As always, a disclaimer. Since earbuds do not naturally achieve a seal, their sound will invariably differ depending on outer ear anatomy. In turn, different listeners may have very different sound impressions. I appear to have smaller ears than some, thereby, getting a better seal. I found all of the included tips to sound a bit too warm and boomy which seemed to contradict impressions by other reviewers. I found the VE Monk + foams provided the best balance and tone, they are cheaply available and personally highly recommended for a lot of earbuds. All comments below will be with these covers attached.
With the more open-pore VE Monk+ foams, the EM5 assumes a delicious, coherent and lush presentation without veil or boxiness. It is relatively balanced, perhaps considered L-shaped due to a slightly laid-back treble delivery, but no frequency zone is recessed or overshadowed. Similarly, it is not blunted or veiled. Rather – and I’m using a term rather stereotypically coined for earbuds – the EM5 provides a delightful analogue rendition of sound and will certainly appeal to those valuing a slightly fuller note structure and an organic timbre. What is less typical is its note delivery that is markedly sharper, more energetic and more defined than the vast majority due to the adoption of an agile Be driver. Those wanting a high-end earbud with a warm, yet balanced sound while maintaining good midrange clarity and high-end extension will very much enjoy this earbud.
Surely a highlight of the EM5, bass is warm, moderate in quantity and impressively well-controlled. Extension isn’t exceptional as one would expect as, despite the huge driver size, the lack of seal is simply not ideal. Still, there’s some rumble and deep-bass impact very rarely seen on an earbud, in fact, this may be the best bass extension I’ve heard from this form factor. The mid-bass, however, still tends to draw most attention. It is emphasized alongside the upper-bass contributing to a full note-structure and generally warmer presentation. Bass timbre is organic yet, as there isn’t too much sub-bass, separation is retained.
Similarly, as mid-bass emphasis isn’t isolated, it doesn’t sound tubby or especially bloated. The timbre is very good, quite natural and smooth, just a little woolly due to the warmth and style of note delivery as detailed below. The driver quality here is also outstanding, perhaps not in the realm of IEMs that have a huge inherent advantage. Though, for an earbud, very well executed. Bass is full and warm, notes are enlarged in turn. The delivery is very quick both in attack and, most notably, decay. In turn, mid-bass is exceptionally textured and reasonably well-defined too. The EM5 doesn’t come across as the most dynamic and energetic performer despite its agility. Its notes are large but not overly weighted due to the sub-bass roll off on this form factor.
The bass presentation is textured and organic nonetheless, prioritising the macro over the micro. And here it excels, this is not an earbud that comes across as remotely low-resolution. Bass remains discerning whilst upholding a gorgeous tone that, contrarily, is almost impossible to reproduce on an in-ear design. I begrudgingly draw parity to this form factor as there are inherent strengths and weaknesses, but it is what most listeners are familiar with. On a fairer assessment, the EM5 performs at the highest end of what I’ve heard from an earbud design.
Extending upon my initial comment, the midrange presentation varies to quite a degree based upon the way the earbuds are positioned in the ear. Facing the drivers slightly forwards towards the ear canal provides a noticeably more transparent and forward midrange, while letting them sit perpendicular to the ear creates a mildly laid-back sound. Though most tonally transparent to my ears, I preferred not to listen without foams as bass falls off very quickly in such a configuration. Though still a smidge too full-bodied for my liking, in my preferred forward position with Monk+ foams, buyers can expect a very well-rounded midrange that strikes a much stronger balance between warmth, smoothness and clarity than almost all other earbuds.
