Spiral Ear SE 5-Way Reference Review - A New Level of Resolution? (posted May 15th, 2012)
Always on the lookout for new custom IEMs, I read about Spiral Ear and many good things from many people. I sent an email to Grzegorz, the friendly and very knowledgeable owner of Spiral Ear, who was very familiar with head-fi as well as my reviews. Spiral Ear was just getting started and I wanted to see how this new company performed so I ordered the Spiral Ear 3-Way Reference. Shortly after my ear impression arrived Grzegorz, he let me know he was coming out with a 4-way and 5-way reference. There was a price difference, and I didn’t even know what it was, but I had to have the 5-way reference. I mean, come on, a 5-way in silicone, I figured how bad could it be.
The 5-way reference uses 5 sound tubes and has a lot of wires, crossover components, and drivers so it won’t fit in everyone’s ears, but my ears are big enough. After waiting for a month and a half the 5-way arrived. Joy and pain ensued as the 5-way sounded fantastic, but there were several fit issues causing discomfort with the worst offender being the upper concha area. The canals were also a bit on the large side, but I got used to that, but the pain from the outer shell was not good, and after about an hour with them in my ears I would be sore. Over time, this subsided a bit, but not all that much.
Long part of the story short, there was another person in the US that bought a 5-way and didn’t have a good fit. He sent it back for a refit, but Grzegorz ended up having to pay a significant amount in customs charges. He sent the 5-way back, but it still wasn’t perfect so this customer took it to an audiologist that didn’t know how to work with the silicone shell and messed it up more. Grzegorz ended up refunding the purchase without receiving the unit back since he didn’t want to be hit with customs charges again. And, since this issue, Grzegorz will no longer sent packages to the US, or accept packages from the US. It is a shame since it limits the customer unless the person in the US can have the package shipped elsewhere first.
Back to my 5-way. I had some long email exchanges with Grzegorz about the sound of the 5-way, sound in general, possible changes to the 5-way, feedback from others, my fit issues, and many other things. He reminds me of an artist more than a custom IEM manufacturer. His knowledge of sound and how each and every thing interacts with each other was fascinating to hear. One thing he mentioned that really stuck with me, and this is after I had the 5-way for some time, is he tuned it to have the most accurate attack and decay.
Another thing he mentioned is he thought my fit issues were due to my impressions being taken with an open mouth. I honestly can’t remember, but I may have taken my impressions open mouth vs. his recommended closed mouth, causing the issue. However, he agreed to have me send new impressions and he would send me another 5-way without sending back the original due to the customs office issues.
I wrote most of the review and he didn’t think my sound description was what I should have been hearing due to a less than ideal seal, so I could hold off on the review until I received the replacement. I did use the 5-way for comparison reviews with other CIEMs and did a write-up seeing how his product stacked up to his marketing claims. I had plenty of waiting time as it took nearly a year before he ended up sending my replacement, but with a detachable cable that we had discussed quite a long time ago.
The replacement fits perfectly, and very different. The canals are much longer, providing more isolation, and there is no discomfort. The sound also changed, and for the better. I didn’t care for the original 5-way out of the box, and the new one wasn’t overwhelmingly good either. The sound evaluation will be continued in the sound section.
How to Order/Warranty/Options
Spiral Ear currently does not sell to the US due to Polish customs issues, but does ship to the rest of the world. The best way to order is to contact Grzegorz by email.
The SE 5-way Reference is 999 € for the fixed cable version, 1,069 € plus shipping for the detachable cable version.
Important Ordering Notes: the SE 5-way Reference will not fit in all ear sizes, so Grzegorz needs ear impressions or pictures of your ear impressions to determine if you can get the 5-way. Grzegorz can make estimate if the 5-way will fit in your ears with photos at the angles shown below on squared paper, and the ultimate determination will be made once he has your impressions.
Also, Spiral Ear will not ship to countries outside of the European Union, so if you are outside of the US you will need your product shipped to an EU country first.
The warranty is a 1-year warranty against manufacturing defects with a 30 day refit period.
Options: Colors - transparent (high gloss crystal clear with an anti-yellowing protection), black opaque, custom transparent-black
The SE 5-way Reference is a 5 balanced armature 5-way design in silicone with a detachable cable and 5 sound tubes. Drivers consist of the main woofer, a delayed “ignition” woofer, the low-mids transducer, the high-mids transducer and a super tweeter. Due to the 5-way having 5 sound tubes and the amount of drivers/crossover parts/wire I can see them not fitting in everyone's ears, which is what Grzegorz told me. The sound tubes can be oriented in different ways depending on the ear canal size and my ear canal is on the larger side.
This is currently the only CIEM in silicone that has more than 3 drivers.
Some will love the semi-hard and unique zipper case, some will not, but it is much larger than typical zipper cases with ample room for the 5-way and even additional equipment, but if you drive over your case it won't provide the protection of a Pelican or Otterbox hard case. The 5-way also comes with a cleaning tool and instruction. Personally, this case is my favorite as it is very easy to put away and pull out and it will fit my Clip no problem, or even another pair of CIEMs.
