Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate: Transparency redefined

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Spiral Ear 5-way Ultimate Custom In-Ear Monitor

Make: Spiral Ear
Model: SE 5-way Ultimate
Base Price: € 1699 with the EU, € 1599 outside the EU
Country of Manufacture: Poland 

The time has come, at least for a period of time, where I have to either post shorter reviews or not post reviews at all.  Life is busy, as this is not my day job, at least yet, and working for a rapidly growing company with work growing faster than we can hire quality people combined with young kids in a dual income household makes time a rare commodity.  The Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate aims to raise the bar from the SE5 Reference.

The SE5 Reference sat at the top of my chart for many years, and while some excellent competitors came close from an overall sound quality standpoint, none bested it in my formula.  For some insight, my formula combines uses the following qualities for a calculation: Bass quality, bass capability, midrange quality, treble quality, transparency, coherence, dynamics, resolution (presentation detail), instrument detail, note ADSR, clarity, imaging, and soundstage (a combination of size and proportion).  The weighting is not even, as some similar characteristics are combined for a score such as resolution and detail while others are weighted by half or even 1/4th on a 100 point scale that is averaged.

NOTE: the actual score should be 101.8 on my rating scale, but the table will only list scores up to 100.

Well, if the scale is 100 points, why is the SE5U’s sound score over 100?  The Hidition NT-6 + Whiplash Hybrid V3 was the first CIEM that had a rating that broke my scale, so instead of rescaling all of my reviews, I allowed above 100 scores based on comparative performance.  Other CIEMs after have scored over 100 in various categories, and the Lear’s LCM BD4.2 pushed it above the SE5 Reference.

Enter the SE5U hits 105 on my scale in 6 categories.  Put in perspective, only the NT-6 + Whiplash cable scored a 105, but in a single category, clarity, which is still the highest clarity score.

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the Spiral Ear SE 5-way Reference review for perspective.  Also, I am not going to duplicate what I wrote in my initial impressions, so you may want to read that also.  Finally, a spoiler is jelt2359’s review.

I can easily sum up the SE5U: it is a much better SE5 Reference.  Now, at this level, the SE5 that was at the top of my overall sound quality chart is no slouch, but the SE5U makes it sound a bit unrefined and lacking.  My review title for the SE5R is “A New Level of Resolution?,” and the SE5U takes that title.

I have spent many hours with the SE5U, comparing it with many other newer CIEMs not yet on the chart as well as the top performers and it outshines.  Is the SE5U for everyone?  No, as sonic preference should also be a major factor in selection.  There are those that don’t like the SE5R, and it seems like there are some bad ones out there that are sold and passed on to others, tainting more views.  If you think the SE5R is for you when you read the review and comparisons, the SE5U will also be for you.

 

CABLE
The cable is the same as the SE5R, which is a higher quality, but standard looking twisted cable.  The cable connector has been refined and improved as noted below in the Build Quality section.

 

BUILD QUALITY
Build quality is the same, and the cable plugs have improved since my SE5R, which was one of the first detachable cable units produced.  Fit and finish are almost the same, except some of the internal components have a covering that almost looks like clay, which has leeched a bit into the clear silicone discoloring it.  Not a big deal, but not perfect.  I am not sure if the recent units are the same, but from my perspective, these things are made for listening to and not looking at, and you can’t see the discoloration when they are in your ears!

ISOLATION
Same as the SE5R, and the fit is perfect.

 

SOUND
Bass: The bass of the SE5U is amazing.  It combines detail, control, and power that is among the best.  The Custom Art Harmony 8 Pro does best the SE5U (and everything else) in quality, with the best control and highest level of detail in the bass region, but the quicker note doesn’t give the H8P the same capability as the SE5U.  The bass performance of the AAW AHMorph W500 scores the same in quality and capability as the SE5U, but there are differences as the SE5U has better overall speed, but the special bass driver of the SE5U enables competition with a dynamic driver which is impressive.  No other BA CIEM I have heard can combine the detail with the overall capability/power of the SE5U.

