My life would be infinitely easier right now if I could sit you down in front of me and say, “Here, stick these new Paradigm Shift earbuds in your ears. Wait! Let me wipe off that earwax. Okay, now stick them in your ears!”
Because while most headphones lend themselves to the sort of superlative praise (“These earbuds positively sparkle in the high end!” or “These earbuds boast some truly whopping bass!”) or sensational condemnation (“These earbuds were made by Bose!”) that I tend to gravitate toward in my reviews, words like “balanced” and “neutral” and “unobtrusive” just aren’t the sort of exclamation-pointy language that’s fun to read.
My goodness, these things are fun to listen to, though.
Paradigm has taken an interesting approach with its top-of-the-line Shift-branded e3m earbud. The dirty little secret of the earbud industry is that all but a few of the most ridiculously extravagantly priced ‘buds are sourced from one of two overseas OEM manufacturers, and the e3m is no different in that regard. As I discovered in my recent trip to the Paradigm/Anthem factory in Mississauga, Ontario, a few months back, though, what makes Paradigm’s buds stand out (in addition to the exceptional build quality and a handful of other nice touches, which we’ll get to in a sec), is a refusal to merely select from a buffet of pre-determined EQ curves and slap the Paradigm name on the result. Instead, they played their own Signature series speakers and measured their response inside the ears of a manikin, and applied the resulting in-ear curve to the e3m. (The entry level e1 and mid-priced e2m are likewise voiced to replicate the sonic signatures of Paradigm’s Monitor and Studio speakers, respectively).
What this means is that when you stick the e3m in your ears, what you’re hearing is all Paradigm. What it also means is that, because most manufacturers tend to opt for a second helping of a bass-heavier curve when “designing” their earbuds – and because that bottom-heavy sound is what most people have come to associate with a good earbud — your initial reaction may well be, “where’s the bass?”
Cue up some Fatboy Slim or Roni Size. You’ll find it there. I promise. In abundance. But that’s the thing: if you’re conditioned to hearing Ingrid Michaelson thump when you’re wearing earbuds, you’re might need to give your brain a few days to shake off that Pavlovian expectation after picking up the e3m. It’s worth the effort, though, because much the same way the loudness wars have robbed music of much of its dynamic emotional impact, when everything booms, it sort of stops mattering much if anything does.
On the flipside of that coin, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Bowers & Wilkins’ C5 earbud recently, whose sweetened high end has the (admittedly rather enjoyable) effect of pulling the sound out of your head, making the music sound more spacious. What I didn’t realize until I grew more accustomed to the Paradigm Shift e3m and started really comparing the two is that everything ends up sounding more spacious on the C5. The e3m, by contrast, does a much better job of differentiating between drier, more immediate mixes, while not short-changing wetter, more spacious music in the slightest.
As I look through a few days’ worth of notes on the e3m, it strikes me that none of said notes are really about the e3m at all. They’re all about the music. Scrawled observations such as “Black Keys’ ‘Everlasting Light’ positively pounds!” and “Zappa’s ‘Yellow Snow’ sounds enormous” and “Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Not That Funny’ is all up in my grill” fill a couple of pages. Which is exactly how those tunes should sound. The thing that makes the e3m so hard to take notes on that is that it really doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to the music at all. Never, though, has “not much of anything” sounded so deliciously beautiful.
Speaking of deliciously beautiful, I really love the shell design of the e3m. It’s very sleek and simple, very unobtrusive in the ears yet incredibly easy to insert and remove, and feels pretty bulletproof. I also cannot stress how much I love the cables. While a little microphonic (something you won’t notice once the tunes start, but might be a minor issue if you use earbuds as earplugs even when the music isn’t flowing), these are amongst the least-tangly cables I’ve seen on an earbud yet. No matter how inelegantly I cram the e3m into its included zipper case (which also includes a little pocket for spare tips), they come out with nary a tangle or knot.
And speaking of the tips, my only real complaint about the e3m at all is that it only includes silicone tips. In a stroke of simple genius, they are color coded (oh em gee, why isn’t every company doing this?), so you’ll never have to guess which is left and which is right, but I really prefer memory foam ear inserts, and would love to see Paradigm offer them as an option on any future ‘buds in the line. That said, for silicone tips, these are incredibly comfortable — second only to Klipsch’s S4 in that department — and do a great job of blocking ambient noise without too much fuss in fitting. And they stay in my ears better than any other silicone tips in the history of ever.
It’s a weird compliment to say that a product is easy to ignore, but that’s the thing that keeps popping into my head when reflecting on the e3m. It’s such a beautifully balanced, wonderfully neutral earbud that you tend not to think about it much. If only it had some memory foam inserts, I would probably forget I was wearing the e3m at all. And that, ironically enough, makes it a truly unforgettable earbud.
Don’t let the low $129.99 price point fool you — the e3m positively (but politely) smokes earbuds costing multiples as much. No question about it: this is now my reference earbud in the sub-$300 category.