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ASI Audio by Sensaphonics 3DME Ambient IEM System

Craig Anderton • June 2020Road Tests • June 8, 2020

The 3DME system

The two scariest words for any musician? Hearing loss.

Before designer earplugs became commonplace, when I was touring and doing the six-nights-a-week-for-six-weeks thing, I stuck cotton in my ears. Since then, I’ve always prioritized protecting my ears, and I think that’s why I can still hear over 10 kHz at an age when many people can’t hear half that.

The benefits of IEMs are well known. Artists can hear sound accurately, listen to a perfect cue mix and adjust levels to their liking. Other plusses include a cleaner FOH mix from a wedge-free stage, reduced chance of feedback and a less cluttered stage. However, with in-ear monitoring, that same isolation protecting your ears also isolates you from other band members, the acoustics and the audience. With IEMs, players don’t know if the room has horrible slapback echo, whether the audience was applauding or flipping out, or if your bandmate said, “Take the solo, my keyboard’s having a problem.”

The “solution” for some musicians is taking out one of the earpieces — but that loses the hearing protection that IEMs afford. A solution from ASI Audio (based on Sensaphonics’ high-end 3D AARO IEM technology) is 3DMe, which places binaural mics in the earpieces, with outputs that feed a compact bodypack processor and settings controlled by an app (in addition to louder/softer switches to set the mic levels in your IEMs). Users dial in how much of the outside world they want to hear, and can process it — for example, adjusting EQ for additional low-end if you want more kick and bass.

The app’s mic level, EQ and limiter screens are easy to navigate

‡‡         The App

The app is only available for Android, although an iOS version is coming. I’m an iPhone user, yet there’s much to be said for dedicating an inexpensive Android device to 3DME, where your dollar goes further. These days, you can get a Fire tablet for under $50 (I’ve seen $29.95 for a 2017 model). Gigging is not always the best environment for expensive toys, and if a $30 Android tablet gets lost, stolen, stapled or mutilated, it’s no big deal, and I can find a replacement within minutes. But I think I’ll keep my $800 iPhone tucked away someplace safe.

Compared to iPhones, Android devices can compile small applications on the fly. The tradeoff is slower operation compared to the iPhone’s memory-resident programs, but you can fit way more programs in an Android device for a given amount of memory. So, even if you’re a hardcore Apple ecosystem person, you might invest in a dedicated Android device for 3DME.

‡‡         The Package

The complete $699 package includes:

  • Sensaphonics-made universal-fit IEMs with small/medium/large eartips to adjust fit. (The cable terminates in dual TRRS plugs that connect to the processor.)
  • The bodypack processor, with jacks for the IEM connections, a USB battery recharging port and a standard 1/8” TRS out (cable included) to connect to your RF beltpack receiver or hard-wired monitor feed.
  • Accessories: Storage case, documentation, earpiece cleaning tool, AC adapter and USB cables for recharging the processor or loading future firmware updates.

‡‡         Setup

The foam tips compress, so just squeeze the tips prior to inserting into your ear canal, then hold the earpieces in place while the tips expand to seal your ear cavity. Using the right tip size is crucial, but ASI simplifies the process by including a seal test function. It’s simple, but effective: the test triggers alternating 500 Hz and 50 Hz tones. If the 50 Hz tone is considerably softer, there’s a problem — either incorrect insertion, or the tip size is wrong for your ear. If you have an unusual ear shape, or want the best seal possible, ASI has a list of audiologists who can fit you for custom-molded ear tips.

The first time I connected the bodypack, the app told me a firmware update was available. Updating was painless, but the programming cable is directional — one end goes to the bodypack; the other to the device supplying the firmware update. As a test, I reversed these connections to see if that would blow up the bodypack, but happily, there were no issues.

‡‡         In Use

Operation is simple. There are three pages to the app. The most important is the Main page with the ambient mic level control and limiter threshold. You can link the left and right ambient mic sources, or separate them for individual adjustments.

Note that you don’t have to use an IEM monitor feed to take advantage of the mics. Essentially, these can also be used as earplugs — but with a volume control, EQ and limiting. If you’re working a noisy stage, this is a fine way to protect your hearing yet still hear everything that’s going on.

