EarSonics SM3 Review

sm3 main2 cr EarSonics SM3 Review

When one thinks about specialized European in-ear monitor manufacturers, not a lot of brands come to mind. Of course there are the bigwigs like Sennheiser and AKG, and their assortment of cheap-to-expensive earphones next to their regular headphones, but for custom-molded IEMs and professional monitoring specialists the market is rather barren in Europe. Let’s see… I can think of ACS in England, and of two companies in France (there’s probably more, at least one in the Czech Republic, and maybe a few others as well, but let’s keep it simple). One of those French companies is Insono, the other one is EarSonics. For this review we’re focusing on EarSonics and their new flagship universal IEM, the SM3. It is equipped with a triple armature, three-way crossover design.

While all the advertising, hype, and public awareness is usually reserved for big-shot company products, the specialists often go unnoticed. Well, they don’t have advertising budget like the big companies, and they have to ask more in return for research, development, and manufacturing than the companies that outsource their manufacturing to Asia.

Just because you might not have heard of EarSonics yet, doesn’t mean that should stay that way. For reference, there are lots of French musicians, audio engineers, and celebrities, from Charles Aznavour to Suprême NTM, who use EarSonics products on-stage, or while mixing/monitoring. I guess it’s time to help EarSonics to a bit more international awareness.

Read on to find out what’s really behind the “Designed in France, Made in France” label on the EarSonics SM3.

  • EarSonics SM3 Specs
  • Driver: triple balanced armature (three-way crossover)
  • Sensitivity: 122 dB/mW
  • Frequency response: 20 Hz – 18 kHz
  • Impedance: 17 Ohm
  • Accessories: Comply foam tips (M, L), cleaning tool, case
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Design, Specs, Accessories

Design? What design? We don’t need no stinking design! The SM3 look like something out of the original Star Wars trilogy – they could certainly be Darth Vader’s IEMs of choice. This is meant as a compliment, not as an insult. I really like their technocratic, utilitarian, and somewhat menacing looks – and my girlfriend likes them too. Not everything has to be a pink-and-glitter Skullcandy IEM to appeal to certain demographics…

The enclosure’s plastic does look a bit cheap, but maybe it’s only the transparent part that makes me feel that way about it. I heard it through the grapevine that new revisions of the SM3 might use a different material for the shell. Despite all the angles and edges the phones are comfortable to wear, even for long listening sessions. I can also sleep with the SM3 in my ears, so that’s probably as good as it gets. They fit flush in my ears; they’re pretty much the complete opposite of phones like the Triple.Fi 10, comfort-wise. I can’t say how well the fit would be for ears smaller than mine, though. In general, the SM3 share the basic form factor of phones such as the Shure SE530 – I do find the SE530 to be a tiny bit more comfy than the SM3, due to their more rounded shape and more “wiggle room” in my ears. Yet both are definitely above average comfortable, also for sleeping, in my opinion. Both have what I consider the optimal form factor for an IEM: a flush fitting housing with anatomically bent nozzle and over-the-ear cable entry. Maybe some people might have issues with the SM3’s edges, but for me they work perfectly fine.

EarSonics uses the same twisted cables on the SM3 as most other professional IEM manufacturers use in their custom IEMs – the cables are the same as on Ultimate Ears UE10/11, Westone, Sensaphonics, and so on. It’s an excellent cable, in my opinion – it’s smooth as silk and flexible, transmits very little cable noise, and doesn’t tangle much (and if it does, it’s easy to untangle). There’s only one rather annoying flaw in the cable design of the SM3 I have to complain about: the Y-splitter is too far up on the cable, too close to the wearer’s chin. The cable from the earpieces to the Y-splitter is too short, and from the Y-splitter to the 3.5mm plug it’s too long. This works well when using the cable behind the back (as done in on-stage monitoring), but it gives a bit of a claustrophobic feeling when using the cable in front, down one’s chest. Since the cable isn’t user-replaceable, there’s not much one can do about it – either accept being a bit uncomfortable under your chin, or wear it down the back.

