First off, a heart-felt thank you to Mixcder for the chance to give these a try. New gear is always fun and the opportunity to try out gear as it comes to market is indeed a privilege. Mixcder provided me this sample pair in exchange for my unbiased review.
A short note about me: I am a music enthusiast, and audio hobbyist. I make no claim to have the level of experience of some here and quite frankly at times I wonder if I really belong. Not to say I don’t share the interests here, but the budget is something I will likely not have anytime soon. Kids in college and Veterinary school mean my dabbling is rather low end and I wonder if I had $5000 to spend on hardware if I would really be able to enjoy the difference in sound quality or if I would constantly be nagged by the cost. I tend to be quite pragmatic. Some of you may remember a review in which I ran a set of Fiio earbuds through the laundry to see if they would survive. I intend to review the X5 with a similar pragmatic approach (albeit I’ll spare them the laundromat).
The X5 arrived in a typical manila padded envelope and made the journey intact. I will give partial credit to the USPS and partial to Mixcder for a good solid box and the carry case inside it that provided extra rigidity.
In a word, impressive. Again, considering the asking price, the accessory package is better than most. The carrying case is very functional and durable. Two sets of earhooks are not usually included at this price point nor is a clip to keep the cable in place while jogging. The downfall if there was one was the eartips. It came with s,m,l tips and one set of double flanged tips. It would have been a nice touch to include either a set of foam tips or the double flanged in all three sizes like the other set of tips.
Build quality was solid throughout. The case was well made and feels durable, the earphones themselves are very solid being made of aluminum. The cable is reminiscent of the Senfer DT cable or the upgrade cable for the KZ ZST or Z3 and was well made. Strain reliefs are a bit shorter than most but seem solidly made.
The microphone worked well for making calls and didn’t pick up a lot of extraneous noise. It did suffer from the same issues with wind and rubbing on clothing as you walk that pretty much all in-line microphones do. My personal preference is for cables without the microphone but I’m sure others will find it useful.
I am a lover of blues, blues/rock, classic rock, and anything with good guitar work in it. For that reason, I chose the following as my test tracks. (artist, album, track, thoughts)
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood – Lenny (Guitar to die for but the thing I look for is the percussion.)
Lindsey Buckingham – Fleetwood Mac, Best of – Go Insane, Live (Probably the most complicated simple song you’ll ever hear, all about nuance and subtleties with this track).
Johny Lang – Lie to me – Lie to Me (Looking for tight bass, bleed over into the mids, and controlled sub-bass)
Tedeschi Trucks – Let me get by – I want more (Female Vocals, backing brass band)
The Blasters – Testament – Blue Shadows (Saxophone and piano with male vocals)
Vintage Trouble – The Bomb shelter sessions – Blues hand me down (Looking at attack speed and decay especially in bass and sub-bass. This track gets muddy quick if the equipment can’t handle it.)
Good bass impact and definitely emphasized overall with a moderate mid-bass hump. Sub bass is present in good quantity and is reasonably controlled although it can get a bit loose at higher volumes.
Very good separation in the mids and very natural presentation of both electric and acoustic guitar. One of the more believable headphones I have heard for reproducing Stevie Ray’s guitar. Buckingham’s vocals on Go Insane are full and more detail than expected came through.
Somewhat rolled off but in a good way. Treble is polite and well mannered. The high-hat that I listen for and the snare in Lenny are very well defined and clear. I went through some additional tracks with pronounced female vocals that usually get sibilant and couldn’t make these sibilant without introducing a lot of EQ.
I want to say these have a V shape sound profile but they don’t. What they have doesn’t match a letter of the alphabet. If you imagine a letter that has the first half of a capital V and the second half of the lowercase v you have the profile these headphones exhibit. They are definitely bass heavy and mildly rolled off at the top end. Sound stage is crowded as one would expect from a closed in ear but instrument separation is better than expected with this small a soundstage. Detail and even micro detail is more present than expected and easily better than anything I own in the sub $100 category. If I had to summarize these in a word it would be “natural”. Not neutral, but a very realistic reproduction of guitars and vocals. The Bari sax and the Tenor share that same quality but alto sax suffers a bit from the rolled off top end and doesn’t sound as natural as those in the lower registers. They make for a very non-fatiguing listening session and combined with the comfortable fit could be a good all-day earphone.
It should also be noted that not only do these not need amping, they are actually hurt by it. When using the E17 alone or with the e09k noise was very obvious and distracting. These are simply too sensitive for use with any amp I had available to test with. This is by no means a strike against the X5 as they worked well when plugged directly into a phone or a DAP (I did play a few songs on a Xduoo X10 just to see how they’d do) and this is exactly the segment of the market they are targeting. Most people won’t use a sport headphone with a high-power amp.
With an asking price of <$20 on Amazon, the X5 falls squarely in the class of “Device replacements”. To me this class is generally divided into two sub-categories. The first is “I broke what came with my device” and the second is “What came with my device utterly sucks, I gotta get something better”.
