The Stage 5 is a shade on the darker side of neutral with a predominant bass tuning with a detailed but slightly in the mix midrange and a relaxed but well extended and very smooth treble response. It’s not a bloated bass one-note beat machine though and it is certainly no slouch but it is a colored custom monitor designed for plumbing the depths with malevolent intent whilst keeping an order of things up top. It hits deep, deep than the Harmony 8 and more convincing than the 1964EARS V8. Those looking for a flat neutral reference or a linear frequency response will find the Stage 5 a little bit too intense on the bottom end. The Stage 5 though is not as one-dimensional CIEM. Its presentation, whilst tuned from the bottom upwards does benefit from a better than average width in its soundstage, excellent imaging and above average detail. It also has a nice turn of pace that keeps the PraT strong and flexible for more than just beat-centric genres.
When I spoke to Rhines about this rather radical departure from the previous Stage series IEM’s rather more linear approach and this is what the guys had to say on the objective of the Stage 5 tonality:
Based on the Stage 4 vs Stage 4U controversy above, Rhines sought for a way to improve the Stage 4 and tailor it for a more consumer oriented customer base. The Stage series is known to be very fast and forward. It is very much a monitor for professionals and that’s what the Stage series originally intended. However, we felt that the Stage 4 has too aggressive highs with a slightly hollow timbre.
The Stage 5 is meant as an ‘audiophile’ version of the Stage 4. It has much better treble extension and a very clean V-shape. Although mids are recessed, they are well balanced and should sound more natural than on Stage 4 or Stage 3 even. The one aspect that Rhines is especially proud of, is the lack of peaks in the treble. It does have a curve (rises to balance out the bass) but it’s the smoothest treble our measurement setup has ever experienced. The extension is far better than with any other Stage model in the series (except Stage 7 obviously). Since the Stage 5 lacks two peaks of Stage 4 in mids and highs, the overall presentation is a lot smoother and less fatiguing. Overall the timbre, soundstage width and depth and resolution have been greatly improved. Stage 5 is the Stage 4 we wish we could have had earlier
During the discussion Felix remarked that for him the Stage 5 was more about listening to the music than simply analyzing the music:
I have always been monitoring the hifi market and when I got my hands on some new prototype technology, I immediately thought it would be great for a new monitor that can further improve the qualities of Stage 4. From all our line-up, the Stage 5 deviates the most with more headroom and softer presentation. Of course Stage 5 works with all genres and especially shines if the recording is complex with multiple layers, for example Classical music.
It’s a no-brainer to say that if you enjoy a deep bass response in your CIEM then the Rhines Stage 5 V-shape will suit your tastes. You may have noticed when I glanced across the bass in my tonality commentary I didn’t actually say that the Stage 5 is a bass head’s wet dream. I said it hits deep, but unlike the 1964EARS V8 the impact of the bass hit is much lower and not too centered in mid-bass meaning its very full, very present, reasonably fast but not pitched too high up as to overshadow the mid-section which is critical given the slight recession. Yup it has great punch and EDM is an absolute delight with the Stage 5 but it is still a relatively well-controlled bass signature with decent speed and body.
The midrange sites back a bit from the rest of the presentation which, depending on your preference, maybe good for some, disappointing for others. I have to say though tonally the midsection is very competitive, with a very likable timbre, good separation and doesn’t sound in the least bit congested. The lack of bass bleed and above average instrument separation really does help the mids to perform cleanly.
However, the vocal presence is a bit weaker than other IEM’s such as the Harmony 8 and the AAW W3000AR. The timber is good, vocals sound nicely textured and sibilant free when allowed to perform but once the bass kicks off, the guitars get in motion and the cymbals get crashing they tend to come off second best. This makes it a little tricky with any double vocal recordings or close-packed harmonics with back vocals. Delta Goodrem’s “Wish you were here” using the DX90 was a pretty good example where the odd time it felt like there was this ongoing competition between the backing singers sitting on the sides and Delta’s main vocal track. I got the width, I just didn’t get the positioning I was hoping for. Well, it is a V-shaped midrange after all so perhaps I should not be too surprised.
