Today I’m interviewing Lawrance of Unique Melody, makers of custom and universal IEMs with some rather unique designs. I contacted Lawrance via Unique Melody’s facebook page. In the past they were early adopters on making hybrid IEMs, those vaunted and mystical items that throw down multiple balanced armatures and one or more dynamic drivers. They are the only IEM developer that I’ve come across that has made a triple dynamic driver IEM, once known as the 3DD. They also made a six driver iem that was specifically designed to pair with a DSP, DAC, and triple amplifier, with the whole set known as the PP6. These cats are no strangers to innovation. In this interview we’ll be asking Lawrance about their current line-up, trying to break into their Fort Knox of audiophile secrets and examining their design philosophy and history.
For the interview, my questions and comments will be in plain text. Lawrance will get fancy italics, because he’s the important one. In pro interviews, which this is not, peoples’ comments often have initials in front of them. For me, that will be GM for glassmonkey. Lawrance is LL. His last name is omitted to protect the innocent.
Opening with small talk
GM: Hi Lawrance! How are you on this cold and dry St. Louis day?
LL: You’re definitely right on when it comes to it being cold here today. STL is kind of at the mercy of the winds. If the southern wind decides to blow, it’ll be 25 C in the dead of winter at times. But if the northern wind blows… We’re all running back inside.
GM: I cheated and checked the weather. Google is really something isn’t it?
LL: It’s a good idea to check the weather for the WHOLE day here. Because it’s so flat here, the wind and cold shift out of no where in the middle of the day.
Back when I was in college, it was funny because at the start of a class, it could be amazing and warm out, and by the end of class, people are running back to the dorms because it’s snowing.
You mentioned you were American. Where are you from yourself?
GM: I’m from Alaska, we know some cold up there too. You must be from a non-USA country, speaking in Celsius. Where are you from?
LL: I spent my childhood in Taiwan actually but I’ve been in the US the majority of my life, so I’m pretty familiar with converting between the two. It’s also one of the big factors as to why I’m working with UM, since I’m bilingual.
GM: I still can’t do conversions for negatives right after 5 1/2 years in the UK.
About Unique Melody
GM: Tell me a little bit about Unique Melody, when and where were you founded?
LL: So the founders of UM actually started off as individuals working in the hearing aid business. So the engineers know custom molds, ear anatomy, and BA drivers like the back of their hands. One of the guys actually started off remolding his friend’s broken IEMs for him since they knew that he was working in a similar industry. [Our guy] then decided he could make this a full-time thing.
GM: When did that happen? I’ve had a bit of trouble tracking that down. It seems to be around the CIEM boom of 2012.
LL: So UM actually started off around 2008 or so being a purely remolding business. The biggest culprits at that time were some of the Shure IEMs, like the E4C, which tend to crack pretty easily. We were one of the first companies to offer reshells for IEMS from other brands, and it was through that experience that we started experimenting with our own IEM designs and finally introducing our own line of products
GM: When did you start into the custom iem design business?
GM: Every company’s got some history, can you give me a tour of notable highlights in Unique Melody’s history?
LL: So what we saw was lacking in the CIEM industry around that time circa 2009, was CIEM’s created for audiophile listening. The big players back then, Westone, UE, JH Audio, were all geared towards stage and professional use. Audiophile use took a back seat. So a lot of our earlier designs did take inspiration from these professional use product, but we wanted to create them in ways that were for the music listener.
For example, one of our most successful IEM, the Miracle, was sort of inspired by the release of the JH 13 in 2010. The 13’s were undoubtedly an incredible IEM for its time, but it was colored, and still tuned toward stage use. So the inspiration was to create a similar product for audiophiles. And thus the idea of the Miracle came to be.
GM: Have there been any other peak moments in your company history or times when your influence ballooned?
LL: I think the greatest influence we had was with the release of the Miracle and Merlin. The Miracle brought the extreme detail that’s renown in the pro scene, with the likes of the UERM, together with the pleasantness and of an audiophile sound.
On the other hand, the Merlin seriously legitimized the concept that a hybrid IEM works.
GM: You guys seemed to be one of the first to make a hybrid. I think the Merlin was the first hybrid with 5 drivers.
LL: The old Merlin certainly had some degree of flaws, many of which we address in our V2 version, but people loved the idea that you can finally get “real” bass in a BA custom IEM
And that’s a big part of our design philosophy.
We don’t care how we get there, but we’re here to make IEM’s that please people with technically impressive sound, but also an enjoyable sound.
If you notice our lineup, it’s very different from a typical company with their entry 1 BA.. 2 BA… 4 BA… etc and flagship 12 + BA.
GM: That seems to be a natural transition into another question, looks like you are getting there.
What is the UM house sound?
GM: On Musicteck, I noted that the descriptions of many of your IEMs included references to ‘the Unique Melody house sound.’ The house sound is referenced on your bass-cannon Mentors, on your conceptually alien Martian, and on the Miracle, and Maestro. Can you define what this ‘house sound’ is for me and explain how it can be applied to such different IEMs?
LL: The core of the UM philosophy, as I’ve iterated, is enjoyment for the music listener. You couple that with the mobile lifestyle of many CIEM users, and you’ll find that a generally U-shaped sound tends to fit this group the best.
That’s not to say all we do is bass and treble of course, as we do have products, such as the Martian, that deviate from this without losing the UM identity. But at the end of the day, we do prefer a bass note that entertains and a treble sparkle that’s carefully tuned. We had very few issues with individuals complaining that the Miracle treble was too hot, but we do listen to feedback a lot, and addressed that with our V2.
GM: Correct me if my interpretation is off, but the emphasis points in the sound are sub-bass, and airy upper treble.
LL: I like to think that the upper end is more of giving instruments some life rather than going for pure air. An overly done upper treble can give an incredible sense of air and spaciousness, but also at the same time takes away from the overall integrity of what the recording is looking to reproduce.
Does UM have a philosophy with regards to the mids?
LL: The midrange is often the starting point for us, and that’s a philosophy we really drilled in with our new V2 designs.
Of course, every IEM we create is different, but we focus heavily on a sense of coherence and overall correctness in timbre.
GM: That’s a solid starting position. Most of the music is in the mids and it is what we hear the best due to how our ears are designed.
LL: A big issue we find in the market is a lack of coherence between crossovers and drivers of as CIEMs get more and more complex. Overall detail is without a doubt important, but not at the cost of losing tonality and timbre.
GM: No 25 BA driver in your future, I guess.
LL: We’ll consider it when everyone’s 15 feet tall with elephant ears.
Apparently we need to travel back to the ice age to supply CIEMs to Russian Steppe Mammoths
Latest IEM offerings
GM: I’d like to get back to your design philosophy for some of your latest offerings: the Martian and the ME-1. Both seem to be quite a departure from your previous offerings. Which customer were you serving when creating the Martian?
Unique Melody Martian
|Drivers||2 6.8mm Dynamic drivers Low, 1 BA driver Mid, 1 BA driver High|
|Frequency Response||10Hz – 18,000kHz|
|Sensitivity (at 1kHz)||110dB spl|
LL: So the Martian is an interesting story, as it’s design philosophy parallels the Merlin V2.
GM: Do tell…
LL: Going back to the talk of hybrids, the argument is often “I love the bass of dynamics and the detail in mids and high’s of BA,” but that statement alone tells a big chunk of the story. BA’s and dynamic drivers do not sound the same. And that kind of goes back to the story of overall coherence and accuracy of sound, so with these two hybrids, we worked to change that.
LL: With the new Merlin V2, unlike the older model, the 4 BA drivers actually cover the majority of the frequency range, while the dynamic driver sort of takes over where Ba drivers naturally lack. A big job of the dynamic driver is providing the sense of low and timbre that BA’s can’t produce.
GM: Out of curiosity, does the Martian use a push-pull dynamic driver set-up, or are they just complementary? The 3DD comes to mind.
LL: The Martian dynamic are complementary, and they’re design is a similar story to the Merlin, albeit a little different.
GM: So they don’t duplicate each-other in mirror to cancel out distortion?
