When I bought my first pair of in-ear monitors (IEM’s) eight years ago, I essentially had a choice of Shure and Etymotic Research. Fast forward to the present and the choice of manufacturers producing IEM’s between £100 and £300 has exploded. Where once you had to choose between two brands, you can now decide between twenty. Thankfully for all concerned, the continuing growth in the smartphone and tablet market (and the apparent inability of manufacturers to supply earphones that aren’t awful) and the continuing impact of lifestyle brands such as Beats by Dre means this category is still a growing one.
Atomic Floyd is a relatively new company concentrating solely on high end earphones and in-ear monitors. The origin of the name is unclear (the founder isn’t called Floyd and I’m reliably informed he doesn’t glow in the dark) but it is certainly distinctive. The £200 SuperDarts are the flagship product in the range and features what Atomic Floyd describes as “Supercharged Bass” as well as an impressive industrial design. Other models in the range are available from £100.
The SuperDarts are at first glance a relatively conventional in-ear design with an inline remote control. Like other IEM’s they do not use active noise cancelling to remove external noise but are dependent on creating a seal in the ear canal that means only the sounds produced by the earphone are audible. Atomic Floyd supplies three different sized rubber domes to cater for most ear sizes (and unusually, as someone who usually must head straight to the largest size on offer, I found that I only needed the medium one) to ensure a good seal.
The only choice supplied with the SuperDarts is a dome shape although a quick rummage through my various other buds and domes suggest that the size of the mounting is pretty similar to the competition and if you prefer the “Christmas Tree” type moulding, these will fit. What won’t fit are custom mouldings. The SuperDarts don’t seem to be listed by any of the company offering a bespoke moulding of your ear canal. This does offer the best seal possible but it isn’t to everybody’s liking.
In visual terms, the SuperDarts are perhaps the diametric opposite of the Grado GR8’s I reviewed last month. With the Grado, only a reasonably high quality paint job on the buds themselves suggested the GR8’s were any more expensive than the earphones you get free with most devices (and are in fact something that costs £300). By contrast there is little danger of confusing the SuperDarts with a freebie. Each earphone housing is a piece of machined steel - something I’ve previously only seen in the AKG K3003 which is a mere £1,000) and steel is also used for the remote/microphone housing and the rear end of the 3.5mm cable jack.
Even more impressively, the housings are engraved with a grip section towards the rear and the Atomic Floyd logo is engraved as well as painted on the housing. Each one of these features represents a considerable engineering investment and will be fairly time-consuming to make. The result is pretty robust too. I didn’t try standing on them but I imagine that the SuperDarts are better equipped than most earphones for a trip to the deck. The enclosures have the cable exit directly at the back of the enclosure. This is the most sensible way of keeping the stress on this critical point to a minimum but it is still inferior to the rotating cuff that Shure fits to their IEM’s which keeps the stress down to an absolute minimum.
The cord itself is Kevlar coated to reduce the likelihood of tangling (and this actually seems to work in practice too) between the 3.5mm socket and the point where the cable divides (which gives Atomic Floyd an excuse for another smart piece of casting at this point) after which there is a conventional rubber coating. As someone descending gracefully into middle age, I find the red finish of the cable a bit sudden but it isn’t a big issue in the great scheme of things and I am sure will appeal to many. I’m the sort of person who generally prefers the approach Grado took with the GR8 where only a tiny number of people will spot them for a £300 earphone but I’m also a sucker for precision engineering and these metal enclosures are certainly that.
As well as the choice of domes, Atomic Floyd supplies a quarter inch jack adaptor (unusual for an earphone), a “twin plug” adaptor for using the SuperDarts as a Skype headset and a carrying case (are you listening Grado?). The latter is an unusual design and one I think is a pretty good one. The case is a hollow rubber disc that is perforated at one side. Winding the cord around two fingers and popping the SuperDarts into it takes about ten seconds. A fully sealing case would allow even less debris near the enclosures but would be more of a faff to use and so in many cases would mean people were less likely to use it. In the case of the SuperDarts, it is a good idea to keep using the case because those steel parts are as likely to mark a phone screen as they are to be marked by anything else.
Internally the SuperDarts are another take on the challenge of securing effective bass response in a small space. IEM’s are generally characterised by their use of a balanced armature as a transducer. Armatures are capable of considerable speed and detail but have fairly limited bass response. Some manufacturers now fit as many as five armatures in an enclosure while Grado has taken a different approach and use one comparatively large armature a side in their GR8 and GR10. There are problems to both approaches though. The multiple armature designs are somewhat bulky while moving armature designs like the Grado are extremely expensive and while they sound very cohesive, don’t actually produce more bass than the multiple armature designs.
The SuperDarts take a different approach to effective frequency response. Each enclosure has a balanced armature as you might expect. This is partnered with a dynamic driver - effectively a tiny version of a conventional speaker - which handles lower frequencies leaving the armature to get on with what it does best which is midrange and treble. The effect is similar in concept to a conventional speaker with a normal "pistonic" driver and a ribbon tweeter. Atomic Floyd describes the system as “Supercharged” and while as a pedant, I could point out that there isn’t a mechanically driven compressor anywhere in the SuperDarts, it does partly ape the process of boosting an existing driver/engine with a fixed power/output frequency response.
