I’ve had the EarSonics SM3 for about two weeks now, and I think it’s time to give them a review (pictures can be found at the end).
The EarSonics SM3 comes packaged in a rather small box (I was surprised to find the size of the box to be much smaller than the huge oval-shaped-unopenable-treasure-chest that my Shure SCL4’s came in). The box is about 1/3 of the Sennheiser IE8 box. Regardless, I found the small packaging to be rather neat because it made me even more curious as to how these sounded.
Inside the box, one finds the most minimalistic of included accessories and tips. The EarSonics SM3 comes with one pair of Comply Foam tips attached to the IEM, an extra pair of Comply tips inside the packaging, a wax remover/cleaner, a carrying pouch, and a manual written entirely in French (my High School French skills didn’t come in handy either, bummer). When I ordered my SM3, I requested some silicone double flange tips to be included, and Franck generously included two silicone tips with no questions asked.
The actual IEM is found inside its own compartment within the packaging, and the wiring is conveniently located inside the included pouch. I actually found the minimalistic accessories/packaging to be no detriment to the actual product, considering the gorgeous sound they reproduce.
Size & Fit
My first reaction upon holding the SM3 was: “Wow, these are so light.” They seemed almost too lightweight to be any good, I thought. They were considerably lighter than my Shures or Sennheisers. Of course, this light weight also equated to an extremely comfortable fit.
The SM3 fits over the ear and it is apparent that they are supposed to be worn behind the back, because of the short space between my chin and the separator when worn in front of me. The fit I had with the default Comply tips were extremely comfortable, and offered the most sound isolation. However, over time I felt that the Comply tips made the treble less accentuated and the bass less tight and more bloated. I switched to the silicone double flange tips and found the treble to come alive, and the bass to tighten up considerably. I now wear the SM3s with the silicone double flange tips and am waiting on my Sensorcom tips to arrive so I can compare.
The EarSonics SM3 wire is braided with absolute care. The wire has considerable stress-relief both at the IEM end and the terminating jack. The wire offers almost zero microphonics, much less than the other IEMs I’ve tried. Also, after having worn the SM3 over the ear for two weeks, the wire seems to have created a very slight (but soft) memory to my wearing style—which I actually prefer—however, it is not a stiff wire memory like the Shure SCL4 wire. All in all, the fit and comfort of these IEMs, and the care with which they were created screams precision.
Now, onto the most important part.
When I first put the SM3s in my ear and turned on my MP3 Player (going ampless), I experienced a familiar ‘thud’. I flipped to a well-recognized neoclassical track, Liberi Fatali by Nobuo Uematsu.
My initial reaction was not a “Wow!” or anything of that nature. However, I did recognize the tremendous soundstage immediately. The track calls for a lot of instruments and treble + timbre on instruments, which all were reproduced well by the SM3.
I moved onto a faster, more bass heavy j-pop track, and here is where my first disappointment came. The bass impact seemed lacking to me, as someone who just came from a Sennheiser IE8. However, the vocals shined and all the instruments were so well separated that it brought back something that I hadn’t experienced for a while: balance. I was so used to the IE8’s signature, that I completely forgot about certain elements in tracks.
Over the next half hour, I played a variety of tracks, and listened to the SM3 very critically. It seemed that the SM3 was improving with every track to my ears. This did not make sense to me, at all.
It appeared that the vocals were getting wetter, more alive, and detailed. The initial bass impact that I found to be lacking was getting tighter and more textured. I recognized texture in the bass that I never found with the IE8s, the bass was rich and very, very well detailed. The highs were, however, still not as extended as I found the IE8s to be. Nevertheless, after my brief audition, I put the SM3 down and knew in the back of my head that these were going to surpass my other IEMs over time. With the half-hour brain burn-in that I experienced, I could only imagine what I was going to think of these IEMs weeks down the road.
Fast-forward those two weeks down the road. Here are my impressions:
The EarSonics SM3 are incredible with vocals. My best way to describe how vocals sound on the SM3 is: natural. The EarSonics presents music as it was recorded, with what seems to be (and I really think this) no colouring whatsoever. Certain tracks that call for female vocals seemed to be so beautiful to listen to with my Shure’s, because of their squeaky clean accentuation. The IE8s also gave me a different direction with vocals, with a more laid-back sound signature which seemed slightly veiled compared to the Shure’s.
