DBA-02 MKII in Review – Bittersweet


Fischer Audio have updated their best-selling DBA-02. And what an update it is. The DBA-02 MKII is a delightful earphone replete with comfort and an accessory kit that is the envy of the earphone world. How about its sound, you ask? I’ll be singing praises soon enough.

First, let’s yabber about WOWs.

Package and accessories
The first WOW for me came when I picked up the chunky DBA box. It’s cardboard, not plastic, but it’s not run-of-the-mill cardboard. In Star Wars terms, it’s a Corellian cruiser, not Princess Leia’s transport; or better yet, it’s an imperial Star Destroyer, but without the two weak testicles at the top. Depending on how bony your bum is, you can sit on box without crushing it. The importance here is twofold. First: it’s a great place to keep the myriad accessories. Second, when the audiophile gear buying urge gets you bad enough, you can even hide away an amp or two from your wife. Third (and most important): it is a breeze to open. I feel that I’ve not been tough enough on certain manufacturers. Some still insist on sealing their goods with hard, finger-cutting plastics that necessitate scissors, a medical degree, and the application of pressure and hurried calls to 911. Yes, I’ve actually bled after opening certain earphone boxes. Not with the DBA-02MKII.

Inside the box, you get a wonderfully small (and therefore practical) zippered carrying case. (It is semi-hard, and will keep your DBA-02 MKII safe and snug with enough room left for a backup pair of ear pieces, and have room enough left over for an iPod shuffle or Nano.) Then, there are dozens of ear pieces for you to play with. There are three sets of hybrid pieces – though, I should admit that calling them hybrid is unjust to true hybrids as they are merely silicon flanges with a bit of foam on the inside. Nevertheless, they fit well and isolate well. Then, there are triple flanges, transparent flanges, and still more: there are loads to choose from, and each one is comfortable. Finally, there are two ear-guides and a shirt clip to keep the DBA-02 MKII put.

Let’s start with the shirt clip.

What it’s all about, I don’t know. Why do I say this? For starters, it’s a bugger to get on the cable. I really want to fasten cable after the y-split, but no can do. And even when I get the bugger into position before the y split, it does almost nothing to keep the cable next to my body nor touch noise down. And I’m no fool. I graduated from York University (the audience roars with laughter). With a degree in English literature (they gasp for air, hammering their sides).

It was an honours degree. (Someone in the second row falls over from cardiac arrest.)

I’ll preface the next section merely by saying: the shirt clip is the first strike against the DBA-02 MKII’s ergonomics. It isn’t the last.

Build quality and cable
The DBA-02 MKII is well made. It’s housing is tough, comfortable, and compact. It won’t unnecessarily weigh down the cable, or easily snag on loose clothing. The plug is nicely relieved. It is either melted to the cable or stuck there with adhesive, reinforcing internal contacts. It is not, however, L-shaped, meaning it will be under more stress, particularly if you use it with a portable player. L-shaped plugs withstand drops and pressure much better. That said, my CK10, which I consider the best-made earphone in the world, has straight cable. It is still going strong after years of combined usage. All that is to say: the DBA-02 MKII is well made, certainly in its price range.

But the cable is rectangular, not round.

Yay, so it doesn’t tangle as badly as some other designs. Yay, flat cables generally are stronger singular products than round or twisted cables. Yay. And, it’s in style. Hell, even Final Audio use flat cables on their excellent FI-BA-SB earphone. Yay Bob. Flat cables by nature stress their internal wires more because weight isn’t evenly distributed. Wires on the outside of cable tend to get stretched more than inside wires do. That leads to shorts. I’ve seen it with the a-Jays FOUR, and Monster Beats Tour.

That said, the DBA-02 MKII cable is better than those two. It is more snug, and better relieved than either. I expect it to last much longer, too, but I don’t think it belongs in a flagship product.

Praises ahoy. At least as far as comfort goes. The tiny size of the DBA-02 MKII is a wonder-worker for both small and large ears alike. It is supremely comfortable. The DBA will fit into any ear, you’ve got my York University Honours degree on it…

The ear pieces are excellent and come in so many sizes that at least one is bound to fit perfectly in your ears. Even so, I take advantage of the small sound tube to fitfitting SHURE Olive hybrid foams or Comply tips that I use on theWestone 4.

My opinion sours, however, as the cable fits into the equation. Square are buggers to use.

Let me illustrate. The logo on the DBA suggests it is meant to be worn with the cable over the ear. Great. Most good earphones are made to be worn in the same way because it keeps the earphones in the ear, relieving stress from the earphone and cable connection, and thus eliminating grand portions of touch noise. However, if you are to wear the cable over the ear, you necessarily need a cable cinch to keep the cables from flapping all over. The DBA lacks one. Big omission. The combination of ear guides and shirt clip are not enough. The ear guides do not work well if you have glasses, and even without, may not keep the earphones in your ears anyway. As stated earlier, the shirt clip requires a master’s degree to operate.

In the end, I gave up wearing the cable over the ear. Even twirling the cable around itself didn’t work to keep the earphones in. Good news, though, wearing the DBA down is easy, and comfortable. Thread the cable through your shirt and Bob’s your uncle. He’s a loud one though, as that cable transfers a lot of touch noise to the ears no matter how careful you are.

