Operating out of Poland, Spiral Ear is a custom IEM company offering a variety of silicone-shelled earphones designed for music professionals. The 3-way Reference is positioned in the middle of the range and offered in both fixed-cable and detachable cable variants, priced at €575 (est. $740) and €645 (est. $830), respectively. What makes the 3-way interesting aside from the shell material is the sound - after several months with the earphone I can say with great confidence that its tuning makes for one of most unique listening experiences on the market.
For the purposes of this review the SE 3-way was pitted against a few of my other custom monitors – the Unique Melody Miracle, Alclair Reference, and ClearTuneMonitors CTM-200 - as well as a number of high-end universal-fit options such as the AKG K3003i, Phonak PFE232, Earsonics SM3, and Audio-Technica CK10. For reference, almost all of my IEM reviews can be found in a more concise format here.
Design, Build Quality, & Accessories
The 3-way Reference utilizes a three-way, triple-driver, triple-bore setup. As with all of the Spiral Ear customs, it uses silicone shells that – unlike those of most Acrylic monitors – are completely filled in. Expectedly, shell transparency isn’t as good as it can be with Acrylic monitors but the structure is solid, with a relatively small amount of give to the shells. The silicone shells are available in only three color schemes – clear, black, and translucent black (shown), with no additional options for faceplates or tips.
The fixed-cable version utilizes conventional Westone-style cables with the connectors encased within the silicone shell. Detachable cables (optional) boast internally-anchored, recessed connectors with conventional Westone ES-style plugs.
The Spiral Ear earphones ship with a cleaning tool and a unique hard-shell zippered carrying case. The case features a belt strap and detachable lanyard, and is one of the largest – but also most protective – I’ve come across. It comes “personalized” with the owner’s name and earphone model.
Fit & Comfort
The Spiral Ear 3-way is my first full-shell silicone custom, though I do own a pair of silicone Etymotic sleeves from ACS. Aside from taking slightly longer to insert and remove compared to a more rigid and slippery Acrylic shell, the silicone-shelled 3-way is just as comfortable as my UM Miracle. Although the Miracle has similar canal lengths, the silicone-shelled Spiral Ear seems to maintain seal a tiny bit better with changes to the ear canal shape, such as while chewing or talking. Even more so than with Acrylic customs, it will take a first-time user a few days to master putting them in but after that the process should become second nature.
Being a custom monitor, the comfort of the 3-way is highly dependent on the quality of the initial impressions, as well as on the shape of the canals and skill of the person making the monitors. If the earphones remain uncomfortable after an initial break-in period, a re-fit is probably a good idea.
Isolation & Microphonics
Simply put, the noise isolation of the deep-fit silicone shells shames every other earphone in my collection, including Acrylic-shelled custom monitors. The 3-way outperforms even my custom-tipped Etymotic Research ER4S when it comes to isolation. The attenuation is very similar to what is achieved while taking a set of ear impressions and probably about as close to ‘complete’ noise blocking as it gets with a passively-isolating IEM.
Cable noise is pretty much nonexistent, as is the case with all of the custom monitors I’ve come across.
Driver configuration: triple BA with 3-way passive crossover
Cable length: 4.2’ L-plug
Note: Most of my listening was done using an iBasso D10 DAC/Amp (optical in) and my FLAC audio library. A Cowon J3 and Cube C30 were used for on-the-go testing with a duplicate library in 320kbps mp3 format. The SE 3-way is quite forgiving as far as reference monitors go but scales up very well with a better source.
While a number of promises are made on the 3-way Reference product page, extended listening to the earphones causes none to ring as true as that of “rich and organic” sound. The 3-way is a listening experience unlike anything I’ve come across before it, providing a neutral, highly polished signature but also causing all of the other BA-based monitors I’ve heard sound thin and underpowered in comparison.
The sound of the 3-way takes some getting used to – it isn’t designed to immediately wow with detail and clarity, sparkly treble, or a wide, out-of-the head presentation. Instead, it impresses in the long term – around the time 4 hours and 3 full albums have passed and yet none of the review has been written. Most impressive is the bass – there is a clear disconnect between the neutral tone of the 3-way Reference and the bass, which is voluminous enough to warrant a much warmer signature. The bass has great body and good punch. On bass-heavy tracks the 3-way is capable of effortlessly producing more impact than any other armature-based earphone I’ve heard, beating out the Earsonics SM3 and the bass-heavy filters of the Phonak PFE 232 and competing with the dynamic-driver bass of the AKG K3003. The bass response scales back quite well when it is not called for – dynamics are some of the best among armature-based IEMs, slightly better than with the SM3 and far superior to anything built around a full-range TWFK driver. As a result, the earphones can still sound rather balanced on the whole but are also capable of really belting out the low notes on cue.
While most of the power comes in higher, the low end of the 3-way is rather well-extended – better, for example, than that of the Alclair Reference. Note weight is on the heavy side and some of the fine detail in the attack and decay of a note is not as audible as it can be with a thinner-sounding earphone such as a UM Miracle or Alclair Reference, but the 3-way sounds very natural and detailed in its own way. It is not one for analytical listeners but the excellent note thickness and dynamics make for a uniquely tactile and powerful bass presentation – one that is smooth, yet easily felt. The Earsonics SM3 – which is also rather thick-sounding - has a similar overall feel to its bass but can’t quite match the depth, resolution, and control of the 3-way Reference, sounding a little loose and bleeding up into the midrange more.
