Masters of Classical Music (MoCM) – Vision Ears VE5

MoCM – Vision Ears VE5

Disclaimer

I would like to thank Amin and Johannes of Vision Ears for providing me with the VE5 on an extended loan for this series. I would also like to thank Qobuz for providing me with a 3-month trial of their ‘Studio’ subscription service.

Vision Ears VE5

  • Drivers: 5 x Balanced Armature (1 x low, 2 x mid, 1 x mid/high, 1 x high)
  • Sensitivity: 122 dB SPL at 1 mW
  • Impedance: 21 Ohm at 1 kHz
  • Cable: Effect Audio Lionheart (aftermarket)
  • Price: €1,250 (Signature Universal) or €1,450 (CIEM or Custom Universal); US$499 (Lionheart)

Links:

For a free 1-month trial of Qobuz visit: https://duneblue.com/portfolio_page/qobuz/

The Introduction to Masters of Classical Music could be found here.


Introduction

Of all the IEMs I had in mind for this series, the VE5 probably had me most excited when Vision Ears agreed to send them to me on an extended loan. On the one hand because I have loved the sound of them ever since I first demoed them and on the other because they have a particularly special presentation that I feel makes them a compelling alternative or even compliment to IEMs such as the DITA Dream XLS and FiR Audio M4. I will go into it more in the general characteristics, but the VE5 have a presentation that is much more focused and ideally suited to smaller performances in more intimate settings. The VE5 will therefore be the first IEMs in this series that  put less emphasis on a large soundstage and excel at a different type of classical music from symphonies.

For the source I have done something completely different from my original plan of using the Shanling M8. The Shanling M8 was an outstanding pairing and because I wanted to stream a lot more, made the most sense, but then came the Violectric V380 desktop DAC/amp Dune Blue (Violectric distributor) sent me over to demo. Because this series is all about exploring ways to enjoy classical music, I could not resist the temptation of including a high-end desktop DAC/amp such as the V380. Not in the least because the synergy with the VE5 was absolutely phenomenal. The V380 is a very high-quality neutral DAC/amp with outstanding clarity, great dynamics and yet it manages to maintain a wonderful smoothness. This perfectly complimented the clarity focused VE5 with their amazing mids.

Added into it is the Effect Audio Lionheart cable, which has a beautiful synergy with the VE5. It adds a hint of warmth, airiness and a fluidity to the notes that I find particularly appealing. It is probably the most memorable pairing I have listened to so far.

As indicated I wanted to do more streaming for this review because in this series I also want to explore classical music that is new to me, that’s part of the idea behind the series after all. Initially I had planned on using Idagio, but as Qobuz provided me with a 3-month trial it was a good opportunity to compare the two services, specifically related to classical music. That is perhaps a little unfair to Qobuz, as they have a very wide range of music, but I will look into the full breath of that in my regular reviews.

For classical music it is immediately clear that Idagio is a specialist service, with its specialized search engine and curation of their catalogue. That makes finding the same music on Qobuz more difficult. I had already selected the music before switching from one to the other and I ended up spending an entire day coming to grips with Qobuz’s search engine to find the same music on there. The main challenge is that Qobuz has a much larger collection, but lacks the curation when it comes to different versions of the same piece. Traditional performances are mixed in with modern interpretations and there is little to distinguish between all the different albums. On the other hand, if you know what you are looking for Qobuz can often provide a higher quality than Idagio, as Idagio is limited to 16bit/44.1kHz whereas Qobuz goes up to 24bit/192kHz. I think either service works fine and it is more down to preference. Whether you prefer the more specialized service catered specifically to classical music and classical music alone that Idagio has on offer, or the convenience of being able to stream Tay Tay alongside Beethoven with Qobuz.

