- Jan 25, 2010
Synopsis: The Future Sonics MG5pro is a professional stage monitor for audiophiles. It offers a different tuning than its brother, the fully stage-oriented MG6pro, by offering a brighter, more overall tonally balanced tuning. The MG5pro lifts the vocal ranges and matches this with an accurate, well extended treble. The bass is very well controlled and yet has one of the most real low-end sounds of any earphone. Using a single, full range 10mm dynamic driver, it competes with more expensive multi-armature earphones. By keeping the price at $750, Future Sonics has one of the best values in custom-fit earphones with the MG5pro.
Disclaimer: I paid for my set of MG5pro earphones. Future Sonics has never asked me to do a review of any kind for any of their products. I'm writing this review solely because this set has become one of my go-to earphones and I think more people should know about it.
Introduction: Marty Garcia, CEO of Future Sonics was the first person to put custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs) on stage, back in 1982 for Todd Rundgren. In 1985, Mr. Garcia offered the first commercially available CIEMs, for which he was later inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame (http://tecfoundation.com/hof/10techof.html). So, the MG5pros are designed by the person who kicked off CIEMs and has been around longer than anyone. And interestingly, they use a different set up than most CIEMs available today, going with single dynamic drivers in vented shells rather than closed shell multi-armatures. To understand why that is, we need to look at the thinking that goes into Future Sonics CIEMs.
Future Sonics' Philosophy: As a Future Sonics customer, I've had the chance to talk directly with Mr. Garcia and he's shared some of his views on audio. Listening to him, it's really a kind of philosophy of sound, based on the science of the human ear. As I understand it: The ear drum vibrates forward and back for us to hear sound waves. Due to the range and emphasis of the human voice, certain frequencies are emphasized over others and the ear canal itself has its own resonances (which change when something like an earphone plugs the entrance to the canal). At the lower frequencies, we feel the air-moving quality of bass sounds as much as we hear them.
This is what led Marty Garcia to work with vented shell designs with dynamic drivers. A dynamic driver's diaphragm also moves forward and back, like the ear drum, and the vent design allows not only the dynamic driver to move properly, but also lets the ear drum move without air pressure interfering with its movement. An earphone that allows the ear drum to move correctly is going sound better and the music will sound more real.
When it comes to bass, having a vented design allows for a real air-moving feel to bass. Marty Garcia found that musicians were turning up the volume on their closed-shell armature monitors in an attempt to get the feel of the bass. That's why even musicians with high isolation monitors tended to listen at a high volume level. Having a real bass feel means musicians can keep their volume relatively lower in a loud stage environment, even though the isolation of vented designs is slightly less. I find the same effect on a noisy subway or plane ride.
Customer Service: As owners of CIEMs have found, customer service is a huge factor in owning a custom-fit earphone (and issues can come up with earphones from any company). Future Sonics has a longer gap in between new generations of their earphones and they really take the time to get things right before they go up for sale. Once you buy a Future Sonics product, they treat you like a rock star, which only makes sense since the vast majority of their customers are pro musicians.
Future Sonics has been in business for 25+ years, so they have a system in place for customer service. For example, when I had fit issues with my first CIEM, the MG6pro, there was a series of steps to go through, starting with making adjustments to the shell (a re-fit) before jumping into having a new earmold made, which I ended up needing. I worked with them patiently, but, of course, when there's an issue, everyone wants things fixed yesterday. It was worth it to get things right. Future Sonics has been one of the most professional companies I've worked with.
Fit: Fit makes a giant difference in the sound you hear from your earphone. What we hear isn't only what an earphone sounds like! It is how that earphone's sound comes through your unique ears and auditory system. Everyone's ear canal is slightly different and, contrary to what's often said, there's a lot of variation even with CIEMs that fit comfortably. Without the right fit (no vacuum feeling, no pressure in the ear, but good isolation with full bass and an open feel), you won't get the sound you want.
Furthermore, there are types of hearing damage that can give you extra sensitivity to certain frequencies, causing you to hear spikes that aren't present in the earphone response itself. All that is to say: Work with a good audiologist who has a lot of experience with making earmolds for musicians and then work with your CIEM company until things sound right and don't stop until it's right. I just tell audiologists that I'm a singer (which is true, in the shower) so they know I want a great fit even when my mouth is open. A good piece of advice is: Don't cheap out on your visit to the audiologist and have a hearing test while you are there.
Upgrades: One special thing about Future Sonics CIEMs is that when a new generation driver comes out years from now, you can have your set upgraded for a fraction of the price of a new set.
However, you should also know that these cannot be sold and re-shelled by a third party.
