The fit and seal of the tips used for both FH5 and FA7 make all the difference to the sound. I can’t stress this enough: if the fit is off by even half a millimetre, it can change almost everything you hear through these IEMs.
My experience with IEMs is very limited compared to full size headphones and speakers, but I can say this with certainty: never before have such small changes made such a big difference in what I was hearing. I mean we’re talking fractions of millimetres to shape, slight differences in material, and a millimetre or two at most of depth and angle. And yet every small change makes such a big difference to the sound that from now on, any sound impressions I read about any IEM are going to be almost entirely put into context against the tips used, size, material and fit.
- Lorde – Royals
- Heidi Talbot – If You Stay
- Owl City – The Saltwater Room
- Angels of Venice – Trotto
- Carla Bruni – Raphael
- Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself
- Daft Punk – Doin’ It Right
- Brandi Carlile – The Story
- Joe Satriani – Always With Me, Always With You
I’ll give a breakdown of bass/mids/treble below, but if I was to summarise my overall impressions of the sound of the FH5 and FH7 it’s this: the FA7 is fatter, warmer, darker, smoother and more laid-back; the FH5 is punchier, faster, more engaging, more dynamic, but conversely skirts a fine line between crisp and edgy, forward and shouty.
Bass: one of the most impressive features of the FH5’s sound, and what won me over ever since I first heard it, is the bass. More specifically, the almost complete lack of mid-bass ‘bloom’ and generous amounts of sub-bass ‘rumble’. When the track calls for it, the FH5 hits and hits hard; the size and weight of the bass is impressive, reverberating in your head as if you were standing right beside the drum hit or bass pluck. That ‘impact’ – so prevalent in Lorde’s opening keys of Royals, and the bass-heavy plucks of Heidi Talbot’s guitar in If You Stay, are significantly reduced in both size and weight with the FA7. You ‘hear it’ more than feel it with the all-BA IEM, and that could possibly be purely down to the difference between BA and DD bass.
That’s not to say the FA7 is lacking in bass, or that the FH5 overdoes it. I’d actually say the FA7, on occasion, has more bass than the FH5, but it’s more of that warm blanket of mid-bass that sometimes finds its way into tracks even if it’s not there in the original recording. As such, I’d say the FH5 has the more faithful or accurate bass of the two. Which presentation is preferable is entirely up to the listener. Neither IEM significantly bleeds bass into the lower mids, although the extra mid-bass quantity of the FA7 does warm everything up, including the lower mids.
Mids: this leads me to the second big difference between the FH5 and FH7. Whereas the FH5 has a 2khz peak that emphasises part of the vocal range, it follows a slight dip in the lower mids that can sometimes ‘stretch’ some female vocals, making them appear a touch thin, hollow or shouty. This is only an issue with poorly recorded material, but it’s something to be mindful of if you’re not a fan of forward vocals. The flip-side of the FH5’s forward vocals is that lower volume listening doesn’t come at the cost of vocal clarity.
The FA7, on the other hand, balances the mids much closer to the bass and treble. Vocals aren’t necessarily recessed, but listening to the FA7 immediately after the FH5 may appear to make them so. In truth all the detail is there, in smooth, silky glory. In fact, paying closer attention to the FA7’s vocals reveals just how well they’ve been tuned. Carla Bruni is at her sexy, smoky best on Raphael on the FA7, whereas the FH5 makes her far more strident and forward, whether you want that or not. Again neither is better or worse; it’s a preference. And in this case my preference is very much for the FA7’s rendition of vocals.
Treble: here’s where you’ll need to take my impressions with a pinch of salt, because I’m fairly treble sensitive. As long as the highs aren’t harsh or sibilant, and there’s enough air between notes and sparkle in the bells and cymbals, I’m good. The minute I hear screeching or sibilance, it’s an instant fail.
The good news is neither FH5 or FA7 are anywhere near sibilant, harsh, grainy or bright. Of the two, the FH5 is more extended in the highs, so poor recordings are likely to suffer more on the FH5; the FA7 is super laid back up top, notably rolled, but not to the point that the sparkle is gone. There’s plenty of detail in the FA7 treble but sibilance or harshness is simply impossible. You have to find some really crappy recordings to irritate the treble in the FA7, and I haven’t found any yet.
I personally prefer to listen to great recordings, though, and this is where the differences in treble (and overall balance) are quite apparent. Joe Satriani’s guitars have a much sharper, more distinct edge with the FH5, while the FA7 renders them as it does most guitars (and leading edges): smoothly. Those who want ‘crunch’ in their electric guitars need not fuss with the FA7 because it doesn’t do crunch. The FH5 does, and does it well.
If I had to describe the ‘shape’ of the FH5 and FA7 sound, I’d say the FH5 is a clear W, while the FA7 is a more gentle U, titled downward towards the treble. But that’s not a hard and fast rule, and tip selection can influence how you hear different parts of the FR even with the same tracks. The double flange tips, for example, fill out the lower mids of the FH5 more so than the FiiO bass tips, but without sacrificing bass heft, so you’re left with a more balanced sound with something as simple as a tip swap.
With the FA7, switching to Spiral Dots cleans up some of the ‘veil’ apparent with the bass tips. If you’re only heard the FA7 with the stock balanced tips, and find it bloomy, veiled or distant, do yourself a favour and swap in some Spiral Dots. The FA7 will be instantly transformed into the quality transducer it is.