I decided to use those two categories as the basis for comparison. I drove all the headphones with an HTC m9, and I-phone 6s, and a laptop using a Fiio E17/E09k combination as these seem like very likely use cases for the X5.
In category 1, I compared the X5 to the headphones that came with a Sony Discman, two generations of apple buds that came with I-Phone 4 and 6s, and the earphones that came with my HTC M9.
I-phone 4S – The earbuds that came with the 4s fall in the “These suck” category as they lack anything that even resembles bass so it was really no contest. The X5 has a much better sound profile than the 4s.
I-phone 6S – Although a clear improvement over the buds that came with the 4s the 6s buds still lack bottom end and suffer from bleed over into the mids. Again, the X5 is a clear improvement in sound quality.
Discman – The discman were better than I remembered and bested the I-phone buds but still lacked the bass impact of the X5 and didn’t show any sub-bass at all. The X5 was an easy winner in that the bass and isolation were markedly better.
HTC – Isolation was about equal with the X5 but sound profile is very different. The HTC needs heavy EQ to be listenable and is very fatiguing without that adjustment. Winner – X5. Even with adjustments I couldn’t make the HTC sound as natural as the X5.
At less than $25 US, they are a no-brainer as a replacement for the headphones that come with most consumer devices.
In category 2, compared the X5 with other would be improvements in the <$35 range. In this class I had several KZs (ATE, ED9, ZST), a Fiio EM3, Senfer DT, and the Monoprice 9927 snails.
Fiio EM3 – while the EM3 is a good bud in the same price range, it lacks the isolation and thus the bass of the X5. I think for those who prefer the earbud style the EM3 or VE Monk are going to be tough to beat. For those who want more bass and better isolation the X5 gets the nod. (Not really a good comparison as too much difference in designs).
Senfer DT – the Senfer suffers from the same issue the HTC did. It can sound really good, but not without heavy EQ and even then, it suffers from bass bleed into the mids. The X5 was more natural, less fatiguing and easily the winner when tested without EQ.
Monoprice 9927 – Here we have the first close call. The 9927 needs no introduction as the $7 wonder but its shortfalls are also equally well known. The x5 is an easy fit for everyone in my family and several of the people in the house find the 9927 uncomfortable. Ultimately though it was the very audible 3KHz resonance of the 9927 that gave the win to the X5.
KZ ATE – This is probably the headphone in the KZ line that most closely approximates the sound profile of the X5. It has a pleasant V shaped profile, isn’t particularly sibilant, and doesn’t suffer the fit issues of the 9927. What it couldn’t do was be as clear as the X5. The ATE suffers from bleed over and a very pronounced mid-bass hump (more so than the X5). I found on Lie to Me and Blues Hand me down the details were much better on the X5 than on the ATE. The ATE tended to get muddy on Blues hand me down as it is a very busy track and heavily slanted toward bass and mid-bass.
KZ ED9 – I normally use the neutral nozzles but to mimic the X5, I replaced them with the bass heavy versions. In that configuration, the ED9 comes very close to the X5. So much so that when listening to the same tracks repeatedly I was having trouble remembering which earphone I was using for each pass. On sound alone, this is a dead tie. The X5 takes the win based on construction as I have had two pairs of the ED9s break due to poor QC and a bad strain relief design.
KZ ZST – This was my toughest call no doubt. I really wanted to do both justice and have listened to the ZST a lot as my evening walk companion and the ZST has been the earphone I carry with my phone nearly daily for some time. For that reason, I gave the X5 a solid 3 days of listening at the office, during my evening walks with the dogs, and general listening. After nearly a week, I’m still not sure there is a clear winner in all circumstances.
Construction: Winner – X5. Even though the ZST comes with removable cables, its plastic construction and the stock cable are no match for the X5 in materials quality.
Bass: Winner ZST. Although the X5 was a bit cleaner, it had considerably less bass and sub-bass than the ZST. If you are a basshead, the ZST is going to put a smile on your face. If you prefer more balance – probably not so much.
Treble – Winner X5. The rolled off, polite treble of the X5 stands in pretty stark contrast to the sibilant, poor behaved treble of the ZST (unless EQ’d). If listening for long periods, the X5 is much more pleasant and less fatiguing.
Mids – Winner X5, the ZST suffers from bass that bleeds into the mids on some tracks and the upper mids are recessed. The X5 was cleaner and less recessed.
The Mixcder X5 is an easy recommendation. When considering the retail price, that becomes an even stronger recommendation. They are easily better than anything that typically comes packaged with consumer devices and have better sound quality than many models costing twice as much or more. I was pleasantly surprised by how natural sounding the guitars were and the level of detail the X5 presents. I appreciate the chance to try out the X5 and I can promise Mixcder that they won’t end up in the drawer. These make a good earphone for my evening walks and will probably continue in that role until one of the kids discovers them and they disappear (an all too frequent event around here).