The Brainwavz Alara are a very good pair of open-back headphones. No, they’re not “giant killers.” But they’re an accurate, affordable pair of headphone with few major flaws. And almost no one is talking about them.
“Why,” I keep asking myself, “haven’t these cans gotten more attention?”
As a reviewer, I’m not worried about dissenting from the conventional wisdom. But it’s an odd state of affairs when there’s no conventional wisdom at all. It’s difficult to find pair of headphones – budget, artisan, whatever – that doesn’t have dozens upon of pages devoted to it on some audiophile message board.
The Alara, on the other hand? Aside from a few scattered reviews — often in unexpected, decidedly non-audiophile, outlets — discussion is scant. Another question I keep asking myself: “How wrong does the marketing for a pair of headphones have to go for it to get more attention from Forbes than Head-Fi?!”
It’s not that Brainwavz didn’t try. After initially listing the Alara with $600 U.S. MSRP, Brainwavz dropped the price to $399 and offered a (still active, as of this writing) 15% off coupon (ALARAHDFI), making the Alara’s effective price $340 (sometimes less, since the coupon can be applied on top of Brainwavz’s occasional sale prices).
Perhaps it was that initial asking price that sunk the Alara. Because at $340, they’re a worthy set of cans.
With a black-on-black color scheme, metal cups and headband, and plastic gimbals, the Alara is unobtrusively stylish and solidly built. Featuring planar drivers, the open-back Alara is surprisingly easy to drive, with a 20 ohm impedance and a 94 dB sensitivity at 1 mW. The Alara’s pads are a hybrid of synthetic leather on the outer wall, perforated synethetic leather on the inner wall, and velour on the top of the pads. The pads are removable, and Brainwavz ships the Alara with an extra set of pads, a hard case, a 3.5 mm y-cable that enters at the bottom of the Alara’s ear cups, and a two-year warranty.
Ergonomically, the Alara’s flaw is that its headband seems to have been designed for Beldar Conehead. Despite being relatively, ahem, cranially blessed, the Alara’s headband felt slightly too large for my (7 ¼ hat size) head, even with the band’s extenders fully retracted. The addition of some Dekoni Nuggets improved the fit, but they obviously add to effective cost of the Alara for those who find its headband too generous. Dimensions aside, the Alara’s headband is comfortable. It’s wide enough and padded enough to prevent hotspots over long listening. Likewise, the earpads are large and deep enough to accommodate most ears.
Tonally, the Alara is a remarkably neutral headphone with excellent channel matching, as measurements with my MiniDSP EARS confirm:
Note: My EARS unit has been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.
Subjectively, the Alara has both more and cleaner bass than the HD6XX while also coming across as an overall brighter set of cans.
While the Alara and Clear are tonally similar, the Alara is outclassed by the Clear in every way besides bass extension. Given the price difference, however, that’s neither a surprise nor a knock on the Alara.
Coming in at its new $300-ish price tag, the Alara’s task is to compete against and, in at least some areas, outshine the HD6XX, which remains the benchmark for budget audiophile cans. By this standard, the Alara is a success.
The Alara’s strength is its remarkably balanced tonal signature and detail retrieval across the audio spectrum, partly due to its lack of what some have dubbed the “Sennheiser veil.”
While the Alara is far from a basshead’s ideal headphone, the area in which the Alara most clearly edges the HD6XX is its ability to clearly reproduce both the lowest lows and the highest highs. On “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” from the hi-res mastering of the Alan Parson’s Project’s I, Robot, both David Paton’s bass and Stuart Tosh’s hi-hat come across are more lifelike on the Alara than on the HD6XX. Whereas the HD6XX emphasizes the upper registers of Paton’s pulsing bassline, the Alara reveals both deeper grunt and greater string articulation.
However, when it comes to soundstage width and, especially, depth, the HD6XX handily bests the Alara. The Alara pulls Lenny Zakatek charmingly histrionic vocals on the aforementioned “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” to the front, whereas they stage deeper on the HD6XX, making what sounds like a light chorus effect slightly more apparent. Likewise, on Miles Davis’s Live-Evil’s “Funky Tonk,” Jack DeJohnette’s masterful drums, which transition between scattershot madness and tight grooves and back again throughout the opening to a 23-minute track, have more front-to-back depth on the HD6XX than the Alara, leaving more room in the center of the sound field for Davis’s wah-inflected trumpet.
Given this soundstage versus extension tradeoff, is the Alara an all-around better headphone than the HD6XX? In a word, no. However, for listeners put off by the HD6XX’s somewhat polite sound or those who wish for the brighter signature and up-front detail found in the Clear or Sennheiser’s own HD800S, the Alara offers a sound signature that edges toward those pricier cans at a fraction of the cost.
All told, the Alara is an undeservedly overlooked, detailed-minded, neutral headphone at a reasonable price.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.