Pros: Warm, deep rich smooth bass, mids are not recessed, treble has some sparkle to it, very detailed, aluminum build, great accessories.
Cons: Competes with too many titans at $100 price point, treble spikes, metallic mids overall, not neutral, no detachable cables.
Ready for a repeat? Good, because the "short list" of Pros/Cons is too short. I wanted to provide a bit more in that regard. So here's a longer Pro/Con list that should sum it up better as there's a lot going on here:
Pros: Warm, deep rich smooth bass, mids are not recessed with the bass presence in a significant way, treble has some sparkle to it, very detailed, good separation of channels, solid aluminum build (metal), flat wires that do not tangle and birds-nest easily, great assortment of accessories (case, tons of tips, 1/4" adapter), very efficient and will run from any source.
Cons: Competes with too many well established IEM's at the $100 price point, treble can seem a bit harsh depending on the recording (some spikes around 7khz~10khz noted), sound stage is good (more on the intimate side) but not outstanding (this is a challenge for most IEM's so take this with a grain of salt), wires are not detachable, no volume controls (not a con for me, but for some it may be worth noting), it's not a neutral IEM (this is not a con for everyone), more in the warm and sparkly camp (more similar to a subtle "V" frequency response).
On to the showcase, the Brainwavz S5:
Brainwavz S5 - Warm, Detailed with some Sparkle
The IEM market is a tough market to break into. Brainwavz is no stranger to audio and has some major players in the entry market of headphones and IEMs. The HM5 is no stranger to anyone savy about headphones with it's quality for price point. The new Brainwavz S5 aims to challenge the $100 entry point in the IEM market, which is a very challening group to rub elbows with, such as the mighty Shure SE215 and the neutral Hifiman RE-400. There is a ton of other IEM's that are similar in cost and have other features, so the S5 has to really bring something to the table to grab attention. Some of us love full size headphones even for portable use (myself included), but now and then, a good IEM is just so convenient, easy to power without all those fancy and expensive gadgets that glow in our pockets, and of course the heavenly isolation that can only be provided by an absolute air seal. Let's explore the S5.
Quick Reference for the TL;DR folks:
· Aluminum build (not plastic!)
· Entry price point of $100; competes with Shure SE215 & Hifiman RE-400 directly
· Rich, deep, controlled bass (not earthquake level, but it should satisfy most bass-lovers)
· Great mids, vocals & instruments are not recessed significantly
· Sparkly treble, a bit harsh at times, but not overly bright (spikes around 7khz~10khz)
· Treble comes off with a bit of congestion with the spikes in high energy tracks
· Detail retreival is excellent, great overall resolution, no congestion in mids & bass
· Super efficient, will run from a potato
· Good isolation (note, airport means it's not completely isolated)
· Flat wires, resistant to tangle and birds-nests, does not transmit tons of noise when rubbed
· Tons of accessories (case, lots of tip types, 1/4" adapter)
A quick summary of what this IEM is all about: Take a neutral response IEM with a typical soundstage, not too wide, not too intimate, but some where closer to the intimate side, and then gently push the mid-bass up a touch to give it warm, while still being able to comfortably drop a controlled 25hz tone like a champ. Keep the mids appropriate so that vocals and instruments sound normal, not overlly recessed or bled out, competing for attention. And then add a dash of sparkle to the treble. Flatten out the wires, throw on some Comply tips that are included and you have the S5.
