FutureSonics EM3… No. Actually, a primer on in-ear headphones.

Future Sonics EM3

Actually, Music as a primary category for this post is erroneous… should’ve been “Audio” or something.

Anyways, I’ve gone ahead and done it again, ordered a “ridiculously expensive” audio product. Along the way, you’ll find out that it was actually cheap (hahaha like every other thing I buy – except for the powerbook) but right now, I don’t think I stand a chance of convincing anyone that dropping 100USD for headphones that look like this is actually a steal!

So why did I get them? Read on…


Earphones have always been considered as “patchwork” for speakers. Meaning even the best earphones cannot beat a decent audiophile setup. To an extent this is true. Because in the realm of subjectivity, physics, and physiology (yes you have to take all into consideration at the same time) – audio in any form is interpreted by a person’s eardrum uniquely to that person.

Why is this so? First let us talk about the ideal audio response from any given instrument. Correct: a flat one. What consitutes a flat tone? It could be how “colored” the final mix/master/whatever is as compared to the live sound. And ideal flat tone would be of course “transparent” (no coloration/distortion) or exactly as you would hear it when with the instrument players in the venue. This would’ve been true in the past (or even hold ground in some instances nowadays). Today of course, the whole recording industry is a different ballgame. Depending on the genre, certain “treatments” are preferred over the other. Extra thumping bass for dance, hip-hop, etc., wider dynamic range for classical, etc.

The sound engineers in turn have the option to boost or cut some frequencies for the desired audio experience to be… err… experienced. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong.

The purists may say this is a bastard thing to do as they are distorting the natural sound from how it it was heard live. That’s what people also said when the guitar “distortion” was introduced. Now Metal simply isn’t Metal without it – so I guess at this point it’s safe to say that the musical intention holds precedence over whatever else audio technicality there may be.

So given that, what is now the “flat” sound? As I said, before was the accurate recording of the original live sound, but now, it’s probably more accurate to say the reproduction of what the sound engineer was hearing from the booth on final mastering. This entails all post processing already. If you would listen to the finished CD, made in the studio that produced it, that right there is your “flat sound” for that particular recording.

Speaker Scenario: The natural way of listening

So many nuances eh? Very true. I haven’t even gotten to the headphones part yet.

We must also recognize that production in studios almost always use speakers. Because the “normal” listening experience, wether it be in a car, or a room, or even in an open field, requires audio being driven into the air, perhaps bouncing off some surface(s), canceling (or perhaps boosting) some frequencies in the process, then coming into you ear canal… resonating in your ear canal, losing/gaining dynamics from such resonance before finally being processed by your eardrum.

Those few final steps are key in the whole “subjectivity” issue, which is why there is an endless debate among Audiophiles with regards to “true sound.” We cannot assume that everyone has the same type of ear (physically that is). So whatever practical knowledge we have of audio would’ve been subjective to begin with – according to what we’ve been hearing all our lives since we were born.

But I digress, fact of the matter is that we can still try our best to be “true to the original sound.” That “average/natural listening scenario” is usually what sound engineers adjust their settings for. (There are a whole other bunch of factors of course, like the whole FM-friendly frequency issue, which I’ll not get into).

Suffice to say that normally (and professionally), despite the knowledge that “taste in sound” is mostly a subjective experience – sound engineers still try their best to get to the median. And this is why there are “standards” that can be implemented to ensure that on a similar listening environment, the output of a given system can give exactly what output the engineer intended. THX is one of them.

Originally used in theaters, the concept of THX wasn’t really to give booming lung-collapsing bass response (though it did want that too hehehe), but to ensure a standard that the audio quality that LucasFilms had created (at that time), would be faithfully reproduced in any theater that had a THX certified system.

This was possible because of the logic that if you take out the human aspect, you can still obviously measure the actual soundstage signature coming out from a particular system. In this case the speakers… then make sure that all speakers with THX certification can deliver the same frequency signature. That’s all there is to it. Of course there’s the whole venue issue, which is irrelevant in the sense that if you Put two different systems that are THX certified in the same “venue” – they should sound exactly alike. That is the point of having the standard in the first place.

Going back to earphones

So the same can be applied in earphones right? Yes and No.

Unlike in a speaker setup, to create a “standard” for headphones is extremely difficult because you have to try to isolate any subjective element and exclude it from the equation. So in the case of in-ear isolating headphones, You could probably convince all manufacturers to follow a certain sonic signature output. And make sure that when inserted in the ear, should have a certain distance from the eardrum… preferably very close to it (to exclude the ear canal from the equation). And we all know how impossible that would be. Unlike having someone simply position himself at a certain spot in a speaker setup – which is exactly how studio’s normally work.

