Today we are going to be looking at the most spectacularly teensy, tiny little earphone ever to grace my ears, the Advanced AcousticWerkes (AAW) Q.
AAW is a Singapore based company best known for their comprehensive lineup of custom in ear monitors which you can check out here. Their customs range from a single dynamic to their flagship 5way hybrid and certainly provide some variety.
AAW is going all out this year with three new universal models; the Nebula One, Nebula Two hybrid, and what we are looking at today, the Q. The Q is a unique product in the micro-driver world because unlike most, it’s not an in-ear monitor (IEM). It’s an in-canal monitor (ICM) made possible by an exceptionally minute footprint. What this downsizing results in is an earphone that once inserted leaves around 70% of the body inside your canal. For me that number is possibly a little higher as you will see in images later on.
I definitely recommend checking out AAW’s brochure for the Q if you have a moment since it explains the tech in more detail.
I would like to thank Le and AAW for providing the Q in exchange for a fair and impartial review. I simply had to put up 15 SGD to help with shipping costs to Canada. Another thanks to Kevin at AAW for hooking me up with some images of what to expect in regards to packaging for the final retail product. I am not receiving any financial compensation for this review and all comments and views within are my honest opinions. They are not representative of AAW or any other entity.
The Q is planned for release in the first week of September at a price of 199 USD.
A Little About Me:
Over the last couple years I decided to dive head first into the world of portable audio. After reading pretty much the entirety of IjokerI’s multi-earphone review thread and being greatly inspired, I took a chance and started writing my own reviews. Fast forward a couple years and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some great products from outstanding companies like RHA, Havi, FiiO, NarMoo, Brainwavz, and Meze. I don’t do it for money or free stuff, but because I enjoy it. If my reviews can help guide someone to an earphone that makes them happy, I’ll consider that a job well done.
The gear I use for testing is composed of an HTC One M8 cellphone, Topping NX1 portable amplifier, and my aging Asus G73 gaming laptop paired with a Plantronics Rig USB amp. An XDuoo X3 (shout out to my cousin Rob!) has recently been added to the crew, and was used for the majority of my testing. I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. When it comes to signature preference I tend to lean towards aggressive and energetic, but I try not to limit myself to one signature only. I also tend to listen at lower than average volumes.
Enough preamble. Let us dive into the good stuff shall we?
Packaging and Accessories:
My Q did not arrive with any retail packaging. It along with it’s accessories and relevant documentation were simply placed in a quality ziplock-style bag. Please see the following images for what to expect from the Q’s packaging when it is released.
Included with the Q is a number of really nice accessories such as a 1/4″ adapter, a flight adapter, a magnetic cable clip, and six pairs of eartips held by an upscale looking metal plate, three of which are silicone tips in s/m/l specially designed to accommodate the Q’s larger than standard nozzle size.
The other three tips are foam, also in s/m/l. That’s the first time I’ve comes across the inclusion of foams tips in multiple sizes. Very thoughtful as most earphones that include foam tips come with mediums only. While their inclusion is fantastic, the foam tips expanded a little to quickly for me to make effective use of them. This is a similar issue I had with the foam tips that came with my VSonic VSD3.
The final accessory is a carrying case. The exterior is made from from a dyed blue leather, but it feels more like durable pleather. The case clips shut via a magnetic flap. The interior is constructed from a stiff foam cutout. Initial use of the case is for display purposes, as there is a foam insert used to show off the Q. To make proper use of the case you simply remove the foam insert and that’s where the earphones sit. A clever design and I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into it, even if it might not be 100% ideal. A more traditional case would probably offer more consistent protection and be more pocket able.
Three documents are also included; a user guide, your warranty card, and a product overview guide. This final guide seems to contain the same information found in the brochure linked above.
Build, Design, Comfort, Isolation:
We have already established the Q is very, very small. Does this mean they’re fragile? I don’t think so.
While trying to treat them nicely during the review period I managed to catch and snag them on things over and over. It was driving me nuts because normally I’m not this clumsy. I thought maybe it was due to an overly long cable, but nope, pretty standard there. Despite my incompetence these survived some severe tugs and pulls. Though they seem light and dainty, I’m pretty confident in their ability to take a beating.