Reliability: These earphones a bit special in terms of reliability. First, dynamic drivers are more resistant to damage from shock (dropping them) than balanced armatures. They are also less prone to damage from water and humidity. However, almost every earphone has acoustic filters to shape their sound. These filters are definitely prone to damage over time from moisture in the ear. Over time, sound quality will decrease as tiny amounts of moisture and earwax degrade the filters. Future Sonics actually tunes without any acoustic filters to make their earphones exceptionally durable and able to maintain their sound quality over the long-term. Just something to consider!
The MG5Pro: The MG5pro has a single 10mm high-performance dynamic driver. It's $750 when purchased directly from FutureSonics.com
*Tiny piece of my earwax I just noticed on the left earpiece not included with purchase
An in-ear shot of the MG5pro
The 10mm driver:
Maybe this should go under customer service, but I confess, I have asked Marty Garcia and his chief of operations, David Gray, about the MG5pro driver many, many times. And they've always been very nice and incredibly patient. So, there's the 13mm MG6pro's driver and then there's the universal fit Atrio (now only available from Future Sonics themselves) which also has a 10mm driver. Where does the 10mm MG5pro driver fit in? (question one of a hundred I asked). Well, first of all, the MG5pro has a different driver than the Atrio. The diaphragm itself is a bit different, and, interestingly, in order to have a driver in a custom-fit design, there are a number of differences versus a universal fit. So you couldn't really just take your favorite dynamic driver earphone and put it in a custom-fit shell. Not if you want it to sound its best, at least. And the MG5pro sounds pretty darn good.
Isolation: While the MG5pro is vented behind the driver, it actually has quite good isolation, just a step behind fully sealed acrylic customs. Furthermore, noise from wind-the turbulence of air passing over the vent-is present but small as well. It does very well in the subway and commuting situations, as well as international flights, assuming, of course, that the fit is good. Future Sonics official rating of the MG5pro's isolation is 26dB.
My set-up: different set-ups can definitely give a different emphasis to sound, so let's get that out of the way. I use the excellent Apex Glacier portable amplifier coupled with a 5.5 gen ipod for my main audio set-up. It's small, portable and has a great sound. The Glacier has plenty of power for earphones and headphones and is tuned to sound like a high-end tube amp. It has a clear, well-extended range with a bit of warmth and organic smoothness to it. It's a non-fatiguing sound that pairs well with a range of CIEMs.
Impedance: While the MG5pro sounds great straight out of a galaxy S5, I'd say it scales up in sound quality when you give it the power the Glacier offers.
This is perhaps in part because the MG5pro is a higher impedance earphone, thanks to the juice pro set-ups offer. That means MG5pro likes power and has a black background (no hiss). While a Galaxy S5 can drive it to quite loud levels, a decent portable player or even a small portable amp to drive it, would be a nice match. You'll get that extra little amount of detail and control to your sound, really bringing the MG5pro to the pro level at which it was meant to perform. Speaking of which...
A story about the MG5pro's sound quality: A while back I had a full three day weekend with universal fit demos of three top CIEMs. I very carefully found eartips that didn't obscure the sound nozzles, got a perfect fit that disappears in the ears and allowed at least 30 minutes of listening just to allow my ears and brain to get used to the tuning of a CIEM (usually while reading and pretending to get some work done) before really doing at least an hour of serious listening. Then, I'd switch to the next CIEM...that's a normal way to spend time, right?
At the end of one of these long listening sessions, I said to myself "This sounds really great, which CIEM is this one, again?" When I looked over, all the demos were on a side table and I realized that 120 minutes passed before I had taken a break from them and put the MG5pros in my ears!
I've had the MG5pro for 4 months now, so it's no passing fancy or flavor of the month, but a true favorite. Each person is going to look for a different sound. With that in mind, if the MG5pro is right for you, it really does compete at a much lower price. Let's look at how it sounds.
Overall Sound Signature: The MG5pro starts with a lifelike, vibrant midrange and adds an accurate treble that's not too bright or dark and a special bass that isn't too much in amount but has extraordinary punch and depth. It's got a very spacious soundstage (with a good fit that doesn't have a vacuum effect, of course) and great timbre. I'll expand on each of these points below:
Tonality: The overall tonality is balanced, avoiding over-thick sounding warmth on the one hand and thinness on the other. One of the MG5pro's strengths is that it does very well with a wide variety of music genres and this is part of the reason. People coming from either extreme will take a little time to grow accustomed to the MG5pro's monitor sound, but it's worth it as these are a real treat.
The timbre, or realistic reproduction of subtle qualities that make vocal and instrumental music sound truly lifelike, is very good. Dynamic drivers often do very well with this and this earphone is no exception. Violins, male and female voices, guitars, pianos sounds real with the MG5pro.