It still lies on the warmer side of neutral, but warmth is never overwhelming even on warmer tracks such as Stephen Speak’s “Passenger Seat” where vocals can easily succumb to muffle. Rather, the earbud’s most notable quality is its bolstered vocal body stemming from a hump around the lower-midrange. In turn, they prioritise coherence and integration of the bass and midrange over the highest definition and separation. Notes are full but still very well-resolved with loads of texture and an inviting smooth delivery. The voicing is natural and vocals sound accurate in timbre beyond being full bodied and organic in tone. Good clarity is upheld with an upper-midrange push alongside a mostly accurate articulation in the lower-treble. As such, this is hardly a veiled or fuzzy midrange but a pleasantly smooth yet engaging one.
The articulation especially differentiates the EM5 from other earbuds that tend to struggle more with treble, vocals have outstanding definition for an earbud. The EM5 portrays an especially immersive image on tracks with layers of harmonisation and background vocals like Billie Eillish’ “my future” that are presented with outstanding dimension. Contributing to this impression is its positioning, being especially convincing in its ability to portray depth very reminiscent of a good open-back headphone over an in-ear design. Accordingly, though vocals are reasonably forward due to the upper-midrange tuning, the earbuds never comes close to introducing sharpness, fatigue or intensity. It’s a really unique display of pleasant qualities paired with a rich, organic timbre that, again, cannot be easily come by elsewhere.
This is surely not the treble you’d expect from an earbud, there’s an impressively concise note attack, pretty great fine detail retrieval and even a nice sense of air and headroom. Of course, don’t expect huge air and sparkle nor overt micro-detail, the presentation isn’t nearly as aggressive as a lot of IEMs around this price are. However, there remains an impressively clean transient response and good extension to be enjoyed. The lower-treble sits just behind the upper-midrange so treble instrumentation is a touch on the smooth side but showcases sound linearity without obtrusive peaks or troughs. This works to the benefit of clarity whilst upholding a convincing sense of body. Transients are crisp and clean, similarly, presented with no grain or sharpness even in the higher registers. Cymbals and percussion have a pronounced attack that is especially impressive for an earbud; most of which err more overtly on the smooth side, thereby, blunting off some of these smaller details that the EM5 meticulously deconstructs.
Meanwhile, the background is dark and clean but with an uptick of 8k emphasis alongside strong extension imbuing a pleasant sense of air and atmosphere, in turn, retaining a good level of openness. This also enables strong resolving power to discern smaller details and the EM5 is able to craft a large and multi-dimensional soundstage as a result. I think this detail is pivotal as many earbuds, even high-end, roll off very quickly in the highs so they struggle to portray directional cues and distance. The EM5 is more layered than almost all competitors and its presentation a lot more organised whilst also benefitting from the sheer expansion offered by an open form factor. To reiterate, there is no sparkle nor especially huge air or shimmer here, but still a convincing headroom that does wonders for the EM5’s warmer presentation. It isn’t hyper-detailed by comparison to a good IEM such as the Blessing 2, but does perform almost as well while providing a much larger soundstage.
Surely the prime benefit of the earbud form factor, it feels much like stepping up from a closed to open-back headphone as compared to IEMs. The EM5 provides an outstanding sense of space that is even impressive amongst other high-end earbuds. Width and depth extend well beyond the head, depth is especially impressive and a chief differentiator from most in-ears. The imaging performance is good too, it’s a little hazier than an IEM, but much sharper than most earbuds. The EM5’s full notes fill out its spacious stage well and uphold strong coherence. Its forward, powerful vocals are strongly centred and lateral elements organised into clear-cut layers, providing a stable presentation. With good treble extension and layering, the EM5 sounds composed even on busy tracks. In addition, though warm and full, its sheer sense of space and strong organisation ensure separation remains high.
The EM5 has an average 32 ohm impedance and a high 109dB sensitivity that, in theory, should make it very efficient and easy to drive. However, take note that, being an earbud, sound transmission to the middle-ear is not as efficient so these numbers mean little in comparison to an IEM of similar rating. In
Being a single dynamic driver earbud, I’m expecting a fairly flat impedance curve. Comparing between the Hiby R6 (10-ohms) and the Shanling M2X (1-ohm) revealed this is indeed the case. The EM5 sounded basically identical in signature between both sources despite the large difference in output impedance. This shouldn’t be too much of a concern for listeners.