So yes in the sense that you can try to ensure somehow that earphones (with the proper drivers and tuning) can deliver the frequency response needed.

No in the sense that even then, you’d be negating the whole first few steps in a “normal” listening environment, which is why earphones will sound totally different no matter how “faithful” they deliver the sound from the original.

Remember in the normal listening environment, you usually have two possible places of resonance (the venue, and your ear canal). Both of which can add or subtract frequencies from what the speakers delivered to begin with. By the time your eardrum has “processed” the sound, the environment has already “colored” the sound to begin with.

Putting headphones on automatically takes whatever “coloration” the venue introduced out of the equation – result: different sound in headphones. Take it a step further and use in-ear/isolating/ear-canal/whatever-you-want-to-call-it type headphones then you even take the resonance in your ear canal out of the equation. Is this a good thing? for absolute measurement, maybe, but for natural listening pleasure definitely not!

So the in-ear type headphone are in a way, one of the the “purest” ways to get sound into your eardrum objectively. But we all know that it is “unnatural” – as unnatural as pumping in air to your lungs by sticking a pipe into your chest (of course this is probably a horrible and downright wrong analogy, but you get what I mean).

For the record, the best type of headphones if you should use them, are those big-assed ones. Again there is a TON of nuances in those types of earphones too, so let’s not get into that. But just to get it out of the way, I’m agreeing that yes, I know those big-assed types can give the next best thing to speakers. I have a pair myself, but obviously, they aren’t portable – unless you don’t mind looking like princess-leah all the time.

But no matter what type of headphones, or how good they are. Nothing beats a good speaker setup. Period.

The in-ear earphones

Ok, now we’re finally at the heart of the matter. So I obviously had to choose in-ear types for portability. And given what I’ve just discussed, You obviously realize why I don’t think that choosing a pair of in-ear phones is a “trivial” affair. It’s downright brutal if you ask me, since it boils down to subjectivity. And the only way to actually find the best is to buy or find them all and listen to them at the same time and choose which one you want best. But that would be in an ideal world where I was a millionaire hahahaha.

So next best thing is to research. Reviews obviously help a lot because usually they are comparisons which give enough objective opinions that can make you arrive at a more informed decision.

The good thing about reviews in this level of technology – is that you know the audiophiles are writing it. And when you’re an audiophile, you can’t really say that this sucks and this rocks in black and white… you always find something in the other that’s lacking in the other. Reviews by audiophiles often take the middleground, while they make it clear that they choose one product over the other, they still acknowledge whatever strengths the other products have (or weaknesses their choices have)

So first was the Armature vs. Dynamic driver debacle. A quick summary would be that Armature drivers are pre-tuned drivers that try to be as “transparent” as possible. Mearning whatever frequency the source dishes out, it will reproduce. But given that this is an in-ear situation, you already know the implications of simply dishing out an “as-is” sonic signature. But most Armature-driven headphones (usually professional monitoring systems) recommend custom fit ear-molds, which require a visit to your audiologist and have an “ear-impression.” As I don’t have the money to try this yet. I’m guessing the reason it prefers to have an impression of your ear canal is so that the custom molds allow the resonance to be achieved.

If you notice the picture above, the foam-tips are the place that seal the canal (to achieve sound isolation which is useful for bass response, and in some cases can have a pseudo noise canceling effect), and the sound will essentially originate from there (without external interruption) it will probably resonate from that point on (if it would matter) and anything behind that wont. Custom fit molds however are considerably larger (like a hearing aid), I doubt they put in that extra volume for electronic components, or simply so your ear would hold them in place comfortably (but it may be part of it). As I said, I’ve never tried them, so I’m just guessing that they probably can serve as some sort of resonance chamber, or at least make sure that the audio can pass through the whole of your ear canal, giving that visceral experience that is present from having the audio resonate.

Dynamic drivers however, in a nuthsell, “color” the sound in a way that it tries to mimic what the audio would normally sound like by the time it enters whatever area the earphones are currently in as if listening from normal speakers.

Of course this would be unacceptable to the purists. But it does make sense assuming that the proper levels have been cut/boost at the right amounts… and we know how even that is soooo-subjective.