The first picture is of the original 5-way. 801 not included ;)
My original 5-way had a non-detachable cable, which held up well, although there is a propensity for the cable above the Y-split to twist (which I mentioned to Grzegorz). The cable is a stock cable that is embedded in the silicone and is deep enough to be quite solid and curved in the silicone. My replacement 5-way has a detachable cable with the ability to use any standard custom cable such as those made for JHA or aftermarket such as Whiplash cables. The detachable cables are recessed and attach to an internal anchor. Because the silicone is flexible, they will expand to accommodate cables that recessed acrylic shelled custom IEMs won't, but I wouldn't recommend it for protecting your investment.
The actual cable is a black twisted variant that is custom made for Spiral Ear, and the new cable doesn’t have the propensity to twist above the Y-split as the original cable did. Compared with other black stock twisted cables, the 5-way cable has a better quality feel to it due to the finish and twisting, although it is very similar.
I have used my original 5-way for nearly a year with no issues, but as stated, I would consider myself easy on my equipment. Removal of silicone CIEMs is different than that of acrylic, as removal of silicone is best done by holding the shell and twisting it out. With care not to pull too much on the cable (although that may be fine, but I refuse to try that), the shell should be as durable as an acrylic shell. Now that the 5-way is available with detachable cables, the durability of the cable is not as important, although the type of cable the 5-way does with has proven to be quite durable.
For keeping the 5-way performing at its best, Grzegorz recommends using a hearing aid dryer. Whatever you can do to protect your investment is worthwhile IMO. When I first received the 5-way they were difficult to insert, but over time this changed as they became "lubricated" by being used. They initially did take much longer to insert and remove, but now they take about the same time as any acrylic shelled custom IEM that has a good deal of use.
Storing the 5-way is very easy with the case as I can just put them in without wrapping the cable around my finger like I have to do with many of the other custom IEMs I own and then when I take them out there is much less tangling.
Isolation of my original shells were below the SA-43 and a bit better than standard acrylic shells. The replacement 5-way has much better isolation, besting the SA-43 due to the deeper canals. Here are my various ratings for isolation. Please note that canal length and anatomy will cause variation in isolation.
• Standard acrylic shell: 5/10
• Original 5-way: 8/10
• SA-43: 9/10
• Deep insertion IEM (ER4P) with foam: 9/10
• Replacement 5-way with deep canals: 10/10
I have had my original 5-way for quite some time and have used it in many comparisons, but in order to do this review properly, I felt I should first compare the two 5-ways.
5-way original vs. new 5-way: The first thing I noticed with the fit of the new 5-way was the perfect and much deeper fit that gave me quite a bit more isolation. Upon initial comparison, I was a little surprised by some of the differences between the two, especially the presentation differences. From my discussions with Grzegorz, I expected certain things to be better such as the deep bass and treble, but the additional upper midrange emphasis and more mid-forward/up-front presentation was a surprise. Along with the brighter, more mid-forward presentation, the extremely good clarity improved with the new 5-way with a sharper focus. Resolution levels are the same between the two, but due to the more forward presentation and more upper midrange focus, details are easier to hear with the new 5-way. One of the bigger differences between the two is the treble, as the new 5-way treble is far superior in linearity and smoothness, with a sweet presentation that is much more forgiving of poorly mastered tracks. While the original 5-way has great transparency, the new 5-way often bested the original.
Soundstage size of the original is sometimes apparently larger, and even quite a bit depending on the track and source combo, but the new 5-way changes size quite a bit and can actually sound slightly larger than original 5-way, and the presentation is more filled out (more on that below in the presentation section). The new 5-way has an effortlessness to it in comparison with the original as well as better transparency and the mid-forward presentation makes the new 5-way more immersive, at least most of the time depending on the track. The real issue with these differences is that I will have to redo all of my A/B comparisons to update them with the new 5-way to make sure they are right. And I thought this was going to be an easy review.
Bass: For a balanced armature IEM, the 5-way has some real power and can convey emotion, but where does it sit among the other CIEMs I own? It isn't the be-all-end-all in the bass department as the i9pro and EP-10 Plus, which both have dynamic drivers, have more reverb capability than the 5-way, although not by too much and the 5-way exhibits better control. On the other end of the spectrum, while the JH16 is a bass monster, although the amount of reverb capability is slightly less, but the JH16 is faster and the analytical presentation has speed and resolution I haven't heard from any other CIEM in the bass department.
The bass presentation, just as every other part of the spectrum is excellent in the overall presentation, recreating the bass region in a realistic way while still articulating detail in instruments. Speed of bass notes sounds organic and true to the recording and the 5-way can sound like it has more or less bass than a competitor, all dependent on the individual track. Extension is very good with a flat response down to 28Hz where it starts to roll off and reproducing sensation down to 18 Hz.
Midrange: The midrange is what the track and source says it is. The mid-forward presentation can be small and intimate, still mid-forward and immersive with excellent depth, or it can become a laid back and spacious depending on the track. With that said, most tracks are on the mid-forward side of neutral. Notes are recreated with a natural tone and the resolution within the presentation provides excellent ambiance, micro-detail, and room reverb.
Comparing with other CIEMs in general, the 5-way has a natural clarity that recreates details but doesn't serve them up in the way many other brighter CIEMs do such as the JH16, LS8, UERM, and NT-6. However, other than the NT-6, the 5-way provides a noticeably better focus of the presentation. While most other CIEMs I have get instrument placement right, due to the proportion and capability of the soundstage the 5-way gets it to sound true and with added resolution present the finer details within the presentation.
