This review is posted here in partnership with The Headphone List. It was originally written and published by Suman Sourav Meher of The Headphone List on April 29, 2020.
I don’t think there is a single person who is not aware of TFZ, The Fragrant Zither is a Chinese brand which makes some of the best single dynamic driver IEMs on budget and around $200. They mostly work on dual cavity chambers but for the last two years they have come up with BA based earphones. Their foray started with the Secret Garden series which was supposed to get a 3BA version along with 6 and 9BA models. The 6 and 9BA models are yet to materialize but the 3BA version has been in the market for around a year.
There were mixed feelings about the SG3, some talked about how they will fair with BA based earphones but there were no doubt about TFZ’s tuning capabilities. Priced at $359 The SG3 comes in a handful of colors, red, black, purple and grey. It houses 3 BA drivers, one for bass, one for mids and one for highs in a 3 bore design. What really set the 3BA earphone apart from others are its tuning switches, two of them, some brands use three but TFZ has made a more conservative approach here.
In this competitive market the SG3 faces competition from a lot of earphones in the $300-400 price bracket. I will be comparing the SG3 with TSMR4, Fibae 3 and Avara AV3.
I would like to thank Apos Audio for the Unit.
You can get your Secret Garden 3 from here.
ACCESSORIES AND PACKAGING:-
The SG3 comes in a neat looking white box with information about the earphone on the back of it. You can find a warranty card and the cable inside a paper box, beneath all of this is the signature white carry case which comes with all TFZ IEMs. You can find two sets tips in the case. The black wide bore tips are supposed to provide better stage size and a more balanced sound while the grey-red tips are supposed to bring out a bit more bass. A sim ejection type tool placed inside the case to flick the switches is the last bit of accessory out of the box.
Of all the accessories the switch flicking tool needs improvement. It has sharp edges and looks bad, unpolished and rough.
BUILD AND ERGONOMIC:-
TFZ don’t really believe in semi custom type shells, we don’t see that most often with their budget earphones, even their expensive Series 7 has a simple design to it. But for the BA series they have gone with a more stage friendly semi custom type shell. A lot of brands use metal in this price range, some have resin shells. The SG3 has a plastic shell with a few layers of medical grade resin on it. The marble stone type back plate design gives it a nice character. It feels sturdy and strong to the hand. The overall build quality is very good. I will not like to drop it on solid floor though.
The nozzle of the SG3 is on the wider side compatible with t400 size tips. Even though the nozzle is is not really deep it is deep enough to escape the shallow title. The foam tip which comes in the box gives a more secure fit than the rubber tips. The shell has a standard size to it and might not fit the smallest of ears. The wing on the inner side of the earpiece helps a lot with the fit by providing good amount of traction inside the ear. Thanks to it the SG3 finds itself between some of the most comfortable earphones in this price range.
HOW IS THE CABLE:-
I complain a lot about cables because I expect expensive earphones to ship with aesthetically complimenting cables. The SG3 ships with one of the best quality cable in this price range. It uses a 4 core silver plated oxygen free copper cable. The braided cable has a nice feel to it, there are no unnecessary layers of rubber on it hence it’s not bouncy and has little to no memory. It’s very supple but the thinner 2core cables coming out of the y splitter are slightly prone to tangling. There is no microphonics to worry about though. The straight 3.5mm gold plated jack has a nice metal finish to it and is reinforced with some stress reliever. The best part of the cable is the cable guide. It is very supple and has little to no weight to it. Putting on the 2pin jack is easier thanks to the protruding socket.
HOW DOES THIS SOUNDS:-
The 3BA driver with a tuning switch system delivers a versatile sound. It houses three Knowles BA drivers, the all so popular 22955 is responsible for the bass, 29869 holds up the mid range and the 30095 is responsible for the treble region.
Coming from the sub-$200 dynamic driver IEMs the SG3 delivers a lot more details with precision. Technically it is a clear setup from them. The tuning switches can be handy in tweaking the signature a bit but In any case it doesn’t deviate far away from its base tuning which is being balanced. The bass is not very voluminous but flick the switch and you will gain better volume and slightly better thump. The mid range is nicely full and treble has good amount of bite to it. The Overall sound signature is well balanced (with a slight W signature to it), colorless and slightly gloomy. The tonality and timber are natural but there is a slight hint of metallic ring across the spectrum.
I am using Shanling M6 and stock grey-red tips for this review. Both the switches are up for the default sound.
