Pros: Clarity (but relaxed tone), build, fit, value, sound signature, accessories
Cons: Cable noise, Some HF "sizzle"
For larger views of any of the photos (1200 x 800) - please click on the individual images
Brainwavz is a now well established manufacturer of headphones in the value for money category – offering many different options (especially for IEMs) that suit almost anyone’s sonic preferences. I’ve previously had both good and bad experiences with their headphones / IEMs – I previously reviewed and owned their B2 IEMs and HM5 headphones, and both were stellar performers. I also sampled their R1 and R3 IEMs – but unfortunately these didn’t quite tick my boxes as much.
So when D2K alerted the community here that there was a new offering (the S3), and that his trial was really positive, I immediately subscribed to the growing thread. I was then contacted by Audrey and Raz about sampling the S5, and I readily agreed – especially after Luke (H20Fidelity) also suggested that they were well worth looking into.
I received the courier pack earlier in the week – and have already spent most days in that time getting to know the ins and out of these IEMs. I’d estimate that so far I’ve logged around 30-40 hours with the Brainwavz S5. A lot of this involved tip rolling and using different sources and genres to really get a feel for what the S5 offers to different music tastes.
I’ve listed price at USD $99.50 (current Amazon and MP3Nation price at time of writing) – however this is not what I paid for them (they are a review sample). I did contact Audrey offering payment for these IEMs (after I'd written and posted the review) – already I felt they were keepers. Audrey contacted me back, and insisted I keep them as a free review sample, and I am thankful to Brainwavz for this.
I was provided the Brainwavz S5 as a review sample. I am in no way affiliated with Brainwavz or MP4Nation - and this review is my honest opinion of the Brainwavz S5. I would like to thank Raz and Audrey for making this opportunity available.
PREAMBLE - 'ABOUT ME'. (or a base-line for interpreting my thoughts and bias)
I'm a 47 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile – I just love my music. Over the last couple of years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current set-up. I vary my listening from portable (HSA Studio V3, Fiio X5, and iPhone4) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > coax > NFB-12 > LD MKIV > HP). My main full sized headphones at the time of writing are the Sennheiser HD600, Beyer T1 and DT880. Most of my portable listening is done with IEMs - and up till now it has mainly been with the Dunu DN-1000 or the HSA BA100 IEMs. A full list of the gear I have owned (past and present is listed in my Head-fi profile).
I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical/opera and jazz, to grunge and general rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, folk music, classic rock, indie and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I tend toward cans that are relatively neutral/balanced. I am neither a bass nor treble head (you could argue that I do like clarity though). I am not treble sensitive (at all), and in the past have really enjoyed headphones like the K701, SR325i, and of course the DT880.
For the purposes of this review - I used the Brainwavz S5 straight from the headphone-out socket of my Fiio X5, iPhone 4 and Studio V3. I did not bother with amping them, as IMO they do not benefit from additional amplification. In the time I have spent with the S5, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (I do not believe in 'night and day' burn-in). I will allow that the more time I've have spent with these IEM's, the better they continue to sound to me. Personally I think this is a combination of brain burn in and tip-rolling - but I will respect others choice if they interpret this as physical burn-in.
This is a purely subjective review - my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt - especially if it does not match your own experience.
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The Brainwavz S5 arrived in a very smart retail box (book type) – with an inner container housing the IEMs and accessories.
|Front of the retail box||Rear of the retail box|
The packaging is very attractive and I think Brainwavz have put a lot of effort into this. It is functional, but also has a quality (or sophisticated) look to it. The colours simply convey something special. The retail box contains the catch phrase “rich details, smooth bass, over the ear design” on the front cover. A straight forward and simple message – and one it delivers on IMO. On the rear of the box is a list of accessories included plus the earphone specifications. On the inside of the front page is a really nice touch – and shows that Brainwavz are proud of what they are delivering – an expanded internal diagram of what makes up the S5. The inner audio-nut in me loves this sort of thing!
|Inside cover of the retail box||Inner packaging|
The accessory package is typical Brainwavz – very comprehensive, and quite exceptional for this price range.
