Unique Melody Mentor V3 Review: brilliantly balanced and imminently flexible

Pros: Transparent, balanced sound, excellent resolution, great layering, impressive stage width and depth, speedy, dB-GO module, flexible tune-able sound (copper for warmth/bass body, silver for resolution and space)

Cons: large universal shell, price, cable is a touch heavy on the ear, cable housing could be softer material, midrange touch back of neutral

List Price: $2099

Product Website: http://en.uniquemelody.org/detail_207.html

Unique Melody Mentor v3 Glassmonkey

Rating Disclaimer: ratings are subjective. Audio quality and value do not mean the same thing across all prices. A headphone with a 5 rating on audio at $5 does not have equivalent sound quality as a 5 rating at $500. Likewise, value at $5 is not the same as value at $5000 dollars.

Introduction

Unique Melody has been around the block a few times in the IEM world and have been early adopters and pioneers in design concepts. They were some of the first to build high-end balanced armature and dynamic driver hybrids, and have been tinkerers in other ways too. Their planar magnetic ME.1 has ear pressure relief built into the design and is one of only a handful of single planar magnetic driver in ears. Their new wave of designs includes updates to the 3DD (the 3DD-Ti), which was the industry’s first high-end three dynamic driver in-ear. Their new designs include open balanced armatures and titanium 3D printing. Unique Melody is no stranger to innovative design and embraces cool technology.

The Mentor v3 has it’s own share of innovation. It comes with a “Dual Tone” cable that allows for switching between two sound flavours in the same cable—the sonic differences are definitely audible. It also has the dB-Go tuning module built in. When turned forwards, the dB-Go module closes and provides some boost to lower bass frequencies as well as additional isolation. When turned backward, it opens up the sound a bit and reduces pressure on the eardrum. Cool stuff.

The Mentor v3 is the 3rd IEM I’ve reviewed from Unique Melody and of the three reviewed so far, it’s my favourite.

Usability: Form & Function

Unboxing

The Mentor and Mason v3 were part of a tour run on Head-Fi with Unique Melody (tour impressions here, Mentor reviews here, here, here in Polish, and from Jackpot77 here on Audioprimate). The Mentor v3 and Mason v3 share the same box, and accessory options. The box is textured heavy card with a heavy linen pattern. Inside we find a titanium puck case with ‘UM’ minted into the middle. On the tour, the Mentor v3 came with a nickel-plated version and the Mason v3 came with a matte titanium puck. I prefer the matte puck.

The other accessories include three sizes of Comply foam eartips, 4 sizes of wide-bore silicone tips (unique to Unique Melody), a magnetic cable strap with button hook (cool little invention but I’ve never used it), a polishing cloth, and a plastic card that has the serial number and a USB drive with a user manual on it. There’s also the cable, which came in blue and black for the Mentor v3 and blue and black for the Mason v3. Overall the unboxing is a good experience.

Aesthetics and build quality

The tour unit Mentor v3 are purple with what Unique Melody calls ‘dreamweaver’ fibres. These are white strands of fibre woven through at varying depths to create a 3-dimensional pattern. It’s a really nice effect.

The build quality of the Mentor v3 is excellent. The 4-pin connector for the cable has a nice screw action and durable metal on metal connectors. However, every time you use the Mentor v3 both connectors should be checked as rubbing inside the puck case can cause the screws to loosen. If checked every time you listen, they connectors are very secure. I’ve forgotten to check and had scares where the IEM came off. Don’t forget to check.

About that case, I love the look of it, but it is a little bit small for keeping the Mentor v3 connected to the cable inside the case, and I don’t like disconnecting every time I put stuff inside. I’m left wrapping the cable around the edge of the puck and then firmly pressing down the lid and working to match up the lid threads to the base threads. If the case were slightly larger, even a few millimetres in height or width, it would make a big difference for putting the cable away.

Ergonomics

The ergonomics of the Mentor v3 are comfortable for me, but require specific adjustments. For me to get comfortable and secure insertion, I have to give a tug up on the top of my ear. I also have to arrange the memory wire on the cable in a way that limits pressure on the top of the ear as the cable is a bit heavy and hard. These would not be good for going in a run with—why are you taking $2000 IEMs on a run you loon!

The size of the shell is large, but is also not much different in size than the 6-driver Unique Melody Miracle v2 I’ve previously reviewed (now available for $599 on musicteck.com). With 12 drivers inside (4 low, 2 lower midrange, 2 upper midrange, 4 high), and the dB-GO module, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about the shell size except going for a custom which allows wider dispersion of internal parts. The cable could be improved by using a softer housing, and an alternative implementation for forming around the ear.

