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[REVIEW]: Sensaphonics 3MAX Silicone Shelled Custom-Fit Stage Monitor And Sensaphonics...

post #1 of 71
Thread Starter 

Synopsis:

The Sensaphonics 3MAX is a top-tier, custom-fit, in-ear monitor with a sound designed by an audiologist and tested by pro musicians.  With a professional clientele in mind, the 3MAX has been superbly engineered for a natural-sounding tuning. Vocal music comes to the fore with a smooth midrange and a non-fatiguing, yet well-extended treble. While its sister, the two-driver 2MAX aims for a more neutral version of this sound, the 3MAX adds an additional bass driver for a judicious warmth and depth. One of the keys to making this sound possible is the excellent silicone shell which gives the 3MAX superior comfort and isolation over the standard acrylic. The end result is a very well designed stage monitor which will appeal to audiophiles and professional musicians alike while letting them enjoy their music at a lower, safer volume.


 

 

Introduction:

Custom in-ear monitors have become very popular among audiophiles in the last few years. While it seems every few months a new company offering ciems pops up, I became very interested in a company which had a long experience in making custom fit stage monitors. Sensaphonics has been making ciems for professional musicians for 20 years, working with performers from the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi to Beyonce and Coldplay, yet there’s almost no up-to-date information about them on audiophile websites. They have almost exclusively worked with the pro audio market. Their whole design philosophy, offering a top-tier sound with just two or three armatures and the superior isolation of a silicone shell, is dramatically different than the typical 6-8 driver flagship designs. Judging by my experience with the 3MAX, Sensaphonics has custom iems that will appeal to audiophiles who want an excellent sound they can listen to in comfort and at a lower volume.

 

 

History:

Dr. Michael Santucci is an audiologist who started working with professional musicians in 1985. A musician himself, he wanted to protect the hearing of his pro clients without sacrificing their ability to hear every part of their music. The fruition of his research and collaboration with pro audio engineers was Sensaphonics, founded in 1992. Dr. Santucci helped to pioneer truly accurate measurement in the ear canal, both based on understanding the physiology and the way sound resonates inside. Sensaphonics uses their proprietary measurement methodology to tune for a more natural sounding earphone. They have been using silicone shells exclusively since 1998--that's 14 years of experience--using the extra isolation to get the maximum sound quality from the most essential design.

 

 

Why haven’t I read more reviews of Sensaphonics’ custom iems?
Because Sensaphonics is focused on the pro audio market, they don’t give free samples out to audiophile reviewers. There’s your answer. It says something about how the audiophile market works. In any case, I can say the 3MAX will definitely be worth it for those audiophiles and professionals who like what they read below.

 

 

Customer service:

One of the under-emphasized keys to choosing a custom iem is the customer service. It’s worth it to go with a company who takes care of you in the event something goes wrong and I’m happy to say Sensaphonics has been excellent. The number one issue with custom iems is the fit. A ciem is made just for your ears and a bad fit means you won’t get the sound, the comfort, the isolation you want. So, make an investment first and foremost in the best audiologist you can find. Your audiologist absolutely must have experience in making molds for musicians, not only hearing aids. Sensaphonics has a very useful set of instructions on their website you should print out for you and your audiologist to follow. They can also help you find the best audiologist in your area. You'll be happy you did.

 

 

The Sensaphonics 3MAX:  

First things first: It's $1050 ordered directly from Sensaphonics.com

 

Now, let’s start with some pictures:

 

700

The hard Pelican case the 3MAX comes in is very nice.

You get a soft carrying pouch, a cleaning tool and 1/4" adapter as well.

 

 

 

 

700

 

 

 

 

 

700

The pictures don't do it justice. The 3MAX looks incredible in-ear.

 

 

 

 

The Silicone Shell:

These are special. I’ve had several different silicone custom-fit ear-sleeves for my iems. Some were better than others, but the Sensaphonics custom shell is the best. While silicone is often a little cumbersome to put in and take out, these fit right in the ear about as easily as an acrylic shell for me. They are marked left and right for easily identification and they come in a number of colors. I got them in clear. The silicone has an anti-UV protection so they won't change color over time.

Compared to my custom iems with a standard hard acrylic shell, the Sensaphonics silicones are a big step up in isolation. As for comfort, I’d say silicone is much easier to achieve a comfortable fit with. My acrylics are very comfortable, but only after a long process of several fitting adjustments.

