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Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate: First Impressions

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Is the Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate really ultimate, especially considering the € 1699 price (VAT included) within the EU and € 1599 outside of the EU?  Is it better than the SE 5-way Reference?  Those answers coming in a moment, but first, the specs.  The saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the Ultimate is still a 5-driver, 5-way, 5-bore design.  And it still has what I consider the Spiral Ear house sound; more below in the comparisons…

Vs. the 5-way Reference: Despite their looks, which are pretty much the same: 5-drivers in a silicone shell, there are some subtle internal differences, but things look much the same.  I didn’t receive any info on the technical differences.

Ok, the part that really matters, how do they compare sonically?  The first thing that jumps out at me (pun intended?) is that the Ultimate has a more forward presentation.  And its more revealing.  I found myself thinking just how bad We Are the Champions sounded from the Ultimate, and while it didn’t sound perfect from the Ref., it was much more tolerable.  The next track, Armin van Buuren’s Rush Hour, is mastered better resulting in a separation of performance that included better instrument separation and dynamics from the Ultimate.  The Ultimate is brighter, with a more natural sounding tonal balance in direct comparison as well as better clarity, more prominent vocals, and deeper, more impactful bass, yet quicker at the same time.

Back to the revealing/forgiving aspects of the Ultimate vs. Reference.  With a live version of Metallica – Ain’t My Bitch from the Devil’s Dance Bootleg, the Ultimate was actually more forgiving, possibly in part because the presentation was more spacious, and the treble may be less aggressive despite being more prominent.  It is important to note that I have found mastering of Metallica is quite poor in general reducing the enjoyment from high-end CIEMs.

On to spatial qualities.  To me, spatial qualities are one of the biggest contributors to realistic sound, especially when note presentation and tonality are already excellent.  The Ultimate is more 3D than the Reference.  So, what does that mean, because the Reference is pretty darn good?  Well, it means the Ultimate is, well, pretty ultimate!  width is pretty close, but the depth is greater.  While I still have MUCH listening to do before I give a score on the chart, I am fearful the Ultimate might make me rescale the chart, or just say “these go to 11.”

Back to revealing vs. forgiving and why We Are the Champions sounded worse, but Ain’t My Bitch didn’t.  At this point it is speculation, but the lack of spatial depth for Champions brought the issues to the forefront of the more forward Ultimate while they were able to hide a bit in the Metallica track.  But, additional listening should give a better determination.

 

Vs. the Lear LCM BD4.2: The Ultimate is more forward and more filled-in in comparison and overall sounds more precise, natural, and realistic.  The upper midrange and treble is a bit more present, clarity is better, and there is more resolution in the soundstage creating better defined instruments and room boundaries.  Bass is more forward from the Ultimate and capability was on par with the BD4.2 bass setting for a similar quantity, but the BD4.2 sounds more effortless overall.

Part of the natural and realistic comments are more about the note presentation than the spatial qualities as the BD4.2 is excellent in spatial presentation even if the larger space of the Lear isn’t quite as 3D.  Notes from the Ultimate have a better ADSR, especially the release resulting in a smoother note without losing any detail or resolution, and I think the BD4.2 has a very good ADSR and coherence considering it is a hybrid.

 

Vs. the Unique Melody JH24: While I haven’t mentioned it, I decided to send in my JH16 for an upgrade to the UM JH24, which is supposed to sound like the JH Audio Roxanne with the bass set to the lowest setting.  Upon first listen to the JH24, I was pleasantly surprised, especially compared with the memory of my JH16 I sent in, making the upgrade money well spent.  But, how does it compare with the Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate?

The JH16 excelled in the bass department, with a very punchy, impactful presentation, and the JH24 carries that over but improves in every aspect.  The Ultimate has a more open and effortless overall presentation than the more forward JH24, which doesn’t have the same presentation depth of the Ultimate.  Not unlike the other two CIEMs compared with the Ultimate, the JH24 doesn’t have the clarity or the naturalness of note presentation.  The JH24 is a bit more clinical sounding with more of a focus on the individual instruments, as I have noted for the JHA products I have heard.