The limiter (fast attack, but no lookahead) has a threshold range from 84 to 105 dB SPL, and seems designed specifically to trap intermittent, ear-melting sounds. However, I’d love to see an update that would allow using it more as a limiter in the studio sense, where it would reduce the dynamic range for a more consistent monitoring experience in terms of levels. Technically you can do that now, as the lowest threshold is adequate for “transient trapping.” Fortunately, the app-driven limiter is digital, so hopefully ASI will consider doing an update.

The Equalizer page controls the 7-band graphic EQ, with each band adjustable to ±12 dB.

As with the mics and limiter, you can unlink the left and right channels. Note this is a global processor function that affects both the mics and the incoming monitor signal.

Before moving to the next page, you can save all current settings (EQ, mic level, limiter) as a preset, and load, rename and delete presets. Typically, you wouldn’t be using the app onstage, but instead, setting up beforehand.

Two buttons on the side of the bodypack can vary the level from the mics, and you can change the behavior to having them step up/down through different levels from -24 to +12 dB, or toggle between two preset settings. Here, the settings do affect only the signal from the mics and not the incoming monitor feed. Another option is for users who have hearing loss in one ear; it routes audio from the side with the loss to the side that can hear.

There’s also a help menu that parallels the included documentation.

‡‡         So, Does 3DME Work?

When I first tried using the system, I thought the IEMs weren’t sealed properly, as I could hear everything that was going on around me. Oh, right… that’s the point! When I turned down the mic volume, I was back to having earplugs in my ears. The whole concept of having “earplugs with a volume control” takes a little getting used to compared to earplugs that are either blocking everything, or out of your ears and blocking nothing.

A major contributing factor to the realistic sound is that both the IEMs and the mics sound great. Listening to music through the IEMs was pretty darn glorious, so I took a walk outside while listening to music from my iPhone feeding the 3DME’s input. Usually when taking a walk using conventional isolating earbuds, I have to be very careful to keep an eye out for what cars and motorcycles are doing. With the 3DME, I could dial in the amount of outside world sound I wanted, which made walking around safer.

Given the current gigging situation, there’s no way I could try out its noise isolation on stage. So I turned up guitar amps in my studio really loud, and again, when you add in the mic signal, you think it’s probably leakage. Nope. Turn down the mics, and the amp fades into the background.

The IEMs make a pop when you power the unit down, and although the company says the level isn’t unhealthy, it is unpleasant. I suggest removing the IEMs before turning it off.

‡‡         And in the End

At $699, the 3DME are about double the cost of a good pair of wired universal-fit IEMs (Sennheiser IE400; Shure SE535; etc.) But what’s the price of your hearing? All IEMs help in that respect, but the “earplugs with a volume control” is a unique and interesting feature. The 3DME does stress hearing protection, from the built-in limiter to the fact that you don’t have to remove one of the earpieces to hear what’s going on around you. I suspect for many people, the extra expenditure will be seen more as inexpensive insurance than a more-expensive IEM.

ASI Audio is a new company, but it has Sensaphonics’ lineage behind it. The 3DME is a quality product that solves a significant problem with IEMs, so I suspect we’ll see more and more people wearing these on stage.

At a Glance

In-Ear Monitoring Plus Variable Ambience

3DME puts Sensaphonics’ high-end 3D AARO IEM technology into an affordable package.

ASI Audio 3DME

PROS

  • Earpieces provide flat, dynamic response
  • Control app is easy to use
  • Binaural mics offer accurate spatial sense
  • Foam eartip offer effective noise seal

CONS

  • No iOS version of app

STATS [B/W BOX]

Transducer: Single, fullrange driver

Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20k Hz

Operating Time: 7 hours, (fully charged)

Max SPL: 122 dB @ 500 Hz

Street Pricing: $699

Manufacturer: ASI Audio by Sensaphonics

More Info: asiaudio.com

 

A recognized authority on musical technology, Craig Anderton has authored over 35 books, hosts his educational site www.craiganderton.org, a digital storefront www.craiganderton.com and his music at www.youtube.com/thecraiganderton.

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