I am in a rare position this month of having more than one custom IEM on my desk thanks to the wonderful team at Minerva UK who kindly sent me their latest creations – the Mi-Performer Pro and Mi-Performer Artist customs monitor class IEMs.
Previously I have been a card-carrying fan of UM and my only other custom, the UM Merlin. I love that dang Merlin to bits and spent a ton on cables and accessories since getting it 2 years ago and many a flagship universal IEM has come and gone and still, the love falls on my Merlin.
Call it the game changer, call it the endgame, whatever, but the custom IEM is the best solution for people like me that struggle to see the value in earphones period over headphones.
Maybe it is the process from ear impressions to the personalization that imparts a sense of loyalty and achievement, I just cannot put my finger on it exactly, but that sense of “This is mine and mine only” when you stick that perfectly shaped ear shell and block out the world is just very hard to replicate with anything universal.
It really is that hard to go back to “regular joe” earphones after a customs experience.
And it seems a lot of people agree with that sentiment. The customs business is big business driven by the likes of Unique Melody, JH Audio and big conglomerates like Ultimate Ears rolling out iteration after iteration with the number of drivers stuffed inside the shells multiplying like bunnies in heat.
The whole business is on a bold step and new companies are popping up just about everywhere offering something unique and personal – vibes which people relate to strongly in the era of the selfie.
Now you may not have heard of Minerva if you are making the leap from cans and universals but in actual fact, Minerva is a pretty big company in the “hearing” business being on the go now for over 60 years and are rated as one of the largest specialist earmould laboratories in Europe.
In terms of in-ear custom monitors though this is a more recent venture and though I wouldn’t say they are playing catch up. On first sight, they don’t do the whole “razzamatazz” website marketing experience you might get with JH Audio and the likes.
This is primarily a hearing specialist company that knows how to make great in-ear monitors. I find that pleasantly reassuring rather than an audio company dabbling in customs without any heritage or background.
Much like my Merlin’s the whole process of buying the Mi-Performer Pro & Artist starts with the impression process.
Basically, this is a clay type model of the inside of your ear up to the second bend of your ear canal taken at an audiologist or with your own DIY kit (if you are brave enough).
Not being in the UK I went to my own audiologist, the Manila Hearing Aid (MHA) company who did a set of impressions for around 600php or $15 and are well used to the audiophile brigade coming in for ear impressions for their latest customs.
Note to others MHA also does a re-shell for Php7,000 (both ears) of your favorite universal if that’s your bag also. If you are in the UK even better as Minerva has deals with over 75 fitting centers and you can find out your closest center on their website.
Open & Closed
Anyway back to the process, I was also struggling to find a bite block to keep my mouth open to about the width of 2 fingers, and in the end, I used a coke bottle top which was about the same width on its side.
The open and closed impression is really down to what you are doing when you are using your customs such as eating and talking as the closed mouth impressions are looser than the open mouth impression.
The open mouth fitting is tighter to allow for a widening of the ear canal when you open your mouth. If you think you will not be using your mouth a lot then go for the closed. I went for the open and the results, described later, were very impressive indeed for fit and seal.
The impression is critical for that seal. Get a bad impression and the customs will sound like crap due to an imperfect seal. The magic in a custom is that it is supposed to be a perfect fit for your ear, something which a universal can never replicate.
The whole process should only take about 15 to 20 minutes and you can check your impressions after for accuracy and length (they should look like the picture above from totally-dubbed.net).
Remember beyond the second bend of the ear canal or forget about it. After that just wrap them in cotton wool, box and tag them and send them to Minerva who will manufacture your customs based on those impressions.
During this part, I also had a few extra options such as laser etchings, the custom coloring of the ear shells, and placement of the cables. The Mi-Performer Pro is silicone so this works with a fixed rather than detachable cable so I went for a top exit for over the ear to reduce the stress on the cables as well as further reduce any microphonics from the cables.
The Artist got the same treatment but has non-recessed detachable cables which might prove very useful later on down the line for cable changing which is what I did with my Merlins eventually.
One area I did note for the future development of the range was the custom artwork seemed a little lackluster compared to the elaborate and striking designs of JH Audio and Unique Melody so I kept things simple and went for translucent in both the Pro and Artist with only the Minerva logo and left and right in red and blue.
I like minimalism on mine but others can go to town and have whatever they want on it. The colored shells or glitter options didn’t grab my attention as much.