Even when the SG3 is tuned to sound balanced with equal emphasis across the spectrum the bass is not of the typical dry and thin type. The Knowles driver inside the SG3 has better bass presence compared to typical BA based earphones like EM-5H or AF1120. The Bass region is well defined and paced with good amount of precision resulting into very good amount of details. It delivers lively and juicier notes while moving good amount of air. The sub-bass is not very deep and rumbly like the Fibae 3 but is deeper, has good rumble and presence compared to most of the BA based earphones in its price bracket. The mid bass is more prominent with a more rounded and fuller body. The upper bass is well controlled with good amount of details and clarity.
The level of texture and is good but is not as good as the TSMR4 pro in this regard, it is the same story with organic feeling too. It is good but not the best in this price but when it comes to resolution though the SG3 clearly pulls ahead. Another thing which is really impressive is the decay, it is fast while leaving some breathing space for the note to make their presence felt. The SG3 has a lot of control over notes. It delivers an enjoyable lower end with a nice and weighty approach. It is neither thin nor unnecessarily thick, maintaining good note thickness and accuracy.
MID RANGE :-
The mid range is delivered by a single BA driver and it delivers a lot of details with very good clarity and transparency. It is well balanced with the rest of the spectrum. The transition from upper bass to lower mid range is lacking a bit of forwardness and energy, it still maintains good clarity.
Vocals sound crisp and clear with a very close to natural tonality (a hint of metallic vibe is there). The decay is paced with both precision and musicality in mind, giving the notes required amount of body. It is not thin like the AF180 or thick like the Fibae 3. Vocal notes have appropriate amount of fullness. Both male and female vocals sound accurate while resolving good amount of details. Male vocals have slightly slower decay helping with notes thickness, giving them a nice throaty feel. Female vocals are sharper with accurate notes depth and are a delight with good amount of bite. Vocal have very good texture and transparency. It manages to deliver accurate still enjoyable vocals. Instruments have good attack and bite to them. Notes are not very sharp or blunt. The upper mid range is well under control with good amount of details and clarity. It doesn’t sound lush or overly sharp. The mid range is enjoyable and fun without losing precision and details. All in all the SG3 barely misses out on any micro details.
Layering and separation is of top notch with good amount of air between the instruments. The stage size is bigger than a handful of earphone in this price range like the Shozy Pentacle and Fibae Black.
The SG3 has precise notes presentation across the spectrum and it holds true for the treble section too. It doesn’t shy away from a sparkly and energetic presentation filled with plenty of details and class leading transparency, transparency which is not there even with more expensive earphones like Fibae 3. Some earphones try too hard to exhibit better transparency and clarity with sharper notes but the SG3 doesn’t belong to that bunch either. SG3’s notes are energetic and sparkly but are not over the top.
The transition phase from upper mid range to lower treble region has a small drop in energy which keeps any type of peak or harshness at bay while maintaining very good transparency and clarity. The SG3 has very good treble extension and even when it goes deep into the spectrum notes maintain good amount of energy and clarity. The amount of details, resolution and energy is very good. Needless to say that separation and layering is up to the mark with good amount of air and space between instruments. The treble stage is well spread and has good density to it. The bigger than average stage size helps a lot with instrument placements and density. If you love treble, tingling instruments and minute details the SG3 will not disappoint.
STAGE AND IMAGING :-
It doesn’t have the biggest stage in this price still the size is fairly above average. The stage is nicely rounded with very good depth, the width and height are slightly smaller. If you consider the out of the head expansion it beats the big boys like Fibae 3 and Af1120. The lower notes and most of the mid range are projected inside the head, while the upper mid and treble range has more out of the head presence. The natural expansion of stage provides good amount of air and space between instruments. Even when the stage is a bit more inside the head the imaging with evenly spread instruments provides good sense of space and layering. Thanks to accurate notes body and precision the resolution is fantastic.
There are two switches on each earpiece which can be used to have 4 different types of tunings.1. With both the switches up the SG3 delivers the best possible balance (default) 2. With both the switches down it delivers more forward vocals 3. First switch up and 2nd switch down means better bass body and lesser treble energy 4. Reversing that delivers lesser bass body and more energetic treble.
Let me emphasize about the other three switch positions as I reviewed the earphone with both switches up.
2. With both switches down you get just a bit less bass emphasis with elevated and lush mid range, the focus is at vocal and upper mid region, there isn’t much help at the lower mid region. The treble region remains more or less the same with notes presentation but the extension is slightly lacking.
3. With the first switch up and 2nd switch down the bass brings more body and boom while the rest of the spectrum takes a back seat. Mid rage and treble region miss out on a bit of forwardness and notes depth.4. With the first switch down and 2nd switch up the treble and upper mid range feels more forward while the bass feels a bit hollow with rest of the spectrum more or less the same.
