Dunu studio SA3: A New Beginning

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out the first of Dunu’s entries into the all-armature market, the SA3.

Dunu was a pioneering brand when it came to affordable hybrids competing directly with the high-end market, and also produced their fair share of above average single dynamics. When they announced they were going to try their hand at an armature-only lineup, my ears perked up and I took notice. The DK-3001 Pro and old-school Titan 1 are brilliantly tuned products, and armature-only models like the Brainwavz B400, Astrotec Delphinus5, and Campfire Audio Andromeda dominate my list of favourites. I was surprised it took Dunu this long to try their hand at this style of product, and was curious to see what they would come up with.

I certainly haven’t come away disappointed. Let’s take a closer look at the SA3, shall we?

What I Hear Way back in June Dunu posted the sound they were going for with the SA3, and it had me excited:

“..The SA3 will be more of a blank slate for us though. As a 3 BA, 2-way design, it’s ideally suited for a warm/neutral-ish, non-fatiguing sound signature, so it has a flat bass shelf, a presence region that isn’t overly emphasized, and relaxed upper treble. It’ll be something that we hope disappears into the background when listening to music, podcasts, or anything else…

Can’t go wrong with a relatively flat, fatigue-free sounding earphone. I’ve had the chance to spend a solid month with this review unit, and I gotta hand it to Dunu. What they said they wanted to deliver is pretty much exactly what we got.

Treble out of the SA3 is quite relaxed overall, falling in line with the low end in terms of emphasis. I found bias to be towards the presence region with shimmer and sparkle provided by the brilliance region to be fairly mild giving the SA3 a somewhat dry, muted, reasonably detailed colouring. This was evident running the SA3 through King Crimson’s live rendition of “Cat Food”. While I found attack and decay on notes and instruments to be plenty quick, it comes across a little slower and more natural than other armature-based earphones on hand for comparison. Control is excellent though, with notes sounding sharp and well-defined, completely absent of any splashiness which can be very distracting and quickly take me out of “the zone”.

Thanks to bumps in emphasis around 1.5k and 3k, the SA3’s midrange is its sweet spot. With a relatively thick, timbre rich presentation, vocalists cut through the instrumentals. The same natural attack and decay on instruments we heard above can be found here giving the SA3 an energetic but not fatiguing presentation. The SA3’s ability to resolve fine details is a little less apparent than I would like for an all-armature earphone, however, it is still plenty detailed and the presentation fits in with the overall goal of this earphone being non-fatiguing. Thankfully, a lack of sibilance also caters to this. Tossing on Aesop Rock’s “Blood Sandwich”, a sizzle-fest though most earphones, is met with a smooth, clean presentation with only a hint of aggressiveness appearing on the occasional s. Songs that are sibilance free remain this way through the SA3.

Dipping into the low end, the SA3 has a reasonably linear presentation with good extension for an armature, but emphasis does dip in sub-bass regions leaving the presentation somewhat lacking in the sort of visceral impact you feel, not hear. Those who enjoy the presentation of balanced armatures will be used to this so there is no point knocking the SA3 for a pretty standard behaviour inherent to the chosen driver type. Midbass regions provide a reasonable level of slam when called for, all backed with nice texturing and detail. The SA3’s bass is neatly dynamic, avoiding any semblance of a one-note presentation thanks to clear variance as notes shift.

The SA3’s soundstage is fairly average in size with an even balance of width and depth. The forward mids keep the default presentation reasonably intimate, but do not prevent effects from shifting fairly far off into the distance. Broad imaging from channel-to-channel is quite smooth and even with fine shifts, particularly those just off-centre, feeling like they could be a hint more precise. I did use the SA3 while gaming (COD, WOT, CS, etc.) and it performed admirably with only the tracking of subjects coming up from behind proving to be an issue. When it comes to complicated tracks, the SA3 does a good job keeping instruments separated with a depth to it’s layering that also keeps things from becoming congested. That said, at volumes I’m not comfortable with the SA3 starts to lose composure somewhat, so I recommend sticking with moderate to low volumes. That should be easy given how well it isolates.

Overall the SA3 makes for a good listen. It provides solid detail retrieval, good bass extension, great mids, non-fatiguing treble, and a somewhat intimate but flexible soundstage. The only aspect of their original goal that I feel they didn’t quite hit was the warmth aspect. While the SA3 is not a cold and unfeeling earphone, it is somewhat dry and neutral (by that I mean it feels between cool and warm) in tone. Still, it’s a great all-rounder, daily driver, or whatever term with a similar meaning you prefer.

