Disclaimer: I purchased the Smabat ST10 from NiceHCK at a drastically reduced price for review. Having reviewed the EB2 and EBX I was interested to see where the ST10 fits in the line of earbuds carried by NiceHCK. If you have an interest in purchasing the Smabat ST10, it can be found here.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The ST10 ships in a black slip-cover box with the Smabat name and logo on the front in gold. The rear has a label with model number and basic specs. The box sides are also emblazoned with the smabat web address. Lifting the cover reveals the buds in the top portion of the box embedded in foam and a vinyl soft case with the smabat name and logo in the lower section. Removing the carry case reveals the cable in a recess in the foam behind it along with a hole to lift the entire tray out. Removing the foam surround at the top exposes the sets of tips also embedded in foam below the earpieces. Underneath the foam is the manual which is far more comprehensive than most that come with earbuds.
Earpieces are on the large side owing to the 15.4mm driver but taper quickly so provided no fitment issues for me. Those with small ears may wish to audition these before purchase to avoid any issues size may cause. About ½ way up the taper is a small silver band with small vents immediately to the outer portion of the cone. These are spaced to avoid blocking them with the earpieces worn tip up and some adjustment may be needed to prevent blocking them if worn tip down as I found. Most of what changes by blocking the vents is the lower mid-range so if you suddenly have clouded mids, check your vents.
The outer housing has a transmission line style vent for the dynamic driver to increase bass punch since this is a classic issue for earbuds (even with it sub-bass is still pretty limited but hey! at least it is present). The housings have a gray/green outer shell with black internals. Fit is good here but not stellar as seams are easily visible around the mmcx connector and the metal outer shell is slightly raised above the inner on the bottom where the main vent for the transmission line sits.
MMCX connectors felt a bit loose but I had no issues with cut-outs or other problems so this may be an unfounded concern. time will tell on that one and if most people don’t regularly change cables, I suspect it will hold up fine. If you have a habit of cable rolling, this may be something to watch.
The Driver used in the st10 is a 15.4 mm dynamic driver with a titanium coated peek diaphragm. Nominal impedance is listed at 45Ω with a sensitivity of 115dB/mW. While the numbers suggest that the St10 can be used from a phone or tablet, I did find that it performed considerably better, particularly with regard to bass when properly amplified. The design is a classic of speaker building but not seen nearly as commonly in headphones and earphones and can be thought of as a hybrid between a vented box style and a transmission line speaker as it has an extended rear vent channel. While the snail drum shape probably does little to impact the sound, the length and diameter of the channel certainly do so tuning can be adjusted by changing the volume of the channel.
The cable provided with the ST10 is a bit different than most as it is cloth covered from the jack to the splitter and rubber coated from the splitter to the mmcx connectors at the earpieces. The Jack is a 3.5mm straight design with a metal housing in the same dark gray/green as the shells with a good strain relief. The splitter also matches the color of the jack and earpieces but oddly the chin slider is left natural metal and produces an odd look. Cables terminate with preformed ear-hooks so the ST10 must be worn tip-up with the provided cable although I did find tip-down wear comfortable with an ALO Tinsel cable attached. I also preferred the tinsel cable as it was less tangle prone especially when stored in the provided case.
The ST10 provides, foams, donut foams, and a vented rubber tips. I found that the rubber tips did help with keeping the ST10 from migrating during activity but found it to be the most signature changing of the three and decided for sake of this review I would conduct all sound notes with none of the tips installed. Understand that your impressions will vary if you install tips and especially the rubber tips.
Sub-bass is present in larger quantity than expected for an earbud design,but while bass depth is quite good, bass volume is very linear and not nearly as forward as one might expect. (This is a good thing) Mid-bass shows good control and remains in direct proportion to the rest of the signature. Bass texture is good but can be slightly artificial sounding.
Mids have good detail in the lower mids but do show some mid-bass bleed and contribute a bit of warmth in what might otherwise be considered a fairly bright earbud. Lower mids are fuller and a bit more foward than upper mids which make male vocals sound rich and full. Vocal harmonies with tracks like the Eagles, or Poco do particularly well on the ST-10 as a result. Female vocals are a little thinner as the mids seem to move backward as you climb toward the treble. Having said that, while not quite as full as something like the EBx, to my ear, they sound a bit more natural and lifelike.
Lower treble follows linearly from upper mids and then falls back in the true treble range to give a polite treble with some air and sparkle added back by a bit of a spike in the 7-8kHz range and then a fairly rapid roll-off above that point. Snares have a good solid attack to them which is nice but cymbals lack the energy needed to sound full and natural and come across a bit thin and tinny. Overall, the spike is mitigated by the non-sealing design to a degree and treble comes across as forward without being harsh. Sibilance was only present when mastered into the track and even then was more polite than on some others in this test (bk2/Tomahawk).
