It is a great wonder how FiiO manages to sleep at night with the quantity of products they bring to market. Luckily, their products are not run-of-the-mill and often the result of years of research & development as well as fine tuning. Their recent focus has turned to earbuds with CEO James Chung wishing to relive the Walkman era where open earbuds were the norm.
This has culminated in the flagship open Fiio EM5 earbuds – a design incorporating 14.2 mm beryllium-coated drivers amidst a translucent resin finish. FiiO claim to have garnered a couple of ‘world firsts’ with the EM5, adding to their arsenal of innovation. These include the world’s first in both a ‘3D printed flagship earbud’ as well as a world’s first in any earbud containing a beryllium-plated driver.
Pushing the envelope is certainly admirable in an already saturated marketplace and a reason why FiiO are no short of accolades within respected audio circles. With over 60 revisions in just its design, the $299 EM5 represents a challenge in 3D printing. However, FiiO have powered through despite initial obstacles.
The FiiO EM5 arrives in a matte black retail box with a graphic display of the earbuds on the front. This slides out to reveal a magnetic latch box housing the earbuds along with 3 sets of different foam tips (bass, balanced and crisp) which claim to alter the sonic characteristics. Also included is FiiO’s trusted blue leather HB3 carry case with its own mesh insert.
FiiO have included 2.5 mm and 4.4 mm twist-lock swappable plugs to allow users to experience balanced as well as single-ended modalities. Overall, FiiO have been generous with their accessories and it certainly demonstrates their drive towards value-for-money propositions.
The Design & Build
The FiiO EM5 adopts a rather unique design with its ‘bold yet stylish’ exterior. FiiO have drawn inspiration from the Chinese Dragon to guide the EM5 aesthetic with its curved outer housing. The company has utilized 4th generation 3D printing for a seamless design and high-quality appeal. EU IIA medical grade resin has been the material of construct for its durability and glossy finish.
Inside the shell, FiiO have incorporated a massive 14.2 mm beryllium-plated diaphragm driver to aid low distortion and extensive treble performance. An inherent flaw design of open earbuds is their lack of bass due to sound leakage.
FiiO have circumvented this issue by implementing a special flute-inspired acoustic bass tube to boost lower frequencies. The result being a more balanced sound from top to bottom. The EM5 certainly stands out from the crowd of earbud offerings and is a real testament to FiiO’s careful material selection, design, and overall finish.
Comfort, Isolation & Cable
The FiiO EM5 are designed to be worn straight down with the earbuds resting against the outer conchae of the ears. In my use, they did become slightly uncomfortable after prolonged period due to the sheer size of the flat driver. The foam tips do alleviate some of this pressure and it does take some adjustment to return the earbuds to an adjustable position.
Owing to the nature of open earbuds, isolation levels are minimal and hence should not be chosen for the purpose of this effect. There is also slight sound leakage since earbuds retain a shallower position within the ear compared to their in-ear counterparts.
The EM5 was initially tested with high-quality monocrystalline copper and silver-plated cables. However, the sterling silver variant proved to sound the best despite the costs. Hence, the EM5 comes supplied with a quad braid cable featuring 120 cores of Litz sterling silver.
The quality of the cable is fantastic and employs a silver Y-split and proprietary termination swap-out system like Dita Audio’s OSLO cable. This system is quite clever and something more companies should use to allow users to benefit from all standard modality outputs. The right-angle connector can simply be twisted and unlocked with a new one inserted in its place.
The sound of the FiiO EM5 really did surprise me – it is clear, vivid and has a diffusely open sound with fantastic separation. There is some nice texture and forward mids which invite an engaging factor which other earbuds fall short of. In fact, users may be hard pressed to find that they are listening to an earbud with the EM5.
With its special acoustic flute-like tube, the EM5 achieves an elevated bass not found in other earbuds. While the bass here is impactful and forward, it must be impressed that the EM5 does not convey the authority, slam, or depth of the low-end of a good in-ear monitor. It is commendable, however, that they have managed to extract a decent bass performance out of the earbud form factor – a feat not easy to achieve.
In ‘Mood’ by 24kGoldn, the low-end is full, detailed with great speed and texture. It is evident that the beryllium-plated driver is coming into play here with the pace and control that the EM5 is able to command. Similarly, in ‘Wishing Well’ by Juice WRLD, the complexities of the bass notes are handled with ease and fantastic texturing.
The midrange is certainly the Fiio EM5’s trump card with excellent articulacy, texture and linearity. Despite being relatively forward, the EM5 manages to retain a unique sense of diffuse spaciousness within tracks likely owing to driver size and position.
These favorable psycho-acoustics extend across to the upper midrange where the extension and transient decay adds a nice element of height and perceived depth. Despite the EM5’s predilection towards resolution and upper midrange clarity, the earbuds retain a sense of natural overtone.
FiiO have really nailed the tuning here in delivering a sound profile which has allegiances towards analytical while simultaneously being fatigue-free and controlled. The note size is larger than average with a lower than average density instilling an ethereal quality to tracks.
The treble of the EM5 has abundant energy and resolve – this may be polarizing for some users. At times, for example, in treble-heavy tracks the EM5 can display harsh leading-edge transients. The extension, however, propels the immersion factor and aids in delivering a clean and compelling signature. The EM5 really excels in the classical music genre here with each piano key sounding vibrant with the right amount of natural decay.
The Soundstage & Imaging
The soundstage of the FiiO EM5 is one of its strong suits and is the result of its large driver and inherently shallow positioning. Coupled to this, the EM5 demonstrates strong spatial separation in all elements. Though midrange is more forward in the overall mix, the EM5 remains airy and ethereal while retaining impeccable clarity and presence.
Dunu Titan 1 / FiiO EX1 ($90)
Although not strictly an earbud, the FiiO EM5 shares some similar characteristics to the shallow semi-open in-ear Dunu Titan 1 or rebranded ‘FiiO EX1’. These include its openness, crisp tonality and immersion factor. The EM5 however has more centered mids whereas the FiiO EX1 has a more V-shaped sound with a more recessed midrange profile. Overall, the EM5 sounds grander with a more brightly tuned top-end. Both models are quite impressive for their in-class category and deserve an audition.
Moondrop Nameless ($24)
Though not really a fair comparison owing to the price difference, it is evident that the FiiO EM5 is a top-breed earbud. Next to the Nameless, the EM5 outputs a livelier sound with its intelligible and natural midrange presence. The Moondrop Nameless, on the other hand, opts for a more relaxed sound with its thicker note tonality and slightly slower decay. Of the two, the FiiO EM5 sounds grander with more macro-dynamic emphasis.
For those who believe that earbuds are a relic of the past, the FiiO EM5 is all it takes to alter opinions. FiiO have upheaved the earbud notion into the modern audiophile era with a high-fidelity solution with audiophile bass and a plethora of termination outputs. The beryllium-plated driver delivers unparalleled sonic technicalities with a crisp and fast sound amongst a wide and open soundscape.
Though $299 may seem expensive, the EM5 duly performs above its price tag and represents a product of thorough research & development. My only gripes remain fit (which may not suit all) and perhaps the treble could be dialled a notch. However, the EM5 are a unique innovative pair of earbuds which have a won a fan in me and I certainly look forward to other earbuds (if they offer the same kind of quality). Stay tuned …
- Driver: Single Beryllium coated 14.2mm dynamic driver.
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 20kHz.
- Impedance: 32 Ohms @ 1kHz.
- Sensitivity: 109dB @ 1mW.
- Cable length: ~120cm.
- Cable material: Pure Silver Litz braided.
- Weight: 23.9g