Shure has launched a new series of wired earphones, Aonic 3, Aonic 4 and Aonic 5. Grandtech Systems, the local distributor, sent over the earphones for my review. I decide to start with the best earphones among the three. Aonic 5 will be available in Singapore from 1 Oct at S$699.
One may wonder if wired in-ear headphones are still in demand. Based on my observation, there are a lot of people who still uses wired earphones, but only because of convenience. They don’t need to charge, work very reliably, and cheap (or even free as it comes bundled with the smartphones). For premium headphones, going wires is still the best as it ensures the purest audio signal transmission from the source to the ears.
The Aonic 5 is probably one of the most elaborately customisable wired earphones I have reviewed in recent years. It’s so customisable that I don’t even know if my review is a good reflection of what you might experience. This is because you could mix and match various accessories in the package to get a completely different sound as what I am hearing. That’s why it took me more than two weeks to come up with this review.
The Aonic 5 is driven by two woofers and one tweeter balanced armature drivers, which is the same setup as its predecessor, the Shure SE535 launched in 2010. This review unit comes in a transparent housing which reveals the interior hardware.
There are three ways to change the sound signature of the Aonic 5. First, there are nozzles that can be swapped, just like the Shure SE846. The pre-installed nozzle is the balanced sound, and the other two pairs stored in the metal capsule adjusts to either the bright sound or the warm sound. According to the manual, the nozzle adjusts about 2.5 dB up and down around the 1-8 kHz frequency.
Second, there are numerous ear tips made of various materials, from the standard silicone to the black Comply Foam as well as the striking yellow foam tips. In case you are skeptical, different ear tips actually alter the sound, for better or for worse.
Finally, the cables are detachable from the earbuds connected with MMCX. And yes, cable materials can alter the sound balancing. The included cable comes with in-line remote control and a switch to make it compatible with both Android and iPhones.
I’m going to spend some time talking about the sound quality of the Aonic 5, because if you are reading this, then you are probably not a normal shopper looking for just another earphones. Aonic 5 carries the legacy of both SE535 and SE846, and all their audio characteristics focuses on midrange. In most consumer-tuned headphones, this part of the frequency is usually the most-neglected because they are not easy to control, and when done poorly, the headphones will sound muffled and bloated. To casual listeners, they want “clear treble” and “strong bass”, and most chart-topping genre songs are tuned for this.
The general sound signature of the Aonic 5 – using the neutral nozzle as a baseline – is a strong midrange presence, balanced bass, and expansive treble. Despite two woofer BA drivers, the bass impact is not massive at all, but very musical. A musical bass allows you to hear the instrumental fabric and not just a blast of subsonic rumbles, and on the Aonic 5, you can enjoy the bass tonality without overpowering the rest of the instrumental details. So for tracks like Sam Smith “Pray” or Billie Eilish “Bad Guy”, you get the deep bass thumping politely while occupying about 30% of the air, leaving the vocals and accompanying instruments room for presentation.
Moving up the frequency, the midrange delivers forthcoming details and fullness while carrying the weight of balancing between the bass and treble. You see, people always talk about bass and treble, but seldom on midrange, that’s because midrange is where the bass and treble overlap. When you alter the bass or treble, technically it also affects the midrange. It’s almost like the unwanted sibling of the frequency family, the one that always makes the mess. That’s one reason why the V-shaped EQ is the most popular. But midrange is part of the audio experience, and so good headphones tackle it with confidence, even if it means compromising the bass and treble. This is what we call the “neutral” tuning, and Aonic 5 achieves this balance very well. The music just sounds more “real”, less “digital”. I can pick up the full extent of the musical notes being delivered for each instrument, from attack to decay. Every instrument plays a part in a song, and Aonic 5 helps bring their beauty out.
The treble on the Aonic 5 is the most tricky aspect. Using the default neutral nozzle and the pre-installed grey silicone ear tips, I am uncomfortable with the peaky sibilance occurring on strong vocals, solo brass instruments, cymbals and hi-hats. And this is where changing the ear tips helps. I find that the black foam tips reduces the sibilance energy and make them slightly more controlled. The yellow foam tames the sibilance a little more and delivers a little more warmth, which I also like. I would switch between these two depending on my mood.
When I explored further with the various nozzles, I found my sweet spot with the warm nozzle (in black). It achieves an improved bass response while retaining the treble engagement without the uncomfortable sibilance. I was surprised the warm nozzle did not really darken the treble, but rather eases on the mid-treble pushiness while giving room for airiness. So in effect, the treble sounds cleaner and more transparent. But it still could not attain the transparency level of Shure KSE1200.
Sound staging wise, the Aonic 5 provides compact stereo imaging, in front of me and slight apart. The instruments are not spaced out horizontally but still achieves good separation. I could pick up instrumental details better than most other earphones despite the warm tuning. Indeed, the Aonic 5 is a very sensitive pair earphones, and on some equipment, it is unforgiving in revealing floor noise and electrostatic interferences.
With the right ear tips and the nozzle, the Shure Aonic 5 achieves an impressive musical balance across the audio spectrum. Most earphones are focused on making them sound “clear” and “boomy”. The Aonic 5 delivers instrumental details, achieves musical impact on all frequencies without compromising any. The bass fills without drowning the highs, the treble provides clarity without exaggeration, and the midrange holds them together with details, definition and expression.
What I like about listening to Aonic 5 is that it gives equal prominence to all frequency ranges. It’s not about strong bass, nor about super clear treble. It’s about respecting the music. Available from 1 October in Singapore at S$699.