Firestone Audio BlackKey Review
Thanks to Firestone Audio for the sample.
First Impressions: Visually this thing looks just like the BlueKey I looked at previously, its peculiarly quirky pen cap is still there. Not sure what you do with it practically but it’s fun. Unlike the BlueKey the BlackKey is terminated with a rather more commonly useful 3.5mm jack. Yes, that means you can just plug in a pair of headphones and you’re on your way. The thing itself has no controls, no volume, no nothing but thats hardly an issue as you can just control the volume using windows. (Same will apply to whatever OS you use) oh and this time windows auto installed the drivers.
Acoustic first impressions, you’ll have to take with a pinch of salt as I’m using a new to me IEM but I am very happy with it. I was concerned it might not be terribly powerful but it seems plenty potent. Not sure it would suit massive headphones but it’s certainly doing a grand job with the IEM's I’m playing with today. Bass especially seems to be really digging in deep.
Lows: Right away my initial impressions proved correct. The bass on the black key feels that bit more vigorous than it ought to be. It’s solid and digs in with a slightly boosted depth. It’s more the entertainer than it is purist device. Tbh I think that fits its product category better anyway. The BlackKey is something you are meant to use with a laptop and to avoid its woeful hp out, you slap in this baby and away. It’s a thrilling, entertaining and dynamic. The bass likes to be a bit playful. However at times with the big cans it felt a little like it wasn’t all quite so effortless as it was more with IEM’s. Little IEM’s it had plenty of power behind it to sound truly authoritative. Big cans like the HD515 and HD600 it was a bit more humpy. Oddly the humpy was more noticeable on the 515 but then they don’t have the greatest depth to begin with. On IEM’s though depth was good, a hint of that hump remained and it’s what gives the BlackKey a slight V shaped sound. It’s more a party, enjoy yourself DAC than a ruler flat. I like it’s fun and bouncy temperament. It’s dynamic and lively across the board and that plays out with a very bouncy and playful bass line.
Mids: A touch on the dry side. They go for a slightly cool, airy and open sort of vocal. Lots of that breathy sort of detail though the inverse aspects of that mean that smooth and liquidy vocals weren’t shining at their best. Of course the dryer and more open sounds work particularly well in things where vocals aren’t hurled centre stage. Predominantly I’m thinking pop stuff. The hint of added air and dryness gives that bit of breathing room for vocals to get in there and come forth. Dynamics wise the mids are the least dynamic aspect here. The otherwise excellent dynamics here are quite pedestrian and ordinary. Things such as Dido, breathy and dynamically contained do very well here. Otherwise vocals that are supposed to get all shouty don’t really leap out you here. Guitars twang rather cleanly though.
Highs: Returning to the slightly V shaped sound I mentioned before; the highs here feel a bit over what they should. They are crispy and clean with a dynamic eagerness to them. They want to come out and play like a puppy. Lively, energetic, bouncy and so eager to please. It’s one of these amps that you’ll probably want to feel good quality tracks as the treble energy won’t soften any dross you feed it. The dynamics again are a stand out trait. So much range to play with here, it’s a really entertaining ride. I do feel the extension might be fuller and more dragged out, the highs seem to want to have a peak to focus on and the long lingering decay I like seems to fade that bit faster than I’d rather it do. Oh well. I’d think so long as you don’t pair with something that has a coincident peak it’s not something you’ll notice much or object to.
In the Hand: It’s a funky looking USB key drive. It’s something that would get stuck in a pocket with ease for moving it. The lid though, hmmm yes with the lid on it looks fine and it fits it well but I can’t help but think it’s just asking to be lost. Otherwise it’s a nice little plastic rectangle with a translucent bit that glows. Given it has no controls on it, you’re not actually going to touch it in use, so yeah it’s a nice flash drive really.
Build Quality: Like all the Keys they all look and feel the same. Light, solid (no creaking on squeezing) and glow when they are in operation.
Power: While these would make very, very loud sounds, even with the HD600 I wasn’t really ever sending the windows volume slider above about 50%. That said I felt they didn’t really have the current behind them to make the best of bigger headphones. IEM’s all were driven fine but I know the HD600’s could do better. It’s not like they sucked, I just know that a beefier amp can do more for them. I mean it runs off a USB socket after all. Volume though was never lacking on anything, not even close to lacking. So when using do try to remember to turn the windows volume down or you’ll hurt your ears.
Transparency: Rather good. These did offer a bit of their own flavour to things so that’s got ta mark them down on transparency a bit but the dry and open character makes them feel very transparent. Details feel very forward and clear. It reminds me of the DA in offering that perhaps slightly over transparent sound where the contrast has been perhaps a little bumped up. Such wide dynamics lend to that impression.
DAC: One of the major points being the BlackKey is that it can decode high res files. It can do up to 96kHz/24bit which should cover much of what’s about. So if you’re one of the people who has a collection of such files, yey for you, this will play them back without your comp down mixing them.
Value: I really rather like the value of this. If I’m totally honest it’s probably the one I like most of all the Key range I’ve seen. This is the one too I think not just I but most people would be likely to find of use to them. It’s really a dinky little thing. If you’re a road warrior then this, your laptop and a nice pair of earphones and your set. You don’t even need to carry an additional cable to plug it into. It goes right into the USB socket and that’s you done. Acoustically it’s pretty good too and I’d wager with easily wipe the floor with any laptop hp out socket. That its only £57 is a plus. Its only potential down side is that it’s a one trick pony, it runs off a computer and that’s it. No portable amp, no amping some other source you have either.
Conclusion: Sonically I really like the BlackKey. The only sill thing I didn’t was I kept finding myself instinctively reaching for the BlackKey to change the volume control. That was easily the biggest negative I found and as negatives go, it’s pretty minor. Overall it’s been a very positive experience I’ve had with the dinky little BlackKey. Sure it’s not hugely subtle, it’s not particularly neutral sounding either. Still I find I really don’t mind, a rather like its dynamic and slightly bombastic sound. The V shaped acoustic signature rather works and I find I rather have enjoyed it.
Now I realise that for some the pursuit of a more acoustically perfect sound is desirable and in that case something like the FireyeDA may be more suitable. The BlackKey isn’t really aiming for that pure and uncoloured sound. It’s a bit a fun. Don’t get me wrong it’s a huge quality jump up from the dross that laptops are normally blessed with but its focus is on you enjoying the music. Having a good time rather than being a instrument to aid in the examination of the music. Above all it’s been a really fun and enjoyable little doo dah to play with. Feed it, fun bouncy music and I’d dare any one not find it effervescently and joyfully lively.