I honestly did not know what to expect from the EM5. I had used the similarly priced Astrotec Lyra Collection on a daily basis for well over two years, but something suggested to me that FiiO really did push the form factor to a new level of performance. The EM5 also had the “bass-enhancing acoustic flute design” I did not really know what to make of. After giving them plenty of time to run in, I was ready to sit down for a serious listening session and…
No, still listening.
Don’t bother me now, can’t you see I’m listening.
Maybe I should go to sleep, but I’m still listening.
Pretty much that. Even with the might of multi-thousand-dollar IEMs the EM5 managed to captivate me. Every time I started listening while I was doing something else, I caught myself dropping whatever it was to close my eyes and just sit there enjoying the music. FiiO really did do something special here.
The EM5 have quite a forward presentation that sounds more like IEMs than what I am used to from earbuds. Everything sounds detailed and controlled from the bass on up and while the stage is very spacious, nothing seems to suffer a loss of texture from the open form factor. There is great width and especially depth to the stage where notes contrast cleanly against a surprisingly black background. The signature is well balanced with a controlled yet fun bass, forward sounding mids and good treble sparkle.
Of course, it depends on the foams you are using. The bass foams felt to me a little fuzzy or veiled, the balanced foams felt really good with just the right amount of smoothness, but I also liked the added clarity and a little bite from the crisp foams (which felt to me the same as using no foams, except that gave no grip for a secure fit either). My impressions are mainly based on the balanced foams. The sound also depends a great deal on how the earbuds sit in your ear, so ‘YMMV’ is very much applicable here.
The ‘acoustic flute’ that is such a prominent feature in the design of the EM5 certainly seems to be doing its work. I initially expected a more booming bass, but instead the EM5 have a surprisingly tightly controlled and high-quality bass. I personally feel that while it does not extend to the sort of depths I am used to with IEMs, the bass of the EM5 extends very well for earbuds. If you add a little EQ the EM5 are actually capable of a bit of rumble. Switching to the ‘Dance’ PMEQ setting of the PAW6000 I found the EM5 really good fun for down-tempo EDM with a meaty and impactful bass that feels unusual for earbuds due to its physicality. Without EQ the EM5’s bass sounds a little tame for the same music, but perfectly balanced for acoustic music and classical. What surprised me most was just how much detail the bass of the EM5 is able to deliver. It is the sort I would expect from IEMs, but not earbuds. There is texture and detail to a tympani in classical symphonies, the double bass accompanying Caro Emerald feels substantial and a cello solo by Yo-Yo Ma is a joy to listen to with a very realistic tone. With pop music like AURORA or Walk the Moon the bass is tight and has excellent physical impact to bring fun and excitement.
If you like your vocals, and I definitely do, then the EM5 will cater to your needs with forward, more intimate sounding vocals with a little sweetness. Vocals are clean, clear and realistic. In fact, the mids are very clear and have a crisp quality to them even with the balanced foams, and I mean that in a very positive way. Notes are quite articulate, but the EM5 stay well clear of sounding thin. The mids are organic and realistic and thoroughly enjoyable. My favourite vocals such as Agnes Obel and Hannah Reid sound alluring, and especially with Madeleine Peyroux the EM5 deliver the sweetness of her voice with wonderful intimacy that instantly draws me in. Accompanying instruments sound natural and lively with great tonality. This makes the EM5 especially well suited to acoustic music with an intimate setting, but they are equally at home with classical music. There is also a liveliness to the EM5 that brings fun and energy with pop music, but I do think the EM5 start falling short a little when moving to metal. Perhaps “falling short” is a little overly critical, it is not bad at all, but simply does not show off the strengths of the EM5. Give the EM5 Agnes Obel’s ‘Brother Sparrow’ and you are really in for a treat.
The treble of the EM5 is a very good quality with lots of sparkle and a bit of bite. Perhaps I am getting more used to treble, or the EM5 simply don’t push too much in the area where I am most sensitive, but I like it. The EM5 can be a little unforgiving depending on the quality of the recording where the treble will sound a bit bright, leaning towards a colder, harsher treble, although I would say that it is never sibilant. When I listen to classical music with soprano vocals there is more bite to those then I usually prefer and this could be a bit much for people sensitive to that. The treble also gives a bit of extra bite to strings such as from guitars or violins. For violins this is an advantage because the EM5 render surprisingly well-textured violin strings for earbuds and it makes them a joy to use for the articulate playing styles in Paganini’s violin concertos. When the music has a sweeter treble in it like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker the EM5 render that as it is intended with a wonderful sparkle that gives that unmistakable feeling of Christmas.
– Astrotec Lyra Collection –
The similarly priced Astrotec Lyra Collection have been my daily earbuds for well over two years now and I love those to bits. A comparison to the EM5 though feels like two completely different propositions. The EM5 are warmer and fuller sounding earbuds with a bigger stage, whereas the Lyra Collection have a more intimate stage and a much leaner note size. Where the Lyra Collection sound unmistakable like earbuds, the EM5 present music much closer to what I would expect from IEMs. The EM5 have a more prominent and higher quality bass with more detail, impact and extension. The bass of the Lyra Collection feels rolled off and anaemic by comparison. In the mids it becomes more interesting. The EM5 have a clearer midrange with more forward vocals, but the Lyra Collection actually sound to me as having the more natural midrange and are more capable of conveying tonal nuances. The Lyra Collection feel more delicate, where the EM5 are a little heavier handed due to their forward presentation. The treble of the Lyra Collection is more rolled off and sweeter, but that also makes them more forgiving than the EM5. The Lyra Collection is an easier listen, smoother and less forward then the EM5. I actually think this makes the EM5 more suitable when there is environmental noise because details are pushed more forward and are not as easily lost as with the more subtle Lyra Collection.
The Lyra Collection have a very nice build quality and they have held up well over the years, but the EM5 feel more solidly built and the cable is a clear step above the thin wires on the Astrotec. The Lyra Collection comes with fewer foams, but does have the all-important ear hooks, which is countered by the EM5’s excellent changeable plug. Not sure which of those I find more practical, but the ear hooks have the biggest impact for users who do not get an optimal fit.
In my opinion the EM5 are a step above the Lyra Collection, but I won’t be retiring those any time soon either.
If you have not guessed yet, I am very impressed by the FiiO EM5 and I genuinely think that FiiO have been able to achieve something that pushes earbuds to a higher level of performance. I have to reserve some judgement because I don’t have a great overview of current top-end earbuds, so please take that into account, but I would be surprised if at this price point there are many contenders out there to take on the EM5. (I would love to know if that were so.) Even at their arguably very high price tag of $300, I feel the EM5 should definitely on the radar of anyone who enjoys a good earbud.