One of the most significant discoveries I made when I attended the Can Jam Chicago 2010 event this past June was to learn about the Chicago, IL-based firm, Sensaphonics, which specializes in building high performance in-ear monitors and related products. To get a handle on what makes Sensaphonics monitors special, though, it helps to know that the company’s full name is Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation, Inc. (italics are mine). In short, Sensaphonics not only wants to build monitors that will enable you to hear music clearly in the here and now; they want to make monitors that can help protect your ears so that you can continue to enjoy the richness and grandeur of music for many years to come.
At this point, it would be reasonable of astute readers to ask, “but don’t all custom-fit in-ear monitors do that?” The short answer is that they do, to a degree, and that custom-fit monitors tend as a rule to offer audibly better noise isolation than universal-fit in-ear headphones provide. Even so, it can be a mistake to think that all custom-fit models do an equally good job of blocking out noise, which makes it highly significant that Sensaphonics claims its in-ear monitors offer noise isolation that is as much as -10dB better than competing models offer. -10db may not sound like a lot, but in practice the difference is huge.
How does Sensaphonics achieve these results? The answer is that Sensaphonics build its earpieces using a different material than any other in-ear monitor maker I know of. Where most manufacturers build custom-fit earpieces from relatively easy-to-form solid acrylic materials, Sensaphonics takes a quite different approach and forms its earpieces from soft-gel silicone—a material that is said to be much harder to work with than acrylic, but that yields superior results. And if you stop to think about what a custom-fit earpiece needs to do you can see why this might be so.
Before custom-fit earpieces can be formed, owner’s-to-be must first have impressions or “ear-molds” made of their ears. Manufacturers use these impressions, which are typically made of soft, resilient foam-like materials, to creating casting molds from which the earpiece shells of your new monitors will be made. This makes perfect sense until you stop to consider the fact that your ears don’t have perfectly rigid, static shapes; instead, they flex a bit as you move your head while listening, or when you partially open or close your jaw. Recognizing this, manufacturers who make earpieces from solid acrylic, which is a very rigid material, sometimes make earpieces that are subtly undersized or smoothed just a bit to allow just a tiny bit of “slack” to accommodate inevitable flexing of your ears’ surfaces.
Sensaphonics, however, reasoned that it would be better to make earpieces from a material that would hold a firm but not, strictly speaking, dead-rigid shape, and that offered some measure of inherent flexibility—just as do the tissues that make up your outer ear surfaces. That material is soft-gel silicone. One interesting implication of this design choice is that Sensaphonics molds its earpieces at exactly 1/1th scale to precisely match the size and shape of your original ear-mold impressions, without resorting to any kind of subtle smoothing, reshaping, or downsizing. It is able to do this because it knows that silicone offers, by design, a bit of “give” so that the earpieces will flex to conform to the shape of your outer ears and ear canals—even when you move around, yawn, or otherwise open or close your jaw. The only drawback is that Sensaphonics earpieces do tend, predictably, to fit more snugly than most, and they take some extra effort and practice to learn to insert properly. But once you master the fit/insertion process, the results are quite impressive.
How do soft-gel silicone earpieces work out in practice? Judging by the Sensaphonics 2MAX in-ear monitors ($850) that I’m currently reviewing for Playback, they work like a charm. Indeed, the Sensaphonics design provides what I regard as absolutely, positively the quietest listening backgrounds I’ve ever experienced with any headphone, regardless of type (and that includes active noise cancelling designs, as well). I kid you not: once you put on a pair of Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors, you’ll feel like the imaginary “cone of silence” from the film Get Smart has suddenly become a practical reality. The difference is most impressive.
What do quieter backgrounds buy you? Well, for starters they buy you freedom from the onslaught of unwanted sound that surrounds all of us, more or less all of the time, and especially when we’re trying to listen in noisy, “hostile” environments. Second, they buy you the ability to enjoy satisfying sound without having to crank volume levels to the moon. Third, and for some reason this is a benefit that many listeners do not anticipate, they buy you the ability to well and truly hear what your earphone drivers are actually doing, and without the obfuscation of noise getting in the way.
I can’t speak for you, but I often tend to assume that sonic resolution, detail, clarity, transient speed and so on are properties of drive units, but the Sensaphonics 2MAX experience has forced me to re-think that assumption. As many über high-end loudspeaker makers (e.g., Magico, Wilson Audio, YG Acoustics) would tell you, a driver is only as good as the physical platform in which it is mounted. In Sensaphonics’ case, the earpiece platform resists external vibrations extremely well, so that you can finally hear clearly what the drive units are doing. As a result, I find that the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors are defined by their vivid and intensely focused, intimate sound.
I’ll save further comments on the tonal balance and other sonic characteristics of the Sensaphonics 2MAX until I prepare my full-length review for Playback, but until then let me offer one useful tip for music-minded, audiophile listeners. If you study the Sensaphonics 2MAX, which is a two-way, two-driver design, you'll find that it is neither the most complex nor the most expensive monitor that Sensaphonics offers. Be this as it may, Dr. Michael Santucci, who heads up the firm, told me that the 2MAX is the most neutrally, accurately balanced model his company offers. If you’re seeking an in-ear headphone primarily for listening to recorded music (as opposed to monitoring live, onstage musical performances), I’d therefore suggest looking into the 2MAX (or its sibling model, the 2X-S) first.
Until next time, happy listening.