Audio quality

It’s a damn fine sounding IEM, with a generally balanced signature. The lows have some extension and can be tuned to have more weight using the dB-Go module and by using the copper side of the ‘Dual Tone’ cable. On the silver cable we get a fun side of reference with an open stage, great speed, and a precisely layered image. Mids are slightly back of neutral, but not overly so. Bass has good impact, but does not necessarily lead on bass impact in this price category. Treble has nice sparkle, but doesn’t go overly sharp.

Matchability

The Unique Melody Mentor v3 benefits from exceptionally clear sources, and can have some hiss and frequency distortion on my digital audio player (DAP) of choice, the Questyle QP2R, if interventions are not taken to prevent this. When in balanced mode, I use the iFi iEMatch 2.5mm and when in single-ended mode I use the Ultimate Ears Buffer Jack on the QP2R. Frequency distortion on low impedance IEMs is an issue with all the Questyle units I’ve tried, but it is, thankfully, easily resolved.

With the SOUNDAWARE M2Pro, the Mentor v3 doesn’t need any adaptation and sounds wonderful right out of the box.

The Mentor v3 isn’t hard to drive, but funnily enough, it benefits from extra amping power. On the Questyle QP2R it happily connects with the iEMatch in Ultra Sensitivity mode with the gain jacked up to high with high bias. I like listening like this, but it’s a bit power hungry in this mode. Your phone can drive the Mentor v3, but you are wasting it’s talents if you use a phone for a source. My LG V30 is just not good enough (it’s an excellent phone source) to do the Mentor v3 justice.

Cable and dB-Go

The differences between cables are subtle, as are the bass switch settings. I found bass a little meatier on copper, and the treble a little smoother. The silver cable is more detailed with nicer decay on cymbals in the treble region. The silver also has a more open sound that I prefer.

The dB-Go tuning module doesn’t affect mid-bass, with it’s frequency focus in the sub-bass region. However, the tuning knob does affect the openness and clarity of the mids. With the knob closed, the mids are more compact, while with the knob open the mids are more dispersed with greater air in the stage. Initially, I preferred the closed setting on the Mentor v3, but as time went on the more open and clear mids moved me towards the open orientation. On more sub-bass heavy genres and tracks, I do find myself turning the knob forward, so it’s a nice feature to have, even if most of my listening is done wide open.

Comparisons

All comparisons were done using stock cables (with the exception of the Noble Encore) with some use of the iFi iEMatch 2.5mm and UE Buffer jack where necessary. Volume matching was done using white noise and an SPL metre. All comparisons were done using the Questyle QP2R in High Bias.

Headphone Cable SE/Balanced Gain Volume ~SPL
Unique Melody Mentor v3 Stock Silver Balanced 2.5mm to iFi iEMatch2.5 Balanced Low 93 78.4
Noble Kaiser Encore PlusSound X Series GPC + iFi iEMatch2.5 Balanced Low 90 78.3
UERR Stock Balanced Balanced Low 89 78.4
Unique Melody Mentor v3 Stock Silver 3.5mm SE Low 77 78.4
Lark Studio LSX Stock + UE Buffer Jack SE Low 108 78.3
HiFiMAN RE2000 Silver Stock SE Medium 85 78.3

 

Noble Kaiser Encore ($1899 + $349 for PlusSound X-Series GPC cable) vs. Unique Melody Mentor V3 ($2099)

The Noble Kaiser Encore has great punchiness on Violent Femmes – American Music (16-44). The Unique Melody Mentor v3 has a nice hint of sweetness to Gordon Gano’s vocals. Gordon Gano’s vocals are a bit back of the Mentor v3 on the Encore, with a lighter airier presentation to the vocals. Perceived stage depth is greater on the Mentor than the Encore. The Mentor v3 throws a naturally integrated stage with good separation between individual components and layering that just feels right. The reference-fun tuning of the Mentor v3 really shines here. I’m loving the instrument spacing. Bass on the Kaiser Encore is a little thicker. Treble is a little harder on elements like the tambourine, with a snappy presentation and a slightly more metallic feel. Bass focus on the Noble Encore leans a little towards midbass, whereas the Mentor v3 has a more even presentation. Soundstage on the Encore isn’t as big in any dimension as the Mentor v3, but the differences are small and more a compliment to the Mentor v3 than a decrement for the Encore.