Treble: The treble of the 5-way is exceptional: smooth, detailed, and extended, but most importantly, it sounds natural. The note decay is exceptional giving air when it should and ringing true with instruments. This is a stark improvement from the original 5-way which had nice treble, but it wasn’t the smoothest. The treble is not aggressive, but is detailed and sounds very natural due to exceptional note decay. Poor recordings/low bitrate files will be apparent, but not too harsh and grating as they would be from a more analytical headphone such as the UERM and JH16. While the treble is excellent, it will probably not satisfy those that want a brighter presentation like the way the JH16, LS8, EM4, NT-6, etc would.
Presentation: Characterizing the presentation of the 5-way is on the difficult side because the characteristics change with the track and to a lesser extent the source. If your track has a small soundstage, which many do, the 5-way will sound small; if it is dark, the 5-way will be, etc. So, I will just discuss what the 5-way can do from a presentation perspective for well mastered tracks. When I was first listening to the new 5-way vs. the old, I thought the presentation space was much smaller, but over time I realized that it is as spacious, if not more, but only when the recording is spacious. With very spacious tracks, the 5-way makes most other CIEMs sound a bit small, and this is in part due to the way the 5-way fills in the presentation at the far edges, making more of a rectangle than oval for the shape of the soundstage, which is what the i9pro does with its FST technology.
The leading trait of the 5-way IMO is the attack and decay, which are the best I have heard and trickle down to other aspects of the sound. This allows the 5-way to be thick and rich or light and quick depending on the track as well as recreate notes that are in sharper focus and have amazing proportions which allow an understanding of what is making the sound in space, increasing the realism and immersion. Of course, with lower quality tracks that are compressed, the issues will be presented and can disappoint. Coherence across the spectrum is impressive as I have no idea where the crossover points are, or that I am listening to anything other than a single driver. Dynamics are exceptional as the 5-way is extremely capable of playing very soft notes and micro-details as well as getting louder when the track calls for it. I would not term the note presentation liquid or dry, but a nice balance between the two and call it natural and neutral.
NT-6: Both are in the upper echelon of what I have heard, with a very natural sound and high technical ability. While they are fairly balanced, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum as the NT-6 is a good deal brighter with a bit more overall forward of a presentation with most songs while the 5-way has more of a bass emphasis and can convey bass power and emotion. Both have large presentation spaces, but the 5-way can present a larger overall space and has better depth of space when a track contains a high amount of depth information. Note decay is on average longer with the 5-way, and while the NT-6 contains great attack and decay, the quicker average decay results in a lighter sound. The 5-way never sounding slow in comparison with the NT-6, but is isn’t as fast, and can even sound slightly too fast in comparison. Both offer great transparency and coherence while clarity is different between the two. The NT-6 has a bright clarity that brings the high level of detail to the forefront, cutting through a presentation showing you everything while the 5-way has a realistic, you are there clarity that comes from inner resolution and layering within the soundstage, presenting all the details if you listen for them. The 5-way is more forgiving of poorly mastered/low bitrate tracks and the NT-6 is less source dependent as the 5-way’s bass improves with more powerful sources.
The 5-way has amazing bass, with the ability to deliver more quantity, rumble, and power than just about anything else I have heard, and in a clean and controlled way, however the NT-6 iis also impressive, but in different ways. It is very capable of reproducing a lot of bass rumble even though it has a faster decay and a flat response for non-bass heavy music, it can convey power and also has great headroom. Moving up to the mid-bass, the 5-way warmer and puts more emphasis on the bass than the NT-6. Both have a liquidity to the midrange, although the 5-way is smoother compared with the more analytical NT-6. Presentations are fairly close, but the 5-way midrange changes between being more mid-forward and more laid back than the NT-6 depending on the track. The upper midrange and above diverge in frequency response as NT-6 has a more forward and emphasized upper midrange and treble leading to a brighter sound while the 5-way pulls that area back a bit and gives better depth of the presentation. Treble with both is extended up to 20K and have an air about them, but the 5-way treble sounds more natural as it has smoother treble with a longer decay of notes.
As stated at the beginning of the comparison, these two are very close in overall technical performance but the sound signatures are very different. The NT-6 has an analytical yet liquid note with a bright and bass neutral sound, although the bass is not lacking when the track calls for it vs. the bass focused and more mid-forward, at least with the majority of tracks, and a more natural sound due to a longer average decay. The decision between the two should come down to sound signature preference and/or what you want the CIEM to do for you. The NT-6 would excel for those that want to hear every detail clearly while the 5-way offer the ability to transform to the track and provide a warmer, thicker, and more powerful performance.
JH16: Complimenting each other, these two are quite different. The JH16 servers up instrument detail, has a continuous bass boost, and a brighter top end compared with the high resolution, thicker, and more mid-centric presentation of the 5-way. While the 5-way is more mid-forward and mid-centric, the upper midrange portion of vocals and instruments with the JH16 are more forward due to the emphasis in this area, resulting in a more in-the-head sound from the JH16. With live recordings that have very good space the 5-way sounds as wide as the JH16, but the depth of the 5-way presentation is much greater leading to a closer feel to the music but also more of an out of the head experience. Clarity as a function of brightness is superior with the JH16 while the 5-way still offers a very clear window into the presentation due to the better focus of the soundstage presentation even though the presentation is thicker and richer. With an extremely coherent presentation, the 5-way reveals note thickness coherence issues with the JH16 as the bass and treble are on the dry/analytical side while the midrange is liquid. Speed of the 5-way is not lacking, but the JH16 is very fast and sounds faster, especially with up-tempo music, although it can sound too fast with slower/richer recordings. Tying all of these things together result in a very transparent sound for the 5-way while the JH16 is more like having speakers in your ears.