First up you get the Brainwavz carry case – which is a hard fabric covered pouch – and easily carries all your tips and the S5. The case is really good because it does offer a lot of protection to the IEMs – but it is definitely more suited to transport in a jacket pocket or bag rather than a trouser pocket – simply due to its height. This is definitely a quality carry case though.
|Comprehensive included accessories||The Brainwavz carry case (dual internal pockets)|
Along with the case you also get a very high quality 3.5-6.3 mm adaptor (which does fit and work perfectly with the S5), a small combined instruction plus warranty information sheet (reverse side), a huge selection of silicone tips, and a genuine set of comply T400 medium tips.
|3.5 - 6.3 mm adaptor||Comply T400 tips fitted to the S5|
The silicone tips include 6 sets of standard tips, 1 set of double flanges, and one set of triple flanges.
|Wide range of silicone tips + comply 400s||Silicone tips and comply 400 in profile|
18 Hz – 24 kHz
110 dB @ 1mW
1.3m, flat copper cable
3.5 mm gold plated, straight
21g (with comply T400s fitted)
I have requested this information – but not sure if it is available. If not, I will re-edit the review and add the information when someone eventually measures the S5. For the record – I’m expecting a relatively flat mid-range, elevated mid bass, upper mid-range and lower treble, and some roll off in the upper treble.
|Brainwavz S5 all metal shells||Molded strain relief attached to the shell|
When I first saw photos – before I’d done the research – I automatically assumed that the body was hard moulded plastic. It definitely looks a lot like the body of Shure’s SE range. Up close – it even looks like black shiny plastic – but when you actually handle them, you realise that it is actually an aluminium alloy - Brainwavz confirms it as aluminium 6061 (info here). The build quality on the S5 shell is extremely good – one of the best I’ve seen at any price. It’s ergonomically designed for the shell to fit relatively flat against the concha – with the nozzle protruding on an angle into the ear canal. The design is such that the body of the S5 sitting against the concha is well rounded, very smooth, and (for me) extremely comfortable. With so many dynamic driver earphones opting for a bullet type shell, it is very refreshing seeing this sort of design option, as I find it aids both isolation and comfort.
The S5 is also relatively light weight and comfortable to wear – weighing in at only 21g, and I think a lot of the 21g is actually in the cable (more on this below). Comparatively, other IEMs I’ve tried recently vary between the very light weight Alfa Genus and BA100 at around 14g, and the DN1000 coming in around 26g.
|Brainwavz S5 body and angled nozzle||Brainwavz S5 body and angled nozzle|
The strain relief from the IEM housing is relatively rigid rubber moulded onto the housing, and looks of sufficient quality to last for considerable time, and protect the cable very well. L/R markings are printed in very small print on the strain reliefs – but IMO this is not an issue, as the design can only really be worn one way. And that’s another of the great things about this design – it’s easy in no light/low light situations to always get the right ear piece simply by feel.
The cable is a 1.3m flat copper cable in an outer rubbery flat sheath (Brainwavz advises that this material is TPE - more info here) . It seems very solid, but leads to my only real complaint about the S5. The cable is quite microphonic compared to a lot of the IEMs I’ve had the pleasure of trying recently. It’s not the flat design either – it’s simply the rubbery sheath. I tried running in them earlier in the week, and even with them properly cinched, I got a fair amount of microphonics. Wind on the cable yielded similar issues. They weren’t as bad, when walking, and definitely better with the cable properly cinched. Another way to alleviate this might be with a shirt clip, or to tuck the cable well inside clothing. Whilst there are ways of fixing this, it is unfortunate IMO that the design was not altered. I’ve included a photo of the Alfa Genus cable I reviewed recently (similar price bracket) which shows what can be achieved – twisted pair with a low microphonic outer sheath – strong, malleable, quiet. Something for Brainwavz to think about for the future perhaps? The flat cable is comfortable over ear.
|Flat (but rubbery) cable||Y split and 3.5 mm plug|
The splitter is a little larger than most offerings, but is flat and does have a cinch (neck slider) which works well. Strain reliefs are very good.
