Similar to my experiences with their design, acoustically the F5 trades blows with the EX1 2nd Gen, doing some things better and a few things worse. Although the F5 employs a slightly larger driver than the EX1 2NdGen (13.6mm vs 13mm) and slightly revised housing design that is less immediately open, the earphones still perform similarly on a technical level. That being said, the F5 makes several notable improvements, especially in regard to overall balance and coherence. So while the F5 may be slightly pricier than the EX1, sound quality is surprisingly comparable between the two and I would suspect that tonal preferences would dictate which is right for you.
Returning to the cable debate, I did find the balanced cable to be acoustically superior, even when running through an adaptor converting it to a regular TRS connection. Sound changes included an expanded soundstage and cleaner sound throughout. While the earphones still sound great with the regular remote cable, I felt that the balanced cable actualizes the potential of the earphones. As such, I will be using the silver balanced cable for my sound analysis.
The F5 is a relatively balanced earphone that is subtly v-shaped with bass having the most emphasis and the upper midrange the least. It has a warm, full low-end mated to a slightly darker midrange and a smooth but airy high-end. That being said, the F5 maintains a nice sense of balance that will please all but lovers of a brighter midrange, in which case the EX1 and Meze 11 Neo will satiate those needs. When compared to the EX1, the F5 is more balanced, especially within their midrange which boasts more presence and their high-end which sounds more linear and a little less thin. They are also more balanced than the bassier Shozy Zero and sounded more natural and engaging than the more mid-forward Meze 11 Neo which is one of the most balanced earphones around this price range.
Soundstage, Imaging and Tonality –
The F5 has a great soundstage and not just around this price; they are among the more spacious earphones I have heard period. Of course, they don’t image like higher-end earphones nor do they have the resolution and layering of the exemplary earphones around $200, but among their rather limited competition, the F5’s are almost class-leading. By sacrificing isolation, the F5 achieves large amounts of space that coincide with their semi-in-ear fit. They focus on width over depth with good but not outstanding height. Listening to David Bowie’s “Everyone Says Hi” and Bowie’s vocals were well centred while instruments just reached out of the head width. As aforementioned, the earphones lack the midrange resolution to layer like the more expensive Re-600, Pinnacle P1 and DK-3001, but they do have a really nice soundstage that easily bests the Meze 11 Neo and the more intimate Shozy Zero. When compared to Fiio’s EX1 2nd generation, the F5 actually takes a step back in terms of space, both due to their actual tuning and their less vented nature. But while the F5 isn’t constantly as out of the head as the EX1, imaging precision is appreciably improved and they do sound more coherent, especially with vocals which frequently sound more diffuse and distant on the EX1. Separation also remains strong on the F5 and very convoluted, complex songs such as Hiroyuki Sawano’s “Friends” were handled well by the F5. I suspect they will especially appeal to lovers of rock, metal and classical though their large soundstage does add that extra dimension to almost every genre.
The F5 has a nice sensitivity rating of 102dB combined with a 32ohm impedance, they are similarly senstive as the Meze 11 Neo and slightly more so than the EX1 2nd Gen. As a result, the F5 isn’t source sensitive but also isn’t particularly difficult to drive and even weaker sources such as my iPod Nano 7G and Hidizs AP60 drove the F5 just fine. In addition, the F5 didn’t pick up much hiss from any of my sources, they were almost silent from my Oppo HA-2 and silent with my iPods and HTC 10. They don’t require an amplifier but scale up a bit with a better source as expected. In particular, the F5 has quite an outstanding soundstage that takes advantage of a spacious and separated source over more average portable ones, naturally, making the X5 III a nice pairing.
Since the F5 comes bundled with a balanced cable, I was keen to run the earphones from the hidden balanced output on my Oppo HA-2 and Fiio’s own X5 III. Interestingly, I found the actual cable to make a bigger difference than the balanced output as the sound quality through the more silvery cable, produced a more open high-end and more resolution than the black remote cable. Through the 2.5mm balanced output of the X5 III, the earphones perhaps sounded slightly cleaner, but I didn’t notice an immediate difference.
The F5 has a fuller low-end that avoids excessive bloat and lacks any muddiness. While they are less concise within the bass than the EX1 2ndgen, the F5 is also more linear and sounds more even throughout. Mid-bass has the most emphasis while sub-bass and upper-bass have just a modest boost. Slight warming of the midrange is present but spill is minimal and sub-bass extension is quite good. When listening to The XX’s “Islands”, the F5 provided sub-bass rumble that bested the Meze 11 Neo and EX1 2nd Gen but still failed to match the exemplary Shozy Zero. That being said, when listening to David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”, bass drums were best represented by the F5; it had the most natural slam while the Zero came off as over boosted and the 11 Neo and EX1 sounded softer within these lower registers. The F5 provided improved extension and rumble over these earphones while remaining a little tighter than the Zero overall.
