Ultimate Ears Reference In-Ear Monitors. Ultimately Awesome

Front and back sides of the UE/Capitol Records custom IEM

Front and back sides of the UE/Capitol Records custom IEM

It’s here! Finally! After multiple emails and inquiries asking just where the heck the promised part 3 is, we hope you will forgive the delay. Originally planned as a quick review of the Logitech Ultimate Ears Reference In-Ear Monitors performance shortly after receipt, it is now a more long-term test. The great people at Ultimate Ears have been very supportive of our test process and Christian Concert Photos would like to offer apologies for this ‘conversion’ as well as the delay in coverage. In the end we the hope is that you will agree with this approach. The long-term usage test allows more insights and frankly a more balanced opinion. The intent of this article is not to regurgitate a bunch of technical specifications. Instead the intent is to offer some opinions in which you can decide for yourself.

If you are involved in the creation or production of music in-studio or live FOH, consider yourself an audiophile or a serious music lover we will say this; the UE In-Ear Reference Monitor should be high on your list when shopping for a solution. Some of our favorite artists here at CCP like Switchfoot, Anberlin and David Crowder have selected Ultimate Ears as well.

How about a quick summary to start;
The Good

  • Clean, clear accurate sound. No boomy bass or sharp highs unless recorded that way. Well-recorded and engineered tracks sound amazing.
  • Flat audio dynamics designed in conjunction with the folks at the ledgendary Capitol Studios.
  • Fantastic audio detail. Favorite recordings, new and old, will sound fresh again. Your mixes will be incredibly accurate as the great isolation keeps you in the “sweet spot” no matter where you are.
  • Custom fit is incredibly comfortable to wear and good sound isolation. I’ve worn them through 6+ hour flights with no discomfort.
  • Individual ground wires, easily replaced cord offered in different lengths.
  • Priced well for professional and/or audiophile usage.
  • Design is completely customized to your specifications. Build a set as original as you.

The not as good

  • Not for everyone. Some will prefer more bass or mid punch. If your preferred tracks are dub step, deep house other bass-centric sounds you may want a sound more bias towards that lower end. However, this is still a great solution for those mixing that style.
  • Expensive for many consumers but priced well for professional/audiophile use.
  • The old saying is that garbage in = garbage out. While I prefer to not classify anything as “garbage”, these highly accurate IEMs will bring out the flaws and imperfections you may not have heard before. Arguably not a “negative” but be aware.
  • Minor nit; no small carry case. Storage box is too large for personal travel use. Not an issue in studio or as part of a larger FOH or onstage kit. I’ve migrated my small metal case from an M-audio in-ear I frequently use. (BTW, the M-audio product was also an Ultimate Ears solution!)

Initial usage of the UE Reference monitors proved to be a bit mixed. While the performance was good, it didn’t knock my socks off as expected. While I had an idea of what to expect the results were still a bit played against my preconceived notions. However, after a bit of break-in what was initially viewed as a bit of shortcoming quickly became just the opposite.  Has anyone seen my socks?

You see this is “reference” monitor. That is important to remember as you use this product. The audio response is flat. What this means is you will hear the sound as close as possible to what the recording engineer intended. The audio is presented as the engineer intended, not as the earphones shape it. If you are mixing the sound, you’ll hear exactly what is being recorded or presented at a venue. Get the source right and the rest falls into place. The results have indeed met or exceeded all expectations, and have held up to every challenge I’ve tossed at them. The people at Ultimate Ears have told me that this IEM solution is more than capable for portable mixing or editing and I can think of no reason why this would not be the case. With up to 32db of sound isolation you will continue to have that flat, true audio delivered to your ears via the 3 custom, handcrafted drivers in each ear.

All of this is of course balanced with the device you use the Reference Monitor on. For example, while convenient, smartphones and devices like the iPod are not the most accurate way to play your music. Music is typically highly compressed and not at its best. They are good but you will get the best performance from these IEMs (in-ear monitors) listening to uncompressed music with some amplification. Uncompressed FLAC files (as one example) really do shine. If the primary use is with an i-something, other compressed audio player or smartphone this is probably not your best solution. Look at some of the other custom-molded solutions instead. Regarding the aforementioned portable music players, I can say in all truth that this IEM set made music from my iPod and Motorola RAZR sound better than ever. The flip side is that is has also made some of those recordings sound worse than ever. Things that were masked with lower fidelity in-ear or over the ear solutions were readily apparent now. You can certainly improve the sound by using an inexpensive headphone amp like the FiiO E6, a HiFi Man music play or simlar.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to use this great product in many different situations, with many different connection types. As I write this article I am siting on an Amtrak train from San Diego to Los Angeles. Reference monitors are plugged into my RAZR Maxx smartphone. Background music is David Crowder Band’s fantastic Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]). Prior to that was some uncompressed FLAC files from Josh Garrells Love and War and The Sea In Between. The sound isolation is very good with essentially all background sound controlled and unobtrusive. Maybe a bit of low-end rumble from the train at times. The music is well recorded, and sounds great with super detail. As Requiem Aeternam Dona Eis, Domine on the David Crowder release mentioned above comes on, you can clearly hear the detail the band intended when you hear every little detail of someone walking in from the seashore to a chapel and (presumably) sitting down at the piano to start playing. The soundstage is open and fulfilling and details that I missed in the past are clear and distinct. I’ve also had a chance to plugin to several different amps and amplified devices directly, as well as front of house soundboards. Results are consistent and predictable: flat, accurate and detailed. I get the same results when using them on computer for light mixing and testing. While I am not an onstage artist I think this would be a great solution for this and I have recommended them to a couple of sound engineers and artists at events.

