Sensaphonics j-phonics earphone in review

Who would have thought that Sensaphonics, the stodgiest custom earphone maker on the planet, would go universal? I didn’t, and I bet that Sensaphonics USA probably didn’t either. Nope, the j-phonics is a 100% Japanese product; it begins and ends in the land of the rising sun. Cool as that may be, cooler still is the fact that its guts are brilliantly tooled, reminding me of the excellently balanced Prophonics 2X-s custom monitor. But, rather than coming wrapped in medicinal silicon, the j-phonics comes packed in cute, coloured polycarbonate shells, new internal laminatation, and a new low[er] price.

Feel free to discuss the j-phonics in our forums?

Frequency response: 20-16,000 Hz
Driver type: Dual balanced armatures
Sensitivity at 1mW: 109dB
Cable length: user selectable: 95, 60, 45 cm
Plug type: user selectable: straight or l-shaped
Carrying Case: user selectable: Pelican Case 1010 or 1030

Package and Fit
The j-phonics does come at a rather high price, but it is supported by a good accessory kit. Sensaphonics Japan ditched the idea of cheap zippered cases and plastic pill boxes. Instead, they took the professional route and supplied a sturdy weatherproof Pelican case to protect your investment and their reputation.

Right, so the onus is on you and me now: it’s our job to keep the earphones in their Pelicans. I’m sure Sensaphonics could spare a few hundred yen to supply a smaller pocket-friendly carrying pouch, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

6 or 8 (this number may change) pair of Comply tips in all manner of sizes come in the box and well, that is about it. There is no 3,5mm to 6,3mm step up adapter, and unless things change, no wax loop.

Fit, however, is perfect. The j-phonics lies completely flat in the outer ear where, for most people, it will be swallowed up and nearly invisible when viewed straight-on. It lies so flat, in fact, that you can sleep on your side comfortably. It fits similarly to the Westone 2, but lies even more comfortably in most ears. Really, the j-phonics is quite small; even in tiny ears, it should relax like a fat man in a hot tub. On stage or when out and about, the Comply tips keep the earphone in snug enough that you never lose seal no matter much you grind your jaw when rocking out at the mic. Ergonomically, the j-phonics is about as close to pragmatic perfection as is possible in a human design, even for glasses wearers.

Build Quality and Cable
Generally, I am against the use of 100% plastic outer shells in professional earphones. Thin plastic walls are susceptible to rupture and to delamination. But, thanks to the professional leader, Westone, many of today’s professional earphones are constructed more casually than their audiophile counterparts. Unfortunately, the Earsonics SM2 and SM3 fall into that camp, and to a lesser degree, so too, does the j-phonics.

The cable is well-anchored in its chassis, the plug is of high-quality, and the y-split is protected better than almost any earphone on the market, but the fact that this professional earphone is plastic is disappointing. Oh well, nothing is perfect. Thankfully, its polycarbonate exterior is glued well and shows no signs of twisting under pressure. Sensaphonics could improve their gluing a little. Currently, tiny gaps below the cable the cable’s entry into the earphone exist in certain samples. I hope that as production is ramped up, Sensaphonics will be able to create an even more solid shell. Even under fairly strenuous use, though, I expect its plastic case to hold up at least as well as its Westone counterparts and certainly better than Earsonics SM2 and SM3 to the stresses of tours, concerts, and rowdy listening sessions at neighbours’ houses.

While its plastic case may grind my nerves, its excellent cable settles them. Sensaphonics Japan let YOU choose your termination style. Musicians will probably chase after the right-angle plug, while consumers may head for the straight plug. I don’t have photographs of the straight plug at the moment, so you will just have to take my word for it: it is a high quality piece that should withstand a lot of abuse. Still, straight plugs are more susceptible to bending and to finding the wrong angles inside receivers and MP3 players when dropped. My suggestion is to stick with the right-angled plug.

