FiR Audio M5 ($2800): At what point…

FiR Audio M5: At what point…

Pros: Fit
Fabulous sound
Detail, clarity
Price (when compared to other TOTL)
Quality

Cons: Not mine
Price (when compared to what some have)
Not mine
Not much else

FiR Audio M5 ($2800): At what point…

4.75 stars



M5

I sit here having downed a full pot of Joe on my (well deserved) day off from school (tooting my own horn). Listening to My God from Jethro Tull through the Little Dot mk3 se (fabulous btw) and the M5, I peruse the latest HeadFi cards on this cold rainy Friday. Skimming to the Erlkönig Dragonskin “covers” for the shell, I realize it’s a shell cover they are offering…for $366usd. Moving to the Abyss AB-1266TP Phi TC video review, I notice the title “most ridiculous headphone ever” and go back to the homepage. I may watch it later to see what that is really about…

Munching on my Honey Nuts and O’s with 2% as well, my Aussie patiently waits for me to finish as I scribble this dribble, so she can “clean my bowl.” I am hit with the comment on the VE page of “excess capitalism” and “you have to enter a draw for the right to purchase?” commentary… This gets me thinking about all of the “luxury” items I have had pass through this prairie state abode of late. I regularly carry the TOTL’s I’ve had around to school, providing that chance to “listen” for 30-40 minutes on my plan as I grade/plan/email/etc. I do find that I get more done listening to music, as the distractions outside my room are minimalized. But a simple $25 IEM can do the same thing. Or can it? Some of the products to cross my path of late are simply put, incredible. And rightly so. Others reach a point where I envision some English Premier League player getting out of their Bentley listening to something extraordinary that we mere mortals cannot fathom, nor afford as their car is also skinned of chrome. My point (and especially during this time) is (and you should have already figured this out) that “at what point” is consumption considered wretched, unfettered excess?

If that EPL player is making $250k+/week to play a game we all love, who are we to decide what they spend their money on? Some such as Marcus Rashford (of the hated Man. Utd club…) who is but a lad of 22, shows his compassion for the “common man” putting many older, richer players to shame. He all but single-handedly shamed the UK government into continuing the free/much reduced food offerings to families with school children during peak COVID-19. I won’t go into your political beliefs here, but what he did is extraordinary. At 22, he gets it more than some ever will. Humble to a core, he puts his money where his beliefs are. And lest you think he doesn’t spend I would bet he does; and in fact, has many cars. But do we afford him a pass due to his philanthropic efforts? That really is not the point here.

To finish: companies are allowed to produce items, which many consider wretched capitalistic excess. Not simply because they can, but it is their desire to produce the very best they can, and then have that technology trickle down to the other models. Or to help fund efforts to continue their R&D. Here is where that excessive price can possibly be justified. By producing TOTL IEM’s (or DAP’s, etc…) companies give us the opportunity to listen to their wares and potentially purchase those same. I do not fault VE for producing the Dragonskin covers. I do not fault MMR for producing the Thummim. And I do not fault Fir Audio for the M5. They are all fabulous at what they do, and how they present their products. I do come out of this review with a definite favorite, and yes price does play a big part of that. As such, I hearken back to the old Road & Track multi-car reviews where they have the “price-independent” winner and “price-dependent” winner. I liked that and can justify this either way.

I thank @Barra for another amazing tour, with products I most likely would not have heard. This is a wonderful opportunity and I do relish the time together.

History Lesson (like Jimmy Buffet sings…)

From the website: Founded in 2018 by longtime In-Ear Monitor pioneer Bogdan Belonozhko, Fir Audio exists to offer many necessary and unique accessories for all IEM owners. Fir Audio was born out of nearly a decade of experience in designing and manufacturing custom IEMs in the great Pacific Northwest.