 

 

The Cable:

The weakest point on any ciem is the cable and its attachments. Sensaphonics just upgraded their cable. It’s 48in at standard length and very sturdy, moreso than the usual stock ciem cables.  With a fully detachable design that snaps into place with a satisfying click, the Sensaphonics cable system is a better design than that of most custom iems. However, it’s not quite as easy to coil the Sensaphonics cable. Overall, it’s a good wearable cable that seems very reliable. Update: The new cable is now pictured below. Everything I've said is true for the new clear cable, it's more wearable than the older black cable and it won't turn green (oxidize) like other clear stock cables! It's slightly slimmer and more easy to coil while still having superior durability.

 

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Old Cable

 

 

700

New Cable! A shirt clip which fits this cable now comes included.

It won't turn green (oxidize) over time.

 

 

700

 

 

 

 

 

The Design:

The 3MAX has three balanced armatures, with a two-way crossover system. The advantage to this system is that it’s a lot easier to tune properly. Combined with the superior isolation of a silicone shell, the 3MAX manages to sound more natural than a lot of other custom iems.

 

 

The Sound:

One of the most interesting things about Sensaphonics is how they tuned their custom iems. Rather than presenting pro audio clients with a finished product and making a few adjustments based on feedback, Sensaphonics went for a more client-driven sound. They tried many different tunings based on their research and then let the pro musicians and audio engineers come back with what they liked and wanted to hear. The result was a sound shaped to a much greater degree by what musicians themselves felt sounded the best on stage.

 

 

Set-Up

Before I describe that sound, I’d like to mention here that I’ve listened mostly out of an ipod 5.5th generation amped by an Apex Glacier. The 3MAX sounds very good straight out of an ipod and it’s the easiest to drive custom iem I’ve heard. However, portable amps like the Glacier are very thin and small… So, to paraphrase an audiophile: Why buy a Ferrari and then insist that you are only going to put the cheapest gas in it? The 3MAX (and every other custom iem I’ve heard) sounds better when my ipod is amped. I’d recommend that for any ciem as they scale up when given a better set-up.

 

Much of my listening was among the noisy crowds and roaring trains of the NYC subway, so I got a chance to see how the 3MAX did in loud conditions as well as quiet ones.

 

Note: I paid for this Sensaphonics 3MAX.

 

 

Overall:

The 3MAX was tuned to have a natural sound that you could enjoy without cranking the volume and it succeeds completely at this. The 3MAX’s three balanced armatures have been tuned superbly and the result is very similar to a high end dynamic driver earphone in how natural it sounds. The timbre—the accurate reproduction of all the subtle resonances that make instruments and voices sound true-to-life—is the best I’ve heard from a balanced armature based ciem. For example, cymbals, which can be quite difficult for an earphone to get right, sound great on the 3MAX. The extension in the treble and bass are well done as well.

 

The sound signature gives a boost to the upper midrange and lower treble (the vocal range). This is what pro musicians wanted in their stage monitor to allow their voices and instruments to lift above the crowd noise. It gives music life and immediacy as our brains have evolved to really pay attention to frequencies in the vocal range. I personally like stage monitor tunings like this one a lot as you can listen at a lower volume and still let the music sing. However, some people feel that at louder volumes, vocal music can be a little piercing with this sort of tuning. The 3MAX is very smooth all along its range, but it isn’t shy about letting vocal music soar, so that’s something to keep in mind.

 

While the 3MAX’s sister ciem, the two-driver 2MAX aims for a more neutral take on this sound, the 3MAX has an extra bass driver and adds richness, warmth and bass depth to the midrange and below. This was really well done as the warmth added isn’t overmuch. It’s perfect for listening in a noisy environment like a plane, subway train or on-stage as the judiciously added bass and warmth plus the enhanced isolation of the silicone shells countered the engine and crowd noise. These are really the perfect custom iems for commuters and travelers. Of course, they do well in quiet places, too.

 

The sound from the 3MAX is nicely enveloping, although on the intimate side. An audio engineer once pointed out to me that cues for our sense of a soundstage mostly come from the recordings themselves, so any earphone should sound more spacious or more intimate depending on what’s played. That’s true here, of course, but compared to an open headphone or vented earphone, the close-shelled 3MAX brings you closer to the music.

 

The 3MAX has a natural, coherent sound. It completely avoids the artificial instrument separation or the sense that different instruments have been separately pasted into the mix which some ciems have. Obviously, I like the more natural presentation, so this was a plus for me. Some people will want that very separated sound as it’s what they have become used to.