One of my last test tracks I know very well, San Pedro from Vibrasphere off the exceptional Fahrenheit Project Part 2, shows off the differences in presentation quite significantly.  From the JH24, the music is well articulated, detailed, and is an overall excellent experience.   When switching to the Ultimate, the sound opens up with much greater depth of space, including a wider presentation, with what I consider a recreation that is truer to the artist’s intent.

 

QUICK SUMMARY

The Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate has improved upon the exceptional sound of the Reference, raising the bar.  Now that Spiral Ear ships worldwide and offers ownership transfers, more people have access, if the price doesn’t scare them away!  Full review coming most likely in the summer…

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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.

33 Comments

  1. Andy Brown on

    Hi Joe, I was wondering which you preferred, the Spiral SE-5 or M Fidelity SA-43/50? I’m looking for an IEM that has great isolation but still sounds great. I read another review were you said you thought the SA-43 (acrylic shell filled with silicon) had the most isolation you had experienced, but other people have said full silicon shell is best? Wondered what your thoughts were on this?

    Cheers, Andy

    • average_joe on

      Hi Andy, they both sound great and offer high isolation, so let me break it down by sound and isolation.
      Sound: I have not heard the SA-50, but the SE5 is more resolving and transparent of the two, while the SA-43 has a larger presentation. I compared the SE5 Reference, but the SE5 Ultimate takes another step further, offering more capability. I don’t want to speculate how the SA-50 would compare.

      Isolation: Two dissimilar materials are most likely going to isolate better than one of those two materials alone, but the SE5 has deeper canals, so there is more material, making for more isolation. Typically, deeper canals make for a more personal (read smaller) presentation, so I am not sure how the SA would chance if the canal was longer.

      Either way, you really can’t go wrong in my opinion, unless you are looking for a different sound signature.

      Hope that helped.

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • Andy Brown on

        Sounds good. thanks for the comment that helps a lot.

        Just one last thing…. when you say longer canals on the spiral Ears…, what do you mean by that? Isn’t that dependant on the impression that’s taken?

        • average_joe on

          Deep impressions are required for a longer canal, but the CIEM manufacturer can adjust the canal length (longer canals are typically called musician’s fit). In my experience, canal lengths differ by manufacturer even though all of my impressions have been very deep.

          Cheers,
          Joe

  2. Long on

    *Praying that you will reply on this one*

    Hey Joe,

    your review moved me to order from Grzegorz as well and for a month now I’m a happy owner of them too, not regretting a single cent spent on these beauties – however! I’m looking for an upgrade cable because it somehow feels like there could still be more clarity/detail revealing without the loss of the essential and organic sound & feeling of the SE5U. Do you have any recommendation? I’ve tried the Null Audio Vitesse Silver with it and it’s terrible.. I cannot recommend Silver at all, because it gets way too bright and the warmth gets sucked out as well. At least in my case.

    Kind regards,
    Long

    • average_joe on

      Hi Long,

      Glad to hear you are happy with your purchase. While I unfortunately don’t have time to review, I still use the SE5U when I do get a chance, and have the Whiplash TWag v3. While it is an improvement from the stock cable, I haven’t done a full comparison as I changed the cables because the stock cable started to harden. In my experience, the SE5U performs similarly to the SE5R with cables, and you can see my cable matching here.

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • Long on

        Hi Joe,

        dayum – thanks for your reply! So happy that you read through it. Right now, I’m thinking about buying either the Vitesse Copper from Null Audio or the Whiplash TWcu V4. Not sure which one to go yet..

        I see, that you also used a cable of null audio (Arete Series), which I owned as well for the NuForce Primo8. It seems like Null Audio is able to produce big a** sound stages but with bad layering. I’m a little afraid – you sir, what would you go if you were in my position? I’m using a XDP-300R right now but will switch to the Sony WM1Z 4,4mm balanced.

        TWcu V4 or the Vitesse Copper?
        Price diff. approx 200$. I have no experience with whiplash yet but from the reviews so far they seem to be sexy.

