We review the FiiO FF5 which is a new hanging-style earbud using a large 14.2mm dynamic driver and an MMCX terminated detachable cable. It is priced at $129.99
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Note, that this post follows our latest scoring guidelines which you can read up on here.
The FiiO FF5 is a wonderfully clean experience, well-controlled, and offers excellent build quality. Having swappable adapters also makes life a lot easier for me because there are pieces of equipment I want to use with it that are not balanced, and some that are balanced.
There is no getting around that we lost about a decade of potential technology pushing of the earbud realm, as earbuds of the hanging style seemed to have fallen off the edge of the world sometime around 2011.
Now, in 2023, we are seeing a newfound rise in the popularity of the hanging style. Apple is partly to thank, surely. But they didn’t innovate anything and their AirPods are generic, at best.
Lately, it has been FiiO that has been really pushing the earbud world forward with their excellent EM5 and FF3 starting the imminent ‘buds’ war that is about to occur.
The FF5 is a carbon-based 14.2mm dynamic driver earbud of the hanging variety. These are not in-ear, they hang on the outside of your ear.
FiiO has dropped in a PU gasket and acoustic resonance pipes, just like the older Memorex and Aiwa’s from the late 80s and early 1990s. The cups also act as a semi-open diffuser, which ports in extra air to amp the bass flow and allow a natural, breathable sound in terms of tone and texture.
These pipes are internal, which makes me sad because the Aiwa design showed the pipes on the outside and that design was just the coolest as they are intended to help promote effortless airflow in and out of the driver chambers.
The exterior design is based on and inspired by flower petals, with a progressive aim to reduce distortion and allow for as much free-flow air to move through the chamber as possible.
Typically, earbuds don’t use this type of design, this is a mix of old-school pipe vessels and a semi-open design for airflow.
It gets good marks for design for me, I think it is both super beautiful and one of the better innovative designs I’ve seen in years. More so, the design is intended to reduce internal reflections in the chamber, which I assume was achieved with this unique flower petal design.
The earbuds are fairly lightweight and do not hold a hefty lead weight experience in the hand or the ear. I do prefer that, actually, and that is mostly because of the stability needs in the ear.
I found the heavier the earbud, the better it stays in place. The lighter, the more likely it will fall out of place quickly and easily.
I consider the design better than the FF3 and the Serratus from TGXear, both of which have a design that refuses to stay in place. Thankfully, the FF5 is a fair bit different and can stay in my ears through the entire day without falling out or getting overly loosened.
The earbuds are on the larger side for earbuds, so they do rest in my ear snugly, and they are massively larger than the Serratus, so keep that in mind if you have smaller ears, as I do.
The included cable is silver-plated monocrystalline and probably the best earbud cable I’ve ever used outside of the Serratus stock cable.
This FiiO variant is much thicker, heavier, and beefy in the hand, but it also doesn’t have any microphonics issues. The cable is also Litz braided with 14 strands slung together and a total of 392 woven strands in total.
This cable is no joke. I love quality like this for the price which ends up better than most $1000 stock cables that come with headphones elsewhere.
Packaging & Accessories
Included in the package is a set of 3.5mm and 4.4 mm adapters, which are easily unscrewed right off the tip of the headphone lead side of the cable. You can use the headphones with normal 3.5mm ports, or a nicer balanced option if you want it. And you will want it. Trust me.
Also included is an array of silicone covers and a few sets of foam covers for the driver’s heads. I prefer to dive back to my FiiO EM5 and use the Bass foamies that are included with that headphone.
The Box is also standard and has the same variety of experience as the past FF3 model. Thankfully, I at least get a decent box and a hard FiiO carrying case. I have 3 of these now. I can almost build a small mobile home with them.
Right off the bat, you can tell that this is not a bass-oriented experience. Even with a massive +8dB added via EQ, the experience is still relatively mild in quantity.
This is so odd to me, because the FF3, has noticeably more bass. Sure, it is less clear, but it reaches significantly deeper and has a lighter slam effect.
Why is this a problem? Usually, upgrades in the line of headphone families, like this FF series, should get more smoothed out, more effortless, and not more slamming in presentative tone and texture.
In this case, the older and much cheaper FF3 has more bass, with a softer impact, which makes it far less fatiguing and more musical, more fun, and more interesting. The FF5 stripped that bass depth and opted to replace it with a more sterile tone of the bass and removed some quantity.
Of course, the FF5 feels noticeably purer and cleaner. But the magic of the FF3, which really defined its own personality, is far removed in the upgraded FF5.
To me, the fidelity factor improvement alone does not merit an “upgrade” when everything else was not as enjoyable. It’s the tone that is the FF5’s biggest flaw and it’s wildly subjective here, but it is also very noticeable.
In terms of raw quantity, the FF3 has more. If you want a more neutral bass experience that even with a large bass hump doesn’t do much, then grab the FF5 and enjoy.
I must give FiiO a lot of credit here for making sure that the nasal sound of older earbuds was done away with. They now lack a sense of nasalness and weirdness on the line that blurs the realms of upper mids and lower treble.
The FF5 is smooth and refined, far less grainy than the FF3, but still not as good as the Serratus. Not far off, but certainly not quite on that level.
