Review written by @Precogvision
Well, this is an IEM I’ve been itching to get my hands on. Needless to say that the MEST has been hyped a good deal in the communities I frequent with, of course, the infamous rallying cry “MEST is BEST” being slung to no end. So what makes this IEM so special? The MEST is a quadbrid IEM stacking on a bone-conduction driver in addition to the increasingly common DD/BA/EST tribrid setup. Leave it to Unique Melody, a company that is no stranger to stepping out of their comfort zone, to push the driver wars envelope just one step further. In this review, I’ll be taking a look at how this stacks up in practice and whether the MEST merits its catchy slogan.
This unit was kindly loaned for review by TylersEclectic (Darthpool) from Headphones.com. Thank you! At the end of the review period it will be returned, and as usual, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source and Drivability
All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX160 (volume ~9) and A&K SP1000M with lossless FLAC files. The stock cable, a standard 4.5mm one, and Spinfit CP100 eartips were used. I had no issues driving the MEST and did not experience hissing off of any of the devices that I used.
This is a loaned unit, so what I received will likely not be indicative of everything you’ll get if you actually purchase the IEM. The case included is a UM-branded, Dignis case with a clever Y-slot in the center so that one can store the individual ear pieces on each side with room for the cable underneath. Pretty sweet, although I don’t see the pouch underneath the lid that the standard, Dignis Arca case includes. The MEST also comes with a 2.5mm cable (for which I believe you can choose the termination when you purchase). It’s not very supple and it feels uncomfortable to use; I’d recommend upgrading to something more practical.
The MEST is on the larger side, but that’s to be expected given how many drivers have been crammed into the thing. The shell is constructed of real carbon fiber and sports a lacquer coating to prevent scratching. It’s quite attractive, sleek yet classy. The connectors are also qdc style, meaning the cable inserts over raised connection points. In my experience, I was able to get away with using standard 0.78mm cables as well, although your mileage might vary and all that.
Frequency response measured off of an IEC-711 coupler. There is a resonance peak at 8kHz; as such, measurements after this point should not be considered accurate.
The MEST’s tonality doesn’t really follow any sort of academic target curve, but it’s definitely been well-tuned, falling somewhere between a W-shape and a mild V-shape. The overall presentation leans more energetic, bright with an emphasis on the upper-midrange and the subsequent, lower-treble regions accordingly. I think it works decently as an all-rounder, flying well with most genres I listen to.
Anyways, the bass on the MEST is good, but not great. Cursory listen presents adequate texture, dynamics, and a properly leveled, sub-bass oriented shelf. Perhaps my biggest nitpick here, then, is that it’s lacking in transient density - that characteristic richness - which I would attribute to the best bass responses; for example, the likes of which the 64 Audio tia Trio and Sony IER-Z1R exhibit. This is hardly a fair comparison, but these limitations are most evident on deep, heavy drops like those in Fareoh’s “Run Away'' and other EDM songs where I find myself itching for that extra “slap” and intensity.
The midrange of the MEST is more upper-mids forward, lean and mean, exhibiting excellent macro-detail. Transient attack is sharp with decay lagging slightly behind, largely eliminating the BA driver phenomenon often dubbed as “grain”. Oh yeah, speaking of which, the MEST is a very strong technical performer. Good enough, in fact, to play near the top of the IEM game: Resolution is on par with my benchmark, the 64 Audio U12t - even better in the upper-midrange where the U12t dips - with detail retrieval following closely behind.
And well, well. It seems like electret driver implementations are finally maturing; the MEST is a pretty good example. While it still seems lacking in those oh-so-final octaves of extension, I find the treble surprisingly pleasant given my consternation upon seeing a 6kHz peak. Often, I find this peak lends treble to a certain metallic grittiness, the Sennheiser HD800S being a prime example. But on the contrary, I think the MEST’s peak lends some needed “spice” - acting as a counter-balance if you will - to the traditionally softer electret driver transients.
[Editor's note 8/23/21] In retrospect, I do not find either the midrange or the treble to sound natural. The midrange comes off as slightly "digital," and the timbre of the treble is somewhat tinny. I still stand by them being highly resolving, however.
Perhaps most notable about the MEST, though, is its imaging performance. I’m not quite sure if the MEST’s imaging exhibits the density needed to qualify the oft-misused buzzword “holographic,” but needless to say it’s close. Notes exhibit excellent diffusal - take for example the violins panned to the far left-and-right on Thomas Bergensen’s “Empire of Angels'' - and the MEST’s staging is exceptionally wide with decent positional incisiveness. Layering ability is likewise astounding, borderline unnatural at times, with ample pseudo-space between delineations.
A.K.A. I moan and groan about why the IEM in question fails to meet my high standards, and the section of this review you’ll want to skip if this type of more critical talk offends you. But you’re not going to, right? ‘Cuz this is the juicy, fun stuff.
Scrutinizing the MEST’s sonic qualities in isolation - its bass, midrange, treble, and technicalities - you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a glaring fault. Yet, there is a lack of refinement to the MEST that plagues it, and that in this reviewer’s opinion, keeps it from truly playing at the top like its stellar technical ability might otherwise suggest.