From its termination to the y-split, the j-phonics cable oozes quality. Just like its Prophonics brothers, it is strong, thick, and tightly wound to ensure that it doesn’t snag on your accessories. Here again, it trumps Westone and Earsonics.

At the earphone, the cable disappears without a thick rubber sheath. Instead a heat shrink cable guide guards the cable against twisting and biting. The only notable area of concern is the cable surface. It is different to the silver Prophonics cables that can stand up to buckets of sweat and body oils like Gandalf to a daemon Balrog. The j-phonics cable won’t turn green or anything, but over time, will gently crystallise. It compares very favourably to Westone and Earsonics and I expect it to be much sturdier than either for prolonged stage use.

Who’s it for?
Before we bite into the gristle, let’s try to suss who this earphone is for. Considering its lack of marketing ‘flair’, its price, its manly Pelican Case, and its many user-selectable options, the j-phonics should be considered a professional item first, and an audiophile item second. It is aimed at performance as it applies to the road, and as it applies to musical performance. The j-phonics sounds great, but I don’t really see it catching on as well with audiophiles, or shall I say, market-speak suckers.

Unlike the Prophonics 2X-s Prophonics 2X-s, the j-phonics can be fitted into any band members’ ears for a comparative pittance. If you want art, add it yourself. If you want solid performance, relative cost effectiveness, and ease of use, choose the j-phonics.

Here’s the rub, though: the j-phonics is a better-sounding earphone for half the price of the Prophonics 2X-s. It starts at the low end, delivering clear, deep, and fast bass that its big silicon brother cannot deliver. The 2X-s sounds very good, but its deep chops can get violent from time to time. Treble can be its biggest bugger, though: at times, it strains the ears with grain, and bass has a tendency to throb a bit too much.

So why is it that the j-phonics is so perfectly smooth from top to bottom? And, how does it retain space and speed so well? I can only hazard that the polycarbonate case has the perfect combination of laminates in its sound tube. The drivers share a similar crossover, so it must come down to their placement. Anyway, get ready for smooth perfection.

I began my j-phonics journey with Boards of Canada, across the Trans Canada Highway. It’s hard to do Boards of Canada wrong; their music is slow enough that boomy bass and shrill highs don’t slaughter anything. But by the same cruel metric, it’s just hard to do their music perfect justice. I can imagine that perfect justice would be just a bit more bass, but apart from that, the j-phonics provides everything in the right amount.

The j-phonics’ bass is deep, clean, and resonant, but can’t be misconstrued as overbearing. Most of its detail comes from the mid-upper bass. In fact, there is a surprising amount of detail to be had between 30Hz and 60Hz, but after that, and until about 100Hz, the j-phonics enjoys a very sweet spot. Overall, it follows the Earsonics SM3 closely, staying back a pace or so in terms of bass dynamics, but not really in terms of bass slam. J-phonics bass is powerful and both earphones can punch very low without miss-stepping. In the low end, both are control freaks, but the SM3 is slightly more detailed and spacey.

Fun action-dance tunes such as Daft Punk’s One More Time, and Robot Rock are excellent sounding boards for the quality of bass speed and decay the j-phonics can produce. On the natural end, kick drums and bass guitar in Melody Gardot’s jazz are lush, warm, and detailed; but again, their presentation via the j-phonics trails the same on the SM3 slightly in overall detail.

Moving up to the midrange shows similar results. The j-phonics carries along in a straight line from bottom to top. Vocals and strings perfectly sound next to percussion, bass, and treble. Like the SM3, the midrange is large and flat. However, the j-phonics doesn’t inject as much lube into the mix. Consider the j-phonics like a good play at a merger of the Earsonics SM2 and SM3. It is certainly drier than the Westone UM3x. Overall, this results in a flat, neutral presentation. It works very well for classical, jazz, rock, and even trance.

