Brainwavz Alara: Pull you in from afara
Today we’re checking out a new headphone from Brainwavz, the Alara.
Established in 2008 and owned by GPGS, Brainwavz is no stranger to the audio market. With classics like the HM5 and B2 as well as modern gems like the Jive and B400 under their belt, it is no surprise they’ve continued to move further upscale with some of their recent releases. The Alara is their first attempt at a planar magnetic headphone and diversifies their lineup beyond the typical dynamic drivers found in the HM5 and HM100.
Is their first go at an open-back planar magnetic headphone a success, or does Brainwavz need to reel the Alara back in for some revisions? Let’s find out.
Thanks to Marlon with Brainwavz for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing the Alara, and for arranging a complimentary sample for the purposes of review. The Alara is still the property of Brainwavz and will be sent back if requested. The thoughts within this review are my own based on my time with the Alara. They do not represent Brainwavz or any other entity. At the time of writing, the Alara retailed for 499.00 USD. *Edit 04/01/2019: Price has been permanently reduced to 399 USD!*
The Alara was run through my TEAC HA-501 desktop with a HiFi E.T. MA8, ZiShan DSD, or Shanling M0 acting as the source. The Alara isn’t hard to drive and can easily be pushed to my admittedly low listening volumes, and beyond, with relative ease. That said, I preferred it being powered by the HA-501 which gave the presentation a more effortless feel. Amping isn’t needed, but I recommend it.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such there is no one sound I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800 Silver, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that I find enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Driver: Planar
- Impedance: 20 ohms
- Sensitivity: 94dB @ 1mW
- Frequency Range: 10Hz – 40kHz
- Maximum Input Power: 300mW
- Plug: 3.5mm, Gold-Plated
- Cable: 2m, cloth sheath, detachable
Packaging and Accessories:
After the monolith of a box the HM100 arrived in, I was surprised to see the Alara showing up in something so compact. At 7” x 5” x 9.5” this is the second smallest box I’ve seen for a full-sized set of headphones. Only Campfire Audio’s Cascade came in a smaller box, and that’s intended to be a mobile headphone thanks to its folding mechanism. The packaging has a plain white color scheme showing off the entirely of the headphone on the front. You also find the usual company branding and model information, as well as a prominent 24 month warranty advisory. The sides show straight on shots of the ear cups and their unique spiderweb-esque design as well as some social media info for Brainwavz. Flip to the rear to find a marketing blurb telling you a bit about the Alara. Below this you find the specifications as well as the contents and accessories list. Lifting open the lid you are immediately greeted by an impressively small clamshell carrying case in Brainwavz’s traditional black and red color scheme. Did I miss reading that the Alara could fold up, because there is no way it and all the accessories could fit in that case? In all you get:
- Alara headphones
- Hardshell case
- Fabic-covered, 2m long cable
- Spare earpads
- Screw-on 1/4” adapter
- User guide with warranty card
I have to commend Brainwavz for the design of the case. As mentioned above, I figured I missed reading that the Alara could fold up. But nope, it doesn’t. The case is just extremely well designed with no wasted space. Undoing the twin zippers, you find the case conforms perfectly to the shape of the Alara with the accessories contained within a separate bag, held in place via a velcro strip. The bag is made from a stretchy mesh material and is just large enough to comfortably hold the cable, strap, and 1/4” adapter. The spare pads sit on top. Efficiency to the max.
Overall I quite like the general presentation. The case is amazingly well-designed and the cable is long and sturdy. I appreciate the inclusion of some spare pads, though it would have been nice if they were of a different style than the pre-installed set. Good stuff.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The moment you pick the Alara up, the weight gives away that it is a quality piece of equipment. The all-black design is quite handsome with a thick spider web-like plate covering a finer metal mesh beneath. Instead of printing the logos and left/right indicators as most companies would, those are part of the mold so they won’t wear off over time. The yokes are matte black plastic but feel plenty tough. Squeezing them there is some flex so you don’t have to worry about small bumps damaging them. Larger falls, sure, but that applies to the vast majority of headphones. Metal to match the cups would have been nice, but the plastic yolks work just fine.
