REVIEW: Sensaphonics ProPhonic 2X-S - Comparison w/ ER-4 and E5c
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REVIEW: Sensaphonics ProPhonic 2X-S - Comparison w/ ER-4 and E5c

So I've finally succumbed to the evil temptation of getting a custom molded canalphone. I'm using the same format as with my other recent reviews. The entire text content will be in this post, and the picture posts will follow shortly after.


GENERAL DESCRIPTION

The ProPhonic 2X-S (the S denotes that it is the "Soft" version.. you can get a hard-shell version of the 2X as well) is a dual-driver headphone made from a soft silicone type of material. The main difference between these custom canalphone and others on the market, is that up to date, they are still the only company that makes their canalphone using this material. Other canalphone companies claim to have a "soft" material, which is only a soft acrylic. The flexbility of that type of material is much less than the ProPhonic 2X-S, which played a major part into my decision in getting these over the other available canalphones.

As with all custom molds, you need to find an audiologist to do the molding for you. There are "do it yourself" kits out there, but having an audiologist ensures that if there are any discomfort and issues, they will take care of it, and you will be fully guaranteed to get the best fit possible.

For other technical specifications, visit Sensaphonics for more details.


DESIGN, FIT AND COMFORT

General design

The ProPhonic 2X-S uses the same in-line passive crossover design as the Shure E5c. This in-line crossover is to handle the blending of the low and high-end driver towards the production of the midrange. The first thing you'll notice that in the Shure E5c, there's a "pod" where the two cables that goes into the L and R drivers which houses the crossover circuitry. There's this same type of connection in the 2X-S as well. The difference is, the 2X-S's crossover "pod" is much smaller in its physical size, hence it is much less likely to get caught on various objects when worn behind your back. In fact, you'll also notice that all the wiring on the 2X-S is much thinner than the E5c.

Correction: I found out later that the 2X-S doesn't use the same exact crossover design as the E5c. 2X-S's crossover is inside the driver, so all that is in the wire is a resistor. Hence the much smaller size.

The thinner wires allows the 2X-S to look even more inconspicuous in comparison to the E5c. At first this thin wire scared me a bit, but the material is in fact very tough and strong. My audiologist even pulled on it very hard to demonstrate that it will not break. The wire, she said, is rated to pull up to 50 lbs of weight without any problem. A claim that I am too afraid to test.

From the "pod" downwards, the rest of the wire is a braided, very soft, fiber covered wire. I think it's some very fine type of nylon, but I can't really tell. This wire is very much tangle-free, compared to E5c's wire where I often struggle with upon getting them out of the case. Once again, they are thinner, and much more flexible as well. The only possible problem is that the default wire length is pretty short. It is designed to go from your head down to your waist or so, and not much more than that. So if you usually have your portable audio devices set farther away... say, down on a leg pocket on your cargo pants or something, you'll want to make sure to order a longer wire.

The wire length is variable upon the ordering of the headphone, but to modify it aftewards will require you sending them in for refitting. There's actually a couple different style of wires as well. Older versions of 2X-S used to use a thick gauge black wire from the pod onward. The thin, braided wire is the newest version. From what I know there's not much sonic variance in the wires, Sensaphonics went to extremes to ensure that, and that's why the new styled wire was only available starting this year.

There's also a "memory wire" that's very similar to the E5c. However, on the 2X-S this wire is even thinner (corresponding with all smaller gauge wire overall), so it really shouldn't bother anyone having them on. They wrap around the top of your ear rather nicely... although due to their thin-ness, they do tend to curl up, but it's easy to straighten out once you've got the drivers in your ears.

Custom Molded drivers

It is pretty amazing, you can actually look at the silicone housing itself and see the drivers situated inside. There's two driver stacked on top of each other, you can see the two drivers both has their own individual "bore" that leads into the canal opening. Unlike the E5c, which has a single bore that dictates how the sound for the two driver is going to be combined, custom molded drivers needs one bore for each driver unit. Due to the possibility that each person's ear is different, it's easier to control the bore length if they were separate in order to ensure the most optimized sound. This is also why after market custom molding for the E5c works very poorly in terms of maintaining a sound signature, because the bore length is too long and too unpredictable.

