UFOear UFO-112 technical review - Meet Joe.B


Disclaimer:  the UFOear series of 3 IEMs and optional Bluetooth adapter cable were gifted to me in exchange for my unbiased review and extended testing for the purposes of improving future products. 

About UFOear

‘UFOear is a high-end earphone brand created by Dongguan City Huaxian Industry Co., Ltd in March 2018. And as one of the expansion projects of Dongguan City Broad 3D Technology Co., Ltd., UFOear takes full advantage of 3D printing both in acoustics and exterior design, producing earphones with unprecedented design and performance. True to the brand name, UFOear earphones are full of sci-fi elements no matter in the earphone design, appearance or packaging. As well as the current UFO-111 and 112 uniquely tuned for music genres, new products are always being researched, and custom molded monitors are available on request as well.

Being the current flagship product, the UFO-112 provides extremely rich music detail, incredible separation of instruments and vocals, and surreal imaging.  Tuned perfectly for ACG music, we believe this also makes it a great match for general music, as the fast pace, high layering and great variety of ACG music makes for one of the most demanding proving grounds for any earphones.  The UFO-112 is defined as a ‘super reference-class’ earphone, that is produced in a limited run of 2000 units world-wide.’

Well, that’s UFOear for you, in their own words (straight from their “about” section).  And their product catalog (https://ufoear.aliexpress.com/) actually reads more like English than Chinese, an encouraging sign that they may know how to do something right.

I happened across UFOear’s booth in the Hong Kong AV show of August 2019.  Like HiBy Music (where I currently work), UFOear hails from Dongguan, China.  Like almost every brand out there (?), they believe they have a unique backstory that makes them uniquely suited to bring out the best earphones out there.  In their case, it is based on their 3D printing background, which allows them to bring out designs that are impossible for conventional molding.

When the average customer thinks of 3D printing, they think of fancy exterior designs (perhaps still with those jagged birthday-cake surfaces reminiscent of early 3D printing technology).  But at UFOear, not only are the 3D printing results smooth as a baby’s bottom, they are also so high-resolution as to be useful for breakthroughs in interior design, i.e. acoustic design, and space savings.  This has purportedly enabled them to turn out designs that are not only one of the most compact, light and comfortable for the given driver configuration (DD+2BA in the case of the UFO-112), but also to tune the designs in ways not possible before with conventional manufacturing methods.

Packaging
This is definitely one of the highlights of the UFOear series:

You get a round metal chest to store your IEMs, and the tips and other accessories come in a bigger ring-shaped storage… device.  As you can see, they in fact assemble to form the company’s namesake, 

a classic UFO, which even floats above an antigravity stand included in the deluxe package.   You’ll have quite the conversation piece in the next head-fi meeting held at your home if you choose UFOear.

Included in the big ring-shaped accessories box are a whole slew of eartips:
1.       4 sizes of gray silicone eartips (one medium size of which goes on the earphones by default).  These are single-flange tips with a shape and texture reminiscent of Westone Star tips (or how they might be if they were to fit the larger nozzle of the UFOs).  The bore opening is wide and deep (i.e. the eartip extends a certain distance past the end of the bore of the earphone, when fitted).  The default tips fit my ear fine so that’s what I’m using for the review.
2.       3 sizes of black  silicone eartips.  Also single-flange, these have a smaller and shallower bore opening (i.e. constricting slightly over the bore and extending less past it).  Smaller bore eartips usually reduce high frequencies somewhat.
3.       2 sizes of foam eartips that look similar to Comply.  Putting these on will definitely mellow out the highs if you’re more sensitive to them than I am.  Unfortunately, they’re devil themselves to put on, the hard plastic inner tubing seemingly two sizes too small for the nozzles on the earpieces.  UFOear informed me that this was done deliberately, to prevent the foams from popping out and sticking in your ears.
Connector and cable

The earpieces are 0.78mm 2-pin terminated.  The 2-pin socket is embedded inside the unibody earpiece and look like they can take any level of abuse such that any excess yanking force would have to disintegrate the whole earpiece before the socket itself is damaged or pulled out.  It’s worth noting that the pins are rotated inwards by 40 degrees such that any cable with fixed ear guides (such as the ones provided) would angle inward and fit the ear snugly.

