I would like to thank Amin & Marcel and Sebastian of Vision Ears for loaning me the VE5 for this review. No incentive was given for a favourable review.
Vision Ears VE5
- 5 BA drivers 4-way crossover
- 1 x Bass – 2 x Mid – 1 x High-mid – 1 x High
- 122 dB SPL at 1 mW
- 21 Ohm at 1 kHz
Vision Ears is a small custom IEM company based in the German city of Cologne and was founded by Marcel Schoenen and Amin Karimpour. Marcel and Amin have a crack team of audiophile artists at their disposal to build some of the best looking and sounding CIEMs available today. Just take a look at their Instagram and you will see what I mean by "best looking", they are gorgeous works of art that are right up there with the very best CIEMs in the world. Initially though I was drawn to Vision Ears because of a single review, @Jelt2359's review of the VE5 (link). How Jelt described the VE5 sounded so alluring that I just had to hear them for myself and so I wrote Vision Ears to ask if there were demo opportunities in London. There weren't, but that didn't stop Vision Ears from providing me with the most impressive bit of customer service I have come across to date. They did not just offer to send me a demo, which was also possible, they actually built a complete demo set of their line and sent it off to my audiologist, Gisele Flower of Aid2Hearing. "You did what?!" was my completely astonished reaction, before realising that I could now hear them all and I quickly shot off an email to Gisele... "Don't need an appointment, I will park myself in the waiting room! When are you in?" Soon after I was spending a lovely time in the luxurious comfort of her Harley Street waiting room enjoying the Vision Ears line up. I walked away with two thoughts: "Those VE8 ticked every single box imaginable!" and "I need to hear those VE5 again!" Afterwards I wrote my impressions of the IEMs I had heard (the VE3, VE4, VE5, VE6 and VE8) on the head-fi forums and happily for me the guys at Vision Ears liked them enough that they were prepared to lend me a demo pair of the VE5 for a full review. I think that the little celebration dance I did upon hearing that says a lot about how much the VE5's qualities resonated with me.
Here I have to be short for two reasons. First, these are demo units and not the VE5 as CIEMs. Second, these are also an older construction of the Vision Ears demo units. I have used the newer demo units as well (those sent to Gisele) and really liked them, but that was a while ago. If you are interested in the build quality I highly recommend checking out reviews of the custom VE5 (and other Vision Ears CIEMs) because they are stunning pieces of audiophile art! I also highly recommend checking out the Vision Ears CIEM builder on their website, it is very easy to use and gives a good idea of the many, many possibilities. I could spend days playing around with that! (...and yes, I did.)
All listening was done with my AK70 from SE out (stock cable) and balanced out (aftermarket cables).
The VE5 are all about the midrange and they do this in a very particular way. They have a unique presentation that is exactly the reason why I so much wanted to hear them again. The VE5 feel to me like they balance on the border between analytical and musical, perhaps ever so slightly more toward the analytical to create the characteristic restraint and control. The VE5 do everything "proper". There is no exuberance or unnecessary flair, there is just excellence. This is right on the edge of coherency and it is a fine balance that for some types of music just does not work. Don't listen to rock or EDM, even swing jazz, although quite enjoyable, does not do justice to the excellence of the VE5. Solo performances however are nothing short of stellar. Be it instrument or vocal, when attention is given to a single performer the VE5 present every nuance in the most strikingly beautiful way and they are capable of rendering music with tangible emotion, stronger than with any other IEMs I have heard. To me the VE5 are real specialists.
The overall tonality is slightly brighter from what I would call natural, but I will emphasise that I am used to hearing warm and smooth IEMs. The VE5 are brighter and clearer than anything I have had the pleasure of spending time with and Vision Ears have managed to do this incredibly well. It is so even and balanced that the VE5 have taught me the true meaning of the term "brightness". If done as well as this, they can be just as non-fatiguing as the most warm and smooth IEMs out there, and the VE5 certainly are. I can listen to these all day without a hint of fatigue.