Given its large driver size, ample damping is ideal. Nonetheless, I didn’t find the EM5 especially difficult to drive from the sources I had on hand. Even my Type-C dongles such as the DD TC35B was perfectly adequate with no bass roll-off. The EM5 does scale with a more resolving source that said, the soundstage was noticeably larger on my THX 789 and the bass is a bit more defined and discerning. The highs become a bit more detailed too. The EM5 also isn’t at all sensitive to hiss, even in quiet environments.
Suggested Pair Ups
The EM5 was a very easy earbud to drive from my testing. It doesn’t require a huge amount of power to achieve a balanced, controlled sound nor to reach high listening volumes due to its high sensitivity and moderate impedance. It does benefit from a resolving source and scales well in terms of soundstage expansion from desktop sources for instance. I also found myself preferring sources with a sharper, cleaner note delivery like the THX 789, JDS Labs Atom and iBasso DX200 (AMP5) that helped to provide sharper imaging and a more concise presentation. Warmer sources could sound a little too fuzzy in the bass especially.
Shozy BK ($165): A true DIY earbud, it utilises the compact Yuin shell that personally gives me a slightly more consistent fit, but manages to house a similarly sized 14.2mm Japanese imported driver. This is paired to a 8-wire hand-assembled copper cable, also fixed. I will be using the stock donut foams on the BK that I felt provided the most balanced sound.
The BK has a less energetic and slightly more coherent and linear presentation. Its bass doesn’t extend quite as well but it also has a cleaner tuning with a more balanced mid and upper-bass. It has quicker decay but a less aggressive note attack. In turn, its note delivery is a bit smoother and not quite as defined, but also with noticeably better separation that means it sounds about as detailed. The midrange is more forward on the Shozy, it has a slightly more accurate timbre, the EM5 being slightly more vivid. The EM5 has higher clarity and definition, both are full-bodied, the EM5 is a bit warmer due to its bigger bass.
The BK has a lower-treble peak that helps to redeem some detail. It is a touch crisper than the EM5 but isn’t as detailed or extended overall, rolling off through the middle-treble. In turn, it has some air but not the same level of openness, shimmer and background detail as the EM5. Similarly, in the foreground, it’s note delivery is not as concise, with softer, smoother transients. The EM5 also has a much larger soundstage though the BK does image slightly better to me, with sharper localisation if not the same level of layering.
Astrotec Lyra Collection ($299): The Lyra Collection is a similarly priced premium earbud. Like the EM5, it has been built from the ground-up by Astrotec. It also employs smart control of back-pressure – since, on earbuds you cannot really control the acoustics in front of the driver – with a high-density copper labyrinth that also reduces refractions. It has a gorgeous metal design and 8-wire SPC cable that are both subjectively nicer than the EM5, albeit the cable is only offered in single-ended format. I will be assessing both using VE Monk+ foams.
The Lyra immediately guns for a similar style of sound, that being balanced but organic, but with a largely different approach – it sounds much more IEM in its presentation, flatter but also smaller. The EM5 immediately has better bass extension but also a bigger and warmer mid-bass. The Lyra is cleaner and more linear. It remains a little warm and very punchy, but its timbre is more accurate and it benefits from higher separation and note definition as a result. The EM5 offers slightly higher driver control that said, I hear a slightly quicker attack and decay from it, albeit set to a more coloured tuning so it is no more or less discerning through the bass overall. The EM5 is similarly more energetic in the mids and highs. The Lyra is flatter and a bit more coherent. Its midrange is more gradual and its voicing more natural too. The EM5 is slightly cleaner tonally, and more vocal-forward.