To get the drivers into your ears, you have to learn to use a "twist" motion to get them in. You first align the canal opening of the earphones to your canal, and then slowly doing a "twist" that goes upward and toward your head to get them situated properly. This takes a lot of practice to get right, and it will take some more tugging of the ear to get all the parts to fit right if you didn't get it on first try. Of course, this is an annoyance that comes with any custom molding.

To get the drivers out, you do the same motion, but in reverse, twist them forward and down to get them out. One very important thing is to never pull them out by the wires. They are too snug to be pulled out by that small wire, you'll probably eventually pull the wires off that way.

Of course, fit of the custom mold might not always be perfect the first time. They are a bit "tight", because they need to make sure all sounds are isolated. The number one goal of these earphones is to make sure it isolates as much outside sound as possible, so snug-ness is a must. They are very, very snug. Your ear will take some time to get used to them, although if properly done, they should never cause pain, just a sort of.. slight "expanding" sensation for your outer ears.

However, as much as they feel tight on your outer ears, they should feel perfectly fine once situated, and your ear canal should no longer cry out in pain as it is being protruded by strange, foreign objects. The custom mold reaches the perfect depth in order to get the sound into your ears. At the moment though, I do feel a little "itchy" in my ear canal once in a while... I'm sure that'll improve and go away with time as I get used to them. (This has in fact gone away after the writing of this review)

The isolation is absolutely perfect. This is about as isolating as anything can possibly get. It is more than Ety or Shure's with any fitting (other than custom molds)... although don't expect perfect silence either. Regardless of the material, some very attenuated sound will still get through. The volume level will be so low, that they immediately disappear with any music, they should never disturb your listening pleasure.

In an environment where you have to constantly take them out to converse with people though, this is definitely *not* recommended. It takes a lot more time twisting them in and out of your ear. Repeatedly doing so will also make your ear red... because the constant motion of twisting something in, taking it out... Unlike some of the lesser isolating fittings with the E5c's.. there's absolutely no way to have a conversation with these on.


OVERALL SOUND, COMPARED WITH E5C AND ER-4

At first, I was thinking about writing up the 2X-S's sound signature as a completely separate piece. I realized it just proved too hard for me to describe how a certain earphone sounds like without some other type of reference point. In this matter, comparison with the E5c and ER-4 is only fair, and probably the most accurate way to describe how these sounds. This is of even more importance with the 2X-S, since they are custom molded to each customer's ear, they are not returnable or resellable. They guarantee the fit (still not returnable, because they'll get it right eventually), but they will not guarantee the sound quality if it happens to be something that you do not like.

I was very, very worried that 2X-S, being a professional monitoring solution, wouldn't have the type of bass I'm looking for in the E5c. As soon as I got the 2X-S, I took out my iPod and tested it with Christina Aguilera's "Get Mine, Get Yours"; all the concerns I had instantly melted away. The bass from the 2X-S is not an exactly duplicate of the E5c; there's slightly more texture and tonality in the bass, as well as a faster decay, which takes out some of the visceral vibration that the E5c leaves behind. It is a departure from the E5c's oft-occuring "wall of bass" effect, which is quite entertaining; however 2X-S's bass, although just slightly less visceral, has a lot more other characteristic going for it. Note that this slight less visceral impact is truly that slight, the bass still kicks and punches with the best of them, just now there's more accuracy behind it as well. There's no doubt this bass will get your feet tapping just as much as the E5c's bass.

