Reviewed Dec 2010
Details: 3-way universal flagship from French audio firm Earsonics
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP $399)
Specs: Driver: Triple BA | Imp: 34Ω | Sens: 122 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: Sensorcom bi-flanges, stock bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear
Accessories (4/5) – Bi-flange silicone tips, Comply foam tips (2 sizes), filter and tip cleaning tool, and hard zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The lightweight shells are made of two plastic halves (one black, one clear) but don’t feel quite as sturdy as those of the Westone UM3X. The light multi-strand cables are twisted for extra strength and properly relieved both on housing entry and at the Y-split. A meaty 3.5mm L-plug completes the picture
Isolation (3.5/5) – Quite good when longer tips are used
Microphonics (5/5) – Can only be worn over-the-ear so microphonics are nonexistent
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings of the SM3 are about the same size as those of the UM3X but rear corners of the squared-off shells – a stark contrast to the smooth lines of the UM3X – can cause long-term discomfort for those with smaller ears. I ended up using longer tips and leaving the shells outside of my ears in order to wear the earphones for more than an hour at a time
Sound (9.2/10) – The Earsonics SM3 is a high-end three-way triple-driver stage monitor designed to compete directly with the Westone UM3X, an earphone that, while technically proficient, never really appealed to me on a personal level with its intimate presentation and viscous sound. Expectedly, the general signature of the SM3 is not too far off from the UM3X but it is the differences that make it a better consumer-class earphone in my view.
The bass of the SM3 isn’t all that different from that of the UM3X. It is generally deep and well-controlled – not as tight as with some of the leaner, more analytical earphones (e.g. CK10 & DBA-2) but definitely not loose. It is quick and well-weighted but always remains a bit soft in character. Across the range, but especially at the low end, the SM3 retains a roundness of note that reminds me of some of the higher-end dynamic-driver earphones I’ve heard as opposed to bass-happy armatures like the W3 and TF10, which generally have more immediate bass impact. The bass of the SM3 is not ruler-flat, rolling off slightly at the lowest of lows, and won’t satisfy a true basshead, but for me it is plentiful in quantity. Compared, for example, to the Westone 2, the low end of the SM3 manages to be crisper and more impactful at the same time – an impressive feat that shows off the optimization of the bass driver.
The midrange is most definitely the meat of the SM3’s sound signature. The earphones are slightly mid-forward but, unlike the UM3X, the SM3 doesn’t really ‘push’ its midrange on the listener. It has an uncanny ability to ‘center’ the vocalist in its headstage, seemingly escaping stereo separation almost completely, but at the same time avoids the somewhat excessive intimacy of the UM3X. The SM3 is generally only slightly warm in tone but can lean towards greater warmth, depending on source and track. The mids are smooth, sweet, lush, and full, with the same roundness of note as the low end. Transparency is good but not the best I’ve heard, and the same goes for the clarity – the SM3 simply isn’t lean enough to compete with the CK10 or DBA-02 on that front. Even the UE TF10 has slightly better clarity in the midrange than the SM3, though it sounds somewhat hollow and nasal next to the full and forward SM3. Detail retrieval is great but the microdetailing is again not as good as with the CK10 or DBA-02 because the SM3 just isn’t aggressive enough with presenting detail, occasionally requiring conscious effort to hear the minute details. Vocal timbre is excellent, however, even next to the Westone 2, which has some of the better vocal representation among the IEMs I own, with both earphones making the ATH-CK10 sound slightly metallic in comparison.
At the high end the SM3 is laid back and very smooth, again not unlike the UM3X. I do hear a bit more extension out of the SM3 but the difference isn’t great. The treble is neither particularly prominent nor notably deficient – there really is no frequency range in which the SM3 lacks presence – but could definitely use a bit more emphasis for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong – the treble of the SM3 is neither rolled off nor recessed – just not particularly aggressive. With a slightly different overall sound signature the treble would be perfectly adequate – there is even some sparkle to be had – but it’s quite easy to lose next to the buttery mids and healthy low end of the Earsonics. It should be noted that the detail of the SM3 is made all the more impressive by the lack of aggression in presenting it but critical listening with the SM3 will require some effort on the part of the listener, at least initially. As an aside, using Comply tips with the SM3 is not recommended as the tips seem to soak up what little sparkle and energy there is. Other than that there was little need to bother with tips, at least for me – the SM3 is not nearly as sensitive to tip selection as, say, the Westone 3 or UE TF10, which may be one of the reasons for the Earsonics being generally well-received.