The VE5 have a good size stage that I find still manages to provide a somewhat intimate feel. The image has outstanding clarity and air, and provides excellent layering and detail retrieval, but I do find that it is very dependent on the type of music. If a lot is going on in the music the VE5 can throw up too much detail and it not just looses some of the harmony, there is also no chance to appreciate the detail that is there. I highly recommend sticking to music that is focused on a voice or instrument with not too much going on around it and then the VE5 show their true excellence.
Bass is certainly not a priority with the VE5, it is reduced and never intrudes to spoil that crystal clear signature, but you just have to pay attention to that cello in the background to hear that the bass is still natural sounding. There is not a lot of sub-bass extension, which means that impact in this area is reduced. If it were there I dare say it would have ruined the unique character of the signature. The VE5's bass is not about adding excitement; it is about doing things proper. The tympani cannot be overpowering and cello needs to be positioned in the right place to let the stage breath, but enough mid-bass is there to ensure that the cello is easily found and sounds impressive. I specifically put on a cello suit to see how the instrument sounded without any distraction and was astounded by how natural and detailed it was. Have I ever heard the resonance of the air vibrating inside a cello quite like it? The textures of the strings? The movement of the bow? Certainly not, and that C-string, the thickest of the four, is presented with such a beautiful natural weight and texture to it. So much so that a solo cello makes me question whether I should have called the VE5 "slightly brighter than natural". I think the overall image does come across as such, but the bass is certainly not "light".
The mids are of course the star of the show, and while I feel the VE5 are slightly towards the analytical, it is by no means that they are all "stiff upper lip". With most, if not all, IEMs I have heard to date the bass and treble have been important elements to add excitement and emotion to the signature; impact from the bass and sparkle from the treble. The VE5 however draw emotion straight from the instruments and vocals in the midrange. When I listened to Sarah Chang playing Paganini I was struck by how tangible the emotion of the violin was. I could genuinely hear every movement of the bow as if she was playing right there in front of me. The same with one of my favourite songs by London Grammar, 'Strong', where Hannah Reid's stunning voice gets centre stage and every nuance comes through wonderfully. And again the same goes for an old favourite of mine, Air's 'All I Need', of which I have special memories and never have those memories felt as strong as when I listened to it with the VE5. It is astonishingly good and this is where I wonder if there are many other IEMs, at whatever price point, this good in rendering a solo performance or music with a focus on one voice or instrument. I have no reservation when I say that I consider this excellence in absolute terms.
The particular characteristic of the VE5's mid-forward signature makes it difficult to predict what music will work well and what does not. Rock in general does not have quite the excitement I feel it needs, yet the Belgian Indie Rock band Intergalactic Lovers sounds incredibly good. I also grew to really like listening to Travis that with the song 'Sing' (I am sure everybody remembers the food fight from that video!) sat right on the edge of cohesion and ended up sounding gloriously detailed. I love this characteristic and I feel it really sets the VE5 apart as unique sounding CIEMs.
The treble of the VE5 is similarly placed to the bass; it is pushed back slightly to give room for the mids to shine. I am not sure if I would use the term 'attenuated' because of the VE5's brightness. The treble is also of a very good quality and extends far and is most of all very even to ensure the VE5 remain free of any harshness or fatigue. The trade-off in the positioning is the same as for the bass, music that asks for treble sparkle will not sound quite as delicate, such as Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker', which looses that characteristic sparkle that always reminds me of Christmas time. Not because there is no sparkle, it just sits behind those glorious mids not attracting too much attention. The treble nonetheless adds plenty of air and resolution, which is particularly noticeable in a few important areas. Strings of violins have great texture at the highest notes and you can get a real sense of the techniques the violin player uses, especially with tiny fast movements that add speed and airiness to a piece. The highest notes on a piano too, sound delicate and precise. These are two areas where I often find IEMs to struggle, but the brighter tonality and the high resolution really pays off here. The voice of soprano Elin Manahan-Thomas too remains crystal clear and even, as she pushes for the highest notes, staying free of the sibilance that can easily occur in this area.
