Several months ago, I had the honor of reviewing the Unique Melody Aero custom IEM. I really enjoyed that model, which I found to have a somewhat unique sound signature and excellent build quality, all at a very reasonable price. Here is a link to that review: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/510802/review-unique-melody-aero-custom-triple-driver-iem# I suggest at least skimming over it to get a bit of background as I don't intend on repeating it all here. In the interest of posting this in a timely manner, I will be somewhat more brief in this review, but feel free to ask questions about any areas I don't cover.
As time passed, I was contacted again by Stephen from www.custom-iem.com, who had been instrumental in arranging for the review sample of the Aero. He advised me that UM had a demo unit available of their new flagship model, called the Miracle, and they would be sending it out for me to try if I wanted to. How could I possibly say no to that?
First off, I have to say a few things about the nature of review samples and the terms of this review. I know some people get a bit nervous when free product is being thrown about. I don't blame them. I'd like to be clear though that UM simply loaned me this demo set to use for a few weeks. I did not get to keep them, nor did I receive any other compensation for my review. I have not been promised a discount on a future purchase. They didn't even pick up my tab for the return shipping. They did not tell me what to write, but left it completely open. I think this speaks well for the confidence they have in their product, and in HeadFi as a community of enthusiasts. If I was in charge at UM I'm not so sure that I'd be willing to send out a $1,000 product with no guarantee that it will be returned, and no idea if the review will be positive or negative.
The Miracle is the newest and highest model in the UM lineup. It sits above the 4-driver Mage and 3-driver Aero. It features 6 balanced armature drivers in a 3-way configuration: dual lows, dual mids, and dual highs. This is the same type of setup used in the JH Audio JH13pro and the Ultimate Ears UE18pro, which can be considered direct competitors for the Miracle. As I've said before, the number of drivers is not as important as people might think: choice of drivers, crossover design, diameter/length/angle of sound tubes, use of acoustic filters, and even the relative placement of drivers inside the shell all have significant impact on the end result. So it would be wrong to assume that all 6 driver models are equal or even necessarily better than an offering with fewer drivers.
One important thing aspect to note about the Miracle is the price: it is listed at www.custom-iem.com for $929, which is already lower than the JH13pro ($1099) and the UE18pro ($1350). I notice that right now they are having a Christmas sale, offering an additional $100 off which brings the price down to $829. Obviously that's still pretty expensive, but in the world of reference level headphones it is very much on the cheaper side.
Also important to remember is that my demo unit is not a true custom. Just like the Aero demo I reviewed previously, this Miracle demo is what I'm calling a "universal custom". It is small enough to fit in almost any ear, and it uses a medium sized silicone tip just like a regular universal IEM would. In this case, the tip is a dual flange type, which is different from the Aero model I had. Luckily they seemed to fit perfectly, and were almost as comfortable as a true custom.... at least for the first 45 minutes or so. During extended use they did get a little uncomfortable due to pressure from the flange trying to expand, but it was never unbearable. Just like the Aero, I believe I got about 25 hours of listening time in with these. I admit that's not enough to judge them with full authority, but certainly enough to get a general idea about their capabilities. Keep in mind though that this is sort of a "worst case scenario", and I am confident that any true molded custom will sound better that a universal demo due to better fit and more bone conduction.
In my review of the Aero, I detailed exactly which drivers were used. I won't be doing that here, as I could not see any markings on any of the drivers. I don't know if that was a deliberate choice by UM or just a coincidence in the way they were configured. In any case, all I can say is that I can in fact see all six drivers: 2 are very large, the next 2 only slightly smaller, followed by a very small pair positioned much closer to the ear.
The Miracle, like every other UM product I've ever encountered, has an extremely high build quality. They are simply the company to beat when it comes to clear, polished, almost glass-like shells with absolutely zero defects inside or out.
The cable is the same new style as I had with the Aero. Once again, I really liked it, and if it was just a tad longer from the strain relief to my ears I would consider it perfect. For most people without a massive cranium, it probably is perfect.
Miracle is in the middle, notice how it is a bit shorter than average
The Miracle comes with the same standard accessories as the Aero, but with one major exception; instead of the slick cardboard type box, Miracle owners get treated to a nice faux leather storage box. It rather reminds me of something you would store jewelry in, and I used to own a small humidor that looked very similar from the outside. Open the hinged lid, and you find a cutout section that should fit your customs exactly. I say should because on my universal demo they didn't fit exactly right, but I suspect that is unique to this set. I assume that a regular pair would have an outline that allows the earpiece to slip in and fit perfectly. There is also a hinged section towards the front that could accommodate a cable, cleaning cloths, or whatever accessories you might want to store there. The whole thing very well done, and is probably the best storage solution I've yet seen for a custom. It isn't portable in the least bit, but you can pick up your own portable case anywhere for very cheap. This case seems designed for use at home, which is where you will see the full advantage of these high end monitors anyway, so I agree with the choice.
