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Final Audio Piano Forte II: The Dark Horse of High Fidelity

At a time where every manufacturer is competing to produce the best Hi-Fi sounding earphone, the Piano Forte II sings to its own tune.

The AudionistThe Audionist

Introduction

Final Audio Design is a Japanese audio company with its roots in amps, speakers and turntables, and was very well respected as a high-end audio brand OEM. Since 1974, the company mostly dabbled in Hi-Fi systems. The decision to begin designing speakers, headphones and earphones began in 2007 and paved the way for a series of high-end headphones and earphones to come.

The Piano Forte II was released in 2010. Between 2010 and now, the Piano Forte II went through a minor design change—primarily with the air-vent design (more on this later).

I had a quick demo of the Piano Forte II sometime in mid-2015. My very first impression back then was mixed; the Piano Forte II sounded dark and veiled, with much of its bottom and high-end shaved off to produce a very mid-centric tone. However, because it was a short demo lasting a couple of minutes, I felt obligated to audition it properly at another time when circumstances were more conducive. I wanted to give the Piano Forte II a fair judgement since it’s received a lot of attention over the past few years.

Luckily I had another chance to audition the Piano Forte II recently. I also noticed that this set was the updated model with additional air-vents on the earbud.

Frankly I was quite impressed.

Sound Quality

What struck me as odd during my initial audition in 2015 was the lack of bass in the Piano Forte II. It wasn’t just a slight bass reduction, it felt like all the bass was missing. It led me to believe that I was listening to a broken pair, which was why I promised myself to give it another go when I could.

And I’m glad I did. If I had to describe the Piano Forte II in one word, it would be “musical”.

Highs

I’ll be honest with you: if you’re looking for a sparkly pair of earbuds, then the Piano Forte II is not for you. There is a slight treble roll-off, hence mid-highs and highs sound veiled.

I wouldn’t describe it as a dark-sounding though. I believe the decision to cut some of the top-end is an intention of Final’s engineers. I think what they were trying to achieve is a musical and natural sounding earbud. It’s almost akin to sitting in an old concert hall, listening to a concert pianist and imagining the notes reverberating off the walls. You get a sense of warmth and nostalgia. You’re not looking to analyze the sound, you just want to relax and enjoy the music for what it is in the moment.

I think that sums up my analysis of the Piano Forte II’s top-end. To the casual listener, the highs may sound recessed, dark, maybe even veiled. But to me, the Piano Forte II’s treble plays an important role in determining its overall sound signature.

The Piano Forte II’s recessed treble plays an important role in determining its overall sound signature.

Mids

The midrange is simply lovely. The treble attenuation brings out the mids very well, and I suspect there might even be a slight boost to the midrange.

The Piano Forte II is very good at vocals. Vocal-driven music sounds intimate, sweet and smooth. There is no nasal midrange bump, nor does it sound artificially boosted. It’s just forward-sounding enough to draw you in to the music.

Bass

This time round, I was happy when I heard the bass. Whatever that I thought was lacking is no more. In place is a controlled and tight low-end that’s sufficient for most music genres. It doesn’t sound bloated or boomy, and it doesn’t have thundering bass, but it definitely has weight. I quite like the frequency response between 125 to 250 Hz—it sounds chesty in a good way.

Soundstage

The Piano Forte II has a wide open soundstage. Instruments are spread out well, and I have no problems picking them out from one another. It’s not exactly the most analytical earbud, but then again it doesn’t pretend to be one.

piano-forte-ii

Build Quality

The Piano Forte II is well-built and quite comfortable. It comes without ear foams, which may surprise some people considering this is an earbud. However it’s interesting to note that Final Audio Design intended this to be worn without foams.

I’ll admit that these aren’t the most comfortable earbuds I’ve worn, but they don’t hurt either. I think donut foams help secure the earbud in your ears, and prevent additional bass leakage. Having said that, putting foams might impede the sound coming out from the vents.

At the end of the day, it’s really a personal choice. But I feel Final could have included additional foams, just so that buyers have an option.

Design

The Piano Forte II, along with the entire Piano Forte series, is inspired by horn loudspeakers. It’s supposed to give the listener a “sound quality experience similar to what someone would feel inside a concert hall”. Even if it’s a design gimmick, I have to say it works out quite well. When I listen to the Piano Forte II, I’m compelled to put on tracks that are vocal or piano-driven. They sound great with those.

Earlier on I mentioned a design shift in the air vents.

Here’s what an earlier design looks like:

piano-forte-ii-old

Here’s what the current re-designed Piano Forte II looks like:

piano-forte-ii-new

It’s a subtle change with three additional holes for venting audio out. Perhaps it was this design that improved the bass response? I like to believe so.

Extra points also go to right-angled jack. I like to believe that the Piano Forte II was made for casual listening, or for someone on the go. With mobile phones getting larger, the jack pairs well with most phones to provide a slim profile in our pockets, without a straight-angle design sticking out.

As mentioned in the previous section, the Piano Forte II doesn’t require foams. So if you’re the sort that hates earbuds with foams, this will be a pleasant addition to your earbud arsenal.

The Piano Forte II also doesn’t require amping as it’s easily driven. You could if you wanted to, and it might open up the sound even more. I haven’t tried amping it yet but if you do, let me know!

Conclusion

Final Audio Design’s Piano Forte II is a win in my book. It’s not a one-trick pony and it doesn’t pretend to be. Sure, the high-end details may be lacking if you compare it to higher-end IEMs, but it doesn’t pretend to be an earbud that it’s not.

Instead what we have is a very musical and natural sounding earbud. I know, “musical” is subjective, but hear me out. Sometimes we audition headphones and quickly dismiss whatever brand or model as something that doesn’t fit our needs. Maybe it doesn’t fit into our music collection, or maybe the sound signature just doesn’t jive with us. But once in a while, there comes along a particular piece of equipment that’s simply special — that feeling of being involved with the music… it’s an almost emotional experience. It takes us back to a time when we first listened to that one track, and reminds us of how we enjoyed the song the way the artist intended.

That’s how I feel about the Piano Forte II. It’s not perfect, and I could possibly find flaws with it. But I like how it sounds and I love how it makes me feel involved with the music. It sounds like nothing else on the market right now. At a time where every manufacturer is competing to produce the most detailed and analytical earbud, the Piano Forte II dares to sing to its own tune.

And that’s all right with me.

 

Technical Specifications


Housing: ABS coated finish
Driver Unit: 15.5mm
Dynamic Driver S.P.L: 108dB
Impedance: 16Ω
Cable Length: 1.2m
Weight: 13g
Colors: Blue, Brown

<p>I write about tech, high fidelity audio and minimalism. I’m also a musician and a guitarist.</p>