The midrange of the 3-way Reference is smooth and rich without sounding excessively warm. Indeed, for the amount of bass the Spiral Ear can produce, the mids are surprisingly free of bass bleed and the overall balance is quite good. There’s no sense of the mids being pushed forward artificially as there can be with the AKG K3003 but also not as much distance placed between the listener and the performers as with the ClearTune CTM-200 or the popular VSonic GR07.
On the whole, the 3-way doesn’t adhere to a typical high-end BA sound - it does not push for the greatest possible clarity and detail, instead focusing on a thicker, more natural note presentation and overall coherency across the spectrum. In this way it is highly reminiscent of the Earsonics SM3, though the 3-way is – among other improvements - more transparent. Combined with the lack of bright, emphasized treble, this means that the overall clarity is not immediately impressive as it is with the UM Miracle or CTM-200. The detailing is also not at all aggressive – the 3-way does not push fine nuances forward as many analytical earphones do. The detail is mostly there, but it takes some listening for. Overall, it sounds very natural and pleasant, again much like the Earsonics SM3 or a good dynamic-driver earphone.
The top end of the 3-way Reference is among the smoothest and most non-fatiguing I’ve heard from an IEM. Comparing it to the AKG K3003, Alclair Reference, and Phonak PFE 232 reveals peaks in their treble presentations that just aren’t there with the Spiral Ear. The top end is clean and detailed but – much like the Earsonics SM3 – lacks some sparkle and energy next to other high-end earphones. Most likely it was tuned this way to prevent listening fatigue over long listening sessions but as a result the 3-way has a darker tone and can sound a bit boring at low volumes compared to brighter earphones. Treble quality is good but again the top end of the UM Miracle is not only more prominent, but also has better detail and extension, resulting in a more airy sound and a boost in perceived clarity.
The presentation of the 3-way is very well-rounded – similar in size to that of the Phonak PFE 232 but with better layering for a more ambient and 3-dimensional feel. The 3-way gives a good sense of space but provides a less open, more intimate sound compared to the UM Miracle and Alclair Reference. Separation is very good, as are the dynamics, resulting in good imaging and allowing the 3-way to recreate very fine nuances, especially in live recordings. Listening to a Phonak PFE 232 with the green +bass filters (which result in the most similar, albeit still more v-shaped, balance) makes very apparent just how much more detailed the 3-way is.
In addition to the mentions above, I thought I’d add more concise comparisons against my two other higher-end custom monitors – the Unique Melody Miracle and Alclair Reference.
The Alclair Reference pursues a slightly warm sound signature with a drier presentation and some treble emphasis. Compared to the Spiral Ear 3-way it has a more laid-back soundstage with a thinner, more analytical note. The tone is brighter overall and it can sound slightly ‘hot’ with some tracks due to emphasis in the lower treble region. Due to the treble emphasis the perceived clarity is a bit better than with the 3-way but natural clarity is similar between the two. The 3-way, on the other hand, has much smoother treble for a less fatiguing sound and darker tone. It provides a better sense of 3-D space and better on-center feel. It also sounds more effortless at the bottom end, with better bass weight, power, and impact compared to the Alclair.
Unique Melody Miracle
The UM Miracle is a spacious, highly detailed monitor with a very slightly u-shaped response. Like the Alclair Reference, the Miracle sounds brighter and clearer compared to the 3-way. Despite being more laid-back in the midrange, the Miracle still provides better detail and texture in addition to being more airy and spacious. However, while the Miracle’s bass depth and subbass power are similar to those of the 3-way, its mid- and upper-bass response is far leaner. The 3-way has much more bass body and sounds thicker, with more bass weight and impact but also a bit of boominess and slight lack of detail next to the Miracle. The 3-way also has better dynamics.
The Spiral Ear 3-way Reference is a versatile and well-rounded custom monitor that eschews the usual analytical tendencies of high-end BA-based earphones for a holistic approach to sound more akin to that of Earsonics monitors. It is not for fans of an overly crisp and thin note presentation, leaning instead towards the lush end of the spectrum, and its smooth, powerful, and full-bodied response is something that simply needs to be experienced by those who claim dynamic drivers always sound more natural than armatures.
On a functional note, the filled silicone shells offer similar comfort to acrylic shells (provided both are well-fitted) but easily best acrylic monitors – and every other earphone I’ve tried – when it comes to isolation. With the option to add detachable cables at additional cost, the only downsides are that the Spiral Ear is a little more time-consuming to insert and remove and limited in customization options compared to most of its acrylic counterparts.
At $700+, the Spiral Ear 3-way doesn’t come cheap, but it offers a unique sound in a unique package. In addition, with its effortless low end and excellent dynamics, I feel that this is one custom monitor potentially suitable for bassheads as it is incredibly adept at making sure that whatever bass is on a track can be felt as well as heard.