Brainwavz S5: Sold on Solid

Greetings!

Today we are going to be checking out the S5 from Brainwavz, an earphone that really doesn’t need much of an introduction at this point.

The S5 was released in 2014 to a mostly positive reception and has been heavily reviewed since, getting an average of 4 out of 5 starts over 49 reviews on Head-fi.org, and an average of 3.75 stars out of 5 over 175 reviews on Amazon.com. The newest revision released in 2015 has addressed some of the concerns reviewers raised, adding an inline mic and toning down the chunky y-split with the more sleek, yet no less durable, split found on their S0 model.

With these minor updates and a 99 USD price tag, how does the M5 stack up versus proven challengers like the Dunu Titan 1? Does it still hold up as a good purchase or does it’s single 10 mm dynamic driver fail to capture your attention? Let’s find out.

Disclaimer:

I would like to thanks Pandora and Brainwavz for providing the S5 in exchange for a fair and impartial review. I am not receiving any financial compensation for this review and all comments and views within are my honest opinions. They are not representative of Brainwavz or any other entity.

The S5 retails for 99.50 USD: http://www.brainwavzaudio.com/products/brainwavz-s5-iem-earphones

A Little About Me:

Over the last couple years I decided to dive head first into the world of portable audio. After reading pretty much the entirety of IjokerI’s multi-earphone review thread and being greatly inspired, I took a chance and started writing my own reviews. Fast forward a couple years and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some great products for wonderful companies like RHA, Havi, FiiO, NarMoo, Brainwavz, and Meze. I don’t do it for money or free stuff, but because I enjoy it. If my reviews can help guide someone to an earphone that makes them happy, I’ll consider that a job well done.

The gear I use for testing is pretty basic composing of an HTC One M8 cellphone, Topping NX1 portable amplifier, and my aging Asus G73 gaming laptop paired with a Plantronics Rig USB amp. An XDuoo X3 (shout out to my cousin Rob!) has recently been added to the crew, and was used for the majority of my testing. I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. When it comes to signature preference I tend to lean towards aggressive and energetic, but I try not to limit myself to one signature only. I also tend to listen at lower than average volumes.

Enough preamble. Let us dive into the good stuff shall we?

Packaging and Accessories:

The S5’s package strongly departs from the methodology shared by other Brainwavz products I’ve had the opportunity to review this year. It ditches the simple plastic box sounding the carrying case containing the earphone and accessories, instead taking a more traditional route. While it is a very slightly more upscale unboxing experience, I prefer the simplicity in the packaging of Brainwavz’s less expensive products.

The front of the package contains a glossy hi-res image of the S5 above the Brainwavz name. The S5 name is tucked into the top right corner with some Comply branding and other details in the top left. Both sides of the box advertise Brainwavz’s generous 24 month warranty and microphone/remote module compatibility. The rear of the package contains a quick blurb explaining the S5 along with a list of contents and specifications.

Things get more interesting when you open the magnetically sealed front flap. Inside you find displayed a number of diagrams showing the internals of the S5, an unusually descriptive breakdown of a Comply T-Series foam eartip, the cable’s composition, and a complete list of the inline remote’s features. There is also a viewing window showing off the always outstanding Brainwavz hardcase. If you look back to post-update reviews, you will see that the remote function diagram has replaced a viewing window displaying the S5 itself. A somewhat odd decision in my opinion, but I guess Brainwavz wanted to show off how flexible the ‘new’ remote is when paired with iOS devices.

Opening the box you will find the classic Brainwavz hardcase, tips and user manual nestled in a flimsy, plastic insert.

Brainwavz was very generous with their tip selection. I am sure there is something in there that will work well for you. They provided two sets of single-flange silicone eartips in s/m/l. The black pair are very similar in design to Sony’s Hybrid model, but are made of a much harder and less compliant material. They seal just fine, but feel nowhere as nice in the ear. The green tips are pretty generic, often provided with even the cheapest of earphones. That said, they’re not bad tips and are crafted from a fairly comfortable material. They seal and sound fine. You are also provided a single set of dual-flange tips, a single set of triple-flange tips, in addition to some Comply T-400 foam tips. Tucked away in the case is the S5 itself wrapped in a very thick Velcro strap that has Brainwavz subtly printed in large lettering. This strap ended up being quite useful, not the throwaway accessory as I was expecting.

The unboxing experience itself is pretty standard, but this is made up for by a plethora of quality accessories.

Build, Design, Comfort, Isolation:

The S5 is a very robust and well built earphone. The housing is a simple bullet shape, painted in a semi-gloss black with a flattened section where Brainwavz is printed. I think it looks very clean and unassuming. For such a sleek aluminum housing it has a fair bit of weight to it though the over-ear design ensures this is never an issue. I know some reviewers found the housing to stick out and not sit flush within their ear, but that was not at all the case for me. Once inserted, I just tucked them into my antihelix and they virtually disappeared. These join a very exclusive list of earphones that I can comfortably lie on my side while wearing. Since they tucked into my ear so well, wind noise was virtually non-existent when out and about.

