I would like to thank Andrew at MusicTeck in the US for the opportunity to purchase the MEST at a slight discount for the purposes of this review. No input was sought or given regarding the content of the review, so all the words and opinions below are 100% my own.
Every so often, an in-ear monitor comes along that seems to capture the interest and imagination of the Head-Fi crowds, riding in on a wave of attention from reviewers and forum members and dominating the “next big thing” discussions as people rush to hear them. Unusually, the latest such item to arrive on the annual hype train is actually a mid-tier model from venerable Chinese manufacturer Unique Melody, their (not so) catchily titled “MEST” quad-brid model.
On the face of it, you can see why this particular model has been getting some serious interest; it sports four different types of drivers, taking the now ubiquitous high end tri-brid design of dynamic driver, balanced armature and dual Sonion EST and adding a unique twist with an additional bone conduction driver blending into the mix. This type of driver isn’t new or unique, being used in plenty of “sport” based headband type earphones already, but to my knowledge this is the first attempt to integrate it into a “proper audiophile” in-ear design.
I have to admit that after taking a little time away from Head-Fi due to the craziness going on in the real world over the just 12 months, I came to the MEST party a little late. I missed the start of the hype train, but when I finally started logging on again, it seemed that every time I visited an audiophile forum or site someone else I knew from the hobby was waxing lyrical about this new upstart from UM that could compete with the big guns of the current scene. More surprisingly, it only cost a fraction of the current “TOTL” price premium (a still not inconsiderable $1400 at time of purchase). After reading the ninth or tenth endorsement of the MEST from people with similar tastes to myself I finally cracked and contacted the US distributor to put my my money where their ears were and see if I could find out what all the fuss was about. Suffice to say, I am very glad I did…
It’s fair to say that Unique Melody have gone rather minimalistic with the MEST packaging. Black cardboard outer, with the faintest of markings denoting the model. Opening up the box leaves a similarly Spartan impression, with the inner meeting taken up with a very nice blue and black leather carry case from Korean manufacture Dignis. Unzipping the carry case reveals the MEST shells, nestled in two divided sections of the rectangular case inner. Tips are included in a plastic baggy, and that is pretty much it. The choice of cable (the MEST can be ordered with any of the usual three IEM terminations between 2.5 and 4.4mm) was actually sent outside of the package in the DHL shipping box.
This really is a frugal affair, with all the expense going to the IEMs and cable themselves, and the rather snazzy carry case. If you are looking for an opulent and life affirming opening affair with A&K levels of luxury, you are in the wrong place. If you just want a cardboard box that holds your IEMs, tips and cables in a nice case, this is exactly what you get. For the price that’s a little surprising (and not a little cheap feeling), but I think UM were so sure of the quality in the actual product here they decided that there was no point in dressing it up any more than absolutely necessary.
Design, ergonomics and tip choice
The MEST follows the typical pseudo-custom style of design that most manufacturers use these days, with a shell design that looks similar to the original U-series models from 64 Audio (before they threw all their tube coverings away). It is smooth and angular rather than curved and contoured, but fits quick neatly in the bowl of my ear. The body of the IEM has that typical Trivial Pursuit cheese-piece design, being quite deep but not overly large in width or height. It will most likely stick out of your ears a little when wearing, but not as much as the OG Frankenbolt designs from JH Audio.
The MEST itself comes in two colour ways: red or blue. The shells themselves are a sort of translucent dark grey, with strands of blue or red carbon fibre running through the faceplate and the rest of the outer shell, alternating with reflective dark grey carbon fibre stripes.You can’t actually see the internals of the MEST, but the “under the surface” impression the CF strips give does add a nice visual impression of depth to an otherwise simple and clean design. The faceplates are adorned with a silver UM logo on the left shell and the full written unique Melody logo on the right, in “squint-and-you’ll miss it” font sizing to make sure it fits across the width of the IEM. Again, it’s understated, but I think it’s pretty classy and adds a nice feel of sophistication to the visuals. UM were actually pretty limited in terms of options here, as the faceplate is made from carbon fibre and forms an integral part of the whole bone conduction design, so has to be fully CF in order for the magic vibrations to make their way down the IEM shell. Given that restriction, I think they have done a pretty good job.
