Ultimate Ears Pro: In-Ear Monitoring Perfected with Sci-Fi Tech

Real Gear Reviews for the Worship Minded

UE7closeup

My custom UE7s! In-ear monitors or hipster fashion accessory? Answer: both.

 

1.   A (Very) Brief Personal History

It would seem that a little background history would be appropriate before I jump into my personal experience with Ultimate Ears Pro in-ear monitors.

I first decided to plunge into the world of in-ear monitors about ten years ago. I have a long history of playing live with standard floor wedges, and I have never really had a whole lot of complaints with them. That is, until I started playing regularly for church worship teams. No matter how small or big the church setting was, the issue was always the same – sound technicians don’t like there to be too much volume on stage competing with their in-house mix, and musicians on stage like to hear everything the way they want (and often that means louder than sound techs can appreciate). I don’t intend this to be a discussion/debate on the subject of in-ear monitors versus traditional stage monitors, so I won’t go any further with this line of discussion other than to say that after one-too-many uncomfortable conversations with frustrated church sound techs, I was ready to save up my money and get some in-ear monitors.

I started with the bottom line Shure PSM 200 system, and I’m still using it to this day. Whereas this system has been just fine, I am still bewildered with how expensive it is when compared to how cheaply it appears to be made; however, it’s lasted me over ten years at this point, and I don’t have any complaints. When I first purchased this system, I attempted to use the one-size-fits-all earphones that came with only to discover that I could never quite get them all the way into my ear. I quickly realized that it looked like I needed to get custom earphones.

After doing some research online, I decided to go with a company called Livewires as (honestly) it looked like the most affordable way to go.

I started the process by finding a local audiologist to take my impressions. This process, if you’re not familiar, involves shooting foam into the ear canal – it’s not too terribly difficult or uncomfortable, but I can see how it would be unsettling to have anyone other than a licensed audiologist do this for you. As it turned out, I wasn’t crazy – the audiologist who did my impressions confirmed that my ear canal was very small. So there you go – I’m not crazy. Someone please tell my mother.

I mailed my impressions in to the company, and for about $250 I got a set of dual driver custom in-ears.

And I was relatively content for quite awhile.

Until I ventured into the Ultimate Ears booth at the NAMM show in January of 2015.

 

2.   My First Impressions of Alien Technology

If you’ve never had the opportunity to go, the NAMM show is a bit of a zoo, but it was clear from the crowd at the Ultimate Ears booth that they had something otherworldly going on.   As it would turn out, Ultimate Ears has recently partnered with United Sciences to do digital impressions. I had the opportunity to speak directly with Philippe Depallens, vice president and general manager of Ultimate Ears Pro, and he kindly walked me through the sci-fi tech they’ve got going on. Mike Huffstatler already did a thorough job of explaining this process, so I’ll just hit the highlights. The bottom line is no more gooey foam! United Sciences has invented a process to do 3D scans of a customer’s ear canal with laser technology. Philippe Depallens explained to me that whereas you need an audiologist to do the foam impressions, anyone off the street could be trained to use this super-safe laser tech in a couple hours. He further stated that it would cut a lot of time off the overall process to get custom in-ears to anyone anywhere in the world as digital impressions can be transferred electronically (via the internet) as opposed to the traditional shipping services.

It took all of about five minutes for them to do digital impressions of my ears, and I got to watch it all on the big screen monitor in front of me. The process couldn’t have been more comfortable or easy. To say that I was super impressed would be an understatement.

After having my digital impressions made, I then wandered over to the counter where they had iPads set up to listen to the different sound characteristics of each of the Ultimate Ear Pro models. What I love about their lineup of products is that they have options that start in the $400 range and go all the way up to $2000 if you want to design your own personally tuned reference monitors. Whoa!

I knew that after using my previous in-ears for so long with dual drivers that I was ready to step up to something with more midrange. After listening to all of the different products, I opted for the UE7s as I was convinced that this would be the wisest choice for my current use on stage, playing guitar and singing. I was almost convinced to go with the UE11s because they were impressive with their dual subwoofers – another gentleman next to me pointed out that it was possible to hear actual distinction between the bass guitar and bass drum in live use and that the UE11s were perfect for drummers as it is very difficult to distinguish between those two signals in actual stage use. As alluring as the UE11s were, I was more impressed with the midrange tones I was hearing in the UE7s and in the end convinced myself that they would be better for my actual live use.

 

3.   In Real Life

When my UE7s finally arrived, I was like a child on Christmas morning. I had been anxiously awaiting their arrival, but I had missed the UPS delivery twice because I hadn’t been home and had been notified that they would make one final attempt to deliver before I would have to go directly to the UPS office to pick them up. When I pulled into my block and saw the UPS truck driving away, I literally followed the truck to its next stop and was able to get my package. I think the driver might have though I was little crazy. But I’m not crazy. I established that earlier in this review if you need to go back and check.

