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Urbanears Medis High-Performance Earbud/Headset (Playback 58)

Urbanears Medis High-Performance Earbud/Headset (Playback 58)

Medis is a district of Stockholm, Sweden, located at exactly N 59º 18’ 54.46” by E 018º 04’ 20.91”. How do I know this? It’s written on the outside of the Urbanears Medis earphone’s box. And why is the location of Medis on the box? That’s just the way Urbanears does things.

The Medis are the second earphone for Urbanears I’ve covered recently. The first was the $35 Bagis, which proved to be quite a value. But other than sharing a similar overall design aesthetic, the $50 Medis have little physically in common with the Bagis. While the Bagis are a noise-isolating sealed in-ear design, the Medis are an on-ear, unsealed design with no noise isolation or noise cancellation. Indeed, this means the Medis is essentially that most rare of rare birds: a true high performance “earbud.” In short the Medis isn’t “better” as in good/better/best, but a completely different product designed to be used in situations where an isolating in-ear design wouldn’t be desirable. Urbanears carries the concept of the right tool for the job to a logical and well-designed conclusion.

One aspect of the Medis design that it shares with all the other Urbanears earphones is a celebration of color. You can get Medis in black, teal, raspberry, orange, tomato, sage, indigo, mocha, mustard, cream, grape and dark grey. My review samples were black, which is too bad, since I’m sure I would have looked fetching in mocha. But if you want to make sure you never leave your Medis lying on a locker-room bench I’d opt for tomato.

The Medis have a different driver than the Bagis so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that they have a fundamentally different sound. The published Medis frequency curve shows a gradual 5 dB lift, which begins around 750 Hz. All the frequencies between 1kHz and 7 kHz are hotter than the rest of the Medis’ frequency range. At approximately 7 kHz there’s a 2 dB spike before the Medis begin a gradual roll-off that leaves them 40 dB down by 20 Hz. This harmonic frequency curve gives the Medis an added helping of clarity, especially in the human voice range.

 

Why would someone choose a non-isolating, unsealed on/in-ear headphone design like the Medis? They are ideal if you plan to wear ‘phones somewhere that you must be aware of your environment, such as when you’re out running, biking, or strolling on urban streets. Also, for some people the pressurization of a within-the-ear-canal ‘phone is too uncomfortable to tolerate. The Medis design offers a refreshingly open option.

FEATURES

•15.4mm handmade drivers.
•EarClick construction secures the earpiece to your outer ear at two points.
•Tangle-resistant 47-inch signal cord.
•Comes with remote-compatible stereo plug for i-Phone, Blackberry, HTC, etc.
•Has adapter cable for standard stereo MP3 players
•Includes 4 sizes of ear pads

Ergonomic Highlights and Lowlights

The more earphones I review, the more aware I’ve become that the way a pair of earphones fit is the single most important aspect of their performance because it affects all other performance parameters. Based on fit alone the Medis obtained high marks for innovation. They aren’t the first earbuds to use a two-point system to keep them in place in your outer ears, but their solution is unique. The Medis interchangeable rubber pads serve to hold the earbuds in place by fitting under your upper ear ridge. The B&W C5s uses a somewhat similar approach but instead of interchangeable rubber pads, B&W employs an adjustable metal loop and more conventional ear-tips. I tried all four different supplied bumpers and settled on the largest ones. I didn’t think my ears were that big…

 

Urbanears has dubbed the Medis as an “EarClick” design. The first time you put on the Medis you’ll understand how they came up with the term. To put on the Medis you rest their bases on the lower curve of your ear, bend the bumper slightly and give the buds a slight counter-clockwise twist. Once in place, I found the Medis were as secure and as hard to pull out as a pair of well seated in-ear-canal earphones. The Medis are well marked as to which is left and right, but if you do accidentally try to put the left bud in your right ear you’ll discover that each bud is specifically shaped for an individual ear. The left bud will simply not fit into your right ear.

