For a company whose primary products are custom-fit in-ear monitors, Sensaphonics has a somewhat unusual name; indeed, the firm’s full name is Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation, Inc.—a moniker that tells you a lot about the firm’s core values. These folks not only want to build in-ear monitors that sound great in the here and now, but that will help protect your hearing so that you can continue to savor music for years to come. But how, exactly, does Sensaphonics convert its stated goal of “hearing conservation” into practical reality? To seek answers, I requested a review sample of the firm’s 2MAX in-ear monitors ($850), which Dr. Michael Santucci, the head of Sensaphonics, recommended as his firm’s most neutrally voiced and therefore most accurate-sounding model.
The short answer to the question regarding hearing conservation is that the company builds the custom-fit earpieces for all of its in-ear monitors using different materials and techniques than most of its competitors employ—all with an eye toward providing superior noise isolation. Sensaphonics forms its earpieces from a flexible material called soft-gel, cold-cure silicone, whereas most of its competitors form earpieces from relatively rigid acrylic materials (or in some instances from a hybrid combination of acrylic and softer materials). According to Dr. Santucci and to Sensaphonics production team members I spoke with, soft-gel silicone is considerably more difficult to work with than acrylic from a manufacturing standpoint, but it offers compelling benefits that make a profound difference for the earphone wearer.
First off, soft-gel silicone earpieces are firm enough to hold a precise shape, yet have enough flexibility or “give” to accommodate the natural flexing of the wearer’s ear canal and pinna (flexing that occurs naturally when listeners move their heads, change facial expressions, or open or close their jaws, etc.). In contrast, hard acrylic earpieces are rigid and do not flex. As a result, acrylic earpieces are often deliberately made just slightly undersize (and are also subtly smoothed in shape), partly in the interest of wearer comfort, but also to accommodate flexing of the ear. Sensaphonics earpieces, on the other hand, are made at exactly the size of the user’s ear-mold impressions, and they extend more deeply into the ear canal than most. As a result, the Sensaphonics earpieces achieve a firm yet very comfortable fit and create a more perfect seal in the ear, so that they do a downright amazing job of blocking out noise.
Second, soft-gel silicone also does a very good job of damping unwanted vibration and thus helps block mechanically induced noise. For example, noises that—in other earphones—might be transmitted up through the signal cables and into the earpieces tend to be minimized in the Sensaphonics ‘phones.
Third, there are a number of collateral benefits to having what audiophiles might call a reduced “noise floor.” By helping to push noise levels to extremely low levels, the Sensaphonics earpieces give you an opportunity to really hear clearly what the 2MAX’s two balanced armature-type drive units are doing. Finally, one further upshot of having quiet backgrounds is that listeners instinctively tend to use lower volume levels, and they can do so without any sense of quashing dynamics or of “missing out” on part of the music. Although the rated sensitivity of the 2MAX is not as high as that of some competing in-ear monitors, the ultra-quiet backgrounds they provide make them seem much more sensitive than their specifications would suggest.
If you ever have a chance to buy and try a set of Sensaphonics ‘phones you may find, as I have, that they come as a revelation. While it takes a bit of work to get the soft-gel earpieces properly inserted/fitted, the sense of quiet they bring reminds me somewhat of what it is like to visit an anechoic chamber (i.e., an ultra-quiet room found in some acoustics labs). You might never realize just how much noise you put up with on a daily basis until the Sensaphonics monitors come along and make most of that noise go away.
Finally, let me reiterate one key point I mentioned above. Though the 2MAX is neither the most expensive nor—on paper—the most elaborate of Sensaphonic’s various custom-fit in-ear monitors, it is—along with its sister model the 2X-S—the firm’s most neutrally voiced and most accurately balanced model. (Other more complicated and costly models in the lineup are geared primarily for use as stage monitors worn by performing musicians.). Happily, this is one instance where you have an opportunity to spend less but to get more—assuming your primary intent is to listen to recorded music.
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you would like what is without a doubt one of the quietest headphones on the planet (regardless of type). As is the case with great loudspeakers whose sonic excellence derives in part from superior enclosures, the Sensaphonics 2MAX in-ear monitor offers superior earpieces that block out more noise than most competing monitors can, in turn letting you hear more musical details and nuances for a breathtakingly intimate and focused listening experience. As you might expect, the 2MAX can be used successfully in noisy environments where other monitors would be far less enjoyable (because they would allow too much background noise to seep through).
Look further if: you require absolutely dead-neutral tonal balance. The 2MAX does show very slightly elevated response both in the mid-bass and upper-midrange/lower-treble regions, adding a subtle touch of dramatic emphasis that complements most types of music. But frankly, the 2MAX sounds so much clearer, more focused, and—here’s that word again—intimate than competing monitors that you might willingly overlook its minor deviations from strict tonal neutrality.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
* Tonal Balance: 9
* Clarity: 9.5
* Dynamics: 10
* Comfort/Fit: 10 (But note: the insertion process for the Sensaphonics soft-gel silicone earpieces is somewhat more complicated and finicky than for equivalent acrylic earpieces; there is definitely a “learning curve” to master.).
* Sensitivity: 9 (But note: because the 2MAX provides backgrounds that are on the order of -10dB quieter than most, the monitors seems more sensitive than their printed specifications might lead you to expect).
* Value: 9.5
• Custom-fit, soft-gel silicone earpieces provide superb noise isolation (up to -37 dB), which makes the 2MAX the quietest headphone Playback has ever tested—regardless of type. Note that the 2MAX provides backgrounds said to be as much as -10dB quieter that those afforded by competing monitors, which is—trust us on this one—a very significant difference.
• High-quality, field replaceable signal cable is fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack and offered in either 52-inch, or optional 60-inch lengths.
• Passive two-way crossover.
• Uses two high-quality miniature balanced-armature type drivers.
• Comes packed in a clear hard shell Pelican road case that is custom labeled with the owner’s name. The case interior provides well-padded chambers both for the monitors and for accessories.
• Accessories include a cleaning tool (for removing ear wax from the monitor’s bore tubes), a 1/8-inch – 1/4-inch adapter, a shirt clip (mounted on the signal cable), and a fabric carrying pouch
Much like the JH Audio JH16 Pro in-ear monitors review in Playback 35, the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors offer a quite substantial jump upward in performance relative to even the finest universal-fit in-ear monitors we have tested thus far.
First, there is the matter of noise isolation, where the 2MAX is quite simply the best performing headphone (of any type) that we’ve yet tested. Let me give you two analogies to help explain what wearing the 2MAX monitors is really like. First, to picture how dramatic the effects of the 2MAX earpieces really are, imagine you are visiting a recreational swimming pool where there is lots of outdoor activity and background noise, and that you have suddenly thrust your head beneath the surface of the water. Immediately, a huge portion of the background noise is blocked out, and what residual noise does remain becomes far less penetrating and distracting. Second, let me observe again that putting on the 2MAX monitors is a bit like paying a visit to an anechoic chamber in an acoustics lab. Background noises, which are much more present with us than we typically realize (even in seemingly “quiet” rooms), suddenly vanish so that we’re left only with very low-levels of residual noise. When the music comes on through the 2MAX, it appears against a deep, dark, comfortably silent background so that its intricacies and contours stand out in crisp, sharp relief. More than most in-ear headphones, the 2MAX’s help you grasp the fact that reduced noise and increased sonic resolution and detail are in reality two sides of the same coin; in truth, the two qualities travel together.
The voicing of the 2MAX, as mentioned in our introduction above, involves two subtle regions of emphasis, one in the mid-bass and the other in the upper-midrange/lower treble region. The operative word here is “subtle,” meaning that these characteristics tend not to registers as “colorations” at all, but rather serve to add a gentle touch of dramatic impact complementary to most genres of music. Note, too, that if you do listen in very noisy environments (for instance, within the interior of small regional commuter jets and the like), the 2MAX’s judicious bit of response curve shaping tends to help the music carry through despite whatever residual noise may penetrate the Sensaphonics earpieces (good though soft-gel is at blocking out noise, some does manage to push through).
One important point I should mention is that, even though the 2MAX does provide a touch of upper-midrange/lower-treble boost, it emphatically does not sound edgy or overly bright. In fact, the 2MAX’s extreme highs are very smooth and, if anything, very slightly rolled-off. In practice, this leads to a best-of-two worlds scenario, where the 2MAX sounds lively, engaging and richly detailed, yet is never plagued with the somewhat brittle, glassy, edginess that occasionally afflicts other “highly detailed” headphones.
