Whilst the idea of cramming something down your ear canal may not instantly bring to mind notions of Hi-Fi bliss, there is a whole world of in-ear headphones out there that provide incredible sound quality in a tiny form factor. Whilst many people will be looking at them primarily for portable use, (that's what we love about them) they will also work admirably amplified in a home setup, as the sound quality is often on par with more traditional headphones; which means they make an excellent compromise if you want great audio fidelity for both situations in a single package.
- Brilliant all around sound, Noise cancelling
- Soundstage not quite as good as we were hoping
As far as rich, fun IEMs go, you cannot go past the Westone UM2
The UM2 is the upper model in Westone's range of universal IEMs (In Ear Monitors). Westone are a specialist manufacturer that don't have a lot of presence in Australia, but their products can be found if you look around a little and we can assure you it is well worth the trouble. The UM2s are reasonably chunky by IEM standards, because they house not one but two headphone drivers, which improve the sound quality dramatically. The body of the earphones sits in the outer area of your ear, whilst you insert the audio end into your ear canal. IEMs come with a variety of tips ranging from foam to plastic, and you can pick the one that gives you the best fit. Getting a great seal between your ear and the outside world is vital because without it your music will sound thin and tinny, without any bass. It also has the added benefit of blocking out external irritants such as friends trying to have a conversation, or work mates in need of assistance.
It is worth noting that Westone actually offer custom tips for their IEMs, and if you really want the ultimate in-ear experience this is the way to go. You have to visit an audiologist, who takes a mould of your ear canal, then sends it through to them, and they make up a tip that fits perfectly. A little extreme for most, but if comfort is paramount keep this in mind.
Portability aside, the other factor that makes IEMs so popular is their noise canceling properties. By sealing your ear canal off from the outside world, you are effectively blocking out all external noise, which is infinitely more effective than the most advanced, noise canceling technology present in over the head models. Furthermore, this effect goes both ways, your music will now stay your music.
Unfortunately when people think "tiny headphones" they instantly think "stock iPod earbuds" (which incidentally leads us to think "suicide") and so many people will be unconvinced of the sound quality of the UM2. Rest assured however, it is better than the best earbud you've ever heard, times ten over! The best way to describe the UM2's sound is rich. Whilst the E4c that we reviewed earlier was detailed and analytical, the UM2 has a deep, slightly dark sound that makes everything great fun to listen to. It doesn't have the same resolving characteristic that the E4c has, but it more than makes up for it in sheer musicality.
The bass is very prominent on this model and quite slow, which lends it the darker sound. That doesn't mean it is bloated or overpowering, it is just the most prominent feature. The mids and highs, whilst not quite as well defined as the E4c, were lush and extremely smooth. One of our favourite test tracks is 2+2=5 by Radiohead, because of the sheer number of background elements, and the UM2 passed this test with flying colours, clearly highlighting all the key parts of the track. Having two drivers means the soundstage is much stronger than most single driver IEMs, however it didn't really blow us away as much as we were expecting. If you want a rich, fun headphone that really doesn't have a weakpoint, then the UM2 may be the perfect IEM for you.
We found the design to be reasonably comfortable, but not as great when compared to the E4c. The larger body exerts a little pressure on the outer part of the ear, which can get a little irritating. Still, we managed several listening sessions that extended throughout the day, and we were none the worse for it.
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