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In-Ear item created by flinkenick, Jan 11, 2016
Pros - Incredible Control, Dynamism, Natural Timbre.
Cons - Short Nozzle.
Earsonics S-EM9 "Coup de Grâce"
The review was originally posted on quantumears but I wanted to share it with Head-Fi as well.
Earsonics is a boutique audio equipment company located in Castries, France. They specialize in custom in-ears and hearing protection equipments. Earsonics is a well known company around the world and they are in business for a long time.
On 30 September 2015, Earsonics introduced their flagship earphone, S-EM9.
S-EM9 utilizes 9 balanced armature drivers to create a sound that is both smooth and impressively detailed. It indeed has a quite unique configuration. 1x low 4x mid 4x high.
First time hearing about this, questions pop’d in my mind “How can only 1 bass driver provide rich and deep totl-quality bass” After listening to it, this was certainly not the case. We’ll get to that later!
Sensitivity: 121 dB/mW
frequency response: 5 Hz -20 kHz
Impedance: 38,5 ohm
Driver: 9 drivers, 3 way crossover. 1x low, 4x mid. 4x high.
Lotoo Paw Gold (Main Source)
Audioquest Dragonfly Black
Accessories | Box
S-EM9 comes with a sturdy, stylish box.
Inside the box, there is a little carrying case and tips. Accessories are quite modest, minimal. You only get what you need.
4 Comply Tips
4 Silicon Tips
1 Cleaning Tool
3.5mm to 6.3mm Adapter
User Manual in French
Design | Build | Fit
IEMs themselves are completely handcrafted and they are made of acrylic.
They have a glossy, black finish with red 9 on the left earpiece, white ES artwork on the right earpiece. They feel sturdy and durable.
The very first time I picked up one of these into my hands, I was literally utterless. I couldn’t believe this thing had 9 drivers in it. It’s so compact, it’s.. Incredible.
We got used to huge shells such as K10, Solar, Angie.. S-EM9 is quite compact compared to them. The only complaint that I have is the short nozzle. Remember S-EM6? It had a long nozzle and everybody had perfect fit with it. That is sadly, not the case with S-EM9. That short nozzle turns fit selection into a first class problem. To be completely honest, I tried many tips. If you have big ear canals like me, you’ll more likely to prefer large spinfits or the stock double flanges.
Tips & Cable Improvements
Tip rolling is real and it’s extra important with short nozzle earphones such as S-EM9.
I have tried many tips including, Spinfits, RHA, Ortofons, Comply, Shure, Westone and many more generic brands.
I personally like Ortofons but they cripple bass response by a small margin. Earsonics double flanges are better bass-wise. As for cables, please, S-EM9 deserves a better cable. Upgrade as soon as possible. The impact is ASTRONOMICAL. My recommendation would be a hybrid or not so lush copper cable such as the PW.5. IMO, silver cables mess with S-EM9’s polite presentation. So that’s a no.
I’ve used SM3, SM64, S-EM6, Velvet.
They all had one thing in common. They were smooth. So smooth that you could wear them all week long and they would never disturb you in any way.
S-EM9 is no exception.
“Yes but what about details, what about technicality?”
You may ask.
I asked the same question myself.
From my very own perspective, S-EM9 is the Earsonics’ “chef-d'œuvre”
Their ultimate masterpiece.
Earsonics products were always musical, always smooth and dynamic.
But technical? Only minority of them. They had enough details, they had decent technicality.
Earsonics were not into those kind of stuff, they focused on personal enjoyment instead.
With the creation of S-EM9 on the other hand, is perhaps Earsonics saying that they can create a monitor, which is both musically and technically advanced.
A sound that doesn’t reinvent the earsonics house formula, but rather refines it..
Let's move on.
Think big. Impactful. The bass rolls in like a thunder storm, but only when the song calls for it.
The control of frequencies is something that I truly admire S-EM9 for. From 20 to 250hz, bass never bleed into the mid section. Its bass is somewhat weird. It’s neither in Armature Village, nor in Dynamic Village. It’s BA-like with my metal tracks and it’s dynamic like with my EDM tracks. I am quite confused to be honest. When I am listening to Kygo, Avicii, Spirit Catcher etc, its bass immediately reminds me of the Oriolus, when I am listening to Dragonforce, Opeth, Megadeth, Graveyard etc, I become certain that it’s a BA iem.
You could say that S-EM9 evolves and responds to the track you are listening to.
I’ve literally had goosebumps throughout the entire track of “Stolen Dance” from Milky Chance.
Furthermore, the quality of the bass is also impressive.
Midrange of S-EM9 is smooth and delicate. You will never hear harsh vocals.
Tonal balance is great. It’s natural. It’s not saturated. It’s clear,
Upper mids have the traditional ES dip but it’s minimal. I am sure that many people will not notice it right away. Trust me, it’s there, and it’s a great touch.
What does it do? Well, if you are a metalhead like I am, you know that certain IEMs iems with hot treble and upper mid section, will tire you after some listening sessions.
S-EM9 having this dip, reducing the snare and hihat hotness, puts them in a perfect position where you can both enjoy the details of it and also listen to them for long sessions. The dip is not big like in SM64 so it does not harm the upper mid extension of the S-EM9.
And yes, it’s Sorcery.
Most detailed highs I’ve ever heard. Period.
The resolution is very impressive. The treble extension is ample but very well-defined.
At first listen, S-EM9 may sound like a bright monitor because of the treble transparency.
Spending some time with it will help you understand how smooth and polite it sounds. The magical part is, ES did not crop out the frequencies in order to make it “polite”. The high frequencies are blending into the spectrum perfectly, resulting in a very coherent, harmonic presentation.
5 hours of non-stop EDM? No problem! 6 hours of Mike Portnoy’s hi-hat beating? No problem!
Soundstage & Imaging | Instrument Separation | Dynamics & Speed
S-EM9 is the fastest monitor I’ve ever heard to this date. This is not very surprising because many ES IEMs have great dynamism. Velvet was quite energetic, ES-3 is articulate and fast…
Of course S-EM9 is not an exception.. It is blazing fast, coherent, articulate.
I spent enough time listening to metal genre with it and its attack-decay is quite unique.
Its imaging is accurate and precise. Soundstage however, is good enough for an IEM. I can’t really say that it’s very expansive but it’s good enough. Plus, instrument separation is so good that you won’t look for an expansive staging. Instruments certainly have more than enough air between them and S-EM9 handles congestion effortlessly.
vs. Earsonics Velvet (700€)
S-EM9’s bass is similar to Velvet’s but S-EM9 does not have a mid-bass dip like the Velvet. S-EM9 is more natural, detailed, bodied and coherent. Its resolution and separation is superior as well. Velvet has a wider soundstage resulting in slightly airier presentation.
vs. Noble K10 ($1.650)
S-EM9 has a wider soundstage and better separation. K10’s upper mids are more energetic resulting in slightly clearer mid region. K10 has a better soundstage depth. Its unstable upper mids can emphasize snares and hi-hats tad too much, resulting in unwanted congestion during fast paced tracks.
vs. Oriolus + PW.5 ($1.300)
S-EM9’s treble is more refined, detailed. S-EM9 is dynamically superior, Both monitors’ mids are meaty and their timbre is natural. Oriolus is quite fast for a hybrid monitor. It’s not as fast but the margin is small. Oriolus’ wind instrument reproduction is somewhat more realistic.
vs. FitEar TG334 ($1.399)
TG334 has the most beautiful mid reproduction I’ve ever heard. Especially woman vocals. Engaging, intense, emotional. In this regard, this earphone knows no rival. In nearly every other regard, S-EM9 is superior. It is faster, its resolution is higher, it is more detailed, more coherent..
TG334 sounds veiled compared to S-EM9.
vs. Rhapsodio Solar + 2.98 ($1250)
Solar is a great contender. Its male vocal and guitar reproduction is quite impressive. Solar has a slightly bigger soundstage but S-EM9 feels airier. Also, S-EM9 tolerates congestion little better than Solar. S-EM9 is faster and it is dynamically superior.
vs. 64 Audio U12 ($1599)
U12 has even more polite highs and upper mids. It loses some clarity but it’s a good alternative to S-EM9. Its mids are meaty, lows are deep and strong. It’s quite suitable for EDM.
U12 handles congestion almost as effortless as S-EM9.
vs. Lear LCM BD4.2
Lear has a brighter sound signature.. Its notes are thinner, and it is more transparent.
Lear’s bass is more airy but it feels a lot slower compared to S-EM9’s blazing fast bass response. Listening to Metal and other fast paced genres with Lear is quite tiring due to its bright tuning. S-EM9 handles congestion a lot better than Lear.
vs. Earsonics ES-3 (399€)
Think of S-EM9 as the homo sapiens and ES-3 as the homo erectus. S-EM9 is the evolved and upgraded version of ES-3. Almost same signature, a lot more resolution, better EVERYTHING. If you love the ES house sound, you should definitely give this speedster a chance.
S-EM9 is an extraordinary monitor. Its presentation is unique and it deserves much more attention. Its PRaT & Dynamism is unrivaled. Yes, it requires a good cable, yes it demands some tip rolling but trust me it’s definitely worth the effort. Give this speedster a chance!
Pros - Compact universal design, isolation, natural revealing tonality, expanded soundstage.
Cons - Short nozzle, needs a set of regular single flange eartips.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Manufacturer website: Earsonics, available for sale on Amazon and directly from Musicteck.
*click on images to expand.
Sometimes I wonder why majority of IEM manufacturers are either from US or Asia, while many well known full size headphone companies are from EU. I can’t imagine the demand for either one being different depending on the geographic location or cultural differences, and perhaps there is some logical explanation to this phenomenon though I haven’t discovered one yet. So when opportunity knocked on my door, or actually landed in my Inbox, to review another “rare” European IEM manufacturer (Earsonics from France), I accepted it with a wide open arms of curiosity and was greeted with a pleasant surprise when S-EM9 showed up at my doorsteps.
It all started when Frank Lopez, a musician and a producer, took his sound engineering passion to the next level and founded Earsonics. But it wasn’t until 2011 when they released their first flagship SM3 model which put them on the map. In the following 4 years Earsonics product line grew with Classic, Custom, Signature, and Music series, including their S-EM9 flagship introduced a year ago. Just recently their Music line got expanded further with two new ES2 and ES3 models, but these are more on a budget side with a scaled down performance while S-EM9 still remains their top flagship which I would like to share with you about in my review.
As many of you know, I pay close attention to unboxing experience because I enjoy surprises. After all, unboxing is like a box of chocolates, you never know what awaits you inside. And speaking of a box of chocolates, that’s exactly how it felt holding S-EM9 in a medium size flat rectangular box with a large bold image of IEMs that looked like they were going to pop out of the cover sleeve. The image looked delicious and even the shell of S-EM9 under the light had a dark chocolate shade of color.
With a sleeve off, you are looking at the main product box with a soft to the touch cardboard cover and ES logo printed on the top of it. When the cover is lifted, you get a “Merci” greeting card and the presentation of the top layer with a cutout for a carrying case and S-EM9 shells. Another foam cover layer off, and now you can see the “candies” in their full glory. There is nothing revolutionary about the packaging, but still it was a nice arrangement showing how much pride Earsonics took to present their product in the best spotlight. Every accessory piece, including IEMs itself, was sitting in their own individual cutout pocket, preventing them from shifting around inside of the box and ensuring a secure delivery of the product to the customer.
The accessories include a slim rectangular carrying case, not a generic type but uniquely shaped and large enough to transport S-EM9 even with an aftermarket cable. The case is a little shallow, so I would suggest wrapping the cable neatly before stuffing your IEMs inside to prevent the extra pressure on the nozzle w/eartips. Inside the case there was a sealed pack of what I assume to be disinfecting wipes. The only other time I’ve seen wipes being a part of the accessories was with another EU manufacturer I recently reviewed. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not and maybe it goes along with a “conspiracy” why EU headphone market is leaning more toward full size cans where you don’t need to stick anything deep in your ear canal, but when you do – better disinfect it!
Next, you have 1/4” adapter which I usually consider a filler accessory for IEMs, but perhaps the message here is that S-EM9 intended for use with both portable DAPs and mixing studio consoles. The cleaning tool was also included and definitely a necessity considering nozzle has 3 separate open bores which require periodic cleaning. One interesting observation, the cleaning tool had a little magnet on the side so you can attach it to a metal surface when not in use. I have seen other cleaning tools with a built in magnet, but this one looked a little different. I’m a sucker for unique accessories.
Last, but not least, are the eartips. My opinion about eartips is obviously very subjective because it depends on a personal ear anatomy. You do get 2 pairs of double flange silicone tips in what appears to be S/M size (and one extra gray set was already included on IEM). You also get 2 pairs of genuine Comply standard tips in M/L sizes. And then you get a set of funky looking single flange silicone “umbrella” tips. Could be just my ears with a wide earcanal opening, though I have seen similar comments from others, but I wish Earsonics would have included S/M/L set of regular standard single flange eartips because none of the included ones worked for me.
Without a proper seal, even the best tuned IEM will sound awful if you don’t have the right eartips selection. The nozzle of S-EM9, and other Earsonics universal IEMs is not very wide, most likely T200 size, which is not the most common replacement eartip size. Even when you find the replacement, the nozzle is also shorter in size and some people might require a longer eartip stem to extend it. This probably explains why Earsonics choose to include double flange tips because they seal and extend the nozzle if your ear anatomy can accommodate it. Since it didn’t work for me, I ended up with my own mod by finding a pair of old foam eartips where I removed the plastic core to use as an adaptor and another pair of silicone eartips with a wider bore opening to fit it.
This mod extended the nozzle by 1-2mm, and I experienced one of the best isolations from universal pair of IEMs, though it was mostly due to a large cap of the eartip which formed a perfect seal with my ear canal. Obviously, for many this is not going to be a showstopper, but just keep in mind that you might have to spend a little bit of time with eartip rolling to find the right pair. Furthermore, I think there is a light at the end of this tunnel since Earsonics sent me a separate pair of regular single flange tips which had a perfect fit. I really hope they can make these tips to be a permanent set of their accessories.
Typical of many IEMs/CIEMs, even of a flagship status, don’t expect to find any fancy after market cables here. The included one is a standard OFC wire with 3.5mm TRS headphone connector in a rubbery compact housing with a decent strain relief, a plastic y-splitter mold with a good strain relief on every side, and a sliding clear plastic tube piece used as a chin-slider. The pairs of wires from each earpiece get combined at y-splitter where the ground becomes common with 3-wires going down to the connector. Going up to the earpieces, you have a standard 2pin connector with a plastic housing and a shape compatible with surface mounted and recessed sockets, red/blue dots indicating corresponding Right/Left sides, and a flexible memory wire wrapped in a clear plastic tube forming a comfortable adjustable earhook. I didn't notice any microphonics using stock cable with S-EM9.
In my opinion the stock S-EM9 cable doesn’t do it justice, and to realize the full potential of S-EM9 tuning you need to play around with different cables. I know that some people are not cable believers, but with a careful level matching and going back’n’forth between the stock cable and a handful of aftermarket replacements, I found some interesting results based on how I hear the change.
Stock OFC vs Linum BaX (Litz SPC) – I hardly hear any changes in sound, just a very slight bump in mid-bass.
Stock OFC vs Plussound X series tri-metal (blend of copper, silver, and small amount of gold) - sound is a little more balanced, with more sub-bass rumble and a little stronger mid-bass punch, upper mids are becoming more revealing, and I hear more sparkle in treble.
Stock OFC vs Whiplash TWau Reference (gold plated pure silver) - sound is more balanced, the bass is tighter and more articulate, more textured sub-bass rumble and a faster mid-bass punch, mids are more revealing and detailed, more resolving with a better transparency, and treble has more sparkle and airiness.
Stock OFC vs Effect Audio Thor Silver II+ (pure silver) - sound is more balanced, the bass is tighter and more articulate, more textured sub-bass rumble and faster and tighter mid-bass punch, mids are more revealing and detailed, I hear sound having a higher resolution, more transparency, better layering; treble has more sparkle and more airiness.
Thor II+ vs TWau – TWau has a little stronger mid-bass while Thor II+ adds a little more sub-bass texture. Thor II+ upper mids are a bit brighter, more revealing while TWau is a touch smoother. Thor II+ has a little more sparkle in treble.
Both TWau and Thor II+ paired up great with S-EM9 and offered a noticeable sound quality refinement without a drastic change of the sound signature. If you are on a budget, you can get a similar result with X series, but not the same level of refinement as the other two. Given a choice, I would probably go for Thor II+ as having the best synergy with S-EM9, though TWau was right behind it.
Clockwise: TWau, BaX, X series, Thor II+:
Considering 9 driver design, thus S-EM9 model name, I was very surprised to find the size of the shell to be on par with many of my other 3 driver universal IEMs. Earsonics definitely found a clever way to pack their 1x low, 4x mids, and 4x highs BA drivers into one super compact shell with 3-way asymmetrical sound channels to manage optimal phase alignment thanks to a custom cannula (thin sound tubes) profile. The result of this coherent tuning speaks louder than words, and I will discuss it further in my Sound analysis section.
The shell is not just ergonomically shaped to fit comfortably inside of Concha Cavum of even smaller size ears, but it also has a rather low profile. Don't expect to be able to put your head comfortably on a pillow with your ear down, but at the same time the shell wasn't sticking out too far either. Exterior of the shell has ES white letters on the right faceplate and a white R next to the 2pin connector socket, and a red 9 on the left faceplate with a red L next to its 2pin connector socket. Left shell also has a serial number etched on the inside of the shell.
I know it's just an editorial nitpicking comment, and I completely understand that Red 9 is part of S-EM9 model logo, but every IEM/CIEM I have tested in the past had Red labeling (not artwork but labeling) on the Right side and blue or other colors on the Left side. It's impossible to mix up L/R sides because shells are not symmetrical and you have L/R letter marking on each shell. But I have to admit that considering I switch daily between many different IEMs/CIEMs, on a few occasions I had to stop and think for a second while looking at Red 9 before putting it in my Left ear. Not a showstopper, but just a force of habit in my case.
The nozzle has 3 bores corresponding to a three way grouping of 9 BA drivers, and it’s aligned with cannula tubes going to each nozzle. Considering the quality of S-EM9 bass performance, I still can't get over the fact they only allocated a single BA driver for lows, while other 8 drivers were split between quad mids and quad highs. I already talked about the nozzle being a little too short and how I was able to mitigate that with my eartip mod.
Even so I was itching to switch the cable, for sound analysis I went back to a stock OFC wires because that's how others will hear the sound out of the box. Also, I put S-EM9 through about 100hrs of burn in, though I haven't noticed any changes in sound. After extended listening using my trusted reference quality PAW Gold and Opus#2 sources, here is what I found.
I hear SEM9 as having a very natural revealing tonality with a balanced signature that has a slight lift in sub-bass and upper mids area. Actually, SEM9 signature can slightly fluctuate depending on the selection of eartips and the cable. With my eartip mod allowing me to use a large size long stem tips - I was getting an earplug like isolation with an amazing bass impact. Going with a smaller eartip, one size down, relaxes the intensity of the bass and I get a little more airiness in the upper frequencies. Switching to pure silver or gold plated silver wires lifted a bit of a veil off the smoothness and sharpened the details of a balanced signature which pushed the sound more toward W-shaped performance (more emphasis in all 3 frequency ranges). But regardless of these changes, the sound remained very clear and detailed, smooth, natural, and very coherent.
In more details, I hear a deep sub-bass extension with a velvety smooth textured sub-bass rumble. The sub-bass is slightly elevated, giving more weight to mid-bass punch which has an average attack speed and decay, making it sound less like a BA driver and more like a performance signature of a dynamic driver. It’s quite amazing considering that low end is covered by a single BA which sounds more like a dynamic driver, and still is well controlled without spilling into lower mids and quite articulate with smoother analog level of details.
Lower mids are not too thin or too thick, yet they have a nice smooth neutral body which in comparison to slightly lifted upper mids creates a nice separation from a bass. Again, playing with different eartips and especially the cable (Thor II+ pure silver and TWau Reference), turned upper mids from smooth detailed into more resolving with an improved retrieval of details. It doesn't reach analytical performance level and still remains very natural, though the cable upgrade did lift the veil off upper frequencies and enhanced the clarity, especially in vocals.
Treble is well extended, with enough clarity and crunch, well controlled airiness, and a great definition of details. With a stock cable the treble is smoother while with an upgrade the level of airiness goes up, which in turn improves the layering and separation of instruments, giving the sound more crisp definition. I didn’t hear even a hint of sibilance, but you should be aware there is a peak around 7k (also confirmed by my measurements) which improves the clarity of the sound without harshness or graininess.
Regardless of the cable selection, soundstage is very wide but in a natural way without feeling artificial. The depth of the sound is pushed a little outward, giving it a more holographic out of your head feeling, but not too much. With such width/depth of soundstage and a decent level of transparency, you also get an excellent layering and separation of instruments and vocals. Even with a stock cable which makes sound smoother, it never gets congested. But switching to silver or gold-plated silver cable scales this performance to another level. To be fair, I did all my sound analysis using a stock cable, but I'm definitely switching to an upgraded cable afterwards because stock cable doesn't do a justice to a sound quality of SEM9.
Each pair of the following IEMs/CIEMs were tested and compared using their corresponding stock cable, and I matched the sound level by ear. Opus#2 single ended output was used as my reference source.
SEM9 vs U12 w/B1 - 9 has a wider soundstage with a more hollow depth where I hear mids/vocals being more out of my head while 12 width is slightly narrower and the vocals are closer and more intimate. 12 upper mids/lower treble are a little smoother and more organic, while 9 upper mids/lower treble are more transparent and revealing, and treble has a little more sparkle. That also contributes to an edge in better layering and separation of instruments, but at the same time U12 upper mids sound just a little more organic. The low end, from sub-bass extension to mid-bass punch, and the lower mids smooth full body are very similar. Interestingly enough, the shells have a similar shape and size, except U12 nozzle is longer.
SEM9 vs Andromeda - Andro has more hissing, the soundstage width here is very similar but I hear 9 having a little more depth with mids/vocals being a little more out there. When it comes to low end, Andro has a little deeper sub-bass extension and a little more mid-bass punch, while 9 bass is a little more polite in comparison. Lower mids are similar but upper mids in 9 are smoother, a little more relaxed and natural, not as intense and a little more forward. Andro treble is crisper, has more sparkle and more airiness, while 9 is smoother and more relaxed.
SEM9 vs ES60 - Soundstage width is similar, maybe with 9 being a touch wider, but the depth is more holographic in 9. ES has a little more sub-bass and a noticeably stronger mid-bass punch. 9 lower mids are a little more neutral in comparison to ES which has slightly more body. 9 upper mids are a little brighter and slightly more revealing and transparent, while ES is a little smoother and more organic in comparison. Treble is very similar, though I hear ES having a touch more sparkle.
SEM9 vs K10UA - 9 has a wider soundstage, while the depth is very similar including that slight out of your head holographic expansion, though 9 pushes it a little further. With low end, K10UA has a little more sub-bass rumble and a little stronger mid-bass punch. Lower mids are very similar in tonality and the same with upper mids and vocals, though I hear 9 being a touch more forward and a little smoother and more organic. K10UA treble is a little more crisp and has a touch more sparkle.
SEM9 vs Harmony 8.2 - 9 has a little wider soundstage, while the depth is very similar though 9 still has a little more out of your head holographic expansion. Sub-bass is very similar while H8.2 has a stronger mid-bass punch. Lower mids are similar as well, while upper mids in 9 are a little smoother and more organic in comparison. Treble extension and tonality is very similar between these both.
The pair up test was done using S-EM9 with its stock ofc cable. Considering 121 dB sensitivity and 38.5 ohm impedance, I was expecting to hear a strong hissing with many of my sources. To my very pleasant surprise, S-EM9 has hissing down to a minimum!
theBit Opus#2 - smooth, revealing, slightly mid-forward signature with a little polite bass (north of neutral but not elevated), neutral lower mids (not too much body and not too thin), slightly pushed forward clear detailed mids, crisp, well defined treble. Wide soundstage.
Lotoo PAW Gold - more revealing and balanced signature, mid-bass has a stronger punch, neutral lower mids, clear detailed upper mids which are not as pushed forward as Opus#2, a little more analytical upper mids, bright, crisp, detailed treble. Wide soundstage.
Plenue M2 - revealing, slightly mid-forward signature, more rumble in sub-bass, neutral mids, revealing detailed upper mids, crisp extended treble. Soundstage is wide, but mids have a slightly holographic depth, pushed more out of my head.
FiiO X7 w/AM2 - smooth, revealing, more balanced sound signature, with a nice sub-bass rumble and strong mid-bass punch - bass is tight and articulate. Lower mids are neutral, while upper mids are revealing, detailed, with lots of clarity; treble is bright, crisp, detailed. Wide soundstage with slightly distant upper mids/vocals pushed out of my head.
A&K AK120ii - smooth, detailed, balanced sound signature, with a tight articulate bass that has a nice fast punch, neutral lower mids, and clear detailed upper mids which sound very natural; treble is crisp and detailed. Soundstage is wide, while depth is more natural and less holographic.
Cayin i5 - smooth, detailed, balanced sound signature, excellent bass with a deep sub-bass rumble and fast punchy mid-bass, slightly more body in lower mids, and bright detailed smooth upper mids, treble is bright and crisp, but a touch less airiness. Soundstage is wide, and depth is more intimate (not too much out of your head).
Galaxy Note 4 - smooth, detailed, very balanced signature, bass is hard hitting with some impressive authority, but upper mids/lower treble are a little less revealing and smoother/warmer. Also, soundstage width is good but not as wide as with some DAPs. Not bad for a smartphone pair up.
The intent of my earphone reviews, especially when it comes to pricier flagship models, is to help my readers in their journey to narrow down available choices based on their sound preference. Lately, this task has been not easy to carry out because there are so many great IEMs/CIEMs where you can’t just pick one as the top performer. But S-EM9 managed to come close, even challenging some of my previous favorites. Its natural revealing spacious sound works great with every genre of the music, regardless if it's a vocal performance or instrumental rendition or a slamming EDM track, and you can listen for hours without fatigue. Also it has a very comfortable and lightweight design where with a right set of eartips I have been using them even as earplugs at my work. Don't expect exaggerated bass slam or a revealing analytical performance. Instead you will find a masterfully tuned signature that will hit a sweet spot and will appeal to many audiophiles and audio enthusiasts who want a happy medium without compromises.
Pros - Tonal Balance, Incredible command of each frequency range, Excellent detail and sound layering, Comfortable and ergonomic fit with the right tip
Cons - Short and narrow nozzles makes getting a fit a challenge, Accessories package should be better for this asking price
At the time this review was written, the Earsonics S-EM9 was listed for sale on Musicteck’s online store. Here are a couple links to listings of the product:
With the release of Iphone 7 the market for wired earphones and headphones buyers has been cut by a sizeable percentage. What’s left are Android owners (I salute you) and audiophiles (double salute). Personally, I prefer adding wired earphones to my shopping cart. I’m not only an Android owner, I have a drawer full of DAPs and some desktop gear to maximize their wired capabilities. Old school? Nope… Allow me to explain...
Say what you will, the wireless era is going to go through a learning curve before I jump my ship full of wired gear. A WIRELESS EARPHONE DOESN’T OFFER THE SAME FIDELITY AS A WIRED PAIR, ESPECIALLY A HIGH END PROFESSIONALLY TUNED PAIR OF EARPHONES. The technology is getting better, but it’s not to the point of saying a wireless earbud can touch the best wired in-ears on planet Earth.
Flagship earphones are here for a reason. Those last bits of micro details and layering/texturing of sound that a flagship earphone can produce are the difference between “just listening to music” and getting a goosebump inducing moment of musical clarity. That, my friends is the reason we spend the extra money for high end audio gear. We know it when we hear it, or at least we would like to think so. The sound and experience of a high end audio product will take our listening sessions to another level if we find the right one for us.
Earlier this year I got my ears on a pair of recently released high end in-ear monitors. The sound was so good I didn’t want to take them off. The name of the product isn’t important but the experience of this happening is. It was one of the first times a earphone had raised the proverbial bar of excellence in a while.
Headphones have not become an uber spiritual thing for me, but I will admit that I am on a conquest to find that one earphone/headphone I can plug in and be whisked away to another dimension of music bliss. When the tuning of an earphone can get the dopamine receptors firing you must ask yourself, “is this worthy of flagship status and price?” When a pair of earphones can induce goosebumps and make the hair stand up on your neck stand up the answer for me is yes. If it does anything less than that, the answer is no.
Going to shows and discussing earphones, some of the people I spoke with mentioned that Earsonics was one of the best in-ears on the planet. Several times the guys mentioned the SM64 and Velvet earphones. I had a chance to hear the SM64 and although it sounded good I didn’t get a huge wow factor from it. Reading other reviews on the Velvet, my interpretation of the reviews I read indicated that maybe it would be a little too warm and smooth for my preference. I can’t confirm this, but if asked if I would listen to and review the Velvet or review another product from Earsonics, I would have said that I’d rather go straight for the flagship and see what it is they consider their best.
A couple months ago I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing the S-EM9. I jumped on the chance. I’m going to use this introduction and conclusion to reaffirm that they sound awesome. Let’s go over them now with a comprehensive review. I hope my description will give you an idea of how the product performs.
During the review process, Earsonics has introduced two newer (and more affordable) models in the ES lineup. Here is a link to the ES2 and ES3:
I was given a free loaner sample of the S-EM9 in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I am in no way affiliated with Earsonics. I would like to take this time to personally thank Max for the opportunity to experience and review the product.
I AM NOT a numbers and graphs audiophile or sound engineer. Personal audio enthusiast? Absolutely! Headphone junkie? Possibly…
There’s something about quality DAPs, DACs, Amplifiers and Earphones that intrigues me. I want to hear any earphone that looks promising, in hopes that I can share my impressions with enthusiasts and help them find the audio product they’re looking for. My Head-Fi profile has a list of audio products ranked from favorite to least favorite. For me, this hobby is more about getting great price to performance ratio from a product, and having a variety of different gear to mix and match. With personal audio gear, we tend to pay a lot of money for minor upgrades. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that just because a headphone has a higher price tag, it doesn’t mean that it has superior build and sound quality.
I’m always looking for great audio at a great price. I’m after headphones and IEMs that give me the “WOW” factor. I can appreciate different builds and sound signatures as long as they are solidly built, with ergonomics and sound that is pleasing to my ears. It’s my pleasure to share my experiences with audio products and make recommendations based on gear I have owned and used.
The S-EM9 comes in a black box that is sleeved in a white glossy sleeve with an enlarged picture of the product on the front. The back of this sleeve is blank aside from a barcode.
Removing the sleeve, I’m greeted with a medium sized black box with a silver stamp. Removing the lid reveals the entire package
Specifications and Accessories
*Sensitivity: 121 dB / mW
*Frequency response: 10 Hz -20 kHz
*DCR 38.5 ohm
*Driver: 9 drivers with impedance correction filter 3-way
Earsonics (like other high end manufacturers) don’t give a lot of information in terms of specifications. Things I do know is that the S-EM9 uses a nine armature driver design. There is a single armature for bass frequencies, four dedicated to midrange playback, and four more drivers to handle the high frequency range. The S-EM9 seems to have less sensitivity issues as compared to other similar multi-armature earphones.
1X Pair of S-EM9 flagship earphones
1X Braided two pin cable (MMCX option is available)
1X Clamshell case
3X Pair dual flange silicone tips (1X S/M, 2X M/L)
1X Pair single flange silicone tips (one size fits most)
2X Pair foam tips
2X Disposable sanitizing wipes
1X 6.5 mm to 3.5 mm adapter
1X Cleaning tool
Although you will get everything you need in terms of using them, the package is not as premium as other flagships in its price range. I was not able to get a good fit with the included tips, and the clamshell case is more on the generic side of things. A more premium cable, a more heavy duty carrying case, and a larger and higher quality selection of tips would help justify the S-EM9 asking price. Because they perform so well, I can look past this to a certain extent. However, if I bought a high end pair of earphones like this, I would hope to be able to use and protect my investment without having to invest in an aftermarket Pelican Case, aftermarket tips and possibly an upgrade cable with a microphone and remote for my smartphone.
At first glimpse the S-EM9 shells look like they are on the larger side, but wearing them is a different story. More on this in the fit and ergonomics portion of the review.
The S-EM9 is an all acrylic shell. It has a glossy finish with distinctly separate logos printed on each side. This makes it easier to determine which channel is which. The form of the acrylic shell makes for an ergonomic fit. The nozzle is another story.
The nozzles of the S-EM9 are one aspect I found to be extremely underwhelming in terms of design. The nozzle is slightly more thin and shorter than the average universal in ear monitor. On top of that, the nozzle has no lip to hold ear tips in place securely. I was not able to get a secure fit with any of the included silicone tips, and the foam tips of the S-EM 9 created a seal, but also took away from their overall fidelity. Tip rolling was a challenge to not only find something to create a seal when wearing them, but also finding something that would stay on the short and skinny nozzle. I settled on a pair of M/L Spinfit tips. Not only did they help me get an ideal fit, they offered a level of clarity and balance that I couldn’t achieve when wearing the stock foams. Your mileage may vary.
Cable, Y-Split, Cable Jack, Strain Reliefs
The cable looks very familiar to another brand’s stock cable. If I am correct this is a Plastics One cable. Anyone familiar with these, there you go.
The cable is a black jacketed and somewhat thin and very flexible braided cable with virtually no spring or memory. Although not the highest quality and most durable cable you will ever see, it’s fun and easy to use. The Y-Split is a black piece of rubber/plastic and seems durable. A clear rubber chin/neck slider comes attached and works well to snug things in place. Two and a half inch clear jacketed pieces of memory wires are attached to the two-pin connections of my review pair, making it easier for listeners to secure the fit of each channel. Although I am sometimes not a fan of memory wire, the memory wire of the S-EM9 is not too long and does it’s job well, improving the wearing experience. Strain reliefs seem adequate. I don’t see this cable breaking any time soon.
A microphone and remote cable isn’t included in the package. The replaceable cable of the S-EM9 opens the door to many aftermarket offerings. The stock version of the S-EM9 is geared for music enjoyment and it does a great job at it.
Ergonomics, Fit and Microphonics, Isolation
If you gave me just the stock package of the S-EM9 (and no aftermarket tips) I would have to post a mediocre review. Stumbling on a pair of Spinfits that work well, I can maximize the sound quality of the S-EM9 and hear it for what it is capable of. I promise you, if you can get a tip that seals decently and comfortably, these will have a fair chance of being the best sounding in-ear monitor you’ve ever heard. The disproportionated nozzle makes getting to the promise land of what makes these special more of a challenge. Once you’re there, the reward is well worth it. Of the people I know that have heard these, not one person is yet to say they aren’t one of the best sounding earphones they’ve heard (after getting a good fit). Getting a good fit and seal are the most challenging, but also the most important part of what makes the S-EM9 so special.
The fit of the S-EM9 depends greatly on what I’ve mentioned above. Finding the right tip for my ears was a “AHA!!!” type of moment. Now that I’ve found the right tip, I love how they fit. Prior to this I was somewhat frustrated as I fiddled with the stock variations. An added benefit is also having a housing that fills the concha of my ear and sits fairly flush. In my opinion they have a nice look while wearing them around. The fit is “custom-ish.”
With the right seal the S-EM9 gives listeners a good amount of isolation, although not at a CIEM level, it is excellent for a universal monitor. Microphonics are under control thanks to their over the ear fit. When used in combination with the included chin/neck slider, microphonics are virtually eliminated.
I did my demo with my usual gear. I used an LG-V10 for smartphone use, and either my Shanling H3 or iBasso DX80 DAP/Bushmaster D14 DAC/Amp for high fidelity portable use. For desktop use, I used my Toshiba Satellite Laptop in combination with a ifi micro iDSD playing at 32/192 kHz. I tested them with several other sources as well. I used Google Music in its highest download quality (320 KBPS), and also streamed FLAC via Tidal streaming service. I also used purchased and downloaded tracks in MP3, FLAC, WAV and DSD. I make sure that any gear I test has sufficient playtime before writing a review.
I used my usual same songs for testing gear:
“Limit to your love” by James Blake (bass speed, punch, response)
“Doin’ it Right” by Daft Punk (sub bass)
“Get lucky” by Daft Punk (bass to midrange transition resolution, male vocals)
“Madness” by Muse (soundstage, separation)
“Some nights” by Fun (soundstage and male vocals)
“The soundmaker” by Rodrigo y Gabriela (texture and imaging)
“Bassically” by Tei Shi (bass to midrange resolution, female vocals)
“Skinny Love” performed by Birdie (female vocals, acoustic playback)
“One” by Ed Sheeran (male vocals, acoustic playback)
“Outlands” from the Tron Legacy Soundtrack (symphonic presentation, imaging)
“Sultans of swing” by Dire Straits (detail, separation, balance)
“And Justic for All” by Metallica (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
“Ten thousand fists” by Disturbed (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
Note: Other tracks were used, but the listed songs were primarily used to assess and break down the gear’s response.
I was able to use the S-EM9 with just about any portable DAP I had. Some of my more high powered portables and sources with high gain would yield a faint hiss and there were some traces of EMI in the signal. Use any portable device on low gain and your source will be at least somewhat ideal. For a multiple driver earphone, the S-EM9 is pretty universal in terms of source. It performs better in terms of source matching than many other earphones with similar designs.
The S-EM9 is overall pretty balanced sounding. Because of this I didn’t need to worry too much about source matching. A bassy and more colorful DAP would make the S-EM9 follow suit. The same could be said about the opposite type of source.
You can stream top forty radio on your smartphone and get some great fidelity from your S-EM9. Plug these things into a high fidelity device with FLAC and DSD files in low gain and you will be rewarded with added texture and detail that is sure to impress. My favorite combination of gear during the review process was the S-EM9 and Fiio X7 with AM3 amplifier module and 3.5mm output (250 mW @ 16 Ohm). I didn’t mind taking them with me and plugging them into my LG-V10 either.
Words that come to mind when describing them are Delicate, Precise, Unique, Slightly Musical and Controlled. In terms of sheer music enjoyment, this might be on the top of the list for me. This is a signature that doesn’t fatigue, doesn’t get boring and doesn’t fail to impress. In terms of tuning the S-EM9 is a masterpiece to my ears. For whatever reason, the S-EM9 has the ability to make every genre of music sound like it was made for it. I can randomly play my entire music collection on random and enjoy the next song just as much as the last. It’s a slightly holographic and very controlled sound. The tuning seems to have been split into three frequency ranges, then perfected with ideal driver applications for each range. To be honest, it’s tuning seems partly artificial but entirely awesome at the same time.
I can see these being many audiophiles favorite in ears. I can see them being used for mixing monitors and music production. The S-EM9 has nailed it in terms of tuning. It’s balanced, controlled and entertaining sound that is sure to impress.
Before getting the review sample I had my doubts about how a single armature driver would sound in combinations of multiple driver counts at other frequencies. Those questions were quickly answered at first listen. The S-EM9 bass is somewhat rare in the sense that it performs more like a dynamic driver than anything else I’ve heard. The S-EM9 has a nicely tuned (and not overly done) armature sized subwoofer installed in each channel. It’s not the tightest bass you will hear, and it is somewhat soft in attack and decay, but at the same time its tuning adds more to the ambiance of the earphones than it does take away. I feel like this is where the added sense of the musicality is located. There is a refrained sense of power at low frequencies.
