Latest Review

Sony XBA-4 Review

The quad driver flagship of Sony's XBA series 

Specs:
Driver: Quad Balanced Armature 
Frequency Response: 3Hz~28KHz
Impedance: 8Ω
Sensitivity: 108dB
Cord Length: 1.2m / J-Cord
Plug Type: L-plug
MSRP: $349.99

Packaging / Accessories:  
My previous Sony IEM, the MDR-EX600 had exception packaging and presentation; the XBA-4 (and the entire XBA series) certainly meet the standards set by Sony's other line of in-ears. The packaging of the XBA-4 looks great and the IEMs are nicely displayed. Unlike the EX600, the packaging of the XBA-4 is actually reasonably sized. Inside, accessories include 7 pairs of sony hybrid tips, a cord adjuster, and a very nice magnetic clasp carrying case.

Build Quality / Appearance / Cable:
For a product at this price range, I was a little disappointed to find that the housing are made of plastic. They are extremely light and has a chrome finish, but all this makes the product feel a little cheap. Despite this, they do feel sturdy and are well constructed. One thing to note is that the housings are bulky and one of the largest I have seen on universals. I was again disappointed to find the cable  undetachable, but this simplicity in design clearly shows the XBA series being consumer oriented. Sony at least provide great strain reliefs that should prolong the life of the cable. The cable is semi-flat and relatively thin. I understand there are different versions of the XBA-4 - I have the North American version without the iPhone controls and with a 1.2m j-cord. Personally, I prefer y-cords but the j-cord can be convenient when you only have one earpiece in and the other can rest on the shoulder. 

Comfort / Isolation: 
To my surprise, the XBA-4s are extremely comfortable when worn cable down. Maybe I am just lucky to have ears that fit, but they are definitely above average in terms of comfort for me in comparison to the other universals I have used. When worn with the cable over the ear, I did find the nozzle a little too short for them to stay in well, and as a result the housing do fall out once in a while. Isolation is very good as with all closed balanced armature designs. 

Sound: 
The Sony XBA-4 produces a spacious sound with a strong bass presence. They are not designed for professional use and the sound is clearly geared for consumers. With the presentation being far from neutral, there is emphasis on the mid bass as well as the treble. While this will appeal to many people, the XBA-4 does not sound natural to my ears and the quad drivers lack coherence. 
Lows: Since the design of the XBA-4 contains a woofer, and a "super-woofer", it comes at no surprise that there is an emphasis on the bass. It is powerful and much higher in quantity than the majority of armature-based IEMs. The bass is full-bodied and weighty, but at the same time it sounds quite effortless with very good extension. Bass notes are rounded and can be a little slow, meaning that it is also not as tight and clean down low. With the softer note presentation, I don't find the bass to be aggressive at all. It does provide a nice rumble and bass will always be turned up one notch even in bass-light tracks. Within the bass, I do hear a slight elevation in the mid-bass that certainly adds to the "fun" factor. 
Mids: The midrange is slightly recessed and sounds a bit muffled. The color in tone is obvious and can often make the midrange sound unnatural, although the amount of detail present is still impressive. While vocals do not take center stage like on the RE262, they are just slightly behind the bass. Vocals tend to sound dry and lack clarity compared to others in its price range.
Treble: The top end of the XBA-4 is where I find to be the most disappointing. It is not bright, but there is a peak in the treble that makes it metallic sounding. This pronounced "shh" sound and metallic tinge makes it very hard to listen to the XBA-4s for very long before the treble becomes fatiguing. In addition, instruments just don't sound right. With only average extension and air up top, the treble fails to impress. This is of course keeping in mind that the XBA-4 is a $350 product, not $100.
Soundstage / Presentation: Soundstage on the XBA-4 is actually quite large. It is spacious with excellent width, and conveys distance accurately. The pinpoint positioning is also impressive but that's where my positive comments end. Where I think the XBA-4 fails to deliver once again is the coherency between the quad drivers. As a whole, the drivers sound disjointed and artificial.  

Summary:
The Sony XBA-4 is the flagship of their in-house produced balanced armature series. Unfortunately, I feel that this flagship has major shortcomings compared to other similarly-priced in-ears. I can understand why they may appeal to many with its powerful full-bodied bass, but I do feel that at $350 the price cannot be justified by its overall sound quality. For me, it is the metallic treble and incoherency throughout the spectrum that makes it hard for me to recommend these over other IEMs with a similar sound signature.



Starkey HF-2 Review

Introduction:
Starkey is a company located in Norway that specializes in hearing aid technology as well as professional musician products. They have a full line up of custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs, or customs) ranging from entry level customs to their flagship 4-driver SA-43. I have never heard the SA-43, but I have been very intrigued by its design which includes individual bass and "presence" (midrange) switches that  can be turned on or off, effectively allowing the SA-43 to have four different sound signatures in one.  So while their flagship is not the focus of the review today, it was what originally led me to Starkey.