Clarity: The clarity is excellent overall, even beating those flagship CIEMs which have a slight veil to their sound. However, there's no 5khz spike with the MG5pro. That's what usually gives an artificial clarity (compensating for hearing loss in that frequncy-as well as causing it!). Here, you get a clarity that doesn't push itself in your ears. Plus, the lack of added thickness and richness to note decay does give a clearer sound simply by avoiding any muddiness. Due to this choice in tuning, I'd say it'll be middle of the pack for top-tier CIEMs, ahead of the veiled ones and lacking the added clarity of ones with a 5khz boost.
Soundstage: Spacious and as close to a headphone as an in-ear monitor can be. The vented design probably adds to this here while maintaining isolation. Of course, fit plays a role here to get the best soundstage and sound and the recording itself has many of the cues our ears rely on to create the sense of a soundstage with earphones. That's why an earphone like the MG5pro has the ability to sound greatly spacious with some recordings, and to sound more intimate with others.
This a very cohesive, lifelike sound. Thanks to the single driver, artificial separation and even the smallest phase issues are avoided entirely. To me, dynamic driver designs like the MG5pro give me what I want, which is the sound of live music. Each instrument has its place, but the single driver and sound tube gives that sense of all the instruments and voices playing together in the same space. For dissecting one's music, the multiple drivers and separate sound tubes of a multi-armature design might serve more.
Midrange, the heart of the music: The MG5pro is a professional stage monitor and its tuning and sound are part of an interesting take on its purpose. Future Sonics is perhaps the only CIEM maker where the chief of operations is a musician who uses his FS products on stage.
The first and maybe most important part of this is that the heart of the vocal range has a boost. This is what allows the lead instruments and voices to rise above the mix of sounds in a performance so everyone can accompany them. Having said that, the MG5pro has less of a vocal boost than some other stage CIEMs, including its brother the MG6pro. The MG5pro is balanced in tuning so that full range instruments, such as a piano, sound great and natural from top to bottom. Plus, the human ear is keyed to sounds in the human vocal range, so we tend to hear to this boost as sounding natural, bringing music alive. I've had some very expensive CIEMs that have a drop in frequency response at this range and they eventually ended up in my desk drawer for having a dull sound. Not the MG5pro, which is in my ears as I write these words. This slight boost allows the MG5pro to really rock while at the same time having the non-fatiguing, flatter, accurate sounding tonality of a true monitor. Across a wide range of genres, from classical and jazz to rock and pop, these earphones give a real sense of letting you immerse in a feeling of live music.
The only fatigue I found was on a poorly recorded musician-self-published track where there was ringing resonance at 3khz or so. Every CIEM I own reproduced this ringing in the recording and the MG5pro, true to its accurate tuning, rang heartily at high volumes with this recording. People with lot of really poorly recorded music or those with a "noise notch" (hearing damage usually around 4khz with hypersensitivity to 3-3.5khz and elsewhere) will want to avoid loud listening to this sort of track with these.
Treble: This is a smooth, full sounding treble with good extension. Unlike other stage monitors, the MG5pro avoids a dark sound with a brighter tuning. It's a fully present treble with no thinness and a nice weight to the high notes of a violin, cymbal or woman's voice. By having a flatter, more "matte" tuning, it avoids glaring harshness in the treble as well for a non-fatiguing, clear, monitor sound. People who want a dark sound, or those who want extra edgy harshness or those who like added sibilant bite to their treble may look elsewhere.
Bass: For a real bass sound, this is one of the best. The bass here has less quantity than some bass heavy earphones (still north of neutral), yet it more than competes in bass feel thanks to the real air-moving quality provided by its vent system. I really enjoy my closed shell multi-armature CIEMs, but they don't have the air-moving quality in the bass found here.
Maybe it's that special vent design that gives the MG5pro some of the best bass punch I've ever heard in an earphone. Bass dynamics, going from silence to a powerfully and fully textured boom, are phenomenal here. The bass is balanced enough to enjoy in a library, but has the punch and feel to make its presence felt over the growl of the plane or train. I'm always a little surprised when I go to more bassy earphones because it's a reminder of how the MG5pro's bass achieves more with less quantity.
Overall, this is a natural sounding bass with excellent sub-bass extension and texture. It allows the MG5pro to sound great with bassy music while remaining balanced with acoustic genres.
Conclusion: The MG5pro is an excellent all-around CIEM at a price several hundred dollars less than some of its rivals. With a less warm, accurate tonality that lifts the vocal range, this stage monitor for audiophiles is balanced by a non-fatiguing treble with good brightness and a bass that keeps surprising power well under control. For those who are looking to bring this kind of live stage music sound home, the Future Sonics MG5pro is one of the top choices around.
Check out the second post for some more pictures and comparisons with top earphones!