When you think "Fender," your brain conjures up images of guitars, of long-haired tattooed musicians exploding into ear-piercing solos. It's an appropriate assessment -- the Stratocaster (or one of its many clones) is usually the first instrument of aspiring rock gods. What you don't think about are earbuds. But after a recent acquisition, the guitar maker is hoping to change that with its line of in-ear monitors.
I just happen to be in a band. (Actually, several. Okay, five. I'm in five bands.) And no matter where we play, we need to be able to hear ourselves. To accomplish that, everyone from Beyoncé to a local band at a small club uses "monitors." Unlike the wall of sound directed at the audience, the in-ear and speaker-based monitor system is mixed for either a particular person or area on stage. And from my own experience if you're a musician and can't hear yourself -- or worse, your bandmates -- you're going to have a bad time.
After years of filling clubs and arenas with piercing guitar wails, Fender is now jumping into helping people hear what's actually going on onstage. It's actually not that surprising: The company, earlier this year, purchased Aurisonics, an outfit catering to audiophiles and musicians. So when I put in the $200 FXA2 Pro in-ear monitors, it was easy to see why Fender made that purchase. The thing is, though, you really don't need to be in a band to get the most out of these earbuds.
They sound outstanding and more importantly fit snugly in my ears without being uncomfortable -- an issue I've had with other earbuds. Fender says that the FXA2 monitors are especially well suited for bass players and drummers. That translates to deep, rich kick drum (and Roland 808) hits and bass lines that sound crisp. Both of which are great, considering these sounds are typically lost in audio gear with such a tiny form factor.
Meanwhile guitars, vocals and the rest of the band also sound better than you'd expect on a set of $200 earbuds. Cymbal hits might not resonate as well as they would on more expensive headphones and earbuds, but the FXA2s do a respectable job. But it's the low end that really impresses.
As for actually using these on stage, I sing in those aforementioned bands and was able to test these out using the PA system in our practice space. We use a Mackie 1604VLZ4 16 channel mixer and Shure SM58 mics. Typically we use speaker monitors, so using an in-ear system took a bit to get used to. That said, the FXA2 did seem lose some crispness in the higher registers while singing. Higher-pitched yells and screams also felt a little flat. But while using a Roland TR8 and listening to a bass guitar or singing in a lower range, the earbuds sounded great.
I'll admit I never used them at a show. It would have required a wireless setup so I wouldn't be tethered to the PA system. But if I started playing drums again or became a bass player and wanted a more focused audio monitoring solution, the FXA2s would be in my ears.
They're comfortable and snug enough to use for hours without worrying that your sweaty rock-and-rock-level head movements won't knock them free. The FXA2s have the added bonus of cutting out most outside audio, which has made them my go-to listening devices before a show. They're more compact than the noise-cancelling headphones I usually wear, and I can use them as earplugs in the very loud clubs I frequent when I'm not listening to the music I'm trying to memorize before we go on stage. (I get pre-show jitters, fretting that I'll forget everything.)
I also tried out the $400 FXA6 in-ear monitors from Fender and for double the price, they sound incredible. But, I know that being in a band is like having a direct line from your bank account to Guitar Center, and I feel that for musicians a $200 solution that works on stage and off is more ideal.
So if you're a drummer, bass player or sing in a low register, the FXA2's will serve you well as you bring down the house. For everyone else, they're a great set of earbuds for enjoying your favorite music, regardless of whether you wrote it or not.