Ortofon e-Q5 Review

ortofon e q5 main Ortofon e Q5 ReviewOrtofon Denmark is best known for being a seasoned manufacturer of cartridges and stylus tips for both DJ turntables and home hifi record players alike. Less known in Europe and America is that Ortofon’s Japanese daughter brand has quite the different gear line-up to offer for the Asian market. Not only does Ortofon Japan provide everything from amps to speakers for an upper class home hifi system, lately they also entered the portable audio market with two in-ear phones, first the e-Q7 and now the e-Q5.

While other brands often jump on the profitable IEM bandwagon with a “me too” attitude, adding yet another pair of generic phones to the unmanageable pile of models a customer has to wade through, Ortofon Japan sure entered this market in style. The e-Q7 and e-Q5 use neither dynamic drivers nor balanced armatures, as found in 99.9% of all other in-ear phones available. They use a newly developed technology instead, a hybrid of aforementioned transducer designs, a so-called “moving armature”, or “single pole armature”, manufactured by Yashima Electric. This kind of speaker features a diaphragm as in a traditional dynamic driver, but instead of being driven by a voice coil, it’s driven by a miniaturized armature ‘motor’. While regular balanced armatures rest between two magnetic poles, the Ortofon driver is surrounded by a single magnetic field, thus the “single pole” moniker.

Generally speaking, dynamic drivers are often said to have a more full-bodied, more substantial sound, with better soundstage – while armatures are said to have better precision and speed, yet are often thinner sounding (thus the reason for multi-armature IEMs with crossovers, to beef it up a bit).

Let’s see if Ortofon Japan managed to combine the best of both worlds in their moving armature equipped e-Q5.

  • Ortofon e-Q5 Specs
  • Driver: Balanced armature driver
  • Frequency response: 10Hz – 20kHz, +/-3dB
  • Sensitivity: 118dB SPL for 1mW input at 1kHz
  • Impedance: 40 Ohm
  • Cable: 1.2m, straight 3.5mm plug
  • Accessories: 3 pairs of silicone ear tips (S/M/L), 1 pair of Comply foam tips, 4 replacement filters, 2 replacement filter rings, filter replacement tool
  • Available colors: black, red, silver

Accessories, Packaging

The e-Q5 come in a small cardboard box with a snazzy red/black metal tin inside. Easy to open, and no packaging overkill – I like that. Due to its size, the tin might not be the best choice for carrying the phones around, though, but it should make for a nice pencil holder on my desk.

One finds the average three sizes of silicone ear tips in the box, and one pair of Comply foam tips. The silicone tips are thin and soft. They are very comfortable to my ears, provide a good seal without hassle, and do their job well. Isolation with these tips is about average, same as most other IEMs provide. I tried other brands’ tips with the e-Q5, such as Ultimate Ears Super.Fi tips and Phonak PFE tips – both of those are made from thicker material, and I noticed a slight increase in isolation with them, without altering the perceived sound quality. If a bit more noise rejection is desired, I would recommend looking for thicker tips to fit – but Ortofon’s original silicone tips are perfectly fine.

As for the included Comply tips, they’re basically the same that come with almost any phone nowadays. That is because Comply owns a patent on how to attach the inner plastic stem onto the outer foam of an ear tip, and as a result they ran most of the competition off the market. Comply replacement tip prices are a ripoff. They’re overpriced at $15 for three pairs, considering their low durability – but seems nobody does anything about these corporate bullies and their patent-trolling. The positive thing with the e-Q5’s Comply tips is that they’re at least black. For a long time these tips were only available in light grey and got dirty and grimy in less than a week. It’s easy to calculate from here what a yearly supply of Comply tips would cost… where was I? Oh yes, the Complys of course do isolate more than the silicone tips.

As for other accessories, there’s replacement filters for the sound canal, some spare rings that hold them in place, in case you lose one, and a hi-tech toothpick to remove the filter rings from the nozzle. The filter meshes are very loosely woven, they certainly don’t act as an acoustic filter that shapes the frequency response of the phones. They’re only for preventing dirt and dust entering the sound canal.

