Thursday, January 29, 2015

Master & Dynamic ME03: No Compromises. No Faults. A Force to be Reckoned With.

Intro


TL;DR: The Master & Dynamic ME03 is an impeccable piece of work, combining stunning looks and excellent sound in an IEM built to go anywhere and everywhere with you.

Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank Scott Byrer, Director of Marketing at Master & Dynamic for providing a review sample of the ME03 in this review. Please note that I am neither affiliated with M&D or any of its staff, nor am I being compensated in any form (aside from being provided the review sample) for writing this review. All opinions expressed in this review are strictly my own, and all pictures are taken and owned by me unless otherwise specified. YMMV.

Master & Dynamic arrived pretty late to the headphone scene – with some buzz about the brand around June of last year – but they made headlines on both the consumer and audiophile headphone markets with their MH40 headphones.

Despite their relatively late arrival to the headphone scene, Master & Dynamic were quick to make their stand in the headphone market with their highly-popular flagship MH40 headphones, mixing together premium aesthetics, solid durability, and great sound quality in a combination very few headphones have ever really accomplished. Now, this week, we’re taking a look at the ME03, their high-end IEM model that supposedly follows in the steps of its full-size brother, the MH40. How will these stack up against some of the best IEMs I’ve reviewed? Let’s take a look




== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories

Master & Dynamic was sure to give you a premium pampering when you purchase the ME03. At first glance, you can already see the entire thing screams luxury. A matte picture of the ME03 is plastered on the front of the box, and its description and accessories list is printed in the back in multiple languages. Also on the back is a clear window through which you can see the ME03s set in a foam cutout.


Opening the box, the ME03 greets you along with a very fancy cylindrical leather storage box (yes, it's real leather). Inside the box are the rest of the eartips. But that’s not all; take out the foam cutout and you’ll see a card from M&D along with a business card from Scott (this probably won’t be included when you buy it in retail). Under all that, fit neatly in a hollow space in the bottom of the box, is another box made of black paper that contains a canvas storage pouch and a multilingual instruction manual. If anything, I could say that they could've included more eartips or maybe thrown in a shirt clip, but otherwise I really have no complaints here. This package feels like it was made for something much more expensive than it is, but nope, you're paying only $160 (heh, "only") for this package, and by golly it's one nice package.


Design, Build, Microphonics


The M&D ME03 was designed specifically for everyday use, whether you’re strolling out and about in bustling city streets or just chilling at home. And it’s safe to say the ME03 does that and much, much more.

Let me just get this out of the way – the ME03 is drop-dead gorgeous. It comes in two different flavours – black/silver and gunmetal/silver – but either way they still look fantastic. My gunmetal grey pair, compared to the bold, dapper black, has a more laid-back, casual feel. Its cool, neutral colours may not have that “pop” or anything of the sort, but to me, its bare, raw appearance is honestly prettier than the black one in my opinion. Its form factor is pretty conventional on all fronts, but Master & Dynamic was still able to project their NYC-inspired design philosophies onto the ME03, in all their modern-industrial glory.&From the smooth curves of the aluminum housing to the tough-looking grille on the rear of the housing (which is only there for cosmetic purposes), believe me when I say that I have never seen an IEM that looks as good as the ME03 at this price. Seriously. It looks amazing.



And that’s just the icing on the cake. The entire build of the ME03 consists entirely out of three things: metal (specifically aluminum), rubber (probably TPE), and silicone (the eartips). You won’t find anything else on these IEMs other than those three materials. Everything from the housings to the Y-split to the right-angled jack is housed in solid aluminum. Their flat cable and strain reliefs are all made out of a sort of rubber, which gives the cable its flexibility and strength. However, the cable does retain a good amount of memory, and tend to get messed up if you don’t straighten it out regularly. Luckily, it can be shaped back pretty easily, so no worries here for the most part.