Overall, this slightly faster decay is prevalent across the entire spectrum. Thus there's also an equally increased amount of instrument separation and definition. Although this slight increase is by no means the difference between E5c and ER-4, it is an appreciable amount of increase that's definitely discernable, and does so without deteriorating any of the natural-ness of the sound. Once again, it is much closer to Shure rather than Ety. This increased resolution was particularly noticeable when I was listening to Ben Folds Live, where I used to hear Ben Folds play just the notes, I'm now hearing his "steps" as well. When you uses the different foot pedals on a piano, sometimes a sudden depression and release of the pedals will cause a sort of a "oomph" in the sound, very much like beating a very dull drum to a lesser degree. Ben Folds uses the pedal incessantly with his songs, so now I'm not only picking up the different notes he's producing with his hands, but noticing the thump that's occuring with his steps on the pedals as well. It's an amazing revelation that I didn't even remembering hearing on the ER-4's.

Also when listening to some of the songs on A Charlie Brown Christmas (SACD), there were some distinguishbale recording problems in the studio. There were some songs where the microphone started picking up noise, and it's very noticeable that people in the studio were trying to make microphone adjustments, several times, unsuccessfully. The resulting hissing, popping, things moving, were all sounds that I've never noticed before. In my comparative tests I've used these CD's hundreds of times, but not once have I ever noticed these things before. In fact, I don't remember hearing these background sounds with my CD3000 either.

This type of detail goes beyond just instrument separation and reproduction. There's some strange liveliness in everything that the 2X-S produced. Where there used to be vocals, clear enunciation of lyrics and notes; now I'm not only hearing the notes and words, I'm actually hearing each syllable. You notice the slight volume differences in pronouncing a certain syllable versus another. You notice a particular singer's "S" sound is lighter than when the word ends with a "T"... This slight variance of volume that not only produces notes, but produces very subtly the differences in one's tone of voice just adds a whole new dimension of life to the vocal. This same theory applied towards other instruments as well, guitars no longer just have a "decay", but the texture and tone that goes along with that decay is so much more realistic... you can imagine how this effect applies across just about everything.

One item of note that is a clear improvement over the E5c, is that the higher spectrum now are clearly represented. Even though I've always been able to pick out the cymbals and other high-treble instruments with the E5c, it was something you had to mentally concentrate on to really pick out. The 2X-S has an even flatter frequency response than the E5c, the sound are really represented and reproduced equally, regardless if it was bass or treble or vocals. Everything sound perfectly balanced. The highs are still less apparent than they are on the ER-4, but that's also because 2X-S's bass is much more visceral. Once again 2X-S works some weird magic here as well, as the highs, as apparent as they were, are never, ever sibilant. Compared to the highs of say, the CD3000, the highs on 2X-S is clearly heard, but never piercing and never tiring.

The soundstage, as most other characteristics here, are also closer to the E5c than the ER-4. You do sit a little bit further back with the 2X-S, but overall intimacy and the imaging of sound is like the E5c. The sound doesn't get quite as far away from you, but there's a lot more dimensions and layers; as opposed to ER-4 where everything sounds far and distant, and the imaging is rather flat. The flatter response of the 2X-S also prevents something that happens on the E5c with some recordings (especially with Christina Aguilera's Stripped album), where the background sound sometimes overwhelm the vocals. At times it can feel like the main vocal is behind the other instruments with the E5c, this is certainly not the case with 2X-S. Everything just feels "right".


AMP PAIRING CONSIDERATIONS

I have not gotten to test these headphones as extensively with different amps as I had a chance with the E5c. I had the E5c for a lot longer, and during that period of time were able to go through many amps. Now that I've only got the few amp I use on a daily basis, it's much harder to do a broader test in a short amount of time. I only got to test this headphone with two amps:

LaRocco Pocket Reference (base unit)
Ray Samuel Emmeline HR-2 (standard AD797 opamp)

I think the most important item of note here, is that unlike the E5c, which employs a high impedance, super high sensitivity design, the 2X-S is a more "conventional" headphone in terms of its impedance and sensitivity. Which means that out of most amps, it should not have the notorious "hiss" problem as with the E5c. It's really easy to just plug the 2X-S into any amp that's not only designed to work with high-impedance headphones (such as the MG Head) and just have it deliver beautiful sound.

True to form, when I plugged them into either the HR-2 and the PR, they were just absolutely dead silent. The volume adjustment is also much easier to deal with, as the volume adjustment from most amps matched up closely with most full-size headphones.