The provided cable is 3.5mm gold-plated straight-plug terminated on the device end, whereas on the earpiece end, it has round jack-bodies that fit perfectly with the shape of the socket on the earpiece side, such that you’d rather think the earphones used MMCX connectors if you didn’t pull out the cable.  (But, free-spinning MMCX would be such a nuisance IMHO…) 

The cable itself is woven out of eight cores, and supple yet satisfyingly but not annoyingly hefty.  Strain reliefs are present on both ends (it is not necessary at the Y-split, since that just ties the cores together in the case of this cable), and chin slider is present.  The manufacturer claims the cable to be made of sing-crystal pure copper but it’s sheathed in black so I’ll just have to take their word for it.  My off-brand multimeter reports about 2 ohms of round-trip resistance (from either L or R to ground through a short between the two pins), not earth-shattering superconductor performance but not likely to interfere with the performance of the earphones either, given their impedance response (see technical report at the end).  My aging stock Westone cable measures about 4 ohms, so there’s definitely more copper in the thick UFOear cable.

Comfort
UFOear claims that their 3D-printed earphone shells have no seams anywhere (although they do have to be printed in two sessions, the internal electronics being placed and wired in between the two, when you have an open half-shell).  I certainly couldn’t see any.  More importantly, the claim that the light, tiny if slightly unconventional shells disappear in my ear rings true.

Listening Test
Listening gear: HiBy R6pro (what else?), Xiaomi Pocophone F1 (low-end mobile source test)
Tips used: stock grey silicone tips

To my “old” ears (nearing 40), these are natural sounding IEMs tending slightly toward brightness.  Sibilance is well represented but usually not overdone; drums kick and cymbals crash satisfactorily.  The midrange is suitably proportioned and convincing in tonality.  Bass has suitable oomph with little bleed into the midrange, thus the overall presentation is clear and detailed.  YMMV; young ears in their teens may find these too bright, I don’t know. 
Hotel California
Upon repeated listening as we do while reviewing, Henley’s ssss’s stop juuuust short of being too sizzly for these ears.  YMMV.
Stranger in a Strange Land, from Somewhere in Time by Iron Maiden
The guitars in this album have a pleasant fuzz distortion which is reproduced by the UFO-112 as a pleasant diffuse sheen over the recording.  Lesser phones with this brighter signature can make this fuzz sound etched over specific frequencies.
蔡琴--被遺忘的時光
This is a Chinese HiFi classic but I usually find the “warmth” of the alto Tsai Qin a bit overdone in this recording.  The lack of lower-mid bloat in the UFO-112 makes for a standout performance in this regard.

シルシ--LiSA
A very emotional performance as an insert song in Sword Art Online II, telling the story of a young girl bedridden with a fatal disease making a name for herself in the history books her last years of life, in this online game on which the lives of thousands hang in balance (thanks to the nefarious schemes of the game designer, who inserted a bug in the VR interfaces of the gamers, which translated online deaths into actual physical death).
--marred in production / mastering by over-pushing of the low-mid-treble presence region, making for a one-hit wonder you can usually only listen to once and only once at a time.  On the UFO-112 it was no exception, with the earphones’ own minor treble peaks contributing further to the strident presentation. 
Imaging and tips comparison
Honestly loudspeakers impress me much more than any headphones, let alone IEMs, in their imaging, but these do throw out a credible “headstage” thanks to their accurate tonality (which I regard as the best thing that earphones may do by themselves to help project headstage).

