Before we head into the review, I just want to thank all of my readers and supporters over the last year and a half. This marks my 100th post and already the website has grown so much! I’m delighted to develop as a writer and provide ever more comprehensive and engaging articles to my readers. I’ve found great hospitality from others in this hobby, it is truly a wonderful place to be. It has been a life changing year for me, I hope others just getting into audio have a great time and those who have been here since the beginning continue to find new interests within the hobby!
Penon Audio are known to many as a friendly retailer that provides Chi-Fi best hits at an affordable price (and to me, they provide really quick free shipping too). But few know them nearly as much for their own in-house creations, they are becoming something like the Massdrop of Asia. And their newest creation is perhaps their best, it offers a stunning price/performance ratio in addition to a great accessory set. Penon’s BS1, is an affordable $40 USD earbud based upon the venerable MusicMaker Tomahawk. However, Penon’s new earbud builds upon its legacy in almost every way with numerous revisions to both design and sound that make a world of difference in real world usage. Let’s see how the BS1 performs relative to similarly priced models and compared to its progenitor.
I would like to thank Chi Kong Hui from Penonaudio very much for getting in contact and providing me with the BS1 for the purpose of an honest review. All words are my own and despite receiving the earphone free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
About Me, Background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases –
I generally prefer a u-shaped sound that is close to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound. I’m not particularly treble sensitive so I may be more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I will note if I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review and describe the sound changes.
The BS1 is much more pleasantly packaged than the vast majority of Chinese earbuds that usually come without packaging at all. The BS1 rather includes a nice hard box that magnetically opens.
Inside is a zippered hard case, ear guides, shirt clip, extra foam covers (4 pairs of foams, 2 pairs of donuts) and the earbuds themselves.
The case is small and protective, it’s actually an SD card case though the plastic holders can be removed. The foams are nicely cut, Penon also includes both red and black covers to denote left and right since the earpieces look identical. I recommend Heigi donut foams, they aren’t included with the BS1, but they produce a more balanced sound. I will note the properties of each cover in the sound section below.
Penon’s BS1 might not immediately stand out quite like the Tomahawk that precedes it, but the earbud is certainly no less impressive in the hand and is considerably more conforming to the ear. Gone is the chromed finish of the Tomahawk, its angular edges and bold branding. The BS1 is all about subtlety and refinement, not just in its acoustic tuning, but in its design, and the culmination of a few small tweaks make a huge stride over the Tomahawk in ergonomics, comfort and sonic consistency.
Upon first listen, what stuck out to me was the comfort provided by the BS1 which is considerably improved over the Tomahawk. The BS1 sports more rounded and sculpted features, the rears are thinner and the edges less angular. The concave sculpting of the rears of the housings perfectly slot into the ear without forming hotspots, unlike the straight edged Tomahawk, and provide a purchase when removing the earbuds from the ear. In addition, the BS1 utilises thin plastic strain reliefs on the earpieces rather than the aluminium coke bottles on the Tomahawk, which were the prime source of discomfort for many users.
As a result, the BS1 is hugely improved in terms of long wearability and even finds comfort when sleeping, I was able to wear them for hours with minimal discomfort whereas the Tomahawk would hurt my ears after about an hour. The BS1 is about the same size as most Yuin style earbuds, making it quite compact. And with those revised strain-reliefs, the earbud achieves similar fitment depth and stability, especially with foam covers. I personally find them a bit more comfortable than Sennheiser MX500 style earbuds, putting them among the most comfortable earbuds on the market.
I’m also a fan of their very understated look. The BS1 assumes a uniform black finish which is very smooth and while seams are present, they are all subtly rounded to prevent abrasion. Build quality remains as strong as the Tomahawk with a metal construction save for the plastic front. They have a smoother finish than the Tomahawks and look to be slightly better machined. The earbuds are very minimalist with absolutely no markings, the only branding to be seen is the Penon logo on the 3.5m plug. The earbuds have a small white dot on the bottom of the left earpiece to denote orientation though it’s a bit hard to see. Sides are more easily differentiated when installing different coloured foams on each side.
But perhaps my favourite aspects of the BS1 is their cable, which is massively improved over the Tomahawk’s tacky, springy unit. The BS1 has a great looking silvery cable with a transparent sheath (though I’m convinced it’s OFC copper underneath). It is super supple and smooth and doesn’t catch on clothes or fabric. The softer cable in addition to the lack of seal also produces almost zero microphonic noise. The cable is so wonderfully compliant with zero memory and spring, easily coiling and avoiding tangles exceptionally well. It is similar to the cable utilised by the Musicmaker TP16 and the red coloured Ting, but it is slightly thinner and appreciably more compliant.