The Mentor v3 has some great depth going on Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16-44, binaural) the initial percussion wanders from the back of the stage in a counter-clockwise circular motion stopping front and center, reminiscent of the drummer on Pink Floyd – Time, and the Mentor v3 gets the location of the moving beat with precision. Bass is more compact with slightly more emphasis on the Noble Kaiser Encore and more impact. The big synth bass note is faster on the Mentor with a little bit less centre note weight. Midrange on the Mentor V3 is clearer and more open sounding. The speed on the Mentor v3 has a slight advantage here in delineating the fast background percussion. Both the Mentor v3 and the Kaiser Encore have some warmth in the lower mids. Both sound bloody excellent.

Yes – Soundchaser (24-96, Steven Wilson remaster) is a track that I use to test speed when I’m not getting high on Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (more on that later). The song also has a wide frequency representation and very complex arrangements. The Noble Kaiser Encore holds on to all the instruments well, the track still feels crowded, but each instrument does have its own place. Speedwise, it also keeps the pace. The Mentor v3 gives even more spacing due to greater depth in the soundstage. On the intro drum solo the Mentor v3 is super fast. The Kaiser Encore also has good speed, but there is a little bit of blending, which means the Mentor v3 edges the Kaiser Encore by a hair. The Mentor v3 is slightly more crisp and has greater ability to resolve layers in the stage due to superior stage depth. The Mentor v3 also resolves the sweet angel hypnotics of Jon Anderson’s vocals better with a clearer presentation and better definition. However, if visceral impact is your thing, the Kaiser Encore will give you more drum impact than the Mentor v3 musters.

The Mentor v3 handles Amber’s voice with silky precision and brilliant emotion on Amber Rubarth – Hold On (24-192, binaural). The delicate instrumentation of the intro is also well-presented. The Noble Kaiser Encore counters with more emotive and prominent violins and a thicker presentation to Amber’s voice that is also breathier (low-mids and upper mids emphasis). The Encore is slightly more forward on Amber’s vocal.

Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered (UERR) ($999) vs. Unique Melody Mentor V3 ($2099)

The customs announcement in Pink Floyd – On the Run (DSD64) is handled with excellent clarity while maintaining the persistent percussion persistently precise on the Mentor v3. Pans of the helicopter and all the other various panning sound effects are defined well in 3-dimensions with nice out of the head height and width to the stage. Comparatively, the UERR sounds a touch cloudier in the mids due to its slight bit of extra emphasis in the lower mids. The customs announcement is a touch more forward in the stage on the UERR and just as clear. Electronic instruments sound a touch thicker with lower frequency emphasis on the UERR. The centre of the stage feels more congested on the UERR while the edges stretch just as far as the Mentor v3.

The UERR shows off some great clarity and emphasis on Queen – Bicycle Race (DSD64). The sound is holographic with Freddie Mercury’s voice exhibiting some nice subtle reverb. Freddie is a little more restrained and bass notes are a touch bigger on the Mentor v3. It’s a nice presentation. Freddie is less emphatic, but the overall sound is a touch more engaging on the Mentor v3. Bass has more impact too! There is more sparkle in the chime and bell percussion section and more groovy bass. I like!

The Mentor v3 carries vocals sweetly on Rebecca Pidgeon – Spanish Harlem (24-96, binaural). While doing this listening session I listened to the track three times before starting to take notes, that’s how into it I was. Percussion on the Mentor v3 is precise as usual on this track, well-controlled and with excellent resolution.

The stand-up bass in the intro of Spanish Harlem is nice and tight on the Mentor v3. When switching to the UERR, the bass has less body. On the UERR, Rebecca Pidgeon’s voice is fuller, with a bit more reverb and echo, which is actually a more technically accurate representation of her vocals on this track. The UERR does piano a little better with more decay and reverb. Overall, the UERR does this track a little better. The soundstage on the Mentor v3 is a little wider than the UERR. The Mentor’s piano is a touch too delicate, but some will like this better. Piano tuning will definitely come down to individual preference.

Rush – The Trees (DSD64) is a track to test sibilance because it should always have it. Some folks are particularly sensitive to sibilance, and can’t even stand it when it is supposed to be there. I’m not that dude. I’m not hugely bothered by sibilance, but if it is off what I’m expecting, I’ll note it. If a pair of IEMs knocks out sibilance on this track, they aren’t actually accurate. I also expect Neal Peart’s drums to rock out on this track. The Mentor v3 doesn’t disappoint on either expectation. The Mentor v3 shows the right amount of sibilance, it is neither silenced nor enhanced. The drums do indeed rock.