With foams fitted instead of silicones, the presentation becomes more relaxed and even more friendly to long-term listening and treble-sensitive ears.  (although the provided foams are a little too big on the outside, when stretched over the nozzle;  I recommend replacing them with Comply T400 or T500 for an easier fit on bot the earphones and your ears.  Alternatively, decored T100 also fit snugly on the nozzle, and make the presentation even smoother).  With foams fitted, these earphones earn the distinction of being one of the very, very few earphones I’ve found out there with
1. Shallow comfortable fit            
2. Buttery smooth treble response          
3. That isn’t too dull / dark!

Technical review


Here is a raw frequency response measurement made using the stock grey silicone sleeves and a generic 5cc coupler of unknown pedigree (gifted by a friend long ago), although it looks quite similar to the one @crinacle uses.  As you can see, channel matching is generally excellent (keeping in mind that variations in insertion can also cause major FR deviations) and my coupler gives results very similar to that shown in the company website:



Here for comparison is the same measurement rig measuring the same ‘phones with provided foams instead of silicones.  As far as the coupler can make out, main difference is a lower more spread out peak at 7-8kHz.

Technical listening result, silicone sleeves (grey or black)
Technical listening result, provided foams
Technical listening result, decored comply T100

On the other hand, here are subjective frequency responses generated from “technical listening” from me, which consists of the following:

  1. Generate equal-loudness curve for my ears for a specific phons loudness.
  2. Apply equal loudness curve from (1) to computer system output using systemwide EQ.
  3. Listen to the earphones and adjust a second EQ until all frequencies are perceived at the same loudness at the calibrated phons loudness and no sharp peaks and dips can be heard anymore.
  4. Verify the EQ by removing the first EQ from (2) and checking that music playback through the earphones now has “ideal” “standard” characteristics.

The subjective frequency response curve shown above is thus the inverse of the EQ curve verified in (4) and shows the deviations of the earphone from this listener’s “standard” “ideal”.  Therefore, the ideal curve in this graph is a horizontal flat line without any “compensations”.

You will notice that both the frequency and gain of various treble peaks are different as heard by my own ears than as “heard” by the IEM coupler.  Neither is a reliable indicator of how the earphones will sound in YOUR ears, but I will take my listening results over the coupler results if:
1. You have a relatively big head and ears but a relatively long and narrow ear canal (as I do)
2. Or if you’re looking for direct results on the overall tonality of the earphones regardless of position of individual peaks

As this kind of graph has not appeared anywhere else on the web, I should start by saying that I have performed “technical listening” on literally hundreds of earphones over the years, and this here is among the ten best results any earphones have turned in, especially with foams fitted.

You can see that the overall trend of the curve is basically flat, with an extra helping of subbass which I doubt many listeners will turn down.  As for the peaks in the treble, although the ideal is a flat line, such is almost impossible in shallow-insertion IEMs because of the resonances in the sealed ear cavity itself.  Yet the UFO-112 comes close to that ideal when fitted with foams.  The shape of the response curve is jaggy and lumpy, but this is only over a narrow range of about 5dB, which in my experience is not wide enough to give an audible feeling of graininess of spikiness, even compared with listening tests in which all such variations are nulled out via DSP.  With silicones fitted (neither the coupler results nor my technical listening results differed materially whether the provided grey or black silicones are used) the UFO-112 gives us a brighter presentation, with a series of small, narrow spikes that are relatively unintrusive in the great scheme of tonality yet contributes to a move “live” sound (which is characterised by an even denser forest of spikes and dips caused by comb reflections from multiple sound reflections, although the overall tonality should ideally be flat.).

Driveability
UFOear claims that their earphones can be driven to HiFi quality by mobile phones alone.  In terms of driving power, these IEMs are all way more than sensitive enough to be driven to ear-shattering volumes by all but the weediest portable source, so there’s no doubting the claim in this aspect.  What is often contested is the ability of a pedestrian portable source like a non-music-dedicated smartphone to “control” the the earphones, to give a refined sound.