Overall, I have zero complaints (other than the cable). The ME03 is as strong as they are beautiful, with a very rugged build that goes hand-in-hand with their urban-inspired design. Everything on the ME03 feels undoubtedly premium, from the housings to the cable to the fancy serial number on the remote (wait, I didn’t mention that earlier, did I?). Despite being compact (Brainwavz R3, I’m looking at you), they are still really solid and could hold up very well with being thrown in bags, snagged on whatever it could snag on, and pretty much just being abused carelessly. But then again, with its included carry pouch and storage box, why would you do that?


Fit, Comfort, Isolation

I was able to get a pretty stable fit with the ME03 even with its stock eartips, and they stayed pretty securely in my ears while I walked. However, the all-aluminum build of the IEMs are pretty heavy and constantly remind you of their presence inside your ear canals. This can be fixed by wearing them around-the-ear, but the little hexagon on the left cable can make things a little bit painful when you do. With a little practice, though, I got to loop the cable around my ears without any pain (the hexagon should lie flat on top of your ears), and is now perfectly secure.

Their stock tips are nice and comfortable, and SQ-wise seem to be the best ones (well, actually, the ME03 isn’t tip-dependent, so that doesn’t matter). However, their isolation leaves a good amount to be desired. I got the chance to take the ME03 outside on a couple days, and they had a rather hard time drowning out the sound of cars and motorcycles speeding by on a busy street. But in other situations, like inside a mall, they performed pretty well and overall I could say they have slightly below-average isolation.


Microphone

The ME03 is the first IEM I’ve reviewed in a while that has a built-in microphone. But as I’m not very well-versed in the microphone section of audio, I don’t really have the capability to make a proper conclusion about its input sound. But I can tell you that they work as intended and work very well for everyday situations like taking phone calls or VoIP. In turn, I can also tell you that these are definitely not for recording your voice or anything of the sort. On a slightly related note, the ME03’s remote works really well, and works on both my old iPod and my iPad.



== Sound ==

Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back vented in-ear monitor (straight-down, around-the-ear)
Driver Type
1x 8mm dynamic
Frequency Response
N/A
Max. Input Power
N/A
Sensitivity
N/A
Impedance
16 Ω
Weight
25g
Cable
Flat rubber OFC cable
Connector
3.5mm (1/8”) right-angle gold-plated connector
Accessories
4 sets clear white silicone eartips (S/M/L/XL)
Canvas carry pouch
Leather storage box
Instruction manual w/ warranty info (2 years)


Equipment, Burn-in

The source equipment used in this review is my iPod, iPad 3, and my PC, all running the ME03 unamped, with nothing in between. For the amp test, I hooked up the iPad to a Yamaha RX-V359 speaker receiver and the ME03 to the receiver’s headphone-out. For the EQ test, I used EQu (on iOS) and Electri-Q (on PC via Foobar2000). As always, my list of test tracks can be viewed here for reference, although I will mention a few songs in the review for a more specific point of reference. If a link is available, I’ll also link it below. The eartips used in the review are the medium-size stock clear tips.

Prior to writing the review, the ME03 was burned-in for at least 50 hours with music, games, and other media. Over that time, I didn’t hear any changes in the sound quality, so let’s just leave it at that. Again, let me stress that YMMV as every pair of ears are different and what I hear will probably differ from yours. Anyway, I guess that’s about everything I need to say at this point, so it’s music time!


Sound Quality


At first listen, I was blown away with the ME03. They’ve already brought so much to the table with its physical aspects, but when I listened to them, I realized the ME03 wasn’t done impressing me yet. Let’s take a closer look.

The low-end is tight, punchy, and fun. It carries a nice amount of weight behind every punch while staying balanced and accurate even on more complex passages (Spag Heddy - Onvang). They have enough punch to play electronic genres well, but pull back nicely on classical and acoustic tracks (Eagles – Hotel California [Live]). If I were to point out a downside, I could say it lacks a little bit of extension in the deepest parts of the low-end (Noisestorm - Together), and it does seem to bleed into the midrange slightly, but you can’t really have everything in an IEM so I’ll leave it at that.