USAGE WITH IPOD

E5c has always been very, very efficient with the iPod. Amazingly enough, the 2X-S is even more so. I don't know what is it about the 2X-S, maybe it's a combination of impedance and sensivity, but 2X-S definitely seems to deliver a more consistent sound throughout different set-ups. That means, although the E5c sounds great with the iPod, so does the 2X-S, the main difference is that 2X-S's worst performance level is better than Shure's worst.

Even out of the headphone output of the iPod, you get a lot of the same characteristic that makes the 2X-S superior over the E5c in a home system set-up. Even though E5c has always been very impressive out of a nice desktop amp and cd player combination, I've always felt that to get the maximum performance out of the E5c, you *need* to have such a set-up. iPod does a fair job with it, but it doesn't nearly show the potential of the E5c. With the 2X-S, even out of the iPod you see a lot of the characteristic it really shines at. The additional detail, the liveliness of the vocals and instruments; the tight, deep and visceral bass. All those characteristics are even better in a home set-up, but 2X-S performs much closer to what its potential is out of the iPod than the E5c.

That, of course, makes the 2X-S even a better portable headphone than the E5c. ER-4 in comparison sound thin, harsh, and tiny. There's just no comparison that can be drawn with the ER-4 in this particular situation. In a home set-up, a lot of ER-4's special characteristic shines through, the instrument separation and details. In a portable situation, none of those characteristic really comes through because of what it's being driven from. Another interesting point as well, ER-4's unique characteristic doesn't seem to come through; yet in the same situation the 2X-S does.


FINAL WORDS

Overall, all the characteristic of the 2X-S is closer to the E5c rather than the ER-4. It is most definitely not the "middle-of-the-road" between the ER-4 and E5c. It is more like a version of E5c with all the nuisances worked out, and every characteristic improved just in the proper ways. For example, the hissing problem with amps is a non-issue with the 2X-S. It is easier to obtain most of the 2X-S sound characteristics without having to invest in expensive home set-ups.

The improved detail has all been noted above, and it is really not something that's very apparent on first listen. I think my first impression when I got the 2X-S was, "Hey, these are just like custom molded E5c!" After more careful listening sessions I realized I was hearing so much more than what the E5c offered. The more time I spent with the 2X-S, the more I noticed its superiority over the E5c.

Not only that, now when I do side-by-side listening test with my CD3000, I definitely feel that the 2X-S is the superior headphone in terms of everything other than soundstage. The soundstage can't be helped, as all canalphones will not be able to compete with full size headphone in that matter. Comparing the details, definitions, instrument reproduction though, 2X-S sounds not only more natural, but much more revealing. It doesn't seem that 2X-S has some "hyper detail" as the CD3000, but it has a level of subtle detail that the hyper-activeness of the CD3000 doesn't seem to quite reproduce properly.

Where I used to feel that E5c is as good as a portable canalphone can get, yet still paying a heavy premium for a sound that is inferior than full size headphone... I don't feel that way at all with the 2X-S. Comparing with many other expensive headphones that I've a chance to audition, including HP-1, RS-1, CD3000, HD650 w/ Zu, W2002.. the list goes on and on, I think the 2X-S competes on every level except soundstage and comfort. Of course, I still feel that full-size headphone is the most comfortable of them all. Even though the 2X-S is custom molded, it is still something that plugs into your ear and somewhat "intrudes" on your comfort level a bit.

Given all that, understand that the 2X-S is a huge step to take. The market price for 2X-S is $750, plus a $50 fee from your audiologist. So that's $800 before tax. Unlike the E5c, which has a MSRP of $500, but now can be found for as little as $350~$380; the price of the 2X-S will *not* come down. It is not a massive consumer production unit, every unit is custom manufactured. There will be no price break. Furthermore, there will be no returns either. Once you've put the money down for the 2X-S, that's it, you're stuck with it. You can't resell them, you can't pass them on to other people.

So with that in mind, E5c is still not a bad deal at all. It gets you most of the characteristic of the 2X-S while being very, very entertaining and fun. After all, when you think about it, E5c is actually less than half the price of the 2X-S. At the end of the day, 2X-S gets my full hearted recommendation... If you can afford it... it's something really worth thinking about. On another hand, if you're completely new to the idea of canalphones, E5c is a good place to start to get a taste of what the 2X-S might sound like. There will be people who will never get used to canalphones (sound inside your head, driver unit sticking deeply into your ear), so you should at least try something lower class than the 2X-S before you take the plunge.



TESTING SET-UP AND NOTES

System Setup

SACDmods Sony SCD-CE775 => 1m. Nordost BlackKnight IC => Emmeline HR-2 => 2X-S
3rd gen iPod => SiK DIN line-out connector => Monster mini to RCA cable => LaRocco Pocket Reference => 2X-S
3rd gen iPod => 2X-S

Music Selection

Alicia Keys, "The Diary of Alicia Keys"
Alicia Keys, "Songs In A Minor"
Ben Folds, "Ben Folds Live"
Ben Folds, "Rockin' the Suburb"
Ben Folds, "Speed Graphic"
Ben Folds Five, "Whatever and Ever Amen"
Ben Folds Five, "The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner"
The Bens, "The Bens EP"
Christing Aguilera, "Christina Aguilera"
Christina Aguilera, "Stripped"
Coldplay, "A Rush of Blood to the Head"
Coldplay, "Parachutes"
Dave Brubeck, "This is Jazz, Vol. 3"
Jason Mraz, "Waiting For My Rockets To Come"
Jars of Clay, "Jars of Clay"
Jars of Clay, "Who We Are Instead"
Josh Groban, "Josh Groban"
Josh Groban, "Closer"
Miles Davis, "Birth of the Cool"
Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue"
Norah Jones, "Come Away With Me"
Norah Jones, "Feels Like Home"
Stan Getz, "Bossa Nova"
Vince Guaraldi, "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
Vladimir Ashkenazy, "Piano Concert 2 & 3"

 
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lindrone

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Pictures - Worn In Ear


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Frontal view of what the 2X-S looks like when it's properly seated. Almost invisible, most people don't even realize I have them on... it creates endless funny situations at work, at least for the other person.


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Side view (as close as I can get to a side view) of me wearing the 2X-S. From the side you can see them, obviously... but still very, very fitted and small.
 
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lindrone

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Pictures - 2X-S close-up


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Close-up shot of the 2X-S... the two ear pieces side by side. You can see through the clear soft silicone material and see the driver units inside. You can also see the two bores that directs the sound into your ear.


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Just one ear piece, so you can look at the shape and detail. Obviously, this shape will vary from person to person.. nevertheless they look a little alien like. The product shots on their website (just as the Shure E5c as well) always make them look much more... "human" than it does in real life. It's like a little alien creature... ewww...


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Same ear piece at a different angle.


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The wire and the crossover unit covered side by side with the Shure E5c. Notice how much thinner the cables are. They're not only thinner, they appear to be plenty strong as well. They don't tangle as much as the E5c cable. Much ligher and easier to deal with.
 
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lindrone

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Pictures - Box shot


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The box it came with was a bit of a disappointment though. At first I thought it was a wooden box, but turns out it was a metal box with a vinyl covering that make it look like wood. It's rather cheap looking for such a great product. My name is just a sticker on the front hinge.


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The circular area is for storing the earphone, works very well. It comes with a soft carrying pouch w/ a bit of padding. A cleaning tool, and a 1/8" to 1/4" adaptor plug.
 
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nice review...

if it makes you feel any better, i could not find my name anywhere on the brushed aluminum surface of the e5c case.

i must say, it wasn't nearly as bad as i expected it to be.

my e5's were quivering ever so slightly in their case...they know i would never put them up for adoption though.

i really like that mini-casing for the crossover unit.

based on what you mentioned about the overall similarities to the shure sound signature, it seems as if ety lovers are still gonna want to hang on to their er4's. (not that too many of them were rushing to get the sensas.) but it seems like for the detail freaks, the ety's might still have something going for them.

another page in the book of head-fi has been written.
 
