Victor/JVC HP-FX500 in Review – Low Dri-ver!
Among mainstream electronic companies, Victor (JVC) have quietly shed traditional speaker manufacturing techniques in creating driver diaphragms from wood rather than synthetic materials. Several of their small cabinet systems utilise wood driver technology, and the FX500 inner earphone also benefits from wood. In 2008, it was the world’s first earphone to employ wood in both its housing and driver diaphragm and is still the only production earphone whose driver is made from wood. Wood has the potential of fielding vastly more natural echo characteristics in comparison to plastic or metal.
Driver Type: Dynamic (moving coil) – World’s first wooden driver dome
Frequency Response: 8Hz – 25 KHz
Maximum input level: 200 mW (IEC*)
Weight: 7,5 g
Cable: 0,8 m Y-split OFC, 24 karat gold plated 3,5mm mini stereo plug / 0,7m extension cable
Package and Accessories
In the compact vein of Ultimate Ear’s 220vi and Mingo’s WM-2, Victor’s bijou cardboard box is perfectly slim and stow-able, yet fits a small wealth of goodies: S,M,L silicon ear pieces, a pair of hybrid foamies, extension cable, carrying case and a a virtual bureaucrat’s ransom of paper documents. The Victor FX500 is no doubt an inspiration which birthed the Mingo WM-2 whose box comes similarly adorned in printed wood grain patterns and tidy lettering.
Similarity between the two isn’t only skin deep. Both Mingo and Victor package their unique earphones in neat, unfolding sleeves: nothing inside will cut fingers or necessitate a trip to the cabinet for scissors. Victor’s supplement of ear pieces is similar to the Nuforce NE7M’s selection of silicon flanges and hybrid foams, though shy by one pair of foams. Victor’s silicon pieces are soft, pliable, and generally comfortable even for long listening, but their hybrid foams, along with the wooden dome are unique. Heat-activated, they at first are hard in the fingers, then after a few seconds, ‘melt’ for a good, comfortable fit which encourage admirable isolation when paired with the right earphone.
Both ear pieces, however, have different effects on sound. The foamies isolate a little bit more, but close around the stocky sound tube when inserted into the ear, darkening music. Sound aside, all of the ear pieces, extension cable, and earphones will not fit comfortably into the tiny carrying case. While strong and sleek, the case is too small to tote much more than the earphones themselves. Despite this, there are two mesh sleeves which will carefully crunched ear pieces.
Some people question why I spend so much time on build quality when earphones are “all about the sound”. After laying down 20$, 100$, or even 1000$, your investment will only sound good if it still works. Mingo’s WM-2 are a unique, but ultimately, good-sounding earphone, but their build quality is second to many low-end earphones. In 2008, Victor debuted the FX500 amidst a tumble of good high-end dynamic earphones from companies like Futuresonics, Denon, Kenwood, Sony, and Panasonic, thus their new earphone had to leave a mark. Partly due to its unique place in the market as the only earphone to use a wooden diaphragm, and at the time, the only real wooden earphone, the Victor immediately stole hearts.
Firstly, the housing. Victor’s tiny creation in many ways, is a work of art: blemish-free, smoothly polished, and beautiful, it does not look like an earphone which can be had for less than 150$. There is nothing cheap about its looks, nor its build materials. Aluminium caps, cable tubes, and meshes fit perfectly, and despite the unit’s gentle convex curves, no imperfections line the housing. This is the way way an earphone should be made.
The sound tube is the only section of the earphone unit which is constructed from plastic. It is the hard, non-scratching plastic found in most Japanese inner earphones from Sony to Panasonic. Victor’s is angled so that the body of the earphone can easily reach into the ear. Plastic sound chambers can sometimes adversely affect sound, but only if they are moulded from softer synthetics which in turn, can emit terrible echo characteristics. For good measure, Victor only used this plastic in the sound tube, not the echo chamber. The FX500 employs a brilliant wooden sound chamber which is both damped for the control of vibrations and ported for excellent bass response. Wood is often touted for its rich, natural sound – two aspects which explain much of the FX500’s sound and which will be explored in the sound section. For more information on JVC’s wooden speaker driver units and manufacturing, visit their marketing page.