LL: They actually do slightly different things.
The Martian was designed to break the barrier that hybrid IEMs are V-shaped, which traditionally has been so. So with the Martian, the mid BA driver actually reaches fairly low as well, and works in tandem with the dynamic drivers to create a fluid transition between bass and midrange, as well as an overall richer sound.
We had planned on it to be sooner, but we actually went to quite a few ideas, with prototypes using some pretty unique drivers, before reaching the Martian.
GM: It also drops below $1000 for your line-up, which hasn’t happened in a while. I’d really like to hear this Martian. It sounds intriguing.
Unique Melody ME-1
GM: Let’s talk about the ME-1. I’m really excited about it. It is an in ear planar that doesn’t look like Frankenstein bolt (oBravo) coming out of your ear, or spiderman whipped out all his webbing on your ear (Audeze). It is also semi-open. Tell me everything there is to know about your new marvel. [Lawrance saw the pic below during our conversation in Facebook Messenger]
LL: Haha. Nice…
So it’s still in prototype phase. We’ve actually made some changes to it even since CanJam NYC literally a month ago. We’ve actually found that a slightly smaller and thinner driver is giving us a better sound. So it’s still up in the air but as of now, we’re aiming for an early April release for China and internationally soon after.
The idea of an in-ear planar has been around for a while. In fact i know of at least 3 other companies that were interested in such a design, of course, I don’t know the details of where they are along that path now.
There’s certainly a lot of thought that went into the ME.1
User experience is important, so we’ve made a big commitment to ensuring that the unit fits well and has a reasonable profile
While it does leak sound and does not isolate amazingly well, we’ve also made it a point to make sure that the product is still usable in environments such as a quiet space.
GM: The location of the port should help with quiet spaces.
LL: The part of the ME.1 that has gotten a good bit of questions is our use of a hearing protection filter in it’s design.
A lot of people have been asking, hey aren’t you just copying ADEL and such?
We certainly respect ADEL as a unique design and solution to hearing protection, but UM have been in the hearing protection business for quite some time ourselves. Of course, our founders and chief engineers all being from the hearing aid industry helps with that.
Our sister company, Rooth, has actually been making sound attenuating earplugs for quite a while now, and we implemented some of that technology here.
A planar driver’s ability to move air, even with an open design, has led us to believe that we need to find ways in which to normalize the pressure within the ear canal, which allows a more natural sound reproduction compared to if the canal was sealed off.
GM: I’ve seen those Rooth plugs on Massdrop.
LL: Yeah! We do partner with them from time to time, and they generally sell surprisingly well on Massdrop.
GM: Does this mean that what your ME-1 is doing is leaking out the harmful low-frequencies that cause resonance and stapedius reflex? Basically, killing bad vibrations.
LL: Yes and at the same time, it’s an acoustic filter that attenuates the outside noise at specific frequencies.
GM: That’s sounds like cool tech. I can’t wait to face-off the in-ear planars. Note: must get oBravo ERIB-1C, Audeze iSine20 and Unique Melody ME-1 in the same room.
LL: We got some very positive feedback at CanJam NYC and we’re pretty excited for it. There was one gentleman that came back to our booth 4 or 5 times to just try them out again haha.
GM: I noted looking at all the old UM websites [too many of these, needs cleanup] that you guys seemed to make a conscious decision to leave the below $1000 market. Outside of the Martian are there any plans to return to the more entry-level markets?
LL: You can say we’re a bit of an oddball in this case. Many companies do well with their more “intro to hi-fi” products or mid-tier products. But our best sellers in the western market has actually consistently been the Mentor and Maestro. The Martian is doing well itself, but it’s also a newer product.
GM: No reason to flog a dead horse?
LL: We certainly like to find ways to allow more individuals to be introduced to UM, and we do look to do that. We have quite a few prototypes that didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s definitely not off the agenda either.
With the ME.1, we are looking at a price point around 700 USD. It hasn’t been set you, but it’s aimed to be somewhat affordable with stellar performance, of course, with the trade-off being that it’s not a traditional IEM design.
GM: That is interesting can I quote that?