Accessories? What accessories? Oh wait, didn’t I just use that worn out phrase before? Anyways… to put it bluntly, the SM3 come with a bit less than the barest necessities. Of course sometimes less is more – judging by all the superfluous stuff that, for example, the Sennheiser IE 8 come with – but the SM3 come without any silicon tips, which can be a bit of a problem. They do come with two pair of Comply foam tips, medium and large, a cleaning tool, and a semi-hard storage case that’s large enough to accommodate the phones and some smaller MP3 player.

Back to the ear tips. These overly pricey Comply foam tips will only last a few weeks before they get too dirty to be used, so one has to either stock up on those (after taking up a second mortgage on the house to afford the foam tips), or look for much longer lasting (yet less isolating) silicon tips that fit the phones. By the way, don’t blame EarSonics for the price of the Comply tips – the company behind Comply has a patent on how to manufacture foam tips for in-ear phones, and they drove almost all competitors out of the market. That’s why you’re seeing those tips on almost all earphones nowadays, from Ultimate Ears to Phonak, and back again. On the SM3 these foam tips don’t work particularly well – or at least to my ears it sounds like they absorb some of the treble response, making them sound more veiled than necessary.

While the SM3 were designed with the option in mind of turning them into semi-custom phones with a made-to-measure silicon or acrylic earpiece mold (made directly by EarSonics or by any trustworthy audiologist), not everyone wants to go through that procedure, or wants to spend that additional amount of money on the phones. So that’s when one starts looking for silicon tips that not only fit the SM3, but also make them sound good.

I’ve tried a lot of different silicon tips from manufacturers like Shure, Future Sonics, Etymotic, and so on. Most of those tips have an inner diameter of around a millimeter, which seems to be not wide enough for the SM3 to sound their best. Next I tried Phonak Audéo PFE tips, which are specifically designed to gain better treble response from most phone
s they’re attached to. Because the PFE tips are a bit too loose for the SM3’s nozzle, I ripped out the inner tubes of Shure “Olive” foam tips and stuck them on the SM3’s nozzle, which gives a secure fit for the PFE tips. Lo and behold, this combination of tips and tubing really opened the SM3’s treble regions up to my ears. I’ve also tried some PureSound multifilament and triple-flange tips from Sensorcom, but to my ears the Phonak tips were the best of the bunch – not only for sound quality, but also for comfort. I would highly recommend you give those tips a try before judging the sound quality of the EarSonic IEMs.

Isolation is about average for the SM3 with most silicon tips. It’s not bad, but reaches not quite the noise rejection level of Phonak PFE, Shure SE530, or Etymotic IEMs. With foam tips noise isolation improves slightly, but sound quality suffers a bit. In any case they’re good enough to use on a bus or in a crowded cafe. For subway rides you might have to turn up the volume a little more to drown out the noise. I wonder how the SM3 isolate with custom silicon earpieces, but alas, I don’t have any of those… yet.

One remarkable feature of the SM3 is that they barely ever hiss with any MP3 player. Most multi-armature IEMs out there are almost unusable with the majority of MP3 players. Ultimate Ears, Shure, etc – they all hiss like a snake with anything that has a 3.5mm headphone output, and they are very much in need of a quality headphone amp (like the Headstage Arrow) to tame them, if one hates background hiss as much as I do. I wonder if that’s a sign of badly designed crossovers in those phones. Either way, the specs of the SM3 sound as overkill as any other professional monitoring phone on the market, impedance- and sensitivity-wise – yet the SM3 are really tame and behave much better than any other multi-armature IEM I’ve heard so far. I don’t mean “a little” better – they’re indeed almost noiseless compared to my SE530 or UE11, or even to some overly sensitive dynamic driver IEMs like the JVC FX700. Needless to mention, the SM3 are loud enough to work with even the wimpiest, quietest MP3 players out there, and they definitely don’t need a dedicated amp to sound their best.

Another thing the SM3 have in common with the SE530 is that their sound exit nozzle is a single bore. The sound from their three armatures is mixed together inside the phone, not in the listener’s ear canal. Some say that this can lead to phase cancellations or distortions, and that’s why most custom multi-armature IEMs have a double or even triple bore exit, so at least the bass drivers get separated from the midrange and treble. While I can’t verify if such phase distortion claims are real, or how the SM3 would sound with a double/triple bore, I wonder if that has any influence on their rather interesting sound signature, as described in the next paragraphs of this review.

