PROS: Excellent sound quality, detailed bass, clear mids, sparkling treble, open and spacious sound, swappable plug, build quality (cable included).
CONS: Fit will vary from person to person, no ear hooks included, they are earbuds so no isolation, price.
I would like to thank FiiO for providing me with the FiiO EM5 earbuds in exchange for my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
- Drivers: 14.2mm beryllium-plated diaphragm
- Frequency response: 10Hz – 20kHz
- Sensitivity: 109dB at 1mW
- Impedance: 32Ω at 1kHz
- Cable: 4-stranded 120 cores Litz sterling silver cable
- Plug: Twist-lock with swappable 3.5mm SE and 2.5mm/4.4mm balanced plugs
- Price: US$299.99
Earbuds? Yes, earbuds. The eternal paradox in my audiophile life. I don’t review them much, I have not heard many of them, I can rarely even find them for sale where I live, and yet they are my most used piece of gear. I love listening to top-of-the-line IEMs that cost thousands and yet when I heard FiiO was releasing a pair of $300 earbuds my heart skipped a beat. Flagship earbuds? Oh yes, please!
What is it that turns some audiophiles to a form factor with such strong and inherent physical limitations? I can’t really explain it, but there is something very pleasant about using earbuds. It is an open and unintrusive form factor that is easy to use and comfortable. That is not something you can always say of IEMs. I remember one manufacturer recommending lubrication if you had trouble using their recommended triple flange silicone tips. That’s lube, rubber and ribs, but I am not sure if pleasure comes into it. Headphones too are not always the pinnacle of comfort. Some manufacturers seem to dispense with it altogether and go full Frankenstein. It leaves me wishing they would just go the whole hog and add jumper cable clamps as connectors for the headphone cable to finish off the look completely. At the end of the day it is the simplicity of the earbud form factor that I find so attractive. It is why I use them on a daily basis and why I always return to them when I want a break from IEMs.
I guess that might be part of the reason why FiiO’s founder James Chung was so nostalgic about them that in early 2017 he decided to set out developing modernised earbuds worthy of a “flagship” status. FiiO have published a detailed account of the R&D story on Head-Fi and from that it is clear that the EM5 were always going to be a pet project. Not a market-oriented product, but rather something like a proof-of-concept or a “let’s see what we can do for the fun of it”. FiiO is well known for producing affordable products with a high bang-for-the-buck ratio, so why not do something different for a change? Why not cater to a niche just to see what is possible? I like that!
The unboxing experience is a fairly standard affair. A big black box that opens up to reveal a top layer with the earbuds sitting comfortably in the foam, their glossy shells and sterling silver cable shining in the light, which I of course completely failed to capture in my picture. Photographic ineptitude aside, it is always a nice sight to see something displayed like this. When you pay this much for earbuds, their unboxing reveal might as well draw full attention to the earbuds in question. Below the top layer are a leather carrying case and the 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced plugs, as well as three boxes with each carrying six pairs of foams: bass, balanced and crisp. It is a good selection of accessories, although there is something missing that I will come to in the next section.
Build quality and fit.
With earbuds there is always a challenge to achieve a good build quality while keeping the weight down as much as possible for comfort. Quite often I see very expensive earbuds still being built around the ubiquitous cheap plastic shells, which are light and durable, but not exactly in keeping with the high-end price tag. Other manufacturers go with metal shells, which are befitting the higher price tag and I personally really like it, but does add quite a bit of weight. FiiO found an alternative by using their 3D-printing expertise and I like the result they achieved. The shells are made of a smooth and seamless resin that feels very sturdy and a lot better than any other plastic earbuds I have come across. Granted, that is not that many earbuds, but this feels more like solidly built IEM shells, which is not what I had expected and a pleasant surprise.
Moving down FiiO added a high-quality fixed cable. I saw a lot of comments about the cable not being replaceable, but I agree with FiiO that something like MMCX connectors would just have added bulk and weight, while this is the most elegant solution. The cable itself is a pure silver cable and well designed. It is a high quality, ergonomic cable that I expect accounts for a large part of the $300 price tag of the EM5. It is fairly supple, but does exhibit some memory, as the review unit has kinks in the cable where it was bent in the packaging.
At the end of the cable is FiiO’s own changeable plug. This immediately resolves one issue that some people might have with a fixed cable, that you can’t switch to balanced, unless you re-terminate. With the changeable plug it is easy to switch from single ended to balanced and from 2.5mm to 4.4mm. I am a huge fan of this and FiiO’s solution is very good. I have used others like DITA Audio’s Awesome plug and FiiO’s plug is small to the point that it adds barely anything to the size of a regular plug and the locking mechanism is very elegant. I do find it does not feel quite as solid as the Awesome plug, but even after switching many times over the course of this review FiiO’s plug has proven reliable.
As for fit, this is an area highly dependent on a person’s ear shape and mine are admittedly crap for earbuds. I almost always have issues and so too with the EM5. They just won’t sit securely if I move around a little, or even when I eat something. Here FiiO could have done people like me a huge favour by adding ear hooks. Those were a blessing with the Astrotec Lyra Collection and I like the small ‘shark fin’-shaped ones to secure the earbuds in place, but those were not possible to fit on the EM5. I was able to use the bigger ones from Astrotec on the EM5 and while a solution, I did not find it quite as comfortable for longer use.
All listening for this review was done with the Lotoo PAW6000 from its 4.4mm balanced out. I also used the EM5 extensively with my MacBook Pro using the Lotoo S1 and its 4.4mm balanced out, directly from the 3.5mm single ended out of my MacBook Pro, from the 3.5mm single ended out of my Sony XA2 phone and occasionally from the Cowon Plenue 2 from its 2.5mm balanced out. The EM5 always performed well and are clearly easy to drive to their full potential, so no worries whatever your source.