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.
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…