Paradigm is well known in the hi-fi audio realm for making some of the most affordable, excellent-sounding speakers under $1000, the Mini Monitors. Recently, Paradigm announced a more affordable line of speakers and—in a first for the company—earphones. The line is called Paradigm Shift, and the e3m, at $129.99 (direct), is the most expensive of the three earphone pairs the company unveiled at CES 2012. Fans of the signature smooth bass response of Paradigm speakers will not be disappointed, as the e3m offers plenty of clean, robust low-end that never distorts, even at top volume. Some listeners might prefer a bit more brightness or high frequency presence, but the response is not so muted in the highs that it could be called muffled. Overall, the e3m is a strong debut for Paradigm in the earphone realm.
DesignOffered in white or black (ours was black), the e3m features earpieces with aluminum housings for the 8-mm super-neodymium drivers. They’re metallic-covered at the base, where the ear tips slide on, and black on the ends, with the Paradigm Shift logo emblazoned in silver on each earpiece. Red plastic, hidden by the eartips, marks the right earpiece. one tip in each ear tip pair—there are three differently-sized pairs included—also has red on it to keep things straight. The earpieces provide a secure seal and decent passive noise reduction, with the cable extending straight down from the ear. (Paradigm will also offer earhooks as an accessory for the Shift earphone line—rubberized sleeves for the cable that fit over the top of the ear, for those who prefer to wear the earphones upside down, with the cable shooting up and behind the ear.) The cable is covered in black, tangle-resistant cloth. It’s not tangle-proof, but it should be easier to keep the e3m’s cable more tidy than a typical earphone cable.
Along the right ear’s cable, there is a small compartment housing a microphone and a single-button control system for answering calls. it works with most modern, popular phones, including the iPhone, but since it’s not designed for one phone in particular, it doesn’t handle any of them particularly gracefully. On the iPhone 4S, for instance, the single button needs to be tapped rapidly twice to skip a song, and three times to accomplish other tasks. The three-button iPhone controls included on most earphone pairs these days are far more efficient. The trade-off is that Paradigm’s earphones will also work with most smartphones. still, it feels like a control system from a few years back, and will likely annoy iPhone users who are familiar with the modern controls on other earphones. The 3.5mm connection is straight and narrow, which makes it ideal for mobile phones with bulkier cases. The e3m also comes with a compact, padded travel case.
PerformanceOne thing newcomers to the earphone realm often get wrong is bass performance—not just how much or how little bass to include in the earphones’ sound signature, but also how well the drivers will handle deep bass at higher volumes. It’s refreshing to see Paradigm get this right on the first try. Not only does the e3m offer exemplary bass response with articulate but powerful lows, but there is never any distortion. Even on tracks with seriously deep bass, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” and even at maximum volume, the e3m’s remain clean.
Bass response isn’t everything, though, and one thing audiophiles might find lacking is the high frequency response. When bass is intense and the higher frequencies lack the same amount of presence in the overall response, the result is often described as muddy or muffled. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the e3m sounds muffled, but there is less of an emphasis on the higher frequencies and crispness of vocals and percussion than you will find in similarly priced-models, like the Shure SE215 (4 stars, $119) and the Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphones (4.5 stars, $179.95). Both of those pairs won Editors’ Choice awards and offer a much crisper high frequency response without sacrificing the low end. The e3m, however, sounds almost refreshing for dialing back the highs a bit—a sound sometimes attributed to vinyl and referred to as “warmth.” if you’re seeking the opposite of warmth, the Etymotic ER-4PT (4.5, $299)—another Editors’ Choice—though far more expensive, is an industry standard for flat response, and has a distinctive crisp response with subtle, less intense low-end.
So, we’ll call this a matter of taste. if you favor crisp, super-articulate highs, the e3m is probably not for you. if you’re looking for a warmer sound, favoring the bass frequencies without getting muddy, the e3m may be just what you’re looking for. if all the aforementioned options are all out of your budget, perhaps you should check out another PCMag Editors’ Choice, the AKG K 325 (4 stars, $79.95)—at about $50 less, it’s a steal, and still delivers laudable bass response and overall clarity.