Pros: Excellent craftsmanship and fit. Very detailed and smooth expansive sound.
Cons: Pricey, long wait time, resale value, and the inability to share the experience with others.
I can safely say that the Merlin sound signature is nothing like any other headphone I have heard before.
First of all, the fit of CIEMs is such a luxury. You pop them in once, and never have to touch them again until you want to remove them. I always fiddle around with other headphones/iems because sometimes seals break or it gets uncomfortable. In addition, you know that the CIEM sits in your ear with the sound bores in the same exact position every time, relieving me of any concerns about positioning for optimum sound quality.
Many people consider this a basshead CIEM, but for me it isn't. By my definition, basshead headphones are always very in your face and energetic with a prominent spike in the midbass for hard visceral thumps, which really isn't close to the Merlin's tuning.
I have seen some people write the Merlin off as another typical v shaped CIEM. Perhaps according to the graph of the frequency response it should sound that way but my experience is very different. I had the feeling that the Merlin should be quite similar to my Pro 900's as they are both compared to the Denon 7000 sometimes. Naturally when I first started using them, I was expecting to hear some serious bass presence, as that is what the Merlins are marketed towards. But at first the bass didn't really jump out as much as the mids did, especially vs my Pro 900 which is definitely a typical v shape sound.
The Merlin produce such an effortless and smooth sound, and it's a very different presentation than the one I was used to. In theory this was not what I was looking for, but I am very pleased with the surprise. The distant vocals and guitar solos on the Pro 900 are brought way up in the mix in the Merlins and sound very present and textured. The highs are excellent, producing tons of details on cymbals and high hats. I have worn the Merlins for hours at a time and not felt any sort of fatigue, so sibilance is not really an Issue here (For me). IMO, the highs and mids are just as worthy of their mention even though this CIEM is geared for bass lovers. Almost every review here stresses how the bass only kicks in when it is called upon, and this is true for me as well. The bass extends far and it goes deep. It has a lovely texture and can sometimes tickle your ears when it reaches very low frequencies. I never find it too powerful or leaking into the rest of the mix. When listening to EDM or Metal, I don't get an energetic thumping bass that some people might be looking for, rather a lush and thick bass that fills out the sound spectrum in a very pleasing way. To me, the bass really isn't that strong and I feel that if I had purchased the miracle instead, I would always thirst for more bass and have to use a boost.
I don't understand how UM pull off such a huge sound stage in these tiny ear pieces. I was always under the impression that headphones with bigger speakers and deep cups are much better at this, but these Merlins are ridiculous. They have a much wider stage than the Pro 900 and have excellent instrument seperation that together, offer you a very 3D and immersing experience. This is one of the strongest points of the Merlin and it revolutionizes the way I hear my music.
To summarize : The Merlin has a very smooth and wide signature with some added bass presence to give you a very thick and layered sound that does not sound dull at all, but may not be as energetic as some people are looking for. For me, the Merlins sound great with everything I have thrown at them so far but they excell with complicated symphonic or epic music and are great for movies. I used them while watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and listening to Smaugs thick evil voice on these was hair raising!
Pros: Great customer service (in US from Stephen), great sound, BASS, but the mids and highs still come through, and they arrived a month early
Cons: They're pricey, but not out of line with other customs. So that's like half a con.
Alright, I told the good folks at Unique Melody that I would provide my impressions. I think that I've had them long enough now, and used them from enough sources, to give some feedback.
Thus far I've used them straight out of a Nexus 10, a Galaxy S4, the S4 > E18, my computer > E18, a Clip+ (Rockboxed), a Fuze+ (Rockboxed), and a Sony ZX1. I've flown with them, I've ridden public transportation with them. And I use them at work just about every day. And I absolutely love them. The bass is definitely forward, which they make very clear. You don't buy the Merlin if you want a neutral sound signature, Unique Melody offers other choices for that. This was my first venture in to CIEMs, and it was the most I'd ever spent on headphones/in-ears. I was using HiFiMan RE-262s before I got these. I love those little guys, but these just go so far to blow them out of the water, that I haven't used them since the Merlins arrived. Actually, I gave them to my girlfriend since they weren't getting any use.
The order processing is simple, and it took far less time than quoted to get them to me. They also fit perfectly on the first attempt. They're just so comfortable. The only time they give me issues is when I'm at work, and people walk up to me repeatedly. Some days I can't just get left alone to work, and the removal process does irritate my left ear (not my right, just the left, who knows why) if I do it over and over. One thing that I will note is that during the order process, when you're selecting graphics, they aren't accurately reflected on the site that simulates what you're going to get. I put my alma mater's Block M on mine, and it showed it like it was on the outside, stuck or painted on. But that's not how they came, they're under a layer of the translucent material, making them not really standout at all:
That's not a complaint, I should have asked. Because, next nice thing about ordering here in the United States, Stephen Guo (even when you spell his name Stepheh on your first correspondence, he won't even call you out for being a jerk) is really easy to work with, and answers any questions you might have. Don't make assumptions, just ask. They'll guide you through the process. Also of note, I got them delivered in half the quoted time, which was great.