LL: It’s safe to say around $700. It hasn’t been decided if it’ll be above or below. But it’s safe to say $700 ± $100.
GM: Well, that is very interesting.
Strange models from around the globe
GM: Looking around the interwebs, it looks like you have different line-ups for different regions. Are there many examples of headphones like the Japan market Maverick II, the Mavis II, the Mason II, and Macbeth?
LL: There have been a lot of questions regarding why there are so many regional units. A lot of people got the impression that we’ve made limited edition units for Japan, for example, like what some other manufacturers in the past did, simply because Japan is such a big market. That’s not the case for us.
We actually worked with the local distributor there to create a set of IEMs that match the sound preference there. Different cultures have different food preference, music preference, sports, etc…. why not sound signature as well? Our philosophy is to try to cater to the people who want to enjoy their music. So we’re not making special limited edition products. We’re tuning each product to fit the specific niche better.
GM: If someone in the West wanted the Maverick II, Mavis II, or the Macbeth, would they just have to order from Japan?
LL: Yea they would have to find a way to order it from Japan. People have done it. i have a friend here who had a Mason [Japan version], actually, here.
GM: Musicteck lists the Maestro as being the Mason. Is that not quite right for the Japan market?
LL: So to clarify…. There is Mason/Maestro V2. Mason V2 is the mainland China name for it. They are exactly the same. Then there’s Mason II. Which is a Japanese unit which is different…
GM: Aha. That is confusing.
GM: What kind of global reach do you have now? How many countries do you have ‘local’ or regional distribution of IEMs?
LL: We have local distribution mostly in Asia, we’re currently really looking to revitalize the Western market. Admittedly we had some communication issue and language barrier with our western distributors in the past, but we’ve learned our less and hope to come back strong than before,
For western market to contact UM, contact MusicTeck at firstname.lastname@example.org or to email us directly at email@example.com we do have a bilingual individual at our main offices as well.
GM: Any distribution in Europe? Getting stuff shipped to/from the USA is a pain. It might be easier to order direct from China in the EU.
LL: They’ll likely ship from China, and we’ll generally take care of our folks when it comes to extra shipping charges.
Yes that [to direct from China comment]. It’s just communication is much easier through another individual who can manage English.
GM: Where do you have offices, designers, and engineers based?
LL: Located in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China.
GM: I’ve found that people who get really specific in something like audio often have other areas where they are connoisseurs. Do you find this among your UM crew? Do you have beer snobs, coffee snobs (I’m guilty of both), other types of snobbery or hobby geekery (including sports nerds, trekkies, etc…)?
LL: So our chief designer is actually a surprisingly simple man. He enjoys what he does and likes to see how other do the same thing he does differently. But you definitely nailed it when it comes to me haha. I’m an absolute sushi fanatic.
GM: That’s got to be hard inland. St. Louis and the gulf, south of you, aren’t known for sushi.
LL: I actually work at a Japanese restaurant, of course the best Saint Louis has to offer, really for the enjoyment of sharing that hobby with people and to be able to recommend certain catches to people.
You’re definitely right on that. Which is why we go through the trouble of important almost everything fresh.
The sushi master at the bar was actually trained in Japan and worked at the Grand Hyatt as a sushi chef for many years before coming here. Why Saint Louis, I’ll never know. But the city is blessed to have him – even if they don’t know it haha.
Theres a lot of knowledge to sushi. a lot of it is about the right temperature. and even aging the meat properly. some of the best tuna are at least 1 or 2 weeks old.
GM: I believe it. You have the same thing with other meats.
Last place I was in whilst living in the states is Seattle. Great friggin sushi.
If ever you are in Seattle, go to I ♥ Sushi. Super fresh fish. I hope it’s still there. Let me check. [Uses the magic answer box known as Google. 3.7 out of 5, mostly due to service complaints] Still there, but ratings have decreased since I left. A lot can change in six years.
Have you made the Japan trip? Great friggin sushi there too.
LL: I could only imagine as to why. 😛
I’ve been to Hokkaido as well as Tokyo quite a few times. Flying between the US and Taiwan usually means 1 layover. The choice is Japan or Alaska (sorry =P). So I like to stay a few days in Japan before finishing the trip.
