To appreciate how good the EF5’s bass really is, let me encourage listeners to listen to “Nothin’ To Do Blues” all the way through to the end, and to drink in Brian Bromberg’s amazing, virtuoso bass solo. The solo doesn’t venture extremely low (that is, all the way down to the bottom octave), but from the mid-bass region on up it will give any system a thorough workout. Bromberg shows off a dizzying array of skills and techniques, and plays some of his lines at what could only be called “warp speed.” The amazing part is that the EF5 tracks cleanly through the sole from end to end, never faltering, never missing a subtle shift in textural or dynamic emphases, and never, ever allowing notes to become blurred or to blend together. At a couple of points, Bromberg plays some sliding double stopped notes, causing the bass to at once seem to “sing” and to “snarl” (a trickier combination to reproduce than you might think), and the EF5 follows along with gusto, every step of the way.
But if you want to hear the EF5 go low, and I mean really low, jump forward to another track from Jazz Kaleidoscope: namely, “O Vazio”, as performed by the Jim Brock Ensemble. The song opens with the plunging sound of low-pitched percussion instruments, whose deep, dark voices are contrasted against delicate high-pitched chimes, gongs, and cymbals. But at about 30 seconds into the track, you’ll hear the mind-blowingly subterranean sound of a large and ultra low-pitched drum arrive. What’s impressive through all of this is not just the ease with which the EF5 goes way down low (tapping the full bass potential of headphones as few other amps can do), but the impressive pitch definition it maintains while doing so. You can easily hear, for example, the subtle modulations of even the lowest notes. Good work, HiFiMAN.
Finally, to enjoy the EF5’s hearty and expressive dynamics, let me recommend the track “Back to the Blues” from Hadden Sayer’s album Hard Dollar [Blue Corn Music], where Sayer’s delivers a lovely and deeply evocative blues duet with Ruthie Foster. Several aspects of the track are revealing. First, note how the EF5 reveals (but does not exaggerate) the very subtle inflections and points of emphasis that Sayers and Foster’s vocal lines both express—especially at moments where emphasis shifts from one singer to the other. Next, carefully note the sheer variety of electric guitar sounds captured on the track (one of the strengths of this album). You’ll hearing everything from solo lines where the guitar’s voice seems to soar and almost to cry, on through tot abruptly yet delicately strummed chords used to provide split-second rhythmic accents—and everything in between. One of the most impressive things to hear is how the EF5 captures the momentarily explosive sounds of the guitar tearing into a note, but then equally quickly gathering itself back up and pulling back the dynamic reins to maintain control. The EF5 teaches you that it is just as important to handle decrescendos well as it is to capture moments of explosive power. Once you listen to “Back to the Blues” through your favorite ‘phones as powered by the EF5, try going back to play the same track through a similarly priced competing amp. My educated guess is that—in most, though not all cases—the competitor will sound noticeably less energetic and expressive than the EF5 does.
Consider this headphone amp if: you want an amplifier with a good measure of resolution, a lively and dynamically expressive sound, and available levels of gain that can easily handle most hard-to-drive ‘phones. We can’t overstate the benefits of that last point so let us reiterate: the EF5 easily and gracefully drives ‘phones that can cause many mid-priced headphone amps to audibly “run out of steam.” Bluntly, this amp comfortably goes where many others fear to tread.
Look elsewhere if: you use very high-sensitivity phones, in which case you may find the taper of the EF5’s volume control not entirely to your liking. But note, the recently released, CE-certified version of the EF5 is said to provide a volume control that allows gain to ramp up a bit more gradually). Also look further if you want to push for ultra-high levels of resolution (albeit at an inevitably higher price point).
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphone amps):