Soundstage / Imaging:
Soundstage is one of the big highlights on the ST-10. This is generally true of the class but the ST-10 ranks with the best of breed for stage size and dimensions. I found the stage to be nearly as deep as it is wide and with a good sense of height. This made listening to things like “Runnin too deep” (Keith Richards) particularly enjoyable as the stage depth really adds to the track. Attack and decay are also very good for this style driver and help with instrument separation and imaging both of which are above average. Seating the orchestra on the stage is fairly easy to do while listening and due to the size of the stage very rarely do you get things behind instead of beside each other. Layering is better than expected as well and complex tracks showed no tendency to get clogged up or muddy.
Build Quality – the earbuds are about equal but the cable is better on the EBX than on the ST-10 and the case as well.
Sound – EBX has more mid-bass presence than the ST-10 which was kind of a surprise considering the selling point of the ST-10. The ST-10 fires back by digging deeper in sub-bass than the EBX. Mids are thicker on the EBX but a little cleaner on the ST-10 with male vocals sounding more natural on the EBX while female vocals are a bit more lifelike on the ST-10.
Also worth noting, the ST-10 took considerably more power than the EBX to reach comfortable listening levels so for those running from a low power source, the EBX may be a better option while those with high power sources that get hiss with the EBX may appreciate the ST-10 more.
Build Quality – Both are solid offerings as far as the bud itself but the ST-10 with its removable cable gets a few points for that while the Lyra classic looks a bit more polished. Kit is better on the Lyra.
Sound – The tonality of the Lyra is a bit more natural than the ST-10 which has some definite elevations to certain ranges. St-10 has better extension on both ends than Lyra that rolls off a bit earlier in the treble and a lot earlier in the sub-bass. Detail retrieval, especially in the upper mids and lower treble is better on the Lyra classic while details in the lower mids and bass are better on the ST-10.
I also found Lyra was easier to drive by a considerable amount than the ST-10.
Build Quality – Both are solid builds, but the ST-10 with its removable cable and tip-up wear was more comfortable to me and tended to stay in place better than the Tomahawk. The kit on the tomahawk with multiple sets of tips, a better case, and a shirt clip, makes this a split decision.
Sound – Tomahawk sounds a bit sloppy compared to ST-10 which has better control throughout its signature. Tomahawk is more treble forward than the ST-10 and lacks some of the bass dig as well. Layering and imaging is enough better on the ST-10 to separate the two easily.
Perhaps oddly with the difference in impedance ratings, the ST-10 and Tomahawk required roughly the same power to deliver a good listening experience.
Build Quality – The ST-10 shows better build quality than the BK2 but at twice the price tag, it should. Kit is better on the BK2 which goes to really drive home the point that the kit should be improved on the ST-10 as both the $50 offerings in this list offer more solid kits.
Sound: The ST-10 has better low end and detail retrieval than the BK2 while the top end extension on the BK2 is a bit better. The trade-off here is the BK2 can sound a bit splashy and harsh at times while the ST-10 retains better control at the expense of extension at the top end.
BK2 is easier to drive than ST-10 but the trade off is the BK2 doesn’t scale nearly as well as the ST-10.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
We have seen a resurgence in earbuds in recent months with several companies releasing new models and several more on the horizon. This is great news for those of us who enjoy the stage provided by a non-sealing design and also for those that need to hear the outside world while listening. The ST-10 aims to tackle a classic problem with open designs and that is: “how do you get bass presence without a seal?” The classic answer has been use a bigger driver, or dump more power to it. We see this all the time with 18″ subwoofers and 4000 Watt amps in car audio. Neither of these solutions produce particularly accurate sound, nor do they fit well for an in-ear design. Instead, Smabat has adapted the transmission line style case what provides more volume behind the driver and allows for precision tuning by adjusting the length or width of the tunnel to achieve the desired result. We see this technique quite often in floor standing speakers to try and get more bass depth out of a small driver. Those generally vent into the listening area while the ST-10 vents to the bottom side rather than internally so while we get some of the benefit, it is not as pronounced as a true transmission line design.
What the ST-1o brings to the table is an option with good bass depth without bloat, engaging vocals, and a polite treble without being too enclosed. Overall, with the other good options currently on the market, it will come down to personal preference as to which each person likes. I recommend you audition the ST-10 if you are a fan of the earbud style as it does a lot well and isn’t simply a gimmick with its snail drum.
Oh, and you have to give props to any company with a good enough sense of humor to suggest alternate uses for the product if you don’t love it.