Earsonics SM3 earphone in Review – 2010′s Star Child

Back when Earsonics’ SM2 debuted, it rocked the professional earphone scene. Dry, neutral, detailed, powerful, and well-constfitructed (for a professional earphone), it sort of bagged the cat as it were. It was – and still is – one of the best professional earphones available. But Earsonics perfection-pursuing head, Franck Lopez, has looked to his laurels this year and debuted an even better earphone. The Earsonics SM3 betters the SM2 in almost every benchmark and along the way, has become a personal favourite of mine.

Foreword
For better or worse, the SM2 and SM3 share the same desultory design. As noted in the SM2 review, this design does the job. Professional earphones truly are strange affairs, hinged by promises of quick repair (which they’ll need since they are packed in plastic). There are few exceptions to this rule. Truly, there are few professional monitors out there, but every one is constructed with the same ‘meh’ workmanship. The few well-known monitors are dominated by Westone’s otherwise excellent UM series. No thanks to that, however, Earsonics have followed Westone’s design cues. Their SM series is plastic, which is par for an unfortunately negligent course.

Snug like a bug, the SM3 fits really well

In the 2,5 months that I’ve hung onto this earphone (this review is long overdue), Earsonics have launched a few interim updates. The first is that current SM3’s ship with new dual-silicon flanges in addition to two Comply® tip sets. Comply® tips of course, isolate extremely well for stage work. A lot of audiophiles, however, prefer silicon. Franck delivered. The second change is that current SM3 models have been updated with slightly stronger construction, though you’d not know it by glancing at the two models.

stress relief is quite good

Specifications
Sensibilité: 122 dB/mW
Réponse en fréquences: 20 Hz -18 kHz
Impédance: 17 ohms
Driver: 3 drivers (3 way crossover)
Livré avec: wipes, tool, carrying case, 2 Comply® earpieces, 1 set of silicon flanges

Sound
Last time around, I chose certain albums to describe the SM2’s sound. In the case of the SM3, I’ll keep it simple. I’ll reference a few favourite albums, but I want to make it clear that in many ways the SM3 doesn’t need an album to showcase what it can do. It simply and powerfully, just delivers music.

To prove that, I’ll lay out the arsenal of equipment and amplifiers I used to test these delightful earphones:

Sources:
iPod touch 2G
iPod nano 1G
Sansa Fuze V2
Sansa Clip V2
HiSound AMP3 Pro2
HiSound Rocoo
Teclast T51
MacBook Pro
Sony NW-A282
Sony NW-A845

Amps:
Wood Audio 3
Einar Sound VC-01i
MST FiQuest
iBasso T3D/T3
iBasso P3+
iBasso D4

Others that I spent minutes rather than hours with include the RSA SR71A, RSA Protector, (and a few home-brew Japanese headphone amps).

The grit: drivability
The SM3 is an EASY to drive earphone – it sounds great from almost any source. At 122dB sensitivity @17Ω, it can pick up a bit of background noise, but miraculously, much less than many other earphones. Therefore, my hissy Sony’s and AMP3 are remarkably ‘listenable’ when paired with the SM3. The iPod touch and iPhone 3GS of course, are remarkably ‘black’.

In other words, you don’t need a portable headphone amp to make the SM3 really sing. Firstly, the SM3 gets bleedingly-loud from any source; secondly, it simply doesn’t weigh down reasonably mature audio circuits. That isn’t to say that a portable amp doesn’t help things along. My personal (and tiny) favourite is the iBasso T3D, a perfectly balanced iem amplifier that pushes out great stereo image and perfect frequency response while maintaining a perky sound character. Paired with the iPod touch and SM3, there IS a tad more sparkle and in those frequencies where the iPod touch gets a little stuffy, the T3D opens the windows and lets the air in. For me, however, the difference isn’t worth it – and that is a good thing.

This mature behaviour is a plus, and here’s why: the SM3 is a great earphone for audiophiles who laze around on their beds with 20Kg of audio equipment digging into their sternums; but it is also a professional earphone. Stage musicians strap tiny wireless mic/amps to their sides; they don’t have the ‘luxury’ of pulling audio trailers behind them. Since the SM3 performs flawlessly from almost any source, the professional can hear her voice, her instrument with perfect clarity, which translates into better recordings/performances.