MoCM-IMAGE_02

General characteristics

I have been enamored with the presentation of the VE5 ever since I first heard them and that has never gone away. It was nearly three years since I originally reviewed them when Vision Ears agreed to send them over for this series and upon receiving them I instantly fell in love with them all over again. There is something very special about them that makes them in my opinion one of the most compelling entries in this series.

The VE5 have what I would describe as a very “focused” presentation. It is like a black-tie event where everything is done with purpose and attention to detail. The VE5 seem to pay attention to every element in the music and that is why I find these so beguiling, so unique and so interesting compared to the Dream XLS and M4. Where the previous IEMs in this series were particularly suited to grand performances such as symphonies, the VE5 excel at the more intimate performances. Just like I explained in my introduction to this series, classical music is composed for different settings, some for public places while others for private spaces. Full orchestra symphonies are clearly aimed at being performed in front of a large audience, while string quartets are perfectly suited to an intimate setting such as at home. Indeed, when I worked with a prominent British family the lady of the house used to hold chamber music events at their private estate in Scotland. The VE5 work perfectly for music intended for such settings and I think their strengths are somewhat lost with symphonies. Those still sound wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it is like the VE5 then try to focus on everything that is going on and, in the process, lose that special something that makes them so unique. Chamber music or concertos provide the VE5 with something very specific to focus on and as such reveals those strengths much more clearly.

Imagine if you will the difference between sitting in the audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London listening to John Eliot Gardiner conduct Beethoven’s 5th symphony and standing in the library of this private estate in Scotland listening to a string quartet. The experience is different. The first case is more the Dream XLS, which add emotion and the M4, which add energy to seemingly reach out to an entire audience and sweep them along with the music, but you feel as one part of that audience. With the VE5 instead it is the latter, where you will feel a connection with the musicians and a sense of the performance being personal, as it is being played just for you and a handful of other guests. That is the presentation of the VE5.

The VE5 are exceptionally clear with particular emphasis on the mids and vocals. Indeed the VE5 are vocal powerhouses. The presentation is airy, natural and delicate as if great attention is given to detail and nothing is rushed or overstated. It is exceptionally beautiful with classical music where such a presentation compliments the intention behind the composition. Interestingly the VE5 also stimulated me to look beyond the Romantic period and to older compositions from the Baroque period.

MoCM-IMAGE_03Antonio Vivaldi

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons
Conductor: Salvatore Accardo
Performers: I Solisti di Napoli, Salvatore Accardo (violin)

With the unique focused presentation of the VE5 I soon knew what piece of music I needed to include: Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘le quattro stagioni’, which is not the pizza, but rather the world famous “The Four Seasons” violin concertos (each season is a concerto divided into three movements). One of the unique things about it is that it is one of the earliest examples or programme music. Programme music is descriptive music that tells a story. Although most popular in the Romantic period of the 19th century, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons predates that by over a century, as it was written between 1716 and 1717 before being published in 1725.

I think the focused presentation of the VE5 works exceptionally well for this piece. When comparing directly to the DITA Dream XLS and FiR Audio M4, the VE5’s presentation has a clearer and more clearly defined image with that unique attention to detail, like they are able to put a spotlight onto the solo violins. With both the Dream XLS and M4 the solo instruments blend more into the orchestra than they do with the VE5. The VE5 genuinely give that sense of a private performance where you feel as if the soloists are right in front of you and playing just for you. This presentation works beautifully for conveying the story that is expressed through the instruments.

The Four Seasons starts with Spring and the first movement is full of birds in song with violins expressing the songs of different bird species (from what I understand they were very specifically defined by Vivaldi). As you can expect, the bird songs are delicate and the VE5 present it with clarity and detail (the V380 only adding to that) and give a gentle lightness to the bird songs. In the second movement a goat-herd sleeps in a flowery meadow with his faithful dog besides him. The section has a wonderful calm to it and you can sense the mood Vivaldi is trying to convey, almost feeling a warm Spring breeze. The movement closes with festiveness and light dancing. Again, the lightness, airiness and delicate touch of the VE5 just nail that feeling. Even before I knew about the sonnets that describe Vivaldi’s story for the piece, Spring gave me exactly those feelings.

