Ultimate Ears owns the lion’s share of the custom-fit in-ear monitor marketplace, a position the firm has earned partly through the quality of its products and partly through its long experience in the field (they built their first in-ear monitors back in 1995 for the band Van Halen). It would be fair to say that the majority of UE’s custom-fit in-ear monitors are designed for and sold to working musicians who are looking for a superior way to monitor their own live onstage performances. One notable exception to this pattern, however, would be UE’s distinctive In-Ear Reference Monitor (IERM), reviewed in Playback 42, a product developed specifically for studio monitoring and mastering applications where optimally neutral response curves and uncolored sound are the order of the day. In contrast, UE acknowledges that its more stage-oriented models do introduce a judicious amount of response curve shaping calculated to produce a potentially more enjoyable and euphonic—though perhaps technically less accurate—sound that the IERM provides.
Having heard and come to appreciate the sound of the IERMs, which is about neutrally balanced as any in-ear monitor I’ve heard to date, I was curious to know how UE’s top stage model would differ. Would it sound unduly colored, or perhaps tastefully reshaped in a manner complimentary to most music, or would it perhaps give results falling somewhere in between? Inquiring minds (and ears) wanted answers, and so I was delighted when I got a call from UE’s public relations firm asking if I might be interested in reviewing the firm’s flagship stage monitor—the UE 18 Pro ($1350). I quickly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and—with help from the UE team—shortly got a new set of ear mold impressions taken and a pair of UE 18 Pros on order (my pair were built up in a dynamite shade of translucent orange acrylic, though UE offers tons of color options to please all tastes). Within a few weeks my new UE 18 Pros arrived and I’ve been listening to them carefully ever since. This review presents my findings.
Before you begin the review, let me offer one suggestion: go back and ready my review of the Ultimate Ears IERM (see link above), since this review will provide some careful comparisons between the UE 18 Pro and the IERM.
On the surface of things, the UE 18 Pro is undeniably a more complicated design than the IERM. Specifically, the UE 18 Pro is a three-way, six-driver monitor, where all six drivers are highly tunable, precision balanced armature-type drivers. In contrast, the IERM is a much simpler design: a three-way, three-driver in-ear monitor, also featuring balanced armature-type drivers.
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you want a very high-quality monitor that, while not as accurate as Ultimate Ear’s own IERM in a strict textbook sense, features subtle (and that’s the operative word here) response curve shaping that complements many types music and that makes the monitors particularly effective in moderately noisy environments. The UE 18 Pro offers a full-bodied presentation overall, with a terrific amount of dynamic headroom (it can effortlessly play louder than you’ll ever need it to do).
Look further if: you require the most detailed sounding in-ear monitors available (where several models including the Westone ES5s, the JH Audio JH16 Pros, and UE’s own IERMs offer very stiff competition). Similarly, look further if you require the highest degree of noise-isolation possible, where Sensaphonics’ 2MAX monitor is the undisputed class leader.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
•Tonal Balance: 8.5
•Clarity: 9.5 (“in the hunt” with the best available)
•Comfort/Fit: 9.5 (UE’s expertise in molding custom-fit earpieces really shows, and the UE 18 Pro earpieces, much like the IERM earpieces, do a great job in terms of noise isolation and achieving long-term comfort)
•Custom-fit, earpieces feature outer shells molded from solid acrylic. Note: as with the Ultimate Ears IERMs, the fit of the UE 18 Pros is significantly better than the norm in a field where the bar has already been set pretty high. I found it hard to put my finger on any one aspect of the UE earpieces that made them superior, so perhaps it’s a matter of getting a number of small variables right at the same time. But whatever the reason, I’ve come to trust that UE will do a consistently superior job of converting ear mold impressions into finished earpieces.
•Earpieces can be molded in any of 31 translucent colors or 37 solid colors—something for everyone.
•“Rugged, low-profile, low-distortion” signal cable fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack.
•Passive three-way crossover.
•Six high-quality miniature balanced-armature type drivers.
•Claimed frequency response is 20Hz – 18kHz, a somewhat narrower response range than the 5Hz – 20kHz response range claimed for the IERM (5Hz – 20kHz).
•Impedance is rated at 21 Ohms, the same as the rating for the IERM.
•Efficiency is rated at 115.6 dB vs. 112 dB for the IERM—a noticeable difference that tends to make the UE 18 Pro sound more dynamically expressive.
