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November 21, 2006

A review of Westone UM1 IEMs.

Filed under: Audio — Manish Bansal @ 1:12 pm

I have been using Philips HP805 cans for over a year now and HP800 before that. The only thing I didn’t like about those phones was the lack of sound isolation. I had also heard lot of good things about IEMs in general (curse you head-fi) so I thought I would get a pair. These being my first IEMs, I didn’t want to spend too much. After spending countless hours pouring over reviews and sound quality analysis, Westone UM1s seemed to have the best balance of price and sound quality. I got them from earphonesolutions for $109.

Packaging and Box Contents:
They come packed in a very nice high quality plastic box. The included carry case could have been better though. It is made of strong clothlike material and is quite sturdy but gets squished when pressed hard. I like it but wish it were made of solid plastic or metal though.
It comes with 5 pairs of foam tips, a wax cleaning tool, a carry pouch, and some printed instructions. The phones are not packed in the pouch but have their own recess in the plastic tray. Impressive packaging overall.

First impressions:
These are one tiny pair of IEMs. I was surprised on seeing them for the first time. Did they send me the wrong phones? They looked much bigger in the photos! Did I just pay $100 for this tiny piece of plastic? Turned out many other people had the same impressions, esp. first time IEM buyers like me.
And the cable is very thin too. It’s braided type and almost like a thread. I started having doubts about its sound quality, coming from thick cables of philips HP805 headphones. Then I realized why it was so. These phones need very little power to operate. The soldering lead on my philips headphones looks bigger than the entire UM1 driver.

Build Quality:
They are so small and everything is so tightly packed in them that it acts like one solid piece of plastic. You can drop them, toss them around, and give them a beating and they would still work fine. Care needs to be taken for the tip though where foam is inserted. That is a small plastic pipe protruding from the main unit and could break under moderate force.

Comfort:
One of the reason that I went for these phones was the comfort. And I was not disappointed. I can literally forget that I am wearing them. There is no pain or fatigue even after hours of usage. And they don’t protrude out of your ear at all. If I wear them and look in the mirror (from front), I can’t see them! You can even sleep (on your side) while wearing them and not feel a thing.

Microphonics:
The UM1s have a very thin braided type cable which is extremely resistant to microphonics. They keep rubbing against my cloths and my office ID tag but never pick up any extraneous sound. Several people have this problem with some Shure and Etymotic models but UM1s are just fine.

My Setup:
iPod 5G (Apple lossless) -> Turbo dock -> Turbo mini-to-mini -> GoVibe 5 -> UM1

Sound Quality:
As with all IEMs, sound quality depends highly on the correct insertion and getting a proper seal. If the seal is not proper, these would sound muddy and won’t have any bass. So make sure that you insert them correctly before giving them a listen.
I typically use Chesky demo disc for making sound quality impressions ’cause I have listened to it countless times as part of headphone testing and know exactly what to expect. In fact, they tell you before each song what you should be listening for; a transcription of which can be found here. This would be my guide for judging UM1s. Just a note – The chesky demo disc is actually a SACD so the Redbook CD layer won’t be as detailed but it is still a very good reference.

  • High Resolution – Rebecca Pidgeon – Spanish Harlem
    Rebeca’s voice does sound real and you really feel that you can touch her. There are many times when her voice overpowers the shaker so you can’t really isolate its sound. The metal balls in the shaker move in a different pattern each time it is shaken and that’s what causes them to sound different. At the few places where shaker sound is prominent, each shaker does sound different from the one before it but this fact is not immediately apparent. You have to listen to it 3-4 times and even then the difference is not crystal clear. Though not extremely detailed, I would rate the UM1 resolution to be much better than average.
  • Depth – Sara K. – If I Could Sing Your Blues
    The trumpet that opens this song does sound distant and from slightly right to the stage. Sara’s voice sounds natural with just the right amount of reverberation. I could occasionaly hear the guitar pick but not too many times. The guitar is also full and warm but I could not judge the size of the studio. Not sure who is at fault here. Excellent performace by UM1 here.
  • Midrange Purity – Livingston Taylor – Grandma’s Hands
    There are 3 backup singers in this song and I could figure that out with UM1. But the finger snaps never had that flesh and bone quality to them. They sounded artificial to me. They sounded the same way on my philips HP805 too. Please let me know if your phones can reproduce it. Anyway, it is too much to expect this kind of timbre from such tiny and single-driver phones. Livingston’s voice does seem to have “chest” to it and sounds very real and human.
  • Naturalness – Ana Caram – Correnteza
    Excellent performance here by UM1. Ana’s voice sounds highly real, without any harshness or electronic gear. Mid-range is anyway the strongest point of these phones. The mids are neither too forward nor too recessed. They have just the right amount of laid-back quality that I enjoy.
  • Presence – McCoy Tyner & Joe Henderson – Ask Me Now
    No matter how much I listened to this recording, I could never hear the sound of the reflections off the rear wall. This just confirms that these phones are not too resolving. The mechanical sound of the keys was very clear though. The trumpet, at times, did not have the right timbre but it was still very much enjoyable.
  • Focus – Vivaldi, Flute Concerto in D
    I could easily pick out each instrument apart from the others. All the flute notes were distinct and quite clear, without any hint of blurriness.
  • Transients – Solisti New York – Stravinsky, The Royal March
    UM1 had no problem handling this piece. I think this quality is because of its tiny size and not inspite of it. The IEM driver displacement is extremely small when compared with the displacement of a full-size speaker diaphragm. So it has no problem starting and stopping with extreme precision. I do think the drum sound was not as tight as it could be but until there is a high-end system to compare against, I can not say decisively.

SQ impressions by frequency range:

  • Bass
    Track for bass tightness – “Hotel California” from “Hell Freezes Over”
    Track for bass extension – “Hero” (Jet Li) soundtrack by Tan Dun
    Very good, tight, and punchy bass. It doesn’t go as low as other high-end phones but it’s enough for normal music. Getting this kind of bass depends highly on having a good seal. If I turn up the volume slightly, I can get that chest thumping bass in Hotel California, right after the guitar intro. The bass is not too over-powering and not too diffuse, just the right kind.
  • Mids
    Strongest point of these phones. Absolutely no complaints here.
  • Highs
    This is the weakest point of these phones. There is a severe treble roll-off which makes them lose the details in the highs. I typically use “Latin” or “Treble booster” EQ on my iPod which helps a bit but still you feel something is lacking. This might be due to these being single-driver phones. On the plus side, this makes them non-fatiguing and you can listen to them for extended periods of time.
  • Soundstage
    Very good. I could easily make out the location of each instrument on several songs. On Sara K’s “If I could sing your blues”, the trumpet does sound distant and coming from the right side of the stage. On “Westmister Choir – Britten, Festival Te Deum”, you can really feel as if you are standing in a large cathedral. Impressive performance.

Conclusion:
These are currently among the best IEMs you can buy for $100. After reading about expensive UEs, Shures, and Etymotics, I was not expecting much but I was completely surprised by their performance. Highly recommended especially for the first time IEM buyers.

Credits/Links:

  1. UM1 first impressions
  2. Initial impressions on the UM1′s
  3. Westone UM1 VS Etymotic ER-6 Review
  4. UE SuperFi 5 Pro vs. Westone UM1
  5. UM1s not living up to expectations
  6. Why aren’t there that many UM1 Reviews?
  7. This review on head-fi
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