I wrote my first review ever for the EarSonics Velvet. Fueled by enthusiasm, and undeterred by the lack of any knowledge or background whatsoever in analytical listening, I reported my experience with the Velvet.
I waited patiently for any comments or likes. Then I waited some more. It was only much later I realized that simply saying ‘everything is awesome!’ and ‘the Velvet is very energetic!!’ wasn’t as helpful a description of its signature and capabilities as I had envisioned.
Even though I couldn’t describe its characteristics in proper terminology at the time, I was right about one thing: the Velvet’s essence lies in its dynamic presentation; a quality connected to its signature, but also transcending a frequency graph.
The Velvet was derived from the EM32; up until the recently launched S-EM9 EarSonics’ flagship iem, and still the flagship of their custom monitors targeted at musicians. When asked, Frank Lopez – EarSonics’ CEO and lead designer – confirmed that the EM32 was intentionally designed to sound dynamic across all frequencies, with only a slight U-shape based on the extra sub-bass response and treble extension.
I’ve been a fan of the EarSonics house sound ever since the Velvet. It shares a great deal of DNA with the EM32: 3 BA drivers and a passive 3-way crossover system. I still have the enthusiasm of my first review, but I feel I’m getting another shot at the phrasing this time.
For the EM32 and Velvet have a somewhat similar U-shaped signature, but in the end, they’re more different than I expected – not in the last part due to the fact that the EM32 was designed for musicians and the Velvet for a larger audiophile audience. The EM32 has a more neutral tuning, but also a more ‘raw’ sense of power. The Velvet, on the other hand, is a bit smoother, and more forgiving for bad recordings.
Opening the FedEx package was an instant reminder that the EM32 is designed for musicians. I was expecting the classic matte black box that I’d grown accustomed to after receiving the Velvet, S-EM6, and S-EM9, so the small plastic box shaped like a briefcase was a bit of a surprise. But this is a case that’s designed to carry with you on tour. It’s lined with soft protective foam and consists of 3 separate areas for the monitor, cable, and cleaning tool. The case is built from hard black plastic and comes with your name engraved on the top. Besides the standard cleaning tool, there are no surprises.
Build & Design
The EM32 is a 3 BA driver with a 3-way passive crossover. The bass and mids are produced by two bigger drivers, with a small treble driver adjacent to the other two. The canal is fit with two sound bores; from the looks, I’m guessing the bass and mid drivers together in one and the treble in the second.
EarSonics has its roots in supplying monitors for musicians, and their custom monitors are still targeted first and foremost at them.
This is visible in the design options; while there are 18 different color options for the faceplate, there aren’t any fancier wood, carbon, or pearl options like we’ve seen become more popular for personal customization. While this is a growing trend in the audiophile market, this is less the case for musicians that view their monitor primarily as a tool.
Fit & Isolation
While the EM32 ‘only’ has 3 drivers, it’s still a full-sized custom due to the size of the drivers and crossover. The monitor protrudes the inner ear, but not yet the outer ear. I’d say it has a medium size for a custom, slightly bigger than what I was expecting for the 3 drivers but not large overall.
The EM32’s nozzle goes quite deep, a tad deeper than my other customs and gives a very snug fit, and one of the tighter fits of my customs without being uncomfortable. The sound isolation is very good – probably the best I have.
Sometimes when I need to focus at work I’ll keep them in my ear without music playing, especially when one of my colleagues goes on a typing frenzy, or they start to get chatty (I share a space with 4 female colleagues) – it’s incredible how much of the sound gets blocked out.
In all their wisdom, EarSonics saw it fit to make the left canal longer than the right, a few mm at least (think about 3 or 4). So I felt the difference in insertion depth at first, but it doesn’t affect the sound and after a while, I got used to it.
All of EarSonics iems come with the same generic 3-wire cable in either gray or black (in this case gray), with transparent memory wire. The EM32 first came with a standard 2-pin connection, but EarSonics recently switched to mmcx for the EM32 and later S-EM9.
