Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Westone UM3X IEM review

The UM3X is Westone's flagship universal fit IEM designed for musicians and replaces the much liked UM2, as well as a cheaper alternative to the custom high-end ES3X. It isn't aimed to replace the much hyped Westone 3, which was designed for consumers and audiophiles. This is the first universal fit ear canal headphones that contains contains three balanced armatures with a passive three-way crossover - the same technology used on their flagship custom ES3X (which incidentally costs more than double the price of a UM3X).

Specifications and stuff:

Frequency response: 20 Hz – 18 kHz
Sensitivity: 124 dB SPL/mW
Nominal impedance: 56 ohms
Transducer: Three balanced armature transducers with passive three-way crossover

I have been listening to it for the past week, on and off in between sessions with my Sennheiser IE 8 and Denon AH-C710. These three comes at a completely different price point with the C710 costing the least, IE 8 around £180 and UM3X about £300 in the UK. I'll share my thoughts about the C710 in another review, but right now let's get to business regarding the UM3X. The UM3X sounds good, but the sound signature is an acquired taste. The sound quality here isn't disputed - it is great if you can afford the entry price - but as usual, try to borrow one or seek a test unit to hear it before buying.

As before, my tip of choice are the Klipsch gels that can be found on their Custom and Image series. They fit the UM3X perfectly, has the same bore diameter and are very very comfortable (at least for me). Beware that the sound signature will be dependent on your choice of tips. They come with Comply tips, which isn't something I would normally prefer to use. Another tip that can fit the UM3X is the Shure foamies (black olives).

Both Comply and Shure black olives offer superior sound isolation, and in theory should offer improved bass response. I do not like using them because I find them 'muffled' and hate the icky ear wax that tends to hang on to the surface. They also cost more in the long term, though people with no issues spending £300 on a ear-canal monitor will have no issues with spending £13 every couple of months on new Comply tips.

The built quality is excellent. I can't judge its long term durability, but they do seem tough enough. I have my doubts on the cables though. The braided cable has its uses - it remains supple and kinky-free throughout - though I did manage to get it tangled once. Even better the cable is microphonic-free (the echos you hear when walking and cable rubbing is due to microphonic cables - an example would be the popular CX 300 and EX71.

Unfortunately despite the cost, the cables are not modular - meaning you will have to send it back to Westone should the cable gets damaged. Also the length between the earpiece and the Y-splitter seems a little too short (in comparison the C710 is too long, and the IE 8 about perfect). I didn't find a braided cable brushing my neck to be extremely comfortable.

The UM3X is smaller than I thought. Considering that they have managed to cram in three balanced armature transducers inside each ear piece, the UM3X is an example of the technical achievement of the engineers at Westone. They fits well in my ears and I never had a problem with seal. Isolation is better than the IE 8 (with standard single-flange silicon tips), though this could be both positive and negative. The lack of isolation with the IE 8 is one of the reason of its airiness and vast soundstaging.

They seem to be as comfortable as the Klipsch Customs (easily the most comfortable IEMs I have ever had the pleasure of sticking inside my ear canals). Also, the UM3X sits flushed inside my ears, so I guess most will not have any issues sleeping with them. I wouldn't recommend sleeping with it though, considering the cost and the lack of replaceable cable.

Because of the higher than usual impedance (most consumer IEMs has 16 or 32 ohms), the UM3X suppressed most hiss that comes from lower-cost DAPs. I find that the UM3x is a bit more forward than the IE 8, particularly in the mids and vocals. They sound great with vocal-based performances and genre, though at the expense of bass and treble. It also sounds warmer than I initially expected it would be and I experienced no fatigue despite long sessions with it (two hours or longer). There are no issues with sound quality and music output was clean and clear throughout.

They are definitely bass-light and has very little impact, not surprising considering the use of balanced armature transducers, but should be sufficient for most people. If bass quantity is something you seek, get something with a moving-coil dynamic driver like the IE 8 or Denon C710. Regardless the bass is deep and controlled and does not interfere with the music. Treble quality is brilliant, and I detected no sibilance. They have some sparkle, but lack the dynamic of the IE 8. Soundstaging is pretty decent, but is tighter than the IE 8. In any words, the UM3X offers a more head-staging experience, particularly the vocals. I feel at times if the singer was right next to me, where as with the IE 8 I tend to feel like an audience a couple of seats from the front stage.

Westone's flagship universal is definitely one of the more boring IEMs I have heard, with its flat presentation. I love the dynamism and in-your-face all-around performance of the IE 8, which seems to be designed for people keen on listening to music. The UM3X is a high-end stage monitor designed for musicians, where as the IE 8 and other alternatives (like Westone's own W3) are geared towards us consumers and listeners.

Do not get me wrong, these are brilliant IEMs, but as I said earlier, they also cost significantly more than the IE 8 (in the UK - in the US and some other countries the pricing gap is smaller). The issue of sound preference is definitely a subjective one. I know of people who would love the UM3X where as some will dislike it outright.

If you are a budding musician who is keen on getting a quality in-ear stage monitor without the budget for moulded custom IEMs, then perhaps the UM3X will be great for you. I don't know since I don't know squat about making music. For consumers who tend to listen through a portable digital audio player, try out the Westone 3, Sennheiser IE 8 and Shure SE530 first. Those may be better suited for you.


deepthroat said...

Great review, as always.

Looking forward to your views on the C710, particularly it's synergy with the x-1060

Anonymous said...

Great observation!
I do feel the same regarding the UM3X. It is suitable more for the musicians as a stage monitor.
I use Westone 3 myself after considering the UM3X and Monster Pro Copper.
Though, sometimes, I feel the sibilance coming out from the Westone 3. It is a small disadvantage I'm willing to accept compared all the good sounds coming out from W3.

Anonymous said...

I had the W3's. They had too much fake low-end. I have a pair of UM3x's on the way. Long story but the W3's are being replaced. I think I might just sell them. Nice comment about squatting around making music. If it weren't for squatter's making music what would you write about in your fancy Britentious blog? I hope your real job is something redeeming, otherwise your just taking. And being rude about it in the process.