What Comes In the Box:
· The S5 earphones of course
· Hard case (does not fit in pocket) that seals with a zipper (crush resistant, but not crush proof)
· Comply T-400 foam tips (these retail at $17 MSRP, can be found for $8; included)
· 6 pairs of typical silicone tips in small, medium & large (meh)
· 1 set of bi-flange tips
· 1 set of tri-flange tips
· 1/4" adapter (this is a great addition actually for using these at home with gear)
Overall Brainwavz has packaged a good assortment of gear. I think if you removed the case, all those tips and just included a basic set of tips to get someone started, it could be sold for a more competitive price. The accessories are probably bringing it up to the overall cost of $100. I really appreciate inclusion of the Comply T-400 tips and the 1/4" adapter. Those are the most important accessories to me because the Comply tips smash down and then slowly expand in your ear canal giving you a good seal and "complys" to the shape of your ear, without having to get custom made IEM's that cost a mint. Great tips. The 1/4" adapter, while totally useless for a lot of people who use these with their mobile devices (phones, DAPs, etc) is a very nice addition for the simple fact that a lot of us still like to use these with desktop gear to get great rendering from great gear we already have and not resort down to only using mobile geared equipment. The hard case is not crush proof. It's crush resistant, so if you sit on it, you'll know you did, and hopefully you'll not continue sitting. If you're not a hulk, you may get away without flattening the case. It will survive most things. Unfortuantely it's too big to fit in your pocket, unless you're wearing cargo pants or have big jacket pockets or hoodie pockets. But typical pants/shorts pockets simply will not take the bulky little case. It's a solid inch and a half thick and covered in a vinyl-like material that will have a lot of friction sliding in a pocket.
Specifics of the IEM & Accessories:
· 16ohm Impedance
· 110dB/mW Sensitivity
What does that mean? It means they're incredibly efficient and will render full resolution with very little energy requirement, so they will run from your smart phone, tablet, netbook, DAP, etc. Anything. Even a potato. That also means they get loud very quickly, so they will be hissy and noisy and reveal noise floors on anything with significant output (don't plug these into your AVR to watch movies, it'll work, but it'll sound like a hiss-fest depending on the model). Can you put these on an amplifier? Absolutely. Will they burn up or something crazy that I read about on the internet? No. I put them on a 2+ watt source at this impedance and while it was hard to get the listening level down, they certainly didn't melt or smoke or catch fire or breakdown (despite their "20 mW" rated input power; I ignore those, as most audiophile folk do anyways, and just throw them on high powered sources and see what happens in our ears). Do they benefit from an amplifier? Sure. Everything will benefit to an extent. If it's a lower powered source, it will help give you a stable signal and provide a higher minimum amount of power during the rendering of the most complex passages in a track that a mobile device may not accomplish as nicely. But that's more academic than anything. I ran the S5 on just normal devices (smart phone, tablet, DAP) and devices with amplifiers (both powerful and very powerful, even a tube amp) just to see how they behaved and sounded. Thanks for that 1/4" adapter!
Construction, Materials & Comfort:
The build quality is good. It's a metal (aluminum) hull, and flat rubber wires. The Comply tips are very comfortable because they "comply" to your ear cannal and hold that shape instead of forcing a round object into a non-round space. They're light weight, but most IEM's are. The wires are nice being flat. I've had plenty of IEM's that had normal cylindrical cables and they tangle, twist and birds-nest something fierce. These flat wires don't do that as much, they can still tangle up of course, but they're not prone to it and they just seem to fall more naturally and comfortably. These were made to really be able to swing over your ear (the place where the cable attaches to the IEM is faced forward, so that the cable goes forward and naturally is where it should be to allow a cable to wrap around your ear). A lot of us do that because it adds support to the IEM and takes a lot of the pull from the cables off your ear cannal and instead puts it on your nice flexible ear cartiledge. I have a lot less "IEM slip outs" with them draped over my ear. The cable itself feels good and durable, but you still have to be mindful. It's too bad they are not detachable cables, that would have been a huge plus. The IEM itself is not overly flashy, so you don't have a gold grill or goofy symbol flashing in your ears to people, instead, it's a classy piano black finish that simply states "brainwavz" on the side in white. I like the neutral grey cable and black IEM. It'll match anything and doesn't have that silly flashy neon green or orange mess that the kids wear these days (hey, deal with it, if you're that person).