If I had to give you just two words to help summarize the overall sound of the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors, the two I would choose are “intimacy” and “focus.” When you switch back and forth between the 2MAX and competing in-ear headphones, you may be struck—as I often was—by a sense that the 2MAX draws you into closer contact with the music, giving you an up-close-and-personal view of individual instrumental and vocal lines as they unfold.
I’ve spoken about the 2MAX’s compelling characteristics of sonic intimacy and focus, and to hear those qualities in action, try listening to the brief track “Prelude” from Kate Bush’s Aerial [Sony]. The track opens with a wash of nature sounds—birds chirping in trees in the distance, but focus on one group of birds (or what initially seems like a group of birds) chirping rhythmically and at a slightly lower pitch from close at hand. A child’s voice begins to narrate, addressing her Mummy and Daddy and saying, “…the day was full of birds … it sounds like they’re saying a word…” And as this happens, the sound of the nearby birds morphs—very subtly and almost subliminally at first—so that embedded within the chirping sounds we slowly begin to recognize an almost human voice, chanting repeatedly, “Don’t go home, Suzie. Don’t go home, Suzie.”
Through some headphones this effect is so subtle that it more or less gets lost or swallowed up by background noise; we can’t really be sure whether we’ve actually heard a voice or simply imagined one. But not so with the 2MAX in play; it makes the gradual unfolding of the voice plain as day, so that we become aware of it (and are certain of its presence) right from the outset, and can hear how the voice gradually becomes clearer, more explicit, and in a sense more insistent as the chant continues. Over time, the 2MAX’s sheer clarity and explicitness becomes addictive, so that one nearly experiences withdrawal symptoms when reverting back to using less revealing earphones.
But good though the 2MAX can be with small, delicate, evanescent details, it can also carry itself with purposeful and charismatic touches of punch and swagger when the need arises. To hear what I mean, try the track “Joanni,” also from Kate Bush’s Aerial. Of this album critic John Diliberto has written “…many of the songs attain more epic proportions, like the dynamic ‘Joanni,’ a hymn to Joan of Arc.” Initially, the song is propelled forward by a dark, deep, syncopated percussion pattern (featuring conventional drums and congas) with strings carrying the melody and Bush’s almost ethereal voice soaring high overhead. But within a few bars Bush introduces a powerful, loping, deep-plunging bass line while dialing the intensity of the percussion pattern way up, at which point the song’s energy level blasts right through the roof. What caught my ear was the way the 2MAX’s simultaneously caught the taut skin-sounds of the drums, the sweetness of the opening wash of strings, and the delicacy and penetrating clarity of Bush’s voice—all at the same time. But when the loping bass line arrived and the percussion section became more vigorous and insistent, the 2MAX’s really came into their own, taking the musical bit in their teeth and running with it. The sheer depth and potency of the bass and the more muscular “pop” of the drums were very impressive, yet they in no way disrupted or overran the purity and clarity of Bush’s vocals.
Given some of the 2MAX’s tonal variations, as described above, it would probably be fair to say the Sensaphonics monitors very subtly enhanced the perceived power of the low-frequency instruments, while the 2MAX’s gentle dab of upper-midrange/lower-treble emphasis no doubt helped Bush’s vocals to stay front and center in the mix. But my point is the 2MAX’s characteristics work, not just on this track but on many others, to help convey the sense of energy, life and drama that are so much a part of music listening
To show you how the 2MAX compares to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors, I’ve chosen to compare its performance with that of two leading competitors: the JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149) and the Westone ES-5 ($950).
Sensaphonics 2MAX vs. JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149)
• The 2MAX costs roughly $300 less than the JH16 Pro.
• The 2MAX is a comparatively simple two-way, 2-driver design, whereas the JH16 Pro is a three-way, 8-driver design.
• As mentioned above, the 2MAX offers subtle touches of tonal emphasis both in the mid-bass and in the upper midrange/lower treble region, offering a judicious touch of dramatic emphasis that some listeners might prefer. By comparison, the voicing of the JH16 Pro is somewhat more evenly and neutrally balanced than that of the 2MAX. Neutrality is one of the JH16 Pro’s greatest strengths.
• Resolution levels between the two monitors are comparable, though in an absolute sense I would give the nod to the JH16 Pro’s. Note, however, that the 2MAX’s exceptional noise isolation enables them to provide appealing qualities of sonic intimacy and focus.
