What you see before you are the Final Audio Piano Forte X in-ear headphones, which cost a spectacular $2,199 and look, in the merciless words of a friend of mine, "like mini butt-plugs." Not only are they expensive and garish, they aren’t even all that impressive technically. But if you think that’s a recipe for a total luxury tech disaster, you’d be wrong. These weird headphones sound good, fit well, and embody a unique recklessness — both from the designer and purchaser — that ensures their long-term exclusivity.
Final Audio is a Japanese company that is niche even by the high standards of extremism of Japanese audiophilia. Its late founder Kanemori Takai, who passed away in 2014, was known for his eccentricity and insatiable desire for "creating something never seen before." In an age when every audio designer was eyebrows-deep in empirical measurements and target response curves, Takai shrugged off modern methods to tune everything with his own ear. And it’s that nonconformity that finds its expression in the Piano Forte series.
The Piano Forte X is a pair of gold-plated, chrome copper earphones with a large cone protruding from one end and a peculiar, enlarged nozzle on the other. There are no silicone tips to be found in the fancy box — you just insert them as they are. And yes, that is an inconvenience on cold winter days, when you’ll have to literally warm these metal buds up before popping them in. But the crazy thing is that they’re perfectly comfortable after the initial temperature adjustment. The Piano Fortes nestle into the curve of the ear and sit just inside the ear canal. I’m especially fussy about fit with in-ear headphones, and these simply defy their looks: they’re neither heavy nor clunky, and I’ve worn them for many hours with only the pleasure of the music in my ears.
So very different, so very pleasant
And this is the thing that makes me unwilling to dismiss these earphones as silly excess: they’re beautifully musical. That’s the only word I can offer you in defining their unique sound. It’s completely out of sync with any other modern headphone, in-ear or over-ear, to the point of making almost everything else sound screamy at the high end and far too boomy at the low end. Even Final Audio’s own Sonorous X flagship over-ear cans (also gold-plated, priced at a truly eye-watering $4,999) sound unrefined and excessive in their bass in direct comparison to the Piano Forte X. The Piano Fortes are unfailingly pleasant, but don’t misread that as being soft and overly sweet like your grandfather’s toffee candy — they still have bite and impact where it counts.
You can think of the sound of these in-ears as akin to their external design: in the same way that the metal case has been filed down to a pristine, perfectly smooth finish, so too the sound has been whittled down to only its essential, musical elements, and the result is simply pleasurable. After listening to the Piano Forte X, my recollections of the experience are always positive, irrespective of the mood, tempo, or style of music. I’ve listened to everything from Anohni and Bonobo to The xx and Zomby, with a few classical pieces thrown in between, and I’ve never regretted a moment of it. These headphones are more faithful to the tastes of their designer than the intent of the musician — but you know what, I’d rather grab a spot on that bandwagon, because it’s just a more enjoyable ride.
The headphones for when you want to let go of all sobriety and rationality
When looked at with sobriety and objectivity, the Piano Fortes cost an order of magnitude more than a shiny curio with a good sound signature should. The braided wire, like the rest of their construction, feels wonderfully strong and of a very high quality, but it tangles easily and is permanently attached. I wouldn’t advise you to buy $500 headphones without a replaceable cable, and that omission is even more egregious at four times the price. The Piano Fortes also use air vents to generate their particular sound, which means they’re nowhere near as discreet as a typical pair of in-ear buds. Sound leaks out from them and seeps back in from external sources — which is cool if you want to remain aware of your surroundings, but renders these rather pointless on a long commute.
But to analyze them rationally is to completely miss the point of these headphones. It’d be like compiling a list of pros and cons comparing vinyl to digital music. The people who buy the Piano Fortes do so for the rustic smell of their leather pouch, for the organic feel of metal warming up on contact, and for the sense of owning something exceptional. Final Audio has a somewhat saner-priced Piano Forte VIII, made out of brass instead of gold and copper, but the Forte X is the model for that one time you decide to let go of your sanity.