Sound

The SM3 sure don’t sound like most other IEMs I have heard so far, they have their own unique sound signature/character. Some people mentioned they might be somewhat similar to Westone’s house sound, but since I never heard any Westone IEMs, I can’t comment on that. From all the IEMs I’ve heard so far, I would say they’re closest to the Shure SE530 – albeit quite an improvement over those phones’ sonic abilities in many aspects. They also share a very, very distant relationship to dynamic driver phones such as the Future Sonics Atrio, or maybe even the Sennheiser HD650… but that is taking things too far into fairytale-land, so let’s take it down a notch.

Back to the beginning: first time I stuck the SM3 into my ears, my initial reaction was that I absolutely despised their sound. All I heard was a muddy, veiled mess with exaggerated lower midrange, yet lacking deep bass, and no treble at all. I was shocked to say the least. Since the SM3 use balanced armature drivers, I knew they won’t change much – if at all – with some driver break-in, contrary to how many dynamic driver phones behave. So I thought it’s my brain that has to “burn in” to the SM3’s sound signature instead – because I just couldn’t believe anyone would design an IEM on purpose that sounds so bad right out of the box. There must be more to it… and boy, there indeed is. It just needed some time until I ‘understood’ the SM3. It took me almost a month until I had to acknowledge to myself that they’re far from being a piece of junk, and actually quite the opposite: they’re some real reference monitors, all serious business – yet they’re rather ‘musical’ at that, if not euphonic sounding. Which of course is somewhat of a paradox – but then again there’s more than one when it comes to describing the SM3.

Some people strive for “neutral” sound; others desire “natural” sound from a pair of phones. I’m not sure I would use those two words with the SM3, but my definition of those concepts might be way off compared to other people’s understanding. Of course, such terminology always implies some subjective feelings that are hard to interpret for anyone outside. For me the SM3 are ‘neutral, neither warm nor cold, dry, fast, detailed, precise, veiled, forgiving, analytical, laid back, punchy, crisp’ – which of course is rather paradox. They are very hard to wrap one’s head around. They don’t really make me think I’m listening to live music, as I can sometimes feel with the FX700, UE11, IE8 (EQed), and some other quality IEMs. Yet the SM3 make me appreciate the details and the dynamics, the punch of music in a way I haven’t been used to yet. Maybe it’s that they make me feel like I’m in the studio with the band, instead of at a live venue. But enough with the empty, flowery phrases, let’s get back to a more solid, hands-on approach.

At first I tried EQing the SM3 to match my expectations of how an IEM should sound, to match my preconceptions of a “proper” frequency response. I added a few dB of treble, removed some of their lower midrange, and boosted their sub-bass. That made them sound like many other IEMs I know and like, but took away some of their unique character. Usually I’m from the school of “EQ or GTFO”, I don’t believe in a one-sound-fits-all approach. Whereas most other quality IEMs handle EQing just nicely and can be custom tuned to my liking, the SM3 don’t really behave all that well when I tried to alter their frequency response. I’m not sure why I couldn’t make them sound “better” with an EQ, but I assume their frequency response must be rather subtly crafted, rather detailed down to fractions of octaves. Long story short – I gave up trying to force them to sound “my way”, I accepted their unique signature and used them flat, without any sound enhancements on my MP3 players. The SM3 are phones where this decision surely paid off, adjusting my brain instead of adjusting the phones.

What I’ve become accustomed to hear with the SM3 after these discoveries and decisions, I’ve also grown rather fond of. They deliver an honest, neutral, unostentatious sound – yet they are clearly not boring or lifeless sounding at all. Mostly because they are able to sound grand, lush, and spacious in contrast to the stereotypical “cold” monitoring armature IEMs with – on average – thin, lean sound with forward treble and recessed bass range. The SM3 sure are somewhat ‘dry’ sounding, they don’t necessarily make music sound ‘nicer’ or ‘more exciting’ than it needs to be, but I’ve found out that the SM3’s ‘forgiving, laid-back’ character might be a good thing in the long run. I’ve noticed that I often grow tired of overly ‘exciting’ sounding IEMs rather fast.

