UM Free TWS ($349): Why should everyone else have all the TWS fun?
Pros: UM Sound-rich w/ details
Wireless charging capabilities
Typical UM build & quality
Good looking unit
Good tip selection
Competes well with other manufacturers “first-time” TWS offerings
Cons: “Bulbous” inner shell section makes fit a chore
SHORT nozzle makes fit a chore
Go with your own tips and fit becomes easier
UM U-Free TWS ($349): Why should everyone else have all the TWS fun?
Intro: After seeing the news about release of Unique Melody’s first TWS earbud, I was very interested. My first flagship model was the Mason V2. I still have it, and value it for a sound, which to me defines clarity and details, while not being overly analytical. I had a Mentor V3, which while good, very good was a hard fit. The cable was exceptional, but not of good fit either. I sold it to a gent who loves it, but kept the Mason V2. I hold the marque in high esteem as do others, and as a result, the Free seemed worth a serious look. Andrew was kind enough to arrange a review sample from UM, and what follows are my own words. A hint, though…the Free can hold its own against the competition.
In The Box:
Charging cable (short)
Case (set up for wireless charging as well)
Tips (6 sets, including UM’s own 6-hole design)
Qobuz (from my playlist, including jazz, some 80’s pop & U2)
iPhone 13 Pro Max
Shanling M6 Pro
UE Drop (Custom)
Beyerdynamic Free Byrd
The Free comes in a simple square box of diminutive size., wrapped with a paperboard informative sleeve. Sliding the sleeve off reveals the small white box, with a lid, which opens like a ring box. Inside you will find two information pictures, which help with insertion as well as a QR code for instruction. Under the small flap is the Free inside its case in either tan or black. The black looks killer, but the tan is more subdued, which I appreciate as well.
The top ¼ has two rectangular boxes, containing the included tips and short charging cord, respectively. The tips are all clear, and silicon, with three sets of “normal” type and UM’s in-house 6-hole design, which are purported to enhance clarity and detail. I tried both, but came away with a preference. Find out below.
“Qualcomm® QCC5144 24bit/96kHz high resolution audio, aptX™ adaptive codec lets you hear extreme detail.” From the UM Free page linked above.
For some reason, 10mm dynamic drivers are the norm. Much like 2.4L four cylinders rule the roost for many car manufacturers. The difference is how those drivers are treated by the individual manufacturers. Some use coatings, some use special diaphragms for a quick speedy response, while others use the sound tubes to generate their chosen flavors. UM went the coating route, with carbon nano coating along with a neat trick: Bone Conduction in Silver Palladium. My first encounter with bone conduction bass tuning was in the Fir Audio “Element” series. I fell for them and still consider the three amongst my top IEM’s reviewed, ever. Intoxicating bass was the result, with a detailed clarity to boot. What’s not to like.
UM does use bone conduction along with the single dynamic driver, but the piezoelectric bone conduction unit is as much about clarity and detail as head thumping bass. To me, they have succeeded. Giving the Free an almost holographic VR sound environment is the result, and with bass, which is not too overpowering. While technologically advanced, the Free will not set the curve for technology, but it is not meant to either.
Built in a rather bulbous fashion, the Free reminds me of Sony’s WF-1000XM4, shape-wise at least. A somewhat large faceplate, laden with a gold “swoosh,” gives that face the look of having a Ying-Yang effect. The large face also allows for the touch controls to be easily accessed. While sensitive, the large face makes it easier than not. The in-ear side is where the resemblance goes further. All of the electronics and tubing need to be somewhere and that bulbous shape helps here. Two gold plated charging spots share the inner space along with the “intelligent ear detection” aspect, which allows the Free to know when you remove the unit, pausing the music. Start of the music happens upon reentry. I had no problem with this, but lag was a bit slow.
A microphone port adorns the bottom of each TWS bud, and call quality with the Qualcomm clear voice capture (cVc) was good when I used it. Isolation from unwanted distractions was very good as well, especially with the four modes of operation the Free has. Those can be toggled through in the app, or touch-basis, and include HiFi (for best audio quality), Dynamic ANC on (best ANC, which can be adjusted by a slider in the app), ambient sound mode (allows partial background noise to come through, and voice assistant mode (for use with listening and communication). Those four options are really meant for sound mode, but I found functioned somewhat in calls as well. cVc does isolate out background and unwanted noises, focusing on the vocal presentation of your call; which is now pretty much a non-discussion point since most TWS buds’ function quite well with calls.