Here’s where we get back to the WOWs. In 2010, I called Earsonics’ SM3 a Star Child. It still is. The DBA-02 MKII may well be another one. Its overall voice is similar, though more tipped to the treble and upper mids. In a similar vein, it is smooth, mostly flat, and detailed. Some people find the DBA-02 MKII to be extremely detailed. I don’t. Any more detailed and the DBA would fall flatly into the categorical demon, “analytical”. It isn’t though, and instead, allows for a smoothly detailed high range that is open well into the mid range. Lovely.

One thing iPod and iPhone users will notice instantly is that they don’t need much volume to hit very loud listening levels. The DBA is quite sensitive even at its middling sensitivity rating of 108dB. If you are careful with your ears, old records need just a minor volume bump to a third on iPhone 4‘s volume slider. Volume war records of the last twenty years need much much less. Because of this, you may be able to pick out background noise even from very clean sources like Apple’s new iDevices and high end headphone amplifiers. Fischer balance this sensitivity with a relatively thick-skinned 43 ohms, which is great for most portable sources. It allows players with high output impedances to retain resolution even in passages where low can disappear.

And works it does.

As long as you are not a basshead, the DBA-02 MKII will bring a smile to your face. The signal certainly does reach low, but does so with prejudice. Marcus Schultz’ Mainstage won’t roar in the background as it does when powered by lower voiced earphones like the Victor FX500 or my personal favourite, theRadius, but its overall balance is better. Low notes are round, firm, and decay in perfect time. In my opinion, they trump my favourite CK10 by their more natural timbre.

With a good fit, I can listen to the DBA for hours with no fatigue. That isn’t to say that this earphone isn’t detailed. You will hear details like a Madeleine Peyroux’s tongue click against her palettes and though you won’t be able to sense the shape of the guitar player’s thumb, there are loads of moments that can only be described as pornographic. Fortunately, they are soft porn. If you expect Etymotic exactness, you needn’t look here.

To some, this will be a blessing, to others, it will be a curse. Earlier, I compared the DBA to the Earsonics SM3. I promise you, it wasn’t ingenuous. Fischer’s flagship earphone is cooler sounding than the SM3, emphasising upper mids more than bass, but it is equally as smooth within a different metric. That is, bass and mids flow together perfectly, better than almost any earphone I’ve heard at any price.

(The biggest audio quality caveat with the DBA, however, is fit. In order for midrange detail and clarity to be milky and sweet, perfect fit is imperative. I found that pushing the stock ear tips in too far caused the midrange to be harsh, tinny; long term listening became uncomfortable. For my ears, the DBA sounds better with a shallow fit, or with Shure Olive ear pieces. Your mileage may vary.)

Getting on, high frequencies: cymbals in particular, decay quickly, and shimmer just enough. High frequencies are less grating than those of direct competitors, again trumping my beloved CK10. I think the dime will fall to heads for some, and tails for others, as even this great balance will for some be too bright. Again, I fall into the category of worshippers of this sound.

You may or may not fall into that group. Remember, thought the low-mid frequency transition is extremely smooth, high mids to ultra high frequencies are aggressive. If you don’t like bright earphones, you probably won’t love the DBA-02 MKII. If you do, however, you will find lots to love. Lots.

Fischer claim that the DBA-02 MKII reaches 24.000kHz. I don’t doubt that it can reach that high, but not without a LOT of fall off well before that mark. Obviously my ears aren’t sensitive to those levels, but they do a good job of categorising various earphones. To these ears, there appears to be less overall sound pressure in the extreme high frequencies than some of my other favourites.

And that is a good thing.

In summary, the DBA-02 MKII is a smooth sounding earphone aimed at midrange detail. Lows and highs are plentiful, but neither forefront. With good fit, you can enjoy wonderful vocals, strings, and percussion with the DBA-02 MKII. For trance listeners, there is good enough space and soundstage to keep you thumping in that imaginary universe, but not enough to cause you to get lost. Rockers, the wonderful transition between bass and mids is wonderful, with the promise of fast, pleasant cymbal decay. I cannot really recommend the DBA-02 MKII for hip hop lovers, however, as bass simply isn’t duffy enough. There is no driver wobble; too much kilter, really.

Out and about
With a long cable and great carrying case, the DBA-02 MKII should be the perfect walking/trekking/commuting earphone. But unless you can quiet the cable down, I guarantee you will be annoyed by its energy and touch noise. Still, the overall combination is good, and with the right tips, you can really push background noise out of your music. Again, Shure Olives are great for this.

What more can I say? Fischer have upgraded an instant classic. They have nearly perfected an already wonderful earphone. For listeners who love details but shy away from the sometimes screechy Etymotic ER4 and CK10, this is the earphone for you. It is smoother and more natural in its transitions from bass all the way to highs than the almighty SM3. Wow. But this level of natural perfection doesn’t come without its own set of caveats. Nope. You’ll have to put up with a rectangular cable that only a mother, or, judging by the sudden onslaught of such cables, hip music lovers who’ve never had anything better, could love. For me, it’s a bittersweet romance, and one good enough for a warm grab, though honestly, I’m dying for a kiss.

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