Paradigm SHIFT • E3m In-Ear Headphones

by Richard Freed | April 10, 2012


Good things have been happening in the in-ear-headphone segment lately, particularly since more manufacturers of loudspeakers have entered this field with impressive, economical products. While essentially designed, as the literature at hand puts it, for "portable personal audio, PC and gaming," several are actually capable of grander service, in alternation with, or as replacements for, high-quality speakers.

The new Paradigm SHIFT E3m, the top of the Canadian company’s new line of three models (graduated in price according to bass response), is going to make a lot of people happy in this respect. Although the company advises that the E3m is "critically tuned to Paradigm’s ultimate high-end Reference Signature speakers," it is the least expensive in-ear monitor (IEM) in my experience that calls for consideration as part of a serious audio system. I can’t call it the "cheapest," because there is nothing "cheap" about it. However, at $129.99, it lists for $50 less than the splendid B&W C5 I reviewed last September, and $200 less than Etymotic Research’s longstanding IEM benchmark, the ER-4S. It has an agreeably musical character that will appeal to more than a few listeners besides those for whom cost is an issue.

The E3m's presentation is deceptively low-key and very down-to-earth, not in a fancy package but in a plain rack-display box, on which the product isn’t even called headphones, but is modestly designated "stereo earbuds." However, a gold sticker on the box proclaims, "INTENSE BASS," and that proved to be no idle boast, with frequency response stated from 8Hz to 19kHz. Impedance is 18 ohms and sensitivity is 105dB, making these IEMs especially easy to drive. Neither the single-sheet user’s manual nor the company’s website lists a distortion figure, but in use this did not seem to be an issue.

The E3m looks good. Its attractive design seems to be an indication of solidity and seriousness of purpose, and an encouragement of high expectations. There is nothing radical about it, but nothing really ordinary, either. It’s available in either black or white. The black option, which I received, contrasts with the sleek-looking machined aluminum used for the 'buds and the grip for the connecting pin to create a further impression of understated elegance.

The 'buds are modest in size. Their black plastic grips, bearing the company logo, are shaped to indicate their proper positioning, and the comfortable vinyl tips are color-coded, on the spot that goes deepest into the ear, to indicate right and left channels. The 8mm drive units (1mm smaller than the B&W C5’s, but larger than the norm) are recessed well inside the tips. The cable, only 1.2 meters long (same as the C5’s), is encased in a sturdy fabric that does not curl or crimp. An inconspicuous control unit/microphone, for use with telephones or music players, is placed along the line to the right ear. (The 1.5-meter cable on the Etymotic ER-4S is a little handier for desktop use, but of course an extension cable is required for using any of these IEMs with a big indoor audio system.)

While some headphones may be impressive right out of the box, it should be remembered that, like other components, headphones do require burning in to achieve their full performing capabilities, and IEMs also involve a consideration unique to their category: choosing the right ear-tips. The E3m comes with three pairs of tips -- small, medium and large -- with the mediums installed. Although most IEM user guides tell us to go for a tight seal to ensure a rich bass response, I was pleased to see that Paradigm cautions, "Tips should fit snugly but not tightly." Too tight a seal can pump up the bass in such a way that the defining high frequencies are swamped on the low end, robbed of their clarity and definition, and bass becomes an amorphous sonic ooze instead of being an element of the music. I found that the E3m’s small tips worked best for me, without sacrificing effective noise isolation.

The burn-in proceeded impressively. After about 25 hours’ use the E3m identified itself as something a good deal more than simply a good performer for the price; by 50 hours the reservation "for the price" more or less faded out of the picture; after 80 or 90 hours, it was simply a fine musical device that will appeal particularly to listeners who favor IEMs and are most comfortable with a rich, sumptuous low end, without sacrificing definition throughout the range.

In my altogether enjoyable listening sessions with the E3m was for the most part based on the same old standby recordings I used in acquainting myself with the B&W C5, leaning heavily on orchestral material, but including chamber music, piano, and choral material as well, in examples ranging from as far back as "demo-class" monophonic LPs of the 1950s to recent SACD releases.

For starters, I chose a recording which for me has been a good test for delivering high frequencies: Sir Thomas Beecham conducting his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor [EMI 5 66998 2]. This recording was not without flaws -- Beecham in fact withheld approval for its release during his lifetime -- but there are sections of it that are "demonstration class," and the third part of the sequence is one of them. Here the small cymbals were delicately vivid, and the triangle was not brought up to the edge of the stage but emerged from its cushion of orchestral texture with the slender, shimmering ping one hears from a good seat in a concert hall. The chorus too came through with fine naturalness.

The trombones in that same recording, as also in Ataúlfo Argenta’s of Moszkowski’s Spanish Dances in their orchestral settings [Decca 466 378-2], are notable for that quasi-flatulent edge that is so suitable to this sort of extroverted, celebratory material, and this was vividly delivered by the E3m. The trombones have somewhat less of an edge in the opening of the Ballet Music from Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool, in Sir Adrian Boult’s 1961 recording with the London Philharmonic [Decca 444 549-s], but it’s there to the degree it ought to be, and the E3m upheld the familiar image of burnished gold, while the upsurge of the orchestra’s entire low end at about two minutes into the piece was given exceptional presence and body.