IEM Wire Tolerance:
Anyone wearing IEM's can testify that if a cable rubs a surface or wriggles, it can create a noise that you can hear even when listening to audio. It can be a hugely disappointing thing. I can say that the S5 doesn't seem to have this problem in a large way. The flat rubber cable seems to tolerate a lot of movement and rubbing on your clothing. I think a lot of this has to do with how you wear it. I'm wearing the S5 over my ears, so the cables' movement is transmitted to my ear structure, and not to the IEM which is in my ear canal. This means when the wind is blowing outside, my shirt rubbing the cable, etc, I'm not getting the noise from that through the cabling to my audio. So overall, a very tolerable IEM to the environment and to phsyical contact. This is a massive plus in my book because it's one of my biggest gripes when it comes to IEM's and cabling.
Normally I'm very weary putting any IEM in my ear as I'm usually a near full-time full size headphone wearer, as my near permanently attached to my head headphone these days is my Hifiman HE-500 driven from a speaker amp. Putting in an IEM is a total different experience. Or at least, that's what I expect before trying it. I too can appreciate a portable IEM though that can run from my phone or my DAP and still provide good quality sound even in the ambient noise of the environmente out there. Overall I was pleased with the initial impression of the S5. It had everything I would expect at this price point. It did have a few areas of concern though, so I guess Brainwavz took a chance on a few things to see how it would be received market-wise.
Overall I was pleased with the rendering. The bass was rich, warm, controlled, not loose, fast and dropped very low with plenty of authority. The mids were fine, vocals & instruments sounded as they should and didn't sound recessed to the point of distraction. Treble was a bit sparkly, and in really complex passages I noticed a weird congestion of frequencies that after playing with an equalizer, I found they were in the 7khz~10khz regions and were subdued when lowered, so the treble definitely has some odd spikes that are hallmark of "V" shaped frequency responses, but let's call it a "gentle V" and not near the legendary ear-destroying levels of Ultrasone's treble.
The S5 has some sparkle. Expect some fatigue if you're sensitive to treble. For those of you (like myself) that like a bit of extra treble for the sparkle, the sugar on top, the excitement, the attack, you'll appreciate the gentle spikes in most regions of treble. I noticed during complex passages with lots and lots of treble clashing frequencies, there was a congestion of sorts for lack of a better set of wording. Passages with lots of cymbals like metal with repeating crashing of those types of sounds, it was quite fatiguing even for me and lead me to look to an equalizer to figure it out. I found that the 7khz~10khz region is where it was, so I lowered it a bit, and it solved the fatigue for me. I listen to a lot of Denons & Beyers, so I'm quite used to bright treble, so this is no surprise. I generally equalize all my treble-happy headphones a bit so that my hours-upon-hours of listening time doesn't result in too much fatigue. The enhanced treble gives a sense of detail, a bit of sharpness, which can make you think it has more detail. Overall treble is fine, if not a bit bright and easily congested depending on what you listen to. I noticed in metal, I easily heard the issue. But when listening to jazz, EDM, classical and rock, it was less of an issue and sometimes I didn't notice it, at all. But anything that ventures into 7khz~10khz will certainly come across with some sting and too many occurances will just sound like a congregation of noise. So beware if you're a metalhead, this may be a problem. For everyone else, it's likely not a problem.
The heart & soul of any renderer of full range audio is the ability to render mids properly. The S5 accomplishes this nicely. The gently increased warmth in bass and the sparkle from the treble doesn't bleed into the mids or recess the overall appearance of the mids to the point of distraction. Vocals & instruments sound appropriate. They're more on the intimate side of things, not distant at all. If anything there may be a bit of an increase on the upper mids region as it ventures into the treble. Female vocals sound right, and so do males. Overall detail is great. The mids really give you the majority of what you hear, and the S5 delivers that nicely. Listening to passages, I'm hearing little details like a breath, a foot tap, a cough even in some tracks. It's those imperfections that really let you know that you're hearing detail that someone missed or couldn't remove in the studio. Great resolution requires excellent mids, so the S5 performs here well. No genre was unjustly rendered as the mids were capable of keeping up with the fast pace of EMD, rock and metal and even some complex classical, while still keeping it moody and right for jazz. The only thing that is a bit of a concern is the slight metalic sound of the mids. It sort of reminded me of how some Ultrasones sound. Overall not a super warm organic sound, but rather a decisive sharp sound, a bit cold. The added bass balances this out for a more warm appearance, but on a track with little to no bass (like some indie jazz and some passages in classical) you'll notice the colder edge to the mids.