The JH16 is a basshead CIEM with a boost to the bass from around 100 Hz on down, and while the bass is capable, the 5-way can output more bass in bass heavy tracks. But, the bass is quite different between the two as the JH16 has much faster bass with an amazing ability to reveal detail and bring it to the front like no other allowing you to hear all the details with ease while the more reverberant 5-way can bury them among the main note. With a warmer and richer presentation, the 5-way transitions to the midrange very smoothly and with full body. The full body is complimented with the 3D presentation of the 5-way sounding natural and similar to how I would hear a live presentation. The upper midrange is very divergent as the JH16 has a strong emphasis in this region, bringing details to the front, however the 5-way is more convincing in translating the signal into music while the JH16 serves the details to you on a platter. Treble of the 5-way is smoother with a more natural decay as well as extending further. The overall sound of the 5-way is more airy.
Both have their strengths as the JH16 has impressive speed to go with a uniquely amazing and always enhanced bass while relaying all the instrument detail in an exceptional way while the 5-way gives you a more organic presentation that is more about the overall presentation with space recreated with high resolution rather than bringing the details to the forefront. Depth of the presentations is quite different with the 5-way exhibiting superior depth leading, in part, to better transparency and overall technical ability. While the JH16 has amazing bass, liquid mids, and detailed treble, the 5-way puts it together to present music in a more realistic way.
T1 Live!: These have similar sound signatures with a warmth and naturalness to them, but they are different in many ways as the 5-way is slightly brighter with a more laid back and expansive soundstage. Simple tracks technically sound close, but with complex music, the clarity, focus, and resolution superiority of the 5-way is easy to hear within the presentation. Due to the way the 5-way changes with the mastering of each track, it is difficult to get summarize the true differences as they change. Depending on the track, the 5-way can offer a leaner sound while other times there is a thickness to the 5-way that is not there with the T1. However, regardless of the presentation the superior technical performance does come through.
The bass of the T1 is more prominent and more upfront giving it more emphasis, however the 5-way can out-rumble and out-power the T1 quite easily with bass heavy tracks. In general, the T1 is warmer than the 5-way, but this shifts quite a bit with the 5-way depending on the track, so it is hard to say which is naturally warmer. The forward mids of the T1 bring the presentation closer to you, although there is more detail and better imaging with the 5-way with more placement differences. The upper midrange of the 5-way changes quite a bit with each track, but in general the T1 has a bit more emphasis. Emphasis in the treble region goes to the 5-way with its bright and airy presentation that extends all the way up.
Both bring similar characteristics, presenting music in a rich and natural way, making them competitors, with the 5-way having an advantage in technical ability. The T1 has a more mid-forward presentation that places more emphasis on the vocals and gives you more of a set sound signature while the 5-way will change depending on the tracks for better or for worse. Depending on your budget and where you live, you can choose one or the other and more than likely be happy. The T1 Live! has the ability to be paired with an ambient processor and may be a better solution for on stage performers.
LS8: These won’t be confused for each other as the differences between the two are large with the 5-way has a thicker and more organic presentation compared with the brighter LS8, although both are liquid. With a large upper midrange/lower treble hump, the LS8 vocals have a different tonality and instruments with treble such as cymbals are closer than the rest of the presentation. Note thickness of the 5-way is a bit thicker on average and the overall presentation is smoother vs. the more analytical LS8. Clarity is more apparent with the LS8 due to the additional brightness, but the 5-way recreates a deeper view into the music which results in a different type of clarity. The LS8 sounds a bit faster, but the 5-way can be just as fast with tracks that call for it. Spatially, the 5-way is superior with better depth and width to the presentation, but the 5-way also adjusts more with each recording, so the LS8 at times sounds about as spacious.
The bass of the LS8 is a more enhanced than the 5-way, however the 5-way has more capability, especially in the lowest registers when needed. In comparison to the 5-way, the LS8 bass can sound constrained. The LS8 is on average a bit warmer than the 5-way, but the 5-way note thickness leads to a richer presentation across the spectrum. The midrange is very different as the LS8 has a more forward presentation and brighter tone with the LS8 sounding like you are sitting in the front row with the singer singing to you while the 5-way is equivalent to being a bit further back in the audience. As mentioned, the LS8 is a good deal brighter than the 5-way, and the treble quality of the LS8 is exceptional. It is just that the 5-way surpasses the LS8 due to a more natural note decay/sustainment, but the LS8 treble is smoother by a bit while retaining high levels of detail.
These two CIEMs compliment each other with the liquid, slightly warm, bright, and clear presentation of the having a contrast to the richer, thicker, and more powerful sounding 5-way. Technically, the 5-way does outperform the LS8, but these are very good compliments for each other, or either would be a great purchase depending on your sound preference.