Compared To A Peer (volumes matched with Dayton iMM-6)

Tenhz P4 Pro (150.00 USD): The P4 Pro has a more balanced presentation than the SA3 thanks to lowered emphasis in the mids that put it more in line with the rest of the tune. Cymbals, chimes, etc. seem to have more shimmer and energy to them through the Tenhz, with the SA3 sounding a bit slower, more dense, and with a cleaner/tighter note presentation. Mids on the SA3 are more forward with a thicker, more weighty feel that matches its improved timbre. Detail and overall clarity are in the P4 Pro’s camp. The P4 Pro’s low end is more linear though it dips sooner in the sub-bass regions and as a result doesn’t move air quite as well as the SA3 (though neither will satisfy someone that like the visceral rumble of a good dynamic driver). It is also a slight step behind the SA3 in terms of texture and slam. While its presentation is pretty decent, I definitely prefer how the SA3 handles the low end. Neither earphone has more than an average soundstage, though the SA3 does have an advantage. Width and depth are mildly improved on the SA3, with its more forward mids giving it a more intimate feel on vocal heavy tracks. Imaging quality on the two is very similar in overall quality. Sweeps from channel-to-channel are more apparent and satisfying through the SA3, while small movements off-centre are handled with more nuance on the P4 Pro. Track layering and instrument separation are on par with the P4 Pro having a light edge thanks to its improved mid and treble clarity.

Overall I find the P4 Pro a little better on a technical level. It provides additional detail in the mids and treble, extra upper treble shimmer, and generally improved staging nuance. That said, it lacks in low end dynamics compared to the SA3, treble looser and more fatiguing, it has a more confined sound stage, and it doesn’t sound as natural. The improved treble and low end quality of the SA3 have me picking it up over the P4 Pro more often than not.

Shozy & Neo CP w/ alternate treble filters (169.00): The Shozy & Neo CP provides listeners with a similar low end experience. As with the SA3, extension is decent for an armature-based earphone. They are both reasonably linear in their balance with the SA3 stepping out with better texturing and slam. The CP has a slightly warmer edge to the presentation though, which I prefer. Leading into the mids the CP remains quite linear and lacks the bump of the SA3. As a result vocals don’t stand out quite to the same extent as they do on the SA3 and blend more into the background instrumentals. The presentation is also a bit thinner and warmer with a hint more detail and similar timbre. They both have really nice mids. Treble is quite different in the presentation with the CP having a clear bias in the brilliance region thanks to a small peak. The SA3 peaks in the presence region, rolling off as you head into higher registers giving it a less vibrant, more easygoing presentation in comparison. Oddly, the SA3 retains a larger sound stage in both width and depth, though this is countered somewhat by the CP’s additional air between notes that makes good use of the somewhat limited spacing. Imaging qualities are similar to the SA3 and quite accurate overall. The CP also matches it in layering and instrument separation, again despite the more confined staging.

Overall I slightly prefer the CP. It’s a little warmer and smoother sounding, namely in the mids, and I do like a presentation that tilts towards being somewhat thin or lean with a brilliance bias. It’s just more in line with my personal preferences. You also get a some more variety in sound thanks to the interchangeable filters, a feature which is not found on the SA3. That said, I think they perform on basically the same level with emphasis shifts that cater to various preferences.

In The Ear Dunu took their time selecting the right OEM to produce the SA3’s 3D printed resin shells. The fit and finish is outstanding without a blemish to be found anywhere. The nozzle lip is small but prominent enough to hold 3rd party tips securely in place, something I often have issues with when it comes to earphones designed like this. The 2-pin ports on top are seamlessly integrated and the rest of the shell polished smooth as glass. L and R markings are molded into one of the inner stability protrusions and finished in gold, contrasting perfectly with the ocean blue resin. It’s functional and aesthetically pleasing (especially for a Subaru WRC fan). The face plate is hand painted and flawlessly integrated into the rest of the shell. The design reminds me of waves crashing along a shoreline and looks positively fabulous. The brush strokes are very clear and give the SA3 a personal touch that you really only get with boutique products. Dunu outdid themselves with this shell and design.