As someone who is always on the lookout for new and exciting audio products, I noticed that Starkey recently released a custom IEM model with a built in mic in the cable. This caught my attention for many reasons. There are rarely any, if any at all, other custom IEMs with a built-in mic in the cable. While there are a couple aftermarket cables available with built-in mics, they are all very pricey, and the cost would be on top of the already expensive CIEM. The Starkey HF-2 is an entry level custom IEM that will appeal to users who wish to listen to music on their phones without having to unplug their earphones/in-ears when they need to go into a call. This is an extremely convenient function I personally find very useful when I am out and about, but never have I been presented with the opportunity to do this with custom IEMs until I came across the Starkey HF-2 handsfree product.

With the HF-2, you would be able to enjoy the comfort and increased sound quality that custom IEMs offer with the ability to use the mic function and not blow your wallet (in terms of average custom IEM prices). The high level of isolation will also help with clearer phone calls and music enjoyment. Highly interested, I contacted Alf at Starkey Norway to inquire about the HF-2 and after some friendly discussion, he kindly offered to send me a pair for review.

The Ordering Process:
  • Starkey Norway CIEMs can be ordered by completing an order form here
  • Impressions are to be sent to:                                                                                                          Starkey Norway AS
                Postboks 74, Sentrum
                4001 Stavanger
                Norway
  • If you have any questions, you can contact Starkey by phone or email. The customer service Alf has provided is exceptional. He is friendly, knowledgable, and prompt in his replies.
For those unaware, to build a custom IEM, the customer will first need to send in a pair of ear mold impressions in addition to the completion of an order form. These are custom made to your ears after all and without the impressions of your ears, the build cannot start.

A visit to a trained audiologist with experience in taking ear impressions for custom IEMs, and not just  for hearing aids, is highly recommended. The cost in this case will vary depending on the audiologist, but how well your custom IEM fits will be highly dependent on the quality of this impression. So unless you are confident that you are able to use a DIY kit well, I would strongly urge you to visit a reputable audiologist. 

After my impressions had been received by Starkey, the turnaround time was 10 business days to when my pair of the HF-2 was shipped off. That is an incredibly fast build time and I was very surprised to receive the tracking info just 2 weeks after. 

Packaging and Accessories:
The HF-2 came packaged safely and securely inside a hard clamshell case buried in a box full of foam peanuts. There were actually so many of these foam pieces that I had to dig through them to find the clamshell case containing the goodies. The accessories included with the HF-2 are: a hard clamshell case, wax removal tool and brush, two alcohol wipes, and 8 plastic tools to clean the bores.


Design
Technical Specifications
 Driver: Dual Balanced Armatures 
Frequency Response: 40Hz~18KHz
Impedance: 30Ω
Sensitivity: 112dB  
Retail Price: NOK 1990 (~USD $325)
        *Introductory Prices:
          NOK 1490 (~USD $245)- excl. tax, incl. std shipping to Scandinavia & Germany (1-2 weeks delivery)
          NOK 1590 (~USD $260)- excl. tax, incl. std shipping worldwide (1-4 weeks delivery)
          NOK 1690 (~USD $275)- excl. tax, incl.  2-day UPS shipping (worldwide)

The HF-2 utilizes a TWFK dual driver, which has both bass and treble drivers in one casing, with a passive crossover at 2.7kHz, delivering sound through a single sound tube. The TWFK is used in many other popular universal IEMs such as the UE700, Q-Jays, CK10, and DBA-02, as well as other custom IEMs. While several other custom IEMs in Starkey's lineup are filled with silicone, the HF-2 uses only acrylic. It is also canal-sized as opposed to the more commonly seen full-ear sized customs, meaning that the HF-2 is not a full custom but instead consists of just the part that fits into your ear canals. This is the first canal-sized custom I own and I have come to really appreciate its small form factor. Since the purpose of the HF-2 is to provide convenience while out and about for people listening to music on their phones, it would be against that purpose if the HF-2 was a full-sized custom. By being canal-sized, the HF-2 is extremely convenient to store and will fit in much smaller cases that full-sized customs will not. 

Not much customization is available for the HF-2. The acrylic shell is only available in clear and the faceplate has several colour options -no artwork since the faceplate really is too small as a result of the shell being canal-sized. For my pair, I went with a black faceplate and black cable. I also have my model number and initials in red for the right ear piece, and blue for the left ear piece.


Build Quality: 
The shell is free of bubbles and has very good build quality overall. I do wish the cable was removable for durability issues. Because of the HF-2 being so small, more often than not I find myself removing them by gently pushing the strain relief for a better angle. At least the strain relief ( the part where the cable connects to the IEM) is reinforced nicely, so hopefully this will not be a problem in the future.

Cable: 
The cable is not detachable and comes in either black or white. It has a rubbery feel but it generally tangle free and easy to handle. The microphone is located on the right side after the y-split as is the call multi-function button. While it is possible to have an over-the-ear cable design, the HF-2 has a cable down design for practical reasons. The over-the-ear cable design is not ideal for a handsfree product such as the HF-2 since the microphone is a preset distance from the solder end of the cable, so if the cable has to go over the ear it will move the microphone too high, possibly almost touching the ear.

