FiiO EM5 Review – A Trip Down The Memory Lane

Overall Score 88/100
Sandu Vitalie Headphones

My Video Review:

Oh boy, I still remember very clearly as if it was yesterday when I went with my parents at a trade show for the first time in my life somewhere in the late 80’ies. Pops was looking at the freshly released VHS video players and portable video recorders (remember those?). I on the other hand, couldn’t get out of my sight that beautiful freshly released Sony Walkman…Oh boy, how hard I wanted one… After bargaining and making promises, they bought me one…but…it wasn’t a genuine Sony Walkman, but a cheaper alternative or dare I say a knock-off! Anyways, I was super excited, I started saving money and buying cassettes once per month. It was something really special and exciting buying your own music and listening to it for at least a month, learning the lyrics, checking out the graphics on that cover. That Walkman came with a set of earbuds and that was the first time I put something in my ears. I remember buying fresh foams for them so they would be always clean and soft around my ladies at school. Such beautiful moments, I’ll never forget them. Some friends of mine got Walkmans too, but of different brands and I remember trying an earbud from Panasonic which sounded way better than my own set. I was devastated! A month later and I was rolling earbuds with my hard-earned pennies. I didn’t know that I will be doing that for my entire life. 30 years later and I am still searching for the best set of headphones.

After Sennheiser introduced the CX300 line of IEMs…somewhere 15 years ago, I forgot about earbuds and started rolling IEMs, they were super-duper-cool at that time and I never looked back. I’m still using IEMs when I’m outside, sometimes some portable over-ear headphones, but I don’t remember when I’ve used earbuds for the last time. However, that doesn’t mean others did the same, manufacturers as Yuin are still selling earbuds for decades, their PK line is extremely popular among earbud lovers, people are still modding them to death and I totally get it why some might prefer an earbud in detriment of an IEM.

I consider FiiO as one of the most influential manufacturers of the post-iPod era…I don’t know if we would have such fierce competition in the affordable DAP or IEM segment if it wasn’t for them. FiiO FH7 are still my daily drivers and I think they outperform some pricier units which I had in the past. FiiO went berserk with everything that resonates with “portable audio” – they really covered everything, even portable headphone amplifiers which is a very niche market nowadays. When FiiO announced their EM3 earbuds line, I wasn’t that excited, because they weren’t screaming high-performance audio to me, but their freshly released EM5 earbuds…that is something else my friends. It is time to go back in time and test a high-performance earbud, so exciting.

Unboxing Experience

FiiO prepared an outstanding unboxing experience as they used pretty much the same box of their flagship IEMs as FH7 and FA9. It’s big, it’s thick and it’s double boxed, with a ton of hardened foam for protection. EM5 are wrapped in all that foam and you will see them first. FiiO is also offering their best leather carry case called HB3 which I personally use in long trips. It was funny seeing three smaller plastic cases which are holding its ear-tips (foams) collection split in three categories: Bass, Balanced and Crisp ear-tips. Bass ones are the thickest and softest and will provide the best treble attenuation, Balanced ear-tips are less dense and Crisp ear-tips will not attenuate treble at all since there is a circular cut-out in the foam so you will be hearing everything that huge beryllium-coated driver has to offer.

Probably the coolest thing ever, was seeing 3 quick swivel-lock connectors at the earbud end, basically mimicking FiiO’s own LC-RE cable. Instead of having three separate cables for your single ended 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm needs, you have a single cable and 3 connectors which are detachable and extremely convenient to use. FiiO please add this feature to all your future high-end earphones and IEMs, we will thank you for that.

Build Quality

EM5 are coming with one of the nicest stock cables I’ve seen. It’s quite thick, it’s soft, you can bend it easily, it’s free of any microphonics, it uses high-purity sterling silver conductors that will provide a vivid, detailed and enjoyable sound. The biggest downside of this cable is that it isn’t a detachable one. It goes deep in the earbud body and I can clearly see the soldering job since the earbud shell is semi-transparent. It’s a top-notch cable, that is for sure and it should resist a lot of abuse, just make sure when you take them down, pull the earbuds out instead by the cable and you will be prolonging the life of that cable.

