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.