The housings are made of stainless steel and at 8.8mm in length and 6mm in diameter are not large. Neither are they heavy. Far from it actually, weighing in at less than 1 gram per side. They have a wonderful machined finish to them and while the design is very simple and somewhat plain, I find them smartly attractive.
The cable is made of a tightly wound cloth below the y-split and rubber above, very similar in quality to the cable found on the Dunu Titan 1. This is a good thing as I normally detest cloth cables due to the microphonics (cable noise). With the Q this is kept pleasantly in check despite the majority of the housing being directly in your ear canal. Microphonics are definitely still there and probably unavoidable, but it’s not as thundering as I was expecting given the design and form factor. Wearing the cable over-ear is recommended since it cuts noise greatly.
The cable enters the bottom rear of the each housing at a 90 degree angle. There isn’t much strain relief there which is somewhat of a concern since the cable presses against your outer ear once the Q is in your ear canal. Strain relief down the rest of the cable is similarly minimal but is thankfully more substantial, protruding from the bottom half of the y-split and entering the straight jack. The y-split and jack are also stainless steel with cleanly cut knurling giving you excellent grip if needed. The cable also features the cutest little chin slider that breaks away on one side. I never felt the need to use it, but in a quick testing session it stayed in place just fine.
When it comes to isolation, the Q won’t win any awards. It isolates like your average dynamic driver, maybe even a little less. However, with music playing at even at my typically low volumes, isolation seems to improve enough to make them quite usable in reasonably noisy areas.
Comfort is just as outstanding as I was hoping it would be. The lack of weight, small housing size, and light cable means you never have to worry about tugging, pulling, odd angles, etc. They bring plug and play to the earphone market. That said, since the nozzle is thicker than average I’ll have to give my usual warning for tip-mounted micro-drivers; they might be too thick for those with small ear canals. A bummer because otherwise these things disappear.
*Tips: When it came to tips, I stuck with the pre-installed stock mediums for the majority of my listening, especially early on. They fit perfectly, gave me an amazing seal, and there really wasn’t any incentive to change them out. Eventually I tried out JVC’s FXD/FXH tips and found I had a tough time getting a proper seal. The stock foams I just couldn’t get to work. They expanded way to quickly. Finally I gave the Huawei Honor tips I use on JVC’s HA-FXH30 a whirl. Yes! We have a winner. The wide bore made the Q a little brighter and more airy. Mid-bass was reduced slightly letting the sub-bass come forward a touch. If you like the Q’s mellow stock sound, stick with the stock tips. If you want them to be a touch brighter and more lively, find a set of wide bore tips that fit.
* Amping: The Q is a micro-driver through and through, meaning it likes some additional encouragement to reach their full potential. I found amping made them more agile and brought out their upper end a fair bit. Unamped I found their treble presentation somewhat dull. Amping gave them more presence and sparkle offering up a more pleasant and well-rounded listening experience. Straight out of a smartphone they sound okay, but amping is preferred in my opinion.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I first laid eyes on the Q. Micro-drivers are my forte, but the Q was so much smaller than anything I’d used before. The whole driver and housing unit is around the same size as the tip section of the Yamaha EPH-100, or about the size of your standard medium ear tip. That’s pretty small. I tossed them in for my first listen and was treated to a warm, smooth, musical signature that sounded much more grand than you would expect from a driver crammed into a housing hardly larger then the driver itself.
After more the 60 hours of listening, I can safely say that this is not an analytic, overly detailed earphone. What they are is a fairly balanced and neutral sounding product with a welcome and polite boost to their bass. They somewhat remind me of a cross between the Havi B3 Pro 1 and Brainwavz S5; B3-ish treble and midrange with S5 bass presentation (not quantity). Soundstage falls somewhere between the two, but with depth greater than both.
Treble on the Q is fairly mellow and inoffensive. Unamped and with the stock tips they sounded a little dry and dull, sapping the air out of the soundstage. Adding in a amp definitely livened them up, and swapping over to wide bore tips improved them even further. With my ideal setup (XDuoo X3/NX1/Huawei Honor tips) the Q offers up good detail and clarity but if you primarily listen to balanced armature earphones or dynamic drivers with a strong treble emphasis, these might come across as lacking. What I enjoy most about their treble is how tight the presentation is. It never comes across as thin or sharp, but focused.