Midrange: Wow.  My quality score for the midrange is one of the six 105 scores.  It pushes the envelope in resolution and transparency while retaining the instrument detail levels of the SE5R.  While I want to say the midrange is the standout of the performance, it is difficult to make that claim due to real key of the SE5U, which I will cover later.  Simply put, the midrange is 3D and brings the information in the music to life.

Treble: I don’t think about the SE5U treble, which is a good thing.  It is not lacking at all, but not overly present nor bright, just natural and extended.  I can’t think of anything I would change.

Presentation: The key to the SE5U is the presentation.  Just like the SE5R, it is a chameleon, changing dependent on the track.  It has the ability to let me know how the recording engineer processed the track.  One track sounds a bit cloudy, another track seems to have the vocals brought forward in a bit of an unnatural way while another is open and airy.  The presentation isn’t the largest, but the proportions are just right.  ADSR is spot on, which is why I believe the transparency, resolution, dynamics, and imaging all broke 100 on my scale.

 

SOURCE MATCHING
Taking a page from the SE5R, feeding this beast is easy, but you are rewarded for upping the ante.  The higher the resolution of your DAC, the more that will come through.  The larger the soundstage of your amp, the larger the presentation will grow.  If you are going for the gold, don’t skimp on the supporting cast.

 

CONCLUSION
The Headphone List Recommended EarphoneGrzegorz Baran, founder of Spiral Ear, has done it again with the SE 5-way Ultimate, raising the ceiling on CIEM performance.  There too many good things to say about the SE5U, and I would just be repeating myself, but the word Ultimate does fit the product well.  Highly recommended and deserving of a THL Recommended award.

 


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About Author

Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.

25 Comments

  1. Myshkin on

    Thanks for the great review. I’m seriously considering getting a pair of these but don’t know if I could handle the maintenance of a custom iem. Are there any universal IEMs that sound similar especially in terms of presentation and sound stage?

    • average_joe on

      Hi Myshkin,

      While there are some IEMs that have similar qualities, none sound quite the same, especially in presentation and sound stage. EarSonics universals and the Lear LUF are the closest I have heard. The maintenance isn’t really much more than that of a universal, which you need to take care of as well. As long as you don’t abuse them and make sure to check for wax build-up, you should be fine.

      Cheers,

      Joe

  2. Gloomy Moonie on

    Hello,
    Not sure how often you get these, but which do you think is the _best_ ciem to get, the criteria being nothing in particular?

  3. CajunKev on

    Hi Joe,

    The reviews for the SE5U are over the top. I can’t help but want a set, but wanted to get your impressions relative to my specific situation. I’m a musician, singing and playing electric guitar and sometimes bass with a live band in a contemporary rock setting. Drums and guitar amps are fully enclosed; we have ambience mics for the audience. I also mix and write music, and I’m sure I’ll try mixing and possibly mastering with these CIEMs – it would be nice if they could accurately perform these duties as well. But live use remains the priority by far and I want to enjoy their use there. I’m buying them for live use.

    I have not used CIEMs very much previously and don’t already know what type of sound stage I would prefer. I want them to rock so that I feel the energy live. Truthfully, I want them to INSPIRE me while I’m performing. I’d like them clean enough to write, mix and master music with too. You’d think I’d want them to rock like a stage sound signature, but most stage sound sucks and compromise is the order of the day. Yuck. I think (guessing a bit here) I’d prefer the band to sound like a really well-done CD would.

    I am older now and do find I am sensitive to the treble and my ears fatigue faster with too much treble – I really want to reduce the likelihood of ear fatigue using whatever CIEMs I get. I also have some tinnitus FWIW – I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make a difference other than to say that I am not planning to drive these CIEMs at a high volume – high enough to rock and feel good, and overcome outside ambience, but not high enough to do any more ear damage. I don’t want a set of CIEMs that I have to drive hard (and loud) just to make them sound good.

    Given all of this: is the SE5 Ultimate still the recommendation for someone in my situation? Or what would you recommend? What else should I be considering? Price isn’t really a concern here – I just want to enjoy this purchase.

