The oBravo Ra21-C were loaned to me for a few days by the UK distributor (Phil Wannell at Audio Concierge), in order to provide some listener feedback on the updated tuning. No review was solicited (or expected – thanks Phil), and the impressions given below are entirely my own.
oBravo are a Taiwanese brand, founded in 2006 and dealing in speakers, audio accessories and both headphones and earphones. They are famous in audiophile circles both for their unusual technology (miniature AMT tweeters and planar hybrids) and their rather… flamboyant approach to pricing on their higher end gear, selling some of the most expensive in ear monitors in the world. The brand is aiming to recreate the experience of listening to a high end speaker system in a pair of earphones, using luxury materials and exotic driver configurations to try and offer something unique in the personal listening space.
They currently have a large range of earphones, ranging from £100 for the planar / dynamic driver hybrid ERIB-8 to £10,000 (or thereabouts) for the original Ra-C-Cu flagship. They have recently launched an updated version of the Ra (called the Ra21) in various materials, which is the model I will be discussing in the below impressions. I got to listen to the ceramic variant of the Ra21 (known as the Ra21-C) for the best part of 5 days, so please take these impressions with the requisite bucket loads of salt – they reflect my subjective opinion after a few solid days listening, rather than a comprehensive review.
Build and ergonomics
The package I received literally just had the Ra21-C, it’s accompanying cable and connectors and a few foam tips, so I am unable to comment on the unboxing experience. The IEMs themselves are pretty imposing, with an unusual shell design that looks like a very rounded “P” in some sort of cartoon font, with a small white half-globe poking out of one end like a bone china version of the dome at Greenwich Observatory.
They are shaped like a classic earbud, with a proprietary MMCX allowing for cable replacement (providing you can find a cable manufacturer with the requisite anti-rotating oBravo connectors). They can be worn up or down – the perfectly hemispherical design of the ceramic dome makes the inner part of the earpieces feel very smooth and comfortable in use, but also makes them pretty unergonomic. In fact, I would say that these share more than a few similarities with earbuds, with the fit feeling loose and finicky in my larger-than-average ear cavities. This can be alleviated by the use of foam tips, which helped to lock the IEMs more firmly in my ears for extended listening. In fact, I would say that out of the various tips I tried (Spinfit, JVC Spiral Dots, RHA dual density), the only tip that made the IEM usable were my trusty orange Mandarin foamies. If the Ra21 doesn’t come with these as standard, they should do.
The IEM itself is made from a mix of aluminium, Taiwanese wood and ceramics, and looks impressively hand crafted. The wooden faceplates are carved with the oBravo logo, and certainly look unique. They also look a little fragile. It’s natural to assume that if you pay north of £5000 for a pair of in-ears you will probably want to look after them, but for the more OCD out there, the risk of putting a chip into these wooden beauties may not be great for the nerves.
The dome on the inner ear is made from a white porcelain-looking ceramic, with an impressively smooth and uniform finish. It looks more like it belongs on a piece of jewellery or carving than on something you place in your ears, but it does add an undeniably unique look to the IEM – this is certainly not a design you will mistake for anything else on the market.
The same can’t quite be said for the cable, although in this case it’s a case of “If you can’t beat them, join them” as oBravo have joined he ranks of the cable manufacturers that are offering switchable plugs on the end of their premium cables. The Ra21 package came with right-angled 2.5mm balanced, 3.5mm single ended and 4.4mm Pentaconn connectors, covering most of the common DAP and amp connectors currently in use. The system is similar to the Dita and Dunu changeable plugs, with a rotating lock to ensure that the tips stay put once connected. The connection itself feels solid and well done, so kudos to oBravo for refining the design here. The cable itself is a hybrid (unfortunately I’m not sure of what exactly), and is light and decently well made. If you are a cable aficionado it won’t blow you away like one of the high end efforts from brands like Eletech or Effect Audio, feeling more on par with something like an ALO Audio cable. Ergonomically it feels excellent, and is light and tangle-free, so as long as you aren’t expecting high end jewellery or finish, it’s a very good effort.