They can be worn cable down without the need to swap channels, but I don’t recommend it. The cable can be a little noisy and heavy and the housing sticks out pretty far as a result of its length.

If you read a number of reviews, one oft repeated con is the cable Brainwavz chose. Personally I feel the cable is excellent, especially for a flat cable. Try the one on the Don Scorpio Bass Colour and come back to the S5. Night and day when it comes to usability and comfort.

While a flat cable may seem like an odd choice for an earphone designed with over-ear wear in mind, curving it properly around your ear during insertion really does solve a lot of problems. The weight of the cable holds it in place and due to the width I found it wasn’t tugging uncomfortably at my ear while walking. Cable noise is present wearing them either cable up or down, but is vastly reduced wearing them with the intended cable-up orientation.

The y-split was greatly refined with the S5’s 2015 revision. You might recognize it from their S0 model. It’s still thick and durable, but not comically large as it was on the original S5. The chin slider is brilliantly designed to look like a part of the y-split. I might have missed it if it wasn’t noted in the user guide (yes, I actually read that). The S5 uses a straight jack which is my personal preference. No awkward bends at the base of the cable when your device is in your pocket!

Speaking of awkward bends, I’m afraid the visually appealing strain reliefs will offer little protection everywhere but the jack where the rubber is soft enough to effectively take some pressure. At the y-split and housings the rubber is too stiff to easily bend, so the cable takes the brunt of any tugs. Not a huge issue given how rugged the cable is, but still worth mentioning.

I found isolation to be above average for a dynamic, especially when using foam tips or Sony’s Hybrid isolation tips.

Overall the S5 is a tank of an earphone with comfortable, well-isolating, solid metal housings and a thick, meaty flat cable. Strain relief could be better, but the cable feels beefy enough to more-or-less make up for this potential concern.

Microphone and Module Performance:

The microphone on the M5 sounds fine, but it’s not going to blow the doors off more accomplished mics like those found in JVC’s FRD series of canalphones. In testing callers noted a fair bit of background fuzz, something I was able to replicate in recordings. It’s too bad because voices actually carry a very full-bodied and mature sound.

The inline module is well built from a durable smooth-touch plastic. The buttons are oddly small and while easy to discern from each other, require an unusual amount of pressure to depress. Despite being advertised as “Designed for iOS Devices”, which usually means only centre button functionality on Android, the inline module setup worked fully with three different Android devices I tried, though with different results.

With the HTC One 8 the volume up and down buttons would skip and reverse through tracks. The centre button took over starting/stopping tracks. My trusty old Samsung Nexus S worked just fine with it too, giving you the same functionality as it’s M8 from HTC. Where things took a turn was with the Samsung Galaxy S2X.

The centre button functioned as expected, used to start and stop tracks. To my pleasant surprise, the volume buttons actually controlled volume! Wow. What a novel concept. This is the first time I’ve come across the volume buttons performing their intended function on an Android device. It’s too bad the S2X outputs pretty terrible sound and that I retired it long ago. I won’t be enjoying this feature again anytime soon.

Finally, we have a 1st gen Motorola Moto G. Compatibility with three button remotes is a known no-go with this phone, and use with the S5 was no exception. Only the centre button served a purpose, the others being dead weight.

Sound:

*Tips: I wasn’t able to make any use of the double or triple flange tips, but really enjoyed the sound with the Sony Hybrid look-a-likes. Since they sounded the same as real Hybrids, I just used a medium sized pair of those during testing since they were more comfortable.

* Amping: I found the S5 to be fairly power hungry, but out of my HTC One M8 I could easily hit comfortable listening volumes. Pairing them with a more neutral sounding source, an XDuoo X3/Topping NX1 combo, sounded nice. This gave the S5 a notably more balanced and airy sound. Bass also came across a touch punchier. I prefer to listen to them with this configuration, but your standard cell phone should be enough to enjoy their sound.

If I were to describe the S5’s sound with one word, it would be “soft”. This is an earphone completely devoid of sharp edges, uncomfortable peaks, or other qualities that can cause listeners fatigue. To my ears their 10mm dynamic driver presents sound in a very liquid manner. Bass and treble are lightly boosted focusing on sub-bass and lower treble regions. I would like to say the S5 is balanced, but the midrange is just too recessed which to me is their one notable, but not fatal, flaw.

Treble on the S5 seems well-extended, natural, free of peaks, and overall quite smooth. As a result of this general smoothness you might find they are lacking a little in detail, yet still somehow quite clear. I never found myself wanting more. They are one of the least fatiguing earphones I’ve come across to date. I am also very impressed with how precise it is. Going back and forth between the S5 and the splashfest that is the Macaw GT100s emphasizes just how well controlled and tight the S5’s treble is.