This is the associated equipment I used for evaluating the UM Miracle:
SOURCE: QLS QA350 solid state transport, Rotel RDV-1092, Dell Mini music server
DAC: Matrix Cube, Yulong D100, Anedio D1
AMPLIFICATION: Maverick Tubemagic A1, Darkvoice 337SE, Matrix M-Stage, Luxman P-1u
PORTABLE: QLS QA350, Sansa Fuze, Sansa Clip+
I did not burn in the Miracle as I didn't have enough time with them to do that. I simply jumped right in to listening. I tried all types of music, either from CD or in lossless FLAC format. Some was standard resolution and some was 24/96 or 24/192.
These are just the impressions of one guy. I do these reviews for fun, not profit, and I don't claim to be any special authority. Many people have agreed with my assessments of other gear but some have also disagreed, and I totally respect that. We all hear differently on a physical level and we all have different preferences as well, so I think it almost impossible for one person’s impressions to apply to every other person. As with all my reviews, I hope you enjoy reading them and I hope they help our hobby to some extent, but I don't pretend that they are anything more than my opinion.
My first impression of the Miracle was when I used it with the Sansa Fuze. I was immediately blown away by the clarity, resolution, and smoothness that it produced. The entire frequency spectrum was well represented from top to bottom, and somehow it seemed to be extremely smooth while at the same time punchy on the low end and sparkly on the high end. I own several models that are generally thought of as some of the world’s best headphones, and I could tell from the beginning that the Miracle was going to match or exceed most of them. As I moved up to my best source and amplification equipment, I discovered that the Miracle might well be the best headphone I have ever experienced, regardless of type.
Starting with the low end, which is probably my favorite aspect of the Miracle. The key word here is control. Everything from bass drums and bass guitar to low notes on a pipe organ all sounded smooth, rich, and deeply extended. Indeed the extension into the low 20Hz or even high teens region seemed on par with the finest I have ever heard. Contrast this with the UE11pro which hits nearly as deep but is way too prominent in the mix. The Miracle does not draw attention to itself like that, but instead sounds exceedingly natural. It is so good that it creates the illusion that the outer ear is actually vibrating as if listening to a full sized, full range speaker.
If you look at the FR chart for most headphones, you see that the lows generally start dropping off somewhere between 30 and 60Hz. Even what we consider world class headphones exhibit this same behavior, perhaps dropping at a slower pace or even managing to stay nearly flat. But looking at the FR chart provided with the Miracle, we see that it is actually still rising at the low end; starting at 100Hz, it is up 2 dB by the time it gets to 20Hz. I don't think that FR charts can ever tell the whole story of how a headphone sounds, but in this case the experience echoes the graph, and the result is exceptional.
As I read the above paragraph, it doesn't seem to do justice to the quality of bass that I hear when listening to the Miracle. It’s hard to put into words. If you have ever heard a very high end speaker setup featuring a well integrated subwoofer calibrated to perfection, that is what the Miracle reminds me of. The last speaker setup I heard that sounded this good involved dual 15" Triad Gold Powersubs in a very well done inwall installation, including extensive room equalization.
It is hard to think of a headphone with which to compare the low frequency performance of the Miracle. I need to be clear that this is NOT a basshead sound signature, and those seeking that type of sound would probably be best served by a JH11 or JH16. What you get with the Miracle is an almost unbelievable accuracy and seemingly unlimited deep extension. The best comparison that comes to mind is the authority and depth of the Audio Technica L3000 combined with the clarity and natural tone of a bass heavy Sony R10, with a quantity that lies somewhere in between those 2.
Moving on to mids, again I have nothing but praise. Speed and coherence rival that of top electrostatic rigs (when used with high end source and amplification of course), and it seems to have an unbreakable "grip" on the music; no matter how complex the music got, the Miracle felt like it was always in the driver's seat. There was just nothing I could throw at it that the Miracle couldn't handle extremely well.
I'll address the obvious comparison to the JH13 later, but in summary the Miracle has every bit of detail that the JH offering has, while coming across as slightly less forward or aggressive. This extra smoothness was welcome in most cases but not all and both products had their moments where they outshined the other.
The amazing part is that they seemed equally at ease with vastly different types of music. I loved them with vocal tracks, loved them with metal, loved them with folk, blues, hip-hop.... I've never had a headphone that performed at such an equally high level in so many areas.