Beneath the varied and conflicting descriptions of amplifier “control”, the principle is actually quite simple:  amplifiers have an attribute called the output impedance, which you can view, simplified, as effectively a resistor added after the output, caused by the output circuitry.  This output impedance can range in portable devices from close to 0 (the “ideal”) to 10 (an infamous middle number that occurred on e.g. the Astell & Kern AK100 and the HiBy R6) to close to 100.  The control level of the amplifier on any given pair of earphones may be quantified as the “damping factor”, which is simply the impedance of the earphones divided by the output impedance of the amplifier.  Two spanners thrown in the works are:
  1. Impedance may vary with frequency; and
  2. If the impedance does NOT vary with frequency, there is in fact little to no ill effect caused by any amplifier output impedance.  Such a pair of earphones is very forgiving in terms of amplifier control, like a car that steers itself.  Custom Art, among other manufacturers, have recently come out with IEMs advertised as Flat Impedance (with the FIBAE trademark in the case of Custom Art) for this very reason.

The final effect of such control, or lack thereof, can be shown in terms of changes in frequency response and distortion levels.  Here I will measure both, by inserting a 75 ohm impedance adapter between a reference amplifier with close to zero ohm output impedance and the IEMs, to simulate a low-control situation:

Above is the UFO-112 impedance response chart.  In blue below is the raw data of attenuation in dB caused by the 75 ohm inline resistor, while in orange above is the impedance response in ohms calculated from the data.

We see that at 1000Hz the impedance is indeed very close to the reference 14 ohms, while it rises and dips at various points between 10 and 20 ohms, a relatively narrow range.  (Above 20kHz the measurement error becomes great as the measurement mic is quite insensitive at this range;  I would disregard the peak there).  This translates into a variation in frequency response changes in the range from about -14 to -19dB, a small range of 5dB, in the case of a 75ohm output impedance (which is close to the worst case you will encounter in the wild).  In terms of the shape of the FR change, there’s a boost to the low bass, a dip in the low mids, slight boost to the low treble presence region and a cut at 10kHz which I find to be a bit strident at 0 ohms—in other words, almost all favourable changes, to the extent that I would not worry about but rather almost look forward to using these on a “low-control” source.

This and practical listening to the IEMs on an actual low-control source (a Xiaomi Pocophone F1, which I’ve measured to have about 60 ohms of output impedance) make me believe the manufacturer’s claim of easy driving to ring true.

Bonus stage: Bluetooth adapter cable
For an extra 500RMB, you get the antigravity stand for your UFO, but included in the deluxe package is also something more practical:  a Bluetooth adapter cable for the earphones.  Being 0.78mm 2-pin terminated and of the necklace form factor, it has wide applicability to many IEMs out there with the same termination and better compatibility than the newest TWS adapters (though less sexy).  It supports aptX encoding but not the newest codecs like aptX HD and LDAC, which however lean a lot on extra data bandwidth rather than coding efficiency for their claimed sonic gains and hence require an ideal connection environment to realize said gains.

It has a pod under each earpiece connector, one for the battery, the other for the mic and controls.  I’ve compared this with other cables with only one pod, and find the two-pod arrangement superior in use, not only because of extended battery life, but also because of the even weight distribution, which prevents the cable from snagging itself to one side of your neck (thus impeding head turns) repeatedly as you move around.

Soundwise this is a competent adapter, with aptX taking care of digital quality but more importantly the onboard amplifier apparently having lots of gain and current on tap, for the UFO-112 at least.  When I first paired these and started playing music, unmindful that these have their volume control independent of the smartphone / player volume control (another feature I like) I was blasted by near-deafening output from the earpieces despite the Bluetooth volume being only about halfway on the smartphone side.  Listening to music I did not notice an objectionable loss in quality.  It is still not quite fully transparent (a tone testing app will show all the warts on any BT adapter on the market today), but one of the more credible performances I’ve heard.

The only drawback I see is that this does not have an indicator light on the cable, relying on voice prompts going out through the connected earpieces to tell you what’s going on with the cable.  And these voice prompts are only in Putonghua.  Better study the manual carefully if you don’t understand that (although operation seems simple enough; hold the power button to turn on for pairing, hold to turn back off; press volume buttons to volume, hold to skip tracks)

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