Pros: Nice Bass, Clarity, Separation, Detail
First I’d like to thank Salsera and Brainwavz for sending me a review sample of the S5. Brainwavz are a brand that I am quite familiar with. They have many IEMs that are often praised on Head-Fi and I have had an experience with a few of them. They were established in 2008 and are a relatively new company and their IEMs are priced quite competitively for how they sound from my experience. I also heard their HM5 and was very fond of it. Let’s see what they have in store for us now.
I remember the time when I first joined Head-Fi, with my pair of IE8s. Those changed to a TF-10 and eventually, a B2 from Brainwavz. They were one of my first balanced and mid-tier IEMs and I remember them very well. If you have seen my review on it, you will realise that it is not very positive, but I’m starting to think my pair had some kind of filter issue. Anyway, Brainwavz have come out with another IEM, which is called the S5. I was rather intrigued when I first saw it and now I have a pair to evaluate.
The S5 is a 10mm dynamic driver IEM that looks very ordinary and is priced at a rather nice $100. With the sub-$100 IEM market becoming more and more competitive, how does Brainwavz’s new entry fare against its competitors? Let’s go on and see.
**Disclaimer** These were given to me by Brainwavz in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
Unboxing & Accessories
The S5 doesn’t come in a very fancy box, but that is to be expected, considering that they are $99. The box is actually quite nice for its price; it’s cardboard and flips open, to reveal the S5s and the case. On the flap, it has some information the earphones, Brainwavz and the Comply tips that are also included in the package. The back of the box has some specifications and information about what’s in the package.
The accessories are actually very good for the asking price. They come with a wide selection of tips, including a pair of Complys, which is nice. The case is one of the more practical and easiest to use cases I have seen. Nothing like the fancy DN-2000 case which is such a pain to use. There is also a 3.5mm to ¼ inch adapter, which is a little big, but a nice addition nonetheless. It comes with some manuals and a warranty card as well. Overall, they do very satisfactory here.
Design, Isolation & Cable
The S5s have an extremely understated design and they do not stand out at all. They are over the ear, but you can wear them straight don as well, but the microphonics are pretty bad. Wearing any flat cable IEM cable down has always been like this is my experience. The plug is quite solid, and the strain relief is very good as well. These should be able to get into the phone cases if you plan to use these with your phone. There is also a cable cinch, which is nice.
The isolation is just okay, it’s not great, but it’s not bad either. They are fine for outdoors use even on roads with a lot of traffic. The bass heavy sound kind of helps the isolation.
I’m not really a fan of flat cables, but they don’t get tangled as easily, which is a plus if you just shove them into your pocket or something. The cable feels a bit thin and cheap, I really wished that they had gone with a thicker, round cable, or even that twisted one that they use in the B2. The strain reliefs are very good though, so the cable breaking doesn’t worry me much.
Most of my listening was done through an iBasso DX50. I feel like there was a distinct improvement from my Nexus 5 phone to my DX50, but adding an amp really didn’t help the sound. Unfortunately, my DX90 is on loan ATM so I didn’t do much listening on them, but from what I remember, there was not much, if any improvement over the DX50. The S5 hits a brick wall after a while and doesn’t scale too much with better sources. I also really enjoyed the iPod Nano 3rd Gen with them, the bass rolls off a little, which makes the overall sound cleaner. The Clip+ wasn’t bad either. The O2 amp didn’t pair well with them at all and I actually liked the DX50 alone more.
It’s been a long time since I last heard a Brainwavz IEM, but I had a very good experience with the HM5 when I tried it, so I had some high expectations for the S5, but I had a feeling that it would not sound anything like the dual BA TWFK B2 that I had a while back since it uses a dynamic driver. Upon first listening to it, my suspicions were confirmed – they sound nothing alike at all from memory. Is it better? Well, it’s not really better, nor is it worse, it is quite simply different, like comparing apples with oranges. They simply sound nothing at all alike.