The headband is smoothly rounded over a flexible steel band that conforms nicely to the head to distribute weight evenly. Padding is on the thin side and will be something to keep in mind as the headphones ages and the padding breaks down. Another nice aspect to the build is that mostly everything seems to be screwed together, not glued. Hopefully Brainwavz will keep a small stockpile of replacement parts handy. If not, I fully expect to see the DIY market coming up with replacement parts you can 3D print yourself. That said, the Alara feels durable enough for me to doubt that this will ever be necessary. The straightforward disassembly process will also be nice for modders who enjoy tweaking their headphones.
The two pairs of included pads are of excellent quality, as is expected from a company that makes some of the most popular 3rd party pads in the industry. They feature a hybrid PU leather/velour construction with perforations around the inner edge to heat with heat dissipation. If they’re using memory foam, the expansion period is exceptionally quick. It doesn’t matter either way in my opinion since the foam is soft and flexible. Unlike other pads from the brand, to work with the Alara they are directly glued to a plastic ring with pegs that snap into the Alara’s driver plate. This propritary system means that if you wanted to fit other pads, they would either need to use the same clip system, or you’d have to cut the ring out of the spare set of pads and go about customizing them yourself.
The included cable is fantastic. At 2m it is quite long, obviously meant for stationary use with a monitoring set up or home stereo. The dense fabric sheath is tightly braided so I wouldn’t expect to see fraying around the y-split or plugs anytime soon. The 3.5mm metal straight jack is well-relieved and threaded for use with the included 1/4” adapter. The y-split is a solid hunk of rubber with no strain relief. I would not consider this an issue given how thick the cable is. 3.5mm plugs are also used for the plugs leading to each channel. I much prefer this to the less durable 2.5mm plugs used by HiFiMAN and ADVANCED, among others.
My claim that the Alara is comfortable comes with an asterisks: it’s too big to fit me properly. This is an unfortunate reality for small-noggined people like myself and as a result many headphones are either too big, or just barely fit. That is one reason I quite like self-adjusting head-bands, such as that found on the Meze 99 Neo. With the Alara I was either wearing a hat, or adding an extra band of padding to get them to fit. The latter was my go to with a broken pair of Tritton Kunai donating a headband pad, Velcroed in place to the Alara.
Isolation is pretty amazing. Ha! No it’s not. This is an open back set of headphones. Isolation is mostly non-existent, as should be expected. Sound bleeds both ways. Your local librarian will not appreciate your presence if wearing these in their establishment.
Planar magnetic drivers offer some distinct benefits over your traditional dynamic driver. Sandwiching a large, light, nanometer thick diaphragm between large, powerful magnets leads to a sound that is less distorted. Where dynamic drivers deliver power from a central source and as a result are subject to modal breakup as sections of the driver further from the voice coil struggle to keep up, a planar driver distributes equal force across the entire driver, allowing it to move as one unit. The low weight of the diaphragm combined with strong magnets also results in a driver that is supremely responsive since there is so little material to create momentum. The Alara delivers these qualities along with a sound that is powerful, dynamic, and supremely well-balanced.
Treble regions extend well without much in the way of harshness present to break up the experience. Speed as heard through King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” is rapid and able to take on multiple instruments in such a congested presentation without losing composure or becoming muddied. Decay is also just right with the pianos on Muse’s “Exogenesis Symphony (Cross Pollination)” lingering majestically from one key stroke to the next. Clarity is also fantastic with subtle details being picked up with ease, such as the light pings and ticks of an engine cooling down (I watch a lot of World Rally Championship and World Rallycross). The upper treble is raised just enough to give notes decent space and air to move about, though as we will discuss later the Alara does not have a large sound stage, at least not for an open back planar.
The mid-range is fairly even and neutral in presence with a dip in the upper mids that helps counteract listening fatigue. Even vocalists like Matt Bellomy or Mariah Carey when they go full out still sound absolutely phenomenal. Sibilance is kept to a minimum. This is evident on Aesop Rock’s “Blood Sandwich” where his vocals can show some serious sizzle on the plethora of Ts and Ss present throughout the track. It’s still present through the Alara, but softened, lacking the uncomfortable aggressiveness you hear listening to it through some other headphones, like the ADVANCED Alpha. Timbre is wonderfully accurate with instruments sounding as they should. You certainly won’t be mistaking a viola for a violin.