As for the EM5 itself, its shell was made using 3D printing technology, allowing for a seamless design that wasn’t possible with other manufacturing techniques. It’s made out of medical grade resin, pretty much the same one they used on FA9 IEMs. Its very durable, it is not prone to color grading and it’s gentle when touching your skin and very comfortable long term. Without the foams, EM5 will fall-off, since it is a very slippery and extremely smooth material, it’s also glossy, you can’t really use them without the foams. Their shape is quite unusual, it is not a symmetrical design as it contains a flute inspired acoustic bass tube that will passively boost the low-end. The surface that goes in your ear concha is not exactly a flat surface, it’s slightly rounded so it would leak less bass information for a better bass extension.

Tech Inside EM5

EM5 is having a single Beryllium-coated dynamic driver per earbud. Yes, it is one, but it is a huge one. This is actually the biggest dynamic driver FiiO ever put in an earphone. With a diameter of 14.2 mm is was important to make it lightweight but extremely rigid, so a super thin layer of Beryllium was applied on its driver surface. Beryllium is widely used in the high-end audio, FiiO uses it in their high-end IEMs, Focal is using it in their high-end headphones and loudspeakers. Paradigm, Yamaha, Magico and TAD are all high-end loudspeaker manufacturers that are coating their drivers with Beryllium, since it is super-light and extremely rigid.

Having a single driver in there, means there isn’t a passive crossover that will be splitting the signals at different frequency ranges, meaning that EM5 will preserve the analog signal in its purest form possible. EM5 has an impedance of 32 Ohms and a sensitivity of 109 dB per 1mW of power, meaning they are quite easy to drive and most of the portable audio sources should sound pretty fine with them. Will test that out really soon.

Comfort Level

This is where EM5 are wining lots of ground compared to any other IEMs that are going deep down in your ear-canal. These were made to be worn with the cable straight down, so they are basically resting on your ear concha and ear tragus will make sure these will not fall-off. They apply zero pressure on your ear and that medical grade resin is very skin friendly with its smooth slippery texture. I can wear IEMs for maximum 2 hours straight, but I can wear EM5 for the whole day no problemo. EM5 are pretty much an open-type earphone so there is close to zero seal with your ear canal. Its bass tube has two holes in it so these are as open as your full-sized desktop headphones are. You can’t sweat with them resting on your ear, so the comfort level is the highest I’ve experienced with portable audio.

Isolation is out of discussion as when you’re outside you’ll be hearing everything around you, at work you’ll be hearing your co-workers, you get the idea. It’s a con for me, but for others that might be a big plus. Lots of people are using open-back headphones at work, but with these you are becoming a super stealthy listener as you can rock out on your favorite tunes and hear everything around you, quite an amazing feature for a daily-use earbud.

Sound Performance

I. Preliminary Impressions

You have to be kidding me…these are by far one of the most natural sounding earphones. The power handling and driver control is spectacular. When I am receiving a new pair of headphones, be it portable or not, I try to test their limits first by feeding a stronger signal. Somewhere around 95 to 100 dB some headphones are starting to heavily distort, their drivers simply can’t handle that much power and they start clipping. Sennheiser Momentum line and Sony MDR-WH1000 line are very good examples of clipping, they sound bad at high listening volumes with an unbearable distortion and bad driver control.

But these small things are handling that immense power input so bravely, so Thanos like. Even at 100 dB they don’t distort at all, as they sound extremely controlled, yet smooth, slightly relaxed and very mid-centric with a healthy dose of mid-bass presence. I was actually surprised by the capabilities of these drivers, they sound clean, transparent and quite detailed too. When applying a gentle push for a better seal, a huge amount of bass is rushing in. Sincerely, I wasn’t prepared for an earbud to sound this way.

Another feature that was standing out immediately: its out of head soundstage and imaging. They don’t sound at all like typical IEMs, music is not happening inside my head and for very good reasons, since these are basically open-back earbuds. They remind me very much about my desktop open-back headphones. I’m serious, they are easily as open sounding as a pair of OLLO S4X and are even approaching Sennheiser HD6XX levels of soundstage driven by a portable source. The overall outcome depends immensely on how deep these are inserted in your concha. Insert them deeply and a lot of details and bass presence will be rushing in full force, let them loose and they will sound bigger, more open and wider at the expense of some lost bass extension.

