As indicated in the unboxing, the ME100 come with three sets of silicone tips that have been selected for slight changes in sound to benefit ‘vocals’, the ‘bass’, or offer a ‘balanced’ sound. My sound impressions here were all with the ‘balanced’ tips, but I did briefly try out the others as well. To my ears the ‘vocal’ tips do indeed seem to add a hint of mid-range clarity, while the ‘bass’ tips add a bit more warmth, but the differences are very subtle. Still, it can certainly be an interesting way to fine-tune the sound a little based on the music you are listening to, or simply the comfort of the tips themselves.
Overall the ME100 are very clear and airy IEMs, and when I first started listening I was quite surprised by how airy the sound was, expecting the music to be more confined within my head. The ME100 have an uncolored type of sound that is complimented by a well-controlled ‘dynamic driver’ bass. Emphasis though seems to be more towards the upper mids and lower treble, giving them a brightness that might not suit everyone. It creates a brighter and more articulate sound that can for some people, such as yours truly, get too close to their treble sensitivity. I did not have too many issues with it, but did notice that after a few hours of listening it became a little fatiguing. The advantage of it is that the ME100 are very detailed and offer a balanced sound for those who prefer their music to come through clear and detailed.
One of the things I thought was very interesting about the ME100 was that their sound seemed to be aimed at achieving a clear and uncolored sound while using a dynamic driver. Dynamic drivers are usually more associated with a warm and bass-heavy sound because of their natural strengths. As a result, upon hearing the ME100, I found that the bass was much more controlled than I had expected and did not give off a lot of warmth to the mids and treble. However, it did give the extra texture that dynamic drivers do so well. Control over the bass is really quite good and the bass is not too noticeable unless it is actually called for. At that time it can offer a nice bit of rumble, although it does not extend very far into the sub-bass region. Playing Astronaut Ape’s track Awaredance shows the ME100 are capable of some decent bass impact while keeping everything tight and avoiding the darkening of the signature. This is also very noticeable with Massive Attack’s Angel, which I normally love for how dark it can get with the kind of warm and bass-heavy IEMs I love when I am not listening to classical music. With the ME100 there is none of that darkness and the track stays really clean and clear.
The bass still feels somewhat lifted when I listen to classical music, with the bass section having a relatively prominent presence when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th. This actually works rather well when I listen to the Rolling Stones, where drums have a nice impact and that helps to avoid the ME100 sounding too clinical or boring. The same goes for more heavy music such as metal by Disturbed, which has a nice energy to it, although again it is not as dark as I personally would like it to be. Clean and clear is where it is at with the ME100.
In the mids there is a focus towards the upper mids. This is most clearly noticeable with vocals, where the ME100 favor female vocals over male. Male vocals lack the lower chest and throatiness that come from the upper bass and lower mids. I felt this was especially noticeable with live albums of Sting and Eric Clapton, where I found the music lacked the intimate feeling and vocals sounded a little sterile and without much density. Despite favoring female vocals, I did not think the ME100 did great with those either. Especially with higher pitched vocals such as Norwegian singer Aurora Aksnes (Aurora) it can just sound a bit too bright for my liking. Yet I have to hand it to the ME100, when I put them to the ultimate test with Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, I did find that they maintained an even tone that did not go into sibilance. It is bright, but balanced.
Interestingly I found that mid-range instruments in classical music had a pretty good tonality considering the overall brighter tone of the ME100. With classical music, instruments such as the clarinet and even the flute have a good tonality and can stand up well against the emphasis on strings and brass instruments. That same emphasis also comes back in electric and acoustic guitars, which sound pretty good and you can really hear the plucking of the strings.
The ME100 have to my ears a clear lower-treble lift, which is where a lot of the overall clarity comes from, but also where I personally find them a little too bright. To my ears it makes the treble very articulate and a little ‘tinny’ sounding. Especially in classical music, violin strings and brass instruments are a little too sharp for my liking and there is not enough warmth coming from the bass to counter that. It does bring cymbals and such instruments more forward in music such as rock and blues to add excitement, but here I feel the treble extension is lacking for it to sound natural.
Now I am far from a treble head and have often confessed to some degree of “treblephobia” and so it is really important to see my comments here in this context. I don’t hear any sibilance and the overall tone is even. It is still quite bright and dances a little too much around my treble sensitivity. That can be a word of caution to others who are sensitive to treble, or indeed an invitation to treble heads who are looking for this upper-mids/lower-treble emphasis. I don’t think this is an exceptionally natural treble, but do think this is quite a unique tuning in this price range, as most others I have heard had the more popular V-shape with lots of bass.
(Just as a way of testing my impressions of the lower treble lift, I spent some time using the Cowon Plenue 2’s excellent EQ and ended up lowering the 5.1 kHz and 6.2 kHz bands by 4 dB. This indeed made the ME100 a lot smoother and less fatiguing for me, although this of course did come at a cost of some of the clarity.)
Speaking of others within this price range. While I don’t have many of those lying around, I do still have the Final E4000. When it comes to my personal preferences, the E4000 do really well. They are much more in line with the warm, V-shape I was talking about and have that warm, resonant bass. Bass impact is about the same as the ME100, but it is looser and more natural, where the ME100’s bass is tighter and much more controlled. As a consequence of the bass tuning, the mid-range of the E4000 is much warmer giving more body to mid range instruments. Vocals do not necessarily feel stronger, but those too are warmer and male vocals sound more natural. The ME100 have more clarity and sound more detailed by comparison. The treble of the E4000 is a lot easier for me to live with, has a bit more sweetness to it and feels more extended.
Overall (it will come as no surprise) I much prefer the sound of the E4000, which I consider to be incredibly good value and a real winner for this price range. The ME100 on the other hand offer a sound signature that I have not come across in this price range very often and that in itself can make them a very interesting proposition for people looking to step away from the more “popular” tuning of the E4000 in favor of a much more clear and clean sound.
I think that with the ME100, Shanling have come up with high quality IEMs that set themselves apart within a very competitive segment with a tuning aimed towards clarity and detail. It is a clean and balanced sound with a brighter feel to it, which might well be just what some people are looking for. It can also be a bit too bright for others and a fatiguing after long listening sessions. For the right people I think that with the build quality, ergonomics, included accessories and balanced quality of the signature the ME100 present a very good value proposition that is certainly worth a closer look.