- Crystal clear highs and rich mids
- Vast sound stage
- Easy to drive - no need to amp
- Great comfort, build and noise isolation
- Completely customisable design
- Slightly light on bass
- Hard plastic design has some drawbacks
- Amost too sensitive
- Few extras in the box
- Review Price: £575.00
- Four balanced armature drivers
- Custom moulded housing
- Completely customisable styling
- Replaceable cables
Recently we looked at the Unique Melody Aero, a set of custom-moulded triple-driver In-Ear Monitors (IEMs), and were reasonably impressed but they couldn’t quite take the fight to the similarly priced ACS T2 dual driver set. Now we’re taking a look at the next model up from the Aeros, the Unique Melody Mage. They pack in four balanced armature drivers to deliver their audio oomph. So can double the number of drivers deliver double the performance of the ACS T2? Let’s find out.
Before we hit the review proper, for those uninitiated in the ways of custom IEMs, here’s a brief introduction.
Unlike normal earphones or IEMs, ‘customs’ are created literally in the mould of your own ears. You visit an audiologist to get impressions taken of your ears (prices range from £20-£50) then send these to the manufacturer of your choice where they’re crafted into perfect fitting facilitators of audiological fun.
In the case of Unique Melody, the company plans to develop a voucher scheme whereby once you’ve ordered your headphones you can simply hand over the voucher to the audiologist and not have to pay anything. However, currently you have to cover this cost yourself and £20 has been removed from the overall price to balance this. Also, when you order your headphones the company provides a prepaid envelope for you to return the impressions.
Where Unique Melody differs from some other custom providers is that you can also completely customise the look of your IEMs at no extra cost. Specifically you can choose from literally any opaque or translucent colour for the main plastic of the earpieces, choose a second colour for the cap (the flat section that covers most of the outer surface of the earpiece), add a background panel for the cap (like brushed aluminium) and finish it all off with a custom etching.
We went for an all clear plastic look, so as best to get photos of the insides, with inlaid aluminium panels and a couple of custom etchings. For more examples you can check out Unique Melody’s gallery.
Once the impressions were made and styling chosen was done, it took around four weeks for the IEMs to arrive and thankfully upon first impression they were well worth the wait. They arrive in a splendiferous faux leather clad box (that thankfully isn’t pink like on the Aeros) complete with a wax removal tool, reasonably informative instruction manual (most crucially advising how best to fit and remove the ‘phones), a snazzy warranty card, and a unique sound level graph showing just how your IEMs perform sonically, at least according to some professional monitoring equipment.
You don’t, however, get a carry case, inline volume control, or other such extras. And, of course, you don’t get any rubber tips, as being customs you don’t need them.
The Unique Melody Mage earphones are incredibly well made, the surface of the plastic being super smooth and the seam between the main body of the earpiece and the cap being essentially invisible. The thickness of plastic also suggests they will endure considerable stress and strain. That said, being made from hard plastic they will crack if put under undue strain. What’s more, they’re also large and so create a sizable bulge in your pocket, making them more susceptible to knocks.
The quality of the etchings is excellent, as is the presentation of the brushed metal plate. Essentially they look perfect. That said, one can hardly call a pair of customs cool. No matter what finish you choose they do look rather big and ugly in the hand and slightly hearing aid-like when in the ear. Okay, perhaps ugly is too strong a word but the B&W C5s or Klipsch X10is they are not.
Removable cables are used to ensure that a snagged cable won’t result in a costly repair, with replacements costing a sensible £25. The way the cables adjoin the mould isn’t perhaps the most elegant but it’s a simple, effective and sturdy connection.
The cable itself is also surprisingly lightweight. We can take or leave
the open twisted design but the thin and light construction keeps
microphony to a minimum and makes them easy to manage. The only concern
is that they’re perhaps a bit too lightweight and thus not that rugged
but as they can be replaced this shouldn’t concern unless you plan to
wear them onstage every night. As is customary for earphones worn with
the cable running over the ear, the last inch and a half of the cable
incorporates a malleable wire for keeping the cable tucked neatly behind
You can also get a replacement silver cable, which (after we published the initial review) we were sent to test. This is beautifully crafted from thick pure silver cabling plated together and terminated in a high quality gold plated jack connector – it certainly looks the part. It doesn’t incorporate a wire for moulding the cable round your ear but we didn’t find this at all problematic, and in fact it proved to us that which we’ve thought for a while; that you don’t really need malleable cables. The thicker nature of the cable did introduce a bit more microphony, though. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the listening and indeed it does seem to improve things. In short, it’s a bit like adding a decent headphone amp, providing improved bass response and just generally a bit more presence to the sound. Indeed, as much as anything the ‘phones simply seemed a tad louder with this cable attached. We definitely approved. However, with it costing £140 it’s not an option we’d recommend going for until you’ve had some time with the normal cable.
(centre)A pure silver cable upgrade is also available(/centre)
So far so good then. However, when it came to fitting these IEMs we were initially a bit disappointed. The hard plastic felt rather uncomfortable, particularly as it delves so deep into your ear canal, and sonically they were underwhelming. This is by admission a more trebly set of IEMs than some but we found bass to be almost completely lacking, with us needing to press the earpieces hard into our ears to get any bass response. They also didn’t seem to seal out background noise all that well.
Then, after a few weeks use, the penny dropped – they just didn’t fit correctly. This is very much the danger with custom IEMs, particularly hard plastic ones – as opposed to the rubbery silicon of the ACS range – as you can’t try before you buy, but thankfully Unique Melody has you covered. You get up to a month to decide if the fit is correct and if not you can get new impressions taken and the IEMs remade, which is precisely what we did.
We were also informed that you can ask for the voicing to be tailored slightly to suit your preferences and duly we asked for a little more bass to be squeezed from them.
The resulting pair are like Wee Bear’s bed; just right. They fit comfortably, block out noise incredibly effectively and bass response improved massively.
That said, there are still a few comfort and usability issues. As they’re both large and rigid they can’t be worn when sleeping or resting your head on its side. They’re also rather awkward to fit and remove, though you do get the hang of it somewhat. Perhaps of most concern for those looking for a set of IEMs for all purposes, though, is they’re not great for exercising and particularly running. Because the plastic is so rigid, once you’re hot and sweaty the jolt of running causes the seal against your ear canal to constantly break resulting in an irritating slapping noise. This is one area where a traditional foam or rubber tipped universal IEM has a distinct advantage.
So clearly these aren’t the IEMs for every situation but, for general commuting, street wondering and home/work listening use, what’s most important is sound quality and that’s where the Mage really begin to shine.
The Unique Melody Mage pack in no less than four balanced armature drivers, with two to drive the low end and two for the mid-range and upper frequencies. In contrast, the ACS T2 use two drivers while the Unique Melody Aero and past favourites the Shure SE535 use three.
Despite this mass of drivers the Mage are incredibly sensitive and easy to drive. We regularly found a single press of the volume button (from mute) on an iPhone resulted in too loud a signal for prolonged listening. Instead we’d have to use the volume slider to pick out a point half way between. Indeed, using some headphone amps that introduce some hiss, we had to employ a noise attenuator (inline volume control) so we could crank the volume and drown out the hiss. We do have particularly sensitive ears, though. If you do like to drive your ears to destruction the Mage will happily oblige without distortion, even when amped and cranked, but generally you can get away without extra amplification.
That said, adding a headphone amp into the mix does bring out the Mage’s full potential. The bottom end tightens up sounding more precise and punchy while overall articulation is improved. This adds yet more detail and a wider sound stage to what is already an incredibly accurate sounding set of ‘phones.
(centre)The graph of our original set of Mages. Comparing to similar readouts for other IEMs, you can see there are clear spikes at around the 3k and 8k points, emphasising the mid-high range bias.(/centre)
(centre)The graph of our bass-boosted Mages. You can clearly see the extra two or three dB added to the lower (below 1KHz) section of the graph.(/centre)
Looking at that sound in a bit more detail, this set is primarily sold as a one to appeal to lovers of detailed high-end, rather than booming bass. High frequencies simply sparkle bringing a huge amount of life to recordings of all types, all without sounding sibilant. Combined with the vast overall frequency range this particularly helps to spread the sound stage far and wide, making these one of the most expansive sets or IEMs we’ve ever used. Instrument separation is also stunning. From picking out the multi-tracking used to add beef to Dimebag Darrell’s heavy metal guitar riffing to being able to almost count the number of 1st violins used in the intro to the “Nimrod” movement of Elgar’s Enigma variations, no other IEM we’ve heard can match these.
Mid-range is also exceptional with guitars, piano, vocals and the like all coming through with real vigour and realism. This is somewhat similar to the ever popular Shure range but the Mage add handfuls of brightness as well, thanks to that sparkling top-end.
What you don’t get with this set, though, is a huge thumping bass sound. Despite having the low end bumped up on our review set, these are still a fairly delicate set of IEMs. That’s not to say bass isn’t there. The range is vast with the lowest rumblings faithfully recreated, but it just doesn’t hit you in the face. It sounds pretty close to perfect to our ears, providing bombast when called upon but not colouring the sound when daintiness is what’s required. What’s more it has an incredibly quick bass response, thanks in part to low-end responsibilities being shared between two drivers, meaning that while the hit from fast trance or heavy metal music isn’t quite as hard as some alternatives the accuracy is all there.
The only complaint we have is that the boost that Unique Melody has applied doesn’t appear to be entirely smooth, with it sounding just a little forced sometimes – like when a sub is set at too high a volume and suddenly kicks in when a note within its frequency range pipes up. It’s a subtle thing and it certainly wouldn’t put us off but it does make us doubly intrigued to hear the Unique Melody Merlin that use four balanced armature drivers and a dynamic driver to naturally provide a more bass-heavy sound.
It’s also worth reiterating that we’re judging these phones having asked for a bit of a bass bump, so if you want to match this performance you’ll have to ask for similar. From our time with the default sound signature – bearing in mind the fit wasn’t perfect – we’d suggest they are a little too lacking in bass for heavy metal fans in particular but also anyone that likes a thumping bass line. For classical, jazz and acoustic fans, though, they’re excellent.
The Unique Melody Mage are quite simply the most sparklingly detailed set of In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) we’ve ever tested. Certainly for acoustic and classical music we’ve heard none better. In there natural state bass response is a bit light but, being a custom set, you can ask for this to be boosted and the result is a great all round sound. Indeed sonically these are among our favourite IEMs. Where they wobble a bit is with their construction. They’re beautifully crafted and the choice of finished is astounding but the hard plastic shell, as used by most other custom IEMs, just can’t match the comfort of the soft silicon used on the ACS range. For general listening this isn’t an issue but if you’d like for your headphones to go with you everywhere, including for jogs round the park and when slumbering, then the ACS T2s may still be your best bet, though sonically they are a step down. We also wish a few more accessories were included in the box.
As to whether to go for custom or regular IEMs, if you get the fit right then nothing compares to the comfort, noise isolation and sound stage of a custom but when you can get the quad driver Westone 4, for instance, for around £300, the £555 required for the Mage is a bit eye watering. Nonetheless these remain one of the most competitively priced custom IEMs on the market in the UK and sonically they totally live up to their billing.
Score in detail
Design & Features 9
Sound Quality 9
|Number of Drivers (Times)||4x|
|Frequency Range||20 Hz-18 KHz|
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