EM4: Both coming from Europe and having solid shells, although one is acrylic and the other silicone, the 5-way and EM4 share mid-forward and bass capable presentation styles. Even though Earsonics products are known for great depth of the presentation, the 5-way has more presentation depth with similar width while the soundstage is more filled out. What this means is the corners of a room are rounded off with the EM4 while the soundstage presentation of the 5-way is more rectangular. Resolution/detail of the 5-way is superior as little nuances are recreated within space of high quality tracks that aren't there with the EM4. The 5-way changes much more with each track and will sound thicker or thinner, clearer or less clear, etc. based on the song, but overall the 5-way has better attack/decay ability. The EM4 is more forgiving of poor tracks, but reduces the detail level to do so. Speed is similar and while the EM4 can sound very dynamic in general, the 5-way ultimately has better dynamics when a track calls for it. Soundstage space isn't too far off, but in certain songs the 5-way can really pull ahead, as can imaging. Transparency of the 5-way can be much higher, again depending on the track.
The EM4 has enhanced bass, but the 5-way can output the same amount of bass or more depending on the track; texturing and punch are also better with the 5-way. However, the EM4 isn't a slouch in the amount of bass it can output, keeping up with the 5-way in quantity. Tonal comparisons are tough since the 5-way changes more than the EM4 with each track. The midrange, which is the strength of the EM4, does not sound quite as natural as the 5-way midrange, which sounds fuller due to the better soundstage fill. Vocals are presented differently with the EM4 placing more focus on the vocalist while the 5-way gives a more balanced entire presentation. However the EM4 vocals have an added excitement in them as the upper midrange is more prominent. This brightness results in a higher tone to midrange instruments and vocals. The EM4 treble is more prominent with a nice liquidity to it but the 5-way treble is smoother, more detailed, and has better extension.
Both utilize solid shells, although made from different materials, and both come from Europe with somewhat similar sound signatures making them competitors. The differences lie in the little things with the EM4 giving you an exciting presentation with enhanced bass, more prominent vocals and a brighter, more aggressive sound even though it is very liquid. The 5-way is more relaxed and natural sounding with a higher technical ability, presenting only what is in the track. Both are sure to please depending on what specific traits you are looking for.
SA-43: (presence on, extra bass on) Both aren’t overly sensitive CIEMs, and the 5-way is marginally more sensitive. Both also use silicone, however the SA-43 has an outer acrylic shell that is filled with silicone vs. the entire silicone shell of the 5-way. Sonically, the SA-43 has a more laid back and distant presentation that is more expansive, but the 5-way has a clear advantage in clarity, focus, and resolution. The 5-way has more depth to the presentation, mainly due to the more forward presentation, placing you closer to the presentation than the SA-43. The SA-43 has excellent imaging with well recorded tracks and the 5-way also has this trait, and while both are excellent at recreating the overall presentation, the 5-way has better instrument detail. Note attack and decay are superior on the 5-way allowing fast notes to sound faster, although the decay of the SA-43 is not far off. While the SA-43 is very transparent, the 5-way does pull ahead in this category (although with the presence switch off, they are about equal). Note: The SA-43 technically performs better with the presence switch off, which makes the presentation even more laid back with a flatter midrange, although the sound is overall more dynamic and brighter.
With the bass switch on the SA-43 has a bit more enhancement, however the capability of the 5-way is significantly greater with bass heavy tracks. When the bass switch is off the SA-43 bass is similar in light bass lines, but is not close when bass quantity is required. Bass quality is superior with the 5-way. The 5-way is in general a bit warmer than the SA-43, however it isn’t necessarily thicker. The midrange is usually a good deal more forward through the upper midrange, but it is dependent on the recording as both can adjust the midrange in relation to the rest of the recording quite well. In the treble region the 5-way has an overall brighter sound with more extension and air, but doesn’t sound dark in comparison.
Both are great CIEMs and I can become immersed in their musical ways very easily, although they present in different ways. The SA-43 is laid back and very spacious with options to change the sound signature while the 5-way has a more mid-forward, brighter presentation for the most part, but changes on its own quite a bit from track to track. Both can change quite a bit depending on the recording, but the 5-way is more of a chameleon. In a lot of ways they complement each other and are two great choices.
UERM: The UERM is borderline in the low cost end of the price scale in comparison with the 5-way, but I wanted to compare them regardless. The UERM is designed to be a reference for studio engineers and excels at soundstage recreation with very good overall height, depth, and width along with nice internal imaging, however the 5-way does outperform the UERM at its strength. It doesn’t do it in the same way as the 5-way is a bit more mid-forward and slightly narrower sounding in general, however the 5-way can become more expansive depending on the track. The biggest difference in the soundstage presentation between the two is the focus as the 5-way sound more natural, has better clarity within the soundstage, and is a good deal more transparent. Resolution and detail levels are noticeably better with the 5-way, both in the individual instruments and in the overall space within the presentation. Tonality is quite different as the UERM is thinner and brighter, however the 5-way isn't dark by any stretch of the imagination.