Only when moving onto the cable do issues arise. Firstly, the FX500 isn’t properly stress-relieved. The bumpered cable sleeves aren’t melted onto the soft rubber of the cable, meaning that the cable can be prone to shorting if placed under stress. And, the long rubber sheath which protects the cable as it disembarks from the earphone unit should bend naturally with cable. As seems the trend even among high-end parts, the main cable is straight plugged, but it is meant to be paired with the right-angled extension cable. Apart from that, the cable cinch, which works well out of the box, softens its hold after a few weeks, sliding down of its own volition and effectively reducing its effectiveness in cinching the cable together. Overall, the Victor earphone is made better than many of its counterparts, but needs proper stress relief and better cable sheathing.
That aside, Victor have one-upped most of the similarly-priced competition with a very good, but not perfect cable. The main portion is soft, pliable and nearly noiseless when pinched, twisted, or brushed. Its closest relative would be Audeo PFE’s cable, or Sleek Audio’s coaxial cable, each of which are light, comfortable, and soft. After Westone’s and Earsonic’s cable, the Victor/PFE/Sleek cable is a delight to use. On the flip side, each of these cables are susceptible to cracking and crystalisation after prolonged exposure to body oils and sweat.
The FX500 sound signature could be summed up in three words: “rich and thick”. Its wooden dome driver resolves bass excellently, better in fact than most earphones at prices far above its own, but, that performance too, comes at a price. While high and low frequencies are voiced in confidently, the mid range doesn’t exercise enough personality. It isn’t that it lacks detail, simply, it is a step removed from the robustness of its neighbours at either extreme. But, even to a bloke who owns the current technological marvel, the JH13Pro, the FX500 is a moving earphone.
MC Solaar – Mach 6 – ALAC
I clearly mean to maintain my opinion that this album is cream of the crop for hip hop. Its variety of speed, instrumentation and good selection of vocalists is refreshing. For musical rap, it doesn’t get better. A warm, bassy, and vocal-focused headphone is great for this album.
Ice Cube – Raw Footage – 256 iTunes AAC
What well-engineered hip-hop album would be replete without its antithesis. While no dud, Ice Cube’s Raw Footage is a simpler rendition of the genre, full of bloomy bass, fewer instruments, and generally simple composition. However, Cube has some good ‘sh*t’ to say and delivers with great pace and impeccable style.
Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding – 256 iTunes AAC
The sweet spot for heavy metal is when famous stars break off and form splinter bands. Bruce Dickinson’s 5th album is a raw, rusty album among his solo efforts which feels and sounds metal rather than experime[n]tal.
Madeleine Peyroux – Careless Love – 256 iTunes AAC
I can think of no other vocal album that covers so many musical bases without indifference to its inspiration. Madeleine’s lusty voice does love songs, covers, and crossover jazz brilliantly while maintaining a strong, dated approach to singing.
Markus Schulz – Progression – 256 iTunes AAC
Simply put – an album of singles. For the trance fan, there is everything. Melodic, progressive, vocal – Markus’ first album is a show stopper, though I hope he can follow it with something at least as good. Songs like Mainstage and Spilled Cranberries have become benchmarks for me.
If there is a meat and potatoes portion to this earphone: the delight that leaves listeners wanting seconds, it is the low frequencies. They are rich, warm, intense, and full of very low vibrations which can be heard even in the midst the orgy of a chaotic live recording of A State of Trance. A word of caution though: when under driven by DAP’s with narrow channel separation and and massive bass roll off, the FX500 can be boomy and annoying. Adding an amp to the equation, or using a properly put together source reveals wonderful detail, breath, and above all else, texture to music.
