Rapid Reaction: InEar SD2 (+More?)

InEar Kommunikationstechnik is a German hearing aid and preservation company; its stage monitoring arm is headed by one Marco Raemisch. They’ve been in the custom IEM game for a while, but recently released two universal models under the StageDiver line. I got to hear the dual-driver version, the StageDiver 2. There is a triple driver StageDiver 3 as well; both are two-way crossover designs that output to a single exit bore.

While I only got a quick listen to these earphones, I like them. No, they’re not perfectly neutral or anything like that, but they’re quite pleasant to listen to, given the right tips.

The InEar StageDiver series (Photo from: inear.de)
The InEar StageDiver series (Photo from: inear.de)

Aesthetics & Build Quality

Clad in all-black acrylic, the StageDiver series is a bit plain-looking. The FitEar TO GO! series of universal IEMs takes on a similar look, but those earphones tend to refract a little bit of purple/blue when exposed to light, giving a bit more flavor to the stark black; the StageDiver is clad in a flat black with little luster to speak of. L/R markings are denoted only by the red/blue color of the plastic shroud covering the mesh filters inside the exit stem.

Despite the plainness, however, the SD2 is decently made. There are no apparent bubbles, and the only area where a cosmetic imperfection can be considered is the area immediately adjacent to the exit of the exit stem. There, the smooth acrylic devolves into a region of jagged, irregular, filled-in acrylic that hasn’t been polished like the rest of the body has.

My guess is that InEar Monitoring makes the shells without the stem first, and then insert the exit stem afterward by filling the surround with acrylic. In that sense, the StageDiver series’ build quality doesn’t quite match that of the FitEar TO GO! series.

The very thin exit stem also makes the earphones somewhat susceptible to damage. Any careless user that happens to drop the StageDiver at an angle, is rough with pulling them out of the ears, or accidentally applies too much torsional force replacing an ear tip can very possibly crack the surrounding acrylic, or worse, bend or break the exit stem.

However, the design makes it fundamentally easy to repair the StageDivers should a crack ever develop. I don’t know what the stem is made of, but it does seem to be at least well-reinforced, ballistic-level plastic that probably has a lot of acrylic solidifying it below the surface.

EDIT (2013/11/09): Marco Raemisch has informed us that the StageDiver series consists of two parts only, the shell portion and the faceplate, both of which are manufactured via a 3D prototyping machine.
The InEar StageDiver series (Photo from: thomann.de)

Comfort & Isolation (with an idea for the future!)

First off, though, the fit is quite comfortable. InEar claimed to have obtained this shape by considering over 500 different ear impressions, but I had expressed my doubts. What was the demographic makeup (sex, age, ethnicity, etc.) and statistical spread of these ears? How did they account for outliers in the data offered? Even so, I imagined that the data they were using was skewed toward people living within the EU, and may not necessarily be representative of all people around the world.

From the product description on the InEar Monitoring website:

The base for the housing was developed by overlapping over 500 different scans from ear impressions. Several prototypes were manufactured in-house and tested on customers to find the perfect fit so the monitor will not move. At the end of the development cycle InEar had created an almost perfect to the anatomy of the ear universal monitor.

I can’t argue with the results, however. Even with my relatively small ears (my canals are of an average diameter, but the bends are somewhat steeply tilted and my conchae are fairly shallow), the comfort is quite good, and with the right tips, the isolation is amongst the best of the universalized custom in-ear designs that I’ve come across, whether it’s the FitEar TO GO! series, the Tralucent 1Plus2 (reviewed here), or most of the custom in-ear demos that I’ve tried.

The thinly-tapered intertragal notch region of the SD2 is of particular usefulness, accommodating many different ear shapes. It looks like the ear shape averaging helped, allowing InEar to find a “least common denominator” amongst the variegated anatomical range of different subjects’ ears. The only place that the StageDiver didn’t really fit me like a glove was the “helix lock” right between the triangular fossa and cymba concha.

Perhaps there’s already a project in place (most likely), but I would encourage the hearing industry, whether you’re a Phonak or Starkey, to collaborate on efforts to catalogue the range of human ear anatomy, all the way from the pinna to the second bend. Digitized ear impressions can further be tagged with metadata for age, sex, ethnicity, BMI (height, weight), developmental issues, etc. allowing for specific shell shapes that fit best with any sub-segment of the population.

Eventually, with 3D stereolithographic printing coming into its heyday, universal shells can be custom-printed for your general ear shape, whether you’re Yao Ming or Barack Obama — just input your vital statistics when ordering a pair of earphones, and you can obtain a shell that almost certainly fits you to 95-97% accurately (just a rough ballpark guess, not scientifically accurate) — no ear impressions needed.

Of course, for a fully-custom fit, ear impressions will still be the most accurate, but with so many people happy with “universalized” custom IEMs, my money’s on this kind of service becoming a runaway success. InEar Monitoring already has the right idea, but perhaps it’ll take a larger company with big-time resources *cough* Ultimate Ears *cough* to take this kind of service to the next level.

The InEar StageDiver series (Photo from: thomann.de)

Sound

I’ll admit, I only managed to listen to the SD2 for about 10 minutes, but I did like what I heard.

The sound is neutral with a smooth, downward sloping tilt with respect to frequency — the lower bass is boosted to a fair degree (with most emphasis in the sub-bass region), with a little bit of warmth in the midrange, and a smooth and lightly relaxed treble. Overall, the sound signature of the SD2 is quite pleasant, not really lacking in any one area.

Despite being relaxed, the treble never seemed too recessed (and definitely never too present), though I can’t quite comment on absolute extension (my guess is that it starts to cliff-dive around 15 kHz like most BA-based IEMs). The midrange was just forward enough as well, and the bass had the rare quality of not intruding in acoustic and vocal tracks (because of the lack of a mid-bass hump) while remaining thumpy and spacious for hip-hop tracks.

I did detect some bass distortion issues, but most balanced armature drivers introduce quite a bit of bass distortion (especially odd-order harmonic distortion) anyway, so I’m not too bothered.

One definite item to remark is the SD2’s selectivity for tips. The initial tips that I used (generic 4mm opening silicone tips that come with $5 drugstore-selection earbuds) muffled the sound substantially, giving the midrange and treble a rather significant warm overcast. With the switch to a wider-mouthed tip (approximately 5-5.5 mm) and a harder silicone core section (but with softer flanges), the sound cleared up substantially to a point where I was not disappointed with the sound. I was not able to test many tips, but I would encourage anyone with a StageDiver IEM to experiment widely with tips to obtain the best possible fit and sound.

Deeper fit is a must as well; these earphones are intended to be worn like custom IEMs — just like a glove to a hand — so fit these earphones as deeply as you can, given the form factor.

Concluding Remarks

At €350 (approximately $490 USD), the SD2 certainly isn’t cheap for a dual-driver universal fit monitor, but I would still definitely recommend people give it a try if people are looking for a mostly neutral-to-relaxed monitor that still has a nice bit of sub-bass presence.

However, I left my audition feeling most encouraged about the idea and potential of the StageDiver series — if an earphone company can manage to digitize and catalogue tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions) of ear impressions, they can endeavor to create earphones that fit extremely closely to full-on custom in-ear monitors without the need for a trip to the audiologist!

For more information on the InEar StageDiver series, visit:
http://www.inear-monitoring.eu/en/produkte/inear-universelles-monitoring/monitoring-stagediver.htm

The InEar StageDiver series (Photo from: thomann.de)

Mr. T is an in-ear fanatic by day, and writes SOAP notes by night.
He pities the fool who actually has the patience to read through his stuff.
(Full Author Bio)

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