The nozzle is quite short, and there has been some discussion on the HeadFi thread regarding this. It seems we either see the Etymotic version of having a nozzle, which inserts into your brain, or a super-short nozzle, which does allow for less ear discomfort, reportedly. But a happy medium could be found, and here I think the Free was too short. Some mentioned that even with the included silicon’s, slippage was had. Some switched to their preferred tip for better isolation, no slipping and best of all increased audio quality to their ears. I would like to try a foam tip on the Free to see how that works. I have had good luck with the stock Sony foam tip on the 1000XM4, and wonder if that would help here.
Overall, I would say the Free is on the “too large” size for many to find a comfortable medium, which is a shame since the sound is quite good. That said, with a proper tip, you can get good isolation.
The earbuds have what to me are fairly unique combinations of touches, at least between the buds. The right bud controls play/pause (single tap), previous/FF track (TRIPLE tap) and answer/decline phone calls (double tap). The left bud controls “mode” as in which setting the Free are in from HiFi to Hearing (single tap). You can block the touches if you desire, such as a situation where constant interactions might occur. A Gaming mode cuts latency making for a more accurate sight/hearing interaction. It is a pretty basic unit function-wise as is the App.
Many have mentioned the lack of an Android app, which to me is not acceptable, since almost 3/4 of all Smartphones worldwide are Android-based OS. As mentioned above, functions can be controlled from the app to change ANC/listening setting as well as latency for gaming mode. There is also a five-band graphic equalizer that can be used in a rudimentary amount of existing genre, as well as a customized option. I found that increasing any of the frequencies to a 6dB push caused distortion to be heard. I never EQ my earbuds anyway, as I prefer to work with the ANC/HiFi options instead.
A feature under settings is called “Audio Curation,” which as near as I can tell tailors each of the Ambient & Hearing modes to Low, Medium, Normal & High. HiFi & ANC are left alone when toggled into their respective settings. This can be done under playback, idle and calls, allowing you to “tailor” how the buds respond when those three listening modes are activated (playback, idle & call). This is a nice feature, and I could see the user changing Ambient or Hearing modes on a noisy commute vs a run in the neighborhood. You can of course defeat all three of the curations as well.
Updating of the app is fairly archaic as well at this time, relying upon “file transfer” under settings, and then “About Earbuds.” Not the most intuitive, but it works. Updates were fairly quick as well.
Wireless charging is a positive, and many now come with that capability. This makes for easy charging on your desk (and there are many ingenious solutions for multiple wireless charging “ports”), so you can ensure there is enough for your commute.
From the UM Free site:
Battery life (noise cancelation on) ≈7+14h(earbuds + charging case)
Battery life (noise cancelation off) ≈8+16h(earbuds + charging case)
The totals of 21-24 hours is on the leaner side, but remember this is an earbud, so limitations can occur. A quick charge of 15 minutes can give you an additional two or so hours, which helps. I find that many of the top flagship TWS buds from companies, which may not normally make these all suffer from par to sub-par battery life. The trials and tribulations of competing with companies that specialize in TWS buds. Hopefully future upgrades can occur. That said, I can verify the numbers listed above, and the App has a handy battery meter below each bud. I do wish it would show percentage, but that is the scientist in me…
The Free comes with high hopes, and is somewhat an exploratory model for UM; and for the most part succeeds. I found bass was somewhat taut and reached fairly deep with the right tip. Using the 6-hole, increased clarity and detail to me, but at the cost of thickness in note. Mids and treble excelled with the 6-hole, and vocal treatment (whether male or female) came across as clear and crisp, placed well within the song, and not too forward. Soundstage comes across like a single dynamic driver, but one with decent space between instruments and notes. This is a fine first attempt, and my hope is that UM continue to test and update this model.
Once you have the rip tip attached, isolation is better than average, but the short nozzle and bulbous inner side makes it tough to attain an excellent seal. Small foam tips worked best for me, and I usually use medium or large foam tips on other IEM’s. Medium would work, but combined with the wide diameter nozzle, found the small a better fit.
Bass comes across as somewhat reaching but with good tactical feel. I think the holographic effect plays here, and helps the bass stay mostly taut and controlled. There is a bit of rumble, but it never overpowers the control down low, nor bleed into the mids; which are prominent. In HiFi mode is where I had the best sound signature, and the texture of bass notes was full & weighty. Not bulbous either, but with good girth giving a solid feel to songs such as “Swingin’” from The Mavericks through the upright bass. I could feel the bass, thanks to the bone conduction, but not as prominently as on the Fir models (which do cost up to 10x the cost, mind you…). I find the feel and sound down low to be perfectly acceptable and on par with the Sony, while bettering the Senn.
