W A R N I N G !

W A R N I N G !

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ultimate Ears metro.fi series: something to dethrone Crossroads Mylarones?

Truth be told, despite all the new earphone brands coming out, plus all the cheap China phones available on the internet, plus my developed hate towards J****, I still think the Crossroad series are rather value-for-money. To be specific, only the X3i now, because I haven't found anything else that looks like it on the net, and because of its sound signature and looks. Fragile it may be, these earphones look very classy. The small round footprint and the smooth finish with specks of sparkle in it are counter-evidence that it is just some generic phone from China. It would still be from China nonetheless, but not as generic.

The sound signature. Far from being flat, the X3i has a very noticable boost in the slightly lower bass region and some highs roll-off. And that is why these phones "sound so good", especially to the untrained ears; even trained/"trained" ears will find it good. The X3i series is indeed the king of equalisation - with this kind of sound signature, the midrange where all the noise affiliated with cheap drivers and players lie is gone. So what you get is a very clean sound, which may be recognised as clear.

But clear is not what the X3i is, and this equalisation can backfire. The deep bass is too boomy and uncontrolled and spills over to the mids where I cannot hear much, the highs are rolled-off. And the worst part - because of the recessed midrange, where lots of the stuff in music like secondary instruments and reverb actually lie, a whole lot of details are lost. I found out this sad fact when I listened to the EP-630 after being accustomed to the X3i, despite being more noisy and sounding more cheap, I can hear more stuff in the music. No wonder a friend of mine says the X3i is a piece of crap - he's using the triple.fi, which has a similar sound signature as the X3i, but with all the details still there.

*In this context, mids and midrange are two different things - mids refer to the 250Hz spectrum plus-minus one octave (each octave = doubling of frequency), while midrange refers to the 1kHz spectrum, again plus-minus one octave. These two ranges are for entirely different parts of the sound, but I'm using the terms that people tend to call them.

Other names for ~250Hz spectrum include mid-bass and lower-midrange. However these two terms can be confusing for the technically less-inclined, because mid-bass may suggest only the lower bass notes of the music, while lower-midrange may suggests that it's still part of midrange, or the treble part of the music (around 500Hz base frequency, plus its resonances at 1 to 2kHz). For the record, middle-C is 261.626Hz. But the reason you hear it more when you up the 500Hz, perhaps the 1kHz ranges is because of its resonances. So basically you have to take note that notes will "sound one octave frequency higher" because of its resonances, and this is especially true for the secondary instruments and the feeling of "space".

Therefore, the "mid"-bass and the lower-midrange would be one octave lower than the middle-C, where the majority of the bass notes seem to lie. It's different from the deep bass easily known by the bass drum, but it is still bass to musical notation. Probably the reason why it's called mid-bass, but I'd rather call it instrumental bass, or higher bass. Or just what lots of people call it, the mids.

--end of technical blabbering

Furthermore, the deep bass is so boomy that this thing is not recommended for listening at home or in other quiet places.

So despite all the problems with the sound signature, why am I still using them?

It's exactly this sound signature that makes it EXTREMELY good for outside usage. The rumbling of the trains and buses, the cars and commotion, are all low-frequency in character, and masks the bass in your music. To compensate, you up your bass, which is what the X3i does nicely. Alternatively you can up the volume, but that's bad for the ears, and X3i provides enough bass at lower volumes.

Also, the seal of the X3i is awesome, at least for me. Better than EP-630, better than triple.fi (which is designed to leak a bit, those tips), much better than half-open-back PL30. Much much better than the SA* quad-flange earplugs that didn't seal at all hence leaving me with this ear damage, lots of agony and zero compensation.

And when you're outside, what matters most is the seal, isn't it? Without enough seal, the outside noise leaks in, making your earphone sound cheap. You lose lots of bass, too.

I had tried the PL30, and, despite it having a much better sound quality, it cannot be used outdoors at all, because the seal is almost as bad as earbuds. I didn't even bother writing a review for it, because they (PL30 and X3i) are for different purposes.