Of course, the F5 isn’t the perfect budget earphone and it does have its caveats, mostly due to their mid-bass boost. Bass notes do sound somewhat bloated, more so than the slightly leaner EX1 2nd Gen and 11 Neo for instance. They also sound a little tubbier than the Zero though the Zero is ultimately warmer due to greater sub and upper bass presence. This was most apparent when listening to Bowie’s “Space Oddity” where the bass line on the F5 sounded a little sloppier than both the 11 Neo and EX1 2nd Gen. That being said, bass texture is very good, just beneath the 11 Neo and Zero though resolution could do with some work, especially when compared to the Zero. So while their tuning isn’t quite as balanced as the 11Neo nor is it perfectly linear, the F5 still provides a versatile bass tonality that neither comes across as bass dominant or anaemic. They maintain enough composure to flatter faster genres and are tight enough to portray rapid bass lines. It provides a happy medium in both quality and quantity between the more neutral 11 Neo and the warmer Zero.
The midrange is where things get interesting. I personally found the original EX1 and even the 11 Neo to sound slightly unnatural within their midranges, something that was partially addressed on the EX1 2nd Gen. On the other end of the scale, the Shozy Zero provides a dark, organic and natural sound, a very nice option for the analogue lovers but one that could sound overly dark and even slightly veiled for everyone else. So with the F5, Fiio seek to find that sweet middle ground, imbuing the midrange with more body while slightly dialling back the clarity and space to provide a more forward, full-bodied and ultimately, more lifelike midrange. And in subjective listening, Fiio have succeeded, the F5 is still clearly tuned in the same vein as the EX1 2nd Gen, but sounds considerably more balanced and natural while sounding a little clearer than the Shozy Zero. They still have a darker tonal balance, female vocals can be pushed slightly behind in the mix, though vocals never get overwhelmed as was prevalent with the more recessed EX1 2nd Gen. The Meze 11 Neo does provide more balance throughout, their upper midrange sounds rawer and they sound clearer in general, though the F5 is hardly missing clarity and is more detailed in return. I actually found the F5 to sound just as natural as the Zero, especially when compared to the 11 Neo and EX1 2nd Gen. For female vocal lovers, in particular, the F5 is a really nice option within this price range, although upper mids aren’t pushed front and centre, the quality of those vocals will be sure to please.
In terms of quality, the F5 once again provides a performance quite uncanny at this price. Resolution is very good as with the Titan earphones, improved over the EX1 2Nd Gen and Zero and similar to the Meze 11 Neo. Detailing is fantastic due to a well-integrated treble response that brings a more natural sense of detail than the EX1 2nd Gen and Zero with more outright detail retrieval than the more laid-back Meze 11 Neo’s. Vocal effects are well portrayed with that sensational soundstage imparting great separation, layering and dimension to vocals and instrument alike. Booting up Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and the F5 provided the most realistic presentation of the bunch; smooth strings were complimented by spacious, layered vocals that stopped short of distant. By comparison, the Zero lacked the clarity of the F5 while the EX1 2nd Gen had increased clarity and was more aggressively detailed but also sounded distant and imprecise. The 11 Neo also provided a very nice rendition of this song but their reduced soundstage space resulted in a considerably more compressed listen with strings, in particular, erring on over-forward. So even from brief analysis, it’s easy to spot the little idiosyncrasies that plague the midrange presentations of each earphone; the 11 Neo sounds slightly hollow, the EX1 sounds distant and thin and the Zero lacks clarity, issues that are easy to dismiss as simple compromises at this price point. However, the F5, while perhaps lacking wow factor when heard in isolation, is also devoid of the inconsistencies of its competition; not to be taken as a weakness off those earphones, but a strength of the F5 by comparison.
The EX1 2nd Gen was an impressive performer in its highest registers simply due to the fact that most earphones around this price, despite rapid improvement in recent years, still don’t handle high-frequencies particularly well; in fact, that statement applies to plenty of earphones in higher price ranges too. This was the pitfall of the Meze 11 Neo, which provided great balance and refinement in its bass and midrange but was let down by its overly laid-back, rolled off treble response. The Zero experiences similar issues, though its treble is almost as aggressive as the EX1, it too succumbs to some roll-off that saps high detail and airiness and makes higher notes sound truncated. In that regard, the EX1 2nd Gen is exemplary; they extend well into the highest registers, more so than a lot of the $100-150 earphones I’ve heard, and have no shortage of either air or crispness up top. That being said, they were slightly peaky and treble notes do sound thinner than I would like, some listeners have even labelled the EX1 as a fatiguing earphone.
But Fiio have heard our cries and as with the midrange, the F5 once again provides a smoother evolution of the same sound pioneered by the EX1 2nd Gen. Extension remains the best of the bunch, similar to the EX1 though they don’t quite sound as airy due to their less vented, smoother nature. Treble notes are fuller and cymbals have more accurate timbre, they don’t sound as tizzy as the EX1. In addition, they resolve just as much detail as the EX1 despite smoothing off the peaks, that detail just sits slightly further behind than before. But despite all of this improvement, I personally feel that the F5 has perhaps over-compensated, and I would like to see just a touch more crispness in the upper registers. Using the balanced cable does greatly address this issue, it provides a more open sound in general though that also requires an expensive balanced source or adaptor ($30 USD from Penon). But even as they are, there is no doubt that the F5 is a very well-performing earphone within a sea of mediocrity; while they won’t appeal to treble or detail heads, they provide a very technically pleasing performance without the fall-backs of the EX1.
Next Page: Verdict