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Review: Unique Melody Maven and Mason V3 IEMs

  1. project86 Contributor
    Unique Melody may not quite have the same widespread name-recognition as JH Audio or Ultimate Ears, but in my view they deserve a place at the table when talking about legendary OG custom IEM makers. It's been roughly a decade since I first tried their original Miracle, but I recall preferring it to the then-popular JH13 in a few key areas. I also loved their first Merlin which launched way back in 2011, and still enjoy it from time to time all these years later. If memory serves, Merlin was the first commercial application of a hybrid design, tapping the strengths of dynamic drivers for lows plus multiple balanced-armatures covering the rest of the spectrum.

    Unique Melody went on to create many other popular models but I confess to not having paid as much attention recently - not for lack of interest or respect but simply due to being overwhelmed with other reviews.

    With today's project, I aim to bring myself up to speed a bit. First I'll take a look at the established flagship, the Mason v3, and then a very interesting newcomer called the Maven. I would have loved to also cover others, like the Maven's counterpart called Mirage, but there's only so much time in the day.

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    Mason v3
    First up is the Unique Melody Mason v3. This IEM launched a few years back and has earned considerable praise from press and forum dwellers alike. Priced at $2,699 and loaded with 16-drivers, an adjustable "frequency tuning" module, and a proprietary "dual tone" cable system which actually features selectable silver or copper wiring in one cable - this is truly a flagship offering. UM sells the Mason v3 in both custom and universal form, and it was the latter which I used for this evaluation.

    First general impressions: the Mason v3 is beautifully built, with some nice touches like a titanium sound tube for resonance control and of course the very nice cabling system. It's not just the quality cable I appreciate but also the screw-down connector which inspires more confidence than the traditional 2-pin or MMCX styles. The shell is acrylic but uses a special layered build process which does look and feel more polished than other IEMs, in a way that is difficult to describe but generally feels very "premium". The build looks totally flawless which is not something I can say for the majority of IEM or custom IEM designs I've encountered.

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    I normally use custom molded IEMs and tend to struggle with fit on universal designs, but the Mason v3 is comfortable enough for 60 minute listening sessions. A custom version would enhance the experience and may prove to be the better sounding option, but I can only speculate on based on past comparisons between universals and custom models. With the universal Mason v3, I noticed large variations in sound based on tip choice (as is often the case), and eventually settled on the large Comply Tsx tips for an ideal mix of performance and comfort. I used the cable in "silver" mode which I felt was more insightful and resolving, though the difference between it and "copper" was not drastic.

    Listening with the Mason v3 was initially done via 2.5mm balanced output on my Cayin N5iiS. I've been pretty enamored with the new Norah Jones release Begin Again (24-bit/96kHz via Qobuz) - I never thought I'd find myself purposely listening to another Norah Jones album but this one veers in a different direction and I quite enjoy it. The Mason v3 is perfectly suited for this sort of music - clarity, transient response, and imaging are all superb. It actually does bring to mind the original UM Miracle and how resolving that IEM felt compared to its contemporaries back in 2010. Treble extension is airy and clean, while midrange (female vocals in particular) is totally palpable in a way the otherwise enjoyable Miracle could never quite manage. Switching to folk (Crooked Still, Abigail Washburn) and singer/songwriter (Cara Dillon, Nacy Bryan) material, it was more of the same - the Mason v3 was made for stuff like this. The treble response is very extended, and the sense of space it creates is superb for an IEM, whether custom or universal. Bass is very slightly north of neutral with the adjustment set to flat, and it can grow more punchy (but still isn't massive or overbearing) when cranked up all the way.

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    To give it a more difficult test, I rotated through my "non-audiophile" music - metal from Obscura, Animals As Leaders, and Gojira. Vintage hip-hop from EPMD, Wu Tang Clan, and Rakim, plus modern underground gems from Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Little Brother. Ancient Cannonball Adderley and modern pop crushed to death by dynamic compression. The Mason v3 did not stumble as much as I had expected on this material - the original Miracle would unravel in this situation, but the Mason v3 does a respectable job. I like having the ability to crank up the low-end response by a few dB thanks to the tuning knobs, and the sound is far more dynamic than the somewhat polite Miracle ever was. It's still not a very forgiving sound signature, and you will definitely hear all the flaws in the recording, but somehow it isn't as annoying as it is with other neutral-type models like the Jomo Audio 6R or the original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor.

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    I switched from the relatively modest Cayin N5iiS to my big system comprised of a Nativ Vita music server, Resonessence Labs Mirus Pro Signature DAC, and Pass Labs HPA-1 which is brilliant with sensitive IEMs. This meant swapping the 2.5mm balanced dual-tone cable for the 3.5mm SE version, and using an adapter to fit the HPA-1's 1/4" headphone jack. This system, supported by quality cabling and power conditioning, leaves no stone unturned when it comes to high-resolution, and the Mason v3 scaled up accordingly. The midrange in particular became the standout feature. Whereas in the portable rig it was very good, the desktop rig brought it to world-class levels achievable by only a very select few sets of headphones or IEMs.

    Overall I'm impressed by the Mason v3. In a continually expanding sea of $2k-3k (and beyond) IEMs, I can totally understand how someone might choose the Mason v3 for its lighter, more ethereal take compared to a lot of warmer, smoother competitors. The Mason v3 also has a beautifully engaging midrange that I can't say I've heard from another IEM - it really is a competitive offering in the high-end IEM space. It probably won't satisfy bassheads or trebleheads, nor is it very smooth or forgiving, but for those who love a midrange-focused tonality, this is definitely an IEM worth checking out.

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    Maven
    Continuing their longstanding theme of "IEMs that start with M", Unique Melody recently launched the Maven. This model goes for $1,999 and sports 11 balanced-armature drivers, some of which are custom made to UM's spec by either Knowles Acoustic or Sonion (I'm not sure which). The Maven is only available as a universal product and one look at the shell will tell you why - it's a titanium shell with a very complex "microstructure" design for rigidity, durability, and light weight. I've never seen anything like it from an IEM. Aside from that we get the same excellent cabling system as the Maven, allowing for choice of copper or silver plus giving that excellent low profile screw-on connection.

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    Maven uses something called "Targeting Frequency Adjustment Technology" to help smooth out their treble response. I don't quite understand the entire design philosophy but I do know a custom semi-open driver is placed right at the nozzle of the IEM (you can see it in my pics if you look closely), which acts as a sort of noise cancelling device to reduce peaks in the high-frequency area. This is vaguely similar to the concept used by many cars these days to cancel out certain low frequency tones and thus reduce perceptible in-cabin road noise - only here, it is focused on the peak at 6kHz which UM says is difficult to tame using the traditional methods (acoustic dampers, tuned sound tube length, etc). If you really think about it, that makes Maven something like a traditional 10-driver design with that 11th driver being used in a totally unconventional way.

    Fit on the Maven is a bit different than the universal Mason v3, or most other universal IEMs I've tried recently. While the usual approach (Mason included) is to fit snugly into the ear like a custom IEM (or as close as possible given the universal design), the Maven doesn't quite work that way. For my ears at least, it sticks out a bit more and makes less contact with the concha of the ear. I end up relying on the Comply Tsx tips plus the memory-wire in the cable wrapped around my ears to anchor the IEM in place... sounds uncomfortable but it's actually pretty great, and I can practically wear them indefinitely. I'm not sure they would hold up well during really active use, but the Mason wouldn't far very well in that case either. Obviously the fit will vary with each person and I'm told the majority of users get a solid if more traditional fit with the Maven shell, so maybe this is just a unique experience with my weird ears - but it works out pretty well in the end.

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    Starting out with the same music via the same balanced out from the Cayin N5iiS, with the only difference being the cable set to copper mode (that's just how it arrived), my initial impression of the Maven was one of.... confusion. It was bright, but not bright. It was very fast, somewhat lean, but also with exceedingly tight bass response that was certainly present enough to be satisfying. It also had a soundstage that was initially tough to make sense of.

    After much listening I came to a few conclusions. First, this is not a presentation that will "wow" everyone upon first listen. Particularly when switching to it from a more "conventionally tuned" IEM. I needed a good amount of time to wrap my brain around what was happening. Once I did, I came to really enjoy it.

    Compared to the Mason v3, I hear Maven as being more treble oriented. Opinions differ as to what constitutes a neutral sound, and I can imagine debate over which of these is more flat overall. Mason definitely projects a more forward midrange though, whilst Maven has more treble energy and sparkle.

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    Even turning down the bass adjustment all the way, Mason still has slightly more low-end presence. But Maven is not at all bass-shy, and what's there is wonderfully tight and punchy. Listening to Mutemath's Changes, an album filled with hard-hitting (but clean) bass elements, I don't feel the Maven to be at all lacking in low-end authority. Nor does it feel disjointed as I've heard from plenty of other IEMs. Switching to Obscura's Cosmogenesis (which is one of my references for insanely fast kick drum action), I note that the Maven actually outperforms Mason v3 when it comes to delineating each bass drum "thwack" without crowding the ones taking place immediately before or after. When it comes to drum and bass, blues, or other bass-heavy genres, Mason v3 with the tuning modules cranked up will deliver more visceral impact with a slight compromise in texture/tightness. So it really depends on what you are looking for.