Since the SM3 use a triple armature driver design with a three-way crossover, it might be useful to describe their sonic qualities per driver – especially since the treble is rather outstanding, almo
st feeling a bit detached from the other two drivers – in a good way. Despite the SM3’s treble range being a bit recessed in comparison to its midrange (or compared to other IEMs), the upper frequencies of the phone have excellent texture, detail, “sheen”, and “sparkle”. Treble on the SM3 is comparable to best-of-their-class phones like the Phonak PFE or the Ortofon e-Q7, without being overly forward or bright. Despite the SM3’s treble being a bit recessed, it’s not rolled off or lacking any frequency response at all. Even if it appears to sound like the treble of ‘darker’ phones like the Shure SE530 or Future Sonics Atrio on the surface, the SM3’s treble extension and detail is in a whole other league. Compared to bright phones like the Audio Technica CK10 and such, the SM3 are never, ever sibilant or piercing in any way. In short: the SM3’s treble is how it should be – it is the best treble in IEMs I’ve heard so far. This however is dependent on the ear tips one uses: silicon or foam, wider or narrower inner tube diameter. I managed to get the best treble with Phonak PFE silicon tips, as described above. To my ears, using the default Comply foam tips makes the treble lose some of its excellent clarity and sparkle. Of course various tips don’t achieve a total transformation, a night and day difference – but they certainly seem to have a small yet noticeable influence on the IEMs’ sound character. This might differ from person to person, from ear to ear.

The midrange, the most important frequency ranges for music, can be seen as the strength or weakness of the SM3 – depending on one’s point of view and on one’s sound preferences. Well, “weakness” is perhaps the wrong word to describe it – it’s just that the SM3’s midrange is very forward, very prominent. Coming from IEMs with a more recessed midrange (which seems to be the majority out there), I would have initially described the SM3’s presentation as almost too much “in your face”. Yet as time has passed, many other IEMs sound a bit too thin and lean to my ears, compared to the SM3. EarSonics sure tuned these phones to have an incredibly rich, full, grand midrange – as much as possible, without starting to hurt. Despite these characteristics, the SM3 are definitely not “warm” phones, never verging on too much bass and midbass as to make any upper frequency parts lack in presentation. In any case, all the details, all the precision one could wish for is there – all the time, no exceptions. Even if there seems to be some slight veil (yet never ‘mud’) over some parts of some songs, once in a blue moon – there’s still never anything missing. It’s quite the paradox; it’s pretty much along the lines of how some people seem to describe the Sennheiser HD650’s sound signature. Maybe that’s just the sign of a midrange done right: forward, detailed – yet never aggressive, overbearing, or overwhelming the bass or treble regions.

No doubt, there are basses out there that hit heavier, that have more punch, and maybe a bit more texture or a better crafted timbre than the SM3, such as the JVC FX700 or Hippo VB – but those phones are usually far from the general consensus of “neutral”, and might be too bass heavy for quite a few people’s tastes. The SM3 has a medium amount of bass – it’s neither anemic nor overly bassy. Nevertheless, the SM3 extends to the lowest octave without exerting themselves overly much – it rolls a tiny bit off below 30Hz, but rarely any music uses these nether regions anyways. The bass has fast attack speeds and is indeed textured and layered. It’s very refined, far from a one-note boom. The SM3 has no particularly exaggerated midbass hump despite its overall “rich, full” sound character (as said before, it might be somewhat veiled with certain material, but that’s something in the midrange, not in the bass or midbass). It’s not quite as punchy as some other IEMs at lower listening levels; the SM3 needs a certain SPL to get really dynamic. In my experience that’s one area where dynamic driver IEMs often surpass armature-equipped ones. Either way, the SM3’s bass is among the best I’ve heard so far from a single dedicated bass armature, it’s clearly better than for example the Shure SE530’s bass, which even uses two armatures to reproduce low frequencies. It’s also somewhat more controlled and tight than the UE11’s dual-driver bass – but of course the UE11 has about twice the perceived bass quantity of the SM3 so the comparison isn’t particularly fair. As far as armature IEMs are concerned, the SM3’s bass and lower midrange quality and quantity sound mostly like the Phonak PFE to me, only a bit fuller and more substantial.