        Cheers,
        Long

        • average_joe on

          Hi Long,

          In my experience, cables will perform differently with different IEMs/CIEMs. Once cable may be a star with one headphone, but not another; however with that said, Whiplash cables have always been exceptional performers. Hope that helps.

          Cheers,
          Joe

  3. Bholmes on

    Hi AJ,

    Thanks heaps for the great reviews and superb list. I need this sort of info, as I am a first time ciem buyer!

    I am considering heavily the SE5 ultimate. I want them for two reasons, a) listening to my music library (40% drum and bass, 30% techno and the rest jazz, classical and RnB) and b) work, which involves cutting film trailers and some sound mixing.

    As you can see, I want a ciem that can be fun and musical, as well as fairly neutral as a reference. In your experience, would you advise that travelling down the path of the SE5 ultimate is a good idea considering my above situation? I’ve heard it is a great all-rounder.

    Also, in case that the SE didn’t fit my ears, what would you recommend as a good option B?

    Thanks a million,

    Ben

    • average_joe on

      Hi Ben,

      I would describe the SE5U as a “warmer” neutral that will adjust to your tracks more so than any other CIEM I have heard. If the tracks you listen to have bad mastering, you will hear it, if not, you will hear it! It would also be fine for cuts and mixing. There are plenty of alternatives, some with similar sound signatures, others with different sound signatures. Please let me know some headphones / IEMs you like so I can make a recommendation based on that for option B.

      Cheers,

      Joe

      • BHolmes on

        Thanks Joe.

        As a lot of modern club music these days, DnB mastering usually takes on the mentality ‘push everything just before clipping point’ – but is usually done amazingly well (by the artist, with the good tracks anyway). Good to hear that the SE5’s ‘adjust’ to the tracks themselves.

        As for other headphones that I like, I’ve only ever really had Lo to mid fi gear. I started on the senn hd25s but after a while thought they were a little ‘muddy’ and not perfect in the high frequency areas. I moved on to a pair of Senn 650s. I really love those and do my video editing with them, but I must say my favourite ‘signiture’ are from a pair of earbuds, the Senn MX980s. Very nice clarity and control, great bass (although I only had them a year and they began to distort in the sub bass region), great clear hi’s and an excellent soundstage for an earbud.

        It may just be earbud vs over-ear phones (and my inexperience), but I would describe the MX980s as ‘sharper’ with ‘clearer separation’ than the 650s, which is why I love them so much.

        Thanks so much Joe, greatly appreciate your knowledge on this.

        Cheers,

        Ben

        • average_joe on

          Hi Ben,

          If you like the 650, the SE5U will be a good choice. Given your preferred sound of the MX980s, a good alternative is the Lear LCM BD4.2, and to a lesser extent the Fit Ear PS5. If you want a more mid-centric sound, the AAW AHMorph W500 is a good alternative. All will offer sharper, clearer sound than the 650s. If you had the HD800s, that may be a different story, but to my ears CIEMs are more detailed and image better than headphones, but as the price increases, the differences shrink.

          Cheers,

          Joe

          • BHolmes on

            Thanks so much for your recommendations joe. Will be shooting for the SE5 ultimate first I think… If unsuccessful, Lear…. And I might read up on the A12 too.

            Thanks again!

            Ben

            • average_joe on

              Let us know what you choose. Cheers, Joe

  4. kokushu on

    hi joe, I appreciate all the good write up and review you have done. I’m currently have the JH 16 FP pro. I feel that its too bassy for certain genre. I am debating about whether to get the lear bd 4.2 or the SE 5 ult. I never have silicon iem before and kind of interested in the SE. My favorite headphone is the HD 800 and want to get as close technically to it as possible with a little smoother treble. Your help is deeply appreciated. Thank you in advance joe.

    • average_joe on

      Hi kokushu, Thanks for reading! From my experience with the HD800 and my regular JH16, they share some similar characteristics while the SE5 is more in line with the Audeze headphones. If you like the JH16 FP, but just want less bass, the JH13 FP is an option, or something like the Rooth LS8+ or even the Hidition Viento-R. If you don’t mind the different presentation of the Audeze headphones, the SE5 Ultimate is excellent and the BD4.2 is also very good. Of course, the bass quantity can be adjusted with the BD4.2. Please let me know if you have any other questions I can help with.

