Brainwavz HM5 Stereo Headphone Review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Feb 8, 2014.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review: Brainwavz HM5 Stereo Headphone review by Dale - YouTube


    Sources: iPhone5, iPhone5 with FiiO E07k using LOD, iPhone5 with Decware Zen Head amp, various computers using the Microstreamer and ALO Island DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the HM5 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, in particular the FAD Pandora VI, Yamaha MT220, B&O H6, B&W P7, v-moda M100, Beyerdynamic T51p, and notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I describe how I relate to the HM5 (i.e. my personal taste and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    The Brainwavz HM5 is unusual in several respects. It's unusual for me to get a new headphone that has no need for EQ out of the box or after a short burn-in. It's more unusual for such a headphone to be full-size and comfortable and sell for less than $130 USD. It's extremely unusual to get all of that and a host of excellent accessories included. I've purchased a few low-cost headphones in the past couple of years that have had quality issues, but looking over the HM5 very carefully, everything seems to be very well made, nicely finished, and precisely engineered. Highly recommended from the start!

    The HM5 bass seems good to me, not heavy or weak, but the deep bass isn't as strong as I'd like in a high-quality headphone for critical listening. So using my Audioforge parametric equalizer app I boosted 33 hz and 85 hz by 4 db, which made the lower bass respond perfectly and with no residual distortion, even on very dynamic music such as pipe organ recordings. The midrange I found to be unremarkable - i.e. free of colorations. The treble may be the smoothest that I've measured by ear with test tones in a long time - the output at 1500 hz, 2 khz and 9 khz seem slightly stronger than the adjacent frequencies, but that's being very critical and will vary with different users. Summing up the sound, the HM5 scores pretty high, but the deep bass may need a tweak. Even the one-button bass boost facilities on some amps and music players should work well, since the HM5 does not have a built-in bass emphasis that would add to a bass boost and color the sound.

    The HM5's soundstage is above average for a closed headphone, and I think the excellent treble response plays a big role there. Isolation is above average as well, but while leakage is pretty low, if you play music loudly in a very quiet office, people in adjoining cubicles may hear faint traces of your music. Like most headphones, the HM5 sound improves noticeably with DACs and headphone amps as compared to using it with just a low-cost portable music player or cellphone, and the HM5 plays very loudly with typical iPods and iPhones. To appreciate the difference a good DAC and amp can make, play music using the DAC/amp first, then switch to a portable music player and hear the difference. That difference is usually subtle and difficult to appreciate the other way around: if you listen with the portable player first and then switch to the DAC/amp. I think that's because it's easier to hear what detail is lost in the former example instead of what's gained in the latter example, unless the gain is dramatic.

    The HM5's build quality seems very good - partly metal and part plastic. The headband has a very strong clamp, but the very deep, soft and squishy earpads form so well around the ears that after a few seconds, the sensation just goes away. Inexperienced headphone users may notice the clamping though. The earcups have very handy click detents, and the earcups can be extended at least an inch further than where they fit my ears. The HM5's earcups do make a slight contact with my chin when they're extended all the way down and I'm wearing it around my neck, so I wouldn't regard the HM5 as an ideal portable headphone in that sense. Still, I'd judge it to be very suitable for outdoor use or on public transport as long as the user is aware of the potential limitations. The earpad openings are larger than many of the full-size headphones I've used, so they might fit some of the bigger ears that get cramped with other full-size headphones.

    The cables are dual-sided and detachable, but the plugs are mono and where they snap in - I don't think it would be easy to find a generic replacement. The 1.3 and 3 meter cables are rubber-coated and look strong, they're thick enough to inspire confidence in their durability, and both are terminated with standard 3.5 mm miniplugs. The miniplugs are threaded for a screw-on 6.35 mm (1/4 inch) adapter, but I don't normally use the screw-on type because of prior experience with loose connections.

    The music tracks below have been listed in a number of prior reviews, and are a selection of my most revealing tracks for headphone testing. Since these tracks cover a wide range of genres and were selected from my tests of very different headphones, there won't be a bias toward the HM5 with this music. I suggest that instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to the prior reviews and see how the HM5 compares with each individual track.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    HM5 review part 2 - music tracks

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The HM5 plays this very well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled extremely well by the HM5.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note for the HM5 are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, and you can just feel a little of the weight they carry.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The HM5 plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled exceptionally well by the HM5.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The HM5 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The HM5 reproduces the space and detail convincingly.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the HM5 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The HM5 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are detailed but not sharp or edgy.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sounds realistic.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The HM5 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The HM5 plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the subtle bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response. Overall, the HM5 plays this music very well.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track are reproduced well with the HM5. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The HM5 provides excellent reproduction. Listen carefully to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrumental separation and detail, and the HM5 aces them.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The HM5 plays this perfectly.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very subtle deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is barely perceptible with the HM5.

    Phaeleh - Afterglow (feat. Soundmouse) (Electronic/Vocal): The instrumental sounds that begin this track are played very nicely by the HM5, but the voice tends to overwhelm those background sounds - until the heavy bass impacts kick in. If there is any doubt about whether the HM5 will play heavy impactful bass with good detail (if such sounds are really in the recording), this track is the proof. If you were to begin your HM5 listening with this track, you might think you were listening to a headphone that has a very boosted but tight and detailed bass. Simply amazing.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The HM5 reproduces those effects well.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The HM5 conveys that experience in a subtle but convincing way. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the HM5 renders the tones and transients very well.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are very strong, and work well with the horns and other instruments. The HM5 delivers the impacts with proper weight and great detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

    William Orbit - Optical Illusion (Billy Buttons Mix) (Electronic): This is about as close as I want to get to easy-listening music. The string tones beginning at 0:18 are fairly soft, and while the bass isn't very deep, it still adds a good underpinning to the music. The short poetic rap at 4:14, preceded by an etherial female voice, works very well with this track.

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