The midrange of the ME03 is smooth and warm, which seems to be caused in part by the low-end. To these ears, pretty much every genre from EDM to pop to rock sounds great with them. They have great detail retrieval and are very refined, which is what I would expect out of a $160 IEM. I found male vocals and guitars sound amazing on the ME03 (Ed Sheeran – The Man); pianos to me are a not-so-high point of the ME03 (Isaac Shepard – I Will Still Love You), as the warmth makes them sound a touch too thick for my tastes. Then again, I’ve been spoiled by sweeter, better mids, so if you’re not that finicky with the midrange, this shouldn’t be a problem. The treble is crisp and lively, and adds to the overall fun factor of the ME03. It also adds a nice touch of air to the signature, and gives a very satisfying ‘snap’ to each handclap or snare hit.


The ME03’s presentation is a new one for me. It’s very well-dampened, and feels really empty. If anything, it kinda feels like you’re inside a recording studio with the band playing right in front of you. There is hardly any resonance throughout the soundstage, and the lack of it feels bleak, dark, and almost eerie. Its instrument presentation is rather intimate (like I said, it’s like being in the studio with the band), but it’s not too much that it feels congested.

Overall, I can’t say much about the sound of the ME03 other than “Wow.” The general sound signature is nothing I haven’t heard before, but Master & Dynamic takes it a step further with audiophile-approved treatment, and what you get is a fun, inviting signature that anyone can listen to and immediately enjoy.

Other Media


The ME03 performs non-music media just as well as regular music. The sound signature strikes a very nice balance between the bass and the midrange, and as a result is an enjoyable listen with whatever you put through them. Movies of any genre are a joy to watch with the ME03 on, thanks to its well-rounded sound signature lending a very enjoyable viewing experience. When gaming, its great imaging and detail helps nicely with pinpointing enemy footsteps and/or gunfire, while its excellent low-end brings a little extra fun to your session. I would honestly use the ME03 as my primary gaming pair – its all-around performance is simply too good to pass up.


EQ Response, Amplification

I honestly never found myself tweaking the sound of the ME03 with an equalizer throughout the review process. The ME03 just sounds good enough to simply plug into my iPod and let it rip. However, something of note is how the ME03 really likes to go loud. With a little extra power, their overall sound improves a noticeable amount, with the midrange coming forward slightly, and the bass receiving a little more weight behind each kick. Let me stress however, that it is simply “noticeable” and overall doesn’t have much of a difference over not amplifying it.


Value

The ME03 retails at a cool $160 dollars, which therefore makes them the most expensive IEMs I’ve reviewed thus far. But even then, it’s only $30 (heh, “only”) more than the Brainwavz R3, which retails at about $130, so honestly, it’s not that much more expensive. The ME03 is an IEM package that makes no compromises on looks, build, or sound – a feat which I have never seen accomplished until now. Need I say more?

Comparison

Versus Brainwavz R3 ($130)

The Brainwavz R3 is a dual dynamic IEM with a very appealing aesthetic and sonic package. It was an IEM that really made me appreciate the beauty of mid-centric IEMs. Now, against the ME03, we have a very close matchup here. The Brainwavz R3 gets a leg up over the ME03 with its extremely solid, heavy-duty build. The R3 also wins with its slightly cheaper price ($130 versus $160). Looks are pretty subjective, although to my eyes the ME03 wins with its more conventional form factor and great looks.

Sound also is a pretty subjective factor, and what you might like could be what I don’t. And here is where the bigger differences start. The Brainwavz R3 is noticeably more balanced, with a very even sound across the spectrum. It’s also much more airy and spacious-sounding, whereas the ME03 has a bleaker soundstage. Both are very good all-rounders, and each have their characteristics which make them more appealing than the other. If you like a spacious, mid-centric sound and listen to acoustic/instrumental music a lot, I say go for the R3. If you listen to pretty much everything and want something to can take anywhere, get the ME03.