Bass is where the Alara spices things up a bit, adding in some extra presence and body compared to the rest of the presentation.Unlike other planars I’ve heard, the Alara’s low end has a very distinct growl to it that works very well with electronic music, rock, and metal. EL-P’s upbeat production on Run The Jewel’s “Call Ticketron” is a wicked example of this. Notes dig deep with a strong physical presence that matches the crunchy texture on offer. Something light and more nuanced like Porcupine Tree’s instrumental “Tinto Brass” from Stupid Dream is just as equally well represented. While not as quick as some other planars I’ve come across, the Alara is plenty quick, easily keeping up with the crushingly snappy bass lines of Havok’s “D.O.A”.
The Alara has a fairly compact sound stage for an open back headphone. It’s not so confined so as to provide a claustrophobic feeling, but it never tosses effects particularly far either. It’s one of the more intimate open-backs I’ve come across as a result. Combining this with the growling bass results in a distinctive experience. Imaging is fairly accurate but starts to lose precision as you reach the outer edges of the stage. This was noticeable running through Infected Mushroom’s classic two part album, ‘Converting Vegetarians’, and BT’s spacey “If The Stars Are Eternal Than So Are You And I”. The Alara does a good job with instrument separation and layering enabling the smaller stage and satisfactory imaging to work.
I can certainly see some looking for a larger sound stage, but in my experience the intimate nature, decent technical performance, and aggressive bass works in it’s favour. The Alara is an exciting headphone to listen to, especially when you pair it with aggressive tracks that play to its strengths.
ADVANCED Alpha (499.00): Right off the bat the Alpha sounds larger and more spacious. It has a less linear signature with a leaner mid-range and stronger upper-mid peak that gives it a more airy, but also more fatiguing presentation. The Alpha also moves sounds from channel to channel with greater differentiation and more precision, though layering and separation qualities are quite similar between the two. Sound stage fans will feel more at home with the Alpha. Bass on the Alara has more impact and depth with a cleaner transition from lower to upper bass. While not quite as quick, I found it more textured and that notes lingered more realistically, particularly in the sub-bass regions. The Alara’s mid-range is more prominent and has a meatier note presentation, though not at the expense of detail and clarity. Treble is cleaner and tighter on the Alara. The Alpha has a brighter, more shimmery presentation that also comes across slightly artificial in comparison.
While both headphones use plastic and metal for their construction, they go about things very differently. Where the Alpha’s cups are plastic, the Alara’s are metal. Where the Alara uses plastic for the yoke material and the lower half of the headband assembly, the Alpha uses pressed steel everywhere else. The Alara is much heavier and more sturdy feeling overall with smaller, more naturally shaped ovular cups and ear pads. The Alpha features a floating headband system that automatically sizes to the head while the Alara goes with a more traditional slider assembly. While the Alara is too big for me forcing the addition of an extra strip of padding to the underside of the headband, both systems work equally well. Maybe it’s simply because of the size of my head, but I found the Alara’s clamping force lighter and more pleasant than the Alpha which grips tighter. Neither are uncomfortable whatsoever.
When it comes to accessories, the Alpha comes in a large, visually impressive textured case with the headphones secured within a dense sheet of protective foam. Accessories are limited to a cable that would be more at home on an iem instead of a full sized planar headphone, a leather cable wrap, and spare hybrid-style pads that slightly alter the sound. Compare this to the Alara which comes with a much more compact and portable hardshell case, a longer cloth cable more suited to the style of headphone, a 1/4” adapter, a removable strap to carry the case, and spare pads which are identical to the pre-installed set. I prefer the Alara’s more practical accessory kit, though I wish the spare pads were of a different style.
The Alpha has a larger sound stage at the expense of a more uneven tune with faster roll off in the bass, but it fits me like a charm. On the other hand, the Alara is better built, has a more weighty, balanced sound signature, and comes with a accessory kit that is more useful and better tailored to the product.
It is hard to be disappointed with any aspect of the Alara. From the subtle but interesting design, to the rigid build quality, to the balanced sound and growly bass, it’s a crowd pleaser at every turn. It would have been nice for the headband to have been smaller to better accommodate those with tiny noggins like myself, but that is easy enough to work around. The inclusion of two sets of pads is never something to complain about, though I find it odd that they’re both the same. It feels seems like a missed opportunity since pads can alter sound quite drastically and it would have been useful to swap between different pads for different signatures. Regardless, these are minor qualms with what is otherwise a standout headphone in virtually every way.
It’s hard to believe they haven’t been making planar headphones all these years. Fantastic work Brainwavz.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)