It is also more revealing with greater upper-midrange presence and contrast. The EM5 has a crisper treble attack though the Lyra actually has more forward treble instrumentation, albeit presented in a smoother manner. The Lyra has a bit more body and texture in the foreground, while the EM5 has greater note definition and noticeably better fine detail retrieval. The EM5 also has better extension with more air and greater resolution, especially of background details. The EM5 has a much larger soundstage too, and its imaging is sharper. Both separate well, the Lyra noticeably better through the bass, the EM5 more through the mids and highs.
Periodic Audio Be ($299): The Be offers a “true” Be driver for the same money, though it is still to be confirmed what exactly that means. They are easily and freely modded by placing tape over the rear vent, to provide a more balanced, natural sound as I have done to my pair for this comparison. This is one of the most natural and insightful dynamic driver earphones around this price, even higher, but the build quality leaves me wanting personally. Obviously this isn’t a fair comparison, but should provide some insight into the differences between form factors.
The modded Be has a more balanced sound and it has quicker, more defined transients in general. Bass extends deeper with pressure and kick the non-sealing EM5 is unable to replicate. The EM5 has a slightly bigger, warmer mid-bass especially. It retains a similar sense of note body and punch, in turn. The Be is tighter and more defined, the EM5 is smoother but also noticeably less focused in its note delivery. The midrange is a large departure, despite both being voiced similarly. Both are natural and offer a clean, light warm tone that’s very inviting and easy to like. The Be is more intimate, the EM5, though vocal-forward, offers a lot more space and separation, especially with regards to vocal depth.
In turn, they sound very different, the Be is a bit more defined and coherent, the EM5 is a lot more multi-dimensional. The treble tells a similar story, the Be has a sharper lower-treble attack, though it does have a small 5k peak. The Be is more detailed and crisper, fine details come through clearer and are easier to discern. The EM5 is a bit hazier, the small details are still present, but smoothed off a bit more in attack and decay, so notes are less defined in summation. The Be offers a little more extension but it’s impressive how well the EM5 keeps up. The EM5 provides a substantially larger soundstage with more immersive imaging. More specifically, it has a better and more flexible portrayal of distance, it also sounds just a bit more separated in the midrange as a result. Though the Be has better separation in the bass and treble where it offers higher note definition.
I was quite shocked at the reception to the EM5’s, most users being put off by the premium price point as opposed to being excited by a large company reviving a largely forgotten form factor. Actually, it was explained to me by a reader – and this is always a great way to stay grounded as a reviewer – that this form factor is usually associated with a lower price and, perhaps, performance. More specifically, it seems undisputed that they provide a great tone and soundstage but the majority are technically challenged so to speak – and most haven’t had the high-end earbud experiences that I personally have to dispel this misnomer. The EM5, appears well-positioned to me as a result. It is similarly priced to other high-end earbuds but introduces qualities competitors cannot provide. It caters towards a passionate niche of earbud enthusiasts wanting the most resolving presentation, as per Fiio’s original intentions. Don’t expect huge treble extension or the sharpest note delivery coming from IEMs, but a smooth, sonorous and spacious sound that is ever as delightful. The EM5 is an especially resolving earbud with a comfortable, well-built shell and great, albeit fixed, modular cable that permits enjoyment from any source.
The EM5 is available from HiFiGO and Fiio’s Aliexpress Store (International) for $299 USD at the time of writing. I am not affiliated with Fiio or Aliexpress and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.
Track List –
Beck – Mellow Gold
Billie Eilish – my future
Bob Segar – Night Moves
Brb. – Sorry That I Love You
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Crush – NAPPA
Dire Straits – Communique
Dirty Loops – Next To You
Eagles – Hell Freezes Over
Elton John – Honky Chateau
Eric Clapton – Unplugged
John Mayer – New Light
Joji – Sanctuary
Nirvana – Nevermind
Pixies – Doolittle
Post Malone – beerbongs & bentleys
Radiohead – OK Computer
Rich Brain – The Sailor
Stephen Speaks – Passenger Seat – Single
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride