In this post I will compare the SM3 in ear monitor (IEM) and the EM4 custom in ear monitor (CIEM) side by side using the album: “The Ultimate Demonstration Disc - Chesky Records' Guide to Critical Listening”.
Both IEMs are developed, manufactured, and marketed by the French company EarSonics.
Each track on the album focuses on a particular audiophile sound aspect, and so will I. That is, if for example the sound aspect demonstrated is “Transparency”, I will mainly focus on and evaluate transparency.
Before writing down my opinion I will listen to the same track entirely with each IEM, and I will repeat this process until I feel confident about my judgment. I will make sure I listen to each IEM the same number of times.
The CD was ripped on my HP EliteBook 8530w using iTunes with error correction to the “Apple Lossless Encoder” file format.
I hope it is legal to quote the description of each audiophile sound aspect from the CD. If not, please let me know and I’ll try to rephrase the descriptions using my own words.
So, let’s get started…
The Dynamic Test (Track 29)
“The dynamic test, from Chesky sampler volume 2. Some of you are clamoring for some extreme hard hitting dynamics. So let’s do a solo drum test. Try to play this at realistic levels, but please, be careful. Though it starts quietly, it’s slowly getting louder and louder. This is a brute force test for speakers and amplifiers.”
Both IEMs cope with the increasing level of loudness brilliantly. The sound quality is kept intact all the way from the softest brushing to the hardest hitting on the cymbals. The EM4 is flawless whereas the SM3 loses just a tiny bit (and I really mean tiny, if any) of its overall quality at the very loudest levels. It’s very close to a draw, but…
Bass Resonance (Track 27)
“Bass resonance from Chesky sampler volume 2. Here, we have a solo stand-up bass in the middle of a large studio. The instrument is three feet (1 m) from the microphone. You should hear a strong transient pluck, followed by the resonance of the body of the instrument. This is a test of accuracy for woofers. Some woofers, when pushed to their limits, will create non-musical sounds. This solo base can reveal those weaknesses in speaker design.”
Listening to the SM3 you can hear not only the very substantial and palpable resonance, but you can also easily visualize the body and weight of the stand-up bass. Magic! Nothing wrong with the EM4 though. The transient pluck is more distinct and the realism of the rasp of vibrating strings hitting the front neck is remarkable. Surprisingly, the sub-bass ability of the EM4 isn’t quite as palpable as I had expected, but still contributes.
Holographic Imaging (Track 23)
“Holographic Imaging. The Westminster Choir performs Benjamin Britten’s “Festival Te Deum”. This recording of the Westminster Choir at the church of St Mary the Virgin Cathedral, is endowed with a crystalline quality. Even when played over a conventional two speaker stereo, this recording should sound three dimensional. It’s as if you were transported back to the session at St Mary’s. Our sole microphone for this recording was perched atop a microphone boom about 35 feet (11 m) tall. The choir was located in a high loft above the (?). So for the first time in our experience, the mike was positioned in free space, with no reflecting surfaces nearby. You should be able to close your eyes and see the choir before you, and sense a large cathedral 60 feet (18 m) wide, 225 (69 m) feet long, and 90 feet (27 m) tall. Some systems will even resolve a sense of height in this recording. The organ should sound fairly ambient as its sound fills the whole cathedral. By the way, the hiss that is apparent is caused by air leaks from the organ, not tape hiss. Be careful, though the overall level of this recording is quite low, there are some mighty peaks that can humble many a system.”
As far as holographic imaging goes, I really can’t say it’s more substantial with either IEM. In this respect it is a draw. However, the crystalline quality is more pronounced with the EM4 and the nuances of the many voices are easier heard with the EM4. Regarding the ambiance the cathedral feels larger with the EM4 and the choir more distant. The SM3 has a slightly veiled tone which actually is quite pleasant, especially when the choir is at its loudest, and the reason why the SM3 can be used for hours on end without creating listening fatigue. With the SM3 the organ hiss sounds like “any old hiss”, whereas with the EM4 the explanation that the hiss emanates from the organ feels more credible. Regarding holographic imaging it is a draw. However, I still must crown…
Rhytm & Pace (Track 19)
“Rhythm and pace. Johnny Frigo performs: “I Love Paris”. 77 year old Johnny Frigo has such incredible vitality and a real joy in his playing. In fact, the whole band is having a grand old time. Rhythm and pace in hi-fi terms refers to the ability of a system to convey energy in the music. This translates as foot tapping, head bobbing and maybe even forces you to get up and dance. In other words, we want you to physically respond to the energy of the music. During comparisons of electronics, but speakers in particular, take note of your physical reactions to higher energy music, because if you are not reacting, keep looking. This is an often overlooked, but essential aspect of sound reproduction. Now, let’s listen to Johnny!”
