A few months ago when I got my second custom in the 1964 Ears 1964-T I thought I was done buying new universal earphones. Looking back I see how naive I was then. I bought (on impulse) and sold the CK10. I also later bought the newly released Westone 4 on impulse again like any good head-fi member. I also had a standing loaner offer waiting for me by another head-fi member and I was allowed to choose whatever earphone in his possession that I wanted for as long as I wanted to try them out as long as I give my opinions on them. It should be fairly obvious that those earphones are the Ortofon e-Q5, Grado GR10 and Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS.
It should be obvious to many that the head-fi member who loaned me those three earphones is none other than james444. So before I move on to the actual review I want to thank him once again for these loaners. At the same time I do have to question his sanity on his earphone collection hobby.
I realize that not everyone here is used to the audiophile terminology and as much as I hate using those terms it makes things so much easier. I will include two links and both are very useful. One is an audiophile dictionary and the other gives you a general idea of what instruments operate at what frequencies. I will be using those two links as references for this review.
Audiophile Dictionary: http://www.integracoustics.com/MUG/MUG/bbs/stereophile_audio-glossary.html
Consider this review as just one person's opinion. This review is not meant to be anything beyond that. We all have different preferences, references, gear, etc. so as the typical head-fi disclaimer this is all imo so ymmv.
I also realize that not everyone who reads this is aware of my preferences so I will list them here. My preferred sound signature (although I do enjoy many) is something that is fairly neutral. For example my favorite earphone based on that signature is the Audio Technica CK10. I listen to a wide range of music genres with the exception of classical.
Unless otherwise noted the gear used in this review is with my Audinst HUD-MX1 dac/amp connected to my netbook (Asus EeePC1005HA). The media player used is GMPC+MPD and the files are all 16/44 FLAC.
20-20k Hz | 32 Ω| 116dB | 1.3m
single Moving Armature
$399 at www.soundearphones.com
10-20k Hz | 40 Ω | 118dB | 1.2m
single Balanced Armature
$288 at www.musicaacoustics.com
10-18k Hz | 31 Ω | 118dB | 1.3m
quad BA in a 3 way crossover
$449 at www.earphonesolutions.com
Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS
16 Ω | 112 dB | 1.4m
custom single BA using Balanced Air Movement (BAM)
Price No Object at www.amazon.co.jp
To kick things off I will begin with none other than the Grado GR10. The GR8 while being liked by some was a disappointment to a couple of head-fi members that I have asked. Having never heard the GR8 but knowing that these were a Moving Armature driver based earphone I was excited to hear the GR10 and having read a couple of reviews of them I had pretty high expectations for them and they definitely did not disappoint.
If you have ever heard the Ortofon e-Q7 then you more or less know what to expect. These while having good texture, detail and resolution are by no means suitable for a bass head (the same applies to the rest of these earphones in this review). There is a good amount of impact to them when the recording calls for it and while it is not thin it definitely is not bass heavy or suitable for those who just want lots and lots of bass. Extension while being quite good does have a slight roll off at the lowest of lows. Decay is more accurate than some earphones which are lightning quick and bass notes disappear just as fast as they appear.
The midrange of the GR10 is a bit unexpected since I expected something more similar in forwardness as when I had the Ortofon e-Q7. The midrange has much better balance with the bass and treble than I initially expected but that is not a bad thing. The quality of the midrange is very good. It offers good detail, texture, resolution and clarity so those worrying about lack of technical ability have nothing to worry about.
The midrange of the GR10 is very good. It is slightly forward in nature but overall there is a good balance between the treble and bass. There is no bass bleed in the midrange although there is a slight hint of warmth in the midrange which I do like. Detail, resolution and clarity is great. The clarity of the GR10 is definitely near the top of everything I have heard which is pretty impressive.
The upper midrange and treble like the rest of the spectrum is very good. The GR10 is an airy earphone with a good amount of sparkle but yet fairly smooth. I do not hear any noticeable peaks or areas where harshness may appear. It remains detailed with high resolution but without having that harshness that gives the user the impression of a great treble at the expense of the midrange or bass.
The sound stage of the GR10 slightly above average. Imaging and separation are just as good giving the user a good overall musical experience.
Having enjoyed the e-Q7 when I owned them a while back the e-Q5 is definitely something I was looking forward to especially with the reports that it has a more extended treble.
The bass presentation of the e-Q5 is remarkably similar to the Grado GR10. If I didn't know any better and there wasn't a difference in the housing between the two I would say that I was listening to the same earphone if just listening to the bass. Texture, detail, resolution are all just as good as the GR10. The disclaimer for bass head applies here as well. In fact if you are a bass head you should not buy any of these if you are looking for something that will suit your bass cravings. Extension while being good does roll off at the lowest of lows similar to the GR10. In fact the only difference I could find after many A/B comparisons is that the e-Q5 has a bit less bass amount.
