Details: Mid-range entry from Sleek Audio, notable for the wooden housings, a sonic tuning system, and detachable cables
MSRP: $79.99 (discontinued)
Current Price: N/A (discontinued)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 25 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear
Accessories (4/5) – Single flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, treble tuning filters (2 sets), and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The wood-and-metal housings look and feel quite solid. Detachable cables are a huge plus and the connectors are identical to those used by the Panasonic HJE900. The cord itself is a bit thin and plasticky but flexible, properly relieved, and, of course, replaceable
Isolation (3/5) – The isolation is quite adequate, helped by the slim, easy-to-insert housings
Microphonics (4/5) – Cable noise is low when worn cable-down and nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are long, slim, and rounded at the front for a more unobtrusive fit. The cable exit point is angled a bit awkwardly for over-the-ear use but general wearing comfort is very good. It should be noted that the SA1 sounds best with a very shallow seal despite being well-suited for a deep fit
Sound (5.9/10) – First off – the tuning system. The SA1 features a simplified version of the VQ tuning system utilized in Sleek’s flagship SA6 earphone – all that the user is allowed to do is choose between two treble ports. To my ears (and I freely admit to liking my treble bright) there is no inherent disadvantage in using the silver treble-heavy ports. The earphones do not lose much bass quantity or quality and the lower midrange is unaffected by the filters. The upper midrange and lower treble are emphasized slightly by the silver ports and, to my ears, sound more balanced than with the black ports. I want to stress that the difference is small and in the big picture the Sleeks are bright earphones either way – those who are offended by brightness will not find solace in the black filters.
The general sound signature of the SA1 emphasizes smoothness over clarity. The bass is tight and punchy but lacking in body, rumble, and extension. In fact, the bass put out by the 6mm drivers of the SA1 reminds me of bass produced by certain balanced armatures – quick and accurate but not particularly realistic or informative. On the upside, the lower midrange is clear of bass bleed and generally sounds quite smooth. Detail and clarity are quite impressive at first listen. However, part of the perceived clarity as a result of the bright treble – comparing the SA1 side-by-side with earphones such as the Grado iGi or Yamaha EPH-50 reveals the actual clarity of the Sleeks to be a step below both – around the level of the cheaper Meelec M9 and Nuforce NE-6 to my ears. The slightly thick sound works well for stringed instruments and vocals and, combined with the slightly emphasized treble, gives the SA1 a ‘shiny’ signature that reminds me of the Audio-Technica ATH-CK100, though the timbre of the $400 Audio-Technicas is noticeably more realistic. The treble is quite smooth and, despite being slightly forward, suffers from neither harshness nor sibilance. Top-end extension is decent and treble detail is impressive for the money without sounding aggressive in the least.
Presentation is where the sound of the SA1 goes slightly wrong for me. Granted, the comparably-priced earphones I have been using lately (the ViSang R03/R02, Hippo VB, Yamaha EPH-50, Brainwavz M1, etc) are all high bang/buck contenders when it comes to sound and have unreasonably good instrument separation. However, in a field of these five <$80 earphones, the SA1 sounds notably congested and quite narrow. Instrumental separation is sub-par compared to the others, which is why I would not recommend them for complex rock and metal recordings, big-band jazz, or orchestral music despite the excellent rendition of stringed instruments. Using the earphones with an extremely shallow seal helps alleviate the problem somewhat – with the largest Sony Hybrid eartips and a very shallow fit, soundstage width is about average to my ears. However, isolation takes an expected hit and they don’t feel quite as secure to wear. On the whole, as long as soundstage size is not a prime concern, the SA1 is a solid mid-range earphone.
Value (7.5/10) – The Sleek Audio SA1 offers a combination of features not usually found at its price point. Wooden housings, detachable cables, and tuning systems are all quite rare to begin with and finding them on a single earphone – one with an $80 price tag – is notable in itself. The Sleeks do look and feel like a quality product but have a few drawbacks in functionality and performance. The tuning system does not have a radical effect on the sound and will likely only be used once – those who like to switch off different-sounding earphones often will find no solace in the SA1. The sound signature is quite pleasant and coherent, with the major flaw for me being the narrow soundstage. Though this can be fixed to an extent by using an extremely shallow seal, isolation and fit suffer in the process. As a total package, the SA1 is worth the asking price. For the best bang/buck in sound quality alone, better options abound.
Pros: Well-built, comfortable, low microphonics, detachable cables
Cons: Optimal sound quality and isolation are mutually exclusive, not trivial for over-the-ear use, tuning system useless in the long run