    I also know a lot of pros use JH Audio. Have you heard the Layla or Roxanne? If not, how does the JHA 16 sound in comparison to the SE5U given my intended purpose?

    Thank you for your feedback and for all of your reviews, Joe. They are incredibly helpful, and I appreciate the comparisons in particular. You rock, brother!

    Kev

    • average_joe on

      Hi Kev,

      Thanks for reading and great question. There are many options available as you know, but why the SE5U vs. something else? Here is what I think for your use case:
      – Live music: The SE5U is the most transparent CIEM I have heard. That means it will let the system settings through, good or bad, so getting that right is more important than with other CIEMs, but once right, it is ultra-rewarding. In contrast, the JHA CIEMs I have heard, including the JH16, demo units of others including the Roxanne and JH13, and my JH16 remade into a Roxanne copy by UM, the sound signature is set so changes to equipment settings have less effect, which may make it easier to get the system to sound good.
      – Mixing and Mastering: Transparency is of utmost importance here. The SE5U doesn’t serve detail like say the Hidition NT-6 nor even emphasize them like the JH13, but the details are there, presented with the most natural ADSR I have heard. They will tell you want you want to know!
      – Energy: Due to the transparency, they will have the energy and kick of the system. JHA products, as well as many others, may have more energy out of the box due to the ADSR, with a quicker attack and decay combined with good levels of sustainment. While the SE5U has a higher level of capability, it may not seem as punchy or inspiring if the system isn’t tuned to recreate that. In contrast, when the system/source audio has energy, detail, and spatial qualities, the SE5U can inspire like no other CIEM I have heard.
      – Sound signature: The SE5U has a sound signature that adjusts to the track while JHA has more of a set sound signature, with good width and decent depth/height. With well mastered, spacious tracks, the JHA spatial recreation sounds limiting or even artificial vs. the SE5U that recreates whatever is there, any size or shape.
      – Treble sensitivity: Given the ADSR of the SE5U is accurate and decay is natural, that will be represented. The quicker attack/decay of notes from JHA and many others make treble harsher, and therefore more fatiguing to my ears. The Hidition NT-6 is a more extreme example of sharp while the Fit Ear PS-5 will always be smooth. The SE5U is very natural and I have not experienced fatigue using it.
      – Volume levels: All high-end CIEMs I have heard play well at low and high volumes, although some better than others at high volumes. Higher isolation will allow you to listen at lower volumes, and the silicon SE5U isolates more than acrylic CIEMs, proper fit of course.

      Is the SE5U recommended? There are reasons why it would fit and reasons why another option may be a better fit, it just depends on what is most important to you. Even though you have limited CIEM use, what have you used and what did you like/not like about the various CIEMs? That could help solidify the best choice for you. Also, let me know if you have any additional questions or thoughts.

      Cheers,

      Joe

  4. Pingback: Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate Review | Audiophilepure

  5. Wasaki on

    Very overrated Ciem ,I heard se5 ulti. twice ,one from a friend and one in the show from other headfier.
    I prefer my roxanne over them .

    • average_joe on

      Hi Wasaki,

      Thanks for your comment, but comparing demo units or a CIEM for someone else’s ears (unless they are your identical twin) to a customized CIEM is problematic. I have had plenty of experience with demo units vs. the real thing and I don’t feel right drawing clear conclusions from them.

      Glad you like your Roxanne, which from my demo listening and experience with the UM12 driver upgrade from my JH16 gives me a sense of the Roxanne, but I will wait to rate it until I hear my own customized version. From what I have heard, the Roxanne has a different sound signature and characteristics than the SE5U, so liking one and not the other makes sense.

      What show did you hear them at and who was auditioning them as I wouldn’t mind comparing a demo with the real thing.

      Cheers,

      Joe

      • Wasaki on

        what did you mean by sound diff. ? explain please

          • Wasaki on

            Fair enough ,maybe se5 ul. sound better in the treble and clarity
            but my roxanne let me enjoy the sound of music more.