 

The 3MAX has nice detail resolution, but this is an earphone that puts the music as a whole over a hyper analytical presentation. Other ciems out there may sound (due to tuning or otherwise) a bit more detailed and this may be something to consider. However, I don’t think you’ll be able to hear anything you can’t hear just as well on the 3MAX.

 

 

Bass:

The 3MAX has excellent bass, no question. There’s a very nice balance between the mid-bass and sub-bass. It just sounds natural and right with drums of all kinds. There’s a natural sounding decay and the bass has a good punch to it. The sub-bass extension is also good, with the sub-bass coming down a bit from the mid-bass.

 

 

Midrange:

The midrange is on the warmer side with the 3MAX. What I like about it is that it’s warm but not overdone.  It gives bass guitars, cellos and pianos a lovely, rich sound. Of course, for a less warm presentation you have the 2MAX as an option as well. Getting into the upper midrange, there’s the stage monitor lift that brings up voices and lead instruments in the mix.

 

 

Treble:

The treble begins with that stage monitor lift we saw in the upper midrange. Women’s voices can really sing out in the 3MAX. It’s a smooth presentation with a lot of liveliness to it. Some people may be sensitive to the boost in the lower treble at higher volumes, however. Above that, sibilance-prone regions of the treble are handled nicely for a non-fatiguing treble. Even further up in the frequency range, in the upper treble where a little boost gives music a sense of airiness and sparkle, the 3MAX does excellently. It has very good treble extension.

 

 

Music genres:

The 3MAX sounds excellent with everything from jazz to rock to pop to classical. I’ll keep this section brief as pretty much everything I threw at it sounded great. It even handled dubstep well, although if that’s all a person listens to they may want a more sub-bass centric earphone.

 

 

Conclusions:

While the Sensaphonics 3MAX is designed and tuned for professional use, I think it will be excellent for audiophiles who appreciate its stage monitor sound. The 3MAX’s silicone-shelled superior comfort and isolation, combined with its just-right warmth, vocal-centric sound and sparkle make the 3MAX the perfect earphone for audiophile commuters by train, plane or subway, hands-down. Certainly anyone who finds themselves in any sort of noisy environment owes it to themselves and their ears to hear what Sensaphonics has to offer. This is the first 3MAX review anywhere that I can find, but given the 3MAX’s musical charms, it certainly won’t be the last as this is an earphone well worth letting audiophiles know about.

 

 

See the next post for some comparisons between the 3MAX and other ciems.


Edited by Kunlun - 11/17/13 at 10:52am
post #2 of 71
Thread Starter 

Comparisons!

 

 

1. Sensaphonics 3MAX Vs. Heir Audio 8.A

 

 Here are two top-tier custom iems, each designed by an audiologist. You’d think that would make for similar sounds, but instead these two customs are as different in their sound and tuning as they are in their design.

 

The Sensaphonics 3MAX is a stage monitor. Its tuning brings out the vocal range without sibilance and adds a nice amount of warmth and bass to the music without adding too much. It has superior reproduction of vocal and instrumental timbre for a balanced armature based earphone. It relies on the superior isolation of its silicone shells to deliver great sound with fewer drivers.

 

The Heir Audio 8.A, on the other hand, gives a non-prominent treble for an extra non-fatiguing sound with a very warm, thick lower middle bass range that still maintains very good clarity. I want to unpack that a little so we can be clear on the differences with the 3MAX. While the 8.A’s treble fits well with the rest of the range, it’s not raised up in relation to the big, warm midrange and bass. A woman’s voice or a man’s isn’t going to stand out the way it does with the 3MAX. On the one hand, it can make for a less lively experience with the 8.A. On the other hand, the 8.A will be perfect for those who find a prominent, stage monitor-type, vocal range to be a little piercing with some recordings. You’ll be able to listen louder with the 8.A’s tuning (not that you should!). It’s not better or worse, just a different approach.

 

The 3MAX is going to sound a little more balanced as the warmth added in the lower mids and bass are nicely matched by the rise in the vocal range. Meanwhile, the 8.A’s greater warmth and super-non-fatiguing sound is going to be really enjoyable for those who want it. In terms of bass, the 8.A has more sub-bass and more mid-bass as well. This is the choice for bass-heads and those who just want a lot of well-controlled bass that can stay out of the way when the recording doesn’t ask for it.  The 3MAX has a more moderate boost to its bass with a very nice balance between mid and sub-bass. It’s very nice for those who’d like a little extra bass and warmth without sacrificing any naturalness—although there’s always the two-driver Sensaphonics 2MAX for a non-boosted bass.