Bass of the 5-way has more weight, thickness, headroom, sub-bass rumble, and texture than the UERM, although the UERM isn’t considered weak in this department, except maybe in extension. Emphasis is similar in some tracks but when there is a moderate amount or more of bass in a track the 5-way delivers a much more authoritative bass experience. Some examples range from Chemical Brothers live at Coachella where the 5-way moves significant air (the UERM doesn’t do too bad here) to Hotel California live where the initial drums reverberate significantly more with the 5-way. This was surprising and counter-intuitive to me as I would have figured it would be the opposite as the amount of bass in Hotel California is significantly less. It seems that the reverberation ability of the 5-way is closer to a dynamic driver and the UERM is similar with this level of BA custom IEMs.
While I had no issues with the midrange of the UERM in comparison with similarly priced custom IEMs, when compared with the 5-way the UERM sounds a little artificial and harsh, and that extends up to the treble that has a slightly tinny sound. The treble of the UERM is more present but not as extended and not nearly as smooth or forgiving as the 5-way. Detail levels across the midrange and treble, like the bass, are higher with the 5-way, however the UERM brings the details more to the forefront with the analytical presentation. That is not to say that the details aren't easily apparent with the 5-way as they are and this leads to what I consider true clarity vs. the clarity due to the presentation with the UERM.
The UERM is nice and shares some presentation characteristics with the 5-way, but overall the 5-way does outclass the UERM. If you are going to use a tool in the studio to hear every issue with a master clearly, the UERM will help you achieve that, however if you want a more natural sound with better focus and capability, the 5-way is the easy choice. And the 5-way will change more with changes to how laid back or forward a presentation is, however most speakers and headphones won’t change as much as the 5-way, so that might not be important for a studio engineer. Also, don’t forget to take into account the price difference, availability, and size restrictions of the 5-way.
LCD-2 v1: As this is an IEM vs. headphone comparison, there are inherent differences between the two which hold true in this comparison. Headphones of similar caliber tend to be more spacious than IEMs, yet the IEMs have a more coherent presentation of the soundstage across the head, and while these two both perform at high levels, the differences are readily apparent. The 5-way has better focus with a cleaner sound while presenting more detail that is easier to hear making for an easier to understand presentation. In comparison, I keep feeling the need to turn the LCD-2 up to get the clarity and hear all the music I am hearing with the 5-way. More power and emotion are conveyed from the 5-way, as dynamics are better and the soundstage is more 3D except when the LCD-2 is turned up quite a bit, and then they perform similarly. Transparency of the 5-way is superior, and combined with the more coherent and close presentation, the 5-way is more involving. Note: The LCD-2 results are more dependent on amps than the 5-way, and may improve with better/more synergistic amps than I own.
Both are very capable in the bass region and perform similarly, however the LCD-2 as a bit more emphasis while the 5-way has a bit more headroom and deep bass reverb. Detail and resolution go to the 5-way, although the LCD-2 recreates textures a bit better in drums. Both have similar warmth and thickness through the mid-bass and diverge in the midrange where the LCD-2 is more laid back vs. the mid-forward and up-close 5-way. This leads to a more exciting and involving presentation with the 5-way, especially for vocals. The upper midrange of the 5-way changes quite a bit more with recordings and sources which results in more tonality changes, so sometimes the LCD-2 sound brighter, sometimes the same, sometimes darker. For example, the LCD-2 sounded brighter from the 801 -> Portaphile 627, but the 5-way sounded a bit brighter from the DX100 and D1.
With many similar characteristics, if you like one, chances are you will like the other, but both have different strengths of presentation. Both can belt out the bass and have similar tonality, but the 5-way is more up-close and personal compared with the LCD-2’s more expansive yet less dynamic presentation. In my experience, the LCD-2 needs to be played louder to really show its ability. Grab one of each and enjoy ;)
To Go! 334: The 334 is a very expensive universal IEM with a price tag above that of the 5-way, so a comparison is fair even though it is universal fit. Tonally the 334 is a bit brighter, but not by much, and a good deal more mid-forward. The 5-way has a presentation that comes across as more powerful but is also more airy quite often and is more spacious all the time. The 5-way is smoother than the 334 which has an analytical edge to it. Powered from a source such as the DX100, the more laid back 5-way disappears more, sounds more coherent, and is just effortless. Both have similar clarity although the 334 has more apparent clarity due to the more analytical note. Focus within the soundstage is close, but the 5-way edges out the 334. The 5-way has a larger soundstage space with more depth and a more involving and surrounding presentation, including better imaging. Detail levels are higher on the 5-way.
The 334 can output a good amount of bass, however when it does so, the bass starts to become less controlled in comparison with the 5-way. Both have deep and capable bass, but the 5-way seems like it isn’t trying in comparison with the 334. Warmth is very similar, however the 5-way is thicker on average. The more forward 334 midrange sounds good and images well, but compared with the 5-way presentation it sounds a bit closed in with less detail and the more analytical presentation doesn’t come across as liquid and involving. Moving up though the upper midrange to the treble, the 334 has a more forward and brighter by a bit sound, however the treble has an edge to it that errs on the analytical side vs. 5-way treble that rings true with exceptional decay and a very natural sound.
These two sound like they are made for different purposes, with the 334 being made for studio engineers, and it is an exceptional tool for that purpose. The 5-way isn’t too far off in sound signature, but is more laid back, spacious, detailed, and smooth, and when combined with better dynamics, coherence, and transparency the 5-way comes across as more musical and natural overall. The 5-way conveys more power and emotion while the 334 will make it easier to pick out issues with mastering.