S-EM9 has equal amounts of punch and rumble. It is not loud and overbearing, and has the sound characteristics of very large subwoofer in a high end home entertainment set up. Bass will be big and bold when it needs to be. It will also be polite and inoffensive during times where bass is not necessary. The overall feel of the S-EM9 is that the bass is well rounded, fatigue free and overall fun to listen to. It’s a little more bass than what a person who wants a cold and linear response would go for, and less bass that what bassheads are out to get. The S-EM9 has really dialed it in for audiophiles who want a sweet spot geared for music enjoyment.
Midrange of the S-EM9 is fabulously done. I would say that it’s a slightly holographic, yet beautifully layered sound. Depending on what you’re listening to, the stage on the S-EM9 can go from very small and intimate midrange to sounding wide open and airy. Where the S-EM9 excels is in its ability to handle multiple sounds at the same time. Beck’s album “Sea Change” rendered some midrange textures that brought a deeper appreciation of how well the album was mastered. David Cambell’s lyrics go from faint and isolated to large and spacious depending on how the track was recorded. It’s masterfully done stuff that is rendered fabulously with the S-EM9.
Lower midrange is incredibly neutral to my ears. There’s smidge of color that prevents them from being considered flat and boring. At the same time they don’t venture into the territory of sounding warm. You will get every detail at an elite level. There’s a soft attack at this frequency as compared to most other earphones. The result is again something that I find fatigue free and fun to listen to.
As we approach the upper midrange frequencies of the S-EM9, things get a little more forward to my ears. The S-EM9 has an upper midrange that take a slight step forward. The result is vocals and upper midrange sounds that pop, especially during harmonies and times when multiple instruments are playing simultaneously. Harmonies and female vocals sound spectacular with these earphones. Acoustic recordings are great.
I invite you to play your most complex music passages and see just how well the S-EM9 handles every last detail of sound. The clarity at midrange and treble frequencies is phenomenal. It’s a mostly smooth tuning with a little upper midrange bump to add some excitement and prevent the sound from being overall too soft. Depending on what you’re listening to, the S-EM9 midrange will go from refrained and polite to upfront and aggressive. I can’t pinpoint the tuning as being forward or back of the mix because the unique delicacy and midrange dynamics makes for a very interesting and entertaining listening experience.
For an armature driver configured earphone, the S-EM9 is one of the more smooth yet detailed and clear treble responses I’ve heard. The S-EM9 is able to give you all the treble without any sharp edges. Compared to other earphones the S-EM9 will sound like the treble has been tuned in balance with the neighboring midrange. You will get enough detail and extension needed to say nothing is lacking. Once my ears adjust to the S-EM9 tuning I can further appreciate the treble tuning. The S-EM9 sounds very balanced and treble is perceived as accurate and fatigue free at the same time.
You will hear hi-hats and cymbal crashes with great clarity but they won’t be as forward as some other V or U shaped earphones. Pronunciation of the letters S and T are crystal clear and never render themselves as harsh or sibilant. Even at louder listening volumes the treble is detailed and smooth at the same time. Several times over the course of using the S-EM9 I would look down to see that I had turned the volume up maybe a bit too loud. The S-EM9 is fun to listen to at loud volumes, just be warned.
Soundstage and Imaging
Soundstage of the S-EM9 is entirely dependent on what is being played. If you’ve listened to enough earphones, you will eventually come across earphones that have a somewhat artificially large soundstage because of a V-shape sound signature. The S-EM9 doesn’t have that type of thing going on. When the track calls for an intimate soundstage, the S-EM9 sounds very natural and intimate. In the same breath the S-EM9 can sound absolutely huge when called upon. With incredibly complex music passages, the S-EM9 sounds very clear and almost artificial at times. Some may deduct from the midrange and soundstage for this. To my ears I see this as unique and very fun to listen to. Vocal lovers, if you are in the market for a TOTL in-ear monitor, see if you can give these a try. They shouldn’t disappoint.
Imaging is excellent. During Rodrigo y Gabriela's “The Soundmaker” I could close my eyes and envision the placement of the guitars around me. The balanced tuning combined with excellent clarity makes for some fantastic sense of placement and space. Although not the best I’ve heard for an in-ear monitor it is elite in this sense.
Campfire Audio Andromeda ($1099 USD on the Campfire website)
Earlier in the introduction part of the review, I mentioned something about hearing an earphone and not wanting to take them off of my ears. That earphone was the Andromeda. Campfire’s five armature in-ear monitor offers an incredible listening experience.
Comparing the two, the first thing I notice is the difference in sensitivity. The Andromeda is much louder at the same volume, and also picks up more EMI and background hiss. In terms of universal application regarding source, the S-EM9 gets a decisive advantage. As far as sound is concerned, Andromeda seems to be the more aggressive sounding of the two. Andromeda has a more forward bass and lower midrange as compared to the more controlled and natural sounding response of the S-EM9. On top of this, the S-EM9 has an added level of refinement and clarity over the busier sounding Andromeda. This is no small feat considering just how good the Andromeda is in this aspect. Soundstage is bigger on the Andromeda, but more accurate and with better instrument placement on the S-EM9. In terms of higher ranges, the S-EM9 has a slightly more clear and still relaxed upper frequency tuning.
In terms of build and design, Andromeda is slightly better quality materials throughout. The metal shells and braided cable of the Andromeda feels more premium. Andromeda also gets an edge for accessories with their premium wool lined leather case and superior tip selection. The S-EM9 gets an advantage for being a much more comfortable earphone to wear. The S-EM9 is one of those earphones you can forget you’re wearing, while the Andromeda has some edges on its housings that can eventually irritate the listener’s ear, requiring them to take breaks.
Fidue Sirius ($899 USD on Penon Audio)
Fidue went all out earlier this year, introducing itself into an uncharted price point. Their previously lower priced flagship was the A83 which caught the attention from many audiophiles. The A91 Sirius is a step forward from the A83, and a look at what Fidue is capable of offering the high end audio market.
Comparing the two, the Sirius is a more aggressive and midrange forward earphone. The S-EM9 is a slightly clearer and more smooth and mellow sounding earphone. Bass tuning is slightly more forward on Sirius, offering a little more rumble and a little less punch than the S-EM9. Mid-range is more forward and aggressive on the Sirius. The S-EM9 is slightly cleaner, polite and recessed on the S-EM9. Treble is slightly brighter and natural on Sirius while the S-EM9 treble is smoother and more detailed and clear.
For the sake of noting it, I credited the Sirius as being great in terms of sensitivity and avoiding background noise and EMI. the 20 Ohm Sirius is even more sensitive and louder at the same volume as compared to the S-EM9. Let that be a testament to how these will source match with your portable DAPs and portable DAC/amplifiers.
I have to stop saying “the best” or “favorite” when it comes to something because every time I do that it gets eclipsed by something else. In terms of sheer music enjoyment, the S-EM9 takes the cake, offering a tuning that can be enjoyed for hours on end and without any sense of fatigue. Don’t let that statement fool you into thinking that these are overly smooth. They are incredibly balanced, and each frequency seems to be controlled and presented in a way that maximizes the listening experience. If I was going on a trip and had to take one earphone with me, the S-EM9 would be it. With the right pair of tips, the comfort, isolation and tuning are an epic combination.
The S-EM9 has some aspects that I didn’t care for at all. The nozzles were a deal breaker until I could find a tip that worked for my ears. The accessories package is no better than some fifty dollar earphones. Considering the asking price in today’s market there should be either a higher quality cable, or a second cable with a microphone and remote option. Even still, I think Earsonics understands that they are selling nine masterfully tuned drivers packed into each channel of their acrylic shells. Once you pop them in your ears and get some music playing, I can put any angst about the nozzles and accessories behind me. Earsonics has nailed it in terms sound.
When rating a product I have to take every criteria into account. The S-EM9 gets a half star deduction for its nozzle, and another half star for its somewhat mediocre accessories package. I am being sincere and honest when I say that compared to the other earphones I’ve experienced, the S-EM9 has a five and a half or six star sound to my ears. Because of this I’m averaging the negatives with the positives leaving it up to you to determine how important these aspects are when an earphone sounds this good.