I would be remiss not to mention how incredibly impressive the hands-on support is you get from Ultimate Ears. You might think that dealing with a company of this caliber would be a bit cold, but I was super impressed with how helpful they were with communicating with me while I waited for my custom in-ears to arrive. It can be a little nerve wracking to order custom products online, as you’re never quite sure what you will be getting until you have the physical product in your hand. Ultimate Ears has been putting out a quality product for quite some time now, but it was quickly evident that they still know how to be personally involved with their customers. I didn’t just get automated replies to my questions, but personal emails from real people addressing the specifics of my queries.

Upon opening the package (read: tearing into the box like a ravenous mountain lion), I was immediately in love. Ultimate Ears does a very good job of reminding you when you receive your in-ears that they take pride in making a beautiful product and that they pay attention to the details. I opted for the cherry wood finish, and my custom in-ears looked stunning! They shipped them with their own case (with my name on the front!) and a cleaning tool that snaps to the inside of the case.

I tried them on and was absolutely floored with how comfortable they were. My previous Livewires fit my ears just fine, but my new UE7s slid right and felt like I wasn’t wearing anything. The first thing I noticed after putting them in was that they stuck out a little more from my ear than my Livewires. You might think that you want your in-ears to be as flush with your ear as possible, but I can now say that I don’t think that’s the way to go at all. Why? Because it is SO easy to get these in and out as I have more surface area to grab. It’s not a good idea to pull from the cable and with my previous Livewires, it was a bit of a struggle to get them in and out. Not so with my UE7s, which ends up being perfect for stage use as it’s super easy to take one of them out if I need to have a quick conversation with another musician.

After plugging them into my iPhone and doing a side by side comparison with my Livewires, and my UE7s sounded amazing. My Livewires sounded good, but I was immediately impressed with just how much of a difference there was with the UE7s. Three drivers definitely makes a difference – I could clearly hear the thump of the bass frequencies and the clearness of the highs and mids. Ultimate Ears describes the sound signature of the UE7s as “full of growl, crispness, depth and clarity”, and I couldn’t agree more. I was eager to use these on stage and put them through the actual rigors of live sound.

I have now used my UE7s on stage in a full-band worship setting for about 5 weeks, and I can say confidently…wow! The techs at Ultimate Ears really know what they are doing. I was a bit skeptical of the UE7s at first when Ultimate Ears put in the product description that they were the “perfect choice for guitar players and vocalists”, but I can now say after using them that they are absolutely right. The sound signature of these allows me to get some amazing tones out of my guitar and vocals, and it isn’t difficult at all to tell the sound technician behind the board what I need to hear. The other instruments mix nicely, but I can still hear what I need to hear to play confidently with the other musicians. When I’m playing acoustic guitar and singing, I can get my guitar and voice to stand out from the rest of the mix. When I’m playing lead electric, my guitar tone isn’t washing out into the rest of the instruments – there really is a nice midrange growl that helps distinguish the tones I need to hear.

UE7selfie

I suppose you would call this a “tribute” photo. Don’t worry – I know I’ll never be as cool as Jon Foreman.

 

Another aspect that I love about these is that they are loud! You don’t necessarily want too much volume when you’re isolating sound and pointing it directly into your ear canal (that would be a good way to damage your hearing), but having headroom means that I can be confident that I’ll still be able to hear the articulate details of what I’m doing when the rest of the band is roaring and exploding around me. It also means that music still feels full of energy in a live context and not sterile and tame.

Another user-friendly detail worth pointing out is that they are easy to clean. The actual canal is dual bored so that there are two distinct channels keeping the highs and lows separated, but the primary opening is one big hole. What this means is that it is really simple to get in there with the cleaning tool to make sure that you are getting any gunk out that my ears left behind. Sorry to be so graphic, but keeping your in-ears clean is really important. My older Livewires have two tiny holes that plug easily and are difficult to clean completely.

The bottom line is that I wish I had decided to invest more money a long time ago when I decided to venture in to the world of in-ear monitors. A mistake that I have made frequently in the past is to settle with whatever is cheapest without considering all the other important factors, namely the quality of what I am choosing to use to make music with. Ultimate Ears definitely aren’t the most affordable option out there, but I am thoroughly convinced that the details they have nailed are worth more than the cost difference. It’s easy to see why Ultimate Ears has prevailed as an industry leader for so long, and I won’t be easily convinced to settle for something lesser now that I know what quality in-ear monitors are supposed to sound like. Most importantly, the quality of what I am hearing in my ears directly affects the music that I am making in that moment.

I could not be more impressed than I am with Ultimate Ears Pro. I am looking forward to reviewing the newest addition to their product line in the very near future – the UE Pro Sound Guard.

 

4.   A Summary of this Review in the Form of an Authentic Fan Letter

Dear Ultimate Ears,

I am a fan. Seriously.

Sincerely,  Clark Wilson

  • "I'm a fan. For life."

 

 

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