If the S5 does anything extremely well, it's the bass. I know, tons of people clammer over "I need more bass!" endlessly. The S5 will actually appeal to a bit of everyone I think. The bass is very controlled, rich, and fast. It's not a loose rumble that flubs around. It's capable of tight drops, and recovers for other complex drops at the same time. 25hz is not a problem for the S5. And it doesn't roll off quietly, the bass has quite a nice bit of authority. So it will sound normal if listening to something like jazz, but if your EDM calls for a serious earthquake drop, it will deliver that. While the bass is not earthquake worthy, maybe not quite there for someone who is an absolute basshead who will sacrifice all for the purity of just bass, they satisfied me quite well (coming from a planar magnetic, D5000's, etc). I didn't feel the need to equalize for more bass. It seems to respond nicely no matter what I listen to, which is hallmark of good responsive bass. It's not neutral, there is an obvious hump in mid bass, and no roll-off that is apparent in subbass, so the bass comes across on the prominent side. A good thing if you love warmth and rich bass. Too bassy for someone looking for a pure neutral experience or an analytical experience. The nice thing is that the bass, even though it has a hump, does not bleed badly into the mids, so there's nothing recessed to the point of distraction.
IEM's in general isolate rather well. The S5 isolates fairly well. While listening at my listening level, I could not hear my mechanical keyboard in a meaningful way, or the click of my mouse. Really all I can hear, if I concentrate outside of what I hear audio-wise, is my breathing if heavy and of course mouth noises (teeth, swallowing, etc). Normal things when your ears are "plugged." The S5 has an airport on the side, which is how it achieves the wonderful bass that it has. This allows some communication of sound back and forth. The good news is though, like most IEM's, someone sitting next to me doesn't hear what I'm listening to. And I can block out most of the ambient sound in the environment. If you need quiet, critical, private listening, then the S5 will do fairly well. In an absolute quiet environment, it's possible for someone to hear your audio if you're listening at high levels. So keep that in mind. I've heard some kids walking around with their IEM's so loud that I could plainly hear them as they walked by.
IEM's are not known for having incredible sound stage width or depth. Most closed audio options exhibit this. There are exceptions, but the S5 is unfortunately not one of them. The good news is that the soundstage is appropriate for a closed source. The separation is excellent, instruments and information is nicely isolated and separated from one another and the channels do not blend uniquely to one central blob in your head. Things do have a nice swing from left to right to give you a sense of space. Intimate is the word I'd use to describe the sound stage. Everything is fairly close and appreciable. The soundstage is not wide, so things do not sound like a cloud of 3D space. But this is very difficult to achieve on a closed source. It's difficult even on open headphones. So keep that in mind.
Experiments with Different Sources:
While it's common to use an IEM with a DAP, smart phone, tablet or small laptop or netbook, it's not common to see folk plugging their IEM's into desktop level equipment. There are some dedicated serious pieces of kit out there for custom IEM users that cost a mint, so those are a whole different level. But I wanted to give a little something extra and go into some portable and desktop sources to give an impression of how the S5 behaves. I'm not much of a portable listener, so how it behaves at my desk is important to me. Let's play with some odd sources from an IEM perspective.
I still use an old S3. That's right. I tested Pandora because I don't normally use my phone for audio. My collection is FLAC and it's a pain to use FLAC on phones, plane and simple. I typically use a DAP for my portable audio. I'll get to that. When I plugged into my S3 and loaded Pandora (I have Pandora One), I just set it to one of my favorite stations that I've honed over the years. Overall it functioned fine. I pushed the volume to see what kind of current the S3 could push into the S5 and it was able to get well beyond my tolerable listening level, so there's that efficiency doing good work. Everything sounded normal, bass was proper, mids were good, treble had it's characteristic sting. I did notice a bit of lack of resolution and overall body, but that's due to the low quality stream of Pandora One and probably the quality of the internal bits and bolts of my S3. It was listenable. But not up to my normal standards at all. I'm blaming compressed streaming media for 99% of this experience. The major point to take away is that the IEM functions fine from the S3 as a source and can get loud enough without an issue, but this was to be expected based on the specifications.