Despite the e-Q being only sold locally in Japan, the manual that comes with them is in (broken) English as well. Not that anyone generally needs a manual for a pair of phones, but this one provides a technical drawing of the IEM’s innards and some other factoids for the audio geek. I like that.

Build

The e-Q5’s box proudly displays its “Made in Japan” slogan – and it shows. The e-Q5 are gorgeous, both in design and build quality. The earpieces are made of a solid piece of milled aluminum, anodized for the black and red versions, as-is for the silver version. Ortofon calls the housing an “acoustic chamber”, and claims it’s hand-made by a “master craftsman/machinist”. Sounds quite luxurious, and turns out it isn’t any more expensive than other quality IEMs in that league.

The cable is high quality as well. It’s very soft and flexible, yet feels sturdy. I would put it up there with the best IEM cables I know of, the ones on the Sennheiser IE 8 and the Panasonic HJE900. Contrary to those two, the cable on the e-Q5 however isn’t user replaceable, but that’s only a minor concern. The two cables above the Y-splitter, leading to the earpieces, are rather thin compared to the part that leads to the 3.5mm plug, but they feel solid enough. A slider that adjusts the length of the two split cables, as found on most other IEMs, is missing on the e-Q5. This doesn’t matter much, since those contraptions never really work anyways.

Contrary to the e-Q7, the e-Q5’s cable isn’t covered in fabric, which is a major improvement. The e-Q7’s cloth-covered cable is very stiff and transmits more cable noise to the IEMs. It’s just for looks, but has no practical use.

Strain relief and Y-splitter on the e-Q5’s cable are big and sturdy – almost a bit too big. The 3.5mm straight plug sticks out quite a bit from any MP3 player. I prefer angled plugs on portable phones in general, but one learns to live with straight plugs. Strain reliefs on the earpieces look rather inconspicuous and unique, but I trust Ortofon’s manual which reassuringly mentions the “elastomer with just the right degree of hardness to protect the engine/cable connection”. I suspect the cable connection on the earpieces doubles as a vent/port for the driver, since these single pole armature drivers can be vented, contrary to most standard balanced armatures.

While the e-Q5’s construction resembles the older Etymotic ER-4 a bit, with their red marker on the right earpiece and the cable protruding from the back of the phones, they can be worn quite comfortably with the cables over the ears. This reduces cable noise – also known as ‘microphonics’ – a lot. With the cables hanging down, cable noise is pretty bad, same as most other IEMs. I can barely stand to listen to them that way. Worn over the ear they are just fine, absolutely nothing to complain about. They might not stay as perfectly safe over the ears as phones with angled cable entries, but for me the cables don’t slip down often. One can also use silicone ear guides, such as the ones that come with the Phonak PFE, on the e-Q5’s cable, virtually eliminating all over-the-ear fit issues.

Speaking of comfort: despite their looks, the e-Q5 are very comfortable, to my ears at least. I can even use them while sleeping, and don’t wake up with sore ears in the morning. The housing diameter is the same as the e-Q7 on the ear end, but the e-Q5 are a bit shorter and somehow fit more naturally in my ears than their older siblings.

Specs

Let’s take a look at some technical details… Impedance specs on the box read 40 Ohm, in the manual there’s a rather weird ‘+/- 25%’ disclaimer added to that. This would mean they could be either 30 or 50 Ohm, which would be a rather huge tolerance margin. I hope the right and left drivers get matched properly in the factory, otherwise one earpiece could be quite a bit louder or quieter than the other. My pair of e-Q5 has no balance issues, of course – and I somehow believe the ‘+/-25%’ statement must be a typo of sorts. It should most likely read ‘2.5%’.

The e-Q5 do use a rather novel transducer, which is only used in less than a handful of products so far (e-Q7, Grado GR8 and GR10, for example), so it’s plausible it might act a bit differently than standard dynamic drivers or balanced armatures. Despite the 40 Ohm claim, they do hiss a tiny bit with portable players. Rest assured, though – it’s way less than an average multi-armature IEM with passive crossover inside. While phones like the Ultimate Ears UE11 or Shure SE530 are almost unusable with a wide range of MP3 players, the e-Q5 behave much better. I have no means of measuring their real impedance, but I did a quick check of their electrical resistance with a multimeter. The result was a bit below 15 Ohm. Of course this doesn’t tell the whole story, but it at least shows that there’s something non-standard going on in the e-Q5.