Instrument separation is excellent with the SM3, and so is stereo imaging in general. Of course there’s no magical 3D soundscape surrounding one’s noggin, but the SM3 do deliver pretty much everything that’s physically possible with a pair of tiny stereo earphones. Inside my head I can pinpoint instruments precisely in the available sound field; it’s much more resolving than the crude left/middle/right soundstage many other phones display, making it easy to pinpoint positions of certain sounds. This however is highly dependent on the quality of a record’s mixing and mastering. With stereo information the SM3 appear to be less forgiving than with frequency domain information – some tracks appear vast and wide, others, less well mastered ones, can sound rather narrow. People often use analogies involving seat rows in concert halls to describe such phenomena – I can’t do that, I can’t make myself believe I’m sitting in the front, center, or back row at a concert when I’m listening to IEMs, no matter how high quality they might be.

One of the more noticeable differences between balanced armature IEMs and dynamic driver ones is usually the “speed” of armature pivots, compared to “slower” diaphragm drivers. The SM3 are no exception. Their armatures deliver very fast attack speeds, resulting in excellent dynamics and punch, rendering music very lifelike and precise. Unfortunately, like most armature-equipped phones, the SM3 need a certain volume level to sound their best, to achieve really crisp, snappy sound. On very low volume levels some of their dynamics is gone; making them sound more ‘flat’ (same goes for the UE11, e-Q7, and many more). Mind you, I’m a person that generally listens at much lower volume levels than anyone else I know; when I say ‘quiet’ it usually means ‘inaudible’ to other people. So, in reality I’m probably talking about a non-issue for the vast majority out there. It’s just that some quality dynamic driver IEMs are able to deliver a bit more dynamics at very low volume levels. Either way, at normal listening levels the SM3 are a paradigm of how amazing dynamics-done-right can sound. Hint: if you only ever have listened to cheaper dynamic driver phones, you can’t possibly imagine what you’re missing.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the most important remark certainly is: don’t judge the EarSonics SM3 right out of the box. Take your time getting accustomed to their rather unique sound signature. It might take weeks, maybe even months – but hopefully some day it makes ‘click’ for you, and your ears acknowledge the really well crafted sonic traits the SM3 are able to deliver. Maybe what you hear, what you perceive will change the same way my ears and brain changed. Or maybe you do like them straight out of the box – stranger things have happened.

Personally, I’m mostly used to listening to phones and speakers that deliver a V-shaped loudness curve, with boosted bass and treble, and somewhat recessed midrange. That is what usually sounds “natural” to my ears. The SM3 showed me that there is a whole other approach to frequency response tuning out there – one that sounds equally well and engaging to my ears. It just needed time until my ears adjusted to it.

For my taste, EarSonics managed to create a phone that does p
retty much everything right. The more I nitpicked when they were new to me, when I wasn’t accustomed to the SM3’s sound, the less I can find any flaw with them now. They’re not ‘exciting’ like FX700 or Hippo VB, and they’re not ‘boring’ like Etymotic ER-4 or Hifiman RE252. They’re just right. Coming to think of it, they’re actually the first IEMs that are “just right” to my ears – that’s why I don’t even use an EQ with them. I guess that makes them the first real ‘reference’ monitors for me, contrary to advertising claims of companies like Ultimate Ears, Shure, Etymotic, and the like – whose products I never perceived as a ‘reference’ of any kind, just as good (or less good) sounding phones.

As far as single- and multi-armature IEMs are concerned, the SM3 are right there at the top of the quality scale. They’re like richer, fuller Phonak PFE, like Ortofon e-Q7 with the edge taken off and some lower midrange and bass added. They clearly surpass equally priced or even more expensive phones like the Shure SE530, Audio Technica CK10 or CK100 by far. If you’re looking for the speed and precision or a high quality balanced armature IEM paired with the lush character, forgivingness, and more accurate stereo imaging of the best dynamic driver IEMs, the EarSonics SM3 are definitely worth a closer look. I would recommend them for pretty much any style of music – just don’t blame me if you don’t like them right out of the box. Haste makes waste. Give them some time. If you perceive and process music remotely like my ears and brain do, then the SM3 are definitely worth it. And by ‘worth it’ I do mean, ‘I absolutely love them’.