The only other two points of note are the vent for the dynamic driver (which is a pinhole at the bottom of the faceplate, presumably opposite where the DD actually sits in the IEM shell) and the classic protruding 2-pin connectors popularised by Unique Melody and QDC. The nozzle is a silver metal (likely aluminium), and comes with a mesh grille built in to keep your ear wax from gumming up the delicate works underneath.
In terms of ergonomics, the MEST is a comfortable fitting and generally unobtrusive IEM. It’s a little on the large side to truly disappear in the ear, but fits well enough for me to use them for extended periods without any associated ear fatigue. One point to note – in order to get the maximum benefit from the bone conduction driver, these IEMs need to be worn deep, with as much of the inner surface of the IEM shell touching the ear as physically possible. While it is tempting to use foam tips to “lock” the MEST in place, doing that robs the IEM of some of its tuning magic by holding the shells away from the ear surface (on my ears, anyway). I have found the best fit with these is actually using either JVC Spiral Dots, or some RHA TWS tips I had laying around (which are about half the depth of a “normal” silicone tip). Xelastec also get a good write up with regards to synergy with the MEST, but I haven’t managed to obtain any of those yet to check.
Initial impressions on sound
In one word: outstanding. This is an IEM that hits you straight out of the gate, sounding superb from the first moment you put them in.
The MEST is aimed squarely at my personal preference zone, pushing a W shaped signature with good weight in the low end focused more towards sub than mid, and a strategic push in and around the vocals to bring the whole sound forward towards the listener. There is plenty of bass heft, giving a solid and thumping drive to percussion and bass instruments. It’s not overcooked, and slopes down through the mid bass to avoid the usual “thumb” that can muddy up or over-warm the lower octaves.
There is a push forward again as you reach the mids, with both voice and instrumentation sitting close to the listener in terms of position. The midrange isn’t the thickest or meatiest you will ever hear, but does have a nice sense of crunch, trading absolute weight for energy and anima. Electric guitars bite with genuine aggression, and both make and female vocals are ultra textured.
Treble is extended and neither overly bright or unduly laid back. Like the mids, it has some fizz, but never sounds strained at the upper ends, carrying that trademark effortlessness of the Sonion EST range. It has bags of resolution where needed, and gives the overall signature a sense of space and air that it might otherwise be lacking, given the forward position of the notes on the stage.
Speaking of staging, that is definitely an area of strength. The MEST pushes outwards from the head in all directions, with a good lateral spread. The listener is placed in the middle of the sound, with hard panned instruments sitting a good distance from centre. This is bolstered by a larger than average note size, giving the presentation a grander sense of scale than a typical IEM sound.
Overall, this is a well balanced and musical sound, with plenty of clarity and high end resolution to back up the more sculpted tuning.
Digging into the frequency response in more detail, bass is up first. The MEST gives a very “modern” bass interpretation, providing a weighted low end response with good levels of sub bass lending plenty of oomph to things. The foundation to notes feels solid and weighty, with the MEST providing plenty of rumble when called upon. Playing “Disc Wars” from the Tron Legacy soundtrack , the insistent thrumming that underpins the track in between the deep orchestral flourishes is clear and present, with the MEST digging deep into the low-Hz to provide a sweeping wall of sound that the rest of the instrumentation builds on.
It isn’t true (sub) bass head level in terms of sheer quantity, but there is definitely a physical tickle and rumble in the inner ear when the track being played calls for it, so this is pretty capable for most genres. “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight soundtrack sounds suitably menacing, with the sub-bass drop at the 3:27 mark coming through loud and rumbling, giving plenty of quantity in the lower edges of the sound. This can sound a little quiet or washed out on monitors with inferior extension in the low end, so the MEST dynamic driver does well here to remain strong all the way down.
Firing up a bit of Mavis Staples, “We Shall Not Be Moved” showcases another aspect of the MEST low end: texture. The plucked double-bass that kicks the track off positively drips with definition, the strings resonating in the air in front of the listener, the ebb and flow of the vibrations on the strings resolving clearly in the ear. This pairs with a deep baritone from one of the backing chorus that is so deep it can get lost on some IEMs in the background of the bass. Not so with the MEST, which manages to paint the vocal with a rich sense of substance and keep it clear of both the competing instrumentation and the other backing vocalists.