The Goo: What you’ll hear
The SM3, I think, should be Earsonics’ poster boy. It is neutral. It is smooth. It is all that. It veers away from bass-stomping. It won’t punch treble-holes in your ears. What is left is expressive, is emotional, is perfection. If touch and feel is your thing (and who doesn’t like touching?), the SM3 is your earphone. Beneath the thwap of every kick drum and under every fleshy guitar strum is sweetness that until now has played hooky from professional earphones from any manufacturer. I am quite ready to place my favourite tiara on the SM3. Percussion folks, and driving bass, are simple, ecstatic pleasures that shouldn’t be missed at any price.

Considering the SM3’s got an extra low driver packed inside its compact frame, I expected substantially more bass slam. Instead, the SM3 surprises with low end balance and midrange poise. The extra driver, triple cross over, and magical engineering smooth out the wrinkles that slightly mar the SM2.

Continuing on, Earsonics reckon that the SM3’s low frequencies are more intense than the SM2, and I agree – to a point. Low notes are clearer, for sure. But I wouldn’t categorise the SM3 as ‘bassy’, or ‘thick’ – or maybe even ‘intense’. It is just more controlled than the SM2. The SM2’s bass is chalky punkrock. The SM3 is a breathily mature.

The SM3 trumps its older sibling in vocals, in piano, and in strings. The midrange simply stands out with detail and *surprise surprise*, emotion. Go ahead, put on a soundtrack and be blown away by touch ‘n feel that the SM3 delivers. The SM3 does great credit to the Braveheart soundtrack, an album the SM2 rendered too coolly. Then, SM3 trumps jazz, vocal and lounge with fantastic atmosphere. You can practically taste the smoke and sex from a late live performance.

If you’re a Sci-Fi fan, you’ll love the SM3. This pragmatic Star Child renders the space between instruments very well. There are several reasons, but I only truly understand one: the SM3’s overall dynamics are good. There is zero blur between its two most prevalent frequencies: lows and mids and despite a somewhat subdued treble, the feel of sound hunting your eardrums from every angle is intense.

As a consequence, the SM3 rocks for trance, IDM, and electronic. Dear God: please let me explain this well… I expected there to be a rub.. I mean there has to be since the SM3 is a pleasure for organic genres. Guitar, percussion and vocals are perfect. Electronic would sound too soft, too pleading. I was wrong, thankfully. Completely and stupidly wrong.

The SM3 has the speed, space, and somehow, the raw strength to beautifully render electronic instruments in any arrangement. The SM3 carves through any electronic barrier and delivers strong, sweet bass, pace, succinct instrument separation, and smooth transitions. It is, however, quite typically a balanced armature earphone: it won’t send waves of bass turbulence into your eardrum, but what arrives is splendidly ’round’ and full. Synthetic percussion, chimes, vocals – all are pure bliss.

So, is there anything the SM3 can’t do? Naturally.

The SM3 sits at the top of its class, rendering bass, midrange, and treble smoothly. Then, there’s space, attack, and decay in dealer’s spades. But in the very same breath comes the rub: the SM3’s smoothness is also its weakness. I can’t fault it exactly, but I can assure you grit and edge are missing. If your tastes in music tip toward the high end or toward what is often mistakenly called ‘detail’, then you may find the SM3 boring. The high end doesn’t roll off per se, but it doesn’t really stand out either. On the one hand, it is 100% fatigue free, smooth, and inviting. But, on the other hand, it pats the hands of otherwise showy high frequencies, shooing them to the back of the class. Shure SE530 fans should find the SM3 a wonderful step upward as it does render highs with more poise. But fans of bitey earphones such as the Victor FX500, or Etymotic ER4S, may be put off.

For me, I’ve found a happy medium: neutral, unwrinkled frequency response, an expansive headstage, and fatigue-free listening. All of this is A-Okay even for a person who entered high-end personal audio many years ago thanks to the bitey Etymotics ER4S. However, my preferences, which tend to sidle toward the teething toddler savour a few nips here and there.

Conclusion
Barnone, the SM3 is the most impressively thought out earphone I’ve HEARD. It isn’t perfect, but it comes very close to perfection – especially when considering its market at large. It not only sounds great, it drives easily from any source and picks up less hiss than many of its comrades. Earsonics hit the nail on the head; they shot two birds with one stone; they baked the perfect cupcake for Oprah. The SM3 is an earphone for audiophiles and professionals – at least as it pertains to sound. Where they miss – and this is a serious miss in my opinion – is in their construction. If the SM3 was a mere audiophile fancy-pants earphone, all plastic might just be an ‘oh well’ item. But as the SM3 is also a supremely engineered tool, I’d love to recommend it to professionals. Earsonics could shut the competition down by delivering a metal or impact-plastic housing with thick walls; they could make a bold statement that sound AND construction quality are paramount concerns. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Even so, the SM3 is a great earphone and with proper care, should last a long time.

