It was late last month when I received a message from the folks at Brainwavz on Head-Fi, asking if I’d like to review their latest earphone, the S5. I said yes, not knowing at the time that I was soon to play a part in one of the biggest grassroots marketing blitzes I’ve ever seen in the world of portable audio. I was one of possibly dozens of reviewers selected to voice an opinion on the S5, so I would imagine they have quite a bit riding on the success of the S5.
But I’m just speculating.
Anyway, at $99, the S5 steps into a crowded and highly competitive marketplace filled with a number of extremely high performing earphones So, does Brainwavz’s S5 have what it takes to compete? Read on to find out.
Accessories: The S5 ships with a very nice black and red clamshell carrying case, a pair of comply foam tips, various silicone tips in all the expected sizes and a custom gold-plated 6.3mm adapter
Design and Build Quality: Before I get into talking about the build quality in general, I must get something out of the way.
I hate the S5’s cable. It is truly awful.
Now I will readily admit my dislike for flat cables in general but I’ve never met a flat cable as awful as this. It’s too wide, it lacks flexibility and it carries a lot of microphonic noise.
Beyond that, the metal shells, beefy y-split and good strain reliefs combined with an awful, but at least durable feeling cable make the S5 an earphone that I wouldn’t be too worried about in terms of long term usability.
Comfort and Isolation: Excellent isolation for a vented dynamic driver IEM and comfort is solid as well, with the light aluminum housings weighing very little in my ears. The only issue is the thick flat cable which makes them difficult to route over the ears and doesn’t provide the most ideal or comfortable fit.
At the bottom is a strong and assertive low end that doesn’t sacrifice sub bass detail, impact and extension for the sake of bloated mid bass like you’ll find in a number of v-shaped earphones. I’ve heard the S5’s bass referred to as “too much” and I disagree. Of course, tastes may differ but the amount of bass the S5 offers is just right to my ears, maybe bordering on “too much” but not quite there yet.
As is inherent with a v-shaped sound, the midrange is noticeably recessed and the performance is something of a mixed bag. It has pleasing warmth and smoothness that sometimes comes off as just that and others, it sounds veiled. Not quite opaque, just mildly translucent. The lower mids are definitely warmed up by the heavy bass and that is a definite contributor to the perceived veil.
Treble performance is emphasized but not particularly strong. It can sound good, great even, but most of the time, it’s just decent. Nothing special, nothing that made me pay particular attention to it when I wasn’t listening critically. It’s decent. It’s solid. It’s fine. Extension is good. Clarity is good. Not much in the way of sparkle, but not much sibilance either. It’s occasionally strained and somewhat brittle sounding, but that doesn’t happen frequently enough to be particularly annoying.
The S5 is, however, surprisingly good at throwing sounds out of your head with its impressive soundstage depth. The width and perceived height aren’t particularly spectacular but there were times when certain sounds surprised me and I glanced to my side, as I thought for certain a tinkling of piano keys at the end of The Roots’ Tomorrow had come from somewhere beyond what I was hearing from the S5.
But here’s where things get weird. The S5 can go from sounding expansive and incredibly deep to closed in and somewhat “stuffy”, depending on the song. That’s because the sonic image isn’t as layered or well positioned as it can be on other earphones, even in this price range, like HiFiMan’s RE-400. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from bad, but it doesn’t wow me either.
The S5 is stuck in a very difficult position. On one hand, it does enough right to be worth considering at $100. On the other, it doesn’t do enough right to stand out. On one hand, I love the low end, with its great sub bass extension and rich texture. On the other, I don’t really love the mids or the treble. They’re competent and appropriately detailed for the price, but nothing special.
Perhaps the S5 is a victim of its pricing. The $100 price bracket is one of the most harshly competitive and unforgiving. There are a ton of excellent earphones within this price range and the S5 has a hard time competing because of that. Because it’s just “good”. Not excellent. Good for Electronic, good for Hip-Hop and good for Pop but at the end of the day, just “good”.
But, these days, one has to wonder if just “good” is good enough. Maybe. Depends on your tastes. If you want a V-shaped sound and don’t mind one that isn’t the last word on clarity and are willing to put up with the cable, the Brainwavz S5 is a solid choice for $99.