My absolute favorite foams are bass-enhancing ones, since I am not losing as much bass intensity when they are staying relaxed in my ears. I swept through a big portion of my music collection and I was quite surprised by its bass authority, by its warm and quite mellow midrange and by its relaxed and not fatiguing treble performance. All this happened without a trace of muddiness or distortion, even at very high-power levels. I’m impressed!

II. Power Requirements

With a sensitivity of 109 dB per 1mW of power, these are not the most sensitive earphones from my collection and not the easiest to drive. They actually need a little bit more power compared to Kennerton Gjallarhorn desktop headphones which is unusual but understandable, since a smaller driver will need more juice to offer the same sound pressure level (SPL) compared to a driver with a bigger surface area. Speaker lovers know what I’m writing about. Don’t worry, as even common audio sources as a smartphone or a laptop can drive these to really loud levels. On my Xiaomi Mi9T Pro, I am at about 80% volume wise and with a Microsoft Surface Pro 7, I’m at about 70% volume wise. These are not power hungry, but they definitely need a bit more juice compared to multi-driver armatures. Both FiiO FA9 and FH7 need a bit less power to achieve the same SPL and same can be said about Kennerton Magni and Gjallarhorn headphones. EM5 are pretty much on the same level with a pair of Sennheiser Momentum 2 or Meze 99 Classics, if you ever tested any of these.

I’ve tried them out with portable DAPs and they sounded good with most of them, I am personally against overly warm or smooth sound so I am recommending a faster and a punchier sounding source. From FiiO offerings, BTR5, M11 PRO and M15 should work extremely well with these and that regular M11 and that tiny M5 not as much. Feed them a faster source and you’ll awake nicer dynamics in these, on the other hand feed them a mellower and slower paced source like Shanling Q1 or FiiO M5 and EM5 can become too smooth and relaxed sounding to a point of being dull and boring sounding.

The fastest, the cleanest, the most dynamic and enjoyable sound was experience out of a Benchmark HPA4 and I am pretty sure that a Topping A90 would sound absolutely the same.

III. Transient Response

Since these are pretty much open-back earbuds, you should not expect the same thumping type of bass or a lighting fast rendition of the low-end as IEMs are having, that will not happen in here. EM5 were not pressing the gas pedal and are bringing less dopamine in the blood stream, these are definitely not a head-banging type of earbuds and are not very punchy sounding. On the plus side, you can listen to them all day long without feeling any listening fatigue. Do you really think I can listen to a pair of Audeze LCD-4 or Hifiman Susvara all day long with their lightning fast transients relentlessly hitting my eardrums like a hammer? I can that for 2 or maybe 3 hours tops. I enjoy my music really punchy and fast executed, but I can listen to that only for few hours as it becomes tiresome long term. By comparison, EM5 are easy and smooth riders, they don’t apply any pressure and they sound signature is inoffensive and relaxed. When you don’t have a perfect seal, we can’t talk about a high sound pressure level and when that is out, slam is decreasing its intensity.

I want to reassure you that I very much enjoyed my time while listening to punchy blues, thumping electronica and to raw sounding rock and metal. EM5 didn’t really shine with them, but I’ve enjoyed their smoother and calmer approach. Infected Mushroom released a few days ago a new single called Walking On The Moon (Tidal / Spotify) that is showing a huge improvement in terms of dynamics, EM5 are considerably more engaging sounding with the right gear and music and this track is a very good example. The bass thumping at the 2 minute 50 second mark felt really visceral, impactful, extremely controlled and far flow flabby sounding.

All in all, it is hard to describe the EM5 as they are changing depending on the gear used, on music and of course on how are they positioned inside your concha. Push them deeper for an immediate and punchy sound, pull them a little and they will reward you with a relaxed and a wider spread presentation, at the price of some bass impact.

IV. Soundstage & Depth

This is another chameleon like chapter since it depends a lot of their positioning, but I’m not shy saying that these sounds bigger and wider compared to any IEMs I’ve tried up to this point. Depth is less impressive since there isn’t that super precise layering that I’m feeling with FH7 or FA9 for example. Especially the bass is losing some layers and the positioning of all the notes around are not as holographic and precise. EM5 are sounding quite open, literally and figuratively, since there is still a small gap between your ear canal and earbuds themselves.

