Future Sonics Atrio M5 / M8 Review

future sonics main Future Sonics Atrio M5 / M8 Review

Future Sonics, self-proclaimed innovators of in-ear monitoring (IEM) phones some twenty years ago, hit the market with two universal-fit IEMs, the Atrio M5 in black and the M8 in blue.

Future Sonics isn’t a company with a big advertising budget; they keep a low profile. However, their phones are quite well known among professional musicians and audio technicians. Artists like Madonna, Sonic Youth, U2, and Luciano Pavarotti use custom-built Future Sonics ear monitors on stage. Now the universal-fit Atrio series offers a glimpse of the Future Sonics sound – without the need of having ear impressions made by an audiologist and (most importantly) without dropping almost a thousand bucks for them.

Future Sonics is very vocal about their usage of traditional single dynamic driver technology in their products, similar to the ones found in most full-sized headphones. This approach is the polar opposite to almost all other high-end IEM manufacturers who use multiple balanced armature drivers, the tiny drivers commonly used in hearing aids. We’ll see if Future Sonics are on the right path, and if a single dynamic driver IEM can take on the masses of balanced armature IEMs out there.

  • Specifications
  • Proprietary Future Sonics dynamic drivers
  • 20Hz – 20kHz response
  • 32 Ohm impedance
  • Up to -26dB ambient noise rejection
  • 1.3m cable, low microphonics
  • Angled 3.5mm gold plated stereo plug
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Design/Comfort

They might not win a beauty contest in all their plastic glory, but they’re designed to do their job well. Build quality seems solid enough, though there’s nothing outstanding to report about it. The housing is all plastic; the stem where the cables enter the phones is rubberized. This might improve comfort, but those rubber parts are rather hard-to-clean lint magnets. Memory wires are attached to the rubber stem – thin wires in a transparent tube, which keep the shape they’re bent, to go over the ears – for improved comfort and reduced cable microphonics. These cable noises, which are often quite obnoxious and distracting on many cheaper IEMs, are quite well tamed on the Atrios.

The cables are a bit thin side, but they feel sturdy. The only possible downside in the construction is that they’re not user replaceable like on the Ultimate Ears IEMs. If the Atrio’s cables snap or get damaged, the phones have to be sent back to Future Sonics for repair. However, the company is well regarded for good customer service, so this might not be a big issue. If you buy phones for $200, you will probably be more careful than with the $5 stock earbuds that came with your player, anyway.

The large variety of silicone and foam sleeves comes with the Future Sonics for a reason. They’re deep in-ear phones, not canal phones like the Sennheiser CX300 or the V-Moda Vibes. Unlike with many of these phones that sit on the outside of the ear canals, it is of utmost importance to get the right seal with the Atrios – otherwise they don’t sound nearly as good as they should. It is quite obvious when the right seal is achieved and the bass response achieves full impact. Some trial and error might be involved until the perfect fit is found, but that’s all part of the deep IEM game.

On a side note, many people recommend using Shure’s newly designed black foam tips with the Atrios instead of the stock ones from Future Sonics. They should isolate even more, have better durability, and are more hygienic since they’re washable due to their smooth surface. The Future Sonics’ porous skin-colored foam tips start to get quite gross after a week of usage.

For me, the Atrio sounds like a totally different phone when I use them with either the silicone or the foam sleeves. Both variants can provide a proper seal and decent comfort. However, for my ears the foam tips sound a bit darker and more rolled off in the treble region than the silicone tips. It is easier for me to achieve a proper seal with the foam tips than with the silicone ones, but the silicones give me better bass response – your mileage may vary. It’s a matter of taste, and it’s fun to experiment finding one’s own sound – and comfort – preference. The Atrios are chameleons regarding the sound character, a detail that makes them even more interesting.

Comfort is an important factor when wearing the Atrios for a long time. I got used to their quite "intrusive" design rather fast, and now I can even wear them while sleeping. When I’m on the go, I almost forget I have them shoved that deep down my ear canals. These phones certainly are no fashion accessory, but they are built to deliver truly great tweakability, isolation, and comfort.