GR07: This comparison is purely for sound signature comparison (using only the DX100 as a source). Tonally, the GR07 and 5-way are close with many tracks, and the GR07 is actually the closest match I have heard. The presentation of the GR07 is a bit more upfront while the 5-way has a more open and airy presentation that is both larger and deeper. The way the 5-way presentation changes with the track does affect where the upper midrange and instruments are in relation within the presentation, with the GR07 often sounding compressed and with instruments crammed together. Overall, the 5-way has a good deal better clarity, resolution, detail, and smoothness. But, the bottom line is these two have a very similar sound signature.
Volume performance: At very low volumes the 5-way performs quite well as the bass driver seems to kick in even at a volume of 3 of 99 on my D1 DAC. At 4 of 99 the bass is full bodied, which given the 5-way sensitivity is a fairly low volume level on the D1. At louder volume levels the 5-way performs well without any congestion or distortion. Overall, the 5-way is at least as good as any other BA CIEM I have.
Sound Summary: Capability, immersion, extension on both ends, and transparency summarize the 5-way as it disappears in your ears leaving you with only the music as the recording engineer made it. The attack and decay of notes is exceptional, allowing for an impressive ability to play both fast and reverberant tracks, although it won’t match the speed of some of the fastest CIEMs that are always fast and the deep bass reverb is just a bit off the most capable dynamic driver CIEM I own.
The somewhat mid-forward presentation has a great ability to change with recordings and sources, but is more often than not on the warmer and thicker side of the spectrum, although I wouldn’t term it dark due to the treble presence and extension. However, if you are coming from something like the JH16 or UERM, the 5-way can sound dark. While I would never call the 5-way bright, it ultimately comes down to your tracks and sources with the 5-way.
Portable Sources, DAPs
Clip+: Great bass depth and power along with a smooth presentation, however the Clip+ doesn’t give the most involving experience. Not as much treble as the 4S and RoCoo BA, but the quality is still decent, especially given the price. For the cost, the Clip+ is a great product, but this pairing leaves untapped ability form the 5-way. The overall sound is a bit more engaging than the iPhone 4S, and the Clip+. 4/10
iPhone 4S: The bass performance of the iPhone lags behind that of the Clip+ and RoCoo and has a more laid back presentation. After listening to the 5-way on higher end sources, the 4S’s lower detail level is apparent and treble isn’t quite as smooth. Overall the presentation just doesn’t have the soundstage depth resulting in a less than involving experience in comparison with the other entry level sources. 3/10
RoCoo BA: The RoCoo BA has a spacious presentation that is natural and organic with good extension on both ends of the spectrum. The sound is less digital than the Clip+ and iPhone. Bass is lighter than on the Clip+ but a hair more than with the iPhone4. Compared with the 801, the BA has a bit less presentation depth, but there are bigger differences in the bass and clarity, as the 801 easily outshines the BA resulting in a more engaging and musical experience. However, the sound signature of the BA is close to the 801 and performance is very good considering the price point of less than 1/3rd the 801. 5/10
801 (with GAME card): With a musical presentation, the 801 recreates fine details missed by the lower cost players, with a more 3D sound and very well controlled bass. The overall sound of the 801 is on the darker side of the spectrum and the 5-way reveals that quite well due to the transparency, but the treble is recreated in an extremely natural way. 9/10
DX100: The DX100 offers exceptional detail and space, including impressive presentation depth. The bass is extremely well controlled and powerful with a musical and realistic presentation. Compared with the 801, the DX100 adds a bit more depth to the soundstage while also having a more laid back presentation, has a brighter presentation, more power and control of the bass region, and a cleaner sound, however the 801 treble has a more natural decay when combined with the 801. Overall both are very good with the DX100 having a slightly quicker note overall and more control. Compared with the D1, the DX100 is a little less spacious and the treble of the D1 has a bit more natural reverb. 9/10
Portable Sources, DAPs with Amps
iPhone 4S ->
i.Fuzen amp case: Compared with the HPO, the i.Fuzen isn’t as bright which isn’t typical for the i.Fuzen. The presentation doesn’t change much spatially as both have similar depth to the presentation, width, and placement. The i.Fuzen is more revealing of poorly mastered tracks but is still a slight bit cleaner and smoother but still is a bit more detailed, but the differences are quite minimal. 3.5/10
Arrow 12HE 4G: The sound is much fuller and the deep bass is substantially better to go with a more laid back and spacious presentation. The HPO is brighter and the overall note quality is similar, but the 4G does bring out a bit more detail. 4.5/10
Pico Slim: Tonally a much better match than the 4G, however there is a tendency for sharper S’s than the HPO of the iPhone. Bass is quite a bit better although the space is similar. Note quality is improved as is detail level. 5.5/10
Modded iPod ->
EPH-O2: The main comparison is between the O2 and V2 due to price, with the O2 actually being the lowest cost of all the amps. The O2 is a very nice sounding amp, especially given the price. The sound is spacious, but the V2 has a bit more 3D sound to it. In the bass region, especially at moderate volume, the V2 controls the bass better than the O2. Treble of the V2 is slightly cleaner as well, but the O2 combined with the iPod is better than the players that are similarly priced. But, overall the differences are very small with the 5-way, but they add up for a more musical experience with the V2. 6/10
