October 25, 2014

Ultimate Ears Reference In-Ear Monitors [REVIEW]

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If you’ve attended any concerts (or seen any concert videos) in the past 10 or 15 years, you’ve no doubt noticed that stage performers almost universally sport discrete in-ear listening devices that, under normal circumstances, one might confuse for an old-fashioned hearing aid.

Used in place of the classic wedge monitors sitting on a stage floor, these devices—in-ear monitors, or IEMs for short—are also widely used by concert audio engineers, and are increasingly getting the attention of producers, musicians and engineers outside of the live performance setting. Even some DJs are trying them out.

The indisputable market leader in the IEM segment is Ultimate Ears. Founded in 1995 by a touring audio engineer, it was sold some 13 years later to Logitech—the company famous for its mice, keyboards, and computer audio gear. (UE also makes a line of consumer products, including premium wireless speakers, and a non-custom, high-end earbud called the UE 900s.)

After an introduction at Winter NAMM 2014, I had the opportunity to evaluate a pair of UE’s “In-Ear Reference Monitors.” The company makes a variety of models at a variety of price points, intended to cover varying needs among its customer base, including the UE11 Pro (with enhanced bass, perhaps a good DJ choice), as well as the Cadillac model, the “Personal” Reference Monitors (whose audio profile and response curve can even be custom-tailored).

I chose the model I did because my plan was to use them in the studio in those “your music ‘stuff’ is disturbing the rest of the family” moments. The In-Ear Reference Monitors were developed and tuned in collaboration with Capitol Studios, and provide 26 dB of passive noise isolation, as well as a natural, percieved flat response curve that goes from an impressive 5 Hz floor all the way to 22 kHz. Each one sports three independent balanced armature transducers and two separate physical audio pathways to the ear canal. The design provides startlingly authentic reproduction.

Ordering & Manufacturing: Across the line, the UE IEMs are custom-made to order, and the process begins with a visit to an audiologist to have your ear canal and outer ear molded, in much the same process as the one used for custom hearing aids.

UE’s web site has an audiologist finder tool; while it’s what I used to find the audiologist I used, I did find that the data was a bit dated in some cases. (Editor’s Note: Ultimate Ears tells us that the list is being been updated.) If you decide to go for a pair, I’d also call around a bit, as pricing varied—a lot. In the end, I selected an audiologist who’s taken impressions many dozens of times for UE IEM customers. The cost was $75 for the mold pair.

The process was a bit… weird. It begins with the placement of foam “stops” deep in the ear canal, with strings attached to allow easy removal. The molding material is then injected into the ear canal, and squirted and pressed into the outer ear area. You’re then instructed to open your mouth slightly while the material cures—a process that takes several minutes. The audiologist then works the finished mold out of your ear. Mine looked like mangled pink worms. (Is that really what my ear canal looks like?)

With the molds taken and mailed off to UE, I completed the rest of the ordering process. It’s high-touch, indeed… Customizations vary depending on the specific IEM model you choose, but many can be customized in colors, or with graphic overlays. You can choose your preferred cord length, and you get to customize the imprint on your metal carrying case, among other options.

My order took only a couple of weeks, and was replete with timed e-mail messages from UE that went into detail about the product, and how to wear it. And that bit does take some practice—and some getting used to. The IEMs are a hard plastic, and the only way I can describe it is that they screw into your ear canal. UE’s support material explains it, but they essentially start in one position relative to your ear, and rotate about 90-degrees into place. The feeling with them in is hard to describe; my ears simply feel “full.” But after a short period of putting them in, taking them out, and using them, you rapidly get used to the process. And some of the initial discomfort I experienced largely wore-off.

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Performance: My assessment of my UE IEMs can only be subjective (an audio engineer with a laboratory full of gear I’m not). So let me make this succinct: They sound freakin’ amazing. The overall clarity is unlike any headphone or earbud I’ve experienced in the past, with a purity and crispness of sound that is simply startling.

Since receiving my IEMs, I’ve used them in the studio, and nearly every day for just casual listening with my iPhone. I’ve also tried DJing with them.

Given the price point, I can’t imagine anyone buying IEMs for casual listening, but they excel at this use-case scenario. Frankly, my digital music collection has never sounded so good. This is a dual-edged sword; suddenly, poor-quality MP3 files stand out rather like a sore thumb—as do poorly mastered tracks (which in these days of growing DIY production come up way more often than they should). But when you match a well-mastered track with the UE IEMs, the quality simply sparkles.

For studio use, as expected, they were superb. Speaking of poorly-mastered tracks, I pulled-up one of my old projects that made it out of the studio in somewhat rough shape, due largely to the lack of a tuned monitoring environment for my conventional desktop studio monitors. I suddenly found it easy to isolate and fix the problems I simply couldn’t hear before.

This is, frankly, where I think UE’s IEMs justify their cost very easily—it’s simply very, very difficult for the average producer or musician, working in a home studio, to properly tune their listening environment to attain accurate, flat sound. That issue is rendered moot by using IEMs (provided they are flat and even across the spectrum, as UE’s In-Ear Reference Monitors are designed to be).

The only potential issue I found is dealing with the low-end. What’s easy to forget is that so much of the low-end of the spectrum is, at the end of the day, felt more than heard. While these IEMs are rated down to just 5 Hz, what you’ll actually hear depends on your aural acuity. (How much has loud music affected your hearing over the years?) Without an ability to physically feel the very low-end, I can foresee it being necessary to check a mastering project in conventional environments when you’re done with an initial pass through the IEMs. (Of course, listening to a mix in a variety of environments is always good practice.)

Speaking of low-end, this is where I suspect that IEMs may struggle to get the attention of DJs, depending on the environment. In the club environment, there’s occasionally slight audio latency through the house audio system, but moreover, the pronounced physical thump of the house audio can skew perceptions during a mix. Typical DJ headphones accentuate the low-end, helping overcome some of that when trying to match beats. That could be an issue with IEMs, I suspect. While I used them for a DJ workflow, it was in the studio—not in the club—so while they were awesome, I’m not sure my results would necessarily translate to most working club DJs. Mixing approach and style can have an influence here, too, as can the fact that big, visible headphones with over-the-ear cans are simply part of the DJ ethos that would go missing with IEMs.

Conclusions: At $1,000 a pair (not including ear molds), the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors represent a serious investment for most of us. For my money, however, it’s an investment worth making—especially for home studio producers, remixers and musicians who may not have ideal environments for desktop monitors, or who may have family members to keep happy by keeping the sound to themselves. Add in the superb sound reproduction, and utility for casual day-to-day music listening? I find myself considering a second set—this one for the studio, and the other to carry around pretty much everywhere else.

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