There is a sense of texture to the notes that feels almost real in the air, in comparison to a lot of other IEMs I own. The only analogy I can think of is comparing a high definition picture of a brick wall to running your fingers over the real thing. The MEST just ekes out that tiny bit more textural information in the soundscape that makes you feel like you are almost able to reach out and touch each note. It’s difficult to describe accurately, but definitely easier on the ear to listen to.
Moving up to the mid-bass, this sits a little further back in terms of emphasis. The MEST certainly isn’t missing mid bass, but it does take more of a back seat in the overall presentation. Kick drums and bass guitars still sound rounded and beefy due to the solid sub-bass underpinning it, but there is more of an emphasis on texture and definition than sheer quantity here. Sticking on one of my favourite bass testers, “Bad Rain” by Slash sounds rich and deep as the growling bass guitar kicks in. The bass presentation isn’t the most aggressive I’ve heard this track sound, sitting back slightly but it trades this off with a texture to each note plucked that really ekes out the detail. Again, clarity and texture are the two words that keep springing to mind, the MEST conjuring a nice sense of separation and space around the notes that lets the listener really zero in on each line.
The kick drums on this track are again slightly less boomy than I’ve heard them with other gear – the MEST doesn’t lack slam, but for sheer raw impact it is more towards neutral than absolutely pounding. It’s the same with one of my other go-to test tracks, “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel. This track starts with a slinky bass line that can sound almost chocolately on thicker IEMs. The MEST does a great job in digging out the fine detail, but the notes themselves are slightly dry and more lightweight. It allows the little details like the resonating of the strings to come through clearly, but lacks a bit of the liquidity and unctuousness this track can evoke on bassier gear.
To summarise, this is top tier bass, possessing both extension and weight in the low end and a flagship level of resolution in the upper sections. It isn’t the punchiest or most liquid presentation you will hear, and definitely errs more towards dry and controlled than loose and warm, but in terms of both musical enjoyability and quality, their really isn’t too much you can say that is negative. It packs enough quantity to keep the bass head in me satisfied, and enough clarity to keep the audiophile detail-freak smiling too. It’s a very potent combination.
The transition from bass to mids is well handled, with a little dip as you exit the bass region to alleviate any potential bleed or warming of the midrange. The mids themselves form the middle spike of the “W” in the signature, raising up out of the dip and pushing forward on the stage to provide emphasis around voices and stringed instruments. The weight is somewhere approaching neutral, with plenty of definition and texture. They err more towards tight and lean than warm and full bodied, but never sound thin or cold. It’s an interesting trick, as they are definitely too coloured to be considered a “reference” tuning, but they don’t follow the more typical audiophile or consumer tuning choices either.
Clarity is the main watchword here, with the MEST showing plenty of detailing throughout the whole mid-band. Notes hang crisp and clean in the air, with plenty of space between each. Resolution is definitely a highlight, with the MEST happily trading blows with IEMs like the 14-driver Zeus-XR from Empire Ears without breaking sweat. The MEST paint each note with texture and depth, finding contrast against the black background to layer detail on to everything, pulling subtle finger vibrations on guitar strings or tiny room noises in the studio into the soundscape without distracting from the main body of the song. While they certainly aren’t a cheap IEM, the sheer technicality Unique Melody have achieved is definitely capable of competing with IEMs costing one or two thousand dollars more.
Starting with my sibilance testers, the MEST does well. Despite the ultra-defined nature of the tuning, it doesn’t come through as shrill or grating with my usual tracks. With “Give Me Some Light” by Matt Anderson, the ultra-forward vocal at the 2:55 mark pushes right up against the inner wall of my forehead, but the MEST manages to avoid making it sound shouty or painful. Similarly on “Whiskey And You” by Chris Stapleton, the country troubadour’s gravelly tones are full of piss’n’grit but even though they sound raw, the definition stops it grating on the eardrum. Being honest, the MEST will probably push a few people with mid-range sensitivity a little too close to their own comfort thresholds, but for my preference it sits just on the right side of raw without trading into unpleasant.
Finishing up the harshness detectors, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy kicks off in a wail of dissonant harmonics, again sounding crisp and raw but not unpleasantly so. The clarity of the MEST helps once more, adding in detail around the wailing Les Paul sounds to fill out the sound. Kennedy’s vocals are similarly embellished, his Micky-Mouse-on-helium delivery hitting the rafters but not poking holes in your eardrums in the process. There is a nice sense of space around the vocal, and the faint room echoes behind Kennedy’s delivery can be heard in the background on the quieter passages (actually in the upper left of the stage, as I hear it). It isn’t the thickest or creamiest I have ever heard this track sound vocally, but it doesn’t feel lacking or vinegary either, sitting in the Goldilocks-zone of “just right” in terms of weight and body.
Timbre is more stylised than realistic, but piano and orchestration still has a fairly true to life feel. “Since You Were Mine” by the Shinedown duo of Smith & Myers is a track based around Brent Smith’s distinctive vocals and a sweeping piano backing, with some subdued strings for colour. The MEST wrings out the texture in Smith’s voice, pushing the delivery front and centre in the stage and filling the space around it with the delicate piano and cello tones. The piano reverberates in the ear, almost pulling the notes apart into the individual hammer strikes and the piano strings vibrating. On a good system this track is emotive, and the MEST doesn’t disappoint here, capturing the rawness in the lyrics and Smith’s powerful voice as it cracks and rasps through the track.
The delivery leans more towards dry than liquid on this track, the tautness of the vocals pulling the textures to the surface rather than burying them beneath more rounded edges. The delivery reminds me of the sort of emotional midrange tunings that Final Audio were famous for, and works pretty well in balance with the rest of the tuning.
Another track by Smith & Myers pops up on my review playlist: “Bad At Love”. This track is a more recent discovery of mine, again being a simple arrangement involving just vocals and acoustic guitar for most of the song. The bare arrangement highlights the close-mic’d guitar, and the MEST excels here at capturing the almost inaudible harmonics that ring after each pluck of the stings, giving a little metallic haze in the background that really gives the song a sense of realism that sucks you in as a listener. Allied to the softly layered presentation of the harmonies in the chorus, this track is a pleasure on the MEST.
Overall, the MEST midrange is pretty accomplished. It carries absolute high-end detail along with a stylised musicality that manages to stay fairly close to accurate without being neutral or boring. It isn’t the thickest or richest presentation you will hear, so if that is what you crave in an IEM these won’t tick all your preferences off the wish list, but if you are looking for a midrange that presents music in a crisp, clear and ultra-detailed way without killing the emotion attached to it then the MEST is an easy recommendation.
Moving up to the higher frequencies, the MEST presents treble that is refined and slightly forward in the mix, using the dual Sonion EST drivers to paint a solid but nimble upper end that extends effortlessly. Unique Melody have got the implementation of the BA and EST drivers pretty much spot on here, packing in plenty of fine micro-detail without any obvious rawness or brittleness in the treble notes. The bone conduction driver also overlaps here, offering a little physical input into the treble presentation – given that you can’t really feel the vibrations it’s difficult to say with any certainty exactly how much they are adding to proceedings, but however UM have tuned this quad-brid, they have done a pretty decent job of it.
The MEST shares the abiding characteristic of most of the well-tuned EST models I have heard over the last couple of years – clarity. The treble is smooth and bodied, but still quick in execution, bringing out a lot of “natural” resolution in some of my favourite test tracks without resorting to the usual tuning spikes or trickery to emphasise certain areas where the detail usually lives.
Playing “Oceonic” by classical fusion trio Bond, the violins and synth that kick off the track sound razor-sharp in terms of execution, but not grating, coming through clean and smooth in the inner ear. It is an interesting mix of delicacy and softness, almost giving the notes a “glossy” sort of feel in the ear. Similarly for “Chi Mai” by Duel, there is a weight behind the sharpness of the high-pitched violins, and a subtlety to the delivery of the bubbling synthesiser backing that gives the track a nice dynamic sweep without coming off as thin or brittle. I find EST treble is possibly the hardest thing to describe in a review – using a somewhat bizarre analogy (sorry, that’s just how my brain works), it is like trying to describe a super-middleweight boxer or UFC fighter that actually weighs as much and hits as hard as a super-heavyweight. The physical dimensions and “appearance” are compact, but the density is something different to what the other popular driver types for in ear monitors can produce.
Working through some more test tracks, “Go” by The Chemical Brothers gets the same sort of treatment: the cymbals that kick off the track are solid and metallic, sitting at about eye-level in my imaginary soundstage and giving a beautifully rendered “tsss” with each hit. It cuts through the beefier instrumentation underneath to drive the rhythm of the track, but doesn’t sound too prominent or forward either. Resolution is apparent here – there is a faint underpinning of tambourine (possibly) that kicks off towards the left upper part of the stage at the 1:42 mark. It’s fair to say I’ve used this track to review about 20 different IEMs by now, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard it pulled so clearly out of the sonic landscape, rather than blending into to the other percussion. The MEST isn’t an IEM that will pull these details right into the eye line of the listener, but there is so much space and blackness around each note that you just can’t help noticing these additional layers. It’s a trick IEMs like the Zeus-XR from Empire Ears mastered, and to me it is a hallmark of “resolution done right”: no obvious audio trickery, just a stage that is so crystal clear you can hear everything on it, no matter how subtle.
As a whole, the treble is another area where UM have pretty much nailed it. It won’t have the screaming sort of heat that a HD800 or Grado fan will be craving, but if you like your treble solid, uber-detailed and clearer than Ghandi’s conscience, then the MEST has got you covered.
In terms of raw technicalities, the MEST is a seriously accomplished earphone. It presents a stage that is both broad and deep, with a nicely defined sense of height to top things off. Size-wise it pushes a little outside of the head in all directions, not casting the widest stage I’ve ever heard on the X-axis, but countering that with a real sense of depth to give the music plenty of space to breathe in all directions. Note size is on the larger side, with the MEST placing all the music more forward on the stage and dropping the listener in the middle of it, rather than placing them a few rows further back from the stage. Holographic is a very overused term in high-end IEM reviews, but it feels appropriate here.
Imaging-wise, the MEST paints a sonic picture that places the listener in the middle of a solid sphere of sound, with instruments and voices arrayed all around the central listening point, rather than being laid out in a straight line from left to right or all sitting in front of the listener. “Trouble” by Ray Lamontagne is a good test track for this – with IEMs that have a less spatial presentation, this track splits pretty evenly down the middle, with drums hard panned to the outer ends of the left ear and bass and guitar following suit on the right. With the MEST, Montagne’s honeyed rasp sits front and centre, with the drums sitting back and to the left a little, the bass sitting right and stage-neutral and the guitars sitting somewhere in front of them but closer to the listener.
It is impressively rendered, bringing the track a sense of realism that places the listener right there in the recording studio, immersing you in the sound. It’s a trick that the MEST repeats frequently, placing instruments and vocal parts so specifically in the imaginary landscape around the listener’s head that you almost feel like you can reach out and touch them. This is aided in no small part by the exemplary separation between different instruments, with the MEST pulling each strand of a track far enough apart for the listener to “feel” the black space in between them. it manages to do this without breaking the track down into incoherency, keeping all the different moving parts linked together but clear and distinct in the ear. I’m happy to say that the MEST images as well as anything I’ve heard so far.
Power requirements and synergy
The MEST isn’t a hugely thirsty beast, considering it packs two EST tweeters. Sonion have made some pretty important advances since the first generation of their EST drivers, one of which being the ability to get them to produce a decent volume of output without hooking them up directly to the local nuclear power station. Consequently, the MEST is pretty amenable to being driven loud off most sources an audiophile operating in this sort of price range will have access to – no need to strap a portable amp into the chain to appreciate more decibels than you want to hear here.
That isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate a decent source – far from it, the MEST are one of the most revealing IEMs I’ve heard, so running these from a sub-par output really won’t bring you the best sound this driver setup is capable of. It’s not completely source transparent as it does carry a little of its own flavour into the mix, but give it something like the Cayin N6ii/E02 and you will appreciate the small but notable step up in audio quality from its little brother the N3 Pro.
In terms of tonality, the MEST sound best from a slightly warm source for my preferences – using the Cowon PD2, they sounded a little more lean and sterile than I know they can sound with the Cayin gear. Similarly running them out of the 4.4mm solid state output of the N3 Pro – it doubles down on the edges of the notes, whereas the tube output accents the body a little more, retaining the top end resolution but giving the whole presentation a slightly heavier sense of weight in the midrange. I imagine it will be quite hard to get them to sound bad from anything you pair up with them, but something that can push the detail levels without losing warmth is my tip.
