Rank #1: Spiral Ear 5-Way Ultimate


The 5-Way Ultimate still tops average_joe’s list, which almost seems prophetic after all this time. Later, jelt2359 reminded us one more time during the course of his shootout. Aged like fine wine, the 5-Way remains competitive amongst turbulent times of development. It’s because it wasn’t tuned with sales in mind – it was tuned from a certain philosophy; to sound natural, above everything. Of course, the 5-Way Ultimate doesn’t outperform all the other iems in every aspect – far from it. And this certainly isn’t going to be a signature for everyone. But according to the specific scoring parameters of this shootout, the 5-Way is the one that performs consistently high on both timbre and performance.

Spiral Ear 5-Way Ultimate
-Drivers:                    5 BA drivers
-Design:                     5-way crossover, 5 sound bores
-Impedance:              –
-Sensitivity:                –
-Fit:                             Custom

-PRICE:                        €1699


The industry standard Plastics One 3-wire OFC cable has a warm tonality, which primarily results from its rolled off upper treble, and lightly enhanced upper-bass. The midrange is linear, resulting in an overall neutral note size. While the mid-bass is warm and natural in tone, it’s not particularly controlled. Accordingly, the loose bass results in a warmer stage structure. This affects the airiness of the stage as well as its transparency; especially since its top-end does not extend very far. However, while the cable doesn’t perform very well when it comes to resolution and transparency, its warmer tone results in a fairly smooth and natural signature.

Just as with the NT6-pro, I tend to usually listen to the 5-Way with its stock cable, despite an adequate arsenal of cables on hand. It’s partially because the recessed silicone sockets can be a pain to use with upgrade cables, but mostly because the pairing works just fine. The 5-Way constructs a warmer stage structure, and the OFC’s warm tone seems to dissolve in it. There are enough cables that create an airier sound. But this isn’t a stage that was intended to sound analytically clean. Similarly, its laid-back treble might not have the most sparkle, but contributes to the naturalness of the presentation.

Sound impressions

The 5-Way sets a candle-lit dinner – just you, and the band. A special ambience, resulting from its warm notes, set against a black background. For even though the 5-Way’s stage is spacious, it conveys intimacy in its sound. The 5-Way has a romantic heart. It’s highly resolving, and its separation is excellent. But it seems to mask its outstanding technical performance, behind the naturalness of the presentation. Due to its laid-back treble, there isn’t a lot of clarity in its attack; it seems to lack a sense of excitement in a way. But upon further listen, the 5-Way’s specialty comes from an unexpected corner. The 5-way doesn’t just reproduce the music, it humanifies it; transforming a recording to flesh and blood.

Quality runs throughout the 5-Way’s signature; from its extension on both ends, to the resolution of its midrange notes and their timbre, and the smoothness in their release. Several individual aspects could be termed as neutral; the forwardness of its vocals, and the size of its instruments – the 5-Way isn’t bound to impress with size, or power. But due to its warmer tuning, neutral isn’t the first term that would come to mind when hearing the 5-Way – that’s reserved for natural.

The 5-Way’s attempt to camouflage its performance, returns in its stage. Make no mistake, the 5-Way’s stage is large; a spacious stage, closely resembling that of Zeus-XIV, Maestro V2, and the Dream. A quality stage, with equal proportions in width and depth. Add excellent layering and precise imaging, and a three-dimensional stage unfolds. Following its laid-back treble, warm instruments are set against a black background – a cozy environment. Yet despite their warmer tone, each can be identified with ease, resulting from the stability of the image, and precise instrument positioning; a well-defined presentation, with excellent separation.

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About Author

Nic is currently in pursuit of a PhD degree in social neuropsychology, while trying not to get too distracted by this hobby. In pursuit of theoretical knowledge by day, and audiophile excellence at night. Luckily for him, both activities are not mutually exclusive which helps to lighten the workload. Always on the go, Nic's enthusiasm for hi-fi is focused on all chains of the portable system: iems, cables and daps.


  1. Cap'n Crunch on

    Huge and very insightful review work! Congratulations!!