What that fails to say, and by reading other reviews, the founder of Fir was also the CEO of 64Audio, a company I hold with a very high regard. 64Audio models run the gamut from affordable, to wishful thinking (there’s that pattern), but as luck would have it, I have heard their TOTL IEM’s as well, and I can definitely see the “family” resemblance. Please do not take this as a slight towards Fir, it most definitely isn’t and through the course of the reviews, I do compare to a certain 64Audio model I own (and still love), as well as draw upon my experience with the Fourte and Tzar for comparative purposes. But this is about Fir Audio, and how the company has quickly (and deservedly so) risen to TOTL status with the products offered. There is no mucking about with fancy shell designs or extravagant color schemes (which again, I do not fault, and can be had here). No, here the impetus is on sound first and foremost delivering sound worth of the price or placement at the top of each segment.

I start with the TOTL, because I think the line deserves this. Call this the trickle-down effect as I will describe in the four reviews. Simple looks hide the sound inside. Think of that modified VW R32, which looks like a Golf. That is until you see its taillights right after the light turns green.

Specs (simplicity!):

Range: 10hz – 20Khz
Impedance: 6.8ohms

M5 page: Sporting a dynamic driver for lows, 3 balanced armatures for midrange and highs and an electrostatic driver to assist the treble reproduction, the M5 maximizes its driver count to present an effortlessly massive sound, with shocking clarity and extension on both ends. We’re also proud to be the first in the world to implement the electrostatic drivers, in addition to all the other drivers in the M5, in a tubeless design, paired with the 3rd generation atom pressure release system to provide the M5 with a cavernous, out of head soundstage and a pressure-free listening experience that is well suited to all professional and audiophile use cases.


I rarely get into the differences in driver count or what those bring to the table other than sound and hold to those more expert in such aspects. That hold here as well. Suffice to say, much research has been done to provide for the most opportune sound chamber and least intrusive elements of such. Said to mimic the sound of your favored properly equipped listening room, the M5 strikes me as one of the cleanest, clearest IEM’s I have heard. Right off the bat, mind you. If this is the beginning, holy buckets.

Gear Used/Compared:

Empire Ears Legend X ($2299)
Vision Ears Erlkönig ($4300)
MMR Thummim ($4500)

Cayin N6 mk2
Shanling M6 Pro
MBP/EarMen TR-AMP
MBP/Little Dot mk3 se


Songlist:

Joey Alexander-Warna album and others
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
twenty one pilots album, Trench
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World
Mark Knopfler-Down The Road Wherever
Tidal MQA


In the box/Unboxing:

Since the units all came in their leather circular cases, I cannot say what the unboxing effect was. That said, there is a nice foam insert in which the tips fit. A nice treat so that one can take multiple tips along for the ride. From other reviews, the presentation is as expected, top notch. Look for more unboxing from other reviews.


Fit/finish/build:

Coming from a 64Audio background, one would rightly expect there to be good on all fronts listed above. One would be right as well. Fit is on par with those. This means that the unit is unobtrusive and fits well (tip dependent, of course). Sitting near-flush in my average-sized ear, the M5 (and the others) does not bother me except for long angular nozzle. It seems to be at a bit of an odd angle for me but did not bother enough for me to grow weary of the fit. Indeed, not like the Thummim or Homunculus to a lesser degree. Using the double flanged tip I found a good seal and fit.

Build is as one would expect, too. Top notch with minimal to non-existent flaws. Since the shell cover can be customized, one would either expect a somewhat misfit with some choices, or a perfect fit. This would be the latter. The common red anodized cover fits well with no mismatched seam. Evenly matched poured acrylic shells fit the build, so to speak. There is no wild build pattern nor odd shaped shell here. Just well-made and a good, solid common fit.


Sound:

Coming off the MMR duo, the expectation was one of top notch as Fir Audio tries to match the more expensive wares. One would expect and one would get that option. Upon first listen, the M5 immediately vaulted to the top for me. Matching the Erlkönig and Thummim is no small feat, but with the “heritage” of the U18t behind the making, you would expect and get exceptional detail presentation. I was struck first and foremost by the clarity. Remembering (and reminiscing of) the U18t (my favored of the two) brought back good vibes. While the Fourte probably has better resolution and clarity of that detail, the U18t was more my favored flavor. And here, that evoked the same emotive response. Extremely solid bass response, without overtaking the rest, the M5 promotes that clarity as an unmitigated, unveiled presentation. Just such a solid overall demonstration of the fabric, which drives Fir Audio, that to not enjoy it would be akin to not liking dogs in my mind. One simply cannot deny a dog that loves you. And one should not, either.