Itsfit Labs Fusion – ($999, Hybrid 1xDD, 2xBA, 1xMagnetostatic driver)
The Fusion is a recent release from Vietnamese IEM manufacturer Itsfit Labs, with a pretty interesting configuration. Unlike a standard DD/BA/EST design, Itsfit have decided to replace the now ubiquitous EST tweeters from Sonion in their design with a new magnetostatic driver from manufacturer EarBridge. It works on similar principles to a planar magnetic driver, using a diaphragm suspended between two magnets to generate its rather unique sounding high end. This isn’t quite in the same price bracket as the MEST (although it is now closer with the recent price revision from UM), but it is close enough to warrant comparison.
In terms of physical dimensions and shell design, both in-ears are pretty similar. The MEST shares a similar physical thickness, being slightly smoother on the inner face and less contoured, and having a slightly longer nozzle. Neither are small, but comfort is roughly equal, with the Fusion just shading it for security of fit as it hugs the contours of the ear slightly better. Looks-wise it’s a draw as well, with the understated carbon fibre design of the MEST holding up well against the more “custom” design of the Fusion.
In terms of packaging, the Itsfit feels slightly more luxurious, with a much more satisfying unboxing experience and presentation. In terms of actual accessories it’s a draw, with the MEST providing a slightly thicker and more high quality cable than the Fusion, with the Dignis carry case also being a little more convenient in daily use than the classic metal puck case that ships with the Itsfit.
Sound wise these two IEMs are not that similar, with the MEST feeling more W-shaped compared to the more traditional V/U of the Fusion. MEST presents a more vivid and up front sound, pushing the midrange considerably more forward than the comparatively laid back Fusion. While the Fusion certainly isn’t lacking energy, the MEST comes across as a more engaging and lively listen, demanding a more active participation from the user than the Itsfit model.
The soundstage feels more immersive and three-dimensional on the MEST, with a similar width but a more defined sense of placement along the Z-axis, putting instruments more perceptibly in front or behind the listener. The MEST also sets the listener a little closer to the imaginary stage than the Fusion, giving a more “front row” style of presentation in comparison. The MEST presents a bigger sonic “picture” in the ear, with the instruments feeling larger and closer to the listener compared to the more distant Itsfit. Layering and separation are comparable between the pair, with the MEST again just edging ahead technically. Imaging is a draw, with both IEMs offering razor sharp placement of instruments and musicians across the virtual stage.
Bass levels are fairly similar in quantity – to me, the MEST feels the fuller of the two, hitting with more physical power and slam than the Fusion, and having a slightly more prominent mid-bass. There is an additional element of “physicality” that the MEST seems to impart to the low end that leaves the Fusion a little behind in terms of texture. The MEST also seems a hair quicker in the bass, with the Fusion sporting a slower decay and more “traditional” DD type sound in comparison.
The mids are very different in style, with the neutral presentation of the Fusion contrasting with the much more forward and emphasised tuning used by the MEST. The mids on the MEST feel thicker and more energetic, but also technically stronger. The detail and resolution is more apparent on the UM model, presenting a bigger sonic image with more clarity and texture, lending the usual midrange instrumentation like guitar and piano a much more substantial feel. Tracks like “World On Fire” by Slash positively drip with aggression and emotion, in contrast to the more neutral and reserved Itsfit, which is a lot closer to neutral in its tuning. This is the one area where the MEST pulls definitively clear of the Fusion, unless you prefer a more recessed and solemn midrange.
Moving up to the treble, the contest is far closer. The magnetostatic driver in the Fusion excels in the upper end, but the MEST configuration of EST, balanced armatures and bone conduction drivers is equally excellent. Technically both are similar, with the MEST config just shading it in terms of resolution and clarity, but not by much. In terms of energy, the Fusion actually out-performs the MEST for me, providing more fizz in the inner ear than the comparatively more understated Unique Melody model. The Fusion is definitely the brighter and more aggressive sounding of the two monitors. In terms of air, the MEST feels more airy, but the treble is slightly further back in the stage than the Fusion, so the notes feel lighter and less substantial in the ear. This is more to do with preference than execution in terms of which is better, as both are top tier performers in this aspect.
Overall, these IEMs are both very good for the price, but even given the additional $450-odd in price between the two when first launched, the jump in SQ is slightly more pronounced on the MEST, which just edges it in multiple areas to provide a sound that is both more technical and more engaging at the same time. If you prefer a brighter sound or a more laid back midrange then the Fusion may be more up your street, but for most people the MEST are likely to be the more enjoyable choice, unless cost is a barrier.
Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 – ($1499, Hybrid 1xDD 3xBA)
The Solaris 2020 is Campfire Audio’s 2020 iteration of their hybrid flagship, sporting the same 1xDD / 3BA hybrid design, packed into a smaller chassis with some interesting internal design enhancements. It utilises the full range of Campfire Audio innovations, from their polarity chamber to help tune the 10mm ADLC dynamic driver, through the now ubiquitous TAEC tech (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber) for the highs and a new “solid body” internal design to assist in driver placement and sound channeling. It also sports one vented BA for the midrange – not the fully open designs popularised by companies like 64 Audio in their TIA tech, but still something a little divergent from the norm.
Design-wise, the Solaris 2020 is a title more compact than the MEST, sporting a solid metal shell with a nicely ergonomic design. It feels a littl smaller int he hand but heavier in the ear, feeling more dense than the lightweight MEST design. Comfort was a concern for some with the original Solaris design, but the new revision makes the IEMs practically disappear in the ear, slightly edging out the MEST for sheer comfort. In terms of accessories, the CA model has a slightly more thorough load out, sporting a thinner but still high-quality cable (the ALO SuperLitz), and a much wider selection of tips. The packaging feels more considered than the Unique Melody effort, with the cases being similar in quality but the finishing of the other items all feeling a little more “polished” and visually appealing.
Sound-wise, the Solaris 2020 shares some of the same DNA as the MEST, being an unapologetically musical take on proceedings rather than a flat or reference-tuned in-ear. The 2020 is slightly flatter than the MEST, being a little more even through the frequencies compared to the more W-shaped styling on the UM model. Starting with the bass, the Solaris is similar in presentation but just packs a little less sub-bass emphasis on tracks like “Disc Wars” by Daft Punk. The 2020 has a roughly similar level of mid bass quantity, but it feels slightly more emphasised due to the lower sub frequency noise underneath. Texture and tone are similar on both, with the ADLC driver in the Solaris packing in plenty of detail and keeping things very taut. For me, honours are pretty even here, with the MEST providing that touch more physical grunt and slam down low, but not feeling hugely more bass than the Solaris.
The midrange is slightly more divergent, with the MEST presenting a slightly thinner and more forward image. Both pack in plenty of detail, but I feel the MEST has a very small edge here, putting a little more space between the instruments and pulling voices a little further apart in tracks like “We Shall Not Be Moved” by Mavis Staples. The Solaris is an exceptional imaging IEM in its own right, but it feels a little less three dimensional and flatter than the MEST, lacking some of the depth in the stage compared to the UM model. One area where the Solaris does things a little better than the MEST for me in the mids is in the capturing of the raw emotion in a track – the 2020 has a rawness to the resolution that evokes the old Final Audio style of tuning, and really helps suck the listener in to the “feel” of the track.
Moving up to the treble, the Solaris again has some top tier treble both in terms of resolution and sparkle, but for my money the glossy detail and density of the MEST just edges it for me here. Neither are a million miles away from each other (as you would expect from two TOTL monitors), but the MEST captures a similar sort of tuning to the Solaris but just with a slightly thicker and more effortless feel. Detail wise the MEST also pulls ever so slightly ahead here, which isn’t too surprising, given that it is one of the most resolving IEMs I have had the pleasure of listening to.
Soundstage wise, both IEMs paint a pretty out-of-head sort of image, with the Solaris probably edging it with instrument size, but the MEST presenting a stage that feels markedly deeper and more holographic in presentation than the more oval-staged Solaris model. Imaging is a draw between both, with either IEM being able to place instruments with absolute precision in the imaginary listening space between the ears.
Power-wise, the Solaris 2020 is considerably easier to drive than the MEST, and more prone to picking up hiss on noisy sources.