    The brightness I heard at first seemed to fade away once I got more familiar with the Maven's unique signature. It's still what I'd call a treble-focused sound, but that treble is ridiculously clean and free of peaks. Whatever Unique Melody is doing with that custom semi-open driver, it is working. Switching back to the otherwise-excellent Mason v3 feels like a step backwards in comparison, which is funny because I have a high opinion of that sound in generl. But when I listen to brass instruments or cymbals, I can clearly tell the Mason v3 isn't as controlled in the upper mids and low treble region. It accentuates sibilance while the Maven comes off as cleaner and more pure or direct. Hard to explain - it's not sharper sounding, but the lack of peaks makes it actually seem more focused and clear. You hear the real sound without being distracted by any flaws.

    I do miss the engaging, somewhat forward mids of the Mason from time to time. Maven midrange is not by any means recessed, and quality is exceptional, but with certain music (particularly the singer/songwriter stuff I mentioned earlier) Mason v3 is more appealing. Maven seems to excel at classical, jazz, and metal, where its speed and treble accuracy really shine.

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    I also made progress in figuring out the Maven's soundstage presentation. It has more depth and height than Mason v3, but somewhat less width. This makes it simultaneously more intimate yet more expansive depending on your focus, or on the recording itself. I end up liking Mason more with average recordings while Maven stands out with really well done material since that is more likely to contain depth and height information in the first place.

    These differences only solidified when using the Maven in my big system. With the more resolving DAC and superior Pass Labs amplification, Maven's treble came alive all the more, and that nuanced low end response was increasingly textured. Neither of these IEMs are difficult to drive yet both scale extremely well with higher end gear, and I'd definitely recommend at least a decent dedicated DAP to take full advantage of what they have to offer. Between the two of them, Maven is more picky, and shines more brightly (no pun in tended) using a high-end system, whilst Mason v3 can still be enjoyable from a decent smartphone if you really must.

    I still don't feel like I've fully captured what the Maven has to offer. This is one of those headphones or IEMs where a lengthy relationship is required before you really get to know the true character. While Mason v3 is an excellent IEM, I don't feel it has the same complexity to it - that may make it more appealing to the masses, but a small selection of people will no doubt be very passionate about the Maven instead.

    If I was purchasing one of these as my one and only IEM, I would have a really hard time making the choice - regardless of price. But here in the real world, the Maven is considerably more affordable, whilst the Mason v3 has the option of custom molding that really appeals to me. I suppose there's no easy answer, but if pressed I might take the Maven for its blindingly impressive treble clarity. If I could own Maven plus a warm, forgiving IEM or headphone as a counterpoint, I'd feel like I had all my bases covered. And if Unique Melody ever decides to offer Maven in custom form... I'll be extremely tempted.

    Bravo to Unique Melody for experimenting with wild concepts like the Maven, as well as more traditional yet excellent designs such as Mason v3. Between the two of them, and the equally interesting Mirage, there should hopefully be something for everyone.
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2019
    tomscy2000, Grimbles, Zelda and 2 others like this.
  2. Darkestred
    I took a listen to the Maven recently. I thought its treble was outstanding. So separated from everything cleanly. Bass was light but as you said was punchy. I think this was a very natural sounding IEM, too.
     
  3. Giullian
    Nice review, mate.

    As more as I look to the new titanium designs from UM as more I think they were really bold with this direction. On a market that all looks the same, with a few exemptions, this is definitely a stand out from the crowd. Well done to UM, but not my taste.
     
  4. project86 Contributor
    Agreed, I hope to get more impressions coming in as others have the chance to hear this thing. Mason v3 is already quite good but once you hear the Maven, it's a whole new level of clarity.

    Thanks! I can see how the design would be polarizing for sure, but UM will probably end up with more variations of the same theme as time goes by. Perhaps they could do one in a darker color which would make it less flashy, more of a "stealth" appearance. That might be a better fit for some users.

    And of course I will wish for a custom version of Maven, even if they have to resort to a more traditional shell to do it. Not sure how that would impact the sound though.
     
  5. Giullian
    Agree, a darker version would be more popular and I would suggest an "special edition" for that, but I totally understand the step taken here, as it is the first of a kind one would really want to show and emphasize the detail.

    Regarding the sound for a CIEM of these is all dependent on how you put the effort to compensate the titanium structure shell on a normal acrylic version. I wouldn't be surprised if any adjustment is done as it could mean a "new" tuning development anyway. but as all CIEM. Let us know how you go with the customs. I'm curious now. :)
     
  6. project86 Contributor
    I'm told that UM is playing with ideas as far as being able to custom mold the titanium shells. No guarantees, obviously, but if that ever worked out it would be great for the Maven and any other models using that same shell - and I strongly suspect we'll be seeing more titanium in the future.
     
  7. Giullian
    Th
    That would be REALLY interesting to see. :)

    For a custom, I would definitely play around a nice design with Titanium material. Titanium is good, extremely resistant and with 3D printing we could have a world of possibilities.
     

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