously inaudible. Wow, was that a tambourine on that ZZ Top hit? And there's a cello part that I'd never noticed... And so on.
Also very impressive was the high end. I'd become use to the slightly 'dull' sound of manufacturer headsets and all of a sudden I was back in business with crystal clear cymbals and shimmering vocals.
The unique feature of the ALFA GENUS design is that the outlets of each earbud, i.e. where the sound comes out, are actually screw-in cylinders ('filters'). The silver set that are supplied fitted are just that - cylinders, and pass the raw sound through unimpeded, but the gold set have a 'ported' (i.e. baffled) design plus foam, designed to reduce bass and provide an even EQ. While the black set have a more complex set of obstacles to the sound, in theory reducing bass more and let the ear pick up more 'details'.
That's the theory anyway. In practice, the default silver set were just about perfect for every musical style I tried them on - there were slight differences with the other two filters, but you'd need a scientific instrument of some kind - or a way of switching backwards and forwards instantly - to be able to tell the difference. Are the filters a bit of a gimmick? Possibly. But then if you're a real audiophile then you probably have better (ok, ok, younger) hearing than me and will be able to tell which filter is which from the sound.
In testing with Windows Phone (on the Lumia 930, 830 and 1020), I was able to pick up and hang up calls with the textured button on the inline pod, plus pause and play (and skip) my music and podcasts.
In addition to the pod, there's a handy spring clip to retain the wire and clip the assembly to a lapel, something which I used to have years ago on my old Nokia headsets and which I'd missed. With lapel support, the weight of the wires don't keep dragging down on the ears and ruining the audio seal.
It's hard to fault the ROCK JAW design, presentation, functions or performance. At under £50 in the UK, all-in, including that manufacturer three year warranty, I don't think the ALFA GENUS or Arcana v2 products can be beaten if you too have got a bit fed up with some of the less than glittering performance from in-box headsets and can’t face stumping up close to £100 for something with a better known ‘brand’. And if your handset didn't come with anything (as is the modern trend) then something like the ROCK JAW unit is a no-brainer.
As to which to go for, with hand on heart I'd say the Arcana v2, as they're cheaper and I honestly can't tell the difference in quality - but the tuned filters in the ALFA GENUS design are certainly a unique idea and these may appeal if you're a real audiophile...
PS. AAWP has no affiliation with ROCK JAW, though do note that the review headset was supplied directly from the company.