This was the section that really shocked me when I first put them in. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting, because the B2 and HM5 are both very neutral leaning towards being a little bass light in terms of bass. The S5 hits hard, and has some serious rumble to it! Sure, it is not up to those basshead levels like the DN-1000 was, but for most people this will not be a bad thing, and I can see a lot of S5 followers who will love the bass. The mid-bass is quite elevated and detailed, but not as much as some other similarly priced offerings. What I really loved was the sub-bass, which I found to be a bit north of neutral. It was very detailed with good texture and had a very satisfying rumble to it; not too much that it drowns out the details, but definitely not too little. The speed is actually reasonably good, but don’t expect this to be as fast as the B2 or RE-400.
Being a dynamic driver IEM, I was expecting warmer mids. Some IEMs that I have heard with warm mids end up getting it very wrong and the entire sound seems to be veiled and muddy. The S5 was luckily not one of them, and immediately I like them so much more than the AF140 I just had on loan a while ago which costs around three times as much. The S5 surprised me here once again, the mids sound much more BA like than I had imagined and are very clear, but just a little bit unnatural. They are somewhat recessed and pulled back a little. The upper vocals have a unique sound to them that may be to your preference, but I’m not too much of a fan. The timbre of the instruments is actually rather impressive and very realistic. Compared to the RE-400’s neutral to warm midrange, these sound a little brighter and have a little more clarity, though it is close. It does very well here and is indeed quite good for the $99 price tag.
It’s been quite a weird and interesting journey with the S5 so far, they have been nothing like I expected them to be (not in a bad way). The treble can really make or break a headphone or IEM and too many times have I heard the treble be incredibly off. Personally, I like my treble just a bit on the bright side, but not too much. The S5 is a bit over what I consider the perfect treble tonality, but it is far from being overly bright and is still very much listenable and enjoyable. The B2 had some treble issues IMO that have been resolved in the S5. The detail is good over here and there is nice clarity, better than the RE-400 in this regard. Occasionally cymbals can become borderline sibilant at higher volumes, but I did not find that to be an issue most of the time. The extension is not bad, but it is nothing special either, it does pretty well for its price. Overall, the treble is pretty impressive once again but I can also see some people finding it too bright.
Soundstage & Imaging
Soundstage is the area that I feel just a little let down by. I guess I was expecting a larger soundstage than what I got, but it is by no means bad. It is just above average for its price. The RE-400 has a similar sized soundstage while the more expensive DN-1000 (from memory) smashes it here. It is decently wide, but lacks a bit of height and depth to it. Overall it is quite nice and enjoyable though.
The imaging is better than the soundstage but isn’t great either. The RE-400s may just be a little bit better here. The S5 images rather well though, being clear and quite precise. It handled many tracks with no problems, but the imaging of bass instruments seem to be a little bit blurred due to the slightly slow bass. Not bad at all, rather impressive, the S5 does well here.
Details, Clarity & Separation
Ah, in the sub-$100 market, a tone of IEMs are very detailed such as then RE-400 and AX35 as well as the Alfa Genus. Does the S5 do better than all of them here? Well, no, but it does have a unique way of presenting the details, which is just as impressive as it is unique. It is so effortless, it doesn’t feel like it is shoving it in your face like the AX35, but instead, kind of just lets it sink in slowly.
The clarity of the S5 is one of its strong areas and it really does do very well here. MO out of the bunch, the clarity of the S5 is probably the best, despite it being not the most detailed. Vocals sound very clear but due to the upper midrange being elevated, they can sometimes sound a bit unnatural. The elevation in the upper midrange carries onto the lower treble, and as a result, there is a sense of more clarity, but it comes at the expense of some minor sibilance. These actually do very well for their price range.
The separation of the S5, along with the RE-400 are the best in the under $100 range for me. Some IEMs come close, but no IEMs that I have heard in their price range does separation quite as good as them. The separation of the S5 holds up even in rather complex tracks but I did hear it falter on some tracks that are very hard to get right. They might even do a bit better than the RE-400s actually, but it is too close to call.
Wow, it has been one hell of an experience with the S5, they really blew me away in some areas, but fell short in some areas too. One might ask which one is better overall, the RE-400 or the S5 and I would tell them that they are hugely different IEMs and each has a different target audience. The S5 is one for the masses, which tend to like a more V shaped sound signature. Those seeking a more reference and neutral sound signature should go for the RE-400, it does its job extremely well. Brainwavz has created a superb IEM that competes with the best of its price range and I have a feeling the S5 will do very well. It is certainly a very special and unique IEM.