The Medis have zero noise isolation capabilities. Well, okay, maybe they attenuate outside noise by a couple of dBs, but not much. But that’s intentional. The Medis were created for runners and others who need earbuds that allow them to be aware of the outside world around them. At lower volume levels it’s easy to listen to music and carry on a conversation. At higher volume levels all you’ll hear is music.

Unlike the Urbanears’ Bagis, which uses a special rubberized covering for the first section of the cord to minimize microphonics, the Medis cable is cloth covered over its entire length. Because the Medis do not sit in direct contact with you ear canal the cable’s microphonics are far less audible than an in-ear design, so it didn’t need additional attenuation. If you rub the cable near each bud you will hear noise, but it’s not loud.

The Medis can be worn the standard way with the cable hanging straight down or with the cable routed around the top of your ears. Unfortunately, if you route the cable around the top of the ears it will put the mute control two inches behind your left ear—doable, but not ideal. But at least the cable is long enough at 47 inches, so it will still reach an iPod in your front pocket. The cable is also quite flexible so running it down your back or your arm is a snap.

 

The Medis’ permanently attached cable is terminated with a three-section mini-plug that allows it to control an iPod’s mute function. The Medis comes with two additional adapters, one for Nokia-compatible devices and the other for standard MP3 and stereo devices. The nice thing about these adapter cables is that they also serve as strain-relief quick-releases—if you snag your cable on something the connection between the permanently-attached cable and the adapter cable will pull out first, protecting the rest of the cable from damage.

The Medis comes with a one-year “premium” replacement warranty. What this means is that for a year if the product fails the original authorized dealer, at their discretion, can replace it. Not only is this warranty longer than for most $50 earbuds, it also doesn’t require returning them directly to Urbanears for warranty replacement. Of course the warranty doesn’t cover abuse, which would include trying to use the Medis during the swimming part of your Ironman competition.

SONIC CHARACTER

•Brighter than neutral with some bass energy.
•Smooth but slightly forward midrange.
•A detailed high-end.
•Decent imaging specificity.
•Fair dynamic contrast.

I mentioned earlier that the fit is the most important and influential aspect of an earphone’s overall performance. With the Medis the fit will strongly affect your perceived bass response. For me the Medis’ bass was on the light side when they were worn in a standard manner, but if I put on a knitted skullcap (not my normal headgear) the cap pushed the Medis inward slightly and made marked a difference in the amount of bass I heard—to the point that the bass could become overbearing. So, you could consider the Medis bass response adjustable, if you don’t mind wearing headgear that comes down over your ears.

The Medis bass resolution overall was good, far better than the thick and woolly sound of the Urbanears Bagis earphones. Because the Medis doesn’t make much direct contact with your ear canals, its bass frequencies are primarily airborne, which give them less impact but better definition. The bass through the Medis is more like what I hear from an open-back headphone rather than a traditional earphone or a closed-back headphone. The bass is clean and well delineated but lacking in slam and visceral impact.

 

The resolution of detail through the Medis is much better than what you might expect from a $50 earphone. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Medis a high-resolution reference monitor, they were much more detailed than the Bagis, Velodyne vPulse, or Ultimate Ears UE200 earphones. Much of this extra, perceived detail was a result of the Medis shelved-up midrange, which gives the whole presence range a little kick in the pants. While not so extreme as to give the overall balance a nasal edge, the Medis’ sonic shift does lighten up baritone and alto voices a smidgeon, and dries out the lower midrange slightly.

The Medis’ upper midrange and treble regions were smooth, but with certain sources I noticed some glare, especially at higher volumes. I much preferred the sound of the Medis when attached to the April Music Stello HP-100 headphone amplifier as opposed to the April Music Eximus DP-1’s headphone output. Somehow the DP-1 excited the Medis brightness zone far more than the Stello HP-100. Driven by an iPod Touch the Medis were not as forgiving of bright peaky recordings as the Urbanears Bagis or Velodyne V-Pulse. In this regard the Medis are more like an audiophile headphone—good recordings reward you with scads of detail while bad ones will show their flaws more readily.