            If there is one Ciem that can dethrone se5 ult. technically ,it will be Heir 10
            ,very impressive in all area and it sound very engaging .

            • average_joe on

              In my experience, it is in large part preferences. People appreciate different aspects of sound and it can be a case where beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

              At the price points of the SE5U, Heir 10, and Roxanne, all offer excellent performance, not unlike top supercars. Why does one buy a Lamborghini vs. a Ferrari or Mclaren?

              As far as the Heir 10.A, I would be happy to give a customized version a listen to see where it falls in my rating scale, but more importantly, to find out the sound signature so I would know when to recommend it!

              • Wasaki on

                I listened to shure se1500 and layla ,I prefer heir 10 over them.

                Did you think the treble of se5 sound better or rival total headphones like he 1000 and stax009 ?
                Thanks

                • Wasaki on

                  no answer means no ,ok heir 10 sound like he 1000 but little bit smaller .

                  • Akira on

                    yeah i can tell you se5ult’s treble is on the same lvl as HD800 , HE1000 and even more airy without sibilance

                  • Akira on

                    I tried Heir 10 and its even worse than Aether or H8P . Seriously?

                  • Akira on

                    HE1000 is not on the lvl of SR009 . What a joke – those chinese products

                  • Akira on

                    I would not bother with any of Heir products since what they did to the Wizard.

                    • Wasaki on

                      I’m looking for pure sound , Heir Audio apologize and they retrun to be good again ,I forgive them . I’ll keep listening to all ciem from all other companies.
                      heir 10 is the ciem to beat not se5 Ul .
                      the hd 800 sound thin and analytical ,it’s exactly the opposite of lcd3,lcd4 and he1000 all this model sound way more natural and muscail . lcd4 and he 1000 sound bigger in image beyond what a headphones can do .
                      I truly feel hd 800 ( I’ve hd 800 for long time ) sound cold ,defuse to fool your brain that it sound bigger but it’s sound far away from natural , I prefer beyer t1 over hd800 ,t1 with more realistic soundstage and better depth and 3d imaging .
                      Se5 Ul is overrated cause it still sound in my head while heir10 sound above my head and goes outside and still sound natural with better bass and smooth treble,it rival full size headphones which se5Ul couldn’t do for me . I can’t speak for other ciem.

                    • Akira on

                      Based on your exp with se5ult, i can guess 100% that you never got a correct fit with unit instead of force-fitting it into your ears.
                      SE5ult is not the regular ciem you can compare to JH,UE,Noble…etc . It has a very unique approach to reproduce sound that is different from the rest of competitors. In fact, it has none. All of the ciems you have tried pursuing what is called ” Accurate sound reproduction” in contrast to SE5ult “Natural sound reproduction”. Those other ciems will push details down your throat unlike SE5ult. Resolution that was made glaringly obvious by the amount of treble there.
                      Coming from HD800, HE1000, i can tell exactly that those full size hp don’t come close to this approach that SE5 has,
                      Also SE5 is not the kind of ciem that will improve overdrive or decide the source as averagejoe mentioned above. If you don’t have good source then don’t expect it to make it sound better like your JH,Heir.

  6. Anthony Kimball on

    Please don’t stop…we love the reviews. If you have to go shorter, so be it…thanks!!

    • average_joe on

      Hi Anthony, thanks, I will see what I can do 🙂 Cheers, Joe

      • agooh on

        when you will review Flare R2 pro ?

  7. Deepgroove on

    Thanks AJ for the review. Compared to SE5R, how do the bass and vocals fare? I’ve read that the bass sounds lighter because the lower-high dip is fixed, and that vocals are not as forward. I love SE5R for dance music, does the Ultimate still kick ass down below?

    • average_joe on

      Hi Deepgroove,

      In my preview (linked above), the SE5U is a bit more forward than my SE5R, but at the same time the SE5U is more open and spacious. The Ultimate does kick pretty much the same as the SE5R, but yes, the tonality has changed slightly with a more natural feel to my ears.

      Cheers,

      Joe

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