(This is an updated and re-written version of my original impressions thread at TechEnclave here)
14 months ago, I started on a wonderful and wallet thinning journey into the world of IEMs. December of 2010 was a milestone month in that journey. I got TF10, e-Q5, FX700 and last but not the least, Earsonics SM3 all delivered within weeks of each other. SM3 is of particular interest to me, since it has been hailed as the world's best universal IEM by some, which is not without strong disagreements from few others. The following is my own take on SM3. I urge any one who does not yawn after a few paras to read my disclaimer and guide to reading this review
Sensitivity: 122 dB/mW
Frequency Response: 20 Hz -18 kHz
Impedence: 34 ohms
Technology: 3 Balanced Armature Drivers with 3-way Cross over.
At $320, SM3 is currently my costliest IEM to date.
SM3 comes with a braided cable. Sometime ago, braided cables were only present in the territory in high-end products like Custom IEMs, but they are nowadays found in lower end products like Brainwavz M1, which costs about $40. Though not special, it's good to see a braided cable in place of a conventional cable - just ups the ante a bit. The cable has proper strain reliefs for plug, Y-Split and the driver housing. The cable is not microphonic in my experience.
My biggest issue with the cable is how far up the Y-Split is. Here's a small comparison between my FX700's Y-Split and SM3's. FX700's Y-Split is about 65mm below that of SM3 in comparison. As a result, SM3's chin slider is too close to the chin for comfort. I'd call it a "Chin Strangler" than a chin slider because it has nowhere to slide to. I've managed somehow to wear them over the ear with a small distance between the chin slider and my chin, so it's not a huge issue most of the time.
The driver housing is not awe-inspiring either. They feel much like cheap plastic containers than anything else. I've this weird feeling that I can break them easily if I am not ultra-careful. There have been instances of people breaking their SM3 housing without trying too much. With very limited ownership, I cannot really say whether this is largely on account of user error, carelessness or SM3 is really that bad. But, I'd continue to be careful when handling them.
Like many of the other IEMs, twist and fit works nicely. Rarely, the straight edges of the housing hurt my outer ears on a long session. But, most of the sessions, I did not have much discomfort as they fit snugly.
I'd say the build quality is about average, but when cost is taken into consideration, it feels cheap. Next to the well built e-Q5, it feels even cheaper. But, it does not feel as bad when compared to TF10 or DBA-02.
For SM3, I used the stock double flange out of the box. Later I switched to Shure Olives.
The first day, I tried them in 15 minute sessions thrice and still was unimpressed. Any new IEM usually does that. It takes time for brain to tune to it's signature and start noticing it's faults and strengths. But, my expectations based on what I've read were very high too! The "in your face" mids were too much, I did not like the bass that much and treble was recessed. I felt like I just dumped my hard earned money into something unworthy. I decided to relax a bit and settle for a long listening session later that night.
SM3 has been described anywhere between "world's best universal IEM" to "unnatural, enveloping sounding IEM that is enjoyed only by a few". In my case, the longer I listened to them, the more I liked them - much like an invisible voodoo driver acting on your brain.
I am a big fan of efficient IEMs that can be driven straight out of Clip+ at lower volumes. But, SM3 does not shine much at lower volumes, though it's not terribly lacking as a few inefficient IEMs like Brainwavz M1 or MEE M6 tend to be. It just becomes more enjoyable with a slightly higher volume than usual.
The bass of SM3 has good texture and decent extension. It does not have enough quantity at the lowest lows to rumble and hence is found lacking in terms of punch and impact compared to TF10 or FX700. But, it does have much more impact when compared to softer, but mid-bass bumped IEM like M2 or a lean sounding DBA-02.
The Mids are just "In your face". I found it a little hard to digest at first, but have gotten used to it over the course of time. As a result of the forward nature, you can hear a little more nuances, those which appear whispered in other IEMs more clearly. But you have to get used to the fact that the vocalist will always stand over your forehead. The mids are warmer in tone and slightly thicker. They are not as micro-detailed as a thinner and faster DBA-02 or RE-252 tends to be. e-Q5 has similar forwardness, but it sounds mellow and does not have the same energy as SM3 to make you feel it's "in your face".
After reading many posts on head-fi, I was expecting the treble of SM3 to be lacking. But, in reality, SM3's treble is slightly recessed in comparison to the well forward mids and somewhat center positioned bass, but it is not lacking by any means. It's not as lean and sparkling as DBA-02 tends to be. Initially, it feels a little lacking, but on longer sessions, I don't feel it's lacking at all. There's some sparkle as well, but it's very well controlled, nowhere near the offensive / harsh territory.
The presentation of SM3 has drawn many a criticism. The sound stage is decently wide and has good depth. It's better to think of the sound stage in terms of a "sound space" rather than the constrained 'stage' many IEMs tend to present. It is not comparable to the open, headphone like, airy sound stage of FX700 though. Many a time, things appear behind your head and slightly outside of ears.
Because of the thicker notes, SM3 manages to fill most of the space in and around your head. A better way to think of SM3's presentation is to imagine a hall with double and triple seats occupied by larger sumo wrestlers. In comparison, a lean sounding DBA-02 tries to seat anorexic models in single seats. Which do you think will feel "filled"?
Instrument separation is very good and never feels congested. It is positioning in which differences over SM3 arise most. Let me explain with a not so proportionate graphic:
|SM3 Vs Starsonic HDSS - Position of sounds|
The Bluish rectangle is Kurt Cobain singing. The smaller bluish green circle is where the first guitar notes are heard. The Red circle is cymbals, the lime circles in SM3 are where I hear the clapping and they actually feel like a row of people with Starsonic HDSS. As I've mentioned in the "guide" (linked above), I don't look for accuracy of reproduction. But, it is clear that SM3's presentation could be a deal breaker for some.
Overall, I would not characterize SM3 as an analytical IEM. It has a more balanced presentation which is clearly different from the timbre rich, organic presentation of dynamics or the fast, highly resolving, analytical, but leaner sounding BAs like DBA-02 or the detailed, but tuned for fun BAs like TF10. It has a smooth, laid-back presentation, which while needs getting used to, is not found wanting or lacking in most aspects.
At this stage, SM3 remains one of my favorite IEMs despite it's slightly polarizing presentation. In my view, it is an IEM which is hard to hate if you accept it as-is viz., no EQ, no amplification, no trying to make it sound the way you like. At this point, I am placing it at the top of my IEM ranking above my previous favorite, DBA-02 and my favorite dynamic IEM, FX700. The ranking may change with time.