 

The 8.A may have a little more detail and clarity in absolute terms but I’d say it’s a more minor point, particularly since the 3MAX has better isolation in a noisy environment. You’ll hear everything either way. The 8.A may have a little larger soundstage, but neither earphone goes for an artificial space or separation between instruments.  Both are more natural and coherent sounding than many of the competition.

 

Both have excellent customer service and I can only say the nicest things about Dr. John Moulton of Heir Audio and Dr. Michael Santucci of Sensaphonics. You’ll be in good hands whichever you choose.

 

As always, the number one thing is what do you want to hear? Only you can answer that.

 

 

 

2. Sensaphonics 3MAX Vs. Future Sonics MG6Pro

 

 Now this is a real comparison! Two stage monitors, each from a company that has two decades experience with professional musicians. You won’t go wrong either way as both of these are truly excellent.

 

These are both stage monitors, so they both boost the vocal range in their tuning. It’s a question of degree. The rise in the vocal is a little less with the MG6Pro, while the 3MAX gives a little extra rise. So, there are recordings where the 3MAX has a little more life to it and others where it can be just a little more prominent in the treble, for some possibly a little overmuch. Both are well-extended in the treble, yet non-sibilant.

 

In the mids, the 3MAX is warmer and thicker in its sound. It makes for very enjoyable richness that isn’t overmuch. The MG6Pro is still slightly warm, but more on the delicate and neutral side. This, along with the dynamic driver, allows the MG6pro to have its class-leading realistic timbre. Voices and instruments like a piano sound truly life-like with the MG6Pro, although the 3MAX is still better than other armature-based ciems. They each do quite well with detail, although it’s kept secondary to the overall natural sounding tuning.

 

In the bass, you have the real sounding, air-moving , quality of a vented dynamic driver for the MG6Pro. It has a real bass energy to it and superior sub-bass extension. It’s some of the best bass in an earphone. The 3MAX has a very nice balance between mid and sub-bass but it won’t compete with the adjustable bass (via a changeable vent system) of the MG6Pro. Not that you are getting any less than an excellent bass with the 3MAX, but there is a trade-off in isolation with the sealed silicone shell versus the vented shell of the MG6Pro.

 

In terms of the soundstage, the MG6Pro’s vented shell leads to a spacious sound if you have them in correctly. They should sit slightly more shallowly than other customs. Otherwise, you might not get not only the full, spacious sound, but also the clarity and treble the MG6Pro’s offer. The 3MAX offers a more intimate sound that is nonetheless quite enveloping.

 

For isolation, the Sensaphonics is king. It makes a big difference versus really any other acrylic shelled custom iem. I think some might consider it the deciding factor all on its own.The MG6Pro does a fine job as well, of course. For comfort, I think it’s easier to get a good fit with the silicone, but my MG6Pros now fit perfectly as well (after several re-fits). Either way, it’s the quality of the audiologist’s ear impressions that makes all the difference.

 

Customer service is top-notch either way. Both are excellent companies and both are excellent custom fit stage monitors. If that’s what you are looking for, you have two great choices.


Edited by Kunlun - 12/8/12 at 7:34pm
post #3 of 71

Nice review kunlun!  I've been interested in a few Sensaphonics products, so I was happy to hear some details.  Thanks for taking the time.

post #4 of 71
The cable looks like Shure cable

Sent from my GT-N7105
post #5 of 71

That picture is definitely a Shure cable... is that a mis-selected picture or is that what they provide? 

post #6 of 71
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by shipsupt View Post

Nice review kunlun!  I've been interested in a few Sensaphonics products, so I was happy to hear some details.  Thanks for taking the time.

Thanks! I'm happy with the 3MAX, so I think Sensaphonics deserves a serious look.
Quote:
Originally Posted by shipsupt View Post

That picture is definitely a Shure cable... is that a mis-selected picture or is that what they provide? 
I'm certain you guys have noticed that the cables actually have the Shure name on them, so you're quite right, they are Shure cables.

They are very sturdy and have held up on my commutes with no worries.