The microphone function works flawlessly. With the isolation customs provide, phone calls have never been more clear. I tested the microphone when I was on a public bus by making a phone call to my friend, and he could hear me fine with no problems.


Isolation:
Being a canal-sized custom IEM, the HF-2 does have slightly less isolation than my other full-sized custom IEMs, although the difference is small. Isolation is still very high and can effectively block out outside noise even in noisy areas. 

Sound: 
I have heard many products utilizing the TWFK setup so I had an idea of what to expect, or rather, a certain level of expectations - clean tight bass, detailed midrange, and sparkly highs. The HF-2 retains many of these TWFK-based IEM characteristics and has a neutral sound signature. 

Bass: Contrary to what I was expecting, the bass is actually full and warm. Now this is a pleasant surprise for me as I generally like a warmer bass presentation anyways. Bass notes have good impact and have a certain thickness to it. Despite the thicker note presentation, the bass is still very nicely textured.  The level of detail is high and the bass exerts great control, keeping everything tight and in control. There is a nice attack and decay speed, but I find the reverb (persistence of sound in a space after the original sound has been removed) to be lacking for bass and drums. This can cause it to sound not as natural, especially when compared to dynamic driver based earphones that usually have better timbre. The bass can also give off the impression that it is slower than it actually is as a result of the thick and full notes, but it is relatively quick and can handle busy passages with ease. The bass quantity of the HF-2 is close to neutral and is only missing some extension at the very bottom. The lower frequencies can still provide a nice rumble and hit with authority, often making me wonder if the sound is really coming out of a TWFK dual driver configuration. Don't mistaken that statement as if these are a basshead's wet dream come true though, because they are not. I think the HF-2 has just the "right" amount of bass to not offend for being excessive, or disappoint from a lack of bass.

Midrange: The HF-2 has a smooth and liquid presentation that is neither forward nor recessed. The clarity is very good but the HF-2 is not the most transparent in its price range. While I would not call the midrange as analytical, detail retrieval in the midrange is above average and presented in a nonaggressive manner. With the dual drivers, there is no dedicated midrange driver but Starkey did a good job in the overall coherency when transitioning between the bass, mids and highs. As for vocals, they are not recessed but rather quite well balanced with the other frequencies. They are also not thin-sounding and have just a bit of warmth along with a softer note presentation. I do find myself yearning for more edge and bite for certains genres, but that would be my only caveat with the mids.

Treble: The treble region has good extension that is free of sibilance and harshness. It does not have a splashy, hot treble with many spikes, but instead a smooth and non-fatiguing top end. As a result, it does not sound nearly as effortless and endless as treble happy IEMs. Despite this, the treble does not lack energy and like the bass, is inoffensive. The top end is resolving and nicely detailed, resulting in an involving sound. The HF-2's treble does not have enough to please fans of analytical sound signatures, but it is neutral and accurate which helps with the overall realism. 

Soundstage / Presentation:  In terms of the presentation, the HF-2 is fairly neutral sounding and a very balanced in-ear. While there is a very slight elevation in the bass that adds some warmth, the HF-2 stays true to the recording. The soundstage is just average, with good depth and okay width, but for the most part stays concentrated in the center. It does not sound as airy and spacious as the competition, but it does have accurate positioning.

Final Thoughts:
The Starkey HF-2 has become one of my favorite in-ears. The small size factor as opposed to full-sized custom IEMs while having a mic and multi-function button is a fantastic combination. I have never had a custom IEM as convenient as the HF-2 and if given the choice, I would take the HF-2 to use portably over any and all my other in-ears (customs included). My reasoning is simple - universals cannot provide a perfect fit nor can they isolate as much (with a few exceptions), and full-sized custom IEMs are larger yet they still don't offer a mic function for use with the phone.

As an overall package and considering the price point, I think Starkey has a real winner in the HF-2. It has what I think is a "safe" sound that is difficult to fault or dislike. The build quality is great and it comes with many useful accessories. So what if they don't come with a waterproof, shockproof Otterbox or Pelican case, the small hard clamshell case is much smaller and will at least fit in the pocket. In conclusion, the HF-2 is an entry-level custom IEM that I feel can compete with similarly-priced universals and other "budget" custom IEMs. It has more tricks up its sleeve than just sound quality though with a smaller form factor and a built-in mic function. It is the first I have seen with this combination and they are worth your consideration if you are looking for a portable pair of in-ears to go with your phone.



HiFiMAN RE262 Review

A single dynamic driver offering from Head-Direct 
Specs:
Driver: 9mm Dynamic
Frequency Response: 15Hz~22KHz
Impedance: 150Ω
Sensitivity: 102dB
Cord Length: 0.5m + 3 adaptor extensions
Plug Type: Straight Plug + Angled Plugs on Extensions
MSRP: $149

Packaging / Accessories:  
The HiFiMAN RE262 comes in a very nice storage box, looking identical to the packaging of their full-sized headphones just at a smaller size. While the box is very nice and is a nice touch, I would have much preferred a portable carrying case which unfortunately is not included in the accessories. They come with 3 pairs of single-flange tips (s, m, l), 2 pairs of bi-flanged tips (m, l), 5 pairs of replacement filters, shirt clip, and 3 pairs of extension cable adaptors. I thought I'd mention that the RE262 is a balanced pair of earphone, meaning that in order to use them on regular earphones outputs (ones on the iPod, MP3, or computer for example) the imbalanced adapter (included) must be used, or else there will only be sound through one side. 