The turnaround was an impressive 10 days not including shipping time. That is much faster than some other customs companies by a matter of months in some case and everything arrived in perfect condition. What I did get was as follows:
The custom earphones themselves
Soft Carrying Case
Instructions or nice little foldable manual
One tube of ear balm (nice thought since after all, they are a hearing specialist company)
Yes, I could have grabbed a Peli 1010 case and all the extras but this is a stock delivery, and as such everything is just dandy for my needs for now.
Opening up the Artist box, of course, they physically look the same as the UM Merlin’s in terms of shape since it is after all my ear and I doubt my ear has changed that much in 2 years.
The outward difference is in the personalization and the Merlin’s probably edge the Pro and the Artist in that aspect having got those in black and orange.
The big difference, or perhaps the newest experience for me though is the Pro coming in silicone. Now there are huge fan bases of silicone customs over the harder acrylic version which the Artist is but I have to say on balance and after trying them both extensively the acrylic had the slight edge for me in terms of fit and interestingly in terms of comfort also in the long run.
The cables with both are Kevlar reinforced copper cables but both are not exactly the same in terms of flexibility.
The silicone Pro cable is beautifully lithe and supple and can just about curve around anything. Love this cable to bits physically but sadly the acrylic version is much stiffer and going over the ear creates a rather elongated cable loop that doesn’t really sit on your ear properly.
I am not entirely sure why there is such a marked difference in the cables. My guess is that the acrylic, being detachable, needs more strengthening around the socket connectors and this was the resulting outcome. Mind you quite a lot of detachable customs have supple cables like the Pro silicone variant so this one is a bit of a let down initially.
Also, both cables are for wearing behind your head and not in front of you for reasons of clutter and ensuring you do not accidentally catch the cable whilst moving around.
Of course, being detachable the awesome news is you can simply change the cable to one of your own or buy some groovy Twag v2/3 from Whiplash Audio depending on your needs if the stock cable doesn’t perform to your satisfaction.
The fit was just about perfect though in the ear for the acrylic Artist version with an almost 100% seal blocking most, if not all, ambient background noise. This is how you want your customs unless you are buying the Merlin which has a small bass port for the dynamic driver giving around 98% seal.
That is an acceptable trade-off for the bass performance on the Merlin but the Artist being a balanced armature construct and using AcuPass transducers from Sonion needs no bass port and as such it has the edge over the Merlin for the all-important seal.
The silicone Pro variant was also a great seal but not quite as complete for me as the acrylic Pro with a slightly higher level of background noise getting in. The fit also was excellent but again not quite as perfect as the smoother acrylic Artist.
On balance for fit and seal as well as overall long term comfort, the Artist is the superior variant for me personally. Despite what the silicone fans say, silicone for me in the long term didn’t quite have the same level of comfort as I had hoped for and has a fixed cable to boot.
Of course, do not forget the design of the ear-piece is everything. Get the impression wrong and the resulting custom mold will have leakage and a poor response. If the manufacturer doesn’t cut the shell quite to your taste then send them back and have them re-shelled.
Most will do this within 30 days as part of the warranty. Thankfully Minerva did an outstanding job on my shells with everything fitting just right (do not forget I used open ear impressions so I like mine tight).
Having been an avid user of the hybrid 5 driver (1 bass and 4 BA) UM Merlin I thought I would kick off with that and use that as a comparison in some ways and not just the Pro and the Artists side by side.
True the Merlin is roughly twice the price so please bear that in mind. The Merlin with stock cable can be best be described as a mini LCD-2 V1 – plenty of bass, wonderful natural warm and detailed mids section, and a detailed but slightly laid back treble response.
There is no bleeding from the dynamic bass into the BA mids and uppers making the Merlin a spacious, hard-hitting custom with a relaxed tonality that is equally at home with dance, rock, and most classical or acoustic genres.
Switching from the stock cable to something like Twag v2 benefits the treble immensely as for me the stock cable contains a slight veil and muddiness that holds the Merlin back slightly from greatness.
Silver or Twag v2 elevates clarity and articulation to satisfying levels without losing that wonderful bass dynamic response, big sound stage, and pleasing warm tonality. Kind of like moving from the LCD-2 V1 to the V2 in many ways.
The Pro and Artist use a custom specialist transducer setup designed and assembled by Sonion and is roughly equivalent to a triple BA experience and does not contain any dynamic driver hybrid technology so both are much close to say a Westone UM3X or 4R in terms of driver setups or some of the slightly lower custom configurations that use triple BA.