Asus MemoPad HD7:
I have a MemoPad HD7 as a little 7" tablet. Nice, small and does the job with an IPS panel and great resolution. I've watched movies on this little guy with headphones before. The S5 seems to respond just fine. It supplies plenty of power for the efficient S5 to then render nicely the audio. Movies sounded fine. I have DIVX's of my DVD's loaded on this thing, so I watched some clips from some of my films and they had that theatrical thunderous boom and the sparkle gives it some excitement. Overall a nice experience and great for movies.
Sansa Fuze (V2) with & without Fiio E11:
My typical DAP is my Fuze. And old Fuze, that has line level output so that I can output it's native FLAC playback from a 32Gb SD card as a line level source to my portable amplifier for better handling of the signal, the Fiio E11 in my case. I listened to the S5 both with and without the E11 form the Fuze. Directly from the Fuze, I noticed it had more body, more overall richness that lacked compared to my S3 and MemoPad HD7. I expected this as the Fuze has fairly good output that is meant for audio and has a bit more going in it's favor in that regard. With the E11 in the loop, I was able to better control that signal and it simply helped ensure it never dipped below during the complex passages. I also appreciated the much tighter volume control that I could get "just right" which is more difficult I find with a digital volume control. The quality of the FLAC playback through the S5 is a whole other level compared to listening to the S5 on compressed streamed material on my S3 and even compared to the AC3 of my DIVX. Just a clean, rich, detailed experience. Overall very nice, pleasing. The treble is stillt here, I definitely felt the sting from some trumpets in my jazz. I didn't notice any appreciable noise floor on the E11, and had it set to low gain and no equalization used at all on either device.
The E10 is a staple in my book for entry AMP/DAC USB units on a dime. It plugs into my netbook and gives me a great audio experience even when I'm portable, but not using a "portable" solution. The E10 handles the S5 nicely. I kept it on low gain and played FLAC via Foobar2000. I found my volume knob between the 1 & 2 on the E10. So it provides way more power than is needed by the S5. There's that efficiency rearing it's head at us (that's a good thing for most!). When I tested the bass boost switch, it definitely bumps up the overall bass response quite a bit. The S5 handled it nicely, it sounded a lot more like a basshead solution and even simple passages had thunderous bass, so the S5 responds nicely to equalization and isn't topped out already. That's great news if you're a basshead and interested in these.
JDS Labs Objective 2 (O2):
Everyone and their brother has the O2. So why not? It's a good neutral amp that is typically a reference for most people. I noticed I could hear something playing even with the volume all the way to the minimum. When I turned it up to listening level, I was only able to get just past the first dash mark before it would go to untolerable levels. I couldn't listen at the second dash mark as it was noticeably too loud for me (and I like it loud). The overall sound was great. Very rich, great control, great resolution. The treble still had it's sting, but I noticed it wasn't as harsh. Odd to me. Maybe the O2 gently softens treble a bit on the hardware side of things. So that said, it's an obvious good pairing to my ears. The treble still was harsh, mind, so the S5 definitely has those spikes I mentioned.
Audio GD NFB12:
No one needs this level of power for an IEM. But why not? It can output 3.5watts into 25ohms, so it's blasting close to 4 watts at a 16ohm resistance, and the IEM is loaded. The result? Nothing special. That's right. They didn't melt. They sounded fine. In fact, on low gain, I was able to take the volume knob to 9 o'clock and a bit more here and there at my listening level. The NFB12 has great attenuation so you get a long throw from minimum to maximum on that volume. Very handy and allows for very tight control of overall volume. No noise floor as expected here. The sound was superb. It was rich and detailed, but the NFB I think also plays with treble. I noticed it was still on the harsh side and bright, but the congestion feature I noticed earlier wasn't as prominent. So either the NFB also gently handles treble at the hardware level or not. I did notice the bass was not as prominent. It was solid and controlled, but it didn't have the same richness that the O2 provided. Interesting difference on the S5 from a totally different source. Overall pleasant to listen to and it's a great all in one solution being a good DAC and great AMP in one unit. The S5 performed great, and it's efficiency ratings didn't keep me from using my gear.
