Real Gear Reviews for the Worship Minded
I feel like we need to get something out of the way first. There is nothing “sexy” about this piece of gear. I notice that people write about music gear with fervor and excitement (myself included) when they are reviewing a new guitar or overdrive pedal because new gear like that has sex appeal – it looks super attractive with its colors, lines, and exciting appointments, and new tech that allows musicians to create new and exciting tones and layers in their music is…exciting.
All that being said, any musician that is crazy about tone knows the importance of good compressors and limiters in his/her effect chain. I know that on my guitar pedal board I have a solid compressor (JHS Pulp and Peel) that I have set to what’s referred to a “transparent” setting. “Transparent” compression means it’s not producing any sort of noticeable tone or sound, but rather that it’s helping me make sure that my attack and tone are more normalized so that my overall guitar sound is more professional and predictable, without any strange volume jumps.
The Ultimate Ears Pro Sound Guard is built on a similar concept – you’re not supposed to realize it’s there until you need it to be there. The idea behind the UE Pro Sound Guard is to put a limiter between your in-ear pack and your in-ear headphones to help protect your hearing against accidental sound spikes. And, whereas safety may not be a “sexy” topic, I’m super passionate about listening to music and making music and I would like to be doing both of those things right up until the day I die and get to meet Jesus face to face. I know that Beethoven was able to produce amazing music with advanced hearing loss, but I’m pretty sure I’m not Beethoven and I would like to do what I can to keep my ears working like they should. In a press release about a year ago on January 21, 2015, Philippe Depallens, the vice president and general manager of UE Pro, said “Responsible listening has always been a major focal point for us at UE Pro, with our custom in-ear monitors and earphones made to help preserve musicians’ hearing, among other things. We believe that musicians’ ears are their most important instrument, and when that instrument is jeopardized, so is their overall craft. We created the UE Pro Sound Guard to further help musicians’ combat loud and accidental audio spikes.” I know that I can’t be alone when I say that it makes me feel good that one of the leading companies making in-ear monitors isn’t just concerned with selling as much product as possible, but is extremely concerned about safe listening levels for musicians. So, maybe safety can be exciting.
The Ultimate Ears Pro website calls the UE Pro Sound Guard an “essential accessory” and states that the purpose of the UE Pro Sound Guard is to “enhance sound quality, dynamic range and reduce accidental audio spikes”. The UE Pro Sound Guard only works with balanced armature in-ear monitors and operates on a pair of CR2450 batteries. The battery life is rated ~20 hours, but I have definitely used mine for more that that and haven’t had to change them yet. According to the “tech specs”, the frequency response is 20 Hz – 20 kHz and it has “unity gain” which means that there is not a separate volume control on the device. These diagrams are directly from the UE website:
I received my UE Pro Sound Guard in August of 2015, so I’ve had plenty of time to use it in a live context and develop some opinions. I lead worship and play guitar for the worship team at my church and I play most every Sunday. I also play guitar in a local band and sit in on other music projects from time to time. For my own personal monitoring needs, I use Ultimate Ears UE7s (you can read my review of those here) through a relatively inexpensive Shure PSM200 wireless system. Since I’ve received the UE Pro Sound Guard, I’ve literally used it every week and I’m not planning to stop using it any time soon.
It’s a simple, small, black plastic box with an 1/8” cord, an on/off switch, and a belt clip. It is extremely lightweight and I remember thinking to myself that I hope it didn’t break with extended stage use. I also wasn’t super excited about having one more box to wear when performing live. The concept is so simple that there are no directions necessary – you simply plug your in-ears directly into the UE Pro Sound Guard and then plug the UE Pro Sound Guard directly into your in-ear monitor pack. The first time I used it on stage I was pleased with how easy it was to incorporate into my current gear and that it was so lightweight and small that I could still fit it on my back pocket where I keep my in-ear monitor pack.
It is easy to use and I don’t notice it when I’m playing live – exactly what I want with a piece of gear like this.
Does it do what it’s supposed to do?
The simple answer to that question is yes. I ran my own “mad scientist tests” at home where I had it running between my computer and my UE7s and tried to record the volume differences on a decibel meter app on my iPhone when I applied a variety of sonic scenarios. Whereas that data is interesting (and I’ll get to it in a bit), the most important data that I have to offer is real life experience.
Real Life Experience:
Since I have been using the UE Pro Sound Guard, I have had 2 incidents that I specifically recall on stage where this little box saved me from real auditory pain. If you have been performing live for any amount of time, you know that stage feedback, dropped microphones, and other volume spikes are a predictable/unpredictable evil: predictable because you know that they will happen from time to time and unpredictable because you never know when they will strike. The scary thing about using in-ear monitors is that if you have both of them in your ears when feedback through the PA system happens, you have an isolated blast of scary frequencies shooting directly into your ear canal and you can’t even cover your ears to stop it.