However, the SM3 is different from anything that I’ve heard. They do not like to add spices or toppings to the music. They only give you what is in the music and nothing more. I thought I was getting this with the Shures, but I was wrong. The SM3 WILL show you the sound of a female inhaling before singing her first notes—however, while both the Shure’s and Sennheisers did this, the SM3 did it differently. The Shures would present the inhaling almost artificially. There is little to no realism of the air rushing through the female’s throat. What I mean by this is, the bass that the air is riding on is not represented by the Shures. The Sennheisers on the other hand, exaggerate this bass. The mid-bass hump on the IE8s make almost every female vocalist sound one or two steps darker or less polished than they really do. Thus, when a female inhales before singing, the Sennheisers added bass where there should not have been bass.
The SM3 reproduces the bass at an inhale almost magically. There is so much TEXTURE on the bass that the air is riding upon, it is breathtaking (no pun intended). One can feel (not just hear) the air rushing through a vocalists’ throat, and can almost tell if his or her throat is dry or wet. I’m sorry if this sounds kind of disgusting to some, but I am trying to explain in full detail how the SM3 reproduces vocals. I could literally hear the air rushing through the throat and coming back out as beautiful notes. I could see that transformation from air to music that humans are able to do with their vocal cords. The bass is not missing like on the Shures, or exaggerated as on the Sennheisers. It is just right. It is real.
The vocals are not ‘in your face’ nor laid back. They are simply represented as how the music was recorded. Certain tracks that I’ve listened to made the vocals appear so ‘in my head’, while other tracks made the vocals appear in front of me, or way in front of me. It all depends on the track, really. It’s almost as if the SM3 is a malleable piece of mud, ready to be made into a piece of pottery. When you press play on that song, the potter goes to work and transforms the mud into the exact dimensions that blueprint (the song) calls for, giving you a piece of pottery that is solely a reproduction of what the blueprint asked for.
Mids (Vocals continued)
The mids on the SM3 are indeed something magical. They seem so effortless yet so alive, it’s quite hard to discern how EarSonics was able to create this type of sound signature. During a song, the mids are ‘there’. They are part of the music, and it is almost like a strand that you can grab and examine, and then release so that it goes back to being part of the harmony of music. The detail, speed, and realism are all there. But, it is not artificially there to impress you. It’s part of the music. It is not part of a show that the SM3 is trying to make so that it can prove itself to be the best IEM. Almost all of the components of sound are represented this way on the SM3s. They all exist in harmony with one another, but can be ‘held’ by themselves and examined, and they will each prove to be perfectly represented. This is how I would describe mids, and every other component, on the SM3.
They are delicate, lush, smooth, laid-back—whatever the music calls for. They will not be polished and super clean in every song, but real to the audio. But what if a song does call for the mids to be polished and super clean? You will get exactly that. The SM3 reproduces mids in this ingenious, transformational way.
Highs on the SM3 are again, perfectly in-tune with the music. They are not there to give you shivers everytime you hear a cymbal crash. If the cymbal does crash and cause you to shiver, then it means that the audio was recorded with that intention.
The sparkle and glimmer is all there in the highs, but only when called for. The highs will tickle you and make you grin when necessary, and remain there for your picking when the song does not require it. How are they reproduced when the song does require the highs to be accentuated? Well, simply put—brilliant.
The highs extend and glimmer perfectly in all the songs that call for it. They do not roll off like in the Shures, nor are they extended past their intention like in the Sennheisers. Since I listen to a lot of j-pop, the speed and sparkle of highs make for a hard combination to reproduce well. However, the SM3 does this with ease. I will elaborate on the speed and precision of the SM3 later on.
High notes by vocalists are so lifelike and natural it is quite amazing. You can feel the struggle of a vocalist to reach those high notes, and the consequent result of their effort. It is indeed a faithful reproduction of highs. Did I mention that the highs do not interfere with the other sections of music whatsoever while doing this? They are all in perfect balance and harmony with one another. This makes for a reproduction of music that is never artificial and never fatiguing. Overall, the highs on the SM3 is not something to be messed with. It’s amazingly well crafted and beautiful on every level. There is no harshness or sibilance to be found. It is indeed a fine, unique representation of highs on every song.
As I mentioned earlier, I was disappointed with the impact of the bass initially. Two weeks later, I laughed at my naïve self. I believe brain burn-in, as well as some subtle burn-in on the crossover and drivers did this to me. The bass impact on the SM3s is thunderous, fast, tight, and CONTROLLED. Everything about the bass on the SM3 screams high-end reproduction.
The bass is so well textured and defined, yet at the same time so impactful and fast, that it is hard to understand how EarSonics created this type of signature using only one bass driver per earpiece. When I stated that the bass was controlled, this does NOT mean that the bass cannot be felt. It only means that the bass is rich and high-end. The bass feels so… expensive and high-class on the SM3.
