Rank #1: Spiral Ear 5-Way Ultimate

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Bass
The 5-Way’s bass was tuned with audiophile quality in mind. It revolves around how bass notes should sound, rather than just feel. Highly resolved, and beautiful in tone. An instrumental bass, convincing in its role – a natural-sounding bass. Pay attention to the bass player, and you’ll hear its melodious contribution to the rhythm, rather than a mere sense of warmth. A detailed bass, resulting from well-defined notes – quick on their feet, but easy on the decay. It’s that slight linger that aids in conveying the natural feel.

But quality doesn’t necessarily have to come at the cost of engagement – the 5-Way produces sub-bass that can readily be felt. But it isn’t based on quantity, for overall, its bass is only lightly enhanced. It results from its outstanding low-end extension – there’s power to be drawn from its quality. In addition, the balance between sub- and mid-bass is highly linear, resulting in tight, but impactful hits. The quality shines through in every aspect of the bass: speed, extension, and tone. The 5-Way earns the title of highest quality BA bass, and one that is highly coherent within the tuning.


Midrange
The 5-Way’s midrange is warm, smooth, and more than anything, exceedingly natural; a midrange to comfortable drift away with. It’s a stage presentation that’s neither particularly forward, nor laid-back. Instruments are fanned out evenly throughout the stage, with ample air between them. And as its notes are neutral in size, it isn’t a presentation that comes across as overly thick or full, while equally refraining from sounding lean. By comparison, Zeus-XIV’s midrange tends to impress with its forwardness and power, while the A18 dazzles with detail. The 5-Way in turn conveys a sense of intimacy, due to its cozy ambiance. But it mostly composes a presentation much like you’d expect, with nothing out of the ordinary in terms of authority, or size.

Its specialty however, lies with timbre. The 5-Way has a predominantly warm tone, resulting from its attenuated treble tuning; a tuning favouring naturalness, above all. A common approach is to lift the lower treble, in order to brighten the instruments. It’s an effective method to boost clarity, and increase detail retrieval. Even in this shootout it’s been the standard, rather than exception. While it places more emphasis on the articulation of notes, it’s also a sensitive area. The 5-Way opts for the reverse; a 5 KHz dip results in a particularly smooth midrange. And one that combined with an attenuated treble, results in a warmer upper midrange. An organic tuning, rather than a digital reproduction of music. Sweeping, and moving. The 5-Way sounds romantic, almost melancholic. It can afford such a tuning, because it doesn’t need to fall back on a brighter treble for detail – it relies on its top-end extension for resolution.

The sense of naturalness returns in its vocals. Although there is slight variation in their forwardness depending on the track, they’re generally centred within the three-dimensional stage. The 5-Way’s vocals are average in size, but dense, and beautifully sculpted. A solidified vocal presentation, with clearly defined contours; one that you can almost reach out and touch. And the balance within the vocal range is wonderful; the transition from depth to articulation is seamless. When power is required it sounds sufficiently deep, while equally being able to sound subtle and gentle. It’s not larger or more powerful than it should be, just very realistic. It’s a tuning that’s almost flawless – almost, because an 8 KHz peak can occasionally put a little bit of stress on the vocal articulation, particularly that of females. But overall, a beautiful and natural vocal reproduction; warm, and soothing.


Treble
The 5-Way’s treble is unique, to say the least. It’s a fairly linear treble tuning, save a subtle 8 KHz peak; an intentional peak, to bring balance in its tuning. The treble is warm in tone, while still being fairly detailed – quite a feat, considering the laid-back tuning. In addition, both its definition and pace is good. So technically, a well-performing treble. But also a treble presented with a certain delicacy; the treble notes are thin in body, and served with only the modest of touches when it comes to sparkle. But despite their apparent lack of prominence, there’s beauty for those that can appreciate modesty – subtle sparks of light, set against a dark backdrop; a faint resemblance to fireflies, drifting away in the night. I for one, can appreciate the 5-Way’s understated treble.

But what jumps out the most isn’t what it does, but what it doesn’t; its standout feat perhaps, is its secondary role in the signature – this isn’t an upfront treble by any means. On the whole, the 5-Way’s treble region is attenuated within the signature. A selfless sacrifice, in favour of the midrange. But despite its subsidiary nature, or arguably because of it, it results in an especially coherent signature. The flipside however, is a lack of crispness in its sound; the tuning is focused on delivering an organic experience, rather than pushing out the finest of details, in the most explicit of ways. A tuning with only on goal in mind: the naturalness of the presentation. But seldom will be a treble tuning be so divisive over listeners; what the NT6-pro with its playful sparkle fulfils on one end of the spectrum, the 5-Way represents on the other side; its warmer, laid-back treble, translates to a more serious, audiophile sound.

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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.

33 Comments

  1. Hello Flinkenick,

    ・Lime Ears Aether
    ・SE 5-way Ultimate

    Please tell me the difference between the sound of the two ear monitors.
    I like the sound of Aether very much, but I would like the opinion to think if the sound of SE5 is better.
    I would be very happy if the SE5 has a vocal that is not too close.