GM: One of the perk of working for an international headphone company… No offense taken on Alaska.
LL: I actually focus mainly on the western market for them, being a native english speaker, but I definitely do get to travel which is pretty cool. I stopped by Anchorage once. The complementary hot chocolate at the terminal was a nice touch.
GM: Being in headphone design and marketing, you must have access to some pretty fantastic test tracks. Can you provide a list of a few test tracks you use that you think I might not have heard? We are all in for discovering new, interesting, and gorgeous recordings.
LL: So I’m not involved as much in the design process, but my feedback is certainly taken pretty seriously. UM actually receives feedback quite a bit from our distributors as well – which is part of the story as to how specific models came to being for specific regions.
GM: You must have some tracks that you go nuts for…
LL: I like to use a little bit of everything to test things – at the end of the day a product can’t be designed for only one purpose.
Billy Cobham – Spectrum
Snarky Puppy – We Like it Here
GM: If you hadn’t come up with some tracks. I would have stuck Iggy Pop – No Fun in there.You don’t want to be that guy. The guy who is no fun. Ironically, Iggy Pop is quite fun.
LL: Those are probably my two favorite. Billy Cobham uses some pretty unique sounds in that album, and snarky puppy covers quite an impressively wide range of instrumentation in their jazz/funk sort of style, so you can really test the accuracy or tonality with that album.
Haha yeah id prefer you skip over that part [on not responding quickly enough]. Not sure how that would reflect on us as a brand hahahah
All test tracks are strictly Taylor Swift.
I think she gets a bit too much hate from audiophiles but hey…
You got a problem with western Pennsylvania!?
I’m from Philly. She’s actually from Reading, which is more Northeast. Boom. Did my homework.
GM: I think she got her start in Western Pennsylvania. I think I campaigned (not saying who for) in the town she made it in.
LL: Well not really northeast. but anything north of Philly is basically northeast…
LL: Yeah, she didn’t stay in Reading.
You’re right on that. She was apparently on a christmas tree farm or something. I didn’t dive THAT deep into her life.
GM: Locals told me stuff. I give her props for being absolutely magnetic on stage, but not so much for her music.
We know too much about Taylor Swift.
Should we tell our friends we have a problem?
LL: No-one will ever know…
GM: Nah, this has to go in the interview. It’s too good copy.
LL: What have i done haha… She’s just one of the few famous Pennsylvanians out there these days. Gotta rep my home you know.
GM: Last question, then I’ll release you from the shark tank. You’ve been such a good sport with all those teeth swirling round your toes for an hour and a half.
Choose one: gelato, stout, cigar, pizza, take-out Chinese.
STL is famous for our frozen custard concretes and I’m kind of a huge fan. Gelato is close enough. I’m also a sweets guy.
GM: I said that was the last one, so I’ll drain the tank.
Frozen custard is a different beast. I like both, but tend to go for the richest of gelatos. Been a long time since I had frozen custard. Gelato is much easier to come by.
LL: We call them concretes for a reason. They’re so thick that we demonstrate it by flipping the cup upside down and just letting it hang.
GM: For the summer days where it gets to 40C (105F). We could have used some of that when my wife and I visited St. Louis. We had to douse ourselves whenever we passed by a fountain.
LL: Haha if you ever get the chance to be around here again, look up Ted Drewes.
Thanks, Lawrance for being such a good sport. Unique Melody is lucky to have you. Most people would have rebelled at my copious questions.
Some more Unique Melody models
|Miracle||6 BA, 2x High, 2x Mid, 2x High||3-way||18Hz – 19kHz||114||15.9|
|Merlin||Quad BA & 1 DD, 2x High, 2x Mid, 1x Low DD||3-way||10Hz – 19kHz||108||12|
|Mentor||10 BA, 4x HIGH, 2x MID, 4x LOW||4-way||20Hz – 20kHz||112||20|
|Maestro||12 BA, 2x High, 2x Mid-high, 4x mid, 4x low||4-way||20Hz – 20kHz||106.3||23.1|