The next step for me is seeing If I can work out a deal so these earphones don’t leave my house. If they stay in my collection they will receive top honors in terms of sound quality, at least for now.
Until next time, thanks for reading and happy listening!
Pros - transparency, imaging, treble, speed & dynamics
Cons - slightly intimate soundstage, not available as custom (yet?)
EarSonics (ES), a French company with their roots in custom monitors for the musician market, has been around for a while. They might not be as known as popular brands as Ultimate Ears, JH Audio or Westone, but they have made their mark and earned the respect of the audiophile community. Most seasoned Head-Fi’ers will know them and have come across one of their iems along the way.
One of ES’ midrange models happened to be my first step in the audiophile world. I’d been listening to iems for over 15 years myself in the $25-$200 price range, before I decided to buy a second hand EarSonics SM64 based on the recommendation of a friend. It had a nice tonality, with smooth and thick notes and a very dark background – a solid allrounder, but nothing too spectacular yet. The logical next step arrived when ES released its bigger brother – the Velvet. A U-shaped iem with powerful, punchy bass combined with energetic and sparkly treble and relatively distant mids, although not to the point as to be recessed. Its signature was allround enough to play most genres, but really came to life with V-shaped music like rock or EDM due its energetic treble and good dynamics. To top it off, the wide soundstage was a big bonus. It portrayed a high level of detail, while still remaining very forgiving. An important quality for the general enjoyment of music, that I would only come to appreciate later after more and more experience with sensitive iems. In short, I absolutely adored the Velvet.
In case you’re wondering where this is going, I’m not just going on about how great the Velvet was or my personal history. The point I’m trying to get at, is it was the ES house sound that got me hooked. The Velvet’s signature, as the SM64, reflects the ES design philosophy; you will never be able to accuse an ES iem of being analytical, thin or light on bass. Music is first and foremost for an engaging and emotional experience, and iems should reflect that; instead of a reference signature, revealing every detail in the music – for better or worse. Not that I don’t appreciate such signatures, for they are great in their own right of course - just to indicate a difference in philosophy.
EarSonics' 9 driver flagship - the S-EM9
9 BA drivers (1 low, 4 mid, 4 high)
3-way passive crossover
38,5 ohm impedance
5-20 khz frequency response
price: $1490 / €1490
The S-EM9 has its roots in the Velvet. It incorporates some DNA from the Velvet and EM32, such as the 3-way crossover and an evolution of the single big bass driver. The choice of a single bass driver has given the S-EM9 a unique configuration: 9 BA drivers. Despite incorporating more drivers, the S-EM9 is just as big as the S-EM6, and marginally bigger than the Velvet (with respectively 6 and 3 BA drivers). But for the S-EM9, ES went with a handmade, acrylic shell instead of molded plastic. This gives the pianoblack S-EM9 the look and feel of a TOTL custom, while the red ‘9’ and white ‘ES’ give it a sort of racecar finish. The fit is very ergonomic and comfortable to the ears.
The S-EM9 comes with exactly the same box and accessories as the Velvet so there were no surprises there. This includes a cleaning tool, 3.5 to 6.3mm plug, carrying case, and three different types of tips with the standard set being the notorious gray biflange tips that come with all ES iems. The tips are hard at first, but soften up after a few days of use. While there have been more than a few complaints on the threads, I’ve tried other tips with the Velvet but always come back to the ES biflanges tips due to their SQ. They can feel like a plunger in your ear, but the firm seal improves the bass response giving an overall fuller sound with thicker note impact, while also softening the upper treble a bit. But YMMV of course, and tiprolling is relatively cheap. Others have had success in combing both comfort and sound with other tips. From experience I decided to stick with the biflanges for the S-EM9.
The second comment is about the carrying case – a matte black case that fits exactly one iem and upgrade cable, and looks very classy while being smaller than the standard hard plastic otterbox cases almost every company provides. While I appreciate the fact that the otterboxes and such can withstand a fall down five stories of stairs or the impact of a car crash, from life experience I have learned I very rarely encounter such events on a regular basis and much prefer the stylish, smaller and softer case that you receive with ES iems. The best case I’ve had by far, and the only one I use on a daily basis.
The accessories that come with ES iems, including the stylish matte black case
Listening is done with a Cowon P1 and Hifiman 901S. The P1 provides a warmer and darker sound, while I might occasionally amp up some extra bass via a Headstage Arrow 5P amp. The S-EM9 however scales up with a better source, as the Hifiman 901S brings out the best of the S-EM9 in resolution, transparency and dynamics. Both pair very well though, albeit differently. As a tribute to ES and the S-EM9, I will use French tracks as examples.
After the relatively warm, dark and midforward SM64 and S-EM6, the designers chose a new route with a more U-shaped signature for the EM32 and Velvet. And they didn’t stray far for this one. In fact, its signature bares so much resemblance to the Velvet, it can be considered more or less a direct (vertical) upgrade. ES stuck with the same type of signature, while improving its technical capabilities. What remained was the dynamic signature with exciting treble; but while the Velvet has a very pronounced U-shape, the S-EM9 has a more balanced tuning with an improved midrange that equally captures the spotlight.
The sub-bass has a nice punch, and hits with good depth. Not to the extent to call it bassy, but very satisfying for most and suitable for bass heavy genres. ES stepped up the quality, for bass has good detail and excellent control. This is also reflected in its quick speed, which matches its dynamic signature. Bass decay is relatively quick, in accordance with it being a BA driver. The mid-bass is fairly neutral and clean with a slightly warm tone; overall the S-EM9’s punch comes from a good balance between the sub- and mid-bass, without any bloat.
The S-EM9’s midrange is very clear, there is no leak or veil from the mid-bass. It doesn’t have a great deal of warmth, either inherently or from the mid-bass, which gives a very clean background with a lot of air between the instruments - separation is outstanding. The S-EM9’s lower midrange is a bit less prominent, with the center mids being close to neutral. In accordance, average note thickness is slightly smaller in comparison to ciems as the Solar or Zeus. The upper midrange is forward and very detailed, with great transparency. This allows female vocals to really shine on the S-EM9 - the vibrato in Edith Piaf’s voice in the French classic “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” is displayed with great accuracy, while the trumpets and violins have a realistic tone with nice shimmer.
You know how people describe the bass of the Noble K10 or Rhapsodio Solar for instance as ‘authoritative when called upon' - this is how I would describe the S-EM9's treble. The S-EM9's treble is slightly forward compared to the midrange, but overall finding a great balance. High hats are a bit more present, while refraining from being sharp or splashy. A nice example is Air’s “Run”, an ambient, dreamy track. The synthetic lower treble tones sounds very clear due to the great transparency, while still having a very soft and smooth tone. However when the treble is 'called upon' in treble oriented music such as rock with fast guitars or genres that use a lot of synthetic treble such as pop, EDM or hip hop, the S-EM9's treble comes to life and displays a great sense of speed, energy and sparkle, while still remaining incredibly linear and smooth. The surplus of energy and sparkle invites you to turn up the volume, like stepping on the gas of a fast car. But this is only possible because of the linearity of the treble; there are no nasty peaks making for a very smooth sound. An impossible mix, that ES has somehow managed to concoct. The treble has good extension, which gives it a very airy sound up top and contributes to a high level of transparency and resolution.
Soundstage and Dynamics
One of the S-EM9’s most outstanding qualities however, is its dynamics. The S-EM9 has a great sense of rhythm; the onset of notes is very articulate, with a quick but smooth attack. Decay is also quick, but there is a well timed sustain; meaning tone on and offset might be quick, notes don’t rapidly vanish in thin air, but have proper articulation. This is demonstrated in one of my favorite electro tracks: Justice’s “Phantom”. It’s how I like to picture computers would sound like if you could here them communicate. Basically it sounds like your brain is being electrocuted, but you know, in a good way. With the S-EM9 the sustained longer tone lights up your headspace, reflecting a great deal of energy; while the rapidly shifting of tones between back and front and left and right display a showcase of quick dynamics – a quick and accurate tonal onset and shift of music around the headspace, as well detail in fast nuances of the electronic tones.