Highs on the Miracle are excellent, as expected considering UM seems to be known for exceptional highs. The UM Aero was extremely solid in this department, but fell short of the best when it came to extension, instrument separation, and overall "air" on the top end. The Miracle is a big step up in each of those areas. I don't usually care for the "ultra-detailed" sound signature offered by certain headphones such as the Sony Qualia 010 or SA5000. The Miracle isn't quite like that. Those seem to forgo deep bass extension in order to force you to focus on the micro-detail being produced. The Miracle manages to have world class highs but without leaving the rest behind. The bass heavy Sony R10 was very similar in this regard, but I think the Miracle goes a bit further by delivering the extreme low extension as well as the amazing highs. Because of this, the listener is able to fully engage on a micro level, while still completely connecting with the music on a macro scale. Truly a moving experience.
All of these factors combine to produce some of the best soundstage and imaging I've ever encountered from any headphone. The Miracle seemed to transport me to the performance venue, rather than the more common feat of transporting the performers into the room with me. I know it sounds hard to believe, but in my opinion the Miracle is easily on par with my former soundstage champ the HD800. I know I'm not crazy because the quad driver UM Mage has been frequently praised for its amazing soundstage as well.
I'm not going to spend a ton of time on comparisons because I'm already way overdue on this post, and also because my time was limited with the Miracle so I didn't sit around doing A/B comparisons like I normally do. Still, I figured this would help a little.
Along with the new Westone ES5 and Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, the JH13pro is the main competition for the title of "Best custom IEM". As I've mentioned in the past, I like the JH13pro a lot but I don't quite love it. For all the things it does right, it still falls just short of perfection for me, and that has something to do with the bass performance. The JH13 has a bit of bass boost at around 60Hz or so, which makes for a very "punchy" sound, but I constantly wish that the boost had been applied lower so it would draw less attention to itself. With the Miracle, I get my wish. As a drummer I identify more with the natural deep bass tones of the Miracle more than with the impact and punch of the JH13. I recognize though that this is simply my preference and I can understand why someone would go the other way. Aside from that, the JH13 also has a bit more of an aggressive or forward sound, primarily in the upper midrange spectrum. I think that if people were to A/B these 2 products for a few minutes, most would likely prefer the JH13 initially. But if allowed a long term take home demo, I think many would prefer the more smooth sounds of the Miracle. The JH13 might seem more exciting, but the Miracle just comes across as more realistic to my ears. Both have an amazing soundstage but the Miracle seems again better able to capture both the subtle sonic cues of the room as well as the overall picture of the performance, in a way that is pretty much unmatched in my headphone experience.
The ES3X, despite being older and having "only" 3 drivers per ear, is still one of my favorites. Even against the JH13pro I've never found it lacking, just different. That is until now. The Miracle is the first IEM I've heard that makes the ES3X sound downright thin and just "wrong" in comparison. It is like switching from some massive high end fullrange speakers to some decent but unspectacular mini-monitors; there is a sense of boxiness, or what I've heard described as a "cupped hand" effect. The transition from low bass to midbass doesn't sound right. And the highs seem harsh and ragged. The disparity is obvious when switching from Miracle to ES3X, although once I spent more time with the Westone offering it gradually started to sound good again. Now that I've returned the Miracle demo, I enjoy the ES3X as much as ever, so thankfully no permanent harm has been done.
Yes, I am making this comparison, and despite their differences (full sized closed headphone versus custom IEM) they have a lot in common. I owned a bass heavy R10 for a while and sold it last year because I found that despite the excellent sound, I rarely used it because I was always scared I would scratch it or drop it. Also, despite its superb performance with most genres of music, I found that for rock music I often preferred the Grado PS1000 or Audio Technica L3000. Still, I agree with many people who believe that this might possibly be the best headphone ever made. Since I no longer own them I can't do a direct comparison, but from memory the R10 is very similar to the Miracle in mids, highs, tonality, detail, soundstage, and timbre. The Miracle has even greater sub bass extension, and somewhat more volume to the low frequencies in general. This makes it more satisfying for certain music like rock where the R10 fell just a tad short for me. Don't get me wrong though; the R10 is still a one of a kind user experience, and I imagine that when I'm old and retired and my kids grow up and move out, I might want another pair if they haven't been superseded by then.
The UM Miracle is quite simply the best custom IEM I have ever heard. Remarkably, it sounds very high end even when driven by a modest portable player. The Miracle sounds so good through a little Sansa Fuze, that the excellent ES3X requires thousands of dollars of source and amplification gear just to be in the same league. But when the Miracle is paired with that high end equipment, it becomes untouchable in my opinion. It has the best low end response I have ever heard, with top quality performance in every other area.
Of course, all of this is subjective. The Miracle beats the JH13 by a small margin for me, but others might feel differently, just as the HD800, T1, D7000, HE5, PS1000, K1000, etc. all have their fans (and detractors). Once thing that can't be argued though is that Unique Melody offers the best build quality in the business, and www.custom-iem.com once again proves to be a great seller to work with. Factoring in the current $100 off sale, I think anyone in the market for a top level headphone should definitely give the Miracle some serious consideration.
Edited by project86 - 11/24/10 at 10:28am