The last thing to talk about with ergonomics is the sheer size of these IEMs. There is a 16mm dynamic driver hidden behind the wooden faceplate along with a miniature AMT driver, so these are by necessity a large IEM. If you want something small and dainty to slip into your inner ear, this ain’t it. If you are looking for something you can probably use as a passable paperweight when you aren’t listening to music, these are the IEMs for you.
Impressions on sound
*These impressions are done using the Cayin N6ii with E02 amp module, sitting on medium gain. I have been informed by a few Ra21 owners that they scale pretty well with higher end gear, but as the N6ii if the “best” source I currently own I’m not able to comment on that, or identify whether my Cayin is getting the full potential it of these IEMs. Please bear that in mind when reading the below.
Starting with the bass, the Ra21-C feel quite weighted, sitting somewhere between natural and thick to my ear. There feels like there is a subtle emphasis on the underneath of the bass notes, with good extension into sub bass. This is a driver than can dig deep and move a decent bit of air when the occasion calls for it. The overall quantity of bass output is still balanced rather than basshead, but definitely a little north of neutral. There is plenty of tightness and texture to go along with the with the solidity, giving the low end a nicely organic tone. The 16mm DD is a very good performer, kicking out plenty of texture and low end detail – it isn’t the most detailed flagship-tier IEM I’ve ever heard down low, but it definitely isn’t found wanting here.
Moving up to the midrange, this feels like it sits a little further back on the stage than the bass and treble to my ears, giving the Ra21 a gentle V or U shaped signature. It doesn’t deviate too far from balanced, but there is a noticeable scoop in the midrange – it can be heard most easily if you use the track “Palladio” by the classical fusion band Escala. There is usually a little click sound that occurs at around the 20 second mark, accompanied by a subtle shifting of the seat of one of the cellists a little later. On a resolving IEM this can usually be heard quite clearly, but on the Ra21 it is barely noticeable, sitting almost underneath the bass note that precedes it.
That isn’t to say the Ra21 is not detailed – the combination of DD and AMT drivers do give the oBravo flagship a suitably high level of clarity and resolution, so it is more of a side effect of the tuning than any lack of resolving power in the drivers. Again, the tonality sits somewhere between neutral and natural, balancing detail with a pretty realistic timbre. Where the driver tech really starts to earn its money is in the separation and layering, however. It’s fair to say that these are nothing short of top tier, giving the Ra21 a very 3D presentation.
As with the bass, the mids carry a good sense of weight without sharpness. Transients are lightning quick, giving the Ra21 a real affinity for faster paced guitar music and other intricate stringed compositions. There is a nice balance of crunch, married to an old school analogue tone, which actually reminds me a little of the classic JH Audio sound, albeit one that has been on a strict WeightWatchers regime for a few months. The Ra21 excel in bringing the emotion out of a track, picking up plenty of background nuance without straining to provide the resolution.
Treble is clear, extended and quick. The AMT drivers really earn their place here, with a presentation that is part EST, part BA and part DD, blending body and attack together without introducing harshness. It may sound hyperbolic, but I genuinely can’t find a huge amount to fault about the treble performance on the Ra21-C. It brings plenty of spaciousness and shimmer to tracks I know well, and just sounds effortless in execution.
Impressions from my usual test tracks
Rather than the usual sections containing an in depth analysis of the different frequency ranges, I only had time to capture impressions on a few select tracks, so hopefully some may find this useful to get an idea of the overall sound of the Ra21-C .
The first track is Black Coffee by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa. The Ra21 plays this track with a great analogue guitar tone, giving Bonamassa’s classic blues rock picking plenty of depth and nuance. Curiously, the guitar sits in front of the vocal in my head positionally, rather than alongside.
Next up is We Shall Not Be Moved by Mavis Staples. The track kicks off with s deeply resonating bassline, which the Ra21 captures perfectly, giving a great sense of texture. The deep male baritone vocal in the chorus stands out clearly, the Ra21 pluming out the kids level detail in the voices without losing the immersion factor. The Ra21 excels at placement in this track, putting the listener in the middle of the sound with voices arrayed around the head in different locations in the soundscape, with Staples’ vocal sitting front and centre. They sound gruff but not rough, with plenty of throaty rasp. The Ra captures the gentle sense of distortion on the electric guitar in a very lifeline manner. The whole track feels very immersive.
