Following hot on the footsteps of celebrity-endorsed headphones is the new trend of full-size Hi-Fi manufacturers entering the portable audio market - Rockford Fosgate, Bowers & Wilkins, Velodyne, and others have given in-ear headsets a go in the past year. 2012 brings Canada-based Paradigm Electronics into the fray with three pairs of in-ear monitors, collectively dubbed Paradigm Shift. The top-of-the line E3m retails for $130 and promises the Paradigm Signature Series experience in a portable package.
Packaging & Accessories
Tips & case
The E3m is packaged simply and stylishly in a red and black box with a small plastic cutout showing one of the earpieces and the inline mic/remote unit. Inside is a very nice faux-leather clamshell case with an embossed Paradigm Shift logo and three sizes of silicone eartips. The tips utilize a hybrid-like design with stiff inner cores, a-la AKG’s K3003. The cores are color coded for easier L/R identification.
Design & Build Quality
3.5mm plug and y-split
The E3m is built around a single piece of machined aluminum, which houses the driver chamber. A second, plastic piece flares outward at the rear and presents a rather large Paradigm Shift logo. The nozzle is protected by a metal filter and the entire construction feels nice and solid. The cabling is nylon-sheathed but seems to resist kinks and tangles very well. The biggest issue is the lack of strain relief on housing entry and at the y-split, which may result in the nylon cable sheath fraying over time. A mic/remote unit with an unusually small single button is located on the right-side cable.
Fit & Comfort
The housings of the E3m are quite slim and easy to insert get a good seal with. The stock tips are of good quality and the shells use an ergonomic, off-axis design much like that of the AKG K3003. The E3m can be worn both cable-up and cable-down but the sharp rear corners of the housing and strain relief tend to contact the outer ear, potentially causing discomfort for some users. This is easily remedied by using longer aftermarket eartips, which position the housings farther out for hours of comfort.
Isolation & Microphonics
Isolation is good for a dynamic-driver earphone – the E3m will cut out more than enough noise on a city street to make music enjoyable but won’t match the isolation of a deep-fit in-ear monitor on a plane or subway. Cable noise is mild when worn cord-down and pretty much nonexistent with over-the-ear wear.
Driver configuration: Dynamic
Input sensitivity: 105 dB @ 1mw
Frequency response: 8 to 19,000 Hz
Impedance: 18 Ω
Cord Length: 4 ft (1.2 m) I-plug
Note: Most of my listening was done using a Cowon J3 or an iBasso D10 DAC fed by an optical signal, and my FLAC audio library.
For reference, reviews of almost all of the other earphones I have heard can be found in my multi-IEM review thread here.
The general sound signature of the Paradigm Shift E3m is bass-biased, with a laid-back midrange and similarly relaxed treble. The low end is full and deep, easily reaching down into the subbass frequencies and offering great rumble and impact. Paradigm claims that the tuning of the E3m was inspired by their Signature Series loudspeakers, and it is easy to imagine speakers putting out the same sort of powerful, visceral bass the earphones produce. Relative to the midrange and treble, the quantity of the bass borders on ‘basshead’ and despite the lack of mid-bass bloat lacks a little texture, speed, and resolution, sounding boomy at times. For comparison purposes I grabbed another in-ear headset recently released by a different speaker manufacturer – the Velodyne vPulse. While the bass of the Velodynes did not have quite as much impact, it was pleasantly cleaner and more controlled, resulting in a more accurate, less colored overall sound.
The midrange of the E3m – and pretty much everything following – is recessed compared to the prominent bass. Though there is not much of a mid-bass hump per se, the bass level is so inflated that the low end bleeds into the midrange anyway, resulting in noticeable veiling of vocals and instruments and a lack of clarity compared to many cheaper in-ears. Bumping everything above 200 Hz up on the EQ helps, allowing the mids to shine - with the bass out of the way detail and texture levels are actually quite good and the earphones sound enjoyable. Notes have good weight and thickness, giving the E3m a full-bodied feel that works well with the warm tone.
The treble transition is smooth and uneventful. The top end is just as laid-back as the midrange, with the resulting ‘dull’ sound reminding me of the new Dunu Crater and Hawkeye. There is no treble sparkle and crispness is mediocre at best. On the upside, top-end extension is decent and the E3m adds no harshness or sibilance into the mix. The sound remains smooth and non-fatiguing, even at higher volumes, but the dullness does make cranking up the volume tempting. A more accurate set - a VSonic GR06, for example, will extract the same amount of musical detail at lower volumes and may even encourage some listeners to turn down their devices.
The presentation of the E3m is probably its best trait – it is wholesome and well-rounded. The soundstage is above-average in size and has very good on-center feel compared to sets like the Velodyne vPulse. While the bass tends to dominate the sonic space when present, the E3m doesn’t sound particularly congested and has good instrument separation and layering. In comparison, the Dunu Hawkeye and Velodyne vPulse both sound flat and a bit uninvolving. Dynamics are quite decent as well – closer to the mid-fi level of a MEElec CC51 or Shure SE215 than the Velodyne or Dunu sets.
Value & Conclusion (MSRP: $129.99)
Paradigm’s flagship in-ear is a bit of a paradox, promising sound akin to high-end speakers but delivering a bass-heavy signature saddled with veiled vocals and dull treble. The drivers are clearly capable of more – detail levels are good and the presentation is spacious and dynamic - and the E3m is a good headset – well-built, comfortable, and low on cable noise. As it stands, however, the problematic balance makes it one to recommend only for lovers of warm, full-bodied sound with forward bass and recessed mids and highs.