  2. Hi Flinkenick,

    I already have a pair of Unique Melody Mason v3 universal. I am now considering to purchase my first pair of CIEM. The first option in my mind is SE 5-way Ultimate. However, I am a bit worried about the life of 5-way. And I cannot decide between 5-way and VE8.

    Could you please give me some suggestions? Pop rock and JPOP is my major music genre.

    Simple comparison between 5-way and Mason v3 or v2 will also be great.

    Thank you so much!

    • I spent some more time reading your review again and again and noticed that the overall tuning style of SE 5-Way does not seem to match my music preference. I do appreciate high quality of vocal since I am a big fan of SE535 and SE846. But engaging and energetic style is what I am looking for.

      The reason I want to buy a CIEM after getting my Mason V3 is that Mason V3 emphasizes clarity too much and lacks energy and quantity. Mason series always seems to be way too neutral. The bass of Mason V3 is not deep and tight enough for me. The treble is somehow weakened and laid back.

      I want a pair of CIEM that is more energetic and engaging that the Mason V3. It would be best if its sound signature could be fatigue-free for long time listening.

      Now I am considering getting 64Audio A18t or VE8 instead. What do you think?

      Really appreciate your detailed review. This review helps me a lot.

      • Hi there, from your description I would indeed suggest the A18. It has a more emergetic signature due to its treble tuning, but still does vocals very nicely. I like it very much for electronic genres like pop or EDM. Another option is the EarSonics EM10 as it has a nice tone for those genres with more bodied vocals, but for energy the A18 would be the safer choice.

        • Thank you for your suggestion!

          How about Legend X? I am really interested in its hybrid driver.

          I have read a lot of A18t reviews and noticed that a lot of people think that it is way too stimulating due to its treble tuning. That’s why I cannot make up my mind.I sometimes hear easy vocal music for relaxation so I don’t want to go too far on energetc performance.

          Right now the 3 options in my mind are A18t, Legend X and VE8. As for EM10, I heard it once and I personally don’t like it. And VE8 is famous for its satisfying tuning that is capable for most of genres so I am kind of into it.

          It will be very helpful if you can give me some more advice.

          • Ah I see, it’s sometimes hard to see what people mean with energetic, as it usually refers to more energy in the treble. If you want a smoother listen, the VE8 would indeed be an easy-going allrounder. It offers a highly engaging sound due to its forward staging and full-bodied notes. The Legend-X indeed has a touch of brightness in its treble, to go along with its powerful low-end. I see the Legend as more in the category of A18, as both offer a fun and stimulating sound with energetic treble and enhanced bass. So if you’re sensitive to treble and prefer a smoother listen, the VE8 would indeed be the safer option.

            • Great! Thank you so much for advice!

              VE8 is now a more preferable option. I did hear about the VE8’s satisfying tuning and outstanding build quality. Guess I would just go for it as soon as I have the budget 🙂

    • Hi,

      I have had my 5-way Ults for 3 years now. I am not very protective of them and they spend a lot of time knocking about in the bottom of my work bag. I can confirm that they are extremely durable and are in as good condition today as the day I received them from Grzegorz. The stock cable that came with the iems did not fit my HUGO so I replaced the cable with Linum Super Bax. Definitely worth the upgrade to my ears. Good luck with your IEM’s

  3. Hi Flinkenick,

    Thank you for the detailed review! Wonderfully written and informative.

    I’m looking at either purchasing the UE18+ Pro or the SE5-Way Ultimate. However, I will be driving the headphones only using an iPhone X, nothing extra like an external amplifier or a DAC or a DAP. Just an iPhone, the cable, and the CIEMs. Perhaps I’d be interested in buying some set up later on in life, but for now I’m looking for a portable solution.
    I adore all music, but perhaps I listen very slightly more often to Capsule (synthetic, Japanese techno) and Daft Punk.
    Also, noise isolation has a big impact for me. If the SE5-Way Ults are more noise isolating, but are just ever so slightly less fitting for my situation than the UE18+ Pros, then perhaps I would go with the SE5-Ways anyway.
    I listen to 320KB mp3’s, but I can start using any source to match the CIEM I buy, that’s not a hassle for me, lugging around external amps and DACs is.

    Would you be able to make any recommendations on what I should purchase? I’m truly torn, and am not so experienced with audio. I just want to purchase the best right off the bat, so I have no regrets and don’t have to put in another thousand again 😛 That said, I’ve got my mind set on getting a high end CIEM. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time now.

    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Giorgio,

      Thanks for the nice words! So starting with your preference in music, there is quite a wide range between Japanese techno /Daft Punk on one side, and all other music 🙂 The reason I bring this up is your main preference in music will determine what kind of sig you enjoy. For instance, I youtubed a Capsule track and if I were to primarily listen to that kind of music, my priorities would be: resolution, separation, and a relatively brighter sig to reflect the energy in the music.