I add in the above flair, because when one goes for a TOTL status IEM, one should expect it to be a faithful companion for a good long time. And as the mids sing through Ian Anderson’s voice in My God, you get the sensation that the M5 is not afraid to get down and dirty. Just like your dog chasing its favorite ball in the worst weather. Warming your cockles as a result, the vocals sing their praise. All the while doing so without a strident or bothersome top end in the treble. Many of the TOTL of late that I have been humbled to hear tend to bother me whence the volume raises on the clockwise side of the knob. The M5 does nothing of the sort. I can raise the volume to loud levels on Jethro Tull’s fabulous BBC Blues Session rendition of Stormy Monday, with repose. And let me tell you, that song gets down and dirty just like a Saturday night fish fry deep on the bajou, complete with house band. So Much Trouble solidifies that down low sound as it should be. Presented with verve and energy, but not exuberant. Just right.

With a wide soundstage, the separation of all can be easily heard as well. Good height lends itself to a high-ceilinged sound as well promoting the layers well. To me only a bit of shortness in depth is had. But not to the detriment of the overall character. Any perceived lack of depth pretty much goes out the window on the string quartet version of In The Past, as the stringed instruments go right along with the flute. Such marvelous sounds to be heard and a succinct, precise instrumentation rounds off the character. This is a very fine unit. A surprising result for me as the character is a bit more “analytical” than my tastes prefer, but not antiseptic. Simply lovely.

Whether with the Shanling M6 Pro or Cayin N6ii, the M5 sounds wonderful and I appreciate the different character each brings. Nothing hindered or hidden from view. Complimentary. What I find across the source spectrum is that the M5 sound is quite engaging and full. There seem to be no real short comings to me, and this draws me in. One knows going in that the Erlkönig and Thummim are going to be fantastic (they are), but one can rightfully expect the same from all TOTL. And the M5 does not disappoint. Personally speaking, the M5 fits my favors more closely than either the Erlkönig or Thummim. Don’t get me wrong. If someone were to throw me a pair of either and say, “these are yours, enjoy,” I most certainly would be enjoying amongst the best I could ever have. But the M5 priced a tier down fits the bill as well or better, due to the sound AND “reduced” price.

Throwing on Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign, with Stevie Ray Vaughan, I sip my 5-Families Irish coffee this fine morning and turn the volume up. This is the sound, which makes for an incredible Saturday morning. Two of my all-time favorites and a good drink of Joe makes for some fantastic time. The Cayin brings Tidal Premium to light, and all is good in that time spectrum. One certainly can be afforded this pleasure at times and doing so with this combination makes the listening all the more so. Let us just say that it is a good thing I am the only one up in this week hour of the morn, for my ears are afforded the pleasure of voluminous sound. And it is good. I’ll Play The Blues For You solidifies my true respect for the M5, and I pour another. It is the weekend, and it is a wonderful way to start this off.

Comparisons:

Fir Audio M5 ($2799) v Empire Ears Legend X ($2299):

Starting with my in-home favorite I am again reminded what intoxicating bass the LX has. Others may now in fact have “more” or “better” but it is the LX that those others owe their heritage to. The LX set the road of less traveled bass-heavy icon in motion to me, and it will always hold a special place. I currently have an Eletech Socrates enroute to add to the already fabulous PW Audio Initial Helix cable, which graces it. I do like the stock Effect Ares II but find the PW more akin to my tastes.

I do find that I have to raise the volume over the M5, making the LX a bit harder to drive. A bit narrower of stage, the LX may have met its match bass-wise. The M5 seems to be more impactful, and reach a bit deeper, but I do believe that the clarity aspect of the show is what comes out. The LX cannot match the clarity of the M5 but holds itself well when compared. I find that the mids fit my tastes a bit more, as they are slightly recessed when compared to the M5. As such, I can raise the volume a bit more on the LX. Darker of signature yet, the LX is still top notch, but you can clearly hear where the other TOTL have gone. Better clarity, a wider stage, and impactful bass make it here. That said, as I’ll Play The Blues For You comes on, I sit back and truly appreciate the near-reverbed effect of the LX’s bass. This is still a fabulous sound with which to deal as comers come and go. Still my favorite in-house, owned unit the LX is.


