Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient In-Ear System

Apr 13, 2009 7:15 PM, By Steve La Cerra

Enhanced Monitoring for Live Mixing and Performance

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photo of Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient In-Ear System

Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient™ In-Ear System

Personal monitors are great, but they isolate the performer from the audience and other band members. This is due to the fact that—when properly implemented—earpieces prevent the majority of ambient sound from reaching the ear. Sensaphonics offers a unique solution in its 3D Active Ambient In Ear Monitor System. Unlike any other personal monitors, each of the 3D’s custom-molded earpieces has a built-in miniature condenser microphone. Controls on the belt pack facilitate mixing an electronic input (such as that from a mixing console) with ambient sound from the mics. When fitted properly, the ear molds attenuate external sound by around 35 dB, so a performer can run the drivers to produce SPLs lower than would be experienced by “bare” ears.

For this review, an audiologist based in New York City fitted me with custom ear molds. Sensaphonics has a network of qualified audiologists across the country capable of creating impressions for the molds (note that the cost of the audiologist is not included with the system). Two weeks later, the entire system came packaged in a foam and velvet-lined, miniature Pelican case.

Underneath the 3D-L belt pack door is a 9-volt battery compartment, two switches and a rotary trimmer pot. One switch calibrates the pack for single-or dual-driver earpieces (the review system employed single-driver earpieces). The difference is that the dual-driver earpieces can output a few dB higher. The exterior of the belt pack has switches for power on/off and “full active,” a rotary pot for monitor level, plus a Lemo connector for the monitor feed. Other features include a limiter that kicks in at 105 dB for hearing protection and control for mixing ambient sound in 4dB steps. I found that setting the ambient level at -24 dB just barely kept ambient stage sound soft enough to be unoffensive, though I would like another setting at a lower level. There is a “full ambient” switch that toggles between unattenuated ambient level, and the level of attenuation determined by the rotary pot. This came in very handy between songs for easy communication without removing the ear molds.

My first tests with the 3D-HW System delivered stunning results. While playing drums, I could hear the monitor mix and the natural ambient sound of the drums at a volume level significantly reduced from what I would hear without ear molds. This was the first time I have actually heard my hi-hat in about 30 years, because I always play with hearing protection—which inevitably kills the hat and cymbals.

I was able to take the system beyond its main intention by using it as a mixing tool at front of house. For years I’ve been playing all sorts of games while mixing live music in an effort to conserve my hearing. I’d mix a song or two with “open” ears; then mix a few songs with a plug in one ear, then switch ears for a few songs, then back. I’ve tried custom molds fitted with attenuators, but they changed the sound of my mix. I started mixing with the 3D Active Ambient system and as I grew to trust it, I began mixing shows with both earpieces in for extended periods of time. And when I pulled the earpieces out, my mix sounded pretty much the same, only louder. Using the 3D System was not exactly the same as having no plugs, but it’s close enough to mix with the confidence that what you are hearing through the earpieces is consistent with what the audience is hearing, except at a lower level. There is one caveat in this application: Make sure that you don’t get carried away with the SPL of the P.A.—it’s easy to mix through the 3D-HW and lose sight of the fact that the audience is hearing the P.A. louder.

I’ve reviewed a lot of products over the years, some of which employ incredible technology to do amazing things. But most of them don’t change your life. The 3D Active Ambient system from Sensaphonics can change your work life as a musician or as an engineer in a positive way. When performing it’s possible to overcome the feeling of isolation, and when using the system in a sound reinforcement application, I can mix with the system without second-guessing it. I don’t have ear fatigue at the end of the day and I suspect I may even be sleeping a bit better on show nights as a result. I highly recommend the 3D Active Ambient IEM System to anyone who needs to turn down the volume of the world.

For more information, visit Sensaphonics' Website.

In addition to being Mix's sound reinforcement editor, Steve La Cerra is tour manager and FOH for Blue Öyster Cult.

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