The SM3 sounds very polished, warm and hi-fi. The saxophone sounds like golden liquid, and more than enough of foot tapping and head bobbing are injected through the ears. I feel I’m right there among the musicians. The SM3 simply sounds luxurious. This is why I love the SM3. So, how about the EM4? Well… OMG! Aural nirvana! First of all, the forward projection; The EM4 places me in front of the musicians, not among them. Overall, the instruments sound like I imagine they would in real life. It’s definitely like being on location during the recording session. The most amazing sonic differences are heard in the drum set and the stand‑up bass. The drums are so real it’s like you can hear the individual bristles of the drum whisks. Also, the audible difference when the drum sticks hits the cymbal a quarter of an inch further or farther away from the previous spot is obvious. I’ve never heard drums sound so realistic and engaging on a recording. Another very profound difference which contributes to the realistic sound is the EM4’s sub bass ability. In the drums and the stand‑up bass, just the right amount of sub bass kicks in right very it’s needed. The EM4 brings foot tapping and head bobbing to heights previously unknown. My only small complaint (and it is a very small complaint) is that I would have liked a little more “SM3 body” in the stand‑up bass during its solo. So, I guess you won't be surprised to learn that…
Atmosphere (Track 7)
“Atmosphere. Leny Andrade performs: “Maiden Voyage”. There is a warm inviting soundstage in this recording. The stage should be expansive, yet Leny’s voice is quite immediate, with a wide dynamic range. The base is full and warm. The drums and cymbals are (?). This is a lush recording that you’ll find, very relaxing. Take it away, Leny!”
If Leny would hear her own voice through the EM4 she would probably nod her head in recognition, and so would probably the drummer; Again, a very realistic sound. However, I’m not sure the stand‑up bass player and the pianist would feel the same way. The stand‑up bass isn’t quite full enough and is lacking in warmth, although the sub bass of the EM4 helps somewhat. The transient attack in the piano is too accentuated to be really enjoyable. Although the recording in itself is supposedly warm, I’m afraid the EM4 sounds somewhat strenuous. So, how about the SM3? Well, the description in the above paragraph of what this recording is supposed to sound like is… spot on! Glorious! If Leny would hear her own voice through the SM3 she would most definitely be smiling. This is what the SM3 was built for, and I just can’t get enough of it!
Naturalness (Track 11)
“Naturalness. Ana Caram performing: “Correnteza”. The natural acoustic of the church where “Correnteza” was recorded, provided a perfect setting for this graceful music. “Correnteza” begins with exquisite percussive effects and bird sounds. This rain forest should envelope you. Next, the cello fills the space with a resonant glow. Ana’s voice is so palpable you should almost feel her breath as she sings. There should be no sense of an electronic glare, just a rich, deep sound that pulls you in. Utterly natural! Now, let’s hear Ana!”
The cello has a fuller tone with the SM3, but have more passion and intensity with the EM4. The percussion feels deeper and more present with the SM3, but more sonorous, distinct and airy with the EM4. Not surprisingly, the rain forest feels denser and more immersive with the SM3, but get more space and air with the EM4. The main difference is heard, however, in Ana's voice. With the SM3 her voice sounds beautiful but slightly hoarse or veiled, whereas with the EM4 Ana’s voice and breathing sounds so authentic that it turns me on. Very natural indeed! (I hope my wife won’t be reading this!).
To be continued…
I’m afraid I’ll have to discontinue my comparison between the EM4 and the SM3, and for a very simply reason. I no longer have the EM4. I discovered a problem somewhere in the frequency range between 2 kHz and 4 kHz at the loud drawn-out tones, and after a short correspondence with ES had my EM4 rebuilt to the EM6 specification. The problem probably wasn’t in the EM4, but was the result of my ears’ anatomy in combination with the EM4.
Now, the EM6 arrived today and although I’ve only spent less than an hour with it, I’m going bananas with joy. The EM6 is everything I was hoping for, and so much more. The EM6 outperforms the EM4 in every sound aspect I can think of. The control, sound stage, authenticity, separation, level of detail, and so on, are truly mind blowing. Voices are so real it is uncanny (I lack the words to describe it). I can't believe that I'm actually writing that I'm going to rediscover my album collection again. Also, the EM6 just sound so very, very pleasant, like the SM3 but with so much more refinement in every sound aspect. If someone would have told me the EM6 was twice the cost of the EM4, I would have believed them without as much as a blink. If you are considering the EM4, go for the EM6, it is worth every single cent and more.
Edited by Aero Dynamik - 1/31/12 at 11:10am