118dB SPL means the e-Q5 are rather sensitive phones, they go loud enough with any MP3 player. They’re not the loudest ones to be found, but way above the quiet Phonak PFE or similar phones.

Sound

I listened to the e-Q5 for over a month to get a good feeling for them. In that time I didn’t notice any changes in perceived sound quality at all. It’s safe to say that they don’t ‘burn in’ (mechanically or mentally) and already sound their best straight out of the box.

If I had to describe the e-Q5’s sound signature in one sentence, I would say they’re somewhere in the middle between the Phonak PFE and the EarSonics SM3, being closer to the PFE as a whole. This is something I don’t say lightly, since the SM3 are basically my personal favorite IEMs to date, and I gave the PFE the editor’s choice award for best analytical/precise IEMs. The e-Q5 share the PFE’s forward-yet-never-sibilant treble, and their rather subtle-yet-refined bass response. With the SM3 they share the lush, voluminous, more substantial sound character that multi-armature IEMs often have over single-armature ones, while still retaining excellent precision and detail.

In most aspects the e-Q5’s novel driver technology is more in the balanced armature camp than in the dynamic driver one – unless we’re talking about certain aspects of very good dynamic driver IEMs, such as the JVC FX700, Head-Direct RE0, or the Sennheiser IE 8. I’m not talking about their frequency response here (which is very different between all the mentioned models) – it’s more about accuracy, speed, detail, and in particular about the special timbre one often gets with dynamic drivers.

Compared to the e-Q7, the e-Q5’s older and more expensive sibling, there’s not a lot of sound difference to make out. Both phones share the same driver, only the e-Q5’s housing is a little shorter. The e-Q5 appear to be a bit brighter, appear to have slightly more treble – or, vice versa, the e-Q7 appear to have slightly more bass and midrange response, depending on the way one looks at it. The difference between the two however is tiny, only noticeable in a direct comparison; as long as one’s auditory short term memory works.

Let’s get a bit more in-depth… Treble on the e-Q5, as already mentioned, I what I would describe as a bit ‘forward’. Of course this is a matter of debate, since I personally am quite fond of phones with a slightly ‘warmer’ sonic character, such as the EarSonics SM3 or Sennheiser HD650. For many people – especially those of more advanced age with less treble sensitive ears – the e-Q5’s treble quantity might be just about right. Perceived quantity aside, the treble quality Ortofon achieved in these phones is outstanding. It is always sparkling, fast, and detailed, yet never sibilant (as long as the recording isn’t). Cymbals, hi-hats, female voices on quality recordings never smear together, every detail is portrayed precisely. I wouldn’t touch that splendid treble with an EQ, no matter how I perceive its quantity. I’m thoroughly enjoying what I hear there, as-is.

The e-Q5’s midrange is excellent as well, a perfect example of how it’s done right. It’s very similar to what one hears on some of the best multi-armature IEMs, such as the Shure SE530 or my beloved SM3. It’s just grand, lush, substantial – musical, in other words – yet it’s extremely precise, refined, and detailed. Where quality single armature phones are able to deliver all the detail and speed needed for top notch music reproduction, they often sound a bit thin compared to armature IEMs with more than one driver – and dynamic drivers often don’t achieve the utmost resolution, detail, and speed. The e-Q5’s driver indeed combines the best of both worlds in this aspect. Its midrange is well balanced, appears both very enjoyable and effortless, and could still be used for critical listening or mixing/monitoring as well.