Perhaps my only gripe is its straight 3.5mm plug, I usually prefer a right angle unit, but the knurling on the plug enables easy plugging and unplugging. The plug is also slim enough to fit in most phont cases. The y-split is also a nice low profile unit constructed from metal but has no strain relief, though earpieces and jack, the most common point of stress and failure, both have small but effective relief.
The BS1 also has a rubber chin slider which holds its place pretty well. So while the BS1 and Tomahawk may look similar on a surface level, in use, they couldn’t be more different; the BS1 really fixes every ergonomic complaint I had with the original Tomahawk.
But it is with their sound that the BS1 most diverges from the MRZ Tomahawk, the BS1 is a different beast entirely. Though the specs are similar, it is highly likely that the BS1 is utilising a different driver or extensive tuning to achieve a considerably different tone. The BS1’s revised design also produces a slightly deeper fit thereby achieving an improved seal and more low-end quantity though that does not account for the extent of the sound changes I am hearing.
Full Foam – Donut Foam – Heigi Donut Foam
The BS1 comes pre-equipped with full foams which cover the entire front face of the earbuds. They sounded pretty nice but a little veiled for my tastes. Switching to donut foams, which have a small cut-out in the centre, provided a more pleasing tonality with improved balance and a bit more clarity though the donut foams still covered the majority of the sound holes at the front of the bud. I found a most agreeable tonality with Heigi donut foams equipped, they have an even larger opening at the front which left the sound holes uncovered, but still provide seal for low-end extension. With the Heigi’s, the BS1’s had really nice midrange clarity and all veil was lifted. The high-end became a little more prominent and details were more pristine than before. Unlike the Venture earbuds, the BS1’s are too lean to be used without foams but find nice balance with foams installed. As such, all comments will be with Heigi donut foams installed, I do highly recommend buying a pack just to experiment with. I bought my set from Penon, they about $3.
The BS1 is a nicely balanced earbud that avoids being over bright like the TP16 and granular like the Tomahawk. It has a u-shaped tonality with a nudge of extra bass and mostly laid back treble. But while they possess a little extra warmth down low and some extra crispness up top though mids tend to draw attention with their great clarity and body. The BS1 provides an easy going, organic sound that is fantastic for long listening sessions but never comes across as bland or boring.
Despite those huge 15.4mm drivers, I didn’t notice enormous change with burn-in. Perhaps they achieved a little more clarity, I feel like bass has tightened up slightly with added texture. Otherwise, changing the covers made the biggest difference to the earbud’s sound.
Soundstage, Imaging and Separation –
Though I feared that their deeper fit would compromise space, the BS1 is wonderfully expansive in its presentation. They are actually more obviously spacious than the more expensive Shozy earbuds at the cost of sounding less natural though the E1008 is more open yet. They are more width focussed as most gear seems to be and depth is just modest. Songs with backing vocals and effects easily reach outside the head. Imaging is a bit vague though earbuds tend to be a little more unconcise than in-ears due to the nature of their fit. Considering their price, the BS1 is still a nice performer and they easily have more accurate placement than the Fiio EM3 and TP16. Centre image is also pretty diffuse, they tend to push vocals more to the side though it’s a very enveloping presentation that is laid-back and easy to listen to. Separation, on the other hand, is great on account of their space, they aren’t easily overwhelmed despite not having the tightest, most agile sound.
The BS1 has enormous sensitivity at 114dB and a low 32ohm impedance, they are a little harder to drive than the lower impedance Shozy earbuds though they aren’t difficult to drive in the grand scheme of things. Even my iPod Nano 7G had little difficulty achieving high listening volumes and the BS1 realised much of its potential from this lower powered source. They did sound a little nicer from my Fiio X3 though the differences weren’t huge. The earbuds also don’t respond much to higher output impedances meaning they will sound consistent from almost every source. Amplification isn’t necessary and the earbuds barely pick up any hiss. The BS1 is easy to drive and not source sensitive at all.
The BS1 isn’t a bass monster, but their warmer presentation will please a lot of listeners looking for a bit more nuance to their music. Sub-bass has the most emphasis in the low-end, which is a modest bump over neutral and has really nice extension for an earbud. Sub-bass is pretty tight, it does miss the texture and definition of higher-priced models, but provides some nice slam and rumble to the BS1’s sound. Of note, sub-bass extension was hugely improved when equipping Heigi foams which provide a better seal than most covers. With regards to mid and upper bass, earbuds have this strange quality which really separates each frequency and despite sub-bass bearing this notable emphasis, the rest of the bass response is surprisingly clear and textured. They don’t have huge mid and upper bass warmth but both are slightly lifted without much noticeable bloat or muddiness due to that separation. The rest of the bass response is slightly warm and more analogue in character. Mid-bass texturing is really nice and bass detail easily bests similarly priced in-ears. Resolution is also quite nice, the earbuds still aren’t perfectly clear and lack that sense of immediacy, but bass notes are easily discerned from one another and are in great balance with other frequencies. If the earbuds have one downfall, it’s that sub-bass is a little on the slower side, it does keep up with the rest of the sound, but on faster or more monotonous tracks, the earbuds do tend to drone. Either way, bass is nicely textured and detailed on a whole, sub-bass extension is superior to most earbuds at the cost of some tightness and speed.