The FX500 doesn’t have the sheer bone-rattling bass that the WM-2 does, but it is more natural. For bass guitar, kick drums and strings, it is among the most realistic universal earphones at any price. Weighty passages are full of expression, yet maintain diffuse edges rather than sudden drops in frequency response. Nevertheless, the wooden drivers are quick in attack and decay between instruments, never lingering too long. This nature works especially well for slow, bass-heavy music such as American rap, but even faster genres such as trance are very good.
Vocal-led music like jazz is beautiful. Humble bass and kick drums are more natural, more live than many competing earphones: a tangibly rich sound which can almost be bitten into. At the same time, the FX500 undeniably is a bassy earphone. After only a few minutes with any genre, you will notice strong bass lines, and depending on your source, boom. In this way, it is a far departure from the lean PFE with which it shares many similarities: price, cable quality, single-driver construction. Though deep, the bass of this particular phone is not particularly emotive. Its bottom, when reached, is dry, natural, and extended: clearly designed for technical prowess rather than eliciting sentiments.
No music feels out of place on the FX500; all genres maintain a natural pace and timbre, but mid frequencies: vocals in particular, stand in the shadow of bass and treble. The effect is an audible favour given to instruments such as bass guitars, kick drums, cymbals and gayly voiced stringed instruments.
Vocals are incredibly clear and defined by stark edges, but, as if slightly embarrassed, take an audible step back from the mic. Certain non-vocal genres work very well with this set up. Trance for one, is nearly brilliant, but not perfect and ambient is quite spot on. But mid frequencies are where a bulk of music resides. Despite somewhat recessed vocal ranges, instruments sizzle, pop, clang, and vibrate with intense clarity, but again, are not as direct as either lows or highs. The FX500 presents one of the most natural sounding boards for violins, strings, pianos, and even reed instruments where musical fibre is thick, fibrous, and ready for consumption.
Despite luxuriously organic instruments, the FX500 maintain clear, delineated instruments that don’t bleed into each other, nor haze other frequency ranges. Yet, despite this, the midrange is both laid back and energetic, but not splashy. Indeed, no instrument, be it vocal or hand-made, is too sweet; for ‘wet’ presentations, the WM-2 is a better choice.
I will be blunt here: the FX500 may be fatiguing to some. Rich and detailed below, the FX500 has the same character up top, but where bass is chalky, thick and dry in a rich melange, the same principles applied to highs make for a piercing listen. Music which consists of crashing cymbals, squealing guitars, and piercing sound effects may be too lively. It is not a heavy metal, nor industrial earphone for this reason. Music which spaces out its treble attack is brilliant, making trance and progressive a great, however, bassy listen.
But otherwise, the FX500 is controlled, well-extended, and full. Its accented highs are energetic and are breathy. The wooden driver holds onto high notes, not for too long, but amplifies their bite for a breathy, yet clinical listen which puts to shame some of the raspy earphones of yesteryear. Fortunately, treble remains controlled and if anything, slightly damped by the bass ports, but if Victor wanted to make the perfect earphone – and I mean perfect -, they would need redeem some of the treble sheen with lessened either a ‘wetter’ presentation, or simply by attenuating treble ouput.
Sound in an Nutshell
There is no perfect earphone on the market. Victor’s FX500 is one of the top quality dynamic based earphones which could have been the absolute best. Bass for instance isn’t just well extended, it is highly resolved, organic, and fibrous. Vibrations are deep and sinuous, carving texture into every note and space between instruments. If you like phat bass, you may want to check out the Sennheiser IE8 instead whose focus is higher up on the scale and may better match music which calls for greater impact. For texture and quality of resonance, however, the dry, perhaps brittle driver inside the wooden dome of the FX500 is pure quality.