Back to the sound, in a word: marvelous. Detailed and punchy. It's definitely a warm and musical sound signature. They even have a decently large soundstage. Not as wide as my Q701s, or my HE-400s, but wider than on any other in-ear I've heard. With the ZX1 (pictured with the Merlins above and below) they have a wider soundstage than I ever expected from in-ears. And on tracks with, for example, a standup bass, you can feel the strumming, it's a rather remarkable experience. And honestly, I expected that they would be an issue to pair with a player, and they really haven't been. Of course, I've never tried them with anything that has an absurdly high output impedance like my HiFiMan 602.
I know that this is a short impression. But seriously, if you're on the fence (like I was for months) just order them. You will not regret it once.
At the time I ordered the UM Merlin, I had been a registered Head-Fier for right at a year, and like many members who have been around any length of time, had run the gamut of mid and top tier universals. I have had a great time buying, selling, trading and borrowing all kinds of universals with different sound signatures, ergonomics, materials and drivers, and still to this day continue to enjoy doing so. I’ve also come to enjoy putting my experiences into reviews, impressions and random posts as the mood, excitement or disappointment strikes.
I’ve come to know many of you quite well, or at least as well as you can know strangers and acquaintances through a forum. I have learned quite a lot from many of the experienced regulars here and feel my ears have become a very well trained tool over this time period but know I still have much to learn and experience. I just want to express my gratitude to those that share PM’s and emails with me, answer my questions and humbly say thank you to all those that put their trust in me, by asking for my advice in their hunt for a sound that meets their needs and desires; or who simply enjoy reading my thoughts on this phone or the next. I’ve come to love Head-Fi and this hobby and hope in some small way that my participation helps it to continue to grow.
Back in mid September of 2011, UM Global offered a promo special for the Americas (and later to other regions) that included a 20% discount on the custom of your choice, a UM branded USB drive, T-shirt and an AmpCity Fortis custom made silver cable. The promo launched on September the 15th and took the first 25 to sign up.
We all shipped our impressions to a specific Head-Fier, who would in turn packed them all up in one box and sent them to UM, who would then reimburse him for shipping costs. Due to logistics and paperwork for so many involved, it was roughly one month after placing the order that our impressions were finally shipped off to China.
During the long wait for our CIEM’s to arrive, UM announced in early December that they were changing the T-shirt to a track jacket and we learned the supplier for the Fortis cable wire could not deliver as promised and AmpCity were sourcing another avenue. Due to this delay, UM decided to include a stock cable, for free, so they could go ahead and ship all the phones once they were ready.
Finally the day arrives! December 16, 3 months from order date, a perfect fitting Merlin arrives in my possession. Perfect fitting you say? Completely. I cannot stress enough how important well made impressions are. The audiologist I used makes impressions for musicians on a daily basis. I of course paid a little more but I find the expertise and experience worth the extra costs and perhaps saved me more money, in the long run, in shipping costs for refits.
As of today, the Fortis cable and track jacket have still not been delivered. UM is still awaiting AmpCity to deliver.
Edit: The redesigned Fortis cable, made by Beat Audio, arrived May 17, 2012.
The Merlin is a hybrid 3 way design using dual BA for highs, dual BA for mids and a single dynamic driver for lows. It is also a vented design, allowing for air movement, creating a greater presence of bass and spaciousness. Despite the venting, isolation is very good. I ordered mine with recessed sockets but flush sockets are available. Warranty is 2 years with 60 day refits and specs are as follows:
Crossover – 3 way
Frequency Range – 10hz to 19hz
Sensitivity – 108db
Impedence – 12 ohm
This equates to the Merlin being fairly easy to drive but you’ll definitely want low output impedance from your players or amps. Certainly nothing greater than 2 ohm and less than 1 is recommended.
The Merlin comes in a giant red box with a standard 50” Westone/JH style cable, warranty card, cleaning tool, shirt clip and frequency response graph. The graph is a nice personal touch but I’m not sure how useful it really is, since the method for testing is unknown. Graphing CIEM’s is a much more difficult task than universals. Unfortunately it doesn’t come with a pocketable or travel case. Currently I’m using an Otterbox 2100 that I had on hand but am looking to get something smaller.
Most of my listening is done on the move, whether commuting, walking or moving from one room in the house to another, so my testing is done on portable/transportable equipment. I’ve used an iPhone 4, Nano 6g, Laptop, Headstage DAC cable and Objective 2 amp.