    I wonder which CIEM (or CIEMs)
    1. adapts best to diversified musical genres;
    2. excels with large orchestral works;
    3. can be connected to hifi gears without picking-up noise (high impedance?)
    4. performs best with live recording

    Thanks a lot for your time and support.

    • flinkenick on

      Hi Cap’n, thanks for the kind words!

      Does it have to be one that does all 4, or can I give diff options based in the criteria hehe.

      For large orchestral works maybe something like Maestro V2, A18, or even Zeus or 5-Way depending on what kind of sig you’re going for. For diversity and live recordings something like the upcoming Phantom, but it also depends on which music falls into those categories? VE8 is also a great allrounder. As for high impedance, I’m going to have to do some guessing as main sources have been pretty silent (WM1Z and AK380cu), and to be honest I wasn’t bothered by the hiss from LPG; but I guess maybe the 5-Way, I think it has a pretty high impedance. The most silent out of my computer is the EM10, but I think that’s something different (those annoying sounds that come out of a pc when you stick the iems in). I think I noted the impedance of the iems in most reviews, but I never paid much attention to that myself..

      • Cap'n Crunch on

        Thanks a lot for your answer!

        At the end it seems to come down to personal preferences about the specific sound signatures of the best TOTL on the market today. I’ll probably go for the Ultimate since it has the best balance, it’s the most natural and present details with rich and natural timbre. The high level of separation should also work really good for my classical music collection. 🙂

        I wonder if you had any opportunity to compare the Ultimate with the new offering from Audeze (LCD i4) or oBravo (EAMT-1A). They seem to play on the same level and with similar characteristics (naturalness, timbre, separation and details).

        It’s so difficult to buy something without listening first hand! In this regard, I may be able to listen for a fair amount of time to LCD i4 and oBravo, since they are universal designs with a dealer in my town. How close their sound signature will be to the Ultimate?

        Thanks a lot for your work, it really help us in choosing among so many (expensive!) offerings.

        • flinkenick on

          Hi buddy,

          I have the i4 right now, it’s next up for review. It should have been completed a long time ago but I’ve been slacking a bit. The i4 is pretty different from regular BA iems; practically, because of its open-back design, but also in terms of sound characteristics. It has a very natural bass with great extension, and a nice 3D stage, but also a different (softer) note articulation. This might not make sense when you read it, but you’ll understand after you hear it 😉 If you demo it, best to try it with the cipher cable if you have an iphone, since it has built in DSP settings. But that’s a story for later.

          The 5-Way is quite different. The staging is similar, but the 5-Way is significantly warmer, where the i4 is dead neutral in between warm and bright. Probably the most neutral iem I heard. Heard great things about oBravo but haven’t heard them, they’re on the list to try at the upcoming Canjam.

          Take a look at the latest post in the meanwhile 😉

  2. Alaino on

    Superb reviews as always Nic! (long time lurker on head-fi but for some reason I still cannot post/pm) 😐 Even for I, who’s maternal language is french, I get a clear image of what you’re describing: Wonderful choice of words Mr.

    I would like if possible of your advice, I currently own the SE535 (original) and kind of like it’s sound signature (forward mids / warmth). Though, I would appreciate more mid bass slam/ sub-bass extension / bass power and overall better technicality (Soundstage, presentation, width, depth etc…) (I am not a “basshead” but would like more meat to the bass to take your words) I am currently looking at the combo LPG/SE5U/Leonidas Cable as replacement but I wonder if you had any recommendation for what I am looking for in term of sound…
    I mostly listen to Electronic/Hip Hop.

    Thank you for everything,

    • flinkenick on

      Hi Alaino,

      Thanks for the kind words, that really means a lot to me! And forgive my late reply please. Odd that you can’t post or pm on Head-Fi man, there is usually a pm max if you haven’t posted much, but you should be able to post at least(?)

      As for hip hop/electro, I also enjoy a healthy portion of synthetic makings in my musical diet, I would say 30% of my listening. For me, this usually means that a different type of iem works better for that music than the other 70% which is more regular band-based instrumental music. The 5-Way is a very natural-sounding iem with a focus on timbre. It has a warmer sig with smooth treble, that for me excels for more easy-listening music. So I would personally not recommend it for these genres, as I would look for a bit more sparkle and bass impact. Some favorites would be iems like the S-EM9, EM10, or A18. However, towards the end of the week there will be two more contenders in the TOTL region that fit the bill, especially if you like a grand impact in your bass so check back in just a bit.

