Spiral Ear’s new flagship proves that more drivers is not always better
Mon Sep. 28, 2015
CustomArt Harmony 8 Pro ($1050)
Rare is the IEM that can go gear to gear against the H8P for speed, but somehow the SE5 Ultimate succeeds. The SE5 Ultimate also matches the H8P in bass timbre, with both IEMs coming in as the absolute best where the sheer beauty of the tone is concerned. The H8P still pulls clearly ahead of the SE5 Ultimate in terms of bass detail, though. In fact the H8P ties with the A12 for the most detailed bass I’ve experienced to date (although in very different ways- the A12 is layered like a Michelin Baby; the H8P is raw and fibrous like a stalk of celery). On the other hand the SE5 Ultimate’s bass detail is just ‘pretty good’- nothing to write home about. In other areas however the SE5 Ultimate does much better. Bass decay is splendid on the SE5 Ultimate, the best I’ve ever heard in a BA driver, and certainly much better than the H8P, whose bass disappears quicker than an infant bolt of lightning. The SE5 Ultimate also, while not being particularly bass strong itself, nonetheless has much more authoritative bass, which tells you something about just how light the H8P’s low end is. Finally, the SE5 Ultimate does significantly better in both sub-bass extension and slam. While the SE5 Ultimate’s sub-bass is plenty good for a BA driver (although not for a dynamic), the H8P is plenty light even for a BA driver. Wrapping up, the two are about even in terms of bass tightness.
The pair are much closer technically where it comes to the mids; swapping seats in many regards. The H8P is just a teeny tiny bit more energetic, whereas the SE5 Ultimate is just a weeny winy bit more clear. The H8P is more even; the SE5 Ultimate is slightly more detailed. Perhaps the biggest difference between them are in airiness and timbre- with the SE5 Ultimate being much more capable in both.
The treble isn’t close. The SE5 Ultimate scores top marks in clarity, smoothness and naturalness of tone. Of these three traits, the H8P comes admirably close in terms of clarity, but falls short in terms of tone and far short in terms of smoothness. The H8P really has an almost metallic, edgy treble, and it’s quite a stark contrast switching between it and the baby-cheeks smooth high notes on the SE5 Ultimate. The SE5 Ultimate’s treble is also much pacier, which becomes even more obvious when compared to the glacial-slow H8P. One area where both fared wonderfully well in, though, was treble extension. And it wasn’t all bad for the H8P either- its treble was clearly the more sparkling of the two.
Where it comes to size, the H8P loses in width (especially in width) and depth, although it does have a slightly taller stage. The H8P also has slightly more air across the stage. On the other hand, the SE5 Ultimate is just so freaking good in terms of how it spreads the sonic cues around. It’s as if an Iron Chef himself had spread the peanut butter on your delicious sandwich (oh look how consistently it’s been done!), and the H8P, while reasonably good itself, just doesn’t hold a candle. Imaging-wise, the SE5 Ultimate is simply masterful at accurate pinpointing of instruments, and is able to place music precisely across 2D (left and right) and 3D (front and back) space alike. In these respects it pulls far ahead of the H8P. Both IEMs display a similar ability to create a coherent center image.
The H8P is the king of PRaT, being swift as electricity, but the SE5 Ultimate actually came rather close to keeping pace. Close, but no cigar. Anyhow, the balance of frequencies is clearly better on the SE5 Ultimate, which also has notes that are a bit thicker overall. But the biggest differences lie in musical resonance and articulation. Both of these are huge strengths for the SE5 Ultimate, and giant weaknesses for the H8P.
Lear Audio LCM BD4.2 ($1290)
With its delayed-ignition subbass driver, the SE5 Ultimate actually has a decay that matches the Lear LCM BD4.2’s dual dynamic bass drivers in bass decay. Respect! But it doesn’t come close to matching the authority or power that the LCM BD4.2 can belt out, and cannot reach as deep or slam as hard in the sub-regions. The SE5 Ultimate also has worse bass detail. Nonetheless the SE5 Ultimate does notch a few wins of its own, running circles around the lumbering LCM BD4.2 for speed and also belting out bass that has a nicer, more pleasing and natural tonality. The duo are about equal in terms of tightness.
The LCM BD4.2’s midrange betters the SE5 Ultimate in almost every regard. The former’s mids are slightly more energetic; just that bit more consistent; has markedly higher clarity and detail; and portrays a thumbprint’s worth of better tonality and overall timbre. The SE5 Ultimate does much better in mids airiness, evoking a neverending story with its souffle-like mids; but the LCM BD4.2 just proves to be more capable overall.
In the treble the situation is decidedly the reverse. The SE5 Ultimate comes across as a bit smoother; a lot faster; more extended; and more natural. It’s just a much higher quality treble. The SE5 Ultimate does lose out on sparkle, though, and cannot quite match the world-leading LCM BD4.2 in treble clarity. A word about that last point- the SE5 Ultimate is almost as good as it gets for treble clarity… the LCM BD4.2 is just better. Both are world-class.
These two IEMs are tip-top in terms of soundstage size, although the LCM BD4.2 is a bit taller and the SE5 Ultimate is a bit wider and deeper. The two also post great quality in their stage, and while the LCM BD 4.2 can’t quite rival the SE5 Ultimate’s amazing soundstage consistency, it has the latter vanquished in terms of sheer quantity of airiness and spatial cues. Imaging is where things get a bit dicey- if you’re the LCM BD4.2, that is. It has middling ability to pinpoint images in 3D space (depth) and to form a coherent center image; and cannot contend with the SE5 Ultimate on either count. It’s simply blown away. On the other hand the LCM BD4.2 is the class valedictorian of imaging width, and betters the already capable SE5 Ultimate.
