The Brainwavz S5 is a new IEM priced at around $100 and is getting a lot of exposure thanks to a concerted effort from Brainwavz to push out review units to reviewers just like me. Thank you to Audrey and the Brainwavz team for arranging this pair of S5s for me to review at no charge. I’m really glad that they’ve decided to make this push too because Brainwavz have never been on my radar, but the S5 is a surprising package that has me seriously interested in their future offerings. As you’ll see, being a free review pair doesn’t make the S5s immune from criticism, but they’re honestly a really good budget pair of IEMs even with a few small hiccups.
- Driver: 1 x 10mm dynamic
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Frequency range: 18 – 24,000 Hz
- Sensitivity: 110 dB at 1 mW
Design & Comfort
For a $100 earphone, the S5s come with plenty of accessories including a good range of silicone tips, a pair of comply T400 (medium size), a sexy 6.3mm adapter and a great hard case that doesn’t look expensive, but is very practical in both size and build because it’s a very rigid and compact hard case.
The housing of the S5s is a curious cone shape and I have to admit to being quite sceptical when I first looked at them – I couldn’t imagine a universe in which they’d be comfortable, but apparently I’m already living in that universe because the S5s are very comfortable IEMs. The tapered shape of the S5s combined with the perfect angle of the nozzles means that the housing sits close to the ear, but not touching which is much better than the IEMs on the market that stick straight out of the ear and look like Frankenstein’s bolts. The housings are light despite being solid metal and the cable entry / exit angle is excellent. There’s really no flaw in the functional and aesthetic design of the S5s.
This is definitely a weak spot for the S5s, but not a deal breaker. I’m yet to experience a good, comfortable flat cable and the S5’s cable is no exception. The flat cable seems prone to tangling and refuses to sit flat so I’m not sure what benefit it is intended to impart because I would have much preferred a simple, round cable design. It’s not a disaster, but could have been better. On the positive side, the strain reliefs and Y-split are all solid and look good and the cable length is good at 1.3m.
When I first listened to the S5s I hadn’t yet researched them so had no idea of their price. Suffice to say I was shocked when I later checked to discover that they are $100 earphones – I expected a price tag much higher based on a combination of packaging, accessories and sound quality.
The S5s offer a boosted bass level akin to other v-shaped IEMs like the Atomic Floyd Super Darts and many of the hybrids on the market from T-Peos, Astrotec and Dunu. Despite that comparison, the bass from the S5s isn’t quite as tight and perfect as most of those options, but the S5s are also at least one third the price. The S5’s bass is punchy with a little bit of extra weight beyond what’s natural, but it’s still in control enough to be resolving for the most part. I’d describe the bass from the S5s as dynamic and fun with enough control to suit all the music I threw at it. Really tight bass lines may trip up the dynamic drivers a little, but for a $100 earphone they are fantastic.
In addition to the weight and speed of the bass, the bass goes deep and creates a really satisfying sub-bass impact when it’s needed. Often earphones with a bass boost become all about the mid-bass and sub-bass extension is lost in the boom, but the S5s manage to still rumble deep even while creating some ounchy mid-bass emphasis. For example, listening to Liberation by Outlast (from the Aquemini album) the bass depth and control is excellent – tight and punchy like a great subwoofer.
Despite being a V-shaped sound overall, the mids from the S5s are well-placed in the overall mix. There’s no doubt your attention will be drawn to the bass and treble first, but the mids aren’t pushed back into the distance, they’re still front and centre.
Mid quality is good with vocals coming through clear and warm for the most part. On tracks that are boomy to start with (e.g. Try by the John Mayer Trio) I found the bass and treble lifts left the mids sounding a little thin with a touch too much upper-mid / lower treble emphasis, but with more balanced recordings I found myself thoroughly enjoying the mids from the S5s. There’s a nice warmth and smoothness to the delivery of mids from the S5s, but they also retain good attack and edge to the notes. Really the only complaint I can make about the mids from the S5s is that they occasionally get overshadowed by the sometimes over-eager bass and treble. In other words, the mids from the S5s are really excellent – there is absolutely nothing to complain about with them and given a slightly more balanced overall tuning, these could be mid-monsters (and are when thrown a nice lean acoustic track).
The treble from the S5s is a bit tip-dependent (as with many IEMs) and they can sound a little brittle and splashy with the wrong tips / insertion. With the right tips though (I found the provided tip options to be the best) the treble is quite good, but probably the weakest link in the S5’s frequency repertoire. Don’t stop reading though – they’re not bad, it’s just not their strength.
The treble from the S5s is a little unbalanced so while they avoid harsh spikes or sibilance, they do sound peaky. What I mean by that is that you can hear some gaps in the overall treble presentation on certain recordings and it makes certain sounds like cymbals sound a little fake and thin – like there’s something missing from the overall presentation. On other tracks this problem doesn’t present itself at all because of the way the track is mixed and mastered. I have also found this same phenomenon to play out with different sources. Where the S5s sound great from my Fiio X5 and E12DIY combo, they sound a bit harsh and brittle from my old iPod Nano because the Nano’s sound tends in that direction to start with and just happens to be the perfect storm to mess up the S5’s sound. The moral of the story is to test the S5s with your device before buying if you’re in doubt of the pairing, but warmer sounding devices should be completely fine.
Once again, in the context of a $100 earphone, the S5s perform very well. My comments above are subjective evaluations regardless of price, but in the scheme of things, the S5s perform very well for their price tag.
Staging & Imaging
The S5s present a pretty good stage. It’s relatively small and contained within the boundaries of the forehead, but it doesn’t feel congested. Instruments and vocals are each clearly defined although not razor sharp. Once again, this also depends on the mixing of the track and the bass levels present – more acoustic / lean tracks show good imaging capabilities, but when the bass kicks in the stage size and clarity is reduced. It’s important to note that the S5s never offer a bad presentation and retain good clarity and coherence at all times with all tracks. They range from a beautiful, clean image on leaner tracks to refined, but still clear images on bassier tracks
As I mentioned earlier, on my first listen I thought the S5s were a much more expensive earphone (in the $200-300 range I would have said). They reminded me of a “poor man’s” IE800. Further listening with a wide range of tracks showed why they’re not on the level of something like the $250 Audiofly AF140s or similar $200-300 models, but at less than half the price of the offerings in that price-range the S5s are a brilliant budget IEM that is very well made, packaged with outstanding accessories, and sounds very very good for the money if you like a dynamic and fun sound. I can imagine these being an excellent exercising or commuting earphone due to their comfort, over-ear design and dynamic and engaging sound. I’d definitely recommend auditioning a pair if you get the chance because if your music tastes happen to hit the sweet spot of the S5 you could have yourself a really nice budget earphone.