The midrange on the Q is certainly one of their great strengths. Its expertly balanced within the rest of the signature. Vocals have just the right amount of presence and clarity and are never overshadowed by overly energetic treble or boomy, invasive bass. Both male and female vocals sound fantastic, making it hard to decide which I like more. The dynamic duo of Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic under the guise of Hail Mary Mallon is captured perfectly. Aesop’s unique drone and complicated lyrics and Rob’s aggressive, stilted delivery battling through 12 tracks of grimy hip hop is a joy. The Q captures and replicates the three very unique vocal styles of Jessie J., Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj on Bang Bang. I often find that if an earphone handles Jessie J. well, Nicki Minaj sounds robotic and unnatural. Not the case with the Q. Sarah Jay on Massive Attack’s ‘Dissolved Girl’ sounds forward, breathy, and intimate, just as it should. Guitars have the presence and impact to deliver on the soul and passion heard in solos on classics like Lyndard Skynard’s ‘Free Bird’ or Peter Frampton’s live rendition of ‘Do You Feel Like I Do’, though the Q doesn’t have the speed and separation to master metal tracks like JVC’s FXH30 can.
The Q puts more focus on mid- than sub-bass; not unexpected from a micro-driver. It is not so skewed towards mid-bass so as to have a negative impact on the listening experience, and in this case I think many would find the balanced achieved a positive thing. Given my preferences for stupid levels of sub-bass rumble, I obviously would like more sub-bass presence but what is there is acceptable. Where I think the Q stumbles a bit is in impact. Their bass has nice texture and realistic decay, but they lack punch and attack and as a result their presentation comes across somewhat soft. This is especially evident on Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’ which has a punchy bass kick running throughout the length of the song. It hits, but without much force. Not bad, but it’s not going to get your blood pumping either.
While the Q’s soundstage isn’t massive, it definitely overshadows my other single micro-driver earphones. Where most have good depth and are somewhat confined elsewhere, the Q manages to offer up a real sense of depth, height, and width, with great imaging and positioning to boot. I was playing Wipeout 2048 on my PS Vita (best game ever by the way) which has amazing sound design. Using the Q, it was easy to determine where opponents were, even on tracks where they were looping above you on alternate paths. I’ve played that game to death with dozens of earphones. The Q gave me one of the best experiences I’ve had to date.
Overall the Q is a really nice listen. They offer up a very capable but inoffensive signature. They’re not an earphone that immediately wows you with devastating bass or hyper-detail, which is similar to how I feel about the Brainwavz S5. The Q is something that grows with you. You learn to experience and appreciate their nuances and strengths.
Suggestions for Improvement:
It would be nice to see a future tuning turn down the mid-bass a touch and add a sliver more treble energy. I think this would make them slightly more exciting to listen to. This might induce listening fatigue earlier during long listening sessions, but I think the trade off would be worth it.
It might be worth looking into slightly altering the angle at which the cable enters the housing. Around 45 degrees with some strain relief to take the cable weight could be good. This would take pressure off that area once the Q is inserted. It would also give users a little more flexibility with finding the best fit.
When it comes down to it, I really like the Q. The unique form factor captured my attention when I first saw them, and it still makes me smile at how AAW managed to pull out such a solid sound from something the size of an eartip. It’s a pretty crazy achievement and I hope other manufacturers stand up and take notice.
AAW has something very unique in the Q and I would love to see them continue to develop and refine the design. With a few tweaks it would be absolutely stellar. For now we will have to settle on them simply being great. Darn eh?
If you are looking for a very compact earphone that also happens to sound great, Advanced AcousticWerkes has you covered with the Q.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
BT – This Binary Universe
Gramatik – The Age of Reason
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That?
Infected Mushroom – The Legend of the Black Shawarma
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Skindred – Roots Rock Riot
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
The Crystal Method – Tweekend
Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Jessie J. – Bang Bang
Lyndard Skynard – Free Bird
Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like I Do (live)