In terms of ergonomics, the cable is pretty good, being lightweight and relatively tangle-free, but I personally much prefer an aftermarket cable for the Velvet or EM32. The monitors seem to open up a bit more with a quality cable, as if the sound is just a bit restricted at first.
The treble energy improves, as well as the mid-bass control, lifting a bit of the proverbial veil off the midrange. The cleaner atmosphere benefits its general instrument definition and separation.
The EM32 has a slight U-shaped signature: enhanced bass, a neutral midrange, while the treble is quite forward and exciting. A very dynamic presentation, that is best appreciated with energetic and upbeat tracks; rock with exciting guitars, EDM or hip-hop tracks.
The same is true for EarSonics’ recent offerings, the Velvet, and S-EM9, but the EM32 has a bit more raw power and hard-hitting bass – it hasn’t been smoothed over to make it more forgiving and easier to listen to.
The EM32 has a wide soundstage, with the instrument placement being slightly further back on the stage. It’s a classic wide soundstage, being noticeably wider than both deep and tall, that feels quite spacious and airy due to a clean mid-bass presentation and U-shaped signature.
Its signature allows for plenty of room on the stage, and the instrument separation is good and doesn’t tend to congest. Its layering is relatively good, but there isn’t a great deal of depth to do it in. But due to the above-average width, the overall space feels large.
The sub-bass slams with a more than satisfying bass – this verges into basshead territory. It hits both hard and deep with good bottom end extension.
It has a relatively higher sub-bass to mid-bass ratio; this isn’t a bloated type of bass, but the hard-hitting kind that’s slightly reminiscent of other powerhouses like the W500 AHmorph and Rhapsodio RDB MK4, although it doesn’t quite have the natural decay of those dynamic drivers.
It does have a relatively quick attack, typical to that of a BA driver. Partially due to the quick decay, bass resolution can be considered average for its price range, but not overly detailed compared to flagship customs. Its tone is very close to neutral, only slightly warm. I personally prefer my bass with an extra scoop and find the EM32’s very satisfying.
The midrange has a relatively linear tuning. Due to the neutral tone of the mid-bass, the midrange has a clean background and airy stage, but it isn’t inherently very warm. The lower midrange is slightly less prominent in comparison with the center and upper midrange, but isn’t recessed – male vocals and electric guitars have good size, and overall the EM32 doesn’t sound lean.
It sounds fuller compared to its younger brother, the Velvet, while again not as full or warm as a truly mid centric iem as the S-EM6. The upper midrange is tuned a bit brighter which brings out good vocal articulation and detail but sacrifices a bit of smoothness. As a consequence trumpets can sound a bit harsh, but guitars and string instruments have a good tonality.
Overall the midrange is clear and detailed with good presence and overall size, though not overly warm or lush, taking a slight step back compared to the sub-bass and treble.
The EM32’s lower treble is slightly less prominent than the Velvet, there’s more of a mid-treble peak to boost clarity and soundstage, while the EM32 also has a slightly more prominent upper treble. This gives the EM32 a very wide soundstage and fine detail retrieval but also results in a slightly less smooth and forgiving nature.
The EM32’s treble has a dynamic nature, a certain energy that makes it very inviting for uptempo music in the true line of the EarSonics current house sound. Electric guitars have a sharp attack with good bite, and EDM tones sound engaging.
Overall the EM32’s treble is less prominent than the Velvet’s and more neutrally balanced with the midrange, but with certain tracks, the U-shape can skew the tonality a bit more towards the upper frequency.
While the Velvet and EM32 share a great deal of DNA, it wouldn’t suffice to say the EM32 is just a custom Velvet – they’re tuned differently, with different audiences in mind.
The EM32 isn’t designed to be forgiving of bad recordings like the Velvet. While they share general similarities such as the soundstage and dynamics, they also differ noticeably in several areas. Starting at the bass – the EM32 has more emphasis on the sub-bass slam, with the Velvet having more mid-bass impact.