Certainly, the price is much more comparable to the Westone universals and provides a very healthy alternative with a much superior fit and seal and performance.
Both the Artist and Pro tonality is more neutral-sounding than the warmer Merlin with a slightly more forward upper mid or lower treble section and a smaller but more focused sound stage. Both play out very smoothly with no obvious signs of peakiness or undesirable spikes throughout.
Both the Pro and Artist top end also has a dash more verve and sparkle than the Merlin but obviously loses out to the Merlin in terms of the bass response given the fact Minerva does not use hybrid dynamics in both versions of the Mi-Performance CIEM’s.
I would not describe either the Pro or Artist as particularly aggressive even though they tend to place you more front row than the back row in terms of overall positioning; that more mid-centric focus just draws you in a lot more than the much wider ambiance of Merlin’s soundstage.
Though Pro and Artist are more forward and mid-focused than the Merlin but I did find them slightly more condensed and lacking in depth and width compared to the higher-end Merlin which was masterful in image placement and separation.
In previous incarnations, feedback from users was that the lower treble had too much energy and fizz distracting from any sense of overall coherence and leading to listener fatigue.
I am glad to report in both editions that whilst the lower treble is slightly accentuated, it is in fact executed almost perfectly for me without a hint of any peakiness or distraction giving both a much tighter and coherent transition from the mids to the treble.
Between the two though the Artist gets the nod with its slightly better seal and bigger hollow chamber giving a more engaging and fuller tonality than the Pro silicone. This is not to say the silicone Pro is lacking, far from it, but of the two the Artists edged it for me.
Bass response is quite similar to the high-end BA setups from the likes of Westone. It is not dominant but rather supportive with a response that is both quick and forceful when it needs to be on more demanding bass-centric tracks. It is in no way one-dimensional though with excellent detail and texture but really can’t come close to the wondrous subterranean levels of sub-bass shudder of the Merlins.
Sensitivity wise they are quite similar actually with the Pro and Artist just being slightly less efficient than the Merlin which rates at 102db from memory. The Merlin, Pro, and Artists performance right out of the Samsung S3 jack were average at best and thin and tinny at worst.
All 3 need a decent pocket amp to get the best out of them. Using the V-Moda Vamp Verza with the S3 brought both the Artist and Pro up to a more satisfying level with richer thicker mids, better bass impact, and more sparkle in the treble.
Things improved even more with the FiiO E18 (apart from the weird RF interference) with a much more spacious and dynamic response making the Verza seem somewhat muddy in comparison when paired with the Artists and Pro.
Straight out of the Ibasso DX50 the volume was a comfortable 190-195 and the more natural match over the FiiO E18 and Vamp Verza with excellent body and a slightly smoother upper range than both of the convergence units from FiiO and V-Moda.
Cable Swapping on the Artist
As luck would have it my Merlin Twag V2 cable fitting perfectly on the Mi-Performer Artist and the difference was tangible.
The comfort around the ear was superior to the stock Kevlar being a woven soft cable which also had a ton less memory retention than the stiffer stock cable. Presentation and tonality wise the Artists was a little bit more controlled and monitor like and the depth and separation a little deeper, wider, and clearer.
Whether or not it is justified to spend another $300 on a quality upgrade cable when the Artist is around $500 in its own right is debatable but if this is a second IEM or you have existing cables that can fit it is worth changing around and comparing.
The Minerva Mi-performer Pro and Artist are very attractively priced custom in-ear monitors whose BA Sonion setup is incredibly smooth and natural to my ear.
They can’t quite reach the same levels of dynamics and bass response as the Unique Melody hybrid Merlin and both have a more condensed and shallower image and instrument presentation than its loftier cousin but then again it’s almost half the price so that is to be expected.
They easily outperform universal BAs at a similar price such as the Westone UM3X with a much thicker and dynamic presentation and thanks to Minerva’s excellent manufacturing the seal is night on perfect for my ears giving a really nice and engaging response, particularly from the acrylic Artist version.
I would love to see a few more cable options in the ordering process and the level of physical customization is not as advanced as say UM, JH Audio, and other competitors, and this might hold them back a bit from the initial wow factor you often see on the ordering pages.
Do not let that put you off from what are otherwise excellent customs and a very supportive ordering and after-sales process from Minerva.