The Stage 5 treble is really excellent for a v-curved monitor. The ability to get that added extension and sparkle at the top end without sounding too harsh or peaky is a testimony to how much attention they paid to the performance of this particular mix of drivers. They are neither tizzy, peaky or harsh sounding yet at the same time sound articulate, well extended and detailed. So whilst the lack of vocal peak might be a downer for me in the upper midrange, the way Rhines have tuned the treble extension for me is very satisfying for long-term listening without fatigue. I certainly rate the treble on the Stage 5 cleaner and with more extension and sparkle than the Harmony 8 (non-pro) and the UM Merlins which are more laid back right throughout the range.
The Stage 5 has a shallower soundstage than the Harmony 8 but slightly superior height and width with that better treble and bass extension. Imaging is especially good with the Stage 5 able to make great use of the width for some convincing instrumental interplays. Multiple violin exchanges in Max Richter’s re-working of Vivaldi’s Four seasons sound clean, airy and very well separated in that respect. For a v shape monitor, I found the soundstage to be surprisingly coherent for quite a few nonvocal based genres.
The Stage 5 is rated at a reasonable 24ohm impedance and therefore you don’t really need too much amplification to get decent volume and control on the Stage 5. A reasonably decent modern DAP such as the X3 or X5 Gen 2, DX90, Cayin N6 upwards should take care of things and then some. That being said, a small IEM amp or some specific ones can give a nice spin on the Stage 5 in terms of dynamics, noise and control. Amps such as the RX portable from ALO Audio and the Cypher Labs Picollo (or the DAC version) are ideally suited though I do give the edge to the RX due to the more neutral signature, greater dynamic range and soundstage potential which I think the Stage 5 suits better than the more mellowed out tones of the Picollo range.
The Duo & 720
The Vorzamp Duo amp sounded really good also with the Stage 5 with a nice smooth signature but I would still pick the Picollo or the RX over the Vorzamp Duo as the gain on the Duo is set a little too high for the Stage 5 giving very little room for gain or volume adjustment. The most I could push it safely was about a quarter dial up from 0 using the X3 Gen 2 as a line out source. Both of the aforementioned IEM specific amps had much better pot control overall.
My usual reference amp for CIEM reviews for background, the Theorem 720 (with iPod Classic 7th Gen) also performed excellently with the Stage 5 and managed to coax out a much superior vocal performance than from any of the mid to upper range DAP’s alone. This is what usually happens though when I test it with the 720; dynamics go up a notch, soundstage gets a bit more three dimensional and vocals get a bit more authority. Most importantly it doesn’t mess around with the smooth treble response or strangle that little touch of sparkle at the top end by overemphasizing it in anyway. It generally lifts all areas of the frequency up a notch whilst keeping everything tightly under control.
Midrange DAPs with a neutral signature also suited the Stage 5 better. The DX90 has some lovely control on the mids and treble reproduction but I was bit more cautious on the bass dynamics tended to overcook it a little on the low end which is not my desired response on the Stage 5.
I preferred more linear DAPs when pairing overall such as the Cayin N6 and the X5 2nd Gen. Yes I lost a little bit of the DX90 magic with the X5 Gen 2 but the slightly less dynamic and more neutral bass and the wide soundstage of the X5 Gen 2 suited the Stage 5 nicely. The old X5 Gen 1 would be trailing both of them by some distance tonally with the Stage 5 given its harsher treble and heavier bass signature.
The Stage 5 does not need more rich dynamics added to an already dynamic and deep bass signature in all honesty. What you are aiming for here is clarity and control and for me the Cayin N6 edges it in terms of matchability.
At the top end and surprisingly I had to throw on the high gain setting with my Lotoo Paw Gold to get some juice flowing through the veins of the Stage 5. I did not expect that to be honest. On low gain anywhere around 45-50 was just about right which is almost 75% of the way up on the Paw Gold’s pot. On high gain, things were at a more reasonable 35 but quickly got too loud even before I hit 40 on the pot. Something not quite right there me thinks in terms of an even pot action and how the Stage 5 reacted to it. Nevertheless, once everything settled down you got probably the smoothest performance of all the DAP’s but perhaps not the most neutral. I do adore the Paw Golds tonality and whilst it never overly colors the treble curve or accentuates the bass unnecessarily it will give your Stage 5 a very polite feel to the presentation.