But it is true that there are frequencies that have been boost and cut/gained and lost, once the sound reaches your eardrum. Take a look at the picture below for the typical frequency response curves of headphones:

Frequency-response curve

Three characteristics:

  • Low frequencies being boosted This is how headphones should/try to compensate for the “visceral bass” that is lacking from the physical punch a loudspeaker produces. These bass frequencies, in a normal listening environment, you are “hearing” the bass through your body as well as your ears.
  • The roll off towards the highs As you can see that if you don’t mind the peaks/valleys, it generally is a downward slope below 0db. High frequencies are absorbed more in rooms than low frequencies, and the ear compensates because it knows how a room sounds. If there is a “flat” response, then the headphones will sound too bright.
  • The valleys and peaks at the high frequency this is normal and in part due to reflection cancellations in the folds and ridges in the outer part of the ear. (probably another reason why those uber-expensive in-ear headphones require ear-impressions)

Why did I have to mention this? Beause of the whole Armature vs. Dynamic drive issue. Again, it’s ultimately up to preference, whether you like to be a purist or not.

  • Armature’s are said to be “flat,” dynamics aren’t.
  • Solid state amplification by design should be flat… and tube-preamps by their physical characteristics aren’t.
  • CDs by design are digital representations of audio so obviously they are flat in the strictest sense, Vinyl on the other hand obviously isn’t.

All contrasting technologies are supported in one way or the other… even in the audophile community. So there isn’t really any clear-cut way to say which one is the best. Different strokes for different folks. There are pros and cons for all these schools of thought. So just pick your poison.

I get the picture! So why the EM3s?

Simple: great reviews, and the price. In the long run I don’t really care about armature or dynamic drivers, impedance, etc. etc. as long as the earphones can produce kick-ass and natural sounding audio, and were made by people who actually give a shit, I can go either way.

Lets face it, your ears are “trained” (or get used to) the products you have: So as long as you’re not using VERY crappy stuff, then you’ll learn to appreciate whatever you’ve got… until there is something else that can prove beyond a doubt that yours was inferior… and even that would still require your subjective opinion.

To be fair, I will mention the models that I’ve considered and will admit if one is better than the other. I’m not here to sourgrape or anything. I’ll state it as it is.

  • The best (for my use, that is) then I’d have to say WestOne’s UM-2 at 330USD. Used by professionals.
  • Next up would be Etymotic Research’s E4p series. Similarly priced and seems to be the most popular choice.
  • Third would be the Shure E5c and E4c series. Same deal, but all reviews put them at a close second to the E4p (because of the terrific bass response it has over the ER E4p) E5c is 500USD if I’m not mistaken, and the E4c is 300USD
  • There’s actually one from FutureSonics (the maker of what I’m getting) – Their top of the line, but it had no price, but was said to be insanely expensive. I’m guessing it could match (or even beat) the UM-2, but that doesn’t matter at this point.
  • There’s also Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro at 1000USD hahahaha, so no thank you. There’s the SuperFi series at 240USD which sounds promising, but again too expensive.

That’s it for that level of headphones (yes there are “levels”) Obviously too expensive for my tastes.

Next would be the pool where my EM3s fit in. And it’s competitors are [again] Shure’s E3c (200USD) and Etymotic Research’s 6i (150USD). WestOne is out of the picture since they don’t have anything lower I believe (but they have something even higher hehehehe). FutureSonics’ EM3 costs 100USD.

So aside from the price, even the reviews and comparisons of it with its competitors revealed that it was better in that market segment. Plus the fact that GP has one, and another person we know had an E3c and confirmed himself that the EM3s were better (then he went on to replace them with the E5c hehehehe)

So Simply put, among the choices, the only way to beat the EM3s audio quality is already to use headphones one level higher than where the EM3 is pegged at (the UM-2s, etc.)

3 drawbacks though:

  • Foam-based sleeves The others do have foam pads included. Apparently foam can be considered a good sealant for sound isolation. But of course they’re expensive to maintain, and they get dirty easily. Can you imagine if you get them wet… say listen to them after a bath and forget to dry your ears… EEEEEWWWWW.
  • Ugly looking They were designed for musicians, so they were built to be discrete. Flesh color to camouflage itself with the performers’ skin, small to be easily hidden in the ear, etc. Which could be a good thing in the Philippines, since no one would suspect you of having an iPod or any expensive audio device with you. But a joke GP and I would always say about it is: “asan yung high-tech dito?” while looking at these horrendously looking earplugs.
  • The roll off seems to be too much, I find them quite lacking in sibilance. But then I remembered that “higher freqs should be rolled off because the driver is close to the ear (or eardrum, depending on which type of headphone you use)” Perhaps that I simply didn’t put in the EM3s I tried on deep enough? I’ll know when I get my pair.

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