While the cable follows a modern trend that I’m not a fan of, it’s still a good cable. The quad strands are loosely braided (that’s the trend) with a tough but flexible clear sheath protecting the silver wiring within. Noise caused by the cable rubbing against your shirt is effectively minimized, and you don’t have to worry about it being bouncy or sticky. It’s a very well-behaved cable. The hardware Dunu selected is also a plus. The straight jack contains plenty of knurling which gives you a good grip. Strain relief is stubby and a bit too stiff so it’s not going to offer much protection, but I find relief is less important with braided cables so I’m not too concerned. The metal y-split and chin cinch carry on the knurled aesthetic. Leading up to the 0.78mm plugs are some aggressively shaped, preformed ear guides that keep the cable hugged tightly around your ear. I found they did a fantastic job of holding the cable in place even while sprinting or jumping. That said, I wouldn’t really recommend using the SA3 for exercise since they’re not water resistant. On the other hand, the shells are sealed and the metal nozzle grill quite fine so passive moisture resistance is probably quite good.

When it comes to comfort the SA3’s ergonomic, lightweight, low profile shells are as outstanding as you’d expect. Like other shells of a similar design, such as those you’d find for the Kinera IDUN or TFZ Secret Garden HD, these earphones are a little on the large side. This is great for stability during excessive movement, and contributes to the impressive isolation (as does the lack of ventilation; the SA3 is fully sealed), but if you have small ears you might run into issues. They’re fairly long and tall with prominent protrusions to help lock the housing under the antihelix of the outer ear.

Packaging image provided by Dunu

In The Box The SA3 arrived without any retail packaging but Dunu was keen to provide a sample image for your enjoyment. With the SA3 you receive quite a few accessories. In all you get:

  • SA3 earphones
  • High-Purity, Silver-Plated Oxygen-Free Copper (OFC) 2-pin (0.78mm) cable
  • Zippered carrying case
  • Cleaning tool
  • Deep-ish insertion medium bore tips (s/m/l) white
  • Medium insertion medium bore tips (s/m/l) blue
  • Shallow insertion medium bore tips (s/m/l) black/blue

Overall a nice selection of extras, as expected from the brand. While the included tips are similar, they do bring differing insertion depths which should ensure everyone should find something that works for them out of the box. The included case is the highlight for me though. I LOVE this thing. It is wallet-sized and fairly flat so very much pocketable with a secondary inner pouch to securely hold spare tips or a small device, like the EarMen Sparrow. Add to that a nice chunky zipper that manages to move smoothly and this is something I’d pick up a few more of if sold separately.

Final Thoughts This is Dunu’s first all-armature model, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. The entire experience is very mature and refined, from the gorgeous, hand-painted design and high quality 3D-printed shells, to the well-tuned signature that does basically exactly what Dunu said it would do.

Hybrid and dynamic driver lovers won’t be wowed by the low end which is typical of an armature based unit, but the excellent timbre quality and amazing vocals are hard to dispute. Plus, the smooth treble is easy on the ears though I would like a hint more warmth throughout to counter the somewhat dry presentation. A bit more emphasis in the brilliance region wouldn’t hurt either for my personal preferences, but that would pull the SA3 away from the relaxed sound Dunu intended for this model. I’ll have to settle for some EQ prowess.

In addition to looking, sounding, and feeling great to wear (unless your ears are small), the SA3 comes with an extensive accessory kit that should provide most customers with everything they need out of the box. The quality of the cable is right in line with the competition, and there is decent variety in the included tips. I wouldn’t have minded if they swapped out the white single flange set for some bi-flange or foamies though. Lastly, the included carrying case is one of the best in the business in my opinion. It’s too bad they’re not available separately because it is something I’d happy swap over all my daily drivers to.

Overall I’m quite pleased with the design and performance of the SA3. That fact that it also comes in at a competitive price of 139.99 USD is the icing on the cake. They could have released it at 199.00 USD and it wouldn’t have felt out of place in the least. Lots of brands without the same name recognition and professional support are cropping up in this price range, so good on Dunu for keeping the price affordable and providing potential customers with an excellent product from a reputable maker.

Thanks for reading!

– B9

Disclaimer A huge thanks to Thomas with Dunu for arranging a sample of the SA3 for the purposes of review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on a month of consistent use. They do not represent Dunu or any other entity. At the time of writing the SA3 was retailing for 139.99 USD: https://www.dunu-topsound.com/product-page/studio-sa3

Specifications

  • Frequency Response: 5Hz – 40kHz
  • Impedance: 13 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 112 +/- 1dB @ 1kHz
  • Driver: Three Knowles balanced armatures (2x lows/mids, 1x highs) w/ 2-way crossover

Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, FiiO BTR3K, Earstudio HUD100, Earmen TR-Amp, Asus FX53V, TEAC HA-501, ADC Sound Shaper Two Mk II

Some Test Tunes

Supertramp – Crime of the Century

Slipknot – Vol 3 (The Subliminal Verses)

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black

Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma

The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dreams

Fleetwood Mac – Rumors

Tobacco – F****d Up Friends

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