TECH TALK AND MATCHING WITH SOURCES:-
A look at the spec sheet of the SG3 reveals its different impedance values for each switch position. It ranges from 13-23 OHM and is fairly easy to drive out of less powerful sources. Using it with lower end mobile phones might result into some background noise, it is good enough with mid range mobile phones and should be perfectly fine with high end ones. Another good thing about the SG3 is it is very easy to drive plenty loud.
Plenue R (8.5/10):-
When the analytical sounding Plenue R is paired with the SG3 it delivers slightly faster decay speed resulting into sharper, cleaner and deeper notes with slight dry feel to it. The bass loses some weight and is not as punchy. The mid bass loses some fullness. The mid range sounds more precise with admirable clarity and resolution. Especially the micro details are marginally more transparent giving a better perception of clarity. Vocals are a bit tighter and less juicy while maintaining similar texture. Treble region is slightly more energetic with equally good extension. The stage size is slightly smaller than the M6 from every direction.
The pairing of Plenue R with the SG3 is totally a matter of preference. If you like a more analytical approach this pairing is very good, if you like it lush..
Shanling M5s (8.8/10):-
This pairing brings out the more musical side of the SG3. It makes the SG3 sound slightly less sharp, a bit more mature and poised compared to the R. Where the R can feel like a bit on the agile side, the M5s is a bit more collected. Notes have slightly better precipitation resulting into fuller body. Bass delivers nice slam with slightly bigger mid bass body. The mid range feels a bit less analytical, giving up on a bit of attack and bite. The vocals feel more throaty and textured. The instruments have similar transparency but smoother finishing and thicker notes body make them lose some attack. The treble region has slightly better perceived extension thanks to the deeper stage. Notes presentation is exactly similar to the mid range but treble is more energetic and slightly forward.
Even when the M5s is not as sharp as the R it still brings out a lot of details with fantastic clarity.
VS TSMR4 pro:-
Back in 2017 the TSMR3 really started the tuning switch trend. Oh my my are they good.. I previously reviewed the TSMR2 and was impressed by that and the TSMR4 pro with its 4 BA drivers (2 CI-22955 drivers for mid and low, 2 ED-29689 drivers for high) is even more capable than that. Thanks to 3 switches it has 7 tuning possibilities (000 an invalid position).
Compared to the SG3 the 123 position of the 4 pro provides more bass body and slam. The mid range is slightly thicker with more lush notes. The Tonality and texture is better across the spectrum. Instruments feel less sharp, a bit blunt when compared to the SG3. It doesn’t have the bite. Treble is similar with extension but is not as tingly or engaging as the SG3. The stage is similar with a more in the head presence. The TSMR4 pro has a bit more details than the SG3 but lets the advantage diminish by lacking notes depth and sharpness. Thanks to more leaner notes the SG3 manages to deliver slightly better separation and layering.
It comes down to personal taste, if you like sharp and more pin point notes, prefers precision over fun the SG3 is better than the smoother sounding TSMR4 pro.
VS Avara AV3:-
The 3BA driver earphone from Avara customs is a very capable earphone which can give the ER-4 series a run for the money. It is a very precise and detailed earphone. Where the SG3 is slightly gloomy and nearly colorless the AV3 brings more brightness.
Bass region of the AV3 has similar sub bass presence but the mid bass and upper bass are more prominent giving a sense of fullness. The SG3 has slightly better notes depth but the projection is lower than the AV3. Vocals are very similar and so are texture and tonality. Instruments have equally good clarity. The similarities lie with notes body and finishing, both have equally sharp finish. Where the AV3 pulls ahead of the SG3 is the forwardness across the mid range, even the micro details sound clearer, more transparent. The treble region of the AV3 is similar. Let it be extension or energy both the earphones are not much apart. Stage size of the AV3 is slightly bigger in every direction.
When it comes to shear amount of details and technical abilities the AV3 reigns supreme, it not only delivers better transparency and micro details it manages to fill the stage with better density. What it does perfectly is keeping the shadow of the notes in the background while bringing newer notes at the foreground, a skill missing with the SG3.
SG3 is one of the most expensive earphones from TFZ and it doesn’t disappoint. It does not have a very full and meaty feel to it but it doesn’t try to be a very analytical or a dead serious sounding IEM either. It has a nice balance of transparency, details and musicality which is a bit inclined towards accuracy and precision.
Is it the best earphone you can buy for under $400? Its subjective, but are there better alternatives? Yes, the AV3 can be an answer for those who are looking for a more detailed and analytical sound, the TSMR4 pro has more lush and musical presentation. Go for the SG3 if you are in the market looking for an earphone that fits nicely, has a nice cable, looks good and sounds detailed and engaging while having a bit of analytical touch.