This sound accuracy I keep talking about while measurable and definable is where some opinions start to come into play, and why this will not be a fit for everyone. For example my son uses a pair of over the ear earphones from a very popular brand and he likes them a lot. Designed with an emphasis on booming bass, in my opinion that design muddies the mid-range and highs. To my taste this leaves a lot to be desired. I put his headphones on for comparisons and I’m good for about 2 minutes before enough is enough. Just the opposite is true for my son. He tried the Reference IEM as best as possible with the custom mold and was not a fan. His comments were something to the effect of “the guitars are too loud” or “no bass”. I just smiled. You see, the music profile was being molded by the earphone manufacture not the sound engineer who recorded it to start with. In this example, I think the mix was a bit off and the guitars were indeed a bit loud and the low-end a bit lacking. It was simply not a mix I found appealing and a less detailed reproduction masked and to a degree corrected those flaws. As I put together this article, the music continues to play and it was great timing when a couple tracks came on that highlighted where more base would be welcomed. It’s not that either song sounded bad, it is just that they could have been a bit more full sounding. The first was Toby Mac’s Tonight with John Cooper from Skillet. The second was something I mentioned a bit earlier; some older electronic music from Art of Noise. In the track Paranoia and then Legacy once again more low-end would fill things out a bit. But, right behind that I was reminded just how good this IEM is when the timeless Dark side of The Moon from Pink Floyd was next in the queue, and right behind that Dave Mathews Crash Into Me.

I know this is already long, but, here are a few of the primary specifications.

  • Input Sensitivity: 98 dB @ 1 kHz
  • Efficiency: 112 dB @ 1 kHz, 1mW
  • Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 20,000 Hz
  • Impedance: 21 ohms @ 1 kHz
  • Internal Speaker Configuration: 3 proprietary precision balanced armatures
  • Noise Isolation: -26 dB (100% acrylic housing)
  • Input Connector: ¼” jack adapter gold plated; 3 pole 1/8″ (3.5 mm) standard jack
  • Warranty: 1-year limited hardware warranty.

So here is the bottom line; This IEM solution is good. VERY good. Like mentioned above, if you are a working producer, engineer either in studio, on the road or FOH this product should be on your short list. Audiophiles and enthusiasts need to also consider this as a quite effective solution. If you primarily listen on a portable music device or phone, it might be overkill. Spend less on your headphones/earbuds/IEM and use the other money for other things…maybe help someone in need. You’ll feel good and so will those whom you’ve helped.

There are two things I would recommend. First, the set for this review had the 48” cable. When making the choice the shorter cable sounded like more than enough. If you are someone who likes to move around a bit and will be using this is a variety of situations pick the longer 64” inch cable. I hope to switch at some point and the cable design makes it super easy to do so. Second, if you love music and your listen preference is an in-ear design for all of the benefits that provides, think seriously about a custom-molded solution. Ultimate Ears offers solutions starting at ½ the cost of this reference monitor. You can thank me later for this advice. After you have done the custom mold, you’ll always have it. This can easily be used for different designs and solutions as your needs change. One other use to think about with the custom molds is ear protection. I currently use some fantastic sound attenuation plugs from Etymotic Research when shooting live events. The custom molded solution from Ultimate Ears is high on my wish list. I simply want to protect my ears so I can continue to enjoy the amazing music available to us. You should do the same.

If you have made it this far in the review, thanks! Thanks again to our friends at Logitech Ultimate Ears! With any luck, we’ll be able to offer insights on some of the other great solutions they provide. Christian Concert Photos would also love to hear from you and what you think. As we grow the product reviews that are related to music and the music business, we would love to hear about what you’d like to see.

God bless!
-mike

Logitech Ultimate Ears website.

Previous related articles; Ultimate Ears Product Lineup and Custom In-Ear Process

 

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