Summer starts off hot, too hot, and the first movement feels slow. A few birds make themselves known and that is about as much as is going on, when suddenly and quickly events turn as fear for an imminent Summer storm overtakes the Shepherd. Here Qobuz splits the first movement into two parts, but does the most essential thing, a gapless transition from the first to the second part. The second movement shifts between light/airy and dark/ominous to indicate the fear of the coming storm before in the third movement the heavens burst open and the VE5 display a wonderful ability to change like the weather from light and delicate to dynamic and powerful. Nothing of this is overdone, there is no drama (it is not trying to reach out to a large audience) and yet it feels so strong, so tangible that by the end you are still left breathless.

Autumn has something similar to Spring with a lightness and light heartedness to it. It is meant to convey the festive atmosphere after a good harvest, with song, dance and a little too much to drink. There is still a different feeling to it and it matches the intention perfectly. I think the VE5 convey this incredibly well. Every time a solo instrument comes up it is rendered with wonderful clarity, throwing a spotlight on it and allowing you to follow it with great precision. It is not just texture and details, it is the crispness with which solo instruments are presented. Yet at no point does the presentation feel clinical.

Winter is cold and immediately there is the iciness in the violins like only violins can presents it. It is eery, cold and sharp. It feels as if there is force and menace behind it, completely different from the previous seasons. But no worries, as inside there is a fire to warm you and the second movement genuinely feels like warming up, cozy and safe while it rains outside. The third movement combines the two previous movements with something icy, cold and then finally the warmth of home again. Winter is a harsh and yet beautiful season. I genuinely feel the VE5 present all of this masterfully well.

MoCM-IMAGE_04Henry Purcell

Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
Conductor: Christopher Monks
Performers: Armonico Consort, Rachael Lloyd (Dido), Elin Manahan Thomas (Belinda), Robert Davies (Aeneas)

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) was born in Westminster, London, at a time when the city was experiencing death and devastation. In 1665 it experience the great London plague that killed 100,000 people and one year later it was hit by the great London fire that destroyed the homes of 70,000 people. Arising from the ashes was a new city with a new sense of purpose. Purcell’s work was greatly influenced by this and it made him one of the greatest British composers ever.

Not that all his work might seem that meaningful to modern observers, as Purcell wrote around 200 tavern songs that range from witty to vulgar. Indeed, Purcell himself was quite fond of a drink and that has led to some speculation about the cause of his death. He died young, around the same age as Mozart, and also after a sickbed. Gossip has it that one night he got so drunk his wife shut him out of the house and after he staggered off into the night caught a cold that led to his untimely death.

Dido & Aeneas is Purcell’s only proper opera and was written together with the Irish poet Nahum Tate, who wrote the libretto (text) for it. It is based on the story of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid and Purcell adapted it to the spectacular setting of the Restoration theatre. The story is about Dido’s love for the Trojan hero Aeneas, but the evil sorceress breaks up their love by tempting Aeneas away through trickery. As in any good tragedy, Dido’s loss of her beloved Aeneas leaves her heartbroken to the point of death. Its performance must have been astonishing in the time of Purcell, as the theatre could transform the stage in an instant, but the inner workings of it required crews of people manually pulling ropes and leavers in a way that looked similar to how a ship was crewed. I can imagine that the result must have wowed the audience.

An important reason for the choosing Dido & Aeneas for the VE5 is that Purcell was one of the earliest to use the English language, which was unheard of for opera at the time. Opera should be Italian, perhaps German, but not the crude English language! Except Purcell was a master at word setting and word painting. By setting the words with exceptional clarity and painting the tones of the words along with the music, Purcell was able to make the English language sound absolutely divine. This to my mind matches perfectly with the VE5’s vocal prowess.