Little Dot MK III:
That's right, let's put a super efficient IEM on a source that hates to give up current and loves to output high voltage. This tube amp is meant for high impedance. It doesn't perform it's best with low impedance and small loads. But who cares? Let's do it for science. I used my NFB as the DAC and output to the LDMKIII. I set the NFB's line level output to around 9 o'clock initially to see how the tubes would behave. The S5 was silent when both were at minimum. When I took the volume up, I noticed that I was able to take it all the way to nearly 3 o'clock on the Little Dot. Also, I didn't have a noticeable noise floor (I thought I would have one). That's a good thing, because despite the overall match up of the devices, amps perform best at their higher output levels. Granted, the Little Dot was not working hard to output it's small current to this tiny load. Typically this kind of match is frowned upon due to mismatched impedance and output impedance. But, despite all that academic stuff, it sounded great. Atenuated with the NFB to handle a lower line level out, the Little Dot then flexed after warming up and hearing those wonderful little chirps, pops and dings as the tubes get warm, and the S5 started to sing. Right away I noticed something, just how warm and rich the S5 sounded on a tube like this. The upper bass and lower mids were much more rich and prominent, making it super warm sounding. Too warm probably for some. Treble took a step back, so the fatigue went south. Quite a nice match for me. Granted, this is just hardware equalization ultimately, but basically it sounded to me like the treble was toned down and the lower mids and upper bass were enhanced a bit, for a very rich, organic sound. No more metallic mids. It didn't quite sound like the S5 anymore. Pretty interesting. A great listen. Vocals were very much butter and syrup and I probably liked this match up best of all. It makes me very curious to now get a portable tube amp, like a Little Bear, so that's on my want list for right now.
Overall I'm pleased with the S5. The accessories and it's performance are pretty close to what I would expect from a $100 IEM. While it lacks some features that I would want at this price point (detachable cables) and it has some characteristics that I'm not a fan of (metallic mids, a bit harsh in the treble), it performed quite nicely every where else. It's an earphone that is definitely source sensitive after playing around. Sure, no one is going to walk around with desktop sources in their pocket. And an IEM is hardly meant for the desktop--or is it? Even without a special source, the S5 was fantastic from my Fuze and E11 and is a very good portable setup that handles my jazz, classical, EMD, metal and indie quite well. It didn't have a genre that it didn't really handle well, it was quite capable. I did note that harsh treble showed up in passages that contained tons of cymbals, like metal. So I think if I had one warning it would be to metalheads to beware unless they love the sting of treble. The S5 should fullful most bass lovers except too. And while not analytical, it definitely had the detail and resolution that made me enjoy taking the time to have a dedicated portable audio rig, as well as high quality media to playback (FLAC in my case). I was able to definitely tell a difference between my media and streamed media, so that tells you a lot about the earphone and it's resolution, it doesn't mask good audio and it doesn't gently render bad audio sources. I still think it has a tough match when it tries to compete at the same price point as the Shure SE215 which has detachable cables and the difference in tone and character is a tough match and it comes down to one's preference. I definitely appreciate the flat cables and the overall fit with Comply tips. I guess my next piece of kit is going to be a portable tube amp by Little Bear as I simply enjoyed too much the way the S5 responded to tubes. I say that as someone who is tyipcally using a tube DAC and a 50 watt solid state speaker amp as my main headphone source. I think if I were to put a price on the S5, I'd probably put it in the $65 region for competition and ditch some of the accessories and package. Does it sound like a $100 IEM? It's pretty much there. The things that hold it back from being perfect are mainly the metallic mids sound and the treble spikes and the minor lack of detachable wires. It has too much competition at $100, so I think at a slightly lower price point, it may be a better fit. Either way, I think it's fair at $100 for the overall package and I'm pleased with the quality of sound at this point and it's interaction with different sources. I'd give it a good thumbs up.