Semi-open in-ear monitor (IEM) designs are an interesting design configuration compared to their closed-back ‘dime a dozen’ counterparts. While noise isolation is somewhat reduced, the semi-open design, in theory, aids soundstage as well as reduces in-built air pressures. Hence, when FiiO unveiled the new FiiO FH5s IEMs, it certainly garnered some extra attention from their PR campaign. The FiiO FH5s incorporates a double dynamic driver and double balanced-armature (BA) driver configuration in a semi-open design emulating a dragonscale aesthetic. While the original FH5 also shared a semi-open design, the FH5s borrows three adjustable sound tuning switches from the FA9 model before it.
The FH5s retails for a cool $299 which reinforces FiiO’s commitment for value for money given its numerous features and focus on innovation. It is evident that with this model, FiiO have paid particular attention to ergonomics and the shell is in fact CNC machined with a special front cavity for superior comfort. It is a design and craftsmanship which stands out at its price point and certainly a job well done.
The Box & Accessories
The outer packaging of the FH5s is rather excellent and it is good that FiiO have opted for a more premium and high-end approach compared to their prior utilitarian feel. The box insert depicts pencil drawing schematics of the IEM with a graphic print of the FH5s themselves.
Inside, consumers have a choice between a range of accessories including: a pair of bi-flange ear tips, 3 pairs of foam ear tips, 3 pairs of vocal ear tips, 3 pairs of bass ear tips, 3 pairs of balanced ear tips, MMCX assist tool, cleaning tool, carrying case and stainless-steel interchangeable headphone plugs (standard 3.5mm single-ended, 2.5mm and 4.4 mm balanced plugs).
With an emphasis on digital audio players, of late, it is nice to see the inclusion of this nifty yet very useful headphone plug system with the various adjustable plugs. In terms of recommendations for improvement, the interior of the packaging could be uplifted to match the quality of the exterior and the carrying case could have a better aesthetic/quality to match the IEMs. Though, at its price point, FiiO have included an abundance of accessories for just about any occasion.
The Design & Build
The FiiO FH5s is unlike any other design FiiO have implemented in their prior IEMs. While the original FH5 did have vents in a silver body design which gave off Sony IER-Z1R vibes, the all-new FH5s implements a striking dragonscale design with vents embedded in grooves.
The faceplate is crafted with CNC machining and follows a vigorous polishing, sandblasting and anodizing process. The workmanship is excellent and it is a design which looks aesthetically pleasing while supporting natural contours for a comforting fit.
A big appeal of the FiiO FH5s is its semi-open design which not only aims to alleviate air pressure but also has the byproduct of improving soundstage and open perception.
The Driver Technology
In terms of driver configuration, the FH5s heralds a brand new 2 + 2 acoustic architecture system with 2 balanced armatures and 2 dynamic drivers. Interestingly, FiiO have opted to use the dynamic drivers for the midrange frequencies with the reasoning that the dynamic drivers bring a superior vocal performance. While this may be a sweeping statement, FiiO have acknowledged the balanced armature driver design for its high sensitivity and superior transient response.
A 12 mm dynamic driver has been utilized for the bass frequencies with beryllium-plating to reduce lower distortion and improve transducer responsiveness. This driver is designed with an outer magnet field and incorporates N52 magnets with potential for 1.5 Tesla. The transition towards the higher frequencies are supported by a set of Knowles 30017 balanced armature drivers. It is an interesting topology for a hybrid monitor where dynamic drivers are typically only used for bass frequencies. However, FiiO are notable for innovation within the portable audio space and so this only seems natural.
As with the Fiio FA9, the FH5s incorporates sound tuning switches which represent the bass, midrange and treble frequencies respectively. The switch caters for a wide variety of tastes by subtly elevating the different portions while remaining the base sound intact. FiiO have included a cleaning tool with a metallic end which can be used to carefully flick the various switches.