Pros

  • Dynamic, punchy, laid-back, precise, fast, detailed, forgiving sound – quite the paradox combination
  • Excellent treble – always sparkly, never sibilant or obtrusive
  • Wide, precise stereo imaging
  • Good wearing comfort, stealthy
  • Almost no background hiss with MP3 players, compared to most other multi-armature IEMs

Cons

  • Better sound at louder volume levels
  • Forward midrange regions paired with slightly less prominent treble might take some time getting used to
  • Y-splitter is too far up on the cable, too close to the listener’s throat (and cable is not replaceable)

Purchase

Well… here’s the catch: EarSonics has no real distribution, not even in France. Seems all the artists and celebrities are lining up at their doorstep, no need for a distributor network. So your best bet of actually ordering the SM3 is to go directly to EarSonic’s online store, and get them from there. They go for EUR 345.- (incl. EU VAT tax, incl. express mail shipping), EUR 288.- is their price without shipping and taxes.

Comments

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12 Comments

Ma_t14 on September 20, 2010 2:00 PM

I’m really curious about this one.

That’s what you said about the Phonak PFE a while ago:

“the Audéo almost appear to be specially made for listening to the band Opeth – they handle both their airy acoustic interludes and their brute metal parts equally well. I can’t say the same about too many other earphones.”

So if as a you say the sm3 is a richer and fuller pfe how does Opeth sound with these IEMs. I suspect that you’ve entered a musical nirvana with these IEMS, Am I right?

Martin Sägmüller on September 29, 2010 12:23 PM

Ma_t14, yes, the SM3 have no issues reproducing difficult music like Opeth as well – they’re very dynamic for the acoustic parts, and have great detail and instrument separation for the intense metal parts.

Eswar Santhosh on December 19, 2010 6:24 PM

After a long wait, I finally got them today. While the mids sounded too forward initially, I got my head around it.

I was reading too many comments about recessed treble and me being a slight treble-head was worried that treble might be lacking. Instead to my ears, these don’t seem to lack anything across the spectrum. I guess it makes sense to stop reading too much into comments :)

It has already surprised me a few times with the clear separation and precise instrument placement even in my very familiar tracks. The more I listen, the more I seem to like them. This might become my favorite IEM after all.

Antonio Elfenau on February 23, 2011 9:25 PM

I,ve been searching a lot info on IEMs to replace y excelent shure se110 and this is by fare the most interesting review about the sm3.Congratulations to the excelent review. As someone else noted in the Headfi it is possible that the SM3 may be easier to be apreciated by those moving into quality IEM and not so used to high level IEM. here now I could get the reasoning of such point.

denislcp on April 28, 2011 6:42 PM

Martin, can you please tell me what kind of Phonak Audeo PFE eartips works the best for you with the SM3′s: the silicone or the other ones?

Martin Sägmüller on April 29, 2011 10:18 AM

I’ve only used the PFE silicone tips with the SM3. They need a spacer to fit the narrower SM3 nozzle, though – the plastic tube from inside a Shure Olive foam tip is just fine for that.

Nowadays however I prefer using Alpine/Sensorcom double flange silicone tips on the SM3. They fit without modification, and deliver the best sound to my ears.

denislcp on April 29, 2011 1:01 PM

Thanks Martin, I will rely on your experience and order Alpine Sensorcom ones.

Martin Sägmüller on April 29, 2011 2:21 PM

You’re welcome. Here are the Alpine tips I meant: http://www.sensorcom.com/product.asp?P_ID=1142&PT_ID=268

zenzen on April 30, 2011 7:41 AM

i’m just a little curious here..
didn’t SM3 uses dual low configuration just like SE530 and SE535?

Martin Sägmüller on April 30, 2011 11:17 AM

SM3 use a three-way crossover, one bass, one mid, one treble driver. SE530/535 use a two-way crossover, two bass/mid, one treble.

me on December 21, 2011 1:08 AM

martin: I’ve owned these — v2 actually, for over 10mos. I also have IE8, SE530, $29 Brainwavz Beta, etc. I don’t believe in the “brain burn-in” thing! The SM3 fall apart with complex music (large orch, multi-track techno, big band) and compress macro-dynamics. No sibs, like you say, but I find their trbl rough/grainy. I prefer the $29 Brainwavz … by f-cking far.

Martin Sägmüller on December 21, 2011 11:29 PM

Wow.

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