Neco V2: About the same size as the Stepdance, although priced at about half, the V2 doesn’t sound too far off. In the bass region the Stepdance is more powerful and tighter, but not by much. The Stepdance sounds a bit more mid-forward and slightly smaller with spacious electronic music and the V2 also has a bit more 3D qualities to the presentation due to better soundstage depth. Other qualities are similar. 7.5/10
Arrow 12HE 4G: The 4G was compared primarily to the Stepdance and has a different presentation as it is more laid back, presenting a more relaxed sound. The bass of the Stepdance is more powerful, especially in the deep bass, however the 4G does have bass boost which enhances the bass well past the Stepdance. Because of the presentation differences, the presentation depth isn’t quite as great with the 4G. All the options do allow much more flexibility than the other amps, and the quality is about on par. 7/10
Pico Slim: With a brighter presentation, including a boost to the upper midrange, the PS doesn’t sound as natural as the other amps since the boosted areas become more forward than the rest of the spectrum and lowering the transparency of the 5-way (although it is still very good). The presentation space is a bit smaller than the other amps while bass is well controlled, but not as powerful or punchy as the SD or others. 6.5/10
Stepdance: With great bass control and an overall good and transparent sound, the SD is a nice pairing with the 5-way. For more details, I have outlined how many of the amps compare in the other reviews. 7/10
uHA-120: Since the 120 has a similar form factor and somewhat close price to the Stepdance, this is the main comparison. The Stepdance is a bit more spacious overall, but just barely, however the bass is more controlled. Other than that, the differences are quite small and would be a challenge to blindly pick one. 7/10
627: The 627 adds a whole other layer of texturing and detail to the sound along with exceptional control and a very good depth to the presentation. Better than the other amps in pretty much every way from a sound perspective. The iPod doesn’t have quite the level of detail as the 801, DX100, or D1 therefore it can’t recreate as much detail which is what is lowering the score. 9/10
EPH-O2: The differences between the 627 and O2 aren’t as large as they are when the iPod is used as a source. The space is similar but the 627 is more 3D and has more powerful and controlled bass, but not by a large amount. The biggest difference is that the 627 sounds more detailed yet transparent and natural vs. the O2, however the O2 does sound good. The sound is a slight improvement over the HPO of the 801. 9.25/10
627: The 627 adds to the already spacious presentation of the 801 as well as controlling the entire spectrum better, resulting in better clarity. 9.5/10
627: There is minimal change between the built in amp and the 627. Control is similar, space is ever so slightly larger with the 627, clarity and focus are slightly better with the 627, but the biggest difference is in the natural decay of the treble as with the 627, the treble region sounds a bit more natural. Nit picking at its best. 10/10
Cruise: Every time I listen to this amp I have to spend a bit of time just enjoying it. The Cruise has a punchy and dynamic sound that is exciting, and it pairs quite well with the 5-way. The Cruise adds some brightness without a hint of harshness while having fast, punchy, and powerful bass, and the midrange is great also! The Cruise doesn’t have the resolution of the D1/801/DX100, but it is better than the HUD-MX1 and RoCoo player. Spatially, while it is good, it is a good deal flatter (less depth) than the high end sources and the RoCoo BA as well. The hiss that is a problem with many CIEMs is there, but since the 5-way is not all that sensitive, it is not bothersome for me. 7/10
D1: The D1 is a nice match for the 5-way with a spacious presentation and clean, clear sound. The D1 has very good control of the bass and can really deliver power to the 5-way for amazing bass that is reverberant and earthshaking. The spacious presentation envelops with a great clarity and clean, focused presentation. The biggest issue with the D1 is that the presentation is on the brighter side and the treble can sound a bit peaky at times (track dependent), which isn’t the case with any other source with the 5-way. 9.5/10
Source Summary: The 5-way isn’t a sensitive CIEM, but entry level sources such as the Clip+ can still drive it quite well and show off the advantages over lower cost IEMs. But the 5-way will improve as you move up the quality scale with high end DACs/DAPs, adding to the presentation space and transparency while recreating more micro-detail. Amps can help the sound even more as the 5-way takes well to amping, especially in the bass region where a good amp can show off the bass capability of the 5-way.
With a natural, organic sound the Spiral Ear SE 5-way Reference sets new standards for me in many categories including resolution, transparency, bass capability, treble extension, and treble quality. On top of that, the 5-way changes its sound signature with each track, bringing out the mastering differences in position, warmth, and other characteristics, making it difficult to pinpoint the sound signature. Tonally the 5-way wouldn’t be considered bright but not lacking treble, however don’t look for clarity through brightness, and while the resolution and detail are present, they aren’t pushed to the front.
The presentation space is large and has a rectangular soundstage shape vs. the traditional oval, with the ability to project both forward and out at the same time quite well. The attack and decay are exceptional which result in a very natural note and the ability to recreate speed and power. Overall, the 5-way is a very neutral and transparent CIEM that performs at an extremely high level and should be a consideration for those that aren’t looking for a bright sound signature.
• Very natural presentation due to exceptional attack and decay
• Excellent bass presentation that is has the capability to recreate any type of note with the right speed and amount of bass
• Extremely natural treble with excellent extension
• Exceptional transparency to the track and source
• Not available outside of the European Union and long wait times
Edited by average_joe - 3/15/13 at 10:39pm