The general qualities are better in the SE5 Ultimate- all across the board. The difference is biggest in terms of articulation and musical resonance (isn’t it always, with the SE5 Ultimate?), where the LCM BD4.2 does pretty well, but still struggles against the best of the best. There is also a clear gap in terms of thickness in favour of the SE5 Ultimate, although here it is much more a case of the LCM BD4.2 being extremely extremely thin than the SE5 Ultimate being a star performer. The two are closest where it comes to PRaT, and to a lesser extent overall balance in the frequency response. Both perform rather well in these two areas, but the SE5 Ultimate still comes out ahead.
As I set out to write this comparison, I realised just how similar it was going to turn out to the comparison with the Lear LCM BD4.2’s bass. That’s probably not surprising given that both the LCM BD4.2 and the W500 are proud hybrid IEMs, with big dynamic boom-box drivers for their bass. To recap: the SE5 Ultimate has better bass speed and timbre. The W500 has just a bit better decay (it actually does better than the LCM BD4.2 in this regard), authority, bass tightness and sub-bass extension + slam. Both have just about equal level levels of detail. There, done. I swear, I didn’t just copy the LCM BD4.2 bass comparison from above!
The two have mids that I rated just about equal, although they get there in different ways. The W500 has an energetic midrange that lacks a bit of airiness; on the other hand the SE5 Ultimate is a more linear, reference (read: less forward) set of mids that excels with great air. The two play to a draw on evenness, detail, clarity and timbre, although if you’re really keeping score the W500 comes out ahead on evenness and detail and the SE5 Ultimate is just a bit better in clarity and timbre. All in all, pick the W500 if you want a more in-your-face, spice-girls type of approach; choose the SE5 Ultimate if you’d prefer something more cerebral.
Treble smoothness is a real strength on both IEMs, and nothing separates the duo here. But there are other differences. The W500 is impressive exactly because it pairs this smoothness with a shining treble, whereas the SE5 Ultimate presents a more muted, less sparkling experience. On the other hand, in all other facets the SE5 Ultimate wins, pacing comfortably ahead in terms of speed, extension, naturalness and clarity. I’ve mentioned this before, but the SE5 Ultimate is an other-worldly treble experience, and while the W500 does quite well on most aspects (exception: plodding speed) the final result is quite decisive.
The soundstage is bigger on the SE5 Ultimate (which is something I can say about almost every IEM that’s matched up against the Spiral Ear Flagship). The SE5 Ultimate is so wide it feels a bit like when Johnny Depp traveled to the end of the world in Pirates of the Caribbean– in fact it’s numero uno in this shootout. The depth (ha-ha, see what I did there?) is also scene-stealing, except that there’s a level-10 master thief in the Adel-equipped A12 lurking, and the SE5 Ultimate finishes the shootout race at number 2. (For the bean counters out there, that means it’s ahead on the W500 on both counts). In terms of height the SE5 Ultimate is a bit more humble (if you can count ‘top 3’ as humble), but this isn’t a strength of the W500 so make that 3-0 to the SE5 Ultimate. The quality of the staging is a bit more of a flip-flopping affair, with round 1 (consistency) going to the SE5 Ultimate; and round 2 (airiness) taken by the W500. Switching gears, in terms of imaging both are genuine curve-skewers, with nothing to separate them from each other but everything to separate them from the rest of the pack (exception: the previously-mentioned Adel A12, once again…).
In general, both of these are really well-balanced IEMs, although you’ll need to pick your poison. More an ultra-rich, belgian-chocolate type of guy? Go with the W500, which has strong bass, energetic mids, and sparkling treble. Prefer a laid-back, palette-cleansing sorbet? Take the SE5 Ultimate- light bass, light mids, and you guessed it, light treble. In terms of articulation, the W500 can be counted upon to be really precise… But the SE5 Ultimate is just better. Plain old better. No IEM is going to best the SE5 Ultimate’s ability to render each musical note into its own, distinct, separate entity- not the W500, nor any other IEM. As for musical resonance, the W500 is similarly top-notch, and is again simply unfortunate to encounter the record-setting SE5 Ultimate. On the SE5 Ultimate, faint echoes, of that note just played, linger longingly like the subtle basenotes of an Eau de Parfum. Sublime. Wrapping up, the two are much closer on PRaT (winner: SE5 Ultimate, thanks to its fast speed) and thickness (winner: W500, by a drop of sweat).
The Spiral Ear SE5 Ultimate takes top spot in my first Flagship IEM shootout. It achieved the top scores in three out of the five categories I rate- treble, spatial and general qualities, while clocking in with good scores in mids and bass as well. If there was ever an IEM that deserved to be called ‘Fit for a Bat!’, suitable for those with bat-ears hearing, this is it. The SE5 Ultimate is a temple, a stunning monument that pays homage to the one thing that matters most in this hobby- amazing music. So just put them in your ears, sit back, and relax. Welcome to Audio Heaven.
Pros: Treble. Spatial Presentation. General Qualities.
Cons: “-heads” of all sorts (bass, mids, treble) need not apply
Overall Score: 91.3 (Fit for a Bat!)
In case you missed it, check out the IEMs reviewed in other installments of “Fit for a Bat!”