Versus Final Audio Design Heaven 2 ($70)

The FAD Heaven 2 is a single BA IEM which I crowned one of the best IEMs I’ve ever heard so far. It had a sound that beat everything below, around, and (to an extent) above its price that I’ve reviewed. Now, comparing it to the ME03 is pretty unfair, given that the ME03 simply demolishes the Heaven 2 in terms of packaging, accessories, and build, but beyond those categories, the matchup here is pretty close for me.

The general sound comparison between both is much like the comparison between the ME03 and the R3 – a mid-centric, balanced sound versus a fun, balanced sound. The only difference here is both do extremely well at what they do, and in the end, each of their sound signatures complement each other. The Heaven 2 is a very mid-focused sound which brings you a very emotional, very lifelike presentation of music, and does anything non-rock and EDM very, very well. The ME03, on the other hand, excels at EDM and most of the genres the Heaven 2 doesn’t, and has a very general, all-around sound signature.


~~ Conclusion ~~




The ME03 is, like its older brother the MH40, an achievement. Master & Dynamic took stunning aesthetics, solid build quality, top-class craftsmanship, and a balanced sound signature and putting them all together into a premium IEM package that makes no compromises on any front. The ME03 is an IEM that is designed to go everywhere and do everything with you, and if that’s what you’re looking for in your next IEM purchase/upgrade, then I don’t see why these aren’t on your shortlist yet.


Category
Score
Comment
Packaging, Accessories
9/10
At first glance alone, you can tell the ME03 is a premium-grade product. The included eartips and lack of shirt clip might be a little disappointing, but the ME03 makes up for that with its included storage box and carry pouch.
Design, Build, Microphonics
9/10
Master & Dynamic combines stunning looks and solid build quality in a way that I’ve only seen in the Brainwavz S1, and it’s also got a better cable to top it off.
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7.5/10
The conventional shape allows for an easy, straightforward, and comfortable fit. Their isolation is below average for an IEM, however.
Microphone
8/10
The ME03’s microphone works as intended and is great for making/taking calls over the phone or VoIP. Don’t think of using this for anything other than that, though.
Bass
8.5/10
Punchy, tight, and nicely balanced, the ME03’s low-end is enough to satisfy all but the bass-lovers.
Midrange
8.5/10
Smooth, warm, and clear, the ME03’s midrange works great with practically everything if you aren’t too picky with it.
Treble
8.5/10
Crisp, clear, and lively, the ME03’s treble adds a nice snap to the sound which tops off the signature nicely.
Presentation
7.5/10
The ME03’s soundstage is neither expansive nor congested; however, it’s dampened to the point where it sounds dark and empty without the music.
Gaming, Movies
8/10
The ME03’s amazing performance continues through to non-music media, with their balanced sound signature making them great for games or movies.
EQ, Amping
8/10
If I were me, I’d leave the ME03 as-is, without any EQ – after all, they already sound amazing. They also like to play things loud, and its low-end actually improves with a little extra power.
Value
7.5/10
The $160 price tag is pretty expensive, yes, but for what you get, you’ll find that the $160 you paid will be worth it in no time.
Total
8.2/10
The Master & Dynamic ME03 is a top-class, no-compromises IEM that will give you great sound anytime, anywhere.

Shout-Outs, Gallery


I would like to again thank Scott at Master & Dynamic for providing me with the sample of the ME03 for review. Reviewing the ME03 was a lot of fun and it just goes to show that they are a company to look out for in the future. As always, the rest of the pictures taken in the photoshoot can be viewed here. I’ve also started a discussion thread on the ME03 here, so check it out and help bring some coal to the ME03 hype train!

As always, this is thatBeatsguy signing off; thanks for reading, and have a happy weekend, everyone!


Changelog

01/31/2015: Added a little something to the Design section after @twister6 asked about the use of the rear grille. Thanks, Twister!
04/20/2015: Changed scores on some of my reviews, especially the Recommended ones.

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