Review written by @Precogvision
Fearless Audio is part of the “new” wave of Chi-Fi manufacturers that have popped up over the last couple years. Most of the manufacturers in this wave have gone one of two directions: either adapting existing target curves like the very successful manufacturer Moondrop, or churning out a plethora IEMs and hoping something sticks. Fearless Audio, however, seems to have fallen somewhere in the middle with a house tuning that their “S” lineup follows, and then a separate, more experimental lineup.
Unfortunately, none of their experimental tunings have enjoyed much success, and in this review I’ll be taking a look at the Tequila - their latest IEM - plus the S8Z, the most recent addition to the S8 series. The Tequila is the real wild-card, though. Will the Tequila fall into their house tuning lineup or their experimental lineup? And if it falls into the latter, could it be Fearless Audio’s first successful mad experiment?
Source and Driveability
Holy cow, these IEMs are sensitive. We’re not talking Campfire Andromeda levels, but they’re close. I might be more sensitive to it, but I hear minor hissing off of both my iBasso DX160 (volume ~8) and A&K SP1000M (volume ~30), so I’d consider picking up something to kill the sensitivity if that might be an issue. All critical listening was done using the stock cables, stock tips, and with lossless FLAC files. My genres of preference include the following: K-Pop/J-Pop, Country music, EDM, and instrumental scores.
Fearless Audio has outdone themselves with the presentation. You’re presented with a sleek, but substantial package with a magnetic enclosure, and the following accessories inside:
- Microfiber cleaning cloth
- Faux leather carrying case
- An assortment of silicon tips
- Manual (it’s all written in Chinese, so I don’t know how useful that’ll be for most people)
Both the Tequila and S8Z feature a revised cable; the original was extremely heavy - I think it literally used lead for the hardware - and part of the reason why I sold my own Fearless S8P. The Tequila’s cable uses a more generic, plastic wrap, while the S8Z’s cable is more pliable, premium in feel. I had no issues with either cable.
Something that Fearless doesn’t slack on is the build quality of their IEMs. Both IEMs feature recessed connector joints which are a critical stress point. The faceplates themselves are also nothing short of stunning; the gaps likewise seamless between where the plate and body meet. The Tequila is slightly larger with a less ergonomic design than the S8Z; my guess is that this is to facilitate the dynamic driver, although I had no issues with fit or comfort on both IEMs. The S8Z also seems to sport orange, plastic hardware inside to fill up some empty space in the shell and prevent components from coming loose - pretty sweet.
I think it makes most sense to cover these two IEMs separately given - if you’ve read the title of this review - how different they are. So first, the Tequila.
Frequency response measured off of an IEC-711 coupler. There is a resonance peak at 8kHz; as such, measurements after this point should not be considered accurate.
...and well, the Tequila falls into that subset of experimental tunings I was talking about. As usual, I feel the need to disclaim that tonality is subjective; however, there are most certainly better tunings than others in terms of majority appeal. This is not one of them, and not by a long shot.
Frankly, I struggle to find words that sum up the Tequila’s overall sound signature, so let’s just start from the bottom. The Tequila utilizes a single DD for the lows, and while it unmistakably slams like a DD, what little texture is present is obscured by the overly blunted transient attack. Yep, this thing has next to zero macro-detail in the bass. Oh, and this is the best part of the Tequila by far. To this effect, the midrange is plain wonky. I hear surprisingly good detail to the lower-midrange; however, the upper-midrange is smothered due to a lack of adequate ear gain. Between this strange disjointedness and outright poor macro-detail like what the Tequila’s bass exhibits, I really think I’d prefer the latter. And then we get to the treble, the Tequila’s biggest problem...or at least that’s what I’d like to say. But the thing is, the Tequila basically has zero treble after 7kHz. It’s not like it’s laid back either, as what little treble the Tequila does have is stick impact, sibilant stick impact at that.
You might think that, hey, maybe the Tequila has some decent technical chops. Sure. The Tequila might be slightly above average in the sub-$100 bracket for resolving ability, but not much more to my ears. It falls within the realms of average - frankly, I’m inclined to say far below - for imaging performance too. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge an IEM’s technical performance by virtue of how poor the tuning is - or the tuning neutering technicalities - and I think this is a good example. But I digress. On the bright side, while I’m not much of a drinker, hey, I have the Tequila to listen to! It seems to aptly emulate what it’s like being inebriated; I think Fearless nailed the naming.
Thankfully, the S8Z is a departure from the Tequila in most every way. If I had to describe the S8Z’s overall sound signature it would go something like “neutral-aggressive”. This means linear bass, a balanced midrange, and unfortunately, some egregious treble. The S8Z exhibits strong lower-to-mid treble presence which, aside from being fatiguing, lends itself to a hollow, metallic smearing on instrument crashes. This is probably my biggest grip; otherwise, the tuning is darn solid on the S8Z, and I’m inclined to say it’s the most balanced of the Fearless S8 series.
Technicality-wise, the S8Z’s standout is no doubt its sheer resolving ability. Transient attack is quite snappy, as is decay, and the S8Z has no trouble scaling quicker tracks. Now, if that’s all there was to qualifying good technicalities, then the S8Z would probably be leading its price bracket. But it doesn’t stack up that nicely in practice, and I find myself in strong disagreement with the S8Z’s more latent intangibles - particularly the BA timbre. For those who might not be familiar with this term, BA IEMs are generally characterized by a sense of weightlessness or “plastickiness” to their notes. In turn come the issues with the compressed dynamic range, transient grain, and characteristically weak bass - all of which the S8Z suffers from, helped in no part by the metallic treble response.
Imaging is also not a strong point of the Fearless S8 series, with staging being more intimate and positional cues somewhere within the realm of average (which to be fair most IEMs are). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the S8Z layers poorly, there’s a certain crampedness to the presentation; maybe that’s not such a bad thing, as it seems to complement the more aggressive tuning. It stands that the S8Z’s a pretty good IEM, one that I think I would’ve enjoyed much more had it fallen in-line with my preferences closer.
Let’s briefly, very briefly, go back to the Tequila. In my humble opinion, the Tequila does not offer performance comparable to many IEMs a tenth its asking price - I think that says enough about where I stand. The S8Z, however, is a competent performer. While it might no longer punch beyond its price point given the release of marketshakers like the DUNU SA6, Moondrop B2, and the Thieaudio twins, it’s still a very solid option relative to the market as a whole. Going forward, I hope that Fearless Audio recognizes that sticking to their house sound, or simply taking a more calculated approach to tuning, will ultimately reward not only them, also but their customers in the long run. As they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
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