The midrange of the e-Q5 is where the two begin to differ. While it is not forward like how I remember the e-Q7 to be it still is slightly forward. The midrange of the e-Q5 is what I would like to call sweet. While I wouldn't call the e-Q5 a midrange dominating sound it still does have a slight focus. The midrange does not dominate the rest of the sound for it to be just midrange. Detail, transparency, resolution and clarity are all pretty impressive with the e-Q5. This earphone definitely has a slight emphasis on the midrange but it doesn't make it the focus where the rest of the spectrum is overshadowed by the midrnag.e
Moving up to the upper midrange and treble it is smooth with a decent amount of sparkle and air. Detail is good and at no point do I hear any harshness or any aggression like another earphone that I will mention later in this review. The extension up top is also good and there is no noticeable roll off that I can hear.
The sound stage is slightly above average with good depth and width. Separation and imaging very much like the GR10 is excellent.
The Westone 4 is the first released four driver BA earphone and with Westone's track record of releasing good quality products I had high expectations for this earphone.
Starting with the bass I was definitely not disappointed. The Westone 4 has the best extension of a BA universal that I have ever heard. I have not heard all of them so while it possibly may not be the best it is the best for me. Although the Westone 4 boasts two drivers alone for just the bass it by no means has excessive quantity or qualify as a bass monster. The impact however does exceed the GR10 and e-Q5 and slightly less than the FI-BA-SS. The quality of the bass however is very good. Detail, resolution, extension and texture is right up there with the best universals that I have ever heard. Decay is also quite good and offers a fairly realistic decay without hanging around too long or disappearing too quick.
The midrange in a nutshell is extremely smooth much like the rest of the spectrum with the Westone 4. While I do consider the midrange slightly forward it by no means is too forward where it becomes a distraction to the bass and treble. The midrange of the Westone 4 does have a bit more warmth than the rest of these earphones so as a result the clarity does suffer a bit. The notes also do have some thickness but by no means does this mean that there is a veil with the Westone 4. Detail, resolution, texture and the overall quality of the midrange is very good. I would actually say that out of all these earphones the midrange of the Westone reigns supreme. The midrange is slightly sweet much like the e-Q5 but with a bit more warmth.
The upper midrange and treble is also very smooth. This makes it very inoffensive and I would be surprised if many people found the top of the Westone 4 offensive like how some other earphones are. I do not hear any noticeable peaks or harshness here and it is not aggressive so that makes very pleasing for me. However do not make the mistake for a smooth treble to mean a roll off or lack of detail. In fact the Westone does not lack either. It has good extension and plenty of detail. There is no issue in terms of technical ability with the Westone 4 in the treble or any other area for that matter.
The sound stage of the Westone 4 is definitely above average and very wide. However instead of very wide left and right it actually does a good job in filling the gaps so it is not just front, left and right but it gives a very convincing sound stage for an earphone. Imaging and separation is just as impressive as the sound stage.
Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS
These earphones are very special and shocking in a couple of ways that definitely was the cream of the crop in terms of my excitement as I looked forward to listening to these the most. James444 made a special endorsement in his original review that anyone who liked the e-Q7 and CK10 would like these and those were two of my favorite universals as well as the price no object price tag of these.
Starting off the FI-BA-SS boasts a very impressive bass for a single BA driver. It is by far the best bass I've heard in a single BA driver. The bass has very good detail, texture, resolution and even a slight rumble to it. The FI-BA-SS although being BA is very unlike many BA I have heard where it is lightning quick so decay is too short to sound natural. It actually is not that fast where notes disappear just as fast as they appear but it has a much more natural amount of decay so the bass sounds much more realistic. There is a slight roll off like the GR10 and e-Q5 where it happens at the lowest of lows but few earphones are able to have good linear extension there.
The midrange while having a hint of warmth is the real surprise here and definitely something I did not expect. It has such unprecedented clarity that it makes the GR10 seem like it lacks clarity in comparison which is definitely not the case as the GR10 is up there with the best of them in clarity but next to the FI-BA-SS that no longer holds true. The midrange as a whole has the typical qualities that makes for a high quality midrange. Those being very good detail, resolution, texture and in the case of these earphones amazing clarity. However there are also some issues. These are very revealing earphones and I mean very revealing. The earphones leaves just you and your source and I really mean it. If your source is bad or your recording is less than stellar the FI-BA-SS will scream in your face telling you that it is not amused. There is this type of raw aggression that I have never experienced previously.
Similar to the midrange the upper midrange and treble also boasts the same type of resolution, detail, clarity and shows you just how transparent these are. Once again I must stress that anything less than stellar should not be paired up with these earphone for they are very revealing. There is a slight peak here so there is some harshness but nothing too extreme. The bigger issue at hand is the raw aggression and revealing nature that is the main attraction with these earphones and depending on your sources that may or may not be a good thing.
The sound stage is quite good here giving you a nice large stage. Separation and imaging is also quite good but not the best of these earphones. The overall tone of the FI-BA-SS is that these are fairly balanced with a bit of a peak up top to go along with amazing clarity and transparency as well as this raw aggression.
All of these earphones are all very good so technical ability should not be a concern. It really does depend on your preferences as they all have slightly different sound signatures and I can see people owning multiple of these earphones with the exception of the Ortofon e-Q5 and Grado GR10. There really is no reason to own both since they are quite similar unless you just want to own them both.