As an earphone, most listening was done out and about with an iPhone 4. I used MP3, AAC and ALAC files as well as TuneIn Radio and Spotify. I used the SuperDarts out and about in the usual environments where the last thing I want to do is hear the people around me such as Supermarkets, shopping centres, trains and buses. An iBasso DX100 portable FLAC player was also used as a replay system for lossless and high res FLAC.
Domestically, the SuperDarts were used with the standard combo of a Lenovo ThinkPad with and without a Furutech ADL Cruise headphone amp. A similar variety of material was listened to including iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and Songbird. As Atomic Floyd had supplied a quarter inch jack adaptor, I also used the SuperDarts with a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus acting as a headphone amplifier.
The review sample of the SuperDarts I was sent was brand new. A very quick initial listen suggested they would benefit from a bit of running in and to this end I left them ticking over on the end of the iBasso for a day or two before returning to them for a critical listen. If you are in the position to demo the SuperDarts, it is best to ensure that they have a few hours on the clock as they improved considerably. I suspect (but have no means of proving) that the dynamic driver part of the partnership, frees up substantially in the first few hours and this fills the performance out considerably.
Suitably run in, the SuperDarts have many likeable qualities. They are a lively and potent performer that generally bring a sense of life and energy to performances. This doesn’t seem to be a result of them being over forward or especially bright but more down to them being respectably (if not class leadingly) sensitive and having a low noise floor. The noise levels in particular are especially impressive. The SuperDarts didn’t seem affected by less than perfect headphone outputs and when connected to something that is of higher quality like the Furutech or iBasso, the results are extremely good.
From this very low noise floor, the SuperDarts also demonstrate a particular aptitude with voices and instruments. This is actually strangely at odds with the printed frequency response of the SuperDarts which suggests that the midrange is recessed with spikes in the bass and treble response. In practice, the response across the meaningful parts of music is full and detailed and the SuperDarts have a genuine flair with voices and instruments. The simple and uncompromising Gun by Emiliana Torrini is beautifully presented with a vivid realism and commendable sense of space around the performance.
So how does the “Supercharging” work in practice? Integrating more than one of any type of driver, let alone ones with very different behavioural traits is no simple task and by and large Atomic Floyd seems to have done a good job at getting the drivers in the SuperDarts working as a cohesive pair. Listening to music with reasonable amounts of analogue bass like My Morning Jacket’s Circuital and the performance is full and very entertaining. The bass combines good detail retrieval and impressive heft - the SuperDarts actually have the ability to generate sub bass which is a rarity with most earphones.
You can have too much of a good thing though. Play something electronic with big slabs of digital bass and the SuperDarts can be a bit overpowering. My standard torture test is Elephant Machine by Younger Brother which has a powerful oscillating bass line that is extremely detailed but can degenerate into a bit of a mess if the control isn’t there. The good news is that the SuperDarts never lose control but the output can seem a bit high compared to the rest of the frequency spectrum. As iPods and iPhones (as well as most Android devices) have adjustable EQ settings, it is not hard to bring things back under control.
The integration of the two drivers is sufficiently good that it is generally pretty hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Compared to the Grado GR8 which only has one driver a side, there is a slight loss of lower midband cohesion but the Grado can’t go as low as the SuperDarts and it is half as much again to buy. For the most part the design intention of Atomic Floyd seems to have been achieved and you experience an armature based IEM underpinned with low end grunt they so often lack.
In the deeply subjective area of timing, the SuperDarts are strong performers. Uptempo music has a sense of pace and drive that generally has you nodding along to music. The SuperDarts don't have quite the same delicacy with slower pieces as some of the competition but neither is it a relentless dance monster either. The absolute balance is slightly forward of neutral but not so much that you would only consider the SuperDarts for dance and electro.
In terms of comfort, the SuperDarts are good if not class leading. The weight of the enclosures does mean that over very long listening sessions you can be more aware that you are wearing the SuperDarts than some lighter designs but this is not too severe. The inline remote is Apple only but worked well with the iPhone. The only mild criticism is that the play/pause button on the remote is recessed between the volume controls and can be tricky to locate first time. Call quality was good though and the microphone is at a good height on the cord.
- Superb build
- Powerful and engaging sound
- Good selection of supplied extras
- Bass can be a little unruly
- Looks are a bit sudden
- No fitment for custom moulds
Atomic Floyd SuperDarts In Ear Monitor Review
The SuperDarts are not cheap and face no shortage of competition, including brands that have a rather longer history in this area than Atomic Floyd. Spending a little time with them however reveals that this is far more than a “me too” offering. The build is exceptional and while I find the looks a little bit sudden, I cannot fault the engineering integrity.
The most appealing area though is the sound quality. The SuperDarts are not the most absolutely neutral of performers and they can be a bit boisterous with very bassy material but are generally very enjoyable and a strong choice for use on the move. £200 is a considerable sum for a pair of earphones but taking into account the useful ancillaries supplied and the rock solid build, it does seem to be reasonable value. If you are looking for the perfect partner for you and your iDevice on a long commute, the SuperDarts are a very strong contender.
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