Both have a relatively clean and neutral lower midrange, but the Velvet also has less prominent center mids compared to the EM32. This gives the EM32 a fuller sound and makes it more all-round for different genres relying on the midrange – the Velvet has a more pronounced U-shape.
But on the other hand, while the Velvet’s midrange is leaner, it’s also smoother. In addition, it has more of a lower treble lift, compared to the EM32’s more prominent upper treble. Both have a wide soundstage with good imaging, but the Velvet has a more distant placement of instruments on the stage.
Both the Solar and EM32 have a bass that strikes with the wrath of the righteous: hard-hitting and authoritative. But the EM32 has more of an extended sub-bass slam, while the Solar’s power relies on the mid-bass.
The Solar’s enhanced mid-bass gives warmth and size to the midrange, making the Solar a more fuller sounding unit overall. The EM32 however has a cleaner stage. The EM32’s stage is located slightly more distant, making instruments smaller in size.
The Solar’s midrange is more upfront, and notes are overall thicker and fuller due to the more prominent lower midrange in accordance with the mid-bass. The EM32’s treble is more prominent and has a colder tone (the tone of the Solar’s treble is warmer due to the mid-bass air); but it also has a more energetic sound.
While the Solar’s treble is slightly faster, I still prefer the EM32’s dynamic sound for rock with prominent electric guitars or EDM, but I’d choose the Solar for especially male vocals and classic rock.
Due to its relatively low impedance and sensitivity, the EM32 is easily driven from most sources including a smartphone or iPod. It can reach a satisfying volume, and the sound doesn’t come across as inadequate from an average source.
I’ll have to turn the volume up a few more notches compared to my more sensitive iems though. However, its sound does benefit from a quality dap.
The 901S’ two ES9018 dac chips still set a high standard when it comes to speed and precision; it’s a very dynamic sounding unit that gets its musicality from its pace, as well as crystal clear background and overall very balanced signature. If you’d think the dynamic sounding 901S would mean it’s a good match for the equally dynamic EM32, you’d be right.
Paired to the 901S, the EM32 has a clear background with a controlled bass response; it hits hard, without muddying the background. The midrange sounds clear with good separation, but a bit dry as it doesn’t have a great deal of inherent warmth. The treble has both sparkle as well as excellent extension, portraying a good sense of detail.
Cowon Plenue S
The Plenue S’ warmer atmosphere brings out a bit more emotion in the EM32’s midrange but softens the treble due to the darker tonality. The EM32 is a preferred matchup with the Plenue S for midrange oriented music like blues, rock and male vocals, but I’ll go with the crisper-sounding 901S for strings or female vocals.
The Plenue S’ user-friendly EQ and relatively linear tuning of the EM32 however do make for a very versatile combination, adapting easily to different genres.
With all the impressive multi BA iems designed with 10 drivers or more, you’d almost forget how far you can get with just 3. The EM32 is another example of the importance of tuning over specifications. With ‘only’ 1 driver each for the bass, mids, and treble, the EM32 can still hold its own against expensive TOTL’s due to its fun and dynamic signature.
At first, I was simply expecting a custom velvet, I’d already written half the review in my mind based on my long-time experience with one of my all-time favorites.
But despite sharing similar specifications, it wouldn’t do either justice to imply that’s the case. The Velvet is a tad smoother in the upper midrange, but also a great deal more U-shaped: the midrange is thinner and located more distant on the stage.
The focus is clearly on the bass and lower treble, which makes it so delicious for electronic music, pop, or hip hop. The EM32 has only a slight U-shape, mainly due to an upper treble lift that improves its resolution and soundstage. The linear midrange makes it sound more mature and increases its versatility and all-round applicability.
The pounding sub-bass is really something else and prevents things from getting too serious. What they share? A wide stage, excellent bass, and most importantly overall just a fun and dynamic signature.