It's almost tax-refund time, a time when even audiophiles need some incentive to finish those tax returns. The problem is that most stuff that qualifies as "audiophile grade," even if it's something small like a phono cartridge, can cost substantially more than even a healthy tax refund. But how about something that sounds good for $100? Now, that would qualify. So in the interest of incentivizing your tax season, I present the Brainwavz S5 in-ear monitors.
The Brainwavz S5 are one step down from top-of-the-line R3 ($129 street). While the R3 has two drivers and enhanced bass, the S5 gets by quite nicely with a single, full-range dynamic driver whose rated frequency response is from 18 Hz to 24 kHz. Brainwavz was established in 2008, and the company's mission is "to produce innovative, high quality audio products with a dedicated focus on high-end sound at a realistic price." The S5 fulfills Brainwavz's goal admirably.
This in-ear monitor that can be worn with its cabling either over the ears or hanging straight down. The S5's cable is a flat design that is quite flexible and lightweight so that, even when routed over your ears, it doesn't pull or feel as if some great weight has been attached to your ear canals. The S5's all-metal housing is also lightweight, unlike some all-metal housing in-ears like the Munitio Billets.
The S5 is a relatively high-sensitivity set of earphones at 110 dB at one mW and with 16-ohm impedance, so they should be able to generate high volume levels even when attached to a low-powered smartphone. The drivers themselves are 10mm diameter, and the eartip flange is only slightly smaller than that. Unlike in-ears such as the Etymotic ER-4 that are made to sit nestled inside your ear canal, the S5 is designed to rest at the beginning of your ear canal, not inside the canal itself. For people who find in-ears physically obtrusive or have sensitive ear canals, this positioning may be more comfortable than in-ear-canal designs.
The S5 comes with a wide assortment of ear-tip options. Tips include one pair of Comply T-400 medium series compressible foam tips, three different-sized silicone tips, one pair of bi-flange tips, and one pair of tri-flange tips. I tried them all, and for my ears the Comply T-400s were the best fit. As with all in-ears, a proper fit is crucial for optimum performance. If the S5 doesn't make a complete seal, its bass response will be severely compromised.
Other accessories included with the S5 are a well-made and very usable semi-hard cloth case, a 6.3 adapter, and a movable attachment clip for the cable. The S5's cable is not detachable or easily replaceable like that of the comparably priced Shure S215, but Brainwavz's 24-month warranty covers cable breakage. The overall fit and finish of the S5 is very good, with no obvious signs that it was manufactured and designed to be budget-priced. The only indication of its relatively low cost is that it lacks smartphone controls and replaceable cable options.
The most important ergonomic factor for an in-ear monitor is how well it fits. Since the S5 has six tip options, at least 90 percent of the world's population will probably find one of the tips to be just about right. For me the Comply T-400s were by far the best fit. Some of the tips, such as the tri-flange, had me scratching my head wondering what homo sapiens, other than Andre the Giant, would have ear canals large enough to accommodate them. In my ears, the tri-tip just hit the beginning of my ear canal and squished--without a stiffening center column inside the tips, they lacked any rigidity and merely collapsed. The bi-flanges were about the same. While the supplied T-400s did a decent job of sealing the S5s, for me the optimal tip would have been a Comply tip with a somewhat larger diameter. I tried some other compressible foam tips, which were longer but no larger in diameter, and found the extra length was a detriment to a better fit.
The Brainwavz cable proved to be a pleasant surprise. Although I didn't find that the cable was any less likely to tangle in the case, it was very flexible and its shape made it easy to drape around and over my ears. Once positioned the S5 stayed in place quite well, even when I was wearing glasses and during gym workouts.
One small issue with the S5 was that the right/left markings are only found on the enclosures themselves, which means you have to hunt to find them. My review samples had red attachments where the cable met the S5's enclosures, and the photo of the S5s on Amazon's page has black attachments, so I wonder why Brainwavz didn't make the right side attachment red and left side black--that would have been a no-brainer way to tell the right from the left.
Unlike many budget in-ears whose designers feel that it's "All about that bass (no treble)," the S5 presents a well-balanced and relatively neutral harmonic presentation. The S5's overall harmonic balance was similar to what I heard from the Oppo PM-1 headphones, but with a smidgen less resolution. I used the S5 with a wide variety of headphone amps and players. The best sound I heard from the S5 was when it was mated with the Woo Audio Firefly W-7 headphone amp. With the Woo, the S5 demonstrated that it was capable of precise imaging and a respectably large soundstage, especially for an in-ear monitor. In terms of soundstage size, the S5 surpassed the Etymotic ER-4 and was almost the equal of the JHAudio Roxanne custom in-ear monitors.
The S5's bass response is quite respectable but not overblown. I was surprised to find that a single-driver in-ear monitor could produce such controlled and well-defined bass. I suspect that the S5's all-metal enclosure is partially responsible for its articulate bass. Unlike the plastic enclosures found on most budget-priced in-ears, the S5's metal casing doesn't resonate when the bass gets boisterous. The S5's bass response always sounded under control and never had any additional bonkiness of additive resonances even at higher volumes.
The S5's midrange was very smooth and far more suave than you would expect from a $100 pair of in-ears. With well-recorded material, the S5 did an admirable job of retaining natural midrange timbres. The S5 also did an above average job of placing each instrument in the soundstage. Using the Woo headphone amplifier, the S5 was capable of portraying depth and three-dimensionality in a way that was realistic and convincing.
Perhaps the S5's greatest sonic strength was its ability to get out of the way. By this I mean the S5 didn't have any pervasive colorations or shortcomings that prevented me from connecting with the music. While the S5's sonic view wasn't quite as pristine as what I hear from the Westone ES-5 or JHAudio Roxanne, it was still transparent enough that I never had any sense that the S5 was obscuring or muffling any part of the sonic picture.
• The S5 in-ear monitors have a very suave and balanced overall sound.
• The S5 comes with six different fit options.
• The S5 has a 24-month warranty.
• The S5's cable is not removable.
• The right /left designations could be better marked.
• The S5 lacks any iPhone or smartphone volume controls.
Comparson and Competition
Prior to my experience with the Brainwavz S5, my favorite in-ear monitor around $100 was the Shure SE215. The Shure offers a variety of fit options (my fave being an aftermarket pair of Comply foam ear tips), and it has a removable and replaceable cable. Sonically the Brainwavz S5 offers a more balanced frequency response with more treble extension and superior imaging. In comparison, the Shure is darker sounding with more bass and slightly less overall resolution. The Munitio Nines also has an all-metal enclosure, but it is quite a bit heavier and has fewer supplied fit options. The Munitio does have iPhone controls on its cable, which both the Shure and the Brainwavz lack. Sonically the Munitio is even more bass-centric than the Shure.
If you asked a roomful of audiophiles what the most important sonic characteristic is for a pair of in-ear monitors, I think that most would answer "neutrality" or a natural harmonic balance. Unfortunately many entry-level in-ear monitors are geared more toward pop music fans than audiophiles--that means more bass and less treble in their harmonic balance. The Brainwavz S5 is a pleasant surprise, a pair of in-ear monitors for under $100 that have a balanced and natural harmonic balance. The S5 also features a lightweight yet non-resonant metal enclosure and six different fit options.
If your tastes cover a wide variety of musical genres and you're looking for a harmonically neutral pair of in-ear monitors priced around $100, you would be seriously remiss if you didn't consider the Brainwavz S5 in-ear monitors as one of your purchasing options. Heck, they even have a two-year warranty.