Pros - Superior comfort and isolation; excellent bass, nicely warm with vocal-centric tuning and very nice treble
Cons - In general, vocal-centric stage monitor tuning can be too much for some at high volumes
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.
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.
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 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 (I paid for mine). 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.
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. It’s worth it.
The Sensaphonics 3MAX:
Let’s start with some pictures:
The hard Pelican case the 3MAX comes in is very nice.
With the older cable attached.
The pictures don't do it justice. The 3MAX looks incredible in-ear.
The new, clear cable. It's very nice and doesn't turn green (oxidize) like other clear cables.
The new cable also comes with a shirt clip.
The Silicone Shell:
These are special. I’ve had several different silicone custom-fit earsleeves 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.
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 weakest point on any ciem is the cable and its attachments. Sensaphonics just upgraded their cable. It’s 48" 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.
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.
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.
Before I describe that sound, I’d like to mention here that I’ve listened mostly out of an ipod 5.5[sup]th[/sup] 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 crowd 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.