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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.