On natural instruments, the timbre of instruments is so lifelike it is like a delicacy. The sound of a violin, trombone, or piano are perfectly represented and sustained by the bass on the SM3s. The Sennheisers that I had did this, but not to this level. I believe that natural instruments sound even better on the SM3 because of the bass detail that they reveal. The Sennheisers were not nearly as detailed on bass as the SM3s are. Combined with the massive, realistic soundstage of the SM3s (which I will get to later), the combination is deadly.
On hip-hop songs that are bass-heavy, the SM3 does not fail. I didn’t expect the SM3 to be able to stand through some really bass-heavy hip-hop songs, but boy was I wrong. Bass can pound your ears if the music calls for it, and it can be soft and gentle, carrying the tone of a single piano note if the music calls for it. It may be funny to describe the bass as a premium, viscous honey, but that's the taste I get with the bass on the SM3s. Quantity wise? The bass has tremendous quantity—but only if the song calls for it. It will not be there disturbing you on an acoustic passage if the guitar doesn’t have that type of bass; this is something I grew annoyed with on the IE8—bass was simply accentuated when it shouldn’t have been. The quantity of the bass, combined with the detail and speed, make for an amazing experience on any song with an underlying bass-line.
Did I mention the speed of the bass? It is tremendously fast. The bass can stop on a dime if necessary, and then start back with thunderous impact one second later. The bass will not smear the audio spectrum and ruin your mids and highs. Never. It will always remain harmonious to the music. One can truly appreciate bass on the SM3s because of the detail and control of it. It is not distorted, bloated, or exaggerated one bit.
Bass is not only there on the main sound, but on little tidbits and sounds occurring ‘outside’ the main space in the music. If there is a drum far on your right in the soundstage, the bass of the drumstick hitting the drum will also be there, in accordance with the distance from you. It is marvelous how the SM3 can recreate bass so realistically in this way. One thing that I feel I have to continuously mention is how controlled the bass is. It is almost disciplined in a way, but polished and rich. It is a classy, but fun bass. By ‘fun’, I don’t mean IE8 bass-style fun. I mean, fun in accordance with the music. If the bass on a track is accompanied by dark piano notes, you will feel the sadness in the music through the bass.
The bass can extend down and down. I have not heard the bass roll-off once, even on many bass-heavy tracks. The extension on the bass is again, very rich but CONTROLLED. It will not stagger and break its position. Think about it like you’re on a bike accelerating to a fast speed. If you want to accelerate very, very quickly to that top speed, your bike will likely buckle left and right a little before you reach that top speed and your bike is stable. The SM3 will not buckle while accelerating. The frame of that bike will remain perfectly straight and controlled as it accelerates to that top speed. Overall, I am extremely impressed by the richness and detail of the bass, and with the control that it has. The fact that I can feel (and not just hear) the bass when the song calls for it also makes me delighted. The bass on the SM3 is just as harmonious as the mids and highs with the music. Simply put, the bass on the SM3 is everything you would want your bass to be in music (unless you like artificially enhanced bass—or are a real basshead).
Speed, Precision, and Detail Retrieval
The EarSonics SM3 is hands down the fastest IEM I have heard to date. They don’t gasp for air with complex songs, where there is emphasis on even a 6 or 7 instruments + vocals simultaneously. Everything is effortless. What I like even more about the speed of the SM3 is the fact that everything (the mids, highs, and bass), are all there on even the tiniest note. On songs that start with a soft shrill of a violin for example, that half-second note WILL have the attack necessary, AS WELL AS the bass, mids, and highs that it should have. It is all there in even the fastest notes.
The SM3 is not sloppy when it comes to speed. It will not smear a note from one area to another. Everything is where it should be. A drumstick hitting a drum will have the exact precision as intended. The bass impact of the drumstick hitting the drum will also be there, as well as the consequent sound dissipating into space (this I will elaborate on the soundstage portion).
Attack and decay are all spot-on with the SM3. I can’t say anymore about the speed and precision of the SM3—it is fast and there is no doubt about it. The detail retrieval of the IEM is better than everything I’ve heard. The SM3 will pick up micro-details and place them exactly where they belong on the soundstage. All of the details are incorporated harmoniously on the SM3. Even in complex passages, one can hear the small details or clicks that were intended to be in the track. Even the smallest details will have their respective bass/mids/highs attached to them. It is like the SM3 does not want any note to go out there ‘naked’ into the audio stream. Everything has to have some clothing attached before it is allowed to go out in the audio stream. Overall, the speed and detail of the SM3 is the best I’ve heard to date—and this is not a statement I am making lightly. The Shures that I had were indeed very revealing, but I must say that the SM3s surpass them in every regard when it comes to detail retrieval and more importantly—detail presentation.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Transparency
This is a very important section for the SM3, and I saved this section for last because the SM3 does soundstage like no other IEM I have heard. The soundstage and imaging of the SM3 are all about real reproduction. If a song calls for a drum to be hit far far far away, the SM3 will reproduce that drum far far far away—not just far away. There is such an expansive soundstage that it is incredible. However, I must say that this ‘vast’ soundstage that I speak of is not always in-your-face as with the IE8. The IE8 has a very large soundstage, but one that is artificial now that I have heard the SM3. The SM3’s soundstage can only be utilized by the song. It is like a very, very powerful supercomputer—it’s useless to the average person but can be put to tremendous use by an engineer specializing in it.