ALO’s new Continental Dual Mono
A bit like the Paw Gold with its smooth nonfatiguing presentation but with a much more incisive amp the CDM just sounded so good with the Stage 5. Bass was never overcooked, that treble sparkle was clear and present and on low gain there was a ton of easy play on the admittedly rather hot volume pot of the CDM. The detail was top notch also, imaging was very convincing and speed never once took a dive. If anything the extension on the Stage 5 bass response was even deeper than the Theorem 720 and certainly a lot more perceptible than some of the DAP’s. Admittedly this is a $1500 DAC/AMP and hardly a normal everyday CIEM match but it does prove the CDM has a definite pedigree with customs.
I would rate this and the Theorem as the 2 best transportable amp/DAC solutions for the Stage 5 from my testing with the RX just in behind as the more suitable portable amp. On the DAP side it’s more of a toss-up but I would maybe grab the N6 as my winner overall for its more linear and controlled bass response over the DX90 slightly accentuated bass dynamics which puff up the Stage 5 bass response a bit too much for me.
The Stage 5’s tonality suits more in the musicality camp than anything analytical or monitor like. I really could say that camp is getting rather bloated now with CIEM’s that fit that same description with the AAW W300AR, 1964EARS V8 and the Custom Art Harmony 8 all displaying similar characteristics – but there are important differences. The Stage 5’s bass is certainly deeper than the Harmony 8 but doesn’t slam as hard as the V8’s more pronounced midbass slam. The Harmony 8 also has a more forward midrange than the recessed but natural sounding Stage 5 and has a far bigger vocal presence which I think makes the Harmony 8 a more suitable choice for rock than the Stage 5.
The Stage 5 and 1964EARS V8 are pretty darn good for EDM and dance in general but the treble extension on the Stage 5 makes it a superior choice for ambiance and house than the slightly more relaxed V8 treble signature. Non-Vocal based EDM needs the bottom and top to sparkle and the Stage 5 does this better. The UM Merlins do great bass also but I like the slightly clean and tighter bass response of the Stage 5 over the Merlins. The Merlins still have that huge sound from that hybrid dynamic driver but it comes across as a touch slower and softer than the well extended but tight and cleaner bass signature of the Stage 5.
The Stage 5 pretty much leaves the Minerva Mi-Performer Pro in the dust for overall sound quality but the Minerva’s yummy silicone comfort it very hard to beat and do not forget it’s about half the price of the Stage 5 with a 3 driver config centering on the mids which is the weakest area of the Stage 5. Still for overall presentation, soundstage/imaging and outright musicality the Stage 5 forges way ahead.
I had a blast with the Stage5 CIEM to be honest. It is certainly no neutral reference monitor and in no way shape or form should you be buying this expecting a flat linear response. It’s an unabashed v curved musical monitor designed to have fun with but at a very high level indeed. You got EDM? You got depth in the bass you want exploring? Need a little treble sparkle without any ungainly grain or tizzy peaking responses? The Stage 5 can do all that and whilst the midrange is perhaps a little recessed to be a true vocal master it still sounds very natural and balanced. I enjoyed the soundstage and imaging from this 5 BA set up a lot also with tremendous width to go with that deep bass extension. Atmospherics, ambiance, and house sounded perfect with the Stage 5 in all honesty.
What I didn’t enjoy as much was the slightly recessed and in the mix vocal presence that made complicated vocal harmonics sound slightly flat and competing with each other. I do enjoy a strong vocal stage and a big one at that so I would not be deploying a Stage 5 for intimate vocal powerhouse displays unless it was a solo performance. There are better customs for that but I do not think Rhines have pitched this as a vocal setup, or at least I hope not.
Special mention to the design of the Stage 5. I think Rhines have the best range of wood right now on the market for my tastes. Certainly, a better range than say 1964EARS or AAW and UM but its not just the quantity but the choice of wood also which really match well with the shell designs and colors. Yes, you can go loud, and get quite creative with most companies but the Rhines approach gave me one of the most professionally attractive units I have had to date.
Stage 5 Technical Specifications
- 5 precision BA drivers
- 3-way crossover
- up to 26dB noise isolation
- gold-plated 3,5mm connector
- 10Hz-20kHz frequency response
- 120dB input sensitivity at 1mW
- 24 ohms impedance
- exclusively available at Rhines