Build Quality / Appearance / Cable:
At first look, I was intrigued by the RE262's odd asymmetrical appearance. The housings are made of plastic and glossy all around, with just one colour. Some may find them bland with no flames like that of the Dunu Hephaes, but they are low profile and well built. They have nozzles made of metal, which certainly adds to their durability, and replaceable filters. Strain reliefs are effective without being too stiff and helps with the different wearing methods, which I will discuss in the next section. The cable doesn't feel like the roughest cable out there, but they are fairly thick and also have a nice looking cinch/chin slider. Cable noise is minimal when worn down and completely non-existent when worn over the ear. 

Comfort / Isolation: 
I find the RE262 to be very comfortable for both wearing methods-cable down and over the ear. When wearing them over the ear, the right earpiece is to be inserted in the left ear and vice versa. The longer strain relief connecting the cable and housing helps in this regard by guiding the cable behind the ear so that it doesn't fall out easily behind the ear. Although there is less cable noise when wearing them behind the ear, being able to wear them cable down while offering the same level of comfort is a big plus in my book. This is my preferred method of wearing them simply because it is faster to get them in and out of my ears. As for the isolation, they are much above average with the bi-flanged tips despite what I notice as a small vent on the outer face of each housing.

Sound: 
The HiFiMAN RE262 has a warm sound signature but is definitely the most bass-light dynamic driver IEM I have heard. I'm not saying this negatively though, since the midrange more than makes up for the bass I personally find lacking for my tastes. So while the bass and treble both takes a step back in the spotlight, the midrange is front and centre; it is absolutely gorgeous. Other than the midrange, what really impressed me is the size of the soundstage and the amount of space and air in the music. Do note that the RE262 are very power hungry, so they will benefit immensely from an amp and may also require a good hundred hours of burn-in before really letting their colours shine. 
Lows: As a bass lover, I would be lying if I said I wasn't initially disappointed in the quantity and impact of the lower frequencies from RE262's 9mm dynamic driver. Bass notes are soft and rounded without the hard-hitting impact I've come to expect from the majority of dynamic drivers. They do extend very low into the sub bass, but they lack bass presence for the majority of music I listen to. More often than not, I find myself wanting to increase the bass quantity by EQ or adding a DigiZoid ZO "personal subwoofer". This would of course alter the sound signature that HiFiMAN  intended on. The bass notes are light and very clean. Let me make one thing clear, and it's that the RE262's bass is of great quality despite lacking in quantity. It is nicely textured, detailed, and deep enough to provide a very soft rumble in the background behind the midrange. 
Mids: The midrange is where the magic lies with the RE262. It is very forward and clearly the focal point of the sound signature. While the midrange is warm, it is not overly thick nor is it thin sounding. There is great transparency and smoothness in the midrange. Vocals especially, sound excellent and are extremely immersive with heartfelt emotion. The lushness and intimacy of the voice is unparalleled by other in-ears I've heard to date. Despite my love for bass, the midrange of the RE262 is both addicting and seductive. To my fellow bass lovers out there, let me just make it clear that the RE262 is not the right choice for listening to hip hop or other "bassy" genres and they would never be my top choice for my preferred genres; however, the RE262 has a lot to offer in the midrange where they really excel. Not only is there excellent clarity, but the level of detail retrieval is superb.
Treble: Like the bass, the higher frequencies takes a step back to the forward midrange. The treble is nicely extended and laid back, often too laid back in my opinion. It lacks top end sparkle and energy and as a result, I personally find the treble to be boring. Nonetheless, the treble is detailed and resolving, it just doesn't have the presence of some other more treble happy in-ears. If I  had to describe the RE262's treble in one word, it would be "inoffensive". 
Soundstage / Presentation:  This is another area where the RE262 really impressed, but whether this is a pro or con is as usual subjective to personal preferences. The soundstage is enormous and very enveloping. The amount of space present is amazing considering this is a pair of in-ears and not an open pair of full-sized headphones. Positioning and placement of voices/instruments is excellent with lots and lots of layering. Lastly, the RE262 is no doubt coloured, but the colouration is tastefully done and pairs wondrously with the natural sound that they produce.  

Summary:
The HiFiMAN RE262 has potential to be the go-to earphone for someone who knows what they're getting into with the RE262. From my observations and using my friends as guinea pigs, I've noticed that most people prefer a V-shaped (emphasized bass and treble) sound signature. Those are generally considered more "fun" and exciting and in that sense, the RE262 is not as "safe" as a pick for the general consumer as something like the Ultimate Ears TF10 for example. The RE262, while "fun" in its own way, offers a different flavour in that the midrange is the meat of its sound. For anyone who is looking for intimate vocals and an expansive soundstage, the RE262 would be perfect. Since they are also power hungry, the RE262 can really benefit from the use of an amp to bring them to their full potential. I don't necessarily consider the RE262 as a top tier universal, instead more in-between top tiers and mid-tiers. But the things that they excel in, they really are one of the best. 