The plug is a straight plug which is relatively petite – and I had no issues fitting it to my iPhone with cover intact. Once again, strain relief at the plug is excellent.
FIT / COMFORT / ISOLATION
I have one ear canal slightly different to the other one (my right is very slightly smaller) - so I tend to find that usually single silicon flanges don't fit overly well. I initially tried the grey large silicone tips included, and they actually fit pretty well. I was finding that the seal would get interrupted a little, so I tried my trusty pair of Monster Super Tips (dense foam that almost always give me a complete seal). They did fit exceptionally well – but tended to attenuate the upper-mids and highs just a little, whilst making the bass almost too prominent. So I them switched to the Comply T400s – and ….. perfection (for me). Really good comfort, good isolation, but more importantly the sonic signature returned to a nicely balance mix.
All tips stayed intact with the S5 during insertion and removal, so the design of the nozzle definitely gets thumbs up from me. Isolation with the T400s is good enough for long distance air travel, and the comfort is brilliant. I’d have no issues at all sleeping with the Brainwavz S5 – especially with their flat profile.
So what does the Brainwavz S5 sound like ……… ?
|Brainwavz S5 + Studio 3 Anniversary||Brainwavz S5 + Fiio X5|
The following is what I hear from the Brainwavz S5. YMMV – and probably will – as my tastes are likely different to yours (read the preamble I gave earlier for a baseline). Most of the testing at this point (unless otherwise stated) was done with my Fiio X5 as source.
Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list http://www.head-fi.org/a/brookos-test-tracks.
Thoughts on General Signature
I’m finding the Brainwavz S5 to have a V shaped frequency response with a boost to the bass presence (and when I say boost, these are in not overly dark or muddy), quite flat and balanced mid-range (nice cohesion between lower mids and upper mids), and a bump in the lower treble. One thing I am noticing is that because there is some boost in the 3-4kHz region, I’m actually listening to the S5 at a slightly louder volume level than I would with other IEMs (I’ve noticed a lot of other IEMs boost this region to bring vocals forward). I tested this last night with the T-Peos Altone200s, and to approximately match the vocal SPL on the A200s required another 7dB on the S5. I tested this with an SPL meter and 3kHz constant tone. – then afterwards compared Christina Perri’s track “Human”.
Overall Detail / Clarity
For this I used both Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Dire Strait’s “Sultans of Swing” as there is a lot of micro detail in both tracks, and the recording quality for both is excellent.
The Brainwavz S5 displayed reasonable detail retrieval with a mellow and laid back sound, and just a hint of sizzle from the lower treble. With Gaucho, the cymbals are there, but in the background (behind the vocals). It is a smooth presentation, with no real peakiness – just allowing me to enjoy the track. Switching to Sultans of Swing, and once more the focus is more mid-range than treble. This track shows a little more crispness – but again, no major peaks, and Knopfler’s guitar just really sings. The more I listened to these tracks, I realised that any brightness is probably more on the upper mid-range than the actual treble itself. Cymbals and high-hats are there, but subdued (or polite) rather than brashly represented as some IEMs do.
There is no smearing of detail in either track – so separation is pretty good.
Sound-stage & Imaging
For this I used Amber Rubarth’s binaural recording “Tundra”. I used this because it’s a pretty simple way to get comparative data on sound-stage.
It’s usually difficult to get a reasonable stage size from an inner ear monitor. The stage is often quite small / close – with an average impression of space. The Brainwavs S5 for me is a typical IEM in this regard. The sound – while relatively clear (the drums are probably the most focused), is still very much ‘in your head’ – but still enjoyable. Directional cues are good – so for a value priced IEM its imaging is OK – perhaps not quite as stellar as some of the more detail oriented IEMs I’ve tried recently.