Bass response is ‘polite’ on the e-Q5. Quantity-wise, it’s basically equal to the Phonak PFE with grey filters. Quality-wise, it extends as deep as possible with no distracting midbass hump or other ‘cheap’ sounding connotations – again, same as the PFE in that aspect as well. Where the e-Q5’s bass shines is in its timbre and long decay. While the PFE sounds dryer and more analytical in its lower frequency registers, the e-Q5 add a smidgen more texture, and don’t cut the bass decay off as early. It has a pleasing ‘roomy’ (not boomy) quality to it, a kind of reverberation or resonance that sounds very natural. Compared to the e-Q7 it sounds a bit lighter, tighter and more cohesive, but not by much. The SM3’s bass sounds closer to the PFE in these aspects, albeit with more quantity and punch/impact. Needless to say, none of the phones mentioned – including the e-Q5 – would make bassheads overly happy, but that’s a given, considering the balanced, natural character of them. A bit of quality EQing never hurts, and the e-Q5 could of course be tweaked to deliver a more voluminous bass, if one wishes to do so.

Same as most other phones with a similar neutral/natural sound character and frequency curve, the e-Q5 do sound better to my ears when played a bit louder. That’s just how the average human loudness-contour perception works. At very quiet volume levels they seem to lack some clarity, transparency, and bass response, but turning them up reveals their true qualities – stunning precision and a great balanced rendition of each instrument or voice on a recording. Don’t get me wrong, of course I’m not talking about ear shattering volume levels here, I’m talking about average non-damaging loudness compared to soft-as-a-whisper night time listening levels.

Stereo imaging, or ‘soundstaging’ if one wants to call it so, is excellent on the e-Q5 as well. The phones present a wide, pleasing image with well spaced and positioned instruments. It’s a very homogenous soundscape. After some time with the e-Q5 I forget that I’m actually listening to tiny in-ear phones. It might be that the drivers are vented at the back of the housings, where the cable entries are – ‘open’ designs usually achieve better stereo imaging more easily than fully closed ones. This however is pure speculation on my part.

Conclusion

All the comparisons in the chapter above hopefully give a good picture of where the e-Q5 stand, quality-wise. I really couldn’t find any overly valid comparisons to less expensive phones, so I didn’t even try. Simply put, the e-Q5 are top notch phones in most aspects, right up there with the best of the best.

They should make an excellent upgrade for people used to the Phonak PFE’s or Audio Technica ATH-CK10’s sound signature, and probably for fans of Etymotic or the Head-Direct RE0/RE252 as well. While still retaining these phones outstanding clarity and precision, the e-Q5 add some euphonic weight, grandeur, and timbre to the sound, making them subjectively more ‘musical’ sounding.

Compared to the likes of the EarSonics SM3, Shure SE530, or maybe the Final Audio FI-BA-SS/SB, I would consider the e-Q5 a valid sidestep, depending on one’s personal preferences. All these phones do a great job in most aspects; one just has to pick the one that suits one’s idea of the ‘perfect’ sound the best. By the way, my Ultimate Ears UE11 are basically on the same level as the other IEMs mentioned as well, give or take a few – to me it seems it doesn’t matter if a phone has a custom shell or universal fit. In my opinion there’s only one category of high class phones: finish or price tag doesn’t really tell that much about the sound. The e-Q5 are in good company, so to speak.

The final question probably is: e-Q5 or e-Q7? For me it’s perfectly simple – the fabric-covered cable on the e-Q7 is so annoying to handle, I’d take the e-Q5 over them without a second thought. The e-Q7 might be a bit better suited to be worn over the ears, but they stick out of the ears a bit more as well – and, most of all, the difference in sound quality is barely noticeable between the two, while the e-Q5 go for about $60 less than the e-Q7.

All in all, I can recommend the e-Q5 highly to people looking for a very honest, accurate, musical IEM. They sound great, they look great, and they feel great. Ortofon sure entered the portable phone market with a bang. Can’t wait to see what they come up with next – but for now the e-Q5 will keep me perfectly happy.

Pros

  • Euphonic, lush, transparent, precise sound quality with slightly forward treble
  • Great looks, great build quality
  • Easy to drive by any MP3 player
  • Comfortable to wear

Cons

  • Might lack some bass impact for various kinds of music and/or various people’s tastes
  • Large straight 3.5mm plug, sticks out rather far from portable players

Purchase

The e-Q5 can be bought from Musica Acoustics Japan, currently for $288 (incl. free worldwide shipping).