      • Alaino on

        Hi Nic,

        You’ve already done so much for the audiophile/music lover community, I really appreciate your reply. I will definitely stay tuned for these 2 upcoming reviews you just mentionned. I am looking until then at the combo LPG + EM10 + I don’t know which cable, but if you could advise me of any specific one, I will clearly take it into account! (I would prefer a CIEM that has no ADEL on it as I am a bit worried of how the soundstage/isolation would get affected)…
        The SE535 has done no wrong to me I simply think I would like more impact in the bass section like you mentionned (rumble + bass impact) and I am clearly interrested in more sparkle too.

        I will patiently wait for your next legendary reviews 😉

        Thank you again,

        • flinkenick on

          Alaino, you’re too kind!

          Keep an eye out for the upcoming Legend-X. I think it is probably the best iem I heard for genres like hip hop. But it’s a hybrid powered by two dynamic drivers, so its bass isn’t kidding around by any means. More to follow soon! As for the EM10, it would depend on what kind of sig you would like following the dap combo, a bit smoother, or a bit more sparkle etc. Let me know when the time comes.

  3. t.d.c on

    Hi Flinkenick,
    Can you comment on the difference between SE5 Ult and Andromeda in term of soundstage?

    Would it worth a $2000 upgrade ?

    • flinkenick on

      Hi there,

      Andromeda has a nice wide stage, while a lifted treble provides a nice amount of clarity and air. The 5-Way’s stage however is deeper, resulting in better separation relying on its layering ability. So the 5-Way creates a more three-dimensional stage overall. However, it has a a warmer tuning, so there is equally a difference in signature to consider.

  4. Carlrg on

    WoW i am blown away by all the review and all the work flinckenick bravo hats off

    • flinkenick on

      Thanks buddy!

  5. shez on

    Hi, could you please shortly compare with UE 18+?

    • flinkenick on

      UE18+ and 5-Way fall in the same category of smooth, natural tunings, centred on the midrange. In both cases the signature is very coherent, and warm in tone. Similarly, they both have an audiophile bass with excellent bottom-end extension, and a tight but controlled mid-bass. 5-Way’s mid-bass resolution however is higher. While they both create excellent vocals with excellent balance from the lower to upper midrange, there is an essential difference between them: 5-Way’s vocals are denser, meatier, so to speak, while the UE18+’ vocals are more nuanced and detailed. Both again have a warm and smooth treble. Finally 5-Way’s stage is more three-dimensional, while the UE18+’ is mostly wide. In addition 5-Way’s transparency is a bit better.

      • shez on

        Thank You!

        • flinkenick on

          You’re welcome!

      • shez on

        I will be grateful if you answer a couple of questions.
        Are there any disadvantages of 5-Way in comparison to UE18+, fit, comfort, speed or maybe anything else?
        What kind of music do you mostly like with 5-Way and UE18+? Which one of them better for Rock, Metal music? I’m looking for ultimate earphones for Rock, Metal and live music.
        Speed, timbre, vocal, midrange, slightly warmest, smoothest, musicality and naturalness are very important to me.
        Also, what do you think, which one of them better for multi-genre music use?

        • flinkenick on

          Hmm difficult. For starters I’m not one to easily complain about ergonomics, so I don’t have strong opinions on acrylic vs silicone, it’s all good to me. When it comes to music, they are both warm, smooth, natural tunings. I personally don’t listen to metal, but there’s something about the 5-Way that keeps me from listening to it with genres like that – it’s such a refined, delicate tuning that screams ‘audiophile’. The UE18+ is the one I would go for rock music, while the 5-Way more for easy-listening or jazz. Multi-genre really depends on the genres one listens to. For me personally, that means pop, electronic, rock, and easy listening. But I don’t find either suitable for all those genres due to their warm tuning.

  6. Lord Sinister on

    Outstanding work sir! Now, I must decide which of these expensive beasts my wallet will bleed from.

    • flinkenick on

      Thanks as always Lord Sinister!

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