Highs too are very good, but perhaps too energetic. Some of the brightness can be attenuated by the use of different ear pieces or EQ. For example, foam ear pieces may dull the sheen, but there is no denying that the FX500 is perhaps not the best choice for music which relies crashing symbols. Otherwise, there is nothing really to complain about. Mid frequencies are not sucked out, but both male and female vocals are polite. Still, there is enough resolution in the to satisfy anyone.
Despite tweaky treble, the FX500 remains a favourite if not THE only dynamic which can produce fast, resolved bass and suffer no bad echoes. Monster’s Turbine did very well, but lacks the fibrous definition with which the Victor simply massages lower registers.
One of the best traits of Victor’s top dynamic earphone is its open sound. As for spreading a wide, distinct stage, the FX500 is one of the widest and most articulate dynamic earphones on the market, if not the most. Music doesn’t just expand to the side as with Sennheiser’s IE8 or the Atrio M5, like a good balanced armature earphone, the FX500 renders instruments perfectly in distinct spaces around the head.
Another matter is hiss – an aspect which only the very lucky survive. Every DAP, computer, home HiFi, and even portable amplifier hisses to some degree. The Victor FX500 will suss that hiss out. If your source is dirty, the Victor will do nothing to clean it up. But, thankfully, it isn’t as sensitive to hiss as Westone’s UM3X, or the Shure SE530.
Out and about with the FX500
What a mix this section is! As I mentioned earlier, this earphone’s cable is very good. Yes, it lacks proper strain relief, and yes, it is also prone to crystalise, but because it isn’t prone to bump and rasp with each step, nor snag on clothes, you might forget about it. Of course, if you wear the cable over the ears, there is nearly no touch noise at all. But even with the cable down, noise is minimal thanks to well placed gel nubs within the earphone, and more than likely, the long protection arms which extend from the aluminium trunk at the base of the FX500’s housing. Saying all of that, wearing the cable over the ear isn’t as comfortable as other earphones simply because its rubber stem is too long. It works, but the cables tend to unhook from the back of the ears.
Unfortunately, the main cable is too short. At 0,8 centimetres, it won’t comfortably reach into a purse or pocket. But, adding the 0,7 cm extension cable extends the total length to nearly that of a fully grown (but short) adult human (150cm). If you put it in your pocket, you will have to contend with and extra 30 cm of cable. And, the extension isn’t the same quality; rather, it fits into the tangled, rubber, prone to touch-noise category which juts out from most off-the-shelf earphones. Victor would have a much better design had they kept a 120-130 cm long cable and forgone the extension.
The final bit is isolation. At the butt end of the earphone is an open port which lets the driver flex its muscles for bass production and which helps create a sense of space. There is nothing to complain about with this design. But, if you board the train, bus, or even spend time walking on the street with this earphone, much of your surroundings will invade your music. The converse of course, is true, but to a lesser extent. The FX500 dampen outside noise, but only very little. For comparison’s sake, the Mingo WM-2 isolate slightly more and the Sennheiser IE8 isolate slightly less.
There is no perfect earphone. Even the Sleek Audio CT6 has a weak point: its cable. Victor’s FX500 utilises a very similar cable, and has an unabashedly shrill treble. At the same time, vocal lovers want a ‘wetter’ earphone. But, the story does not end there. Victor’s top of the line earphone is an eye-opener. Bass, mids and treble are nearly the most organic, fibrous sounds to come from any earphone. Natural instruments are alive, and the minute vibrations which compose music melt into every frequency for a unique and beautiful listen which though not perfect, is addicting.
If Victor can supply a realistic cable and turn the treble down from ’11’, they will have made a perfect earphone. As it is, I whole-heartedly recommend the FX500.
|Price:||~134$ (From Seyo-Shop)|
The Victor HP FX500 is a Japan-only product. There are many importers around the world, but none offer better service, faster shipping, and guarantees than Seyo-Shop. Seyo ships using EMS (Express Mail Service), not a private courier, so your package will be on time, handled perfectly, and safe. Please follow this link to find the FX500 from Seyo-Shop.