Swapping back and forth between a FiiO FH7 and EM5 revealed a much bigger picture. With IEMs, music is happening inside my head where I tend to pick all those notes with my imagination, everything happens up close and personal, on-stage with those musicians. It can be bothersome at times, especially with music recorded in smaller studios. With EM5 I am making a few good steps back and music is pushed outside my head, leaving my thoughts alone. I’m having less listening fatigue, as they sound airier, I am not bothered as much by the walls of smaller studios. EM5 is less claustrophobic sounding and considerably less taxing on the ear and mind.

Don’t expect a huge soundstage pushed in all directions, but a very decent one and that will offer a comfortable listening experience in the long run. I think this part is one of the reasons you could choose an earbud like this, in detriment of an IEM that puts everything way too upfront, becoming way too aggressive with some particular music.

V. Detail Retrieval

The driver inside EM5 is a very capable one, I went thought a series of tracks of Chesky Records, Stockfisch Records and Reference Recordings and there is no denying that EM5 can show subtleties and small nuances in your music. You can easily hear micro-details in a quiet environment and EM5 is not shy at all in showing them off to you.

For example, Mike Garson’s Jazz Hat (Tidal / Spotify) is very well mastered album, one of those albums where I could easily focus on the smallest nuances. Even from its first track – Rumble, I’ve heard fingers touching piano keys, his feet touching its pedals, the drums that were deeper in the recording sounded crisp, clear and defined. Close to the end the drummer is having a bush-stick which he gently touches the cymbals with, even that sounded clean and defined to me.

Switching to more aggressive music like Bulls On Parade by Rage Against The Machine (Tidal / Spotify) at the 3 minute mark, Tim Commerford is pressing on that bass overdrive creating a low intensity hum which not all headphones can highlight that to you. Sure enough, EM5 put that in front of me like it was an easy-peasy job for it, it was very obvious as I didn’t even need to close my eyes.

The only range where EM5 didn’t feel extremely detailed was the sub-bass region which lacked detail and authority and also the upper treble that felt more relaxed, subdued a bit, that worked as magic for long listening sessions. Starting with mid-bass and finishing with mid-treble, EM5 were very capable earbuds, but don’t expect these to be detail monsters, because they aren’t. There are still few things happening at the frequency extremes which I didn’t hear with these.

VI. Frequency Response

It is complicated telling you exactly how they are performing in terms of frequency response since you can alter their sound signature with those foams and it also depends on how deep are you inserting them. I used them mostly with its bass foams with a relaxed (loose) fit, so I’ll tell you exactly how they perform in this configuration.

Bass is the biggest shape-shifter in here, it depends a lot on the foams you are using, on the fit and on the source material and amplification. Even with the bass foams, I can’t call it having an amazing extension down low, it will not awake subterranean bass and it will probably not reach the lowest octaves as 20 Hz. It did enjoy my electronica and rock tunes with them, but that was mostly due to its much better mid-bass performance. It simply enters the spotlights more often, EM5 is actually incredibly good in this region, it felt more forward in here, but clean and defined, with a decent amount texture and contour. Bass slam was missing in action, I felt smaller doses of it in here, it is pretty good, but not something to be excited about. EM5 sometimes were hit or miss in here, I didn’t enjoy them out of a Shanling Q1 for example, but they worked much better out of a FiiO BTR5, M11 PRO DAP and out of any desktop amplifier.

Midrange is without a doubt the best part of this headphone. It is bold, it is warm, it is considerably meatier compared to an all-armature IEM for example. Midrange is taking two steps forward and you will be listening to it most of the time. It offered gorgeous voices, all string instruments performed life-like, with a longer decay to create this smooth, relaxed but natural sounding midrange. Midrange is their crème-de-la-crème, I swept through some of my jazz, blues and acoustic music and it was simply a delight, nothing more and nothing less. It is not a linear type of midrange, it’s more forward and warmer, but very pleasant nonetheless.