I also used Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer” and the S5 again delivered a very smooth and easy to listen to performance. The sense of space normally exhibited by my full sized headphones (HD600 / DT880) was missing – but the overall presentation was enjoyable and there were some directional cues present. In this track, the applause at the end is so well presented that with some headphones (HD600) I can actually close my eyes and imagine myself in the crowd. With the S5, the clapping did seem a little distant – but there was a sense of space, and the more realistic tone actually does emulate some of what the HD600 can achieve. At this point I retried the ending again, this time giving the S5 a volume boost, and all of a sudden the crowd sprang into life – and the some of the realism I hear with the HD600 was apparent. Quite an achievement at this price point.
Genre Specific Notes
Again for tracks, albums, artists – please refer to this list: http://www.head-fi.org/a/brookos-test-tracks
Rock – For me, the S9’s perform well with this genre, with the most noticeable feature being the smoothness of the overall presentation, and also the very punchy bass. 3 Doors Down “Away From the Sun”, and Alter Bridge’s “Broken Wings” are both nicely presented – but their isn’t the same crunch and excitement with guitar that I’ve had with IEMs with a slightly brighter top-end. Overall though it is very easy to listen to the S5 for extended periods of time, and there is simply no fatigue with any of the tracks I’ve listened to. Even on the much faster “Diary of Jayne”, although the presentation is slightly warmer than I am used to – nothing sounds smeared – the driver is keeping up nicely. Vocals are well presented – but rather than being too far forward, they are really nicely matched with a very present and impactful bass.
Alt Rock – First up was Pink Floyd’s “Money”, and unfortunately the S5 just didn’t quite do this classic track justice. The cymbals this time were almost lost. Bass (especially bass guitar) was exceptional, vocals were nicely presented, even the sax was well represented, but the top end detail was unfortunately missing. Switching to Porcupine Tree’s “Trains”, and here is a track that suits the S5 really well. The bass is just gorgeous – and this time even the upper end is present. Best of all Wilson’s voice just really suits the S5’s relaxed vocal presentation.
Jazz / Blues / Bluegrass – I started with Portico Quartet’s “Ruins” and enjoyed the presentation – but missed some of the crispness that I normally get with the sax in this excellent track. Moving to Miles Davis “So What”, and whilst it’s a pleasant and non-fatiguing listen, some of the finer details (particularly in the cymbals and high-hats) are simply not where they should be. There just isn’t the contrast. Miles trumpet is intoxicating though – and the S5 does the master justice with a presentation as smooth as his playing style. Switching to Blues – I fired up Joe Bonamassa’s India-Mountain Time, a track that I like immensely. The guitar work is very different to what I am used to – slightly darker with less sparkle and crunch. But it’s still Joe doing what he does best – and once he starts singing, I actually like the S5’s presentation of his vocals very much. Switching to “Dust Bowl Children” (Alison Kraus and Union Station), and the S5 also does this pretty well. A little less excitement in the banjo than I’m used to – but the cohesion between vocals and stringed instruments makes it a very easy listening experience.
Rap / EDM / Pop – Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” shines with the S5 – everything works together very cohesively (vocals, bass, guitar), and it’s surprising how much bass these drivers can deliver with the right song. What surprises me though is how clear the song is despite the copious bass it’s putting out. I think even bassheads would enjoy the S5! Switching to Norah Jones “Light as a Feather” (a fusion of pop with jazz undertones), and it is pure vocal heaven. I could listen to this sort of presentation for hours. In fact most Pop in my library just sounds right with the S5 – vocals shine, bass is impactful, again the word cohesion comes to mind. Switching to EDM – I tried Lindsay Stirling’s “Electric Daisy Violin”, and I was blown away by how good these are for this type of music. There is enough upper mid-range to make Lindsay’s violin clear, smooth, and utterly enjoyable. And then there is the bass, thumping, but clearly defined – just the perfect compliment. I also tried some Little Dragon and some Flashbulb – and it is clear to me, most electronic music shines with the S5 IMHO.
