Final Audio Design Sonorous III review: Japanese headphones with an understated design and sweet tonal response
If Final Audio Design's $5,000 flagship headphone is totally out of the question, the Sonorous III is a wallet-friendly alternative that sounds just as sweet.
You probably haven't heard about Final Audio Design headphones before now unless you've considered dropping $5,000 on its flagship headphone, the Sonorous X. It's the company's most popular headphone with the audio elite, and it gets its price tag from parts composed of titanium, aluminum and gold-leaf trim. I haven't heard it myself yet, but the company positions it at the "zenith" of personal audio.
But if you don't have 5K to spend, the company has introduced the Sonorous III, a budget alternative around-the-ear headphone that carries a similar "house sound" with slightly less premium parts for $399 (UK pricing unavailable, you can find it online in Australia for AU$549).
Price aside, I actually prefer the subtle design of the Sonorous III's matte plastic finish to the X's bright gold and reflective stainless steel materials. The ABS on the earcup connections doesn't flex at all and the stainless-steel rails where you adjust the size add a sense of toughness to the headset. The earcups themselves are hinged on a small circular piece that allows them to twist vertically and horizontally so they don't clamp down too tightly around your head.
Another thing the company got right is the weight to comfort ratio of the headband and earcups. With a lot of headphones, you'll notice that the ear cups are too heavy and you can feel the headband pressing down; if they're too light, you get the feeling that the materials are cheaply made and won't survive long-term wear and tear.
With the Sonorous III, the thick synthetic leather that wraps across the top of the headband has a balance of elasticity and depth that makes the earcups feel like they're floating on your head. I've worn them all day at work without taking many breaks and I haven't felt my ears get hot once.
The headphones include a detachable Y-cable with dual entry points on the left and right that lock with a 90-degree turn. That also means you can't replace the cable with a generic one if it breaks, but it does feel like it'll hold up to a lot of abuse. It's about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and terminates in a straight plug with additional stainless-steel housing around the end to make it even stronger.
I'm a little disappointed that Final Audio Design doesn't include a protective case for the headphones, especially considering the low-impedance spec (16 ohms) would indicate that the company wants listeners to use them at home with a receiver and with a smart phone. On top of that, the IIIs don't fold down like the Oppo PM-3, a competing headphone for the same price. You get a 3.5mm adapter in the box for home stereos, but considering the price, I also expected to get second cable with an in-line remote and microphone for making calls -- they keep it simple with just the one.
The III isn't a "compact" headphone by any means, and if you're the type to hang headphones around your neck while you're not using them, check out a model with a slimmer profile like the Sony MDR-1A. The ear cups on the III are bulky and the whole thing weighs 14.5 oz (410 grams), but you won't notice it in action. If you're unconvinced, the Shure SRH1540 is lighter pair of premium closed-back headphones that feature a similarly spacious soundstage and weigh only 10.1 oz (286 g). They cost $499 (£379.99) but you get a fair amount of extras in the box that justify the price jump including a hard case, an extra cable and a second set of earpads.
If you look closely at the cups on the III, you'll see two small pin-sized holes at the bottom. Those aren't manufacturing mistakes, they're actually part of the company's "Balancing Air Movement," or "BAM" mechanism that act as vents for airflow management, which, in a closed-back design like the Sonorous III, unleashes an extra helping of mid-bass. That makes the headphones a good match for most genres
The headphones scale up well using an amplifier and lossless files, but they sound equally great with a portable player as well. When I hit play on a FLAC file of Nohelani Cypriano's 1977 Polynesian funk classic "Lihue" on my iPhone 6, I was stunned by how crisp and clear the vocals play into a balance with the rest of the instruments. The vivid bass notes of the synthesizer registered deep tones along with the bass drum beats.
Comparatively, the Oppos tested with slightly better clarity and a more forward presence, but I still prefer the fullness and body on the IIIs, and there's no competition in terms comfort -- Final really did the research on universal fit. While I listened to Lihue, I tested my ears by slowly increasing the volume, expecting the background noises during the bridge to sound shrill and grating, but they kept a sweet sparkle that really impressed me.
Next, I plugged the headphones into a HiFiMan EF2 headphone amplifier paired with a U-Turn Orbit turntable and an Audio-Technica AT91B cartridge. I queued up jazz saxophonist Lucky Thompson's last album, "I Offer You" and the Sonorous IIIs didn't disappoint. The big sound stage gave ample room for Cedar Walton's smooth Fender Rhodes and the vibrating tremolo on the opening track "Munsoon" blends so well with Thompson's tenor notes that it sounds nothing short of spiritual.
A sublime introduction to the brand
You might not be able to afford Final Audio Design's flagship model, but the Sonorous III is certainly not to be ignored. Its understated design notes and tough build, along with the extra attention put into opening airflow and suppressing unnecessary vibrations presents a headphone that's equally impressive at home as it is a mobile device...if you don't mind the size.