Imaging and soundstaging through the Medis was more precise than through the Bagis, Paradigm Shift E1s, or Ultimate Ears UE200s. The soundstage width approached what I’m used to hearing from an open-back headphone, such as an AKG K-701. Although the Medis weren’t able to define edges or recreate depth as well as the full-size Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, the Medis did put the instruments in almost exactly the same locations in space.

Due, in part, to their high sensitivity and relatively large diaphragms for an earbud, dynamics, especially midrange dynamics, are quite lively. Bass dynamics are a function of fit—the more bass you have, the more lower frequency dynamics you’ll have as well. But unless you wear a skullcap that’s several sizes too small, I doubt you’ll ever get the amount of bass energy and contrast generated by the Velodyne vPulse or Paradigm Shift E1 earphones.

 

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

On Andrea Wittgens’ “Punchline” from In the Skyline [Trapdoor Music] the Medis do an excellent job retaining most of the air and upper frequency delicacy on the synthesizer “bells” at the beginning of the tune. Wittgen’s voice sounded slightly drier and lighter than absolutely neutral and the lower regions of her piano don’t have nearly as much weight as I would have liked. Decipherability was well above average for an earbud at this price, meaning that the intertwining piano and synthesizer lines remained distinct and easy to identify.

Listening to Ben Zander’s rendition of Mahler’s 4th Symphony on Telarc, I appreciated the Medis’ ability to remain unflustered even during the forte passages. I was especially impressed by how the Medis retained inner detail in the string section. All of the subtle shadings and inflections of Camila Tillings’ soprano soloist performance were retained. Yes, I would have preferred somewhat more push and impact from the tympani and string bass section, but the Medis’ surprisingly articulate midrange partially makes up for the lack of lower frequency information and drive.

B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” from the classic release Live at the Regal [MCA] demonstrated the Medis’ imaging ability. B.B.’s voice came from dead center, the piano and drums were hard left, and Lucille and the horn section are hard right. The only other sounds in the center besides B.B.’s voice were the crowd walla and the electric bass. Through the Medis the crowd comments and applause were much more apparent than through the Paradigm Shift E1s or Velodyne vPulses. The Medis resolution and detail retention reminded me of the much more costly full-size AKG K-701 headphones.

CONCLUSION

Consider this product if:

•You need an earbud that has (almost) no noise isolation; the Medis lets you hear music while maintaining “situational awareness” of external sounds.
•You want an earbud precisely because it doesn’t protrude into your ear canal, but rather fits comfortably (and securely) in your outer ear.
•You prefer an earbud with excellent midrange clarity.

 

Look further if:

•You need an earbud with a multitude of fit options.
•You prefer an earbud with a big bottom end.
•You need an earbud the supplies active noise cancellation or high levels isolation (for better isolation, consider Urbanears’ Bagis earphone).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced earbuds and earphones)

•Tonal Balance: 8
•Frequency Extremes: 7(Bass)/8(Treble)
•Clarity: 8
•Dynamics: 8
•Comfort/Fit: 8
•Sensitivity: 9
•Value: 8

BOTTOM LINE

I do most of my exercising inside where I need an earphone that delivers as much isolation as possible. For my purposes the Medis are the wrong earphone. But if I ever needed an earphone to go for a run, jump on a bike, or take a long walk, the Medis would be the first earphone I’d grab on my way out the door.

SPECS & PRICING

Urbanears Medis Earbud/Headset
Drivers: 15.4mm, hand-assembled
Sensitivity: 115 dB
Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20kHz
Cord: 47” (120 CM) cord
Plug: 3.5 mm iPod/Blackberry/HTC compatible tip
Warranty: one year
Price: $50 list, $42 street

Manufacturer Information
Urbanears/Zound Industries
011 +46 730 355543 (Stockholm, Sweden)
www.urbanears.com

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