I am very happy to see that Vision Ears have gone for a sensible stock cable that is supple, has decent ergonomics and most importantly of all, no memory wire. Essentially I see no immediate reason to replace it, but I will happily admit to being a bit of a "cablephile", so I am sure I could find an excuse to try out aftermarket cables if I needed such an excuse. Luckily I don't, as Vision Ears are well known for their collaboration with Effect Audio. This even led to the very exclusive VE6XC Limited Silver Edition; a retuned version of the VE6XC that is internally wired with Effect Audio's propriety Litz Silver wires and comes with a bespoke 8-wire Leonidas. So I tried out a few different (slightly less exclusive) cables I had available myself to see how the synergy would work.
-Effect Audio Ares II-
Effect Audio's very popular entry level, pure copper cable. I quite liked this pairing, but there is a clear trade-off. Ares II adds warmth and gives the VE5 a wonderfully easy-going smoothness. The bass section moves a bit forward and the tonality becomes more natural, giving instruments a bit more body. Vocals too get a bit more warmth and sound smoother. That smoothness does mean some of the texture is lost and this is most noticeable with strings, where the excellent detail of the VE5 is traded in for a honey-like smoothness. It is very pleasant to listen to, but in my opinion not in keeping with the character of the VE5 and therefore although pleasant to listen to, not a cable I would opt for over the stock cable.
-PlusSound Exo Copper-
This is a cable I happened to have on loan and because it is a similar entry level, pure copper cable to the Ares II, I was interested in hearing the differences. Much like with the Ares II the result is very pleasant to listen to, but not in keeping with the VE5's character. The Exo Copper lifts the bass a bit more and adds a treble lift to it as well. This results in more air than the Ares II and the Exo Copper maintains more of the VE5's texture in the string sections, but the whole signature becomes much less mid-forward. This makes the VE5 more versatile and it seemed that most music worked well, but equally, the VE5 no longer reached that level of excellence that made them so unique.
-Effect Audio Lionheart-
Lionheart is Effect Audio's second cable in the 'Heritage Series' and I recently got the opportunity to review it (link), which coincided perfectly with my time with the VE5 and I happily took advantage of that. Not in the least because this pairing worked very, very well. Lionheart adds a little bit of warmth to the VE5's signature and this results in what I feel is an exceptionally natural sound. Instruments come through incredibly well and Lionheart pulls the VE5 away from the edge of cohesion to sit more comfortably on the side of musical, rather than analytical. There is a wonderful harmony to be found here and like I indicated in my Lionheart review, it is like a crystal clear summer-warm stream where the notes flow through the image. However, Lionheart also manages to stay close to the characteristics of the stock VE5. There is a bit more versatility and I for instance thought it worked well for Caro Emerald. Lionheart's added warmth reduced some of the airiness to pull Caro's voice closer to the instruments, which with the stock cable felt a little too far separated. This created more harmony and made the swinging jazz sound more fun. Most importantly in my opinion, Lionheart pushes the VE5's excellence with solo performances even further. The emotion of Sarah Chang's violin is stronger and there is a hint of sweetness to female vocals that oozes emotion as I listen to Elin Manahan-Thomas sing Hildegard of Bingen. At the same time I also find male vocals to come through with authority. With the stock cable the VE5 slightly favour female vocals, but with Lionheart both sound equally excellent and balance exceptionally well, for instance, with large scale choral music.
While I could understand that some people might prefer the slightly brighter overall signature with the stock cable, for me the pairing of the VE5 with Lionheart is as close to perfect as I have heard. It is incredibly clear and natural sounding, vocals are astonishingly good and it is just the sweetest most alluring sound I have ever heard.
The VE5 are expensive CIEMs that in my opinion cater to a particular niche and therefore their value proposition is in how well they do for that particular niche. At this price they need to bring something extra special in order for them to present an attractive proposition. With the VE5 Vision Ears have nailed it; they are unique sounding CIEMs that excel at vocal music and solo performances. For most people they might not be best suited as "daily drivers", but I expect they will be very hard to beat as a pair intended specifically for mid-range performance. Pair the VE5 with the Effect Audio Lionheart and they become exceptionally natural and alluring. If you are looking for high-end, mid-range specialist CIEMs, then contact the great guys at Vision Ears and ask them to help arrange a demo, it will be worth it!