The Fit & Isolation
The Fiio FH5s offer a comfortable listening experience with its ergonomically designed shell. They use a standard MMCX connector which can be disconnected with a specially-designed MMCX assist tool. I do prefer a 2 pin connection personally as it offers better stability over the ear but MMCX has become a standard as of late.
Isolation levels are inherently low owing to the semi-open design of the FH5s. However, this monitor is unlikely to have consumers seeking superior isolation as a paramount feature as there are plenty other earphones which fulfil this criteria.
The included cable features four-strand high-purity monocrystalline silver-plated copper with 120-core Litz braided structure. The Y-split is a silver cylinder with FiiO’s logo and matches the translucent white finish of the sheathing material. A rather interesting and useful feature is the interchangeable connectors with the standard 3.5 mm, 2.5 mm and 4.4 mm balanced plugs.
The FH5s does bass well even from stock configuration – it is represented with even body response, visceral depth and impact. The sound does improve with burn-in with seemingly good control and authority. The beryllium plating infuses more discipline and a tight control achieving a great sense of balance between power, impact and resolution. With the bass boost switch turned on, the low frequencies become elevated with an even weightier response. FiiO have done an excellent job here and there is a great level of engagement from tracks from the able bodied mid-bass and sub-bass focus.
Owing to the dynamic driver implementation for the midrange, vocals are full-bodied and are a touch forward in the overall mix. However, with the semi-open design, there is a great sense of space with cues from backing instruments emanating from further out in the soundscape. Where the FA9 tends to be overly smooth vocals to the point of lacking attack and transient speed, the FH5s retains this roundedness while attracting some clarity and edge from the higher frequency ranges. There is no denying that tonality and timbre in the midrange frequencies are excellent and akin to the bass, really makes tracks compelling from start to finish.
The treble of the FiiO FH5s is crisp, sparkly and relatively leaner in contrast to the midrange and bass frequencies before it. This may represent an area of contention for those in search of superior cohesion in hybrid models. Here, it is evident that the treble frequencies represent a departure from the smoother, full-bodied and ‘dynamic-sounding’ midrange and bass. Perhaps a better implementation could bridge this gap more seamlessly. Nevertheless, it is an interesting tonality and the brightness of the Knowles balanced-armature drivers does give some added height and extension to the overall sound signature.
Soundstage & Imaging
The semi-open design of the FiiO FH5s offers a relatively spacious and open soundstage compared to its closed-back competitors. Though the vocals are relatively forward, there is a good scale with sonic cues cast further out in the mix. Sheer instrument separation levels could however be improved in the lower frequencies but this may come at the compromise of the tone and timbre of the midrange sound signature.
Fiio FA9 ($499)
Both the FA9 and FH5s feature an adjustable sound tuning switch system. However, the FH5s is a hybrid model whereas the FA9 hosts 6 pure BA drivers. Of the two, the FH5s packs in a punchier and more authoritative bass compared to the FA9’s relatively less natural low-end presence. In the midrange frequencies, both the FH5s and FA9 encapsulate a smooth and dynamic sound which is impressive considering that the latter is an all-BA design. However, the frequencies up top offer more clarity and sparkle in the FH5s compared to the relatively laidback FiiO FA9.
The FiiO FH5s is an impressive dual balanced-armature and dual dynamic driver monitor which packs in a lot of features for its price. FiiO have kept things interesting with the semi-open design and adjustable sound switch. While some may be averse to the lack of cohesion between the midrange and treble, others may be swayed by the great tone, powerful lows and open sound. On top of this, the ergonomics are excellent and the build very well thought out. The monitors do cater for a bit of a niche within a niche and may not be optimal for those who require optimal sound isolation. However, given the plethora of features, excellent craftsmanship and ability to fine tune the sound, it would be hard to give these a miss…
FiiO FH5s Specifications:
- Drivers: 2x Balanced Armature, 2x Dynamic Driver
- Impedance: 40Ω (@1kHz)
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 40kHz
- Sensitivity: 106 dB/mW
Available from: Amazon