Although mine are black, I've been told the clear ones do not turn green, unlike other stock cables!
post #7 of 71

Nice review, Kunlun. Do you EQ? If so, how well do they respond to adding on the low end?
 

post #8 of 71

To clarify: yes, the black cable is Shure. The clear/silver cable is Sensaphonics, has a different "zipper" and accommodates our shirt clip. Both use the same coaxial connector and are from the same supplier. Sensaphonics just elected not to pay the extra tooling charge for the black version at this time.

 

Photo of clear/silver version:

700

 

Sensaphonics will be tooling up the black cable to match in due course. Our specification is slightly different from Shure's, allowing a tighter, more stable bend around the ear - important for our client base of pro musicians. Our cable is also a bit shorter - again, by design/customer preference. Kunlun was sent the black cable by mistake, but will have the clear one shortly.


Edited by JackKontney - 12/3/12 at 1:27pm
post #9 of 71
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the update! As you say, Dr. Santucci will be sending me one of the new cables so when I get a chance to audition it, I'll update my review.
post #10 of 71
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by devgru View Post

Nice review, Kunlun. Do you EQ? If so, how well do they respond to adding on the low end?

I usually don't and the 3MAX didn't need it for me at all. However, for you, I'll give it a try tonight and report back.
post #11 of 71

Have you ever tried the 2X before? Or is 3X your only Sensaphonics? I'm wondering if you have any sort of comparison between the two?

 

Also, since the cabling is similar to Shure's, does this mean the Shure adaptor cable with iPhone remote control will also work with Sensaphonics now?

post #12 of 71
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by lindrone View Post

Have you ever tried the 2X before? Or is 3X your only Sensaphonics? I'm wondering if you have any sort of comparison between the two?

 

Also, since the cabling is similar to Shure's, does this mean the Shure adaptor cable with iPhone remote control will also work with Sensaphonics now?


Hi there. There is no 3X. There's a 2X-S, though. Based on input from stage musicians, the 2MAX incorporates some changes and gives greater headroom. The 3MAX adds a bass driver.

 

I have the 3MAX. I haven't heard the 2MAX, but it should be a more neutral take on the same stage monitor tuning.

 

I'll let Jack answer your question about the Shure iphone adapter.

post #13 of 71
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by devgru View Post

Nice review, Kunlun. Do you EQ? If so, how well do they respond to adding on the low end?
 


By request, I gave the 3MAX a big bass EQ boost just to see how it handles it. I'm happy to say that while I don't think the 3MAX needs added bass, it can take the extra bass easily. No problems at all, you just get even more of the excellent bass the 3MAX provides.

post #14 of 71
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kunlun View Post


Hi there. There is no 3X. There's a 2X-S, though. Based on input from stage musicians, the 2MAX incorporates some changes and gives greater headroom. The 3MAX adds a bass driver.

 

I have the 3MAX. I haven't heard the 2MAX, but it should be a more neutral take on the same stage monitor tuning.

 

I'll let Jack answer your question about the Shure iphone adapter.

I was just lazy when I typed "3X", I meant 3Max. I have the 2X-S for several years now myself and wondered if anyone had tried both 2X-S and 3Max. I never felt there was a lack of bass overall when using the 2X-S, rather there was a lack of deep bass extension that you get with the triple and quad driver IEMs. Have you compared the 3Max with any other triple or quad driver IEMs? How does the bass extension fair?

 

I'm in the processing of having a new Sensa made, since my 2X-S's right side driver seems to be failing, I'm still deciding whether or not I want the 2X-S or get a 3Max.. hehehe.

post #15 of 71
Quote:
Originally Posted by lindrone View Post

Have you ever tried the 2X before? Or is 3X your only Sensaphonics? I'm wondering if you have any sort of comparison between the two?

 

Also, since the cabling is similar to Shure's, does this mean the Shure adaptor cable with iPhone remote control will also work with Sensaphonics now?

 

Because current Sensaphonics customs and the Shure SE Series use the same coaxial connectors to the earpieces, the Shure cable with iPhone remote control should indeed be fully functional when used with the 2X-S, 2MAX, or 3MAX. (Please note that this hasn't been tested and Sensaphonics would welcome confirmation.)


Edited by JackKontney - 12/4/12 at 4:06pm
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Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Portable Headphones, Earphones and In-Ear Monitors › [REVIEW]: Sensaphonics 3MAX Silicone Shelled Custom-Fit Stage Monitor And Sensaphonics Appreciation Thread