After the overture, act 1 starts at the Palace where Dido is talking with one of her attendants, Belinda, who is trying to cheer up Dido. I actually prefer the voice of Belinda here, which is performed by Elin Manahan Thomas, whose voice has a beautiful crystal clarity to it. Immediately Purcell’s excellent use of the English language becomes clear, as it is perfectly easy to follow the conversation, even if you do not have the text as a reference. The VE5 present voices fairly forward and with great density, but also balance and a hint of sweetness. By comparison the M4 have vocals further back, not quite as dense and a bit brighter, which adds more emphasis on the lips (’s’ and ’t’). Even though the VE5 have an understated bass, it is still natural sounding and provides male vocals such as those of Aeneas (Robert Davies) with authority. When Aeneas presents himself, he does so with the voice of a hero, powerful and commanding. That surprised me a little about the VE5 when I originally reviewed them and in a good way.

Act 2 is set in a cave where the sorceress plots and plans together with her witches and it shows something that I think combines both strengths of the VE5, the outstanding vocals and conveying the intention behind how instruments are being played. As it starts there is a division where the actors represent the mortals, while the purpose of the instruments is to add the supernatural to the scene. Rendering strong vocals such as the sorceress, perhaps curiously sung by a male countertenor, Roderick Morris, in combination with that unique focused presentation of the instruments makes the atmosphere turn mystical and malicious, just as it was intended. The M4 present it slightly lighter and less intimate by comparison, giving a less dark and malicious feel to it. Although at the same time they still give it a feel as sharp as a knife. The Dream XLS in turn blend the vocals more with the orchestra and so the sorceress does not get that position of focus as strongly. I think the Dream XLS actually change the presentation to something more melancholic, rather than malicious. Possibly this is due to how the Dream XLS add that fluidity to the notes that blunts some of the sharp edge that Act 2 is supposed to have. The act ends with Aeneas having been convinced to weigh anchor and set off to Italy, leaving behind his beloved Dido, breaking her heart as intended by the sorceress.

Act 3 starts of at a familiar place for Purcell, not so much the ships where it is set, but the sea shanty sung by a sailor, which is pretty much the typical tavern song. As the ships get ready to set sail, the sorceress and witches celebrate their victory, “our plot has took”. Aeneas then appears with Dido and tries to fight his own inevitable departure, even tempting fate by proposing to offend the gods by staying. Dido, in the tradition of a Greek tragedy, instead demands that Aeneas obeys the gods (remember, that was a trick from the sorceress) and leave her to her death. Now we come to one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I know and it is masterfully rendered by the VE5: Dido’s lament. It is set to a single bass line, a so-called ground bass, that heralds the inevitable as Dido bids farewell to the mortal world. The orchestra shadows her voice and there is an interplay there as her voice rises higher and higher until the very end, after which the orchestra takes over to bring things back down again. Dido is no more. Then the chorus comes in like angels singing, as they describe how cupids scatter roses at her grave. Here Purcell’s use of English is again absolutely masterful in making it sound so ethereal. It is a stunning end to a beautiful opera and I think the VE5 do this masterwork perfect justice by complimenting the strengths of Purcell’s composition with their clarity, outstanding vocals and ability to render the emotion conveyed through instruments.

MoCM-IMAGE_05Edvard Grieg

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Incidental Music Op. 23
Conductor: Neeme Järvi
Performers: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Paul Cortese (viola)

While browsing around for new music to explore I went and looked at something I knew intimately and at the same time had never heard before: Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Except, I knew the Peer Gynt Suites, which I loved and used a lot in my earliest reviews, but not the actual full ‘Peer Gynt Incidental Music Op. 23’. The Suites were created by Grieg a decade after the full Peer Gynt and they were composed of eight movements turned into four suites. The full Peer Gynt, with I believe 26 movements in total, was written as the music for the Peer Gynt play by Henrik Ibsen. Peer Gynt was (still is) a Norwegian play based on Per Gynt, a Norwegian Fairytale that tells stories of the adventures of a lonely hunter as he rescues dairy-maids from trolls and fights a legendary great troll, the Bøyg.