Mids on the S5 sound so good, right in line with my expectations based off listening sessions with a number of Brainwavz’s other earphones. Its very unfortunate that they take a backseat to the S5’s already quite relaxed bass and treble, which themselves are hardly boosted. This recession gives the S5 a clear u-shape to their sound. This is one of the few earphones where I feel forced to turn up my music a little louder than I like to get the most out of some vocal-focused tracks. Both male and female vocals are wonderfully textured and naturally accurate. They lack any metallic edginess, coldness, or extra warmth that would make them feel forced or unnatural.

That said, there are some exceptions to this recessed midrange such as with Galantis’ Runaway (U & I) (Dillon Francis Remix). Especially in the opening seconds, vocals are very forward and clear. I also find Aesop Rock comes across in a pretty forward manner on many tracks, such as on anything found in his Daylight EP.

Bass on the S5 tiptoes a fine line and really emphasizes that “soft” comment I made earlier. I wouldn’t call this a bassy earphone but I wouldn’t say its lacking either. It sits in a nice place that I feel would please the majority of listeners offering decent mid-bass thump and attack, with a comforting sub-bass rumble backing things up. Where the softness comes in is with a lack of detail and texture. Not quite at one-note levels, but not far off either.

Soundstage on the S5 isn’t anything special. It’s equally wide and deep, with a distinctly intimate and in-head presentation. This isn’t an in-ear that tries to fool you into thinking it’s a sealed on-ear headphone or earbud. It’s no Havi B3 Pro 1 or Titan 1 in this regard. It delivers an unashamedly in-ear style soundstage. The plus side to this is that the S5’s excellent imaging and instrument placement really stands out. The way it tosses around effects in a fairly small space is quite addictive.

Overall I really enjoy the way the S5 sounds. They’re not particularly energetic, too thin or thick, overly bassy, or hyper-detailed. In fact, there is nothing about their sound that I find particularly notable in either a good or bad way, except maybe the occasionally too-recessed midrange. They come across to my ears as a very competent and pleasant earphone that excel for long listening sessions.

Select Comparisons:

VJJB K2S (~16 USD): The K2S is an excellent budget offering from VJJB utilizing a 6mm driver. They’re small, comfortable, and bring to the table a similar signature as the S5. The S5 and K2S have a lot in common despite their unique driver and form factors. They share a flat cable design, though VJJB chose to use a less robust and more manageable cable.

The K2S is a touch brighter than the S5 and lacks the same level of subbass extension. Overall the two sound very similar to the point that I would say the S5 is a natural progression if wanting to upgrade from the K2S while keeping a similar sound. The S5 is clearly more refined and technically proficient, just be prepared to sacrifice a bit in midrange presence since they’re more forward on VJJB’s offering.

Dunu Titan 1 (~100 USD): Another earphone that really doesn’t need much introduction. The Titan 1 took Head-fi by storm upon it’s initial release due to it’s unique semi-open, half-earbud design and high fidelity sound that competed with many higher priced earphones. They were so popular that a wild FiiO EX1 rebrand (sort of) appeared shortly thereafter.

The Titan 1 comes across as brighter and bassier with more detail and a larger soundstage. Despite being tucked away a bit, the S5’s midrange is more natural and vocals more present. The S5 is notably thicker sounding than the Titan 1, though it lacks the midbass punch of Dunu’s titanium-coated terror.

I feel the Titan 1 is the better sounding product, as long as you don’t mind some brightness, but you give up isolation to achieve this. Given in-ears boil down to many as earplugs with a driver, this may not be desired. I also find the S5 more reassuring when it comes to build quality and durability. The Titan has an air of fragility surrounding it that the S5 avoids.

Overall Thoughts:

Brainwavz has shown that they can release quality earphones at pretty much every price bracket from 15 to 100 USD. Despite it’s age and some serious competition cropping up in the under 100 USD category, I think the S5 is a good buy. They are very well-built, come with a slew of quality accessories, are comfortable, isolate well, and produce an inoffensive, mellow sound that is excellent for long listening sessions.

Yes, you can find better sounding earphones at lower prices, but they will have probably made some notable sacrifices to get there; cheap cable, low quality and/or few accessories, poor quality control or material quality, etc. To my ears, eyes, and hands, Brainwavz didn’t make any sacrifices with the S5. Its a solid product that does exactly what it needs to do to justify a $99 price tag.

Another massive thanks to Pandora and Brainwavz for giving me the opportunity to listen to and review the S5.

Thanks for reading!

– B9Scrambler

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Test Albums

BT – This Binary Universe

Gramatik – The Age of Reason

Incubus – Movement of the Odyssey Parts 2/3/4

Infected Mushroom – The Legend of the Black Shawarma

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Skindred – Roots Rock Riot

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

wThe Crystal Method – Tweekend

Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass

The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

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