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • kokushu on

        Thank you for the reply Joe. I want something to compliment the jh 16; something that is very neutral, great soundstage, and great detail. Kind of like what I see in the HD800. From everything I read it lead me the the bd 4.2, but your previous message said the lear lean toward audeze presentation? The SE5 ult is new so there is not a lot of share experience and if I go for it I really don’t know what to expect.

        • average_joe on

          Hi kokushu, the SE5U is not that different than the SE5 except it is just better, more natural, and realistic! Now, on to Senn HD800 vs. Audeze: while both are very good, I find the HD800 brighter with a bit more width to the presentation at the expense of some depth vs. the Audeze products, which have more presentation depth at the expense of width in comparison. I see the SE5U closer to the Audeze presentation. The Lear is more spacious, but at the expense of refinement and precision in the middle of the soundstage in comparison (the “in comparison” is very important because it isn’t bad, but just not as good in direct comparison). The Unique Melody UM24 (Roxane clone) has a more traditional wider soundstage that is reminiscent of the HD800.

          If you follow so far, the differences will be there, not that it is a bad thing! I think the SE5U presents at a new level of “natural,” so if you don’t mind the overall soundstage, it is an exceptional choice. Please let me know if anything didn’t make sense or if you have any other questions.

          Cheers,
          Joe

          • kokushu on

            I when with the lear bd 4.2 hopefully I make the right decision. With the SE5U there was so many question mark; wire transfer, silicon, not much people hear it yet, remolding service. It might turn out these are not a problem at all but too much unknown at the time.

            • average_joe on

              Hi kokushu, the BD4.2 is an excellent choice and most people can’t buy every option out there. But, I don’t believe the question marks are really issues if you want the sound the SE5U provides. The remolding service creates a resale market that didn’t previously exist for Spiral Ear products, which is a very good thing for buyers. But, the decision is made, and it is a great choice. Please let us know your thoughts once you have spent some time with it in the LCM BD4.2 review.

              Cheers,

              Joe

  5. AstralStorm on

    How well does it stack against 1964ADEL A12 beta unit, since that is its competition in price range?

    In fact, SE5 Ultimate is even more expensive…

    • average_joe on

      Something we can’t really say since joker has the ADEL and average_joe has the SE5U.

      • MadMu5icJunky on

        inquiring minds still want to know the answer to this one 😛

        • ike1985 on

          Yes, Joker, where is that 1964 adel review? You’ve had them for some time now… =P

          • average_joe on

            Jelt has both with reviews upcoming…

          • ljokerl on

            Mine was a pre-production unit that went back to 1964EARS. If they send me back a final one I’ll review it in full.

          • ike1985 on

            Then we need to get 1964 to get your final version out.

  6. omastic on

    Hi,

    Thanks for the impression. Would you say the Ultimate is your top performing iem right now? It seems to perform better overall compared to the Lear BD 4.2!

    How does it compare to the Harmony 8 Pro?

    Thanks in advance!

  7. ikefeen on

    nice review bro, now you just need to compare them to the K10. =P

      • ikefeen on

        Because K10 is, along with JH13, considered to be the two totl ciems.

      • ikefeen on

        And because a K10 review has not been done on this site, if the 4s is near the top, surely the k10 surpasses it and would be the top or near the top.

        • average_joe on

          I can say this:
          – The UM24 that I have is supposedly equal to the Roxanne, which I haven’t heard
          – The Roxanne is supposedly better than the JH13, which I haven’t made the comparison
          – While the UM24 sounds amazing, the SE5U sounds more natural and accurate in direct comparison
          – I have read mixed reviews of the K10, and have the 8.A, which was designed by the same people (the artwork is second to none)
          I am sure the K10 is good, but don’t know how it really stacks up. You can draw your own conclusions from my above statements.

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