In some ways, the latter, lesser genre is actually better through the j-phonics than it is through the SM3 or SM2. Trance calls for as little accent as possible. The j-phonics has a fraction less accent than the SM3 and doesn’t sacrifice high-end reach like the SM2 does.

So, where does the j-phonics miss against the SM3? I mean, the triple driver, triple crossover Star Child has to beat the hell out of a dually, right? Well, not really. Both are top-flight earphones. Where the SM3 wins is space: its soundstage is pretty legendary in certain circles and I’m not about to gainsay that for this wonderful little bugger. The j-phonics has an amazingly dynamic presentation between bass and treble, resulting in a wide soundstage, but the SM3 one-ups it. The SM3 is wider, yes, and sometimes more dynamic, but overall, I think the j-phonics is the better investment for a stage musician.

So, am I the SP or the MX?
The j-phonics comes in two models: SP and MX. SP is short for Stage Performance and MX short for Music Extreme. The latter is a funny moniker, especially considering that stodgy ol’ Sensaphonics coined it. But what the hell, it is a bit more ‘extreme’. The SP model is flatter with better perceived treble extension while the MX version has a slightly better expressed upper bass/lower midrange. The former is sparklier, the latter, more laid back.

My money is on the SP model unless you really really want to dull the top end a bit, but both models are close enough for rock’n roll. Both come in a range of colours, cable lengths, and terminations – the choice comes down to your preference. Accuracy is the realm of the SP and dynamics (to some extent) is the realm of the MX model, but I’d put more stock in the marketing than actual differences. I mean, isn’t it better to enjoy the music rather than split hairs over which earphone has a decibel more woof?

Out and About
Since the j-phonics was made for the musician and engineer, it holds up well to stress. The cable, earphone, and case are all of high quality. You can walk in plus thirty degree weather, slicking the cables with sweaty, oily detritus, or freeze them in minus twenty degree weather and expect the same results: a two-finger v-salute to adverse conditions. Westone’s and Audio Technica’s high-end cables can be slightly less microphonic, but only at first.

Since the j-phonics cable is less susceptible to crystallisation than Westone’s is (thanks to rubber guards), over time, it will prove to be less microphonic even though Westone’s wins the early races. And thanks to impeccable fit and ergonomics, there is very little wind noise generated at the body.

What the j-phonics doesn’t do well for out and about use is pack itself conveniently into a purse or pocket. The included Pelican could survive a metre-high drop to the pavement at Nevada highway speeds, but it won’t survive a fashion party. If you want discreet, you’ll have to spring for it yourself.

Remember, even the best-constructed earphones can still crap out. To keep the j-phonics for years, make sure to fold it up in their Pelican case, or find another good case for when they aren’t in your ears.

Remember that we are talking about Sensaphonics here. The j-phonics look like a cheap off-the-shelf earphone, but they perform like the finely-tuned Prophonics 2X-s. And, for like 400 bones, it’s a good thing too. For musicians and engineers, the j-phonics is a no-brainer. I’d even feel comfortable recommending them above every other universal stage monitor for ease of use and internal engineering, and for bands on a budget, above customs because with Comply tips, there are next to no hassles with fit and isolation.

Since the advent of the SM3, I feel that the universal earphone canvass has reached a level of maturity that puts a lot of pressure on more expensive customs. The j-phonics comfortably punches at the dollar bottom line with great performance and overall excellent build quality. Audiophiles, even you should love them, though I reckon you’ll be a bit more swayed by the SM3’s more lubed sound.

If, however, you can get past marketing speak, you will find that there is NO better professional monitor on the market now.

Pro list:
Perfect fit
Excellent sound
Best-in-class cable
Pelican case included

Con list:
Cable will crystallise
No extra cable sheath at earphone

NOTE: The second earphone in comparison photos is the Westone 3. I chose this earphone because it is also piano black and because I didn’t have any other Westone earphone handy. Though the Westone 3 is an audiophile product, it shares cables with the UM2 and UM3x.

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