15 Comments

lestatar on January 30, 2011 4:28 PM

As usual another excellent review. But dammit, now I want these and the Phonaks [this new transducer thing and a pair of B/As]…This site still makes me hemmorhage money… :D

lestatar on January 30, 2011 4:29 PM

Sorry, forgot to ask: dfkt, you only mention the Panas in passing – can you describe a bit how the e5s sound in comparison?

The Larch on January 30, 2011 5:18 PM

These look like the best of the moving armature phones to me. Nice review, as always!

Daanish on January 30, 2011 6:32 PM

Excellent review dfkt! I mirror your thoughts, they are so musical yet detailed at the same time, just a pleasure to listen to. I will admit though, that for metal in general they can be a bit harsh at times if the recording is not good. For slower music, they are fantastic!

Daanish on January 30, 2011 6:42 PM

Say dfkt, do you eq these with your J3? Mind sharing if you do :) ?

k5r2an on January 30, 2011 7:50 PM

Wow, these look sexy

Martin Sägmüller on January 30, 2011 8:38 PM

Guys, I answered your questions in the forum thread, it’s just more convenient. ;)

http://anythingbutipod.com/forum/showthread.php?t=60997

Confispect on January 31, 2011 9:31 PM

Congrats.

shigzeo on February 1, 2011 1:42 PM

Excellent review of excellent earphones. I look forward to your next hit review!

kasrhp on February 3, 2011 6:15 PM

Another fantastic review. I’m starting to hate them though because it seems I constantly desire what is written here.

Yaoza on February 9, 2011 6:17 AM

I thought cloth cables didn’t get stiff in really cold weather? Mostly good for snowboarders.

funkz on March 8, 2011 11:49 PM

I have the e-Q7 and after about 3 months of usage, still loving them. If the e-Q5 sounds anything like these, I would definitely recommend them. The isolation is very good with silicon tips and the construction is great. Sound is very clear and quiet with lots of details coming through. I actually found the bass to be a little soft on the e-Q7. But it’s certainly there and goes real deep. Tends to come through strong with higher volume. I’d love to try the Q5 but judging by the Q7, I’d say its a wicked headphone.

Will on May 31, 2011 11:45 AM

I just noticed the comment about the impedance – what you said is actually completely wrong, there is no problem with having a highly variable impedance. Impedance, in its very nature, is variable – it’s basically just a form of resistance that varies with different frequencies. So when they say +-20, they really mean that, depending on the frequency, it may be 20 higher or lower than the stated amount. The measured impedance is usually somewhere like 1000hz – it would be pretty unwieldy to release a whole graph of values with every headphone released.

Still, usually only multi-armature IEMs vary that much…I guess MA is new, so I don’t know how they would compare in that way.

Davad on August 4, 2011 3:36 AM

Thanks for this review. I was right there with you the whole way; made perfect sense. My e-Q7s were just stolen out of my luggage at Singapore airport (along with my headphone DAC) and while I loved them and intended to replace them, your review convinced me to go for the new 5s. Thanks again.

James on September 7, 2012 5:33 AM

You did a great detailed and in depth review and I do think they sound more different than many do.

I had the e-Q7 for awhile before I got the e-Q5 and have since sold my e-Q7. To me they do sound quite different in the mids, highs and soundstage.

The mids as you know are further back but by no means recessed at all and still have the smooth liquid sound. Now the texture of the mids are still similar but the fact that they are more balanced is the reason I like the e-Q5 more.

Highs are one of the more different sounding aspects of the 2 with the e-Q5 having the brighter and more crisp highs next to the relaxed ones on the e-Q7.

Where they sound the most different imo is the soundstage. The e-Q7 might still be a bit wider but the e-Q5 has better depth and height and the added airiness of the presentation makes the e-Q5′s soundstage more cohesive and sound larger over all.

Both a great IEM’s but the less expensive e-Q5 has the more balanced sound signature which I prefer over the mid-centric sound of the e-Q7 though if your a hard core vocal lover than the e-Q7 might be the better of the 2 for you.

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