Despite having many fans, just as many listeners flogged the Tomahawk for having an unnatural, bright and slightly metallic midrange. The BS1 thankfully improves upon all of these issues but that’s not to say that their performance has been perfected. Instantly, balance is improved on the BS1, they are no longer so bright though they still carry a very slightly brighter tonality. As such, female vocals and guitars hold a little more emphasis in the sound over male vocals and keyboard. Vocals are very nicely bodied but retain a lot of clarity, it’s a really natural and pleasing tuning on a whole, especially when compared to similarly priced in-ears which can get a bit wonky in their presentation. And mids hold up pretty well under scrutiny, if I’m being a bit more critical, I would say that they still aren’t as natural as the pricier Shozy earbuds, with a slightly hollow tone at times though that can be attributed to the mastering of the source material. Female vocals, despite holding the greatest emphasis, don’t extend exquisitely like some earbuds though they sound quite nice on the vast majority tracks. Piano also sounds a little off, the BS1’s are lacking that pristine sense of resolution and some linearity. That being said, the BS1 avoids sounding nasal, truncated or over-forward in its upper midrange which is a huge step over the TP16 and VE Monk+ and this refinement is what kicks them into a higher class of performance. On the flipside, male vocals sound really nice, tonally correct and reproduced with pleasing resolution. Some bass spill is evident when listening to Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, Thom’s vocals were slightly veiled and over warmed though I didn’t notice this issue on most tracks I listened to. This is offset by some really nice detail retrieval presented in a more laid-back fashion, considerably more so than the Tomahawk. As such, the earbuds don’t lack detail, but intricacies aren’t forward in the BS1’s sound and they retain just enough crispness to service acoustic guitar. Strings and trumpets are also given a smoother presentation than most earbuds which err on the side of rawness over refinement. And these niggles are insignificant when factoring in Penon’s asking price, even coming from the exceptional Campfire Jupiter and 64Audio U3, nothing on the BS1 sounded particularly wrong or off, which is very uncommon. The BS1 is, therefore, a very natural and mature sounding earbud that I think a lot of listeners will enjoy, their midrange is an outstanding performer in this price class.
Highs are quite interesting, they present similarly to the Shozy earbuds which is to say, more laid-back with a hint of lower treble emphasis that imparts some interest within their sound. They therefore avoid being overly laid-back like the 1More E1008 and also avoid being over-forward like the original Tomahawk where I struggled to find a foam cover that brought out the bass while sufficiently dampening their highs. The BS1 also comes across as more refined and considerably smoother than the Tomahawk and though they still have notable high-end roll-off, it is more gradual with higher notes sounding distant rather than cut off. They still have some nice air when listening to jazz and strings sound delicate enough, they are also lacking the occasional grain of the Tomahawk at the cost of being slightly less detailed and defined. Still, treble is well presenting and has some nice qualities. If you are looking for aggressive detailing and clarity, these earbuds will likely disappoint you, but for lovers of a slightly smoother, more laid-back sound that is free of fatigue and sibilance, the BS1 delivers without sounding particularly dull.
The BS1 is a noble first effort from Penon, it’s refinement is especially impressive given that some vastly larger and more experienced manufacturers can’t pull off the earbud form factor. Several small tweaks over the original Tomahawk make a world of difference in daily usage; the BS1 is a comfortable, very well constructed and refined sounding earbud at a very affordable price. I’m a particular fan of their revised housings and vastly improved cable which is easily one of the best I’ve handled around this price. I also admire Penon’s subdued styling choices which reflect similarly upon their more refined acoustic tuning. So while they do have some bass spill and perhaps an overly laid-back high-end back for some, for just $40 USD, Penon provide a stunning soundstage, fantastic bass definition and a super natural, analogue tonality.
Verdict – 8/10, The BS1 provides all day comfort, exceptional build and comfort combined with a smooth, natural tone. It also offers a sizable performance upgrade over cheaper models and competes favourably to similarly priced models of differing form factor. The BS1 is a surprisingly well-rounded and versatile performer that addresses essentially all of the complaints we had from models before.
The BS1 is available from Penonaudio (International) for $39 USD, please my affiliate link for the most updated pricing and availability.