Another striking British showpiece from the same conductor and orchestra, recorded still earlier, stands out among First Hand’s stunning restorations of Boult’s 1956 stereophonic recordings for Westminster [First Hand FHR06]: Elgar’s marvelous Cockaigne Overture, in what may be its finest recorded performance, and perhaps the best-sounding as well, even now. The exuberant passage a little before midpoint in this 14-minute piece glistens and rumbles with fanfares and insinuations from the various brasses, with a skirling piccolo, a spicy tambourine, cymbals and various sizes of drums, as well as full, rich strings: all these were clearly and cleanly defined, in their exultant brilliance, in their subtlety, in their warmth, in solo moments and in ensemble. The E3m handled the beefy good humor of this episode with its kaleidoscopic details just beautifully.

Fritz Reiner’s famous recording with the Chicago SO of the Polka and Fugue from Weinberger’s opera Schwanda the Bagpiper [RCA Victor 09026-62587-2], dating from a few months earlier than that Boult Cockaigne, is not quite a match for it sonically, but it is impressive enough in its own right, with sections employing a similar instrumentation (including an organ in the final pages), and in this case that sumptuous orchestral cushion effectively heads off any threat of harshness or glare, the E3m keeping the details intact.

In the variation movement of Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat for string trio, recorded by the Grumiaux Trio in 1967 [Philips 454-023-2], always a good test piece for this sort of thing, the instruments gain in warmth, seeming to be slightly enlarged, or fattened up. There was no want of clarity or definition in their placement, though. The violin and viola were their unmistakable selves, and the cello, while positioned a bit father back, was definitely in the picture, and in its mellowest persona.

On a CD from the French label Studio SM, in a series honoring the work of the famous recording producer/engineer André Charlin, there is an intriguing rarity recorded about 40 years ago: a "Russian Oratorio" by Haydn’s contemporary Giuseppe Sarti, performed by a Czech chorus and orchestra under Václav Smetácek [Studio SMD2456]. The concluding section, unlike anything we might expect from its period, is a rumbustious treatment of the joyous Psalm CL, with prominent trumpets, horns, small percussion and an organ as well as a sizable chorus. The reverberant acoustic of the old church in Perugia in which the recording was taped created quite a challenge for Charlin, who dealt with it more successfully than some playback systems can, and the E3m seemed to transform its occasional cloudiness into an agreeable sense of spaciousness.

In such pieces as the "Musique des automates," from Delibes’s Coppélia, the stunning scherzo of Granville Bantock’s Pagan Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, the various percussion instruments -- particularly the smaller, more subtle ones -- emerged with arguably more crystalline clarity through the B&W C5. The bottom line here, though, is that the E3m more or less defines its own terms rather than meeting its established competitors head-on. Its declared objective of rich bass was realized without neglecting the rest of the tonal spectrum, and the nature of one’s response to it is likely to be more in the nature of personal taste than an objective judgment of "right and wrong." In other words, beyond the E3m's native accuracy lies the realm of personal taste.

The makers of the other IEMs I continue to enjoy using -- B&W and Etymotic -- based their efforts on covering the entire audible range without particular emphasis on any part of it, B&W favoring a "scrubbed-clean" character in which vivid definition trumps a more generalized sumptuousness, particularly in the upper reaches but also in clarifying textures at the low end. Some listeners go for that "scrubbed-clean" effect; some go for maximal sumptuousness -- just as individual concertgoers may have differing preferences on where they like to be seated. Those who choose the E3m will be more in the latter group than the former, although I observed no lack of vividness with it.

Put another way, as the unforgettable political commentator Walter Lippmann (or maybe it was Aristophanes) once observed, "When all think alike, none thinks very much," and, while sensory response is not the same as thinking, the same general principle applies. The E3m is a genuinely musical device that does what it set out to do, and does it persuasively enough, I would think, to please almost anyone. It is comfortable for long stretches without physical or listening fatigue -- and if cost is a concern, it is clearly a standout at its modest price.

Price: $129.99.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario Canada L5T 2V1
(905) 564-1994

Associated Equipment

Analog: Denon DP-2000 turntable, Denon DA-401 tonearm, Denon DS-1 moving-coil cartridge.

Digital: Bryston BCD-1 CD player, NAD M5 CD/SACD player, Denon DCD-1650AR CD player, Adcom GDA-700 DAC.

Headphones: B&W C5, Sony MDR-7506, Ultrasone PRO-750, Etymotic Research ER-4S.

Headphone amp: PS Audio GCHA.

Headphone extension cable: Kimber Kable GQ-MINI-CU.

Interconnects: Kimber Kable KCAG and KCTG.

Speaker cables: Kimber Kable Bifocal XL.

Digital cable: Kimber Kable AGDL.

Power conditioner: PS Audio AV 5000.

Power cords: Kimber Kable PK-10.