Contrary to the recent hype about IEMs with two or three balanced armature drivers (the type of drivers also used in hearing aids) as found in Shure, Westone, or Ultimate Ears phones, Future Sonics stays true to their roots and only builds phones with a single dynamic driver. Dynamic drivers have a wider frequency range than balanced armatures, and a single-driver design does not need crossover electronics built into the phone. Complicated designs and multiple drivers can reduce sound quality due to the additional signal paths, next to under- or over-emphasized spots around the crossover frequencies, where the bass, mid, and treble frequencies overlap. "More" doesn’t necessarily mean "better", according to Future Sonics. Seeing my impressions of the Atrio’s sound quality below, Future Sonics certainly may be on to something with their attitude…

I v
erified the Atrio’s frequency response – indeed they do go down to 20Hz, and the bass starts hitting heavy and almost blurring my vision at about 28Hz. Of course I can’t hear if they actually go up to 20kHz, but nothing is missing in the treble regions of the recordings I listened to. 32 Ohm impedance is a bit higher than many other in-ear phones. Therefore the Atrios might not be quite as loud as some other IEMs, but they have a lot less background hiss with some portable players.

The noise attenuation claims also seem to be right. They isolate a lot more than most other non-custom in-ear phones (depending on a proper fit, of course). The Atrio’s cables also deliver the promised "low microphonics" – they’re far less annoying on the go than many other in-ear phones.

Sound Quality

No matter what style of music or input source, the Atrios sound great to my ears. Be it jazz, reggae, drum ‘n bass, rock, or metal, they deliver the sound with quality and refinement. There’s no need for dropping names of artists or bands, no need to describe what instruments sound the best with the Atrios – they perform exceptionally well with every audio material you throw at them. Simple as that.

There’s also not very much difference in sound quality when connecting them to a weaker portable player like the Cowon X5 or a full-blown tube amplifier like the Woo Audio 6. Of course, as is the case with almost any phone, the Atrios benefit from a stronger amp, making them even more dynamic and punchy. But there’s absolutely nothing to complain about when using the Atrios with the weak amp on a portable audio player. After all, Future Sonics phones are meant for on-stage monitoring and most performers don’t carry amps with 110/220V plugs on their backs.

Bass response is excellent: it goes deep and is very articulated. Pitch and texture of bass frequencies are presented very well. The Atrios have quite a bit more bass than Shures or Etymotics, but the bass does not overwhelm the mids; it doesn’t make the overall sound muddy in any way. Contrary to bloated bass-monster IEMs like the Super.Fi 5 EB or the CX300, the Atrios can be seen as the "bass reference" for IEMs. They’re still IEMs, not full-sized headphones, so the bass doesn’t go quite as deep as, for example, on Beyerdynamic DT 770s or Sennheiser HD 650s. But considering the size of the drivers inside the Atrios, they’re about as good as it gets without being anemic like Etymotic or cheaper Shure models or bloated or muddy like the Super.Fi EB or CX300.

The midrange is very slightly recessed, but still very clear and detailed. The mids are great for voices, male and female alike; they sound very human, not as artificial as with balanced armature drivers. The midrange reminds me more of full-sized Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic headphones than of the usual IEMs, which is a very good thing. All the details are there. Nothing seems to be missing from the main parts of the music. Everything is very dynamic and punchy, both in the micro and macro structures of the audio material.

The treble is slightly rolled off, but doesn’t lack any details or clarity either. The Atrios do appear to be "dark" sounding phones compared to some balanced armature IEMs, like the Shures or Etymotics, but that makes them easier to listen to for my ears. I can wear them for hours without getting any listening fatigue, contrary to ultra-bright balanced armature IEMs. They have no sibilance at all; they’re really smooth. The Shures and Etymotics do have a bit more precision and clarity in the treble regions, but for me the Atrios sound more natural, relaxed, and enjoyable.

Soundstage is quite good, considering the Atrios are in-ear phones with the drivers sitting very close to the ear drums. It’s not a three-dimensional experience as on some large, open headphones, but it leaves most of the in-ear competition far behind. Ultimate Ears Super.Fi, Etymotics, or most others don’t have any soundstage at all: all of the sound is inside your head. The Atrios can go quite a bit more to the left and right, front and back of your head. The only other IEM I know with a similar soundstage is the V-Moda Vibe, but this one uses an open design, which is a much easier approach to create a realistic soundstage.

Many in-ear phones perform quite badly at lower volume settings. They need to be turned up to dangerously high levels to sound good. Not so with the Atrios: they get the sound right even on very quiet listening levels, especially the bass response. Some details are lost, of course, but overall they still sound satisfying.

Fans of overly bright balanced armature IEMs (or of Grado or AKG headphones) might not like the Atrios that much, but for people used to the higher-end Sennheiser HD series signature sound or even the V-Moda Vibes, the Future Sonics Atrio M5 might very likely be the right thing.

Like with most dynamic driver phones, it is advisable to let the Atrios "burn in" for some time. Just let them play some music or pink noise overnight and listen in on the next day. Don’t judge their sound right out of the box. Their sonic characteristics might change in the first 20 to 50 hours of usage. In the first hours they might sound harsh or boomy, but this settles down after a while.

