Spiral Ear SE 3-way Reference Review

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Reviewed June 2012

Details: Silicone-shelled custom from Poland-based Spiral Ear
Base Price: €619 (est $650) detachable cable from spiralear.com
Specs: Driver: Triple BA; 3-way crossover | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4.2′ L-plug
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Cleaning tool and hard-shelled custom-printed carrying case w/detachable lanyard
Build Quality (5/5) – The Spiral Ear IEMs use silicone shells that are completely filled in. Shell transparency isn’t as good as it can be with Acrylic monitors but the structure is solid, with a relatively small amount of give. The fixed-cable version utilizes Westone-style cables with the connectors encased within the silicone shell. Detachable cables (optional) boast internally-anchored, recessed connectors with conventional Westone ES-style plugs.
Isolation (5/5) – The isolation of the deep-fit silicone shells puts every other earphone in my collection to shame, outperforming even my custom-tipped Etymotic Research earphones
Microphonics (5/5) – Pretty much nonexistent
Comfort (5/5) – The silicone shells of the SE 3-way take slightly longer to insert and remove compared to a more rigid and slippery Acrylic shell but once fitted the 3-way is just as comfortable as my UM Miracle and seems to maintain seal a tiny bit better with changes to the ear canal shape, such as while chewing or talking. Being a custom monitor, the comfort of the 3-way is highly dependent on the quality of the initial impressions and final mold so if the earphones remain uncomfortable after an initial break-in period a re-fit is probably a good idea.

Sound (9.5/10) – While a number of promises are made on the 3-way Reference product page, extended listening to the earphones causes none to ring as true as that of “rich and organic” sound. The 3-way is a listening experience unlike anything else I’ve heard, providing a neutral, highly polished signature but also causing all of the other BA-based monitors I’ve heard to sound thin and underpowered in comparison.

The sound of the 3-way takes some getting used to – it isn’t designed to immediately wow with detail and clarity, sparkly treble, or a wide, out-of-the head presentation. Instead, it impresses in the long term – around the time 4 hours and 3 full albums have passed. Most impressive is the bass – there is a certain disconnect between the neutral tone of the 3-way Reference and the voluminous bass. The bass has great body and good punch. On bass-heavy tracks the 3-way is capable of effortlessly producing more impact than any other armature-based earphone I’ve heard, beating out the Earsonics SM3 and the bass-heavy filters of the Phonak PFE 232 and competing with the dynamic-driver bass of the AKG K3003. The bass response scales back quite well when it is not called for, too – dynamics are some of the best among armature-based IEMs, slightly better than with the SM3 and far superior to anything built around a full-range TWFK driver, for example. As a result, the earphones can still sound rather balanced on the whole but are also capable of really belting out the low notes on cue.

While most of the power comes in higher, the low end of the 3-way is well-extended – better, for example, than that of the Alclair Reference. Note weight is on the heavy side and some of the fine detail is not as audible as it can be with a thinner-sounding earphone such as a UM Miracle or Alclair Reference, but the 3-way sounds very natural and detailed in its own way. It is not one for analytical listeners but the excellent note thickness and dynamics make for a uniquely tactile and powerful bass presentation – one that is smooth, yet easily felt. The Earsonics SM3 – which is also rather thick-sounding – has a similar overall feel to its bass but can’t quite match the depth, resolution, and control of the 3-way Reference, sounding a little loose and bleeding up into the midrange more.

The midrange of the 3-way Reference is smooth and rich without sounding excessively warm. Indeed, for the amount of bass the Spiral Ear can produce, the mids are surprisingly free of bass bleed and the overall balance is quite good. There’s no sense of the mids being pushed forward artificially but also not as much distance placed between the listener and the performers as, for example, with the ClearTune CTM-200 or the popular VSonic GR07.

On the whole, the 3-way doesn’t adhere to a typical high-end BA sound – it does not push for the greatest possible clarity and detail, instead focusing on a thicker, more natural note presentation and overall coherency across the spectrum. In this way it is highly reminiscent of the Earsonics SM3, though the 3-way is noticeably more transparent. Combined with the lack of bright, emphasized treble, this means that the overall clarity is not immediately impressive as it is with the UM Miracle or CTM-200. The detailing is also not at all aggressive – the 3-way does not push fine nuances forward as many analytical earphones do. The detail is mostly there, but it takes some listening for. Overall, it sounds very natural and pleasant.

