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Fender is making headphones the way it builds guitars

Engadget Engadget 12/05/2016 Billy Steele

© Provided by Engadget

When an established brand enters a new product category, skepticism begins to creep in. It's fairly common for a company to license its name to a third party to make gadgets, and that was indeed my first thought when I learned Fender was making headphones. Fortunately, that's not the case here. The company's approaching its new in-ear monitors and $99 buds the same way it does guitars: by making them in-house, with strong attention to detail.

At January's NAMM show, Fender revealed its line of wired in-ear monitors, signaling its entry into the headphone market for pro musicians and more casual listeners. As part of that announcement the company explained that it purchased headphone maker Aurisonics to handle production. Unless you're an audiophile or aspiring musician, chances are you haven't heard of Aurisonics. For those not in the know, then, the small Nashville-based company had cultivated a following in the pro audio and audiophile space, with in-ear monitors that didn't require a visit to a specialist to have custom molds or a 3D scan made.

Fender isn't the first guitar brand to try its hand at consumer audio. Gibson, which has a much wider reach than just instruments, owns both the Onkyo and Philips audio lines. While headphones bear the Gibson logo, the Onkyo and Philips brands are still alive and well, with new products added each year. Fender's approach is a bit different, though. Sure, it acquired an outside company to produce its new line of headphones, but that same workshop-like mindset from its guitar-making operation still applies.

"At Fender, we're makers and craftsmen," said Jim Ninesling, Fender's vice president of amplifiers and pro audio told Engadget. "We kept this very close to home. Our best guitars are made in California and these in-ear monitors are made in Nashville by our own employees. This is a core value that we wanted to stick to as we got into this business."

Before Fender nabbed Aurisonics, the audio company had already developed what it called DHT or Digital Hybrid Technology. To ensure a universal yet snug fit for a range of ear shapes and sizes, Aurisonics scanned thousands of ears to create the shape of its headphone shells -- a process that allowed it to construct an in-ear device that fits 95 percent of people. Those shells are 3D-printed as well, with a sparkle finish that pays homage to the same paint schemes featured on Fender guitars. The guitar maker didn't just put its logo on an existing product and release it, either. Instead, the drivers and other components were "reconfigured and improved" before launch, Fender's Andy Rowley explained to Head-Fi back at NAMM.

With a design that serves pro musicians as in-ear monitors, Fender is targeting everyday consumers as well. I had dreams of a record deal several years ago, long before in-ear monitors were commonplace -- or affordable, for that matter. The range of prices and models here immediately grabbed my attention, then. For $99, you can have a solid set of in-ear monitors or headphones that offer lifelike audio with no distortion. Even at the high end, the $500 FXA7s cost a fraction of a pair of custom-molded IEMs.

"One thing that we knew going into this was that we knew that we didn't want to just make an inexpensive consumer headphone," said Ninesling. "It had to be pro-grade quality, but also be totally applicable to a consumer who just wanted to listen to music on their phone."

Fender's desire to market these pro-grade in-ears to consumers is all well and good, but how do they perform off-stage? Quite well. I've been using the $400 FXA6 as my primary headphones for a few weeks and in terms of sound, they rival wired on-ears that cost the same or even a little more. Fender's new in-ear monitors work admirably as everyday headphones, and the clarity of the audio is one of their biggest strengths. The sound is crisp and clear across a wide range of genres, making them a good choice for a vocalist. Indeed,my colleague Roberto Baldwin plans to put them through their paces on stage soon, the next time his band has a gig.

"All of these products provide ample dynamic range and full frequency response," Ninesling explained. "What you can expect as you move up the price range is higher-end driver configurations and more detail in the high frequencies." He went on to explain that instrumentalists might favor the $200 FXA2 while a singer may prefer the pricier FAX6s that I tested for their increased clarity. I can attest that vocals stand out in nearly every style of music I listened to during my time with the $400 model.

From the hit of the the snare drum to a layered lead guitar part, you can hear sound a song has to offer, including some things you may not have noticed before. That said, I found when listening to hip hop that the FXA6 favors the highs and vocals, somewhat at expense of bass notes. When it comes to bluegrass, rock other styles that aren't as bass-heavy, but that's where Fender's in-ears shine. Fittingly, guitar-driven genres sound the best coming from these IEMs.

That clarity is certainly something that you'd want in a pair of in-ear monitors for the stage. Fender says these devices are tuned to "deliver music in its purest form," including 6Hz-22kHz frequency response and 109dB @1mW sensitivity to keep distortion at bay. The resulting sound may seem lacking in bass for those who are accustomed to the heavy dose of low end most consumer headphones offer these days. Still, I found the EQ to be generally well-rounded.

Another attractive feature for Fender's new in-ear line is that 3D-printed universal shell. In addition to accommodating most listeners, the shape also helps with the noise isolation alongside SureSeal rubber tips. Before the music even starts, any ambient noise is drastically reduced, offering an opportunity to tune out what's going on around you. Again, this is welcome feature for the stage too, but it'll serve us regular folks who need to focus in the office or while working at a busy coffee shop.

"We can block out a huge amount of noise just with the housing -- how it's created and how it fits in your ear," Ninesling continued. "It's not only comfortable, but it provides an amazing isolation from outside noise as well."

A product billed as in-ear monitors isn't the most obvious choice as regular headphones. Fender's new IEMs feature an over-ear hook similar to a lot of fitness earbuds also have, only these allow you to bend the top of the cable to fit the curve on the back of your ear as snug (or loose) as you'd like. "It goes in your ear pretty much the same way as an in-ear headphone; it just has a unique shape to it, and it's like that for a reason," Ninesling explained. "It's not that much of a step for a consumer."

Ninesling says that professional musicians have kicked their expensive, custom-made in-ears to the curb in favor of this universal fit option. "They found them more comfortable and they liked them better," he said. He also reiterated that the goal is to win over as many of the Fender faithful as possible with a product that fits a wide range of people, but that it's offering its family of artists a custom-molded solution as well. He didn't go so far as to confirm that the option would eventually be available for consumers, but he did admit that "it would make sense" for the company to consider it.

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