Ultimate Ears (UE) have been making waves with the UE Boom portable Bluetooth speaker. I recently reviewed it and would hands-down say it's the best truly portable Bluetooth speaker I've used. It's an all-round fantastic package. But Ultimate Ears has, for a long time, been renowned for its pro, high-end, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs). Particularly amongst audiophiles and professional musicians who demand the best in-ear monitoring and isolation when they're performing, recording or listening to music.
Choosing the right UE monitor for you
UE offers a wide range of IEMs specifically suited for different music applications. As described by UE's Director of Sales, Mike Dias, the range fits into 3 categories: IEMs for stage, for studio and for audiophiles. Dias likens the different models to flavors of ice-cream; different users will prefer different sounds depending on their musical taste and the application the IEMs will be used for. From the top-of-the-range Personal Reference Monitors (US$1999), offering the highest level of detail, imaging and separation, fine tuned to your personal listening preferences, to the entry-level 4s ($399), for enthusiasts and musicians just getting started with IEMs, without compromising on quality.
UE's range covers everything in-between, too, including the 11s ($1150), with enhanced low-end, or the 7s ($850), tuned for live sound with enhanced mid-range for vocalists, keyboardists and guitarists. There's even the UE RM reference monitor ($999), designed in collaboration with Capitol Studios, designed with a flat-response for mixing. You can see the full range of UE's IEMs here.
Of course, all UE's IEMs are compatible with Mac and iOS devices. For iOS devices, UE offers an in-line remote and mic cable, giving you control over your music as well as taking and making calls without reaching for your device.
I opted for the UE 7 range, which is geared towards live music performance. The 7s have 3 proprietary balanced armatures (speakers) with an integrated 2-way crossover network, giving plenty of punch and growl, with a bold, clear sound that has additional mid-range. The custom fit produces -26 decibels of ambient noise.
Getting the fit right
After you've chosen what model will suit your ears and application best, the next step is to personalize your monitor. You can choose what color they are, from clear to pink to UE's own designer editions. Or even send through your own artwork. There's plenty to choose from. The final step is choosing a clear or black cable and whether you want the in-line mic and remote.
The big deal about custom in-ear monitors is that they are made to perfectly fit your ears, providing a great fit that allows for superb sound delivery by isolating external sound. For this to happen, an impression of your ears needs to be taken by an audiologist and sent off to UE. It's an interesting process, where a soft putty is injected into your ear canal, filling it entirely, where it's then left to dry. When it's pulled out, the putty has set into a perfect cast of your ear. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Your new impressions are then sent off to UE to assemble your IEMs, perfectly shaped to fit your ears.
Once UE has your impressions, they can begin the process of building the shells that will house the guts of your IEMs. Using tools like digital scanning, rendering, editing and 3D printing, UE is able to produce highly accurate, tight fitting IEMs unique to your ears (Check out the video of the digital handcrafting process at the bottom of this post). Within about two weeks you'll get your final order through the post.
When the 7s arrived I was truly blown away by the fit. For many years I've used different ear buds etc. with various IEMs, so it was a real pleasure to have these fit snugly and comfortably the first time round, creating a seal that produces ideal isolation from outside noise.
The monitors themselves are made of a durable plastic, giving a robust feel and heavy-duty confidence in the monitors. There's a detachable connector cable and a cleaning tool that easily fit into a hard case for storage and transportation. The case has your name printed on it and each IEM has your initials and a unique ID number printed on them too, for easy tracking should you misplace them.
In terms of sound quality, the 7s deliver in spades with confidence. It's hard to describe, but I found there was loads of headroom in the sound, producing a natural quality, with far reaching dynamics that delivered subtleties and nuances sublimely in the mid and high frequency ranges. In short, audio was crisp, clear, spacious and solid, but not over-defined in the low-end.
With the 7s, listening to Ryan Adams new album on my iPhone was a superb experience. On the Mac, with lossless audio or high-quality streaming from Qobuzz or Spotify, the experience was even better. Adding a high-end audio converter / amp to your listening chain will really get the best out of these IEMs.
For pro music-making, live performance and audiophile music-listening, these are simply the best headphones I've had the pleasure of using. They really do blow everything else out of the water. Unsurprisingly, the 7s come with a high price tag, not to mention the trip to the audiologist! However, with care and maintenance, whether you go for the 4s or the top-tier Personal Reference Monitors , UE's custom IEMs are an investment that will deliver and delight for years to come. If you're a pro-musician or an audiophile who wants the utmost from your music, Ultimate Ears are the definitive in in-ear monitoring.