Things My Father Said by Black Stone Cherry is another recent discovery of mine I like to use in reviews. The vocal sounds raspy and a little sharp, lacking a little bit of chest in the delivery. Guitar tone in this track is slightly softer, with more chug than bite. The subtle acoustic guitar strums in the periphery of the sound come through clearly, as well as the string instruments trailing the chorus. Overall tone in the track is slightly laid back rather than energetic. Nice organic tone on the piano. Cymbal hits feel restrained but clear and metallic, cutting through the noise underneath.
Beat It by Fallout Boy is last up. The guitar work holds a nice weight here, again with more chug than bite. Vocals again sit slightly behind the instruments to my ears, which can be a little disconcerting. This track manages to convey a more decent sense of energy and “life”.
Again, due to time constraints these are more like show impressions than real comparisons, do please bear that in mind.
IMR Acoustics Semper (Quad Hybrid IEM – 1xDD, 1xPlanar, 2xEST, 1xPiezo)
Listening to “We Shall Not Be Moved”, the stage size on the IMR model is actually pretty similar. That isn’t that much of a surprise given that the IMR uses a 15mm DD compared to the 16mm monster in the Ra21, but still fairly impressive. Bass feels more solid and emphasised on the IMR flagship, with as much texture but a lot more weight. The Semper shows a less holographic sense of imaging, with voices coming through as not quite as separated or distinct.
“Disc Wars” by Daft Punk gives more rumble to the sub bass on the IMR model, and a heavier sound to percussion. Again, quality between the two models is similar.
Overall, the Ra sounds the more detailed and resolving of the two IEMs. Vocals are more raw and slightly less thick and chesty than the IMR. Details are easier to pick out, with more air to the stage and more depth along the Z axis. The Semper feels slightly veiled in comparison.
Unique Melody MEST – (Quad hybrid IEM – 1xDD, 4xBA, 2xEST, 1xBone Conduction)
Surprisingly, these two IEMs actually felt very similar to me. There is slightly more weight in the vocals in the Ra, but presentation-wise they are fairly similar, with the MEST spreading the sound out slightly wider horizontally, and almost matching the depth of the Ra. Staging-wise, while the MEST is impressive, it just isn’t quite as out of the head as Ra.
Regarding the low end, there is more of a sub-bass emphasis on the MEST, compared to the more mid-bass leaning Ra. The MEST has a sharper and leaner midrange, with less body. Detail between the models is a tie, but easier to discern in the MEST on some tracks. The MEST is definitely the easier to drive if the two models. Overall, the MEST feels more dynamic and energetic, with more oomph.
The Ra21-C is oBravo’s latest entry into the fairly crowded ultra-high end IEM marketplace, and it’s a (very) expensive one. Purely on performance, it earns it’s place at the top table for me, with a natural tuning that isn’t shy of bass or sparkle without deviating too far from neutral. Detail levels are high, and oBravo’s in-house AMT-II drivers offer something different both in terms of design and sonic presentation. It’s an organic sound that feels more like a good over ear open back headphone rather than a pair of in ears.
There is no getting away from the fact that the price tag is huge – for the price of the Ra21 you could probably buy two of the other current flagship IEMs and possibly still have a little change left over. While oBravo have lowered the price on this revised model from the original, it is still something that will invite a lot of discussion. Frankly, given the market segment they are aiming at, I think it’s a moot point. If you can afford to pay the price, it’s an excellent sounding IEM. If you can’t, or if you are looking for something with s little more “bang for the buck”, there are plenty of IEMs that will give you a very similar level of performance for a much lower price. Such is the quandary of diminishing returns in the audio world – you pays your money and you takes your choice, as someone once said.
Overall, the Ra21-C gives a very well tuned take on natural / neutral sound, with plenty of texture and depth, top tier imaging and technical chops and a soundstage so large a small child could probably get lost in it. If that’s what you are looking for, these IEMs might well be with seeking out.