Treble is pretty extended, I can hear things happening in the top octave, but sincerely EM5 doesn’t have the most extended treble. Compared to their FH7 or FA9, or even to their affordable FH3, I’d say EM5 are more on the smoother side, with less bite, sharpness and treble presence. As I’ve said it before, EM5 is a smooth easy rider, mostly because it rolls-off frequency extremes. Sub-bass and upper treble have been rounded, so you will be mostly focusing on mid-bass and midrange section. Treble performance is fine, cymbals, bells and tambourines had a decent travel and pretty good extension, but they weren’t as clear and defined. It depends a lot on the listener, but if you really despise anything that has to do with excessive ringing or brightness, then EM5 could be your perfect ear buddy.

Overall, I consider EM5 as a warm sounding earbud, with a lot of attention going towards midrange and mid-bass, followed by treble and then by frequency extremes. EM5 is a clean and transparent sounding unit, but also a relaxed and comfortable earbud that will not stress you long term.

VII. Measurements

Unfortunately, this will be my sole review without offering a full set of measurements, simply because MiniDSP E.A.R.S can’t not work if there isn’t a perfect seal between its silicone cavity and the earbuds themselves. I’ve tried inserting them, but I just couldn’t find a perfect fit, trying harder would damage them or worse, the silicon cavity of the measurement rig. In a free-standing position, E.A.R.S. recorded a non-representative set of measurements. Sadly, It can only accept IEMs with longer nozzles or full-sized headphones.

Conclusion

After carefully listening to them for a few days in my desktop Hi-Fi setup, it was clear to me that FiiO put some very capable high-performance drivers in these. I was able to spot small nuances and microdetails in my music, that I am normally experiencing with expensive desktop headphones. They were able to move bigger amounts of air creating a believable image in front of me. I liked that everything happened outside my head and that they never really asked for my full attention. I could easily multitask with them – a thing that I personally can’t do with IEMs. That airy and open wide feeling was quite unusual to experience, especially from a pair of earbuds. EM5 were also extremely satisfying to use long term with any type of acoustic or vocal intensive music - that smooth, warm and enveloping midrange was always demanding for more music to be added into my playlist.

You can drive these with pretty much everything, so don’t worry about that. Still, you should be concerned about the quality of your audio source - the clearer it is sounding, the better EM5 would be performing for you.

You can get these at $299 directly from FiiO’s AliExpress Store, you can try your local distributor or you can get them from HiFiGo which is shipping them worldwide. I am not affiliated with either of them, so get them from your favorite store.

PROS:

  • Great unboxing experience with an amazing presentation
  • A good set of accessories
  • Decent build quality
  • Amazing cable with unique 3 detachable connectors
  • Warm, smooth and easy going most of the time
  • Good detail retrieval and transparency
  • Great mid-bass performance
  • Plenty of naturalness, great midrange performance
  • Brightness is nowhere to be found, a grain free presentation
  • Open wide soundstage, airy sounding too
  • Tune them to your liking with 3 types of foams

CONS:

  • No detachable cable
  • Limited at frequency extremes (sub-bass and upper treble)
  • A better slam in the bass would be nice to have

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT:

  • DACs: Audiobyte HydraVox + HydraZap, Matrix Audio Element X, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, Burson Conductor 3X Performance
  • Headphone Amps: Benchmark HPA4, SparkoS Labs Aries, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, LittleDot MKIII SE
  • Integrated Amps: KECES E40
  • Power Amps: KECES S300, S125, Kinki Studio EX-M7
  • IEMs: FiiO EM5, FA9, FH7, FH3, Meze Rai Penta, Rai Solo & others
  • Portable headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 2, Meze 99 Classics
  • Full-sized headphones: Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos, Erzetich Mania, Hifiman Susvara, Hifiman Arya, Kennerton Wodan, Kennerton Magni, Kennerton Gjallarhorn, Quad ERA-1, Ollo S4X Reference, Fostex TH909
  • Loudspeakers: Buchardt S400
  • Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Aune AL3
  • Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
  • Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3)
  • Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600

Overall score 88/100

Driveability 93/100
Resolution 87/100
Dynamics 83/100
Frequency Response 82/100
Stage Size 92/100
Comfort 95/100
Build Quality 85/100
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