Mids to me carry the show, with good push forward, but in presence, not an in-your-face mode. Giving the mids full stage to show their wares, the vocals come across as full and weighted, but without becoming drippy or sappy. On “Things I Cannot Change,” also from The Mavericks, the vocals coming from their melancholy together works well, and I did not find myself reaching to turn the volume down. Instead, I reached to turn it up. Acoustic guitar work comes across as tight and full, placed well within the song, as does the percussion in the mid-range. The guitar solo about ¾ the way through comes across as clean, crisp and well placed, showing that while the mids seem to be the most prominent, they do not supersede the whole show.
Treble notes such as cymbal strikes and high notes come across with authority and accuracy. No analytical sound comes forth from cymbal strikes, nor the high notes of piano works, such as Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins & Dizzy Gillespie’s seminal “After Hours” from the fabulous album “Sonny Side Up.” The piano work lays a soulful foundation, especially with those high notes early in the song. Then the individual solos simply close the door; giving me excellent transients, without becoming harsh or intolerable like some can at high volume.
Soundstage is wider and taller than deeper, but there is still very good spatial awareness to it, lending very good placement of instruments as well. Stage is better using HiFi mode than ANC, and to be honest the ANC mode only dulled the outside noise. Much of that is down to fit, in my opinion, and a deeper insertion is needed to take care of isolation. The Free would work on a commute, but I find the Sony, Senn & Beyer are all better in this regard.
UM Free ($349) v Campfire Orbit ($249):
The Orbit is Campfire Audio’s first TWS, and many of us think it is an experimental tease as to what might happen at CFA. I surely hope so, for it does have good points. Wireless charging, CFA’s prominent bass line, and good battery life. Where it falls short to me is in overall sound character. It seems just there, and no more. Maybe they are seeing how it goes, then take their typical chance in tuning. I hope so, for there is potential. As for comparing, the Free sounds much better to me. Fuller in signature, and clarity. Bass is about even, but better fit means that department goes to the Orbit. This will come down to signature choice: safe and efficient: Orbit; overall tonality with good clarity: Free.
UM Free ($349) v UE Drop (Custom, $399):
This custom came about as a result of T.H.E. Show last summer, and I still use this regularly. No ANC? No problem, it is not needed with the custom shell. Bass seems a bit light compared to the Free, but has even better detail and clarity to the tuning. This could be the trickle-down effect from their other models, and I can feel the family resemblance based upon the Custom UE Live I have as well. The Drop to me is overall better, but lacks a bit of character. It may be too clean of a sound, and could use a bit more bass for my tastes.
UM Free ($349) v Beyerdynamic Free Byrd ($199, sale…That’s a STEAL!):
This will be from memory, as I left the Free Byrd at home and I am away at our place up north. I was immediately impressed with the Free Byrd upon arrival, from functionality to sound quality. I placed this in the category with the B&W and Sony models, along with my favorite, the M&D MW08. Less expensive, and with Beyer’s history behind it, this is a winner to me. But it does lack some tactility in controls, which some have mentioned as being too sensitive. Others have mentioned that fit is about like the UM model. I would disagree on that last point, as I could achieve a good seal with the right tip, and the nozzle was a smidge longer. Both have nozzles, which are too short to me, hindering overall sound qualities. At the sale price, it would be hard to pass up the Free Byrd, and should be given a look.
The UM Free is their first attempt at a TWS earbud. And it mostly succeeds. I find the sound to be typically fresh UM, with very good clarity piled on top of excellent TWS detail. Notice I said “TWS detail.” That was on purpose, but the Free along with several other notable TWS buds are helping to blur the line between IEM & TWS earbud in sound quality. The Free is on par with the best TWS buds out in terms of detail retrieval to me, but this does not make it the center point. Where others focus solely on clarity & detail, the Free allows the detail retrieval to combine with other top aspects such as soundstage and bass response. If you want an overly clarity-driven model, look elsewhere. The Free combines detail, clarity, thickness of note, and a texture not often found in TWS buds, including some of those top models mentioned above. If UM can sort the nozzle out (make it longer, please!), then this may be considered in the same breath as those top marques. And at the price, it could easily justify its place among the best out currently.