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at last, the dark horse rears its head


great review! makes me seriously doubt the "perfectness" and simplicity of an ipod and e5s!
 
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nice review. Thanks lindrone.


I decide to keep enjoying my e5c/iPod combo. Happy sensaphonics!
 
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bangraman

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Thanks. Although perhaps I didn't read it thoroughly... what's the isolation like compared to the Etys with the foamies?
 
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lindrone

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Quote:

Originally posted by bangraman
Thanks. Although perhaps I didn't read it thoroughly... what's the isolation like compared to the Etys with the foamies?


From what I recall, it's even better than what Ety's has to offer with the foamies. I think the main difference is more even attenuation across the entire spectrum... there's no glaring frequency of sound that seem to get through easier than others.


Quote:

Originally posted by Edwood
My that soft case looks mighty familiar.......


Huh?.. Do you mean it looks like the Ety soft case?... Don't remember what the Ety soft case was like anymore... I think the padding is a bit thicker.
 
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cmascatello

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Great review. Congrats on another fine piece of equipment.

I think I am going to stay with the E5 right now so that I can get the home system finished. But my wallet is a bit dismayed that the 2X-S does seem to bring a bit of theh Ety feel to the fun E5 sound -- this is exactly what I was hoping you would NOT say. Throw in custom molds and it is the package that i was looking for and would have called "perfect" a few months ago when I sprung for the E5.

One question: Now that you have a few days/weeks under your belt with getting used to putting htem in/out, how long does each mold take to seat properly? It originally took me 30 seconds an ear to get the Shures in right, but after a week I can do both in a few seconds -- are you experiencing that same type of learning curve?
 
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iamdone

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Nice review.

I doesn't sound like I'd fully enjoy these either. I think the hd650 with Zu cable has higher highs and more detail than the etys but does it without ever being harsh. So if these still don't go as high as the etys, I would still find them disappointing.

Maybe the Ultimate Ears are better for etys fans. I'll have to re-read Welly Wu's reviews. Either way, I'm not buying either of these. I'm going to hold out for etys to come out with their own dual-drivers or someother company that doesn't require custom molds.
 
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lindrone

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The highs are very apparent on the 2X-S.. but it's never overpowering nor harsh. It's not the focal point, but it's not something you have to work to pick out either.. much different than it is with the E5c. I consider them much better than Ety's highs.. with perfect sibilant control and balance in its presentation.

I think HD650/Zu's highs are more "powerful".. but in its presentation in balance with rest of the music, it isn't much different than the balance of the 2X-S's high in relative to the rest of its presentation. I felt that HD650/Zu has a punch and kick in just about everything it presents.. so naturally the highs has to be more powerful to compensate for it. 2X-S is more like a HD600/Zu with more intimacy and excitement, but with a lot of very subtle delicate detail that I didn't hear in any Sennheisers.

Quote:

One question: Now that you have a few days/weeks under your belt with getting used to putting htem in/out, how long does each mold take to seat properly? It originally took me 30 seconds an ear to get the Shures in right, but after a week I can do both in a few seconds -- are you experiencing that same type of learning curve?


Yes, there is a learning curve... now I can twist them in and out in about 5 to 10 seconds? It'll still take more time to put on than the E5c. However, you really don't have to "adjust" them once you get them in either. They only fit one way, and if the fit doesn't feel quite right, you should ask the audiologist to re-fit them as soon as possible.
 
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iamdone

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Well I guess I could enjoy these based on that description. Too bad I can't test it to find out.
 
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lindrone

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I think at the NAMM show or something they did use the universal fit version at their booth so people can get an inkling of what they sound like. The problem is, they're not going to sound "exactly" the same since they're not custom molded to you.

They do not sell this universal fit version, it is for demonstration purpose only. I think Wildeone got to try them out.

My audiologist did not have this demo unit to show people what they sound like... but some other audiologist might.
 
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