With my X3i dying (it survived much longer than I thought), I needed a replacement, and chanced upon the metro.fi 150. How will this fare against the X3i?

First impressions

It sounded cheap. I was hit in the face by the rush of the midrange. Yes, being accustomed to the X3i's lack of midrange means everything else sound cheap or mediocre, and that includes Audio Technica ATH-ESW9.

However, the cheapness went away after a while and I was reminded of what the X3i had sacrificed for its excellent sound signature; the metro.fi 150 has a lot of treble and vocal "in your face", and crisp cymbals with lots of space in comparison.

The fit is good. Very comfortable. It does not feel too tight, yet just enough to get a good seal. I can listen to it for longer hours before getting fatigued.

Bass is not as much as X3i, but not too lacking either.

These opinions are formed when I was listening to it on the bus, with my PSP.

Also, it felt as if it was harder to drive than the X3i as I had to up my volume more.

Further testing - direct comparison against X3i

The amp used this time is the built-in amp of Zhaolu D2.5A. I kicked-started the testing with one of the newer songs that I have, so that I would not hold any prejudice due to being used to the sound.

The metro.fi went first. It was ok, if not quite good actually. Treble reproduction wasn't very clear and midbass was lacking, but that may be due to me being pampered by my Paradigm Atoms. There was definitely a lot of feeling of space, like someone turned on the SRS WOW effect by a bit.

Bass, this time, wasn't lacking. It wasn't powerful, but that can be expected from such an earphone. However, it was controlled and decent.

Now comes the defender, X3i.

I plugged it in, listened for a bit,

And plugged it out.

It sounded muffled. This time, it's the X3i that sounded cheap.

The metro.fi 150 just has a much clearer treble. Also, the bass of the X3i was boomy and muddy.

Strangely, this time both IEMs have a similar amount of apparent bass.

Seal-wise, the X3i has a better seal, though not by much. Perhaps that gave the metro.fi the better soundstage. Also, the metro.fi is more comfortable. And at least it doesn't exhibit the one-side-louder-than-the-other problem that the X3i has.

So I thought the metro.fi is harder to driver than the X3i hence the weakened bass and louder volumes with the PSP, so I tested them on the PSP again to be sure.

I was suprised by the findings. As this time, both have the same amount of bass again.

After listening to the X3i for a while, I realised the reason. Because X3i's bass is boomy and spills over to the mids, I'm guessing it has more of the deep bass than the metro.fi, and over a wider frequency range. In a noisy environment, one would be able to hear this bass louder, hence the perception of more bass and overall louder volume.

Also, X3i has a better seal and that helps.

I'll probably be listening at higher volume levels with the metro.fi due to that, but strangely, I'm not getting ear fatigued as easily. This shows that the sound is good, and X3i's bass is too overpowering. (The sounds that hurt your ear are those you cannot hear)


With better sound quality across almost all aspects (the X3i only "sounds cleaner" and "more warm"), and good performance during outdoor use losing just slightly to the X3i (but the metro.fi still has better overall experience), much better build quality and a similar price tag of $80 (extra $10 for saving the trip to Jaben every 6 months to replace your broken Mylar), the UE metro.fi 150 is total OWNAGE over the previous performance-value champion, the Mylarone series.

(*hack splutter cough cough*)

Good job UE.

Add: I let my brother listen to the two. He used the background music of Patapon as test track, and easily he said the metro.fi is better. And at first he thought the one looking cheap would sound better because I told him both are at the same price lol.

Wonder why these babies aren't popular yet. Perhaps the world is already full of preset opinions. Sometimes people have to open up more or lose out.


Steve said...

Hey thanks for the review, very well written and I will be buying these for $50 over here in Canada @ futureshop.

Fortunatley Amazon has only 3 reviews...oh well.

Hey you should do another review with the UE .fi 150 vs 200?

Just a suggestion, anyways good review.


Steve said...

Double Post sorry but did they come with the dual flange tips?