As a result of its intention to accompany a play, the music has a lot variation in its movements. The movement ‘Morning Mood’ might well be one of the best known and much like Vivaldi’s talent for describing a scene with birds and a flowery meadow, so too does Grieg nail it when describing a morning scene that feels gentle, warm and as if the birds are waking you up. Of course, the VE5 do exceptionally well rendering that feeling tangible. A more dramatic movement is the scene where Peer Gynt is hunted by the trolls, which sounds much darker and dramatic. The VE5 are able to dynamically alter their presentation from light and delicate to dark and powerful with amazing texture to the percussion instruments.

I compared this movement specifically with the Dream XLS and the difference in presentation is quite remarkable. Both have a sense of drama with the Dream XLS presenting it more distant and with the sort of sweeping emotions I mentioned with Beethoven’s 5th, and indeed, this also sounds more like it is from a movie. With the VE5 there is more intimacy, more immediacy to the presentation. It is crisper, clearer and feels more like you are watching a play in real life instead of a movie. It is almost like the Dream XLS drag you along not stopping along the way and the VE5 put you in the middle of it to allow you to take it all in very carefully.

While working on this review I found it surprising how I have gravitated towards music that falls under the ‘programme music’ category, with Vivaldi’s music describing the four seasons, Purcell’s music describing lovers torn tragically apart, and now a play with a hunter and trolls. I think it is the VE5’s focused presentation, their clarity and that unique ability to convey the emotions of instruments that works so well for this type of descriptive music.

MoCM-IMAGE_06

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet #1, Andante
Conductor: Oliver Heath
Performers: Heath Quartet, Oliver Heath (Violin), Cerys Jones (Violin), Gary Pomeroy (Viola), Christopher Murray (Violoncello)

I could not let this review pass without a true string quartet and something that emphasized just how good the VE5 are at conveying the emotions expressed by instruments. I searched around for something that would do that and ended up with the Andante, or second movement, of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet #1. It is famous for its melancholic feel and that during a performance in his honor the Andante made writer Leo Tolstoy burst into tears.

It starts off with this sort of melancholic weeping of the instruments in harmony, but about two minutes in a solo starts that is really capable of pulling the heart strings. I enjoyed it tremendously with the Shanling M8, but the V380 as a source revealed even more of the emotions in the instruments and I got to a point where I felt I could just sit there next to Tolstoy crying along with him. I analyzed it more closely and the V380 manages to push to clarity and transparency of the VE5 to exceptional levels where you can perceive the instruments more fully. The viola towards the end for instance clearly has a bigger body where the notes resonate in. It is so accurately conveyed that the VE5/V380 becomes an exceptionally emotional combo to use for listening to the Andante. This was also the primary reason for the last-minute change, as this was the sort of masterful presentation I started this series for.

MoCM-IMAGE_07

Concluding thoughts

The Vision Ears VE5 are a unique entry in this series and I am not sure if anything quite like them will come along later on in the series. They have a focused presentation that creates a feeling of intimacy, of being closer to the music rather than a distant observer in a large crowd. The VE5 have excellent clarity and I think the addition of the Effect Audio Lionheart cable adds just enough warmth to make them sound very natural, while adding air and a hint of fluidity without ever straying from what makes the VE5 so unique. It feels like sitting at a private performance with a closeness to the musicians you don’t get with other IEMs such as the DITA Dream XLS or FiR Audio M4. Having had the opportunity to add a high-end desktop DAC/amp such as the Violectric V380 into the equation was an unexpected and very welcome bonus, as I felt the V380 complimented the VE5’s strengths perfectly with its high quality neutral, clear and transparent sound. In my opinion the VE5 offer a compelling and memorable presentation that is very, very special.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s