Review: iPhone 3GS > Qusp Silver/Copper Cryo LOD > RSA "The Predator" > Earsonics SM3
I am relatively new to the headphone scene. Up until the last few months, I was using the normal ipod > ibud combination, knowing non-the-wiser, even though I am about to complete an audio engineering degree and had been a huge music fan/player for the last 10-15 years. My degree is based mainly on speaker use though, so I was still unaware of the capabilities of headphones, and exactly what I had missing out on this whole time.
I began researching portable rigs after purchasing my first proper headphones, the ATH-AD900. I ended up snagging a pair of brand new Earsonic SM3s at a great price. A couple of days later, I purchased myself an RSA Predator, knowing full well that the SM3 were generally powered fine through the ipod, but I wanted to see what kind of improvement (or lack of) I could get. Head-fi user "Qusp" also kindly provided me with a well priced, quality LOD to use in combination with my new toys. Below I will be providing a mini review to inform those of my experiences with this combination. Hopefully I can help some people out!
Please note that these are my impressions, and I do not expect every single reader/user to agree with everything said.
At first, I was not too sure what to think of the SM3. I put them in, listened, and kind of thought "hmm.. this is good, but I am not overly impressed." I gave it time for my ears to adjust to the sound, and boy did my impressions change. I cannot explain what happened, but the more I listened, the more I fell in love. I wasn't too sure an IEM could match the quality of sound I got from my full-size cans, but the SM3 proved that theory wrong indeed. I would describe the sound of the SM3 as being quite neutral, though with that being said, they are in no way bland or boring. In fact, I find them to be very musical, with great punch and dynamics.
The bass on the SM3 is great for my tastes. Bass guitar drives flawlessly, and sits perfectly within the mix, exactly where I think a bass guitar should. The kick drum has excellent punch when needed, and disappears quickly as to not impede on the rest of the frequency spectrum. It is in no way over-the-top, or recessed. I find it to sit perfectly within the mix, and does a much better job than my AD900 in regards to it's impact.
The mids have great clarity and detail, as well as being a little lush, which I believe adds to the musicality of these beautiful IEMs. Guitar comes through effortlessly, and takes on a different character depending on what music you throw at it. For example, for rock/metal the guitars are presented in a much more aggressive fashion than on acoustic recordings. Piano has a beautiful presentation, with quite realistic attack and decay. Very musical. Drums also sound incredible, better than my AD900s. Great attack, and there is no confusion about which drum is being played. Each drum has it's own separation.
If I had to name one point of the SM3 I would change, it would be the treble. The quality of the treble is great, with the good air between instruments (depending on the music), though I find it to be slightly rolled-off, taking a back seat to the punchy bass and beautiful mids. The AD900s definitely win out in this area, with far more treble extension and much more airiness at the upper range of the frequency spectrum.
I also find the soundstage on the SM3 to be presented extremely well. It doesn't compare to the size of the AD900s soundstage, but sometimes the soundstage of the AD900 can sound fake and unnatural, it is slightly too large IMO. The SM3 doesn't have this problem. Each instrument is separated extremely well, but not too much as to create an unnatural appearance. You can tell where each instrument is coming from and their place within the mix.
Comfort, build & fit:
Coming from ibuds, the SM3 are extremely comfortable in comparison and stay in your ears much more easily. Once in, I find they do not fall out at all, and you could quite easily forget they're there.. The only issue I have with the SM3, and this would vary depending on your ears, but to get a perfect fit and the best sound in my ears the SM3 casing stick out of my ears a little bit, instead of staying inside my inner ear. This isn't really an issue on anything but aesthetics, but it does annoy me a little as I want them to be quite low profile if I will be wearing them out-and-about.
The SM3 are extremely well built and look great. The cable is braided and seems to be very strong. The casing is tough, though I am always a little worried that I will crush it because of its small size (though I doubt this would happen, I am just being paranoid). There are 4 sets of tips included for you to try out. Two pairs to bi-flanges and two foam tips, one larger and one smaller. Personally I use the grey double flanges as I prefer their fit best.
With the RSA Predator and Qusp Silver/Copper Cryo LOD:
To be honest, I am actually quite happy to say that I don't have too many differences to report here, so people wanting a beautiful sounding IEM without amp requirement, the SM3 are for you. The main difference I noticed when plugging the SM3 into the Predator was I did gain a little more treble extension, and the treble was bought much more in line with the rest of the frequency spectrum. I no longer found myself noticing that rolled off treble, which I thought was great. Is it worth the extra $400+ dollars to get this? That's up to you, but I think unless I find another use for the Predator, I will sell it off as I was extremely happy with the sound of the SM3 unamped.
I do have to give a huge shout-out to Qusp though, as the build quality on this LOD is incredible, and the sound is great. I feel like with headphones/IEMs that require an amp to get their best, this LOD would be the perfect choice!
I remember reading a review someone wrote here at head-fi saying the SM3s have this incredible ability to mould itself to the style of music being presented. I couldn't put it any better myself. Whatever you throw at it, you are greeted with a very musical presentation that is really exceptional out of such a small device.
These are no bass monsters, so rap/drum n bass fans may prefer something like the Turbine Gold, though with that being said these genres are definitely presented well with the SM3 with great bass punch and precision, just less lower frequency extension.
I also believe the SM3 do a great job of replicating music as it was recorded. I am in the studio a fair bit due to university, and have tested some of my recordings and was pleasantly surprised with how well the mixes translated, with the exception of the slightly rolled-off treble. I highly recommend the SM3 to anyone looking at IEMs in this price range. The fit is great, the sound is incredible, and the build quality can't be faulted. I can't say much more than that I love these things. You may not enjoy them straight out of the box like I did, but gradually the love sneaks up on you and you may find these to be exactly what you've been after, as I did.
If you have any further questions feel free to ask as I'd be happy to answer them. This is also my first review, so be easy on me. I only hope that I have helped some people looking at the SM3 and possibly the RSA Predator (or other amps) to decide if these are right for them.
Edit: I will also be adding more photos for anyone interested.
Edited by matthewh133 - 11/19/10 at 10:15pm