Aside from a sound signature without any definite flaws, the biggest strength of the SM3 is undoubtedly its presentation. It is a fairly wide-sounding earphone – not the largest I’ve heard but clearly above average. I think that for a BA setup the soundstage of the SM3 is very close to being the perfect size, though it has taken me a while to figure out why. A massive stage works (more or less) for something like the Sennheiser IE8, with its huge bass and immense dynamic presence, but an armature-based earphone would sound thinner trying to fill all of that space. In addition, the soundstage of the IE8 has an ‘inner limit’, meaning that it seems to start some distance away from the listener, while the ability to accurately portray intimacy is one of the necessary hallmarks of good stage monitors like the SM3 and UM3X. The ‘front-and-center’ vocal presentation that the SM3 does so well simply wouldn’t work with a soundstage like that of the Sennheisers. The stage of the SM3 also has good depth and, surprisingly, decent height, though it is conceivable that the SM3 will sound too 3-dimensional to some. Indeed, the SM3 is almost artificially enveloping for an IEM and as a result acclimating to it can take longer than with most IEMs (the same is true for the Radius DDM, though for slightly different reasons). Personally, I feel that the soundstage of the SM3 would be easier to get accustomed to for those with minimal experience with higher-end earphones and more perplexing for those used to the presentation of other high-end IEMs.
Moving on, there are definitely earphones with more air than the SM3 but usually as a result of brighter and/or thinner sound. Separation is very good without seeming exaggerated as it can be with the Westone UM3X. Layering and imaging are both quite good – instruments take on the proper distance and direction cues and there is ample air around each. Within the confines of the SM3’s overly-enveloping soundstage the imaging is quite realistic. The dynamics are good as well – a necessity for proper presentation – but not the best I’ve heard. Compared head-to-head with the Monster MD, for example, the SM3 struggles to sound as soft or as powerful at the limits but comes respectably close.
The smooth and thick presentation, complete with slightly ‘rounded’ notes compared to many other BA-based earphones, is effortless, polished, and refined. The SM3 is non-fatiguing but accurate. It sounds less like a musician’s tool (a-la UM3X) and more like a consumer listening device that nevertheless remains true to source. I can’t call the SM3 exciting but at the same time it’s not an analytical earphone. I don’t consider the UM3X analytical, either, but its ‘dissection kit’ presentation can be too boring for much of my music. The SM3 takes the comfortable middle ground between the UM3X and uncompromisingly ‘fun’ earphones such as the TF10 and Westone 3. Like all of the other top-tier IEMs, the SM3 is still far from being all things to all people. However, it is much more difficult to hate than it is to like, helped in part by its consistency with different tips and sources. Overall, the SM3 is an extremely efficient earphone with just enough sensitivity headroom to avoid hissing like a snake with a poorly matched source. In my experience, experimenting with tips and amps brings about improvements that are marginal at best.
Value (8/10) – As an earphone that doesn’t do a whole lot wrong, the SM3 is not unique, but it also seduces with its enveloping soundstage and thick, creamy midrange. Even those who do not value the flavour of the SM3 will find it (at worst) to be a decent top-tier universal while those who do like the signature will be in sonic paradise. On a personal note, while I belong to the former category, I have to say this in closing: there are songs in my music collection that I always skip – songs kept mostly for sentimental or nostalgic value – but with the SM3 I was forced to listen to them all the way through. This earphone is not the end of the road for me, but it may just be for many others.
Pros: No microphonics; Smooth, liquid, and detailed sound; no real signature flaws; enveloping presentation
Cons: Angled housings lead to potential comfort issues