Panasonic HJE70 Review

Panasonic's ex-flagship model.
Specs:
Driver: Single Dynamic 
Frequency Response: 10Hz~23KHz
Impedance: 16Ω
Sensitivity: 102dB
Cord Length: 0.5m + 1m
Plug Type: Straight Plug
MSRP: $130 // Current Price: $67 from Amazon


Introduction:
This review is for the Panasonic HJE70, which I'm sure not many people has heard of. And if they have, they know that this was quite a popular model when it came out. The ex-flagship of Panasonic first became available in 2006 so yes, it was quite a while ago. I recently received this pair of earphones as a prize in a contest. It came brand new and I considered giving it away as a gift; however, being the audio enthusiast that I am, I just had to open them and give them a listen. This "review" is more of my impressions since I didn't spend as much time on them as I did with the other earphones I reviewed. I mean, let's be honest, the chances of you buying these even at ~$70USD is pretty slim considering all the earphone models available today. I don't like reviewing "old" products such as this one, but they sound good so I'm giving them some spotlight here.

Packaging / Accessories:  
The Panasonic HJE70 comes packaged in a black paper box with layers of foam on the inside to hold the earphones. There is a velcro flap that reveals a transparent section of the packing where the housings of the HJE70 can be seen on the inside. Accessories wise, it is a little disappointing considering the fact that these were a flagship pair of in-ears priced at over $100 originally. I'm not sure if the packaging or accessories has changed, but my pair came with 3 pairs of tips (s, m, l), an extension cable and a rather large, but quite slick looking, aluminum carrying case. 

Build Quality / Appearance / Cable:
I'll be honest, when I first saw the HJE70 I thought that these must be the bulkiest and ugliest earphones I have owned. The design is obviously outdated and while they may appeal to some people, I am not a fan for more than just aesthetics reasons. From the pictures you can easily see that they are designed quite differently with a long "stem" that extends out from the housing. There is actually a black rubbery piece protruding out from the back of these stems and their purpose is to connect and secure the right and left earpieces together for easier storage. This way the right and left housings don't dangle around or more importantly, get tangled as much. I really would just prefer a smaller design, but this was released over 6 years ago, so I'm not going to deduct points for design. If I recall correctly, the J-cord was very popular back then and this is the cord design the HJE70 utilizes. The cord itself is also quite short and I generally required an extension cable unless I have my portable player in the front short pocket. Build quality is very good as the housings and stems are made of aluminum. Not only do they look like they can take a beating, but they are also lighter than what I was expecting.

Comfort / Isolation: 
They are nowhere near being the most comfortable, but I have definitely had worst. The long aluminum stems can get in the way sometimes, and prevents the HJE70 to be worn over the ear, but the stems can be rotated to a small degree for a better fit and comfort. It does fall our of the ear rather easily but not as often as Sony's EX600 model. Isolation is average, yet I would not recommend them for commute as enough sound leaks in causing me to raise the volume higher than I generally like. 

Sound:  *as noted above, these are more of my impressions rather than a full review
The Panasonic HJE70 has a V-shaped sound signature. In plain English, this means that the bass and treble are emphasized.
Lows: Bass is a strong suit for the Pannys. Bass notes have lots of power and are handled nicely, never out of control or suffering from bloat. It extends very low and can easily provide the rumble bass lovers crave. While I wouldn't call them extremely bass-heavy like the IE8, bass has a large presence in the sound signature with just the right amount to not be overpowering. It is rich and full with good texturing down low. 
Mids: As expected from the V-shaped response, the mids are slightly recessed. What I mean is that the midrange is less pronounced than the other frequencies and vocals for example, sound more distant and in the background compared to more mid-centric earphones. There is also a bit, although nothing excessive, of bass bleed and it certainly adds warmth to the midrange.
Treble: The top end extension is great. It has lots of energy and is very lively. Sibilance is present but nothing too harsh like the Hippo VB. Clarity is very good and there is also a good amount of detail present.  
Soundstage: Soundstage on the HJE90 is on the large side, but not the largest. It has good width and a two-dimensional soundstage so it doesn't engulf you like a 3D soundstage that many often find too tiresome to listen to. A v-shaped sound signature often results in a relatively large soundstage and the HJE70's presentation as a whole is definitely nice to listen to. 

Summary:
Would I spend good money and buy these brand new even at 50% off it's original price? Probably not. While I really did enjoy listening to them, there is simply too much competition in the <$100 price range, filled with much more recent models with better designs and overall sound quality. Nevertheless, if you get a chance to hear them, they are worth a listen and you may be pleasantly surprised.