UM markets the Merlin as their north of neutral bass oriented ‘fun’ offering, with a focus on deep bass. These are not musicians’ monitors but a CIEM created with personal listening in mind. I myself find that I prefer lows that are somewhat elevated from neutral, as I think it sounds more natural. In my experience, a properly done low end will have great texture and rumble, without the need to elevate through EQ or bass boosts and adds to the overall musicality. The Merlin captures this very well, all with zero interfering or bleeding into the midrange, as well as not becoming overpowering or stealing the focus of a song.
Bass is indeed natural and plentiful. Bass guitar becomes the driving rhythm of a song. It extends very low and is some of the tightest and cleanest bass I’ve heard in my IEM journey so far. In a word: Palpable. Kicks are extremely tight and punch with authority. Decay is very believable, yet it’s no slouch in speed. There is no sign of slowness and congestion. Texture is simply sublime.
To put the bass in context, I find the Future Sonics Atrio with MG7 driver to have more sub bass quantity/volume but sounds a little loose and uncontrolled in direct comparison. If you are familiar with the MG7, then you know it has some of the best deep bass in the universal business.
As you expected, bass is very, very good on the Merlin. What you might not expect are the utterly liquid, thick and lush mids. I cannot tell you how pleasantly surprised I was to discover the Merlin is a mid-centric phone! Voices take front and center for a very intimate performance. During a recent A/B with the RE262, these were my notes:
“Both are mid centric with sweet, intimate and liquid vocals. Due to the RE262 not having as much of a bass presence, vocals are not quite as fleshed out as the Merlin but make them appear just a tad sweeter and closer. Overall the Merlin produces better clarity and detail in the vocals providing for an extremely intimate performance.”
The Merlin, like the RE262, excels at giving you the finer nuances of vocal performances: pursing of the lips, intakes of breath, throat inflections and raw emotion.
The very thick noted midrange also produces fantastic distortion rock guitar sustain. In this manner it produces a very Marshall inspired lifelike performance. Here is a note I made while listening to a Sevendust song: “Drop D guitars are thick with gobs of sustain, along with the rumble of the bass guitar create the wall of sound Sevendust is famous for.”
Moving on the highs, I find them very crisp and a bit on the airy side. Sparkle is excellent. The Merlin treble never gets fatiguing despite the crispness and sparkle. Hi-hats and cymbals are rendered with very good clarity and produce excellent location cues. If I could change one thing on the Merlin, I’d perhaps want to add just a bit more weight to the high end but then again I don’t know how that would affect the overall presentation.
The soundstage of the Merlin was the biggest revelation for me moving to a custom. It took me days to wrap my head around what I was hearing; and then finally it dawned on me: Height! The Merlin soundstage is without a doubt the tallest soundstage I’ve heard. When I immediately switch to one of my universals, until my brain can readjust, it makes them sound very short in stature. The Merlin soundstage is also both very wide and deep, as well as placing you very close (front row) to the stage and looking up at the performance.
One of the aspects of BA’s I’ve noticed is their ability to separate instruments. Instrument separation on the Merlin, with the quad BA’s, lives up to this expectation. Each instrument is distinctly rendered with plenty of air around them but most importantly there is great coherence between dynamic driver and BA’s. Kudos to UM for pulling it off; so nicely done. However it is worth noting, that to me, BA’s do not present music as organically and blended as a single dynamic driver and this speaks to the sense of instrument separation that BA’s present.
From here I’d like to expand just a little about how certain instruments are presented with the Merlin. Drums sound utterly fantastic to me. Every piece of the kit is easily heard/pinpointed. Snares and toms have huge impact and sound very lifelike. Hi-hats, cymbals and rides are easily distinguished from each other. Pianos have proper weight and reverb down low, and sound wonderfully thick with a very good top end. Acoustic guitars have lifelike resonance. But my favorite has to be the phat distortion guitars and the amazing sustain.
As you can see the entire process dealing with the UM promos has been trying and time consuming. As much as I love how the Merlin matches my preferences, I’m not sure if I would go through that many months of waiting again. Just for the CIEM themselves, the wait was 3 months and we are at 5 months and counting for the promo items. I suspect waiting times will be less in the future, without regional promo orders clogging the gears. Never-the-less, when considering ordering a CIEM from a manufacturer outside of your home country, there are bound to be time related frustrations.
The build quality and sound of my Merlin is superb and lived up the reputation and expectation of a UM build. If you have the patience and have been on the fence about the Merlin, I hope I’ve covered many of the questions and concerns you may have.
Up next? An Aurisonics AS-2 this summer perhaps? To be continued…