One last thing: do yourself a favor and do not listen to 128kbps MP3s with these phones. They deserve better quality input. It’s worthwhile to invest some time in upgrading your music collection to a higher bitrate to match the sonic abilities of the Atrios.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, the Future Sonics Atrios are my favorite in-ear monitors at the moment. No other IEMs I know of do so much right and so little wrong. They’re not the most "pedantic" phones out there, but they’re the most musical ones for my tastes. Almost like good full-sized headphones, they make the sound really enjoyable and they get my feet tapping no matter what style of music I’m listening to. They are punchy and precise without being fatiguing; they are quite spacious and still isolate a lot. The Future Sonics Atrio M5 are not the cheapest in-ear monitors around, but they’re far from being the most expensive ones you can find. They’re worth every penny, and they give the double/triple/quadruple balanced armature IEMs a run for their money. Highly recommended for people who love to listen to the music instead of analyzing single sine waves.

Pros

  • Great sound quality, clarity, and resolution across the whole frequency spectrum
  • Decent soundstage for an in-ear phone
  • Good audio quality even at low volume settings
  • Great isolation from outside noise
  • Very little microphonics and cable noise
  • Comfortable for a phone that goes quite deep into the ear canal

Cons

  • Somewhat difficult to insert and remove; sound quality depends a lot on getting a good seal in the ear canal
  • Sound signature might be too dark for some tastes – at least for people accustomed to very bright-sounding phones
  • No user-replaceable cable

Purchase

You can pick these up for the best price at Amazon (Amazon UK) usually with free shipping and no sales tax.




41 Comments

JDGAFFLIN on June 21, 2007 2:20 PM

Terrific, insightfully detailed review. Great stuff, Martin.

Gaius on June 21, 2007 6:16 PM

The only thing con I would give my M5′s are that they are not the best looking ones around. However, everything Martin said is the absolute truth. A well thought out review. You hit everything people say about them and more. My only suggestions are to also mention that they need a good 50 hours or so of burning-in with pink noise to really get the most out of them and some people may have to invest (as I did) in some Shure Black foam sleeves to get the best seal out of them. I have never used the flanges and foams that come with the M5′s since I got those in the mail. Truly worth the extra 14 bucks. But yes, well done.

dfkt on June 21, 2007 7:11 PM

Gaius, thanks for your comment. My M5′s sounded fine minutes after plugging them in – literally. All other dynamic driver IEMs I have needed several days to sound decent. But there are certainly some building tolerances to be considered – some might take longer, and some not.My Shure Olives are in the mail, I might update my review after I get them. Idealsound sent me the wrong tips – I got large UE silicon tips instead of the Shures… oh, well. They already sent me the right ones, but still it takes over a week for them to get to my place.

Night Surfer on June 21, 2007 10:14 PM

Great review! As a fellow owner of the M5′s I agree and concur whole heartedly!I would add that the Shure Black Foamies are a must-have accessory for the M5.I also found this very interesting from the M5 thread at Head-Fi:”the decision to stay with dynamic drivers at the point where hearing aid companies started selling their dual armature designs because he says bass is the hardest thing to get right in an IEM. Dynamics can do bass, armatures can do high end, but the high end is easy, just tweak your EQ, bass is not. Won’t respond the same way. Interesting.”

dfkt on June 22, 2007 7:53 AM

Ok, added the parts about the burn-in process and about the Shure foamies to the review.Hope I get my Shure Olives soon, my Atrio foamies start to look gross… :)

CoppellStereo1 on July 3, 2007 3:55 AM

Awesome review, i just bought these after reading this, thanks!

dfkt on July 5, 2007 6:36 AM

Ok, I got the new Shure foam tips now – they’re really an improvement over the stock foam tips in almost every point: comfort, isolation, hygiene… and very likely longevity, too, from their looks.

Shugo Wolf on September 1, 2007 12:49 AM

Just got these in the mail!A HUGE step over the vModa Vibes (my first pair of mid-to-high range phones).Even out of the box with no burn in, sound is precise, seperated, and beautiful.Until my Shure tips get in, the black tips that are provided are fine.