• One of the biggest differentiators between the 2MAX and the JH16 Pro involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. Sensaphonics uses soft-gel silicone earpieces while JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces, and the difference in feel and overall functionality is significant.
• The 2MAX’s soft-gel silicone earpieces take a bit more effort to fit correctly than the JH16 Pro’s acrylic earpieces do (in part because the 2MAX earpieces fit quite deeply within the ear canal). To achieve an optimal fit, you must first rotate the 2MAX earpieces into approximately the correct position, and then press—gently but quite firmly—over the ear canal area to get the earpieces to seal correctly. The resulting fit can seem disconcertingly tight at first, but the end result is very comfortable, while the level of noise isolation achieved by the 2MAX’s is spectacularly good—better than that achieved by any other headphone (regardless of type) that Playback has tested thus far.
• By comparison, the JH Audio earpieces lend themselves to a simple, straightforward insertion process where you gently rotate the JH16 Pro earpieces until they seem almost to “snap” into position, achieving a very good seal and a comfortable fit in the process. While the JH16 Pro can and does handily outperform any universal-fit in-ear headphone in terms of noise isolation, the 2MAX gives even quieter backgrounds.
2MAX vs. Westone ES-5 ($950)
• The 2MAX costs $100 less than the Westone ES-5.
• The 2MAX is a two-way, 2-driver design, where the ES-5 is a three-way, 5-driver design.
• At first glance, the voicing of the 2MAX and of the ES-5 seems pretty similar, but if you listen carefully certain key differences do appear. First, the ES-5 exhibits somewhat less mid-bass boost than the 2MAX, but perhaps stronger mid-to-low bass. Second, the ES-5 has less of an upper-midrange/lower-treble rise than the 2MAX, instead offering and even subtler region of broad midrange emphasis that tends to make certain midrange instruments, vocalists, and transients sound just a hair more prominent in the mix. Finally, the ES-5’s offer upper treble that is noticeably clearer and more extended than that of the 2MAX’s do, though at the expense of an occasionally “spitty” sound on certain hard-edged upper midrange transient sounds. On the whole, I think many listeners might find the 2MAX the warmer, more dramatic, and more engaging monitor, while the ES-5 is the more accurate monitor and one that offers a certain pristine purity and clarity—especially at higher frequencies.
• Resolution levels between the 2MAX’s and ES-5’s are comparable, though I would very narrowly give the edge to the ES-5. But again, note that the 2MAX’s ultra-quiet backgrounds give the Sensaphonics’ monitors qualities of intimacy and focus that are tough to beat.
• One of the biggest differentiators between the 2MAX and the ES-5 involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. The 2MAX features Sensaphonics’ signature soft-gel silicone earpieces, while the Westone earpieces use a combination of solid acrylic material coupled with a separate, thermally sensitive, “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. As the Westone earpieces come up to temperature, then, their tips become semi-flexible and thus conform to the shape of the ear canal to achieve a better seal.
• The ES-5 earpieces in a sense “split the difference” between the Sensaphonics and JH Audio earpiece designs. On the one hand, the Westones have the easy-to-insert, “snap-into-position” qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces, while also offering some (though not all) of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ soft-gel silicone earpieces provide.
The Sensaphonics 2MAX in-ear monitor offers the best noise isolation and therefore the quietest backgrounds of any headphone Playback has tested thus far. Quieter backgrounds, in turn, translate into more detailed and nuanced sound, helping to give the 2MAX a signature sound that is intimate and beautifully focused. Though the 2MAX does offer a bit of mid-bass and upper-midrange/lower-treble emphasis these deviations from strict textbook neutrality are relatively minor. Overall, the 2MAX offers listeners a clear, smooth sound that is intensely engaging and that does a great job of conveying the energy, life, and drama of live music.
SPECS & PRICING
Sensaphonics 2MAX custom-fit in-ear monitor
Type: Two-way, 2-driver (balanced armature), custom-fit in-ear monitors
Accessories: Clear hard shell Pelican road case custom labeled with the owner’s name (case provides a fully-padded interior), fabric carrying pouch, shirt clip, cleaning tool, and 1/8-inch –1/4-inch adapter.
Frequency response: 20Hz – 16kHz
Weight: 1 ounce
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL @ 0.1 Volt
Impedance: 23 ohms, minimum
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor.
SENSAPHONICS HEARING CONSERVATION, INC.
(877) 848-1714 (toll-free)