Unique Melody Merlin Review


Introduction:
Unique Melody is a relatively new company that started making a name for itself by providing universal and custom in-ear monitor reshells. Before long, people took notice of their amazing build quality that many believe to be on par, if not better, than other more well known companies in the industry. Unique Melody actually used to offer not only full acrylic reshells, but also acrylic with silicone-filled ear canal reshells. A couple years ago, they released their own line of custom in-ear monitors including the 2-driver Marvel, 3-driver Aero, and the 4-driver flagship Mage. In 2010, a new flagship called the Miracle was introduced, boasting 6 balanced armature drivers per ear. The Miracle became a new benchmark for many people with its neutral sound and accuracy. This set the stage for their most recently released model, the Merlin, which is the subject of this review.

When I first heard about the Merlin, I was immediately intrigued by its hybrid design using a single dynamic driver for bass and four balanced armature drivers for the midrange and treble. I have always preferred bass from dynamic drivers over balanced armatures, but in my experience dynamic drivers can never match the speed and control of balanced armature drivers. On paper, a perfect earphone for my preferences would use balanced armature drivers, while retaining the characteristics of a dynamic driver's bass. This is when I heard about the Merlin, presenting itself to me as a perfect combination of what is best of both worlds and I just had to hear them for myself.


The Ordering Process:
  • Unique Melody products can be ordered through Stephen Guo from www.custom-iem.com or through UM Global from http://www.uniquemelody.co. Depending on your location, they can also be had through local authorized dealers such as AmpCity in the UK. 
  • There is a 2 year warranty + 60 day free refit policy for the Merlin *This only applies to the Merlin and Miracle
My Unique Melody Merlin was purchased through Stephen Guo at custom-iem.com. I had contacted Stephen before I was certain that I was going to order the Merlin, but he was very friendly and within a week I had placed my order. Throughout the entire process, Stephen was very responsive and always replied my emails within hours if not within minutes. There were many instances where I would step away from my desk for less than half an hour, only to come back and find a reply from Stephen already waiting for me; Stephen's customer service is truly top-notch.

Since all custom in-ear monitors are made to fit your ears perfectly, the customer needs to provide a set of their ear mold impressions. While some people may opt for the cheaper method with a DIY kit, it is recommended that a trained audiologist with experience taking ear impressions for custom in-ear monitors make your ear molds. The price for a set of impressions from an audiologist can vary, with some charging as little as $20 and others above $50. Have the audiologist read the instructions provided by Unique Melody carefully beforehand to decrease the likelihood of getting a refit or new impressions due to problems with the original pair. 

In my case, my first pair of impressions did not turn out as well as I had hoped, mostly because the audiologist failed to take the impressions deep enough into my ear canals. This caused fit problems when I originally received my Merlin and required me to send them back to UM Lab along with a new pair of impressions. For my second set of impressions, I decided to make an appointment with Rhonda Martin - an audiologist at HearForLife in the Greater Toronto Area. She is an audiologist who has worked with many Canadian artists including Celine Dion, Drake, Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado and many more. Rhonda was a pleasure to work with and I would highly recommend her for anyone in the Toronto area. The whole process took around 10 minutes and other than the slight discomfort I received from when the cotton balls were being inserted into my ear canals, it was a quick and painless procedure. 

I think it is also worth mentioning that because UM Lab is based in China, shipping costs can be quite high for oversea orders when sending in your ear impressions. Of course it also depends on the shipping method used, but FedEx Priority with tracking can be as high as $130 while the local post office may charge as little as $15 without tracking.

The turnaround time was average. It took a total of 20 days (including weekends) from when UM Lab received my impressions to when the finished product was shipped out. The turnaround time for my refit was a bit longer at 26 days. Although it would be nice if the turnaround time was even shorter, I was more than satisfied with the speed at which my order was processed. Unique Melody also uses a very fast shipping method with FedEx International Priority and transit time was only 2 days between China to Canada. 

Packaging:
The Merlin came in a large, red faux leather "chest" with a nicely designed interior to protect the Merlin and store its accessories. The case is not very useful as a travel case, but it is definitely very nice and is the kind of packaging you would expect for such an expensive productOther accessories include a 50" UM cable, cleaning tool, warranty card, clamshell case, a shirt clip, and a frequency response graph of my Merlin. While UM did include a small clamshell case, it is not very useful as it is a little too small to store the Merlin with the cabled connected. Overall, I am impressed with UM's presentation of the Merlin; however, I would have much preferred a nice portable case that I can actually use over the exquisite box that is now collecting dust on my shelf.



Design
Technical Specifications
 Driver: 5 Driver Hybrid - Bass: 1 Dynamic,  Mids: Dual BA,   Highs: Dual BA
Frequency Response: 10Hz~19KHz
Impedance: 12Ω
Sensitivity: 108dB  
Noise Isolation: -26dB 
Current Price: $799

The Unique Melody Merlin has a hybrid design with a 3-way crossover, with each ear using a single dynamic driver for the lower frequencies, dual balanced armatures for the midrange, and dual balanced armatures for the highs. There are only two other custom in-ear monitors I am aware of at the time of writing that has a similar "hybrid" configuration - the  Thousand Sound TS842 and the Earpower EP-10. As a result of the dynamic driver, the Merlin has a vented design with the vent located at one corner of the faceplate. The vent actually does not affect isolation as much as you may think or if it does at all. In my experience, the Merlin does not isolate nearly as well as my two other non-vented custom IEMs, the JH5 and Heir Audio 8.A. Don't get me wrong, the Merlin is still highly isolating and the level of isolation between them and my other customs is subtle, but enough that the difference is noticeable.

