Right now, all over the world, people are listening to music through headphones. And just as listening is an international thing, manufacturing earphones is also a global endeavor. The French company EarSonics has been producing in-ear monitors since 2004. Founded by pro-sound engineer Frank Lopez, EarSonics was the first company in France to produce in-ears for onstage use. In 2007, EarSonics expanded with a hearing-protection division. EarSonics also developed a patented universal-fit earphone with loudness correction called “The Earpad.” For its first reviewed product in The Absolute Sound, EarSonics sent its current top-of-the-line universal-fit in-ear monitor, the $1799 S-EM9.
The S-EM9 has nine balanced-armature drivers (four mids, four highs, and one bass) in a very compact enclosure. Unlike 95% of balanced-armature in-ear monitors, the S-EM9, like all EarSonics in-ears, uses drivers custom made for them by Knowles instead of Knowles’ off-the-shelf drivers that are found in most other in-ear monitors. EarSonics drivers are the company’s own proprietary designs, which puts EarSonics in a unique position compared to most other in-ear monitor manufacturers.
Along with its proprietary drivers, EarSonics employs a three-way crossover system. Although there’s no mention of whether the crossover employs resistive circuits, a cutaway illustration of the S-EM9 on EarSonics’ website shows there’s scant room inside for much beside the drivers and sound channels. These “channels” are tubes that direct the sound from the front of the balanced-armature driver to the earphone’s tips. The S-EM9 employs a unique three-bore, three-channel cannula profile. According to EarSonics, its design “combines optimal phase management through asymmetrical channels and maximum treble extension.”
Ergonomics and Fit
As you would expect from a top-of-the-line earphone, the S-EM9 comes with a plethora of accessories, including the usual nice, but blessedly compact, cloth-covered presentation case. Inside you will find two pairs of Comply tips, two pairs of silicon tips, one pair of double-flange tips, a cleaning tool, user manual, and hardshell cloth-covered everyday carry case. The exceedingly lightweight (in a good way) cable is replaceable, and uses a fairly standard two-pin connection (on the upper side of the enclosure when in the S-EM9 is in your ears) that is sufficiently robust not to pull loose, even when yanked. The supplied cable does not have any provisions for iOS or Android smartphone controls and is terminated in a standard single-ended mini-stereo plug.
The S-EM9 is designed so the cable goes over your ears and then either drops straight down or is routed behind your head. The first two inches of cable has an additional sleeve of malleable plastic that can be formed into an adjustable loop. I mentioned that the cable was “exceedingly lightweight,” but it is also exceedingly strong. My only complaint is that because it is so strong and its attachment point to the earphones is so tight, when it gets yanked the only place that the cable can “give way” is where it attaches to a player or headphone amplifier, which puts the strain on the headphone connection in the player or amp itself. So…don’t do that.
I tried all the tips and settled on the large Comply foam ones. The S-EM9’s only true ergonomic oddity is that the left-hand capsule has a red “9” on it while the right one has a white “ES.” Red has traditionally been the indicator for the right channel. Of course, the first time I tried them on I inserted the red into my right ear. That did not go well. The S-EM9’s barrel is mid-sized, not as large as that of some multi-driver IEMs, such as the 1-More Quad, but not as narrow as the Etymotic ER4-SR’s. This mid-sized barrel combined with the larger foam tips gave me a good seal that did not intrude too far into my ear canal. My second choice was the double-flange tips, but they tended to slip and required periodic readjustment to remain in place.
Because the S-EM9s are among the most sensitive in-ears I’ve reviewed (121dB/mW) I expected that some amplifiers designed to drive inefficient headphones might produce hiss through them, and indeed that was the case with several, such as the AVM 8.2’s headphone output. I was encouraged to find that other headphone amps including the ModWright Tryst and the Sony TA-ZH1ES, which either had gain reduction switches or special low-gain settings, were hiss-free. With its high sensitivity, lower-output devices such as my iPhone 5SE had no problems driving the S-EM9s to well past loud into very loud levels.
Before I move to sound, I want to focus on the EarSonics S-EM9’s acrylic capsules. Unlike most multi-driver IEMs, the S-EM9’s capsule dimensions aren’t that much larger than less well-endowed IEMs. Also, unlike most multi-driver IEMs, the S-EM9 capsules are much lighter. While acrylic may have different and in some designs less desirable sonic properties compared to other more exotic materials, its low mass means you will hardly feel the S-EM9s once they are installed comfortably in your ears.