•Comes packed in a hard shell road case whose interior provides a well-padded chamber for the monitors with an adjoining space for the signal cable and accessories. As a very cool detail touch, the owner’s name is engraved on the outside of the road case.
•As with the IERM, UE has gone all-out in the packaging for the UE 18 Pros, which arrive in a beautiful black presentation case beneath whose flip-open lid you’ll find the user’s manual, plus a padded chamber that protects the road case and in-ear monitors within.
•Accessories include a cleaning tool (for removing ear wax, etc. from the monitor’s bore tubes).
The UE 18 Pro delivers voicing characteristics that are undeniably different from those offered by the IERM, whose tonal balance—as I noted in my earlier review—“comes very, very close to the ideal of sonic neutrality.” You might infer from this statement that the UE 18 Pro is more tonally colored than the IERM and therefore less desirable for purposes of listening to recorded music, but in practice this isn’t the case at all. Here’s why.
The IERM is geared for recording studio monitoring applications, and for this reason it that takes a pretty rigorous “what-you-hear-is-what-you-get” approach to music reproduction. If records are beautifully and vibrantly mastered then that’s how the IERM will sound, but if recordings are mastered so that they are a bit flat, lifeless and dull, then that, too, will be how the IERM will sound. In short, the IERM gives you exactly what’s on the record, whether for better or worse. The UE 18 Pro, however, takes a somewhat different tack.
Those of you old enough to remember what color photography was like back before the advent of digital cameras may recall that certain film stocks were known for their incredibly accurate colors while others deliberately delivered colors that were ever so slightly oversaturated and thus a touch more vivid and intense than those found in real life. I would liken the UE 18 Pro to those latter types of color films in that it provides, by design, tonal colors that are just slightly more vividly and intensely painted than the real thing. The key, here, is that the UE 18 Pro’s deviations from neutrality are quite subtle—never garish—so that when you hear music through it you tend to think, “Wow, these babies sound really vibrant and engaging” (as opposed to thinking, “Blecch, these things are hopeless colored and inaccurate.”). It’s as if UE has gently turned up an imaginary “intensity control” on your listening experience, yet without making instruments or voices sound unnatural.
Exactly how does UE pull this off? I would say the sonic recipe calls for two ingredients, both of which are applied with a light hand. The first is an added touch of mid-bass warmth or emphasis, which tends to give many kinds of music a more solid mid-bass foundation and a slightly warmer cast than they might normally have, yet without making naturally bass-heavy types of music sound insanely overdone. The second ingredient is an also delicate touch of upper midrange/lower treble emphasis, which tends to make many types of music sound more expressive and bit more detailed, yet without becoming overly bright or aggressive. Indeed, the upper treble response of the UE 18 Pro, if anything, a tiny bit recessed (more so than the IERM, at any rate), which keeps the top end of the music from ever sound unduly “glassy” or “hot.”
In direct comparison to the delightfully neutral IERM, you can easily identify the characteristics I’ve mentioned above, but you’ll also notice how subtly and deftly they’ve been dialed-in. Heard side-by-side, the UE 18 Pro tends to sound at once a bit darker and warmer in the bottom end, with upper mids and lower treble that is a bit—but only a bit—more forward in the mix. Another way of phrasing this is that the UE 18 Pro offers a very subtle variant on the theme of what some of my musician buddies call a “smiley face” EQ curve—meaning that if you looked at a graph of the UE 18 Pro’s frequency response it would probably look a bit like a gentle smile, with slightly prominent mid-bass at one end of the graph and gently upturned upper mids and lower highs at the other.
Interestingly, this means the middle of the midrange on the UE 18 Pro can, on some records, sound just slightly withdrawn. This is actually an illusion, though, caused by the touches of response lift found immediately above and below the center point of the midrange. In contrast, the IERM sounds smoother and more neutrally balanced across the audio spectrum, with subtly more extended and silvery highs. At the end of the day, this means that accuracy mavens will, I think, instinctively lean toward the IERM (which is also a bit less expensive than the UE 18 Pro), while those who seek a “total immersion” listening experience (even at the expense of some degree of accuracy) might gravitate toward the UE 18 Pro. To each his or her own.