Overall soundstage size is slightly below average, but it has good height and depth in very even proportions. Very clearly, a tradeoff has been made for quality – it’s not about size, it’s what you do with it. The imaging within the soundstage is pinpoint precise; and among the absolute best I have ever heard. Instruments fan out evenly in all directions, while layering is excellent. In comparison to other TOTL’s the soundstage might a bit on the intimate side; but it gives the feeling of a recording studio, or a cockpit - there’s total oversight and control. If you think of soundstage as a 3D room you’re looking at, you’re normally standing a bit far away and see all the different elements with varying precision. With the S-EM9 the room might be slightly smaller, but you’re standing with your face over it, and can see every element with incredible precision; which different elements there are, how clear they sound and how fast they’re moving. Like looking closely at an ant farm from above. The S-EM9’s soundstage works best with a different, more intent focus while listening. If you sit and listen critically, you realize you’re hearing more.
The S-EM9 utilizes a handmade acrylic shell
The ES family EarSonics Velvet ($700)
The Velvet and S-EM9 share a similar signature with punchy bass and forward, energetic treble. But the Velvet has a more pronounced U-shape: the midrange is more distant with less clarity, while treble is more prominent. This combination of pushed back mids with enhanced treble makes the Velvet sound brighter, while having a thinner midrange. The S-EM9 brings more balance, with a closer, and more detailed and lively midrange. While they share a roughly similar amount of overall bass quantity, the S-EM9’s sub-bass hits deeper, with more control and precision. They both share a great deal of treble energy as a key characteristic, but the S-EM9 makes a big step up in smoothness and transparency, while retaining the amount of sparkle. The S-EM9 also has far better extension, giving it more air and clarity. Simply put, the treble sounds a great deal more refined, while still having the exciting characteristics of the Velvet’s: sparkle and energy.
The one area where the Velvet has the upper hand, is soundstage width, giving it a more spacious sound. The S-EM9’s soundstage however is both taller and deeper, and more importantly, improves greatly on imaging. The S-EM9 also steps up in dynamics and note articulation; separate notes are more clearly defined, especially in fast succession. The S-EM9 is a Velvet come to age, matured in every aspect. While it retains a fun and exciting signature, its technical capabilities have improved to TOTL level.
EarSonics S-EM6 ($950)
The S-EM6 and S-EM9 are both still very recognizably from the same family, albeit with a different signature. The S-EM6 packs a powerful punch, but with a more prominent mid-bass that gives a warmer presentation to the midrange. The S-EM9’s sub-bass in turn hits deeper with more control. The S-EM6 has a more midforward signature; the lower and center mids are more prominent, while treble is smooth but attenuated. High hats for instance are far less prominent with the S-EM6. The S-EM9’s treble is more extended; which greatly improves the transparency and resolution. The S-EM6 has good midrange speed, but again, its treble is a great deal slower.
The S-EM6 has a somewhat similar soundstage width in the midrange, although the higher frequencies are presented wider. The S-EM9 has a deeper soundstage, and more precise imaging within the soundstage. Overall, the S-EM6 has a more laidback, smoother (non fatuiging) presentation centered around the midrange. The S-EM9 has a more forward, and technically superior presentation that finds more balance between the frequencies.
Left the S-EM6, right the Velvet, below the S-EM9. Despite their driver count, all 3 are very similar in size.
TOTL comparisons Rhapsodio Solar ($1550)
Both the S-EM9 and Solar share a signature with slightly enhanced bass and treble. But due to the cleaner mid-bass, the S-EM9 has more midrange transparency; the background is airier, while notes are slightly more transparant. The fuller midbass gives the Solar in turn a greater average note thickness. Note onset of the Solar and S-EM9 is equally smooth, but the Solar has a lengthier decay, giving a bit smoother musical presentation, but with less temporal accuracy. Not a technical difference in terms of better or worse, just in tuning. The Solar’s upper midrange is more enhanced, bringing vocals and guitars a bit more to attention, albeit from a more laidback presentation. Female vocals are closer with the S-EM9, but male vocals are a bit less deep in comparison.
An easier way to describe their difference without getting lost in the details; the Solar has slightly thicker, but slower notes. The S-EM9 in turn trumps the Solar with agility and precision. The S-EM9’s soundstage is smaller, but there is more air between the instruments, with slightly more precise imaging.
Empire Ears Apollo X ($1600)
Both Apollo and S-EM9 immediately impress with a TOTL level of refinement. They share a very clean and airy soundstage with excellent imaging, although Apollo’s is wider. This gives them a somewhat similar presentation. The S-EM9’s sub-bass hits slightly harder and deeper, while the Apollo has slightly more mid-bass. The Apollo has a more prominent lower midrange; and accordingly male vocals sound deeper, while the overall sound is fuller with thicker notes. The S-EM9 however has better resolution and transparency in the upper midrange; acoustics and female vocals have better definition. The S-EM9’s treble is tuned a bit more towards sparkle, Apollo’s towards smooth and non-fatuiging although both sound technically proficient with great speed and definition.
Overall the Apollo has a slightly smoother and wider presentation, with greater midrange density; the S-EM9 in turn a more dynamic presentation, tuned a bit more towards the higher frequencies resulting in greater transparency and upper midrange definition.
Left the Empire Ears Apollo X, right the Rhapsodio Solar, below the S-EM9.
The S-EM9 is a teenager in heart that puts on a suit everyday to go to work. It has the energy, vigor and playfulness that reflects a youthful spirit; while having the audiophile properties to be taken serious among the big boys. The intention behind the design is very clear. It was built for one purpose only, the pure enjoyment of an engaging musical experience. It doesn’t make me want to do A/B comparisons with volume matching at a moderate level. No, the S-EM9 wants to be amped, and its volume turned up high.
It took me a while to realize why the slogan for the S-EM9 was “discover how the music was recorded”, because its signature doesn’t come across as completely neutral, nor does it appear as if its intention is to sound as neutral as possible in the first place. Overall, The S-EM9’s signature finds a great balance between punchy bass, a lively midrange and slightly enhanced treble. But the audiophile properties are showcased in its technical capabilities, the imaging and dynamics: the precise articulation and decay of notes, its speed and energy. From a pure technical perspective, the S-EM9 is among the absolute best I have heard. Its signature follows that need; notes might be slightly leaner, but the lighter tread is translated to agility, separation and precision. The S-EM9 is the Brazilian football star Ronaldo in his prime; his speed and agility made him one of the best strikers the game has seen. For the Americans, the featherweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. might be a better description.
One of its most remarkable feats is that the S-EM9 makes music sound faster. The S-EM9 gets your toe tapping from the moment the music starts. Even when I’m listening to ambient, slow-paced music with acoustic guitars, I catch myself bobbing my head to the rhythm when I’m not paying attention. It makes the musicians sound technically better, as if their more skillfulled doppelgangers just stepped in to take over and show how it’s done. There’s more detail and precision in faster music, ‘in-between’ notes that tend to get lost with slower speed are more apparent, such as nuances in chords being struck or quick dynamic changes in electronic music. The treble contributes to the speed, high hats dictate the pace without sounding harsh or dominating the sound.
The same holds for its soundstage, while it is on the intimate side, the precise imaging and layering within that soundstage of the highest level. The balance is not only in the tuning of the frequency range, but in its combination with the dynamics and imaging. A delicate balance where every aspect of sound, speed, and audiovisual placement come together in harmony. With audiophile or ‘reference’ precision as a result.
Somehow I can’t imagine Lil’ Wayne sitting in the studio after recording his latest track, suggesting the bass to be turned down a notch as it might cloud the midrange airiness. Or Motley Crue discussing the effect of treble roll off after 16 khz on the perception of microdetails in the recording. So I’ll add an extension to the slogan: Discover how the music was recorded.. by the artist - not the producer.
The S-EM9 was reviewed with standard cable. On display my cable of choice, a silver litz 8-strand.
(Photos credit to Victor van der Boom)