Where the MEST draws the short end of the stick, then, is in coherency. This is especially important when driver types are being mixed-and-matched; it’s the extent to which a listener is able to discern individual drivers tokening their respective frequencies. The toughest part with the MEST, though, is pinpointing the culprit:
- The MEST’s bass and midrange don’t match very closely. Closer examination of the midrange reveals a slight upwards-skew to the way the transients are articulated, only exacerbated by the upper-midrange tilt, while transient attack in the bass is softer and more dull. The MEST’s midrange is just too resolving, distinct from its slower, more middling subwoofer - hence, again, my “good but not great bass” assertion. And all of this is ignoring the treble, which most definitely does not have the silky smoothness of something like the Empire Ears Odin to sync the ancillary frequencies together.
- I find the MEST’s macrodynamic ability to be inconsistent. The MEST’s dynamic swings on the “up” exhibit excellent contrast; take for example Sawano Hiroyuki’s “e of s” at 1:03 when the track explodes with energy. But more subdued sections such as on Radwimp’s “Grand Escape” aren’t scaled as low as they should be, and the swings themselves on Aimer’s “Hakuchuumu” seem lacking in appropriate weight.
- Awkward juxtapositions above aside, I can’t knock the feeling that the MEST’s imaging is partly to blame for this frequent sense of disjointedness. As mentioned earlier, the MEST has a tendency to over exaggerate the separation between instruments, lending to “holes” in the image diffused (and my hesitation to qualify it as truly holographic).
Some readers might attest that this is low-hanging fruit, as the first issue plagues most hybrid IEMs; other readers might suggest I’m being overly pedantic. Regardless, said issues are abundant with the MEST, begetting clear “delineations” throughout its sound. I’m left with the impression that Unique Melody took three driver types (I honestly can’t tell what the bone conduction driver is doing) that performed reasonably well standalone, slapped them together, and neglected to hone the IEM’s more latent synergy.
As I just alluded to, the bone conduction driver doesn’t really seem to be doing much in the MEST (or at least not that I can tell). I think it makes more sense, then, to compare the MEST to some tribrid heavy-hitters.
Okay, I lied - let’s start with a hybrid first. A Discord friend was demoing these two IEMs at the same time, and when he told me the Nio sounded bloated and unresolving by comparison, needless to say I was perplexed. Now that I have the two IEMs side-by-side though, I’m inclined to agree. In a lot of respects, these IEMs are antitheses. The Nio is much warmer, the bass more plodding, dense, the midrange thicker, and the treble less forward (at least with the M15 Apex module). And yeah, the Nio’s clarity definitely suffers as a result. Nonetheless, I really vibe with the Nio’s overall presentation. Those who want a more laid back, smooth, bass-heavy sound should go for the Nio, and those who want max clarity and a brighter presentation should stick with the MEST.
This is one I just got in for review, so forgive me if my thoughts aren’t completely fleshed out on it. Nonetheless, it would not be an understatement to say the Monarch is on the same playing field as the MEST. The Monarch’s presentation, however, is more...sterile. It sacrifices some of the fun, engagement factor of the MEST for a leaner, perhaps more “segmented” sound by virtue of its tuning, particularly in the bass response and upper-midrange. It’s pushing it there, and the same coherency issue - bass relative to the midrange - is present on the Monarch. Still, a very solid competitor to the MEST and an alternative for those with lighter wallets.
Yeah, this is clearly not a fair comparison considering the massive price differential, but since when has that stopped me? The Odin follows a more neutral-bright tuning. The Odin’s W9 subwoofers are equally lacking in that characteristic transient density I was talking about earlier, but they do seem more resolving. Both the Odin and the MEST have something of an upper-midrange tilt; however, the Odin is more aggressive in the upper-midrange, more sloping, smooth in the treble response. I’d say they’re about comparable technicality-wise; the MEST wins in terms of imaging (image diffusal) with the Odin taking a notable lead in coherency. The Odin is unmistakably the more refined IEM of the two, while one who enjoys a “spicier,” more fun sound might gravitate toward the MEST.
Here’s a more fair comparison. If the MEST is fun, then the Valkyrie is fun on steroids, following one of the most absurd V-shape tunings I’ve heard. Bass - oh yes, it’s got that density I love to harp about - is bloated, and the midrange is traditionally scooped. Treble is similar to the MEST, perhaps more forward in the stick-impact regions and about equal parts extended. I’d definitely give the edge to the MEST in terms of technicalities: Imaging, resolving ability, and layering all go the way of the quadbrid IEM. The Valkyrie takes a little too far for me, flying more as a niche specialist, while the MEST strikes a more optimal balance (for my tastes) between fun and highly technical.
Despite my plethora of nitpicks? I’ll be the first to admit that I like the MEST. It’s not lacking flavor, not by a long shot, and whatever Unique Melody mashed together to make the MEST clearly flies well to some degree; I reckon you could call that a form of positive synergy of itself. One could also make the argument that its technical performance alone warrants praise; it’s not at all hard to see why this IEM has already captured the hearts of many listeners.
So if what I’ve described in this review sounds like your jam, then I’m pleased to recommend the MEST. As for whether “MEST is BEST”...ehhh, that’s more debatable. I will end on this note, though: The MEST is the best wonky IEM I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, and I’ll be sorry to see it go.
- Aimer - Hakuchuumu
- David Nail - Let It Rain
- Dreamcatcher - Silent Night
- Illenium & Excision - Gold
- Girls’ Generation - Galaxy Supernova
- Joe Nichols - Sunny and 75
- Keith Urban - Defying Gravity (2009)
- Sabai - Million Days
- Sawano Hiroyuki - Best of Vocal Works Remastered (2020)
- Taeyeon - My Voice (2017)
- Tiffany - I Just Wanna Dance
- Tom Day - Where Were We
Discuss the Unique Melody MEST on the HEADPHONE Community Forum here.