On the UERR the vocals are more forward in the stage, but this is actually a neutral position. The Mentor v3 vocals are back of neutral. Sibilance on the UERR is a little more pronounced, though the difference is very small. I’m getting a less airy presentation on the UERR. I also get more shimmer in the treble from the Mentor v3. The Mentor v3 also has a bit lighter and clearer mids.

Lark Studio LSX ($1699) vs Unique Melody Mentor V3 ($2099)

The Mentor V3 provides a clear and well delineated presentation of the Rolling Stones – Salt of the Earth (DSD64). Each instrument has great spacing around it. Bass has great tone, but not huge presence. Turning the dB-Go switch to closed enhances bass impact slightly. The female vocal chorus has individual vocals that are separated without much difficulty on the Mentor V3. Right off in the track, guitar and vocals are more forward with a nice organic sound on the LSX. The overall sound is more forward on the LSX. Bass has a lot more presence and sustain. The decay on the mid-bass is a bit long, causing some clouding of the sound. The LSX trades some precision for increased presence. The overall stage depth is reduced on the LSX with the presentation more like two closely arranged planes rather than several layers as with the Mentor V3.

Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64) is so fast, it’s probably high on crack. The Lark Studio LSX keeps up well for the most part, but smooths over a bit of detail on bass and treble. The Mentor V3 is faster and more open sounding with individual drum beats resolved more completely with less blending. The presentation is a bit more distant on the Mentor V3, whereas the LSX puts you right in the thick of it. Bass is tighter on the Mentor V3, but less present. The Mentor V3 is the technically superior performer while still being fun. If a more forward signature is what you are looking for, the LSX will likely suit better. The Mentor V3 also has the ability to switch cables. Switching to the copper cable gives a more forward sound that is like a more controlled version of the LSX with less bass slam.

With dB-Go open on the Mentor V3, the vocals on Daft Punk – Fragments of Time (DSD64) are airy with good clarity. Bass is back in the stage with good definition. Treble is forward on the Mentor V3, but not as forward as the vocals on this particular track. Decay on the variety of cymbals is good on this track. When switching to the LSX, the bass is huge with good texture on the lower notes and dynamic driver like depth, but with a bit of bloom. The ambiance is great on the LSX with a bit more decay in both the bass and the treble. The extra decay is primarily in the midbass for the bass section of frequency response. Vocals sound great on both, just more forward on the LSX. Switching from silver to copper on the Mentor V3 brings the bass forward a little, but it still has the same tight controlled presentation. It doesn’t have any bloom or extra ambiance. I think people will enjoy both sounds. One has to recognize that they aren’t trying to do the same thing. The Mentor V3 is a fun-reference tuning, while the LSX is a fun-fun tuning with big bass and smooth emotive mids. The Mentor V3 is less fun in all it’s set-ups vs. the LSX, but is a better technical performer all-around. I think most folks listening to Fragments in Time would pick the LSX as the signature fits pop music really well.

Norah Jones – Feeling the Same Way (24-192) has a beautifully delicate presentation with the Mentor V3. The wide-panned guitars are very well defined, the central stand-up bass and the piano and drums at the back of the stage are just delightfully distinctly presented. Mmmm delicious in silver with dB-Go open. The LSX is warmer and softer, with a less wide stage. On this track I prefer the Mentor V3. The LSX compresses the stage depth and slows down the activity in the track.

HiFiMAN RE2000 Silver ($1500) vs. Unique Melody Mentor V3 ($2099)

For all my listening tests with the Unique Melody Mentor V3, I had the dB-Go ports flipped wide open and the silver cable attached, as it just sounds better with silver. I think this is a good time to bring up one of the marketing claims made by HiFiMAN, here’s their marketing picture describing how balanced armatures suck.

RE2000 marketing BS on BA

This distortion problem reported by HiFiMAN is a distortion of the truth. The truth is that all the technologies out there can be built to be low distortion. Balanced armature set-ups solve distortion problems by running multiple BA in parallel. This issue that HiFiMAN is reporting is actually a non-issue. This isn’t to say that the topology driver can’t have less distortion, but conspicuously HiFiMAN hasn’t bothered to report their distortion numbers or compare them to any high-end BA designs. If you are going to make an outrageous claim, it should be supported with data. Without any evidence, I’m calling bull.

Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 is a fast frickin’ track. This track is as speedy as a toddler on a pixie stick high. Who’s faster, the RE2000 Silver, or the Mentor V3? It’s the Mentor V3. The Mentor V3 gives more distinct cymbal strikes in the fast intro. Speed in the mids and bass is roughly equivalent, but the Mentor V3 handles the miniscule cymbal taps with more precision. Sometimes some cymbal action is smoothed over on the RE2000 Silver. It’s just not as fast. The bass on both the RE2000 Silver and the Mentor V3 is groovy. The Mentor V3 has a bit more forward bass, but the RE2000 Silver has a bit more refined bass texture. Both do an excellent job.

This song is perhaps more famous because of Saturday Night Live and ‘I need more cowbell’ than being a humongous hit on several top 1000 song lists, but the percussion instrument I’m more often listening for in Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper is the guiro. Both instruments are faint, but the guiro (I think that’s what I’m hearing, couldn’t find a listing other than percussion) has more textured presentation so gives some resolution signals that the cowbell doesn’t. The cowbell tells me about depth and a little on frequency response. The Mentor V3 sounds very natural with the track. The full texture of the guiro comes through and the cowbell is at the right depth. The guitar solo sounds precise and tuneful. Vocals have that nice classic warmness typical of the age of the recording. Bass is firm, but not huge with the Mentor V3. The RE2000 Silver has a bit more sustain and menace on the bass guitar without being as loud, due to increased texture. Drums are a touch more forward on the RE2000 Silver, but cymbals or further back. The cymbals on the Mentor V3 are a bit forward of neutral.

If you are feeling vulnerable, Damien Rice – Elephant, may make you feel less vulnerable. The Mentor V3 presents violins both delicately and with emotion. The mids are a bit more forward than the RE2000 Silver and presented somehow with greater delicacy and emotion. The timbre of the guitar and the emotion in Damien’s voice just carry me more. Notes on the RE2000 Silver are a bit more ethereal, with a wispiness that belays the weight that the guitar plucks can have. It’s a more mechanical presentation, while the Mentor V3 is more emotional. I think some of this comes down to how notes are weighted: the Mentor V3 notes have a greater weight to the centre of a note’s attack and decay, while the RE2000 applies greater relative weight to the decay. The slight emphasis on decay on the RE2000 Silver gives it some added airiness, but makes it sound less rounded.

2Pac – Changes  gives me some nice low-end menace out of the RE2000 Silver. There is really good width in the stage on the RE2000 Silver. Vocals sound clear and sufficiently rich. 2Pac’s vocals sound a little further back in the stage with the Mentor V3. Treble response on the V3 is better on this track too. Bass on the RE2000 Silver has better extension and potency in the sub-bass area with the Mentor V3 wide open in dB-Go module, with the backing bass track sounding better on the RE2000 Silver. Turning the dB-Go module closed ups the sub-bass a bit, but the bass still sounds a little more textured and complete on the RE2000 Silver.  I prefer the piano presentation on the Mentor V3.

Why? – Strawberries has a big bass drop and a ton of treble. The treble on the RE2000 Silver is a bit smoother and less forward on this track. The bass impact on this track is much better on the RE2000 Silver. If you want to compare what dynamic drivers do better than balanced armatures for real, most of it is the impact and depth of bass. The RE2000 Silver is definitely outperforming the Mentor V3 in both aspects. It just moves more air, it’s bass you feel, not just hear, and it sounds fuller too.

Specifications

Specifications  
Price $2099 (musicteck.com, uniquemelody.com)
Driver type 12 balanced armature (4 low, 2 lower-mid, 2 upper-mid, 4 high)
Frequency response 20Hz to 30kHz
Impedance 22Ω
Sensitivity 108dB
Construction Acrylic shell, metal bore, 4-pin metal connector
Accessories 8-core ‘dual tone’ cable (pure silver and pure copper), titanium storage case (matte or nickel-plated), Comply eartips (S/M/L), silicone eartips (S/M/L/XL), polishing cloth, warranty card with instruction manual

Acknowledgment

The Unique Melody Mentor v3 was provided to me on loan from Unique Melody. I have received no financial compensation for this review. All thoughts in this review are my personal opinion. Thanks to Lawrance at Unique Melody for providing this review opportunity.

Conclusions

The Unique Melody Mentor v3 is a star. It has an engaging signature with lots of customisability in the box with the dB-GO module and the twin pure silver and pure copper cables crafted into a singular cable. The sound is open with impressive depth, width, resolution and speed. These handle complex arrangements well and justify their additional expense versus competitors in the same price range with additional technical capability. Some additional advancements in ergonomics would level these up even further. The flexibility of the signature is the cherry on top of an already delicious audio cake.

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