It’s no secret that the original Solaris was my favourite IEM for a long time, and the 2020 revision replaced that in my personal favourites when it was released. That being said, the two IEMs are so close in so many areas that I am very much torn between them in terms of which I prefer – if I’m looking for an emotional connection I would probably reach for the 2020 more readily, but for a more technically impressive and immersive sound, the MEST is my go to. I genuinely can’t decide between them, as they are both pretty much bang in the middle of my personal preferences for an IEM – unless you are looking for an absolute bass cannon or something with ultra-thick mids, neither will be a bad choice as an endgame IEM.
oBravo Ra21-C – ($5999, Hybrid 1xDD 1xAMT)
This is more of a quick impression than a full on comparison – I was lucky enough to have the Ra21-C in my possession on loan for around 5 days while I was writing this review, so took some notes between the two IEMs. Please don’t take this as gospel – my go to source for the comparison was the Cayin N6ii/E02, which I have since been informed probably lacks a little in terms of driving power to get the best out of the unusual AMT driver tech in the oBravo.
The Ra21-C is the latest iteration of oBravo’s flagship Ra series of IEMs, which held the crown as the most expensive IEMs on the planet until QDC released the Blue Dragon. They are powered by a 16mm (!) dynamic driver, and an 8mm AMT-II air-motion transformer driver, based on technology more usually found in high end loudspeakers, and which oBravo hold the patent for in miniature form. They are a large IEM, manufactured our of ceramic (for the dome of the main cavity, aluminium and Taiwanese wood. I wasn’t able to see the retail packaging in person, but having seen pictures, it is pretty high end. the demo model I was loaned did come with their new cable, however, which sports a changeable connector at the end. In terms of quality, I prefer the MEST cable for feel and thickness, but the oBravo for connection versatility.
In terms of overall build quality, the oBravo feels more like high end jewellery than an IEM, so it feels a little more impressive in the hand. In terms of wearing comfort and ergonomics, the MEST wins easily there, with a more conventional (and just flat out more comfortable) design.
In terms of sound, the Ra21-C produce a sound that is somewhere between natural and neutral, with a nice weight and texture to the bass and a huge soundstage, with pinpoint instrument placement and top tier resolution. It is more of a slightly curved V than the MEST’s more sculpted W shape tuning, definitely leaning more toward musical reference than anything more exaggerated.
Surprisingly, in terms of sonics these two IEMs actually felt very similar to me, despite the $4.5k price difference. There is slightly more weight in the vocals in the Ra, but presentation-wise they are fairly similar, with the MEST spreading the sound out slightly wider horizontally, and almost matching the depth of the Ra. Staging-wise, while the MEST is impressive, it just isn’t quite as out of the head as Ra.
Regarding the low end, there is more of a sub-bass emphasis on the MEST, compared to the more mid-bass leaning Ra. The MEST has a sharper and leaner midrange, with less body. Detail between the models is a tie, but easier to discern in the MEST on some tracks. The MEST is definitely the easier to drive if the two models. Overall, the MEST feels more dynamic and energetic, with more oomph.
The MEST was something of an unknown quantity when I first received it – I mean, they use bone conduction drivers in cheap running headphones, so how good can they sound, right? Just in case you’ve skipped right to the end, I can answer that in one word: superb. The MEST combine a musical tuning, nicely weighty bass, ultra clear mids and a thick and glossy treble into one coherent and seriously impressive sounding package. The bone conduction drivers add an element of “realism” to the sound that is difficult to describe, but seems to add a feel of texture and detail you can almost touch. It really does evoke the feeling you get when you are listening to real live music, which is pretty impressive from a tiny set of in-ears.
It’s not all superlatives, though. The packaging is probably a little spartan for this sort of price bracket (if that sort of thing matters to you), and the cable, while excellent sounding, is a little unpolished looking compared to similar after market efforts. You also need a good deep fit to get the best sound these IEMs are capable of. If none of these sound like gotchas, that’s because they aren’t… nitpicking is really the only option open if you are looking to critique this IEM. For the price, the level of clarity and refinement in the sound is quite simply top tier, marrying technical excellent in both resolution and imaging with an engaging tuning that gets the feet tapping and the heart pumping. I think Unique Melody have done something pretty special with this IEM, and while it isn’t cheap, it can trade blows with IEMs $2k more expensive without blinking.
I enjoy this hobby for those moments when you find yourself just disappearing into your favourite music, lost in the presentation and swept away by the sheer enjoyment of sound. The MEST give that to me in spades, so unless you are looking for a studio-flat IEM or something with thick mids, huge bass or screaming hot treble, these are probably my easiest recommendation yet for a top tier IEM that ticks all the boxes.