Mackie enter the in-ear-monitor market with three models offering top-notch performance, comfort and durability at Mackie value-for-money pricing.
Mackie’s entry into the in-ear monitor market comprises three models, offering different driver configurations with a common housing and cabling design. Although there is an obvious hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated driver configurations in the range, and in the pricing, all three models offer high-quality sonic performance and might best be selected on the basis of their intended application rather than just ‘more expensive’ necessarily equals ‘better’.
I’ve worked with in-ear monitors for more than 20 years now — long enough to have rendered two sets of custom moulds obsolete through the changing shape of my ears as I’ve aged. From my earliest set with a single dynamic driver up to the most sophisticated of multiple balanced-armature driver sets, if I’ve learned one thing about in-ear monitors it is that a proper fit is everything: if your in-ears don’t achieve an air-seal when you put them in then you are not hearing them as the designer intended, and if they don’t stay put as you move around, you can have no hope of them being effective as a stage monitoring solution.
Latterly I’ve been using ‘generic’ (non-custom-moulded) models a lot more, and have been pleased and surprised to discover that, with the correct tips fitted, a well-designed generic can actually be almost as effective as a custom-fit unit. Mackie’s MP Series models ship with three different types of ear tips — memory foam and silicone bulb-types, and a double-flange design — with small, medium, and large sizes of each included, so it should be possible to find your particular perfect fit whatever the size and shape of your ears.
The low-profile moulded enclosure common to all models sits flush with your outer ear when properly inserted, and the cable swivels at the exit point, allowing it to be neatly dressed away over and behind your ears. The cables are also detachable, connecting via MMCX (micro-miniature coaxial) connectors with a snap-lock action that allows them to rotate. As most users will only ever want the cable to loop backwards over the ear, swivelling at the exit point is not especially useful, but being able to replace the cable, rather than your whole in-ear system, should it get damaged is a valuable asset indeed. I’ve never managed to trash an earpiece, but rendered plenty of IEM sets unserviceable through damage to a fixed cable.
IEM drivers come in two main types: dynamic, which is essentially a miniature loudspeaker, with a magnetic field around a coil attached to a moving diaphragm; and balanced armature, a technology invented for miniature hearing aids, using a static coil with a reed component driving a stiff aluminium diaphragm. The ease with which the lightweight diaphragm can be moved rapidly, compared to a dynamic driver, allows balanced armatures to excel at high-frequency reproduction. They don’t displace a significant volume of air however, making them supposedly less well-suited to reproducing bass with a sense of ‘punch’ or ‘weight’. Balanced armatures can be accurately tuned to reproduce just a specific frequency range, allowing them to be used in multiples and in combination with dynamic drivers.
The MP-120 — the most affordable unit in the range — uses a single dynamic driver. Just as in loudspeaker design, using a single transducer to try to cover the whole of the audible frequency range can require a compromise at one end or other of the spectrum, and in single-driver IEMs, it is often the bass end that misses out. I hear no such compromise in the MP-120s — the bass is full, punchy and just as extended as in the more sophisticated models. The top-end is not quite as revealing and open as either of the dual-driver models, but you only become aware of that when you directly compare them to another model (or as directly as you can when the process involves taking an IEM out and putting another one in!). Surprisingly, the MP-120 became one of my favourites of the three sets, both for guitar recording and listening for pleasure over a sustained period such as on a long journey. There is something very musically coherent about a single driver with no crossover or driver-integration issues.
The 32Ω nominal impedance presents an easy-to-drive load for a battery-powered device like an IEM belt-pack, iPod or phone. The 102dB/mW sensitivity certainly allows all the devices I tested to go louder than I would ever want them. All three units have a nominal 20Hz to 20kHz frequency range, but that doesn’t really mean a whole lot in this context. What matters here is that music sounds like it is supposed to: full, warm, punchy and, above all, well balanced.
In the MP-220 you get another transducer — a second dynamic driver dedicated to higher frequencies. Sensitivity seems about the same as the 120s, with a 16Ω impedance, but the most notable difference seems to be a more prominent upper mid-range, and I soon found I didn’t want to listen quite as loud with this set. They can get a little hard-sounding with distorted guitars and snare drums, but on the other hand I found the extra upper mid-range detail helpful when working on predominantly acoustic material. They also seem to push vocals to the front and might well be the best set for singers who like their voice to effortlessly cut through anything else that they have in their IEM mix.
The MP-240s swap out the second dynamic driver for a balanced-armature HF driver. Unsurprisingly, the top end is ‘sweeter’ in these: smoother and more extended, combining with the punchy bass to give a more ‘hi-fi’ listening experience. If you want in-ears that sound like a nice pair of high-quality headphones, these will do the job. There’s still plenty of volume on tap with the limited voltage of battery-powered devices (108dB/mW at 32Ω nominal impedance), and you can comfortably use it all too, with no part of the spectrum leaping out at you and making you want to trim back the volume a bit. Any half-decent in-ear mix should give you a comfortable ride for the whole gig with these.
The enclosures are not vented so attenuation of outside noise is good, and certainly enough to allow you to set an IEM level you are comfortable performing with, rather than having to wind it up to get over drums and backline spill. To me, that’s when IEMs make sense and have a real purpose: your mix is truly the one you want, not the one you have to have to compensate for something else. I have never understood the concept of using non-isolating earbuds or a single IEM for live performance. Unless you have a very quiet stage, that’s surely the worst of both worlds, often leading to a screamingly loud IEM level trying to fight its way above the local sources.
In summary, I think each of these sets has a useful set of characteristics: I wouldn’t be surprised to see bass players and drummers preferring the 120s, although as an electric guitar player, I too preferred them for both stage and studio. Vocalists and acoustic musicians I could see preferring the 220s, whilst the 240s could be used in just about any application — I found them curiously and very usefully revealing of small mix details that I hadn’t previously heard on any other monitoring system. All models seem good value for money and come with useful ‘extras’: plenty of ear tips, quarter-inch adaptor, nice hard-shell carrying case. With the right tips, I found them comfortable to wear for long periods, with no tendency at all to feel like they were going to work their way out over time.
Reviewing IEMs is an odd activity — no-one else can quite share your exact experience of them, but I think my priorities in choosing a set are broadly in line with everyone else’s, namely: fit, comfort, durability and sound quality. The three models of Mackie’s MP Series all score well on all of the above and I have no hesitation in recommending any of them to those just starting out in the IEM world or anyone looking to upgrade from their current set.
Dozens of companies make IEMs now, but I personally have had good experiences with dynamic-driver models from AKG, Shure, Audio-Technica and Fender, as well as hybrid and balanced-armature models from Shure, Audio-Technica, Ultimate Ears and my ‘old reliables’ for many years from ACS.