The 3D presentation of the SM3 does not for one second sound artificial to me. It is how the music was intended to sound. One particular song comes to mind (Jesters of the Moonless Sky by Nobuo Uematsu), which when I played, reproduced the sound of a drumstick hitting a drum with far more detail and imaging on the soundstage level than I ever thought possible. The sound after the drum was struck created a reverberation which expanded vertically high into the air. I was astonished to find this, as I never experienced it before the hundreds of times that I have heard the track. This reverberation proved that the SM3 also had dimensions in its music. Width, depth, and height are all there for you classical music fans.
For songs that call for a vocalist to be nearly in front of your face, the SM3 reproduces such a sound in an almost eerily realistic manner. For songs that have fast transitions from left to right, or a sound beginning on the right and ending on the left; the SM3’s lightning fast speed combined with its soundstaging, can handle such a task effortlessly. The echo of a vocalist can stretch as wide as the song calls for, and if a song does call for such an echo, you will get shivers from how well the SM3 can reproduce it. One can tell the difference of instruments and their distances easily with the SM3’s soundstage. At the same time, it does not detract from the harmony of the music. It is all there but together with the music—not detached from it. This is what I like about the SM3, it never once sounds lifeless to me. It is there for the music.
Transparency-wise, the SM3 is perfect. Every single component of music is there, and can be held for examination. Not one section of the audio spectrum smears into another area where it should not be. This is perhaps one of the greatest qualities that I like about the SM3. All instruments, vocals, and sounds are independently detailed from one another, but cohesive as a whole—combining together to create a harmonious sound. There are almost no ‘layers’ to go through if you want to pick a certain click or sound, or a bass-line from the song—it’s there and it’s easy to focus upon, and consequently release. Overall, soundstaging and imaging are spectacularly realistic and well executed; together with instrument separation, speed, and detail, the SM3 does soundstage like no other—it can bring you from a concert, to band practice, to an intimate conversation—it all depends on the song and what it wants the SM3 to do. The SM3, in my opinion, is king when it comes to transparency, soundstage, and imaging.
With this long review, what is there left to say? I must say that the EarSonics SM3 clearly stands out as a universal IEM. Everything that the SM3 does, it does so well that it’s nearly impossible to find any flaw in the sound. It combines the strengths of every IEM and eliminates the weaknesses, and adds its own soundstage and speed on top of that. The detail and transparency of the SM3 alone can command its price tag in my opinion. Combined with the speed, bass detail and impact, liquid mids, and thrilling highs—it is unlike any other sound signature that I’ve experienced. In fact, I have been listening to the SM3 the entire time that I’ve written this review, and I think I have grown even more attached to these IEMs now. The SM3s sound great out of an MP3 Player, but they do fare very well with a portable amp. Although I am using a cheap FiiO E5 for now, I plan on upgrading to a much better portable amp in the future for the SM3s. I also plan to get custom tips for the SM3s to see even more of what they have to offer. If you purchase the SM3 and are disappointed at first, give them a week or two. I promise you that the sound signature will grow on you, and you will eventually not be able to put them down.
If you want a presentation of music that remains true to the music—and does not add any spices or special wrapping around the music, then the SM3 is your IEM. It, to me, represents that hallmark of what music should be: engaging, detailed, lively, and harmonious. All areas of the audio spectrum are represented without any detachment from the other respective areas. The EarSonics SM3 is truly as beautiful of a product as the music it strives (and succeeds) to reproduce.
My best purchase since I’ve been here on head-fi, hands down. Highly recommended.
Thank you to EarSonics for creating such a remarkable product, and remaining true to what audio should be.
The EarSonics SM3 retails for €345.00 in Europe & France and €288.46 worldwide, which roughly equates to (using today's exchange rate) $353 + $30 shipping = ~$383. I purchased my SM3 for $419.
Edited by SolidVictory - 7/16/10 at 1:53am