Classical / Opera – This was a surprise wasn’t really expecting. I thought the S5 might be a little too smooth for these genres, but I really enjoyed them – especially with Netrebko and Garanca. Even Kempff’s Moonlight Sonata was very captivating, and I think this might be one of the S5’s hidden strengths. Because it has such a balanced mid-range it can convey a sense of realism with individual instruments (eg piano) which is sometimes lost when the mid-range is too forward.
The S5 is very easily powered straight out of virtually any portable device, and I didn’t experience any issues with the 3 DAPs I tested (iPhone 4, Studio V3, or Fiio X5). Of the three – my personal preference would go to the Studio V3’s slightly brighter presentation.
RESPONSE TO EQ?
I was keen to see what the S5 could do by applying a little EQ. So feeling somewhat lazy, I simply switched to my iPhone, fired up the Accudio Pro app, and loaded an HD600 base signature with a K701 mask over the top. I went back to Portico Quartet’s “Ruins” again, and this time the detail I was missing earlier was more present. So the S5 responded really well to EQ for me. This is something I need to look into further as I use these more.
COMPARISON OTHER IEMs – DN-1000, BA100, T-Peos Altone200
Track – a personal favourite of mine – Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town”
Vs HiSound Audio's BA-100
Hands down my preference is the S5. It’s amazing after having these in my ears for a few days how thin the BA100 is in comparison. I know that’s just my brain not used to the very contrasting sound signatures – but I didn’t think the difference would be this large. The S5 has beautiful tone and excellent timbre with this track. The BA100 is clearer, but it simply seems to lack body.
Vs Dunu DN-1000
This time it’s a lot closer – but where the BA100 was thin, the DN-1000 is fuller, and delivers both tonality, but also a clearer presentation more suited to my individual tastes. The S5 definitely competes well though, and is definitely not embarrassed by its much more expensive competition. Where the DN-1000 has a little more sparkle and contrast, the S5 still delivers better bass impact, and is smoother. I actually may also prefer Vedder’s voice with the S5 …….
Vs T-Peos Altone200
This is a tough one because the presentations are quite different – but they are quite close in price at the moment. The Altone200 will sit eventually around the $150 mark, so I suppose it is a little unfair on the S5. The S5 continues to be very full bodied, with excellent timbre and tone – and is very smooth. The Altone200 is not quite as full bodied, but has excellent bass presence, and superior upper mids and treble. For this track I may have a slight preference toward the T-Peos. But that is no doubt my personal preference for a little more sparkle and energy.
BRAINWAVZ S5 - SUMMARY
Those who’ve seen my reviews before will know that I tend to write reasonably long rambling ones. So once again, if you’re still with me to the end, my thanks.
The Brainwavz S5 is an extremely well built IEM with a mildly V shaped sound signature, very good tone and timbre, and excellent comfort and fit. Once again it is an IEM that belies its $100 price range – delivering superior sonics at an incredible value. It has an emphasis on bass impact, but does not come at the cost of clarity or smearing into the mid-range. The mid-range itself is quite linear, the lower treble has some "sizzle", but the upper treble is what I would call polite (definitely not a focus). The S5 has a very smooth overall signature which suits many genres. Treble-heads, or people preferring brightness and etched detail should definitely look elsewhere – unless they are willing to rely on some EQ (which the S5 responds to quite nicely).
The one fault I do find with the S5 is that the cable is perhaps a little too bulky, and is definitely microphonic – but this can be managed to minimise the effects.
The litmus question again for me would be “would I buy these for myself”, and “would I recommend them to my family”. The answer to this question is YES – and I did indicate to Raz and Audrey that I wanted to purchase them. They have insisted I keep them as a free review sample, which I do appreciate. I will reiterate though that I did offer to buy them - which shows how I do regard the S5.
These are easily the best Brainwavz offering I’ve tried since the B2 (a few years ago).
Edit 8 Oct 2016 - revised these down by 1/2 star - value today is not as good as it was when first released. Still sound pretty good for a V shaped IEM, but might struggle today at USD100 mark
RECOMMENDATIONS TO BRAINWAVZ
Consider changing the cable to something lighter and less microphonic