- by George Petersen
in Road Tests
Ultimate Ears has long been a major player in the in-ear market, having produced more than 100,000 high-end earpieces in the past 22 years. The company was founded by Jerry Harvey in 1995. Harvey left to go off on his own in 2007, and a year later, Ultimate Ears was acquired by Logitech, where UE remains an independent subsidiary to this day, creating handcrafted earpieces in its USA facilities.
Over the years, Ultimate Ears continues to push the envelope in terms of hearing technologies and fidelity in ultra-miniature designs in a wide range of models. Earpieces intended for the studio, stage and audiophile market are priced from $399 to $1,500, with additional customizable options offered on certain models to suit individual tastes.
I was interested in checking out Ultimate Ears’ second-generation flagship custom UE 18+ Pro in-ear monitor, which builds and improves on its predecessor, the UE 18, which has been on the market for some seven years. A lot of advancements have been made in the in-ear realm since that that time, and the new UE 18+ Pro takes advantage of that.
Among these are Ultimate Ears’ True Tone drivers, which use six proprietary balanced armatures divided into four frequency bands, with two True Tone drivers dedicated to the high frequency band. Other features include a midrange band pass filter, staggered high-pass filters and a four-way mixed crossover designed to separate the electrical load on each individual balanced armature.
One interesting aspect of the UE 18+ Pro earpieces is the use of patented triple-bore sound channels (see Fig. 1) that are intended to physically keep the lows, mids and highs separate until they interact with your eardrum. The net effect of the triple-bore sound channels is to provide additional detail, separation and coherence, while the drivers extend the upper response by 3 kHz, with an adjusted midrange gain that improves presence, for a clear, warm sound.
The UE 18+ Pro earpieces are available through Ultimate Ears Pro and authorized dealers, for a retail price of $1,500 and up. Numerous faceplate color options (black, clear and 20 colors) and custom faceplate designs are offered. The stock cable is black, 48 inches long and terminates in a standard right-angle, 1/8-inch TRS connector.
The wires attached to the earpiece are extremely thin and feel somewhat fragile. Again, this is probably not an issue for the casual home user, but items on tour can be subjected to some pretty rough treatment, and a spare cable would be a wise investment to anyone taking these on the road.
As the cables are interchangeable and replaceable, optional silver colored cables and 64-inch lengths are available via the Ultimate Ears Pro website. The 48-inch cable is fine for IEM use from a beltpack or general listening; however, anyone using a hardwired connection — say to a mixing console, where the user may be moving around — would be a preferred choice. No 1/4-inch adapter is included. You probably could score one of these fairly easily, yet in a $1,500 package, I would expect one to be included, perhaps along with a spare cable.
However, what is included with the package is the UE 18+ Pro IEMs with a 48-inch (black) cable, a cleaning tool to handle the unglamorous task of keeping dirt and earwax out of the earpieces and a lovely presentation box containing a 3.25-inch diameter anodized, personalized, CNC-machined, aluminum round case. The case is rugged enough to protect the UE 18+ Pro’s for the harshest environment, yet it’s a smooth, round unit with a two-piece (body and lid) design, which is not ideal when using the IEMs on the road, where “round” and “two-piece” could equate to rolling off the stage or under a row of chairs. Again, Ultimate Ears Pro offers two optional, alternative cases that are more suited for the road.
The Ultimate, Ultimate Ears Pro Test
The UE 18+ Pro’s are packed with functions, features and available accessories/options but ultimately, it all comes down to the listening test. Unlike many of the “musician” style in-ears, which may be intended with a bass bump that appeals to drummers and bassists or a huge mid boost that vocalists and guitarists would like, the UE 18+ Pro’s have a wide, overall frequency response. Stated as 5 Hz to 22 kHz, it’s very linear and quite flat, which is exactly what I need, in terms of my ability to make audio decisions based on the actual program material, rather than something engineered into the response to provide a more flattering “sound.” That said, the upper frequencies are smooth without harshness, yet plenty of detail, the mids are realistically represented and the bottom end is un-hyped.
The UE 18+ Pro’s were comfortable with an accurate fit and the claimed -26 dB of noise isolation seemed right on the money. Transient response — through the spectrum — was excellent. And despite the UE 18+ Pro being a four-way system, I was unable to hear any of the crossover points — possibly a nod to the triple-bore sound channels — but in any event, it works and works well. I like that.
Enter the Digital EarScan
Several years ago, Ultimate Ears unveiled an all-digital production system for the measurement and creation of custom IEM earpieces. Essentially, the non-invasive procedure uses a (thankfully, low-power) laser to scan, measure, and accurately map a person’s ear canals in a matter of minutes. No silicon goop or trip to the audiologist required, although Ultimate Ears can make custom earmolds from a 3D digital ear impression you may have on file with UE, or from traditional (goop-in-ear) impressions mailed to the company or from a digitized version created of your existing physical impressions that can be emailed or uploaded from a dealer or audiologist.
The digital measurement starts with the Digital Earscanner, which uses three ultra-miniature cameras and a laser beam — all built into a 3.2mm probe that’s about the size of a ballpoint pen. In this laser scanning process, the scanner output is transferred to a computer where the collected data is optimized and then sent to a 3-D printer that sculpts in liquid acrylic — rather than being poured into a reverse physical mold — and is built up by a laser that cures the shell a few microns at a time. That manufacturing step takes about 90 minutes, resulting in a precision shell based on the customer’s ear, with added tweaks for comfort added by the techs. The resulting earpieces precisely match your own ears for fit, comfort and an effective seal.
As the scans indicate the exact depth of the tympanic membrane, UE then uses that measurement to tune to balanced armatures to the exact distance to the wearer’s eardrum. This is individually adjusted for each client’s IEM’s.
If needed, additional customized earpieces can easily be cloned from the files, either at the time of the initial order or later.
At a Glance
In-Ear, There and Everywhere
Ultimate Ears’ new flagship UE 18+ Pro custom IEM builds on its predecessor with improved performance and a wide variety of options.
Ultimate Ears Pro UE 18+ Pro
- Wide, flat response
- Convenient digital ear scans
- Many user options to select from
- Case not ideal for road work
- Cable seems delicate
- Somewhat pricey
- Configuration: 4-way with six balanced armatures
- Input Sensitivity: 100 dB @ 1 kHz, 100 mV
- Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 22 kHz
- Noise Isolation: -26 dB
- Impedance: 37.5 Ohms @ 1 kHz
- Price: $1,500 and up, depending on options
- Manufacturer: Ultimate Ears Pro
- More Info: http://pro.ultimateears.com