The Penta is definitely warmer than true neutral, with a broad mid-bass lift that dominates the lower end but never, ever spills over to the mids. The bass isn’t overdone, with excellent texture and a decent kick where required, but I found sub-bass to be lacking compared to the mid- and upper-bass, and rolled off quite steeply (or at least masked by the mid-bass lift).
Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ is packed full of tracks to stretch your system’s bass muscles, and on the whole the Penta presented it with aplomb. The slight mid-bass emphasis gave the sound a warm and inviting foundation, with the epic ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ rendered with a lush and full palate.
While it certainly packs a punch, the Penta isn’t quite the complete package when it comes to bass. Despite technical specs claiming a range as low as 4Hz, I found larger cinematic tracks where sub-bass plays a critical part in the mix to be somewhat lacking in drive and emotion. Audiomachine’s ‘Ashes of Time’, for example, lacked the necessary cohesion from the distinct lack of sub-bass, as was the case with numerous other movie-inspired soundtrack themes.
That said, the cleanliness, texture and resolution of the Penta’s bass was always excellent. Jazz and vocal performances were, on the whole, very much on point, with accurate timbre and a natural, almost effortless presentation. The sheer realism conveyed in the basslines of Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘The Way I Am’, and the lower-register guitar plucks of Heidi Talbot’s ‘If You Stay’ was exceptionally satisfying.
Bass was also distortion free to my ears and always controlled, setting the tone for what I came to appreciate as I became more and more familiar with the Penta’s sound.
While the mids are reasonably detailed and almost perfectly articulated, vocals are where the Penta both shines and frustrates in equal measure.
One of the very first notes I made included the line: “some of the most natural sounding vocals I’ve ever heard, on any headphone.” A week of listening later and I stand by that statement, with the addendum: “depending on the track.”
Whereas the lower mids are fairly even, the upper mids seem to be raised quite a bit, to the point where vocals are quite forward and occasionally shouty. The dip in the lower mids also gives some vocals a thinner feel.
In The Lumineers’ ‘Salt & The Sea’ from their new album ‘III’, Wesley Schultz’s striking vocals can sound a bit strained as he hits the upper registers. Conversely the vocals in Alphaville’s 80s anthem ‘Forever Young’ sounded unusually flat and constricted. The same tracks were radiant on the two other IEMs I’ve been using alongside the Penta, the FH7 and IMR’s R2 Aten.
Peaks aside, the tendency for vocals to be quite forward can also be a good thing. For example, it lifts Giovanni Giorgio’s monologue in ‘Giorgio by Moroder’, and his voice sounds rich and resolving against the background din of the crowd. There are other examples too, and on the whole, I’d say the Penta’s midrange is balanced with a good sense of separation and clarity throughout.
I like my highs slightly tapered, so the fact that the Penta rolls off its highs just in time to avoid any harshness sits very well with me. Again, this is all part of the safe tuning I spoke of. You couldn’t get the Penta to sound sibilant even if you essed into the microphone and played it back yourself.
It’s not as if the Penta is just smoothing out the details either, because there are plenty of details up top. Brighter tracks like Owl City’s ‘The Saltwater Room’ aren’t suddenly dull; instead the listen is just smoother, less in-your-face but still very textured where it needs to be. Likewise, the high-hat splashes in Def Leppard’s ‘Love Bites’ that trip up so many IEMs and headphones alike are unimposing here.
From what I understand, part of Antonio Meze’ design philosophy with the Penta was hours of listening comfort, and that extends from the fit to the sound. The Penta is utterly unfatiguing, and the treble tuning is one of the main reasons. I had it on for three hours the other day and at one point forgot they were on (and that music was playing!). Somehow there’s just enough sparkle to keep things lively, and enough crunch for electric guitars, but if you’re after a brighter and more energetic listening experience, I’d say look elsewhere.
Imaging, stage and separation
Natural is an overused word in this review, but alas I’m using it again to describe the Penta’s stage. Generous in width, height and depth for an IEM, but not overly so, the Penta just sounds ‘correct’, as if you’re in the same room as the singer or band. Instruments can sometimes trick you into thinking they’re being played further away than they are, but in truth most tracks are still ‘inside your head’ more than out.
There’s nothing amiss about imaging either, but separation is what really sets the Penta apart, pun fully intended. Whereas many IEMs in this price range (and certainly below it) somewhat diffuse the placement of instruments and vocals in the stage, especially on ore complex tracks, the Penta renders spaces between instruments ink black. This isn’t always ideal, especially where instrument blending is mastered into a track for effect, but the Penta excels with well mastered instrumental and classical tracks.
Click on Page 4 for closing thoughts and verdict…