Todd on January 23, 2008 10:48 PM

I researched iem’s for days before I made my decision. I have read many, many reviews and they all praised the Atrios.I will be receiving mine in a few days and I believe I will be very happy with my choice.P.S. I enjoyed this review enough to print it and try to share the knowledge with some of my close friends.Todd A Schwietz

Theo on January 31, 2008 4:58 PM

These are the best earphones around. Fantastic controlled bass.I have tried all types of plugs with these and they sound the best and are most comfortable with Westone comply longs. IMO

Angel on February 6, 2008 10:55 AM

Can anyone compare these puppies to the Denon AH-C700s???? Which many folk have fallen in love with.thanXs

Angel on February 6, 2008 10:57 AM

Can anyone compare these puppies to the Denon AH-C700s???? Which many folk have fallen in love with.thanXs

Chris on March 12, 2008 2:24 AM

These sounds great! They kick the crap out of my Sony EX71′s and definitely edge out my Sony D66′s. I’m quite pleased with how warm the sound is; my Shure E?c’s (not sure which model they are, they were a gift….either E3c’s or E5c’s) have a much brighter sound to the point of being unnatural and I’m thrilled my M8′s don’t suffer from the safe problem. The bass is rich and warm and all frequencies are clear.I also picked up some Shure foam tips (size M, I fit the medium Future Sonics rubbers and the large foams for anyone concerned with size). They really are great. They’re much easier to get in and out of your ears than the FS foams, have a more natural feel, seem more durable, and still sound great. They are better than the FS foamies in every way and are a must-have.My only complaint with these is that I listened to them so much when I got them that I dropped my iAudio X5 and toasted the hard drive :( Fortunately I picked up a Sansa e260 4GB off woot.com for $50. Yay Rockbox!

Dwarak on March 18, 2008 6:27 PM

Thank you so much for the review. I have been kind of in a dilemma for the past few weeks whether to buy FS or go with Ultimate ears. More reviews I read, more I get convinced that FS is better. This review summed it all up, and right after reading this review, I bought them. I am also going to buy the foam tips. THANKS! Very helpful review indeed.

James on June 2, 2008 3:59 AM

After I read your review I got a pair Atrio M5. However, I didn’t experience the perfection described on this review.Bass and Mid is great, the high are no good, pure static. I listen to some rock by goo goo doll nickelback, coldplay viva la vida. When they really play the guitar its pure static. I burn them in overnight didn’t do any good. My music are in 320k mp3 and flac iaudio 7 and zen vision M. Do you have some insight toward this?

Martin Sägmüller on June 5, 2008 10:40 AM

James, sounds like you probably got a faulty pair. I don’t know what kind of “static” you mean (broad band, background hiss, etc) – but first try them on another player, and if that doesn’t help then RMA them.

James on June 6, 2008 3:29 AM

Hiss when vocalist sings high note and broad band static when guitar and bass play at climax. I was confused, since I attribute defective with no sound from earphone, I wasn’t expecting a $199 pair of IEM sounding worse than a 5 dollar earbud from radio shack. lol

Martin Sägmüller on June 9, 2008 11:07 AM

Definitely sounds like a faulty pair. Return them under warranty and get a working pair. To make sure everything is alright with the next pair, don’t burn them in, just listen normally to the phones. In my experience too much pink/white/sine burn-in can do more harm than good.

Phil on June 9, 2008 1:48 PM

i just received my M5 and i note they have no memory wires and a little different shape – more curved – than the ones in the review.Anyone else has the same issue?(Just to know, they sound great either)

Phil on June 9, 2008 1:49 PM

i just received my M5 and i note they have no memory wires and a little different shape – more curved – than the ones in the review.Anyone else has the same issue?(Just to know, they sound great either)

Phil on June 9, 2008 1:51 PM

i just received my M5 and i note they have no memory wires and a little different shape – more curved – than the ones in the review.Anyone else has the same issue?(Just to know, they sound great either)

James on June 10, 2008 5:33 PM

Got my new pair today, sound alot better. Hook up to fluke multimeter and validate immpedance. Now I plan to durn in with my sound frequency generator and monitor it via digital oscilloscope. What type of frequency do you think I should use for the burn in Martin?

Chris on June 11, 2008 11:17 AM

Martin, I’ve been a M5 owner for about 9 months and love their sound (whoa–the bass!!) but find them uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Have you heard a full-sized can (open or closed) that has a similar sound footprint to the M5 in your travels? Ultrasone 780 maybe?

Chris on June 11, 2008 12:32 PM

Hmmm…re-read your review very carefully–great stuff–and think I might have answered my own question. M5′s have a “dark” sound signature and something like the Senn HD-650 sounds “dark” as well. I guess I never really knew that I was a fan of “dark”, but it makes a lot of sense now. Does the Senn 650 have a similar sound signature to the M5, Martin? Maybe something like the Denon D2000 and D5000 also?