Despite my qualms about construction quality, and the fact that the SM3 eeks out a ‘mere’ GRAB, I’ve decided to brand an Editor’s Choice award across this otherwise excellent earphone.

App Summary
Title:Earsonics SM3Developer:Earsonics
Reviewed Ver:SM3Speaker type:Triple Balanced armature
Price:280€ ~400$ USDCable:twisted rubber
  • Lovely bass and midrange
  • Non-fatiguing
  • Excellent control
  • Wide stage
  • Easy to drive
  • Good cable
  • Drafty plastic construction
  • Dearth of accessories

  • chris

    Awesome review as always! Great job. I wholeheartedly concur on all points about their sound. I have never loved a triple BA earphone until now. The magic that Earsonics has woven into the drivers and crossovers is unbelievable, in that how an earphone which has such nice detail and separation manages to stay so smooth and mellow too, with no hint of harshness/bite/sibilance. Every time I listen to them I am amazed.

    The one thing I would love to see is a detachable cable, like Westone has started doing like on their UM3X with that option. Such an addition would make them perfect.

    Great job,
    Chris.

  • http://www.touchmyapp.com shigzeo

    Thanks for the kind words Chris. I love the SM3 and I think in its current form, only the housing needs to change. I’ve inspected the detachable cables from Westone and while they are hot, there are problems. Firstly, the ES cable tens to snap more often than attached cables. Well, it is replaceable, so it shouldn’t be a problem right? Sort of. The system also means that if snapped at the pin, the pin can remain in the unit itself, meaning you’ll have to send the UM3x back to Westone for a pin removal. Had Westone countersunk the unit, it would make a lot more sense in terms of longevity. Oh well, nothing is perfect and the UM3x is a good step in the right direction.

  • Roger

    So, for trance and EDM, do they beat out your venerable ck10?

  • frenchbat

    Hi Shigzeo,
    Nice review as usual, thanks. Just for the record, you forgot some french denominations in the specs sections ;) .

  • http://www.touchmyapp.com shigzeo

    You know, I probably did. I’ll have to fix that. I tend to always miss something. Where is the editor at TMA? ;)

  • frenchbat

    Haha, yeah always when you need them, huh ? :D .
    I think it’s minor for everyone to get around it though ;) .

  • ath

    Shigzeo,

    I have both UM3X and SM3 and I find that UM3X sounds way louder than SM3 using the same device (Clip +). I would expect the impedance numbers should make the SM3 way louder than UM3X but it is not the case. I want to like SM3 more than anything else but….

    your thoughts…

  • http://www.touchmyapp.com shigzeo

    Hello. Impedance alone does not dictate output volume. Probably a more important number is sensitivity. But the SM3 as 117dB (am I right?) should get very loud. I tend to use the 3rd volume setting on the iPod touch and about the same for my Sony. They are very loud for me. I am not sure why yours would be so quiet. I will be borrowing a UM3x from next week, so I can compare the two better. By the way, the new detachable cable UM3x is pretty hot, but it looks like there are a few problems with balance.

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  • Kevin W.

    Shigzeo,

    I had one SE530, sold to buy the CK10, my current IEM. You listened many earphones, what you recommend as a complement to the CK10?

  • http://www.touchmyapp.com shigzeo

    Hey mate,

    I don’t actually ‘complement’ my personal listening with anything. The CK10 is my favourite of all time for many reasons. Still, however, it can be a bit ‘dry’ for certain music. For that music, I tend to use different EQ settings, and even other times, different players. I have Sony’s, HiSound’s, Hippo’s, Hifiman’s and more at my disposal. The iPod/iPhone are legendarily clean and neutral, but sometimes, that is too much of a good thing. If you like the cleanliness of the CK10, you might enjoy something cheap like the RE2 from Head-Direct. But if you miss bass impact, you might enjoy the Radius or IE8.

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  • Techno Kid

    Great review, I have the SM3 V2 coming in a day or 2 and so looking forward to hearing how the sound with edm. I thought they’d be great for it and after reading your review I feel even more confident that they’ll work great.

  • http://twitter.com/shigzeo shigzeo

    Please keep me updated. I hope you really like them. The new version mostly fixes the build issues I discussed. The sound is excellent on either unit. Cheers.

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