Interestingly, the added points of frequency emphasis in the UE 18 Pro can, in moderately noisy environments, help the UE 18 Pros sound more accurate, because their output rises above the noise floor in a very convincing way. This characteristic, I suspect, is exactly what Ultimate Ears had in mind for its premier stage monitor.
To experience the charms of the UE 18 Pro in action, try listening to “Mood Indigo” from the Joe Wilder/Marshall Royal Quintet’s Mostly Ellington [BluePort Jazz]. Early on you’ll hear the song’s familiar theme unfold at a stately pace, carried forward initially by Wilder’s trumpet and Royal’s alto sax, reinforced by Bob Magnusson’s acoustic bass down below. The UE 18 Pro’s touch of added bass warmth gives Magnusson’s bass a slightly darker, warmer, and weightier sound than it might normally have. Similarly, the UE 18 Pro’s subtle upper midrange/lower treble lift makes both the trumpet and sax sound a little more prominent and focused within the mix. The net effect is one of heightened vividness that bring the two horn forward in the mix, yet that does not undercut or undermine the apparent authenticity of their sound. On the contrary, the voicing of the UE 18 Pro invites the listener to follow the unfolding solo lines more closely and to savor the musical statements being made.
If you listen to the same track through the IERMs, the bass pulls back into more natural (albeit slightly less engaging) proportion and the upper mids are likewise throttled back a bit, with the subjective effect of making lower mids seem pore prominent. Because the IERM is a little more extended up high, you’ll hear more of high-frequency overtones and of the air surrounding instruments than through the UE 18 Pros, though the UE 18 Pros give more emphasis to lower treble details (such as the initial “ping” of cymbals being struck). There’s no doubt in my mind that the IERM is the more accurate monitor, per se, but that doesn’t mean you might not prefer the UE 18 Pro anyway. Indeed, I imagine some listeners would argue that, while the IERM does a better job of conveying the precise sound of what’s on the record, while the UE 18 Pro may—under some circumstances, at any rate—do a better job of conveying the “feel” of the original musical event.
To get a handle on what I mean by that last comment, try listening to “If” from Joni Mitchell’s Shine [Hear Music]. Mitchell is a master of contrasts, and what caught my ear is the way Mitchell’s soaring voice delivers the song’s lyrics (based upon a poem by Rudyard Kipling and bearing more than a little resemblance to certain passages from the biblical book of Proverbs) as set against a dark, richly textured, and gently grooving jazz ensemble background. What the UE 18 Pros do is to shine just a bit more light on Mitchell’s vocals, while at the same time subtly reinforcing the rich, sumptuous sound of the back band (especially adding weight to the anchoring sound of the bass). As a result, the lines of contrast drawn by the production of the song become just a little more vividly and sharply drawn—a sonically intoxicating effect. On the other hand, you might feel, as I tend to do, that the pure “as recorded” sound of this track stands on its own quite beautifully and requires no enhancement or embellishment at all.
How you judge the UE 18 Pro’s sound, then, may come down to this: If you listen to recordings and find yourself yearning for a certain, elusive “something more” in the sonic domain, there’s a good chance that the 18 Pro will provide it for you. If, on the other hand, you tend to prefer the pure, natural, unenhanced sound of the recordings you listen to, then the IERM is likely a better choice for you.
Ultimate Ears’ UE 18 Pro monitor makes a fascinating alternative to the firm’s superb In-Ear Reference Monitor. The latter model is one of the most sonically honest in-ear monitors we have heard, while the UE 18 Pro takes certain subtle and judicious liberties with the sound in an effort to give you a more vivid and intense presentation of the music. The IERM gives you the true sound of the original recording in a faithful way, while the UE 18 Pro—as we mentioned above—may, at least to the ears of some listeners, do a better job of capturing the “feel” of the original musical performance.
SPECS & PRICING
Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro Monitor
Type: Three-way, 6-driver (balanced armature), custom-fit in-ear monitors
Accessories: Hard shell road case (custom labeled with a padded interior), cleaning tool.
Frequency response: 20Hz – 18 kHz
Weight: Not specified.
Efficiency : 115.6 dB @ 1mW and 1kHz *
* UE quotes “Sensitivity” and “Efficiency” specifications separately, but we think their efficiency specs are conceptually similar to what most other manufacturers term “Sensitivity”.
Impedance: 21 Ohms
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor.
(800) 589-6531 English
(800) 963-3479 Spanish