disclaimer: Having been one of the first reviewers of the Smabat ST-10 when it arrived, I was interested in seeing what the next generation product would produce. Nicehck was nice enough to discount the M1 for me, but aside from that, I have received no incentives or persuasion regarding this review. If you have an interest in the M1 after reading more, it can be found here on NiceHck’s Aliexpress page.
Unboxing / Packaging:
Unboxing is straight forward with the box showing a line drawing of the earpiece on front and specs on reverse. Inside the box, a tray contains the earpieces with cable attached, and the foams. Instructions, the bulk of the cable, and earhooks are hidden under the tray. Worth noting is the M1 ships with both foam covers and a rubber cover style, but no donut foams so fans of the donut style will want to pick up a few to use with the M1.
The M1 has a barrel shape rear with a saucer shaped front of the standard size for a 15 mm dynamic driver. Construction is 5 parts comprised of a chrome plated grill, a black two-piece housing around the driver (seam is visible in last two pictures at right), a silver spacer, and gray metal housing with a vent at top and the mmcx connector facing downward. The rear face has the smabat name in a silver ring and L/R marked on the side/rear. Parts fit is very good with no gaps, glue, or play in any of the fittings. The discoloration of the silver ring in picture 2 below is from handling as the polished silver is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Writing about earbud design is pretty monotonous as the form changes very little from one to the next and that is certainly the case here, classic shape with little deviation from it. The vent at top is probably the most unusual feature of the build. The M1 is smaller than most of my earbud collection and as such you may need to use the earhooks to get them to stay where they belong as the combination of small size and light weight makes them prone to shift quite easily and while jogging on the treadmill they fall out of my ears if I don’t use at least the rubber covers and the earhooks are a more secure fit yet.
Smabat has made its reputation by building earbuds with transmission line style housings and the M1 is no different. Behind its 14.2 mm composite diaphragm dynamic driver sits a tuned acoustic chamber designed to give the M1 better bass response without requiring a larger housing to do so. Compared to the ST-10, the housing for the M1 is even more compact. Nominal impedance is listed as 32Ω with a sensitivity of 110 dB/mW which suggests the M1 should be usable directly from a phone or tablet. I found that it is indeed quite capable from a phone but does prefer the high-output mode on the LG and scales some both quantitatively and qualitatively with more potent sources. While I don’t think those who are using low powered sources will necessarily dislike the M1, I do think it needs a bit more umph to really get the most out of it.
The provided cable is a very narrow gauge wire similar to the CA/ALO tinsel style. At the south end, the cable exits a 3.5 mm straight jack in a polished steel housing and a short strain relief. Cable itself is silver plated copper and runs to the splitter as a single wire of about 2mm diameter. The splitter is matching stainless steel with two 1mm wires exiting to the north. Aclear plastic chin slider provides a way to tighten the cable if needed. At the North end, the mmcx connectors are housed in a clear plastic and brushed stainless housing with L/R marked in white on the stainless section. This can be difficult to see in certain lighting. Connectors are tight and attach very solidly. The cable is well designed for an earbud designed to be worn tip down as it contributes as little weight as possible while still providing good connectivity.
The M1 comes with several sets of foams and a pair of what I can only describe as plastic “foams” as they serve the same function but are solid rubber. While they do offer good purchase on the ear and might be useful for wearing during athletic events, they also block a good bit of the sound and alter the signature even more than standard foams. I favor the donut foams for this reason that give me some foam around the exterior while blocking as little of the signature as possible. Unfortunately, none are provided with the M1 so I pulled a few out of my kit and used those while working on my listening notes.
Sub-bass is present but is not the focus here and won’t win any prizes from the basshead crowd. Mid-bass is lighter than the ST-10 as well and gives the M1 a bright tilt. Mid-bass is well controlled and has good definition and those who are not interested in a bass monster will find a lot to like as attack and decay are both quick and the driver takes a lot to overwhelm before it starts to get a little loose.
Lower mids are well done and show little to no bass-bleed. Male vocals are well presented but a bit less forward in the mix than higher vocals. Timbre is good on male vocals but they can come across a touch thin. Here a bit more bleed might actually be welcomed to bring some warmth and thickness. As you move up, the mids move forward and female vocals are a step closer to the listener and are more present in the mix compared to their male counterparts. Strings are well done due to the upper mid push and this may actually be the strongest feature of the M1. If you are big into string quartet pieces, the M1 is a good pick. To me the vocals are tuned in almost opposite fashion to the ST-10 where male vocals are more pronounced and female are a step back.
Treble is bi-modal with a push in the lower treble reaching a crest at roughly 3kHz. This brings some of the energy previously mentioned to strings and vocals. Above that peak, the treble drops back and then has a second peak in the 7kHz range before rolling off fairly early above 8kHz or so. Snares have a good solid attack to them which is nice but cymbals lack the energy needed to sound full and natural and can be metallic. Here the tuning is very similar to the St-10 which shared the lower push and 7kHz peak. To my ear, the sound is a bit bright and can border on harsh depending on source material.
Soundstage / Imaging:
Soundstage is usually good on earbuds and the M1 is no exception with good depth, width and even some sense of height. I don’t think it is quite as large as the ST-10, but still quite respectable. Seating the orchestra is straight forward and instrument separation is good throughout. Imaging is solid, if unexiciting. Layering as previously mentioned is better than expected and it takes a lot to overwhelm the M1.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
The M1 is going to draw comparisons to the previous ST-10 as they share a lot. I can’t say I like the M1 Pro better than the ST-10, but I can say that I think it is closer to the ST-10 than the price tag suggests it should be. The price at present is roughly 65% of the cost of the ST-10 and the M1 delivers closer to 80% of the signature. This is similar to the EBX/EB2 pairing where the flagship has the better signature but the underling is the better value. That’s the upside, the downside is these are small earbuds and can be tough to keep in place. Know that going in, and temper your expectations appropriately. It is a shame that the M1 will be so closely tied to the St-10 as if it had been introduced by another brand it would be thought of as a competent if a bit bass light earbud, as it is, most will think of it as the ST-10’s little brother.
Pros: well built, good value, good detail and tonality
Cons: small (tends to shift in ear), bass light