While less grained than the FF3, you can hear some veil and grain when swapping to the Serratus. I’d prefer not to hear any at all and instead only hear placement and refinement factors change, perhaps even imaging differences.
In this case, the FF5 is a lot like the HD650 from Sennheiser, something that has a haze over everything in the upper mids and lower treble. Despite that, the nasalness and physical bite factor are not present. Thankfully. The FF5 sounds nice for the price, I can honestly say that is the case there.
Only one earbud I’ve had in review sounds better, but there are defining factors on the FF5 that override the Serratus.
One of those is the lacking physical strike factor in the upper mids and the full-bodied nature of the vocals that are totally absent on the Serratus by comparison.
The FF5 has a mildly relaxed placement of mids and vocals. I really would like a brash, forward experience. But that’s just me. I want that because vocals sound vividly engaging and not relaxed when the imaging field is that small, as they are in earbuds in general.
It’s okay to have a relaxed or midfield placement in larger imaging headphones but for earbuds, I find them overly relaxed and difficult to get used to.
The top side of the FF5 is again reserved and lacking the sense of bite and snap that is very prevalent in the Serratus. The FF3 has more bite, it’s more fun, and more engaging up top.
The FF5 is much cleaner, but also lacks the interesting tone of the FF3. While on the subject of tone, the Serratus performs the worst of the lot as the most purified and sterile, the least interesting in tone and texture.
The FF5’s top side is mild. Reserved. But, as mentioned, hyper-clean for the price. There are no other mainstream earbuds on this level that I am aware of.
All the contestants that can even step up are from obscure 3rd party companies that aren’t well known or even easily found. It is quite funny to toss the FF5 on right after using the $6 YinCrow X6 earbud, which is almost entirely muted on the top side in comparison.
The FF5 treble is lacking any sense of pain or fatigue in tonal hue. Which is a good thing. I don’t want it to be overly bright. I don’t think anyone does. But I also don’t want it to be overly reserved and tame. Some bite can be good.
The FF3 sounds much flatter than the FF5 but is relatively similar in width and height. The more expensive FF5 has a much better depth of field and realism factor, as well as better separation potential.
A lot of that might have to do with the earbud’s much dimmer and weighted treble experience of the FF3 and the brighter and airier treble of the FF5.
In comparison to the older MX980, we still aren’t quite there yet in height and width, but we have exceeded that era in depth and realism. The Serratus bested the FF5 in realism and depth but not by much.
This FF5 is immensely enjoyable and wide and clean enough to stop recalling that it’s a hanging-style earbud.
Amps are needed despite it being rated at 45Ω. Drop the 4.4mm balanced adapter on it, which is easily swappable on the adapter headphone plug side of the cable, and you will immediately wash off the grain
I spoke of the above on the treble and some on the bass end. With more power comes a superior purity factor. But therein lay the problem for me as a musicality enthusiast.
The more power, the better the purity, and the further I get from it being a musical and fun-sounding earbud. Thank God for my CEntrance HiFi-M8 V2 and its strong output. It absolutely sounds better balanced than it does unbalanced!
As for sources, well, the earbud is right in the middle as a natural tone earbud. So, it will play well with most sources, even if they are very warm, or very sterile. Odds are good the FF5 won’t change its tone much at all, as I could not achieve more warmth no matter what I used.
I could though get more sterility in the tone with a lot more power, and then dropping it also into a very sterile amplifier resulted in the FF5 being a clone of the Serratus.
The FF5 feels more spacious with more depth of field, and much more realistic imaging. The FF3 is not as dynamic sounding, however, the bass on the FF3 is deeper and relaxingly soft on impact.
The FF5 is harsher, and more neutral in tone, offering less quantity. The treble on the FF3 is dim, very dim, while the FF5’s is brighter and more engaging. Comfort is also better on the FF5 as I have fit issues with the design of the horns on the FF3.
The EM5 is hyper sterile, and like a Shure headphone that was made tiny. The FF5 is far less sterile but remains in neutral color overall. The staging between them is roughly on par in depth and realism factor, but the FF5 might take the cake in depth while the EM5 takes the win in expansive width factor.
The treble on the EM5 is ‘out of control’ bright compared to the FF5’s more reserved and slightly brightened appeal. Comfort is also much better on the FF5, as I also have fit issues with the EM5. Lastly, the EM5 is 3-D printed material, which makes the unit feel cheap and budget-tier.
The FF5 is much more laid back and less purified than the Serratus in tone. However, I think the Serratus digs a bit deeper in bass but also lacks the neutral tone of the FF5.
Both of them lack the same bass quantity compared to the FF3. The Serratus is the cleaner sounding top to bottom, but far less interesting in tone and texture.
The FF5 is better built, significantly whereas the Serratus is stuck with whatever adapter type you choose on checkout, as it does not have any swappable parts.
FiiO has been killing it lately with their earbud collection! As a massive hanging-style fanboy, I am very happy with where things are going.
The FF5 is a wonderfully clean experience, well-controlled, and offers excellent build quality. Having swappable adapters also makes life a lot easier for me because there are pieces of equipment I want to use with it that are not balanced, and some that are balanced.
That freedom is worth its weight in gold. This is a steal at $129 and will satisfy anyone who enjoys earbuds of this style, regardless of what type of application you will be using it for.