The first incident that I have to offer up is a feedback situation just like that. We were setting up gear on stage and out of nowhere there was a blast of feedback through the PA that lasted for about 3 seconds before the soundman could turn it off. I remember seeing my fellow musicians put their hands to their ears to protect themselves, and I remember hardly hearing it at all because I had my in-ears in already and the UE Pro Sound Guard Pro actually did what is was supposed to do – I knew feedback was happening and could hear it a little, but the UE Pro Sound Guard instantly leveled the volume on it and protected my ears.
The second incident where I got to see the UE Pro Sound Guard in action was a microphone drop. One of the vocalists accidentally dropped her mic and the thud was extremely loud through the PA system, but (again) I hardly heard anything. The UE Pro Sound Guard effectively leveled that loud thump as well.
As far as I’m concerned, the fact that I have been able to actually witness the UE Pro Sound Guard work in a real context should be enough data to convince the average musician that it’s worth the price tag, but I offer up the following “lab results” to appeal to those of us with an “audiophile geek” side we might try to keep hidden from normal citizens. I have to put “lab results” in quotes, because I need to be honest about the limitations of my own gear that I have to run tests like these. I attempted to measure the decibel level through an app on my iPhone (I used the Decibel 10th free app from SkyPaw Co. Ltd – you can see a screen shot to the right) and held my UE7s directly up to the microphone on my phone. I know that my “tests” are far from perfect, but they did help me see that the UE Pro Sound Guard does (again) seem to do what it’s supposed to do.
“Lab Test 1” involved plugging my UE7 in-ears directly into my iMac and listening to a song on Spotify. I used the same song for all of my tests involving my computer – “It’s a Shame About Ray” by The Lemonheads – one of my favs that I hadn’t heard in a long time. I first tried to set the volume to what was comfortable for me and then took measurements of the decibel readings on my iPhone by holding each in-ear monitor directly up to the iPhone’s microphone – it looked like I was shooting about 90 decibels (with peaks around 93) into my ear canal. [On a side note, I was instantly shocked with how high that was. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal published March of 2015, the World Health Organization advises not to exceed 85 decibels (roughly equivalent to the beep of a microwave!) if you’re listening for longer than an hour through headphones – definitely worth a read.] When I ran the UE Pro Sound Guard in-between my headphones and the computer, the decibel readings were slightly less at about 86 decibels with peaks around 93. To my ears, I didn’t notice a difference – my UE7s sounded great and I was getting an exciting separation of lows, mids, and highs with and without the UE Pro Sound Guard.
“Lab Test 2” involved the exact set up as “Lab Test 1”, but I tried to create my own volume spikes by quickly raising the volume level on my iMac from about ¼ of the way up to full volume. Without the UE Pro Sound Guard, I recorded decibel peaks as high as 102, whereas with the UE Pro Sound Guard in the mix I couldn’t get a peak to register over 98. 4 decibels doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but keep in mind that we’re talking about a normal music mix volume spike and not the sort of crazy high frequency squeal volume spike that could happen with microphone feedback.
For “Lab Test 3” I ran the iMac’s headphone out to my Shure PSM200 monitor unit and then used my UE7s with the PSM200’s body pack receiver. I tried to find a sample of real microphone feedback online that I could use to create my own feedback volume spikes and ended up settling on a 19 second YouTube sound effect clip. I don’t think I was able to produce anything close to real life feedback spikes in this “Lab Test”, but in the spirit of full-disclosure I will give you the data anyhow – without the UE Pro Sound Guard I recorded decibel peaks as high as 103 and with the UE Pro Sound Guard the decibel peaks didn’t hit over 100. The reason I don’t think this was an adequate model of what happens in a true stage context is that I strongly believe that real feedback hits decibel ranges far beyond 103 when a megawatt PA system is involved.
For “Lab Test 4”, my final “Lab Test”, I used my small PA system I have an home and ran my Shure PSM200 unit from the headphone jack. I used a Shure SM57 microphone and set the level I was receiving to my UE7s through the PSM200 body pack to a comfortable speaking/singing level that was registering right around 95 decibels on my iPhone app. I dropped and thumped the microphone with and without the UE Pro Sound Guard Pro in the mix. As with “Lab Test 3”, I wasn’t able to produce any conclusive data one way or the other as the microphone thumps registered around 93 decibels both with and without the UE Pro Sound Guard. Again, I don’t believe I was able to come anywhere near to recreating what happens on a real stage with a big PA system.
So…the “Lab Tests” were fun, but the conclusive evidence for me is in real life experience. As I stated earlier, the UE Pro Sound Guard saved me on 2 specific incidents and I’m convinced that it will continue to save me in the future.
Is it worth $199?
For me personally, the UE Pro Sound Guard is definitely worth $199 because it does what it claims to do – saves my hearing from scary sound spikes that happen on stage. Granted, it’s not an “exciting” $199 to spend, but isn’t preventing hearing loss an exciting idea? I know it is for me.
- "Safety should be a priority!"