      While iems like the 5-Way, UE18+, Prelude, and Phantom perform technically well, they are tuned for timbre, which entails a relatively warmer sig designed for naturalness. While it might seem that a #1 in this list means it is automatically ‘the best’, each iem still has its own signature that will perform relatively better or worse for different genres.

      In the case of the 5-Way, its natural sound suits easy listening and classical music better than synthetic based music. Besides, it also performs better with more power than directly from a phone. So, if possible I would recommend getting a good picture of what type of music you find most important, and thinking what kind of sig would fit best; like do you prefer energetic, detailed sound perhaps? In that case, I would consider looking at iems like the Samba or S-EM9.

      -Nic

      • Wow, the extent you have gone to just to answer my question is really astonishing, and I can’t express how appreciative I am. Thank you :)


        Below is my response, but it’s rather long, and I don’t want to waste your time. So feel free to just carry on with your day, no hard feelings here, we all have stuff to do! If not:

        
And with your detailed answer I feel I have unlocked a new (albeit, still very basic) level of understanding of this space. Reading your response also reminds me of how much I enjoy the orchestral works from studio Ghibli films — I’d say I enjoy it just as much as synthetic music. Maybe even so much so that I listen to it less frequently in order to not spoil it! And piano from Ryuichi Sakamoto too, is very exquisite. While I do very much enjoy energetic, detailed sound, I also enjoy the warmth of listening to natural music. If anything, the only thing I could say I don’t put a focus on is vocals, or old rock music that JACK FM frequenters would listen to, or country.

        However, after purchasing a high end CIEM, perhaps I’ll find a new level of detail in vocals and find a new love. Or, perhaps now that I will be needing lossless quality audio, will possibly invest in a DAC and whatnot, I’ll find appreciation in many things I haven’t before in music. So, for a newcomer, who isn’t really able to recognize his own preferences yet due to inexperience and current bad quality audio gear, would you say something versatile, or true to the original track, whatever that track may be, takes the cake instead of something that enhances a certain signature?

        I will say that I do enjoy feeling immersed in my music, as I would expect all people who love audio do. Would you agree that Immersive qualities include a spacious soundstage, separation, layering, airiness, depth, and possibly detail? So, perhaps a good first choice is something versatile with immersive characteristics? Not even for just me, but for the general newcomer perhaps? Would the Samba still be the best to fit that bill, or perhaps a Phantom?

        So I read your reviews for the Samba and the S-EM9, and I love the idea of my favorite synthetic tracks sounding as amazing as they can possibly be, but I am very apprehensive to rule out other categories and my changing tastes over time — I certainly don’t allocate my listening time to all the same tracks as one year ago. Still, since I have never experienced anything this pricey, I don’t know how much of a difference between pairs I’ll be able to discern.

        Man, what a hard decision. If only I was loaded… I wish it was as easy as saying “I don’t like country” and then picking right then and there 😛

        • Hi Giorgio,

          Unfortunately preference for sound remains very subjective, despite being a newcomer or not. For example, many newcomers prioritise bass (quantity), since this is the easiest aspect to perceive in sound. Next, people tend to value detail, as this gives a feeling of ‘uncovering a next level’ in sound. Often, this is equated with a brighter signature. Even so, there will still be people that value completely different traits in the music.

          In the end, the music itself will be guiding. For instance, when I first started in this hobby I used to listen to a lot of hip hop and electronic music. When I got the EarSonics Velvet, it was the best thing I ever heard: an energetic signature with a wide stage, powerful sub-bass, and high level of detail. After hearing many more iems my preference evolved, but my taste of music also changed. When I heard the Velvet again 1-2 years later, I found it severely lacking: its midrange was too laidback, and its timbre was off.

          The interesting thing is that preference and iems is bidirectional: we tend to like an iem bc of the music we listen to, but conversely, a new iem can also shape what kind of music we listen to – just as you noted yourself.

          There are iems that are more versatile than others, but the concept of versatility is again subjective. For instance, I find the Phantom versatile, as it is true to the music. But there are also enough people that will generally prefer a brighter signature, and do so for all their music. So the reverse also holds for a bright iem; for instance, when I first had the Velvet I also found it versatile, although I now find it limited. So, it remains important to try and get a main grasp of what kind of starting signature you like. Maybe you can mention what kind of iems you have experience with so far, and what you did or didn’t like about them? That way you can provide a frame of reference.

          In general, there are also some iems that are more or less universally liked, and considered versatile, such as Andromeda ($1100), or the VE8 (2400 eur). But, if this is the first time you’re spending a ton of cash, it might be best to do it right 😉

  4. 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.

    • 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..

      • 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.

        • 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 😉

  5. 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,
    Alaino

    • 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.

      • 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,
        Alaino

        • 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.

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

    Would it worth a $2000 upgrade ?
    Thanks,

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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?

        • 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.

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