Fender's Newest Gig: Purveyors of In-Ear Monitors

In typical rock fashion, Fender stage-dove into the headphone world last week, releasing an entire line of in-ear monitors: the brand’s first ever. Fender’s five distinct models are designed to offer something for everyone, and range in features and price from $100-$500. Once thing they all have in common, however, is that they’re all universal fit; no ear moulding required. I got to audition the FXA6, the $400 model, and to talk with the folks at Fender about the entire line, and why they think 3D printing in-ears is the way of the future.

First of all, let’s check out the lineup:

The $99 entry-level DXA1 are the more standard-issue shape of monitors. With 8.5mm titanium micro drivers drivers and a claimed frequency response of 14Hz-22kHz, the DXA1 are made for someone who is just getting into stage performing and wants a pair of monitors that can handle being powered by a smartphone. All the line have removable cables, and include TPE tips in 4 sizes.

The $199.99 FXA2 are the level at which the 3D printed housings begin in the Fender series. That 3D printed housing, I was told, has a unique acoustic design within the chassis itself that is specific to the drivers of each model, and is crafted to avoid any coloration to the sound. Jim Ninesling, VP of Electronics at Fender, said that 3D printing has opened up a whole new world when to comes to making monitors.

Previously, in-ear monitor shapes would have to be designed with the plastic-injection process in mind: any cavities or encasings the engineering team wanted to create in the headphone would often need to be made in several pieces in order to conform to the manufacturing process. Injecting liquid plastics into a mould doesn’t always allow for tiny bending cavities and definitely doesn’t allow for a single solid chassis. And of course, any time you have seams, there’s always a chance for resonance, distortion, or breakage.

With the 3D printing process, not only did precise single-piece housings become possible, but also far more affordable to design. Engineers could print, test, and re-tune far more quickly and without needing to create a new set of moulds. The Fender housing design was created by scanning a myriad of ear shapes to create a form that Fender claims will fit 95% of people and achieve a noise reduction of 22dB, key for recording and on-stage use. (Or for ignoring your cube mate.)

In addition to the 3D printed housing, the FXA2 and up all have a “groove tuned bass port” that Fender says creates an enhanced low bass response. The FXA2 has 9.5mm rare earth drivers, and an impressive claimed frequency response of 6Hz-23kHz.

The $299.99 FXA5 are made just for fans of balanced armature drivers. The FXA5 have a silver plated cable and that dual-balanced armature array with a claimed frequency response of 19Hz-21KHz. If you are someone who prefers the BA feel, the FXA5 are your jam.

The $399.99 FXA6 are the model that I was able to sound-check, so I’ll talk about the listening experience with them a little later. The FXA6 have a proprietary combination of a zero-crossover single HDBA Tweeter with custom 9.25mm precision rare-earth driver and a claimed frequency response of 6Hz-22kHz. They also have the lowest claimed sensitivity of the Fender line: 109 dB at 1mW.

And finally, the $499.99 FXA7 has zero-crossover dual HDBA tweeters with a custom 9.25mm precision rare-earth driver. The claimed frequency response on the FXA7 is 6Hz-24kHz, slightly broader than the other models in the Fender range.

Okay, stat time over! Let’s talk hands/ears on! Since 4/5ths of the Fender line have that 3D printed chassis, we’ll begin there. I was really skeptical that a universal hard-plastic housing could seal and fit comfortably against my outer ear. To my surprise, the FXA6 felt super comfortable, and equally importantly, stable in my ears. While they don’t have the “like a glove” custom feel that skims your ear’s every curve, the FXA6 come darn close. I’d definitely feel confident moving around on a stage, or dodging people on the subway, knowing my monitors will stay put.

If you are someone who loves bass, pay attention. About that bass port. Gimmicky as it may seem, there is something to the Fender design that makes lower low frequencies sound really fantastic. Anyone who knows the Chesky headphone demo test tracks will be familiar with the shake, rattle, and roll test. For the uninitiated, it’s basically a low frequency test tone that glides from 302Hz to 20 Hz that is perfect for hearing any peaks, valleys, and distortion that often plagues headphones. The FXA6 were remarkably smooth the entire way down, gradually rolling off right at 22Hz, where Fender claimed it would. This isn’t the breed of bass for bloated bass-heads, this is bass for drummers, bassists, and electronic musicians who adore a sturdy yet refined lower tone.

As for the rest of the frequency ranges, the highs are a bit more subtle than the bass. Largely flat with what sounded like a small bump around 10 kHz, the FXA6 have an even, mild sound to them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say mellow or warm, but there isn’t any enhancement to higher frequency details, so those accustomed to a bit of pop in that range may feel they are missing some top end sparkle.

If I were to ding the FXA6 on anything, it would be sonic depth of field. The soundstage felt a little two dimensional, which is really mostly a problem for enthusiast listening, or perhaps those who are in the mixing room. There wasn’t any muddiness to a piano or close miked stringed instrument, but there didn’t seem to be much body to them either. Overall, though, it’s a minor criticism for otherwise really lovely sound quality.

If the FXA6 is any indication, Fender has done really well on their first run of monitors. While they fit the bill for budding or professional performers, they’re also comfortable and accessible enough to use for everyday listening. Fender says that they also will be releasing a replacement cable with a remote and mic in the near future, so the commute from stage to studio to subway will be a seamless one. Rock on, Fender.

The Fender monitor series range from $99-$499.99 and are available on Fender.com.