Fir Audio M5 ($2799) v Vision Ears Erlkönig ($4300):

When I first heard the Erlkönig, it was hands down the best unit I have ever heard. With four available settings, and clarity of God-level, it was not only the flavor of the year, but earned, deserved and worthy of that top spot to me. But it is also heavy. So much so that one cannot enjoy long sessions the way one would want. Fit is fantastic, but that heft of magical metal composition makes for a hefty unit.

I liken this to the Grand Tour episode done in Detroit. The one where Jeremy drives that killer Mustang, May drives the incredible Camaro, and Hammond the Hellcat (extra). While the Hellcat most certainly would be the top of the heap, that scene at the end where he takes forever to get the car into “race version” makes one tired. And Jeremy finally storms away in the Mustang, enjoying the wares. The Mustang would indeed be the Mustang. And the Erlkönig the Hellcat. And yes, the Thummim would be the Camaro.

At this point one must decide if you want to simply drive or change settings for a small increase of “power.” Here, in this review I simply want to listen. Plus, I have always been a fan of Mustang’s.

Both are incredible, but one costs 35% less without the fiddling as well. I can think of many household “upgrades” where that extra $1600 could go…


Fir Audio M5 ($2799) v MMR Thummim ($4500):

38% more… Following the theme above, you must be the judge as to where the line is drawn. The Camaro is an incredible performer in that episode, and perfect for Captain Slow. But the other side would be incredible insurance costs, and the legalities of the car. Throw in that it gets GALLONS per mile when on the lead foot, and you mut decide. Plus, to me the fit makes the deal untenable. I do love the sound of that exhaust, err bass and vocals presented, but at what cost.

This makes me happy that I had the Thummim and Erlkönig first. For had I heard the M5 first, I may have been even more jaded. The law of diminishing returns most definitely holds here, and the user must decide how much candy they want to hold at one time. Solidifying my stance, the Thummim sounds fantastic, but not that much more fantastic than the M5. It is incredible when paired with the Iliad, but that raises the overall cost to $6300usd…the price of a very good used Mazda3 for your teenaged kiddos, and that to me makes it an unworthy deal. No matter the sound, which is not that much extra cost better than the M5.


Finale:

Much is said about the law of diminishing returns. When one can afford a Lamborghini, one does not care. When one can afford an EleMMent Palazzo, one does not care what the cost, much the way with the Erlkönig and Thummim. Witness the latest “drawing” to get the chance to purchase a $365usd shell cover for the Erlkönig. Wretched excess galore. To get the “right” to purchase one, you must enter into a drawing. I do find that fathom of excess distasteful in this time and here is where one could truly appreciate the “affordability” of the M5. For near ½ the cost, you get fantastic bass response, vocals, which are deep rich and warm in texture and a fit that works. Unlike the others in the hyper-TOTL category.

Much like that hyper-car category has taken off (or the mentioned Detroit trio above), you the user must decide at what level insanity comes into play. There most certainly is a point even for that gold-chained Lamborghini driver where “frugality” comes in. At least one might hope so, lest they be so jaded and out of touch that they really need a reality check. But then again, when one has earned all of that, then they do have that right to choose how and what their wares be. I do not fault them for that, nor should we. But here, with the M5 a case can certainly be made for a cap on that level. A top end, which can make you truly appreciate that you have found a “bargain,” which will provide 90-95% of the sound for 150% of the enjoyment.

If I had to choose between the three, it would not even be close. The M5 would be in route to me, and perhaps another Socrates, which would make the Erlkönig and Thummim blush by comparison. Are they better? Perhaps to ears more versed than mine, and perhaps they provide that last 1% of betterness. But my point has been hit with the M5 much like it was with the LX, making it an easy decision. Cost-driven, the M5 is the clear winner. Cost-be-damned, it still comes close, and close enough for me that I would not worry should the choice be afforded me.

I again thank @Barra and also thank Fir Audio for providing their wares. They represent true value to me in the TOTL region, and moving down in their range, I can state here that the trickle-down effect will be a positive one.

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