The Merlin uses two bores to transmit the sound, with the mids/highs through one and bass through the other. The dynamic driver is 9mm in diameter and the balanced armatures used are Knowles Acoustics TWFK drivers. I also chose to have recessed sockets instead of flush sockets (which are also offered) because recessed sockets are generally more stable.

It took me a couple days to decide on the my design since I wanted to take advantage of the customizable options but did not want to end up with buyer's remorse. In the end, I went with translucent blue for both shell colours, titanium faceplates, and single-coloured artworks. The titanium faceplates cost extra as do the artwork. There are many other options available, such as carbon fibre faceplates, custom metal inserts or wood faceplates, but keep in mind that there is a premium to be paid for these options. Please refer to their website for all the available options. Unique Melody also allows you to choose different colours for the canal section if you wish.

The build quality is phenomenal. 
(Top) It's not the best picture, but here you can see the dynamic drivers.
The quad balanced armature drivers are located closer to the tip while the dynamic driver is by the faceplate.
Notice the recessed sockets and floating artwork

Build Quality: 
The build quality is astonishing. I now truly understand the praise Unique Melody has received from their customers in regards to the build quality. The titanium faceplates are beautiful and my custom artwork "floats" above them when seen from an angle, casting a shadow over the faceplate. The shell is silky smooth all around and there are absolutely no bubbles that I can find even upon close inspection. I am absolutely blown away by the transparency and flawless build of the shell. Compared to my JH5, the Merlin is clearly the winner in terms of build quality. If you think they good in pictures, well I can guarantee that they look even better in person and pictures don't do them justice.

Comfort:
The Merlin is like all other acrylic shelled custom in-ear monitors and are very comfortable. Well, they should be considering that they are made to fit your ears perfectly. The idea of jamming hard acrylic shells into your ear canals is not the most appealing and while it usually take first-timer CIEM users a couple days to adjust, some people never fully get accustomed to that feeling. So while it does provide top-notch comfort if you are able to adjust, they are still not for everyone.

Isolation:
As I had already mentioned above, the Merlin is very isolating like most other custom in-ear monitors. According to Unique Melody, the vent should not affect isolation as it is not connected to the sound bores where sound goes to your ears. In my own experience, my other custom in-ear monitors are just a tiny bit more isolating than the Merlin, although I'm not sure if that is a direct result from the vent.
The vent connecting to the dynamic driver is visible on the shell to the left.
Equipment: 
I do the majority of my listening through my iPod, connected to the ALO Rx Mk II portable amplifier; I also use my Macbook Pro and iMac when listening at home. The files used include FLAC, ALAC and 320kbps mp3 files. For my review, I chose to use the stock UM cable. Although I did find that the Whiplash TWag V2 improved the sound even more by enlarging the soundstage and adding transparency.

Disclaimer:
I am an audio enthusiast who enjoy writing reviews for fun and not for profit. I am not affiliated with Unique Melody in any way and this review reflects my unbiased opinion on the sound. These are merely my impressions and your ears may hear differently so take what I say with a grain of salt. 

Sound: 
The Unique Melody Merlin is a shift from the Unique Melody house sound, which is usually quite neutral. Instead, the Merlin has enhanced bass and offers more of a "fun" sound signature that is geared towards personal listening rather than for stage monitoring purposes. What the Merlin brings to the table is powerful natural bass, a lush midrange, crisp treble, and a very spacious presentation with a huge soundstage. It is not aggressive in its presentation and has a more relaxed pace. The level of refinement is also above any other in-ears I have heard. Unique Melody included a frequency chart of my Merlin, which is a nice touch, and it reflects the sound signature to a certain extent; however, keep in mind that there are many ways and techniques to produce a frequency chart and they may not always reflect what you actually hear. Upon listening to the Merlin for the first time, they blew me away and gave me a "wow" feeling that no other in-ears have had the ability to do. It was hard to get myself to stop listening to them. The sound I was hearing was nothing I had experienced before. After spending a month or two with them, I am still loving them more and more every day. Now let's break down each aspect of the sound individually.


