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.