James on June 15, 2008 2:38 AM

Would burn-in with mild sound frequency with my Techtronics frequency generator monitored by oscilloscope be a better option than blasting music overnight on my iaudio/zen vision?What about volume?

Samwan on July 28, 2008 9:45 AM

How is the synergy between these IEMs and the Cowon D2?

Joe on August 15, 2008 1:15 PM

I’ve been a fan of Future Sonics for years. The Atrios are definitely better than anything out there. Sound and comfort cannot be beat for the price. Their approach is better than Shure, Etom, and all the other out there that are basically go the “hearing aid” route.I’ve had dozen of friends that saw “Future who?” “Atrio?”. Once they try them, they literally say, holy shyte, these are great and order them right away. Especially those I know that even a more discriminating ear than me. Classical, jazz, rock, pop, rap – they are the best in-ear ones out there.They are also GREAT for judging MP3 players – you can judge how good a MP3 sounds (yes, there is a difference between devices playing the same file at the same bitrate!)Atrios are the best product in consumer audio that no one has ever heard of.

Sam on October 15, 2008 4:07 AM

Hi, love these earphones and very good review. Does anyone have any experience with which tips offer the best sound overall?

Santos Al Halper on October 22, 2008 12:22 AM

^ I’m using the black/olive shure foamies.

Jonathan on November 26, 2008 12:07 AM

Cool review, how would you compare this to the Q-Jays? I’m having a hard time deciding between these two.

Joe on December 10, 2008 8:12 PM

This review infuenced my decision. I just purchased my very first DAP (4GB clip) and have it paired up to Atrios. I am now on the hunt for full sized cans and

Sarah on January 23, 2009 5:11 AM

I don’t know if this is too old to still comment on, but I will anyway.I absolutely love the sound of these phones, they are the best I’ve ever had. BUT I’ve now gone through two pairs in less than half a year. Both times the right phone just stopped working. I can’t believe the same thing happened a second time.Is there some faulty issue with these Atrios or do I just have horrible luck? I have tried to find more info about their longevity but most reviews and feedback is from people trying them for the first time, not those who’ve had them for a while.I sorely miss my Atrios. While deciding what I’m gonna do now using my backup cheap phones after these is like listening with cotton in my ears.

Syrius on February 2, 2009 10:59 PM

Have you tried contacting Future Sonics? They might just send a replacement your way.

Samwan on February 17, 2009 9:33 PM

my pair is up for sale on ebay for anyone who’s interested!http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=120380265165

luigi on March 20, 2009 7:09 AM

I’ve got a lot of earphones (seenheiser, shure, two ultimate ears super-fi, sony).I bought one future sonics after this review and they are the best ones! They are really marvelous. So, thanks, anythingbudtipod

cLy on June 1, 2009 8:19 AM

Atrio include to size of foam, large and medium i thinki’m currently using the smaller foam (medium size) on my atrio m5, the bigger one doesnt fit well.which one of the shure foam

joseph chua on November 5, 2009 2:51 PM

i just want to add.. future sonics has the best service i have encountered thus far for ANY product. i emailed them abt my faulty pair of atrios.. and they immediately went ahead to try and get a replacement set for me.. top notch service.. certainly a factor to be considered

Scooter on November 20, 2009 4:32 AM

Picked up a pair of these puppies off ebay for US$95 to replace my (stolen) Etymotic Research ER-6i cans. They definitely have great bass, although I wouldn’t pronounce them definitely superior to the Eties as the latter have better clarity in the mids and highs, and also provide better isolation (although the Atrios do have relatively good isolation with the double-flanges). They do sound a little “harsh and boomy”, but are not fully burned in yet, so perhaps I should reserve judgement…On the whole, happy with my purchase (especially given the price) – but not overwhelmed.

Newzild on December 21, 2009 12:07 AM

….update after a month. The sound signature has changed a lot with burn-in. The harsh, boomy sound has given way to a much smoother listening experience. I do like them now in a general sense, but am frustrated by their recessed mids. I keep turning up the volume to hear the guitar strings and vocals, only to get walloped by the thumping bass and a peaky little piercing high in the upper frequencies. I’m used to the crystal-clear and flat midrange of the Eties.They respond quite well to being paired with an amp. I use the Fiio E3 and E5.Can’t have it all, I guess…

Kiwi on December 22, 2009 8:30 PM

Hey just curious if anyone has tried the version 2 of these phones??

Scooter on January 16, 2010 10:11 AM

…update after two months.The sound signature has stopped changing and is frankly a little disappointing. Great bass, as I said, but the mids and highs can’t hold a candle to my old Etymotic ER-6i cans, which were cheaper.These puppies are going on ebay…

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