Bass:
Let's begin with the bass. The Merlin is quite unique being a custom in-ear monitor that utilizes a dynamic driver for bass whereas most custom in-ear monitor companies use only balanced armature drivers in their designs. Between balanced armature and dynamic drivers, dynamic drivers are known to produce bigger bass that is more organic but with less control. Balanced armatures usually have more speed but can often sound artificial and unnatural. Being a dynamic driver fan, I admit I had very high expectations for the Merlin especially in its bass. Well, the Merlin did not disappoint. In fact, it possesses all the characteristics I have come to love about dynamic drivers in universals and takes it to the next level. There is incredible extension down low and it easily rivals what my current "king of sub-bass", the Atrio MG7, can do. Only that the Merlin's bass has much more control and refinement. Another dynamic favourite of mine (in fact, it is my favourite universal at the time of writing), the FX700, sounds slow and "loose" down low in comparison to the Merlin. As expected, the bass on the Merlin is high in quantity and very powerful. It hits with authority while staying tight and extremely clean. The high impact can often be felt with all the air that it moves. Mid-bass on the Merlin is not elevated in any way and directs the listener's attention more towards the sub-bass, which provides excellent rumble. Yes the bass has a lot of presence and can be the focus of many songs, but it also knows when to take a step back on less bass-heavy tracks since most of the bass elevation is deep in the sub-bass. I am also very pleased with how organic and natural the bass sounds, which is especially evident when listening to the cello and bass guitar. The decay times are very realistic and yet there is great speed; the dynamic driver can easily handle busy passages on fast tracks without sounding like a blur (they still can't match the speed of BA drivers though). In case you missed it, let me just restate that the Merlin's bass is very clean. What impresses me the most is the effortlessness of the Merlin's ability to produce such powerful, yet fast and very nicely textured bass. It is tight, free of bloat, and has incredible depth.

Midrange:
I wasn't sure what to expect from the midrange, but upon seeing the frequency chart of my Merlin I assumed that they would be recessed. This was not the case. The Merlin actually has non recessed mids that are just slightly forward. The elevated bass takes the spotlight more often than not, but the mids are still highly capable of grabbing your attention and are magical for vocals. They immerse you in its presentation with liquid notes, exceptional imaging and lots of details. Vocals are sweet with a sense of intimacy, placing the singer up close and personal with a live-performance feel. Detail retrieval and clarity are both excellent. I can clearly hear the parting of lips and each breath the singer takes, all contributing to an intimate listening experience that almost gives you no choice but to submit to the lyrics and enjoy music.

Treble:
The Merlin's treble is crisp with great extension. It has a lot of energy and sparkle, but they never become fatiguing or overwhelming even during long listening sessions.  I am also happy to report that there are no traces of sibilance or harshness and everything is smooth in the upper frequencies. The highs are airy but not overemphasized, blending in with the rest of the spectrum beautifully. When listening to cymbals, they are very convincing with excellent timbre and a very impressive natural decay. Cymbals are rendered with amazing clarity and detail in addition to having great spatial cues. Each strike and clash is easily recognizable and distinguished; I'm really loving the sound of hi-hats on the Merlin.


Soundstage / Presentation:
The soundstage of the Merlin is massive. I really enjoy a large soundstage and the Merlin has by far the biggest soundstage I have heard from an in-ear. It extends very wide, deep and tall. They have an open and airy sound that is really spacious, but depending on genre and personal preferences, can sometimes sound too spaced apart. I noticed that the distance between performers can become too large for certain tracks where I would have preferred them to be placed closer together. The Merlin does have pinpoint positioning of each performer though, which is even more impressive considering the size of the stage. Another strong attribute of the Merlin is its instrument separation. In my listening notes, I noted several songs where I heard instruments I did not know was present in the track. With the Merlin, I can easily distinguish between each instrument as now they have more than sufficient space between them.

Final Thoughts:
As evident throughout my review, I have nothing but praise for the Unique Melody Merlin. While I understand there will be people who wish I critiqued them more, I assure you that these are my unbiased impressions and that I really do enjoy them that much. With that said, the Merlin is not for everyone. Sure, they may have the perfect sound signature for me, but make no mistake about it that the Merlin is bass heavy and will not provide the most accurate reproduction of sound for monitoring or studio use. Instead, the Merlin offers a top-tier sound that will provide sheer enjoyment of music for personal listening. Combined with the perfect fit provided by custom in-ear monitors, listening to them is an unbelievable experience every time. I often find myself start tapping my feet or nodding my head to the music unknowingly. For bass lovers out there, the Merlin has a very large bass presence that should meet and exceed your expectations in its quality and quantity. While the bass is the clear star of the show, don't forget about the nicely presented mids and crisp treble, as both complement the bass extremely well.

Keep in mind that custom in-ear monitors will have a low resell value if you decide you don't like them or cannot get used to the way they feel. There is also potential for long waiting periods that extend even longer if refits are required. Are they worth all this trouble? Most definitely yes. Despite the lower price tag when compared to other custom in-ear monitor flagships (they are not cheap by any stretch and are a lot more than most people would spend on a pair of earphones), I certainly consider the Merlin as an upper-tier custom in-ear monitor. They are very competitive as a complete package with excellent sound, superb build quality, and exceptional customer service from Stephen Guo. If this is your first upgrade into the realm of custom in-ear monitors, the Merlin will no doubt top what your best universal IEM can accomplish. And until you hear the Merlin, you will not know what you are missing. Like they say, ignorance is bliss; however, once you move up in the audio world, there is just no going back.