The top end of the 3-way Reference is among the smoothest and most non-fatiguing I’ve heard from an IEM. Comparing it to the AKG K3003, Alclair Reference, and Phonak PFE 232 reveals peaks in their treble presentations that just aren’t there with the Spiral Ear. The treble is clean and detailed but – much like that of the Earsonics SM3 – lacks some sparkle and energy next to other high-end earphones. Most likely it was tuned this way to prevent listening fatigue over long listening sessions but as a result the 3-way has a darker tone and can sound a bit boring at low volumes compared to brighter earphones. Treble quality is good but again the top end of the UM Miracle is not only more prominent, but also has better detail and extension, resulting in a more airy sound and a boost in perceived clarity.

The presentation of the 3-way is very well-rounded – similar in size to that of the Phonak PFE 232 but with better layering for a more ambient and 3-dimensional feel. The 3-way gives a good sense of space but provides a less open, more intimate sound compared to the UM Miracle and Alclair Reference. Separation is very good, as are the dynamics, resulting in good imaging and allowing the 3-way to recreate very fine nuances, especially in live recordings. Listening to a Phonak PFE 232 with the green +bass filters (which result in the most similar, albeit still more v-shaped, balance) makes very apparent just how much more detailed the 3-way is.

In addition to the mentions above, I thought I’d add more concise comparisons against my two other higher-end custom monitors – the Unique Melody Miracle and Alclair Reference.

The Alclair Reference ($399) pursues a slightly warm sound signature with a drier presentation and some treble emphasis. Compared to the Spiral Ear 3-way Reference it has a more laid-back soundstage with a thinner, more analytical note. The tone is brighter overall and it can sound slightly ‘hot’ with some tracks due to emphasis in the lower treble region. As a result of the treble emphasis, the perceived clarity is a bit better than with the 3-way but natural clarity is similar between the two. The 3-way, on the other hand, has much smoother treble for a less fatiguing sound and darker tone. It provides a better sense of 3-D space and better on-center feel. It also sounds more effortless at the bottom end, with better bass weight, power, and impact compared to the Alclair.

The UM Miracle ($950) is a spacious, highly detailed monitor with a very slightly u-shaped response. Like the Alclair Reference, the Miracle sounds brighter and clearer compared to the 3-way. Despite being more laid-back in the midrange, the Miracle still provides better detail and texture in addition to being more airy and spacious. However, while the Miracle’s bass depth and subbass power are similar to those of the 3-way, its mid- and upper-bass response is far leaner. The 3-way has much more bass body and sounds thicker, with more bass weight and impact but also a bit of boominess and slight lack of detail next to the Miracle. This gives the 3-way a very dynamic sound but causes the Miracle to appear more resolving overall.

Value (8.5/10) – The Spiral Ear SE 3-way Reference is a versatile and well-rounded custom monitor that eschews the usual analytical tendencies of high-end BA-based earphones for a holistic approach to sound more akin to that of EarSonics monitors. It is not for fans of a thiner note presentation, leaning instead towards the lush end of the spectrum, but its smooth, powerful, and full-bodied response is something that simply needs to be experienced, especially by those who claim dynamic drivers always sound more natural than armatures. The filled silicone shells offer similar comfort to acrylic shells (provided both are well-fitted) but easily best acrylic monitors – and every other earphone I’ve tried – when it comes to isolation. With the option to add detachable cables at additional cost, the only downside is that the Spiral Ear is limited in customization options compared to most of its acrylic counterparts. In addition, with its effortless low end and excellent dynamics, I feel that this is one custom monitor potentially suitable for bassheads as it is incredibly adept at making sure that whatever bass is on a track can be felt as well as heard.

Pros: Immense isolation; incredibly dynamic, powerful, and full-bodied sound
Cons: Inserting and removing silicone shells takes some getting used to


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

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