Ever since the advent of personal computing, things have gotten smaller and smaller. You can now film HD video with your telephone. That HD video can be loaded onto your laptop and you can edit your video while on a train or airplane. If you wanted to edit some audio, you would have to carry around some very high end studio monitoring headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800 or Beyerdynamic T1, but of course those should be driven with a pretty big amplifier and it would not be very portable. Now you have another option. Ultimate Ears’ In-Ear Reference Monitors.
Soon after their purchase by Logitech, Ultimate Ears started talking to Capitol Studios. Yes, that’s the same famous Capitol Studios of Capitol Records in Hollywood, California. If this name brings up thoughts of Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and the Beach Boys, you are thinking about the right group. Together, they have honed what used to take up an entire studio into something that can fit inside your ears. Now that’s awesome.
The same care that went into designing their recording studio went into designing the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors. Just for reference, the Capitol Studios recording suite has fluorescent light ballasts mounted remotely to prevent the slight hum from interfering with the sound. It also is encased within a layer of cork to isolate the entire room sonically from the building’s foundation.
The Reference Monitors were developed over an enormous amount of time and collaboration between Ultimate Ears and Capitol Studios. They started with the well known Ultimate Ears acrylic shell and took three custom designed balanced armature drivers (one for low sounds, mid sounds, and high sounds) and stuffed them inside. All three drivers blend together inside the earpiece and feed directly into your ear canal.
I’m sure what you’re wondering is: How do they sound? My experience with custom in-ear monitors is somewhat limited, but likely more than the average person. I have reviewed or will be reviewing soon a total of 6 custom in-ear monitors at this point. This covers all ends of the spectrum, from $200 to $1350. Until I tried the UE Reference Monitors, my favorite were definitely the JH Audio JH16 Pro which I reviewed last summer. Now, I’m not so sure what my favorite is.
The UE Reference Monitors have a unique ability to be very sonically accurate. More and less expensive in-ear monitors that I have heard tend to have either raised bass levels such as the JH16 Pro (which is actually what people tend to prefer) or raised treble (JH5) or both (UE18– review coming soon). The UERM don’t have any of those properties. This may seem great, but most normal people may be disappointed in the lack of bass.
If you’re an audiophile, it’s likely that you won’t care. In fact, it could be better this way. For classical music, the UERM is my number one choice. I have not heard anything that can reproduce the finesse of hundreds of instruments playing at once with the impact and clarity of the Reference Monitors. The drivers are fast, efficient, and provide the ability to sound however you want them to.
I’ve been testing the UERM with HiFiMan’s new HM-601 (review coming soon) and NuForce’s Icon Mini amplifier (also coming soon) and the equalizer built into the HM-601 can bump the bass of the UERM up to the levels of the JH16 Pro. This makes the RM great with hip-hop, R&B, rock, and, well, pretty much all types of music. Not that it was bad before.
The sonic integrity of the UERM is so great that I have heard stories of audio engineers mixing entire commercial albums while flying using a laptop and the UERM. That story might sound pretty crazy, but I think it’s definitely possible. The Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor are truly game-changing. They are the first attempt at an extremely accurate custom in-ear monitor and they’re not even the most expensive offering out there. For $999, it’s a hell of a bargain. This is especially true when you consider the alternatives for mobile audiophile level equipment. The previously mentioned Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic studio headphones cost closer to $1500 without any extra equipment needed to use them effectively.
I would recommend the UE Reference Monitor as a general purpose in-ear monitor if you’re looking for the best and most accurate sound possible. If you want to do some real monitoring, you cannot go wrong. If you’re a basshead and you want your brain to bounce with the beat, you might want to look elsewhere. Of course, make sure you pair it with a good source as 128kbps MP3s made me almost put the UERM and my iPhone in the microwave.
A few notes:
-Additionally, as with most custom monitors (not the Sculpted Eers), you will need to get impressions made of your ears by an audiologist. Expect this to add another $50-100 to the total cost. The good news is that once that’s done, these babies will feel extremely comfortable and sound great as long as your ears stay the same shape.
-The UERM feature Ultimate Ears’ new connector and cable. Instead of the design found previously in UE’s prior products and JH Audio’s current products with two pins, the new design features a recessed female connector on the cable side and protruding nub with two pins for extra durability and a new four wire cable that has a ground to each IEM for better sound quality and shielding.