CTA Review: Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors Pt. 1

It’s been a few years since UE announced the Reference Monitors, but I’ve been eager to get a set in my ears since I heard about them. They were developed in partnership with Capital Studios to provide pro audio engineers with a flat set of reference “speakers” anywhere they were. I have four other sets of custom IEMs and have auditioned at least another half-dozen units. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say up front that these are far and away my favorites. But as always, there’s more to the story.

What Are They?

Here’s a description from the UE website:

“They combine a new proprietary design featuring three speaker balanced armature speakers. Other new technology includes a rugged low profile, low distortion cable, dual acoustically tuned sound channels and multiple passive crossover points creating the ultimate in separation, detail and clarity.”

So what does that all mean? To put it simply, it sounds good. Really good. Like all UE products (and most other custom IEMs) they are a balanced armature design. Unlike a dynamic driver—which is essentially a small speaker—a balanced armature consists of the armature, which is wrapped by a coil and suspended between two magnets. Sending electricity through the coil changes the magnetic attraction which moves it back and forth. A diaphragm is attached to the armature, and this produces the sound we hear. 

Balanced armature drivers are tuned to be highly effective for a given frequency range, which is why there are three of them in each IEM. But getting a coherent sound out of three separate armature drivers is tricky business. There is all kinds of proprietary goodness going on, some of which I can’t talk about and much more I don’t full understand. But it’s a lot harder than just shoving three drivers in the shell and gluing it together. 

The Sound

The target sound profile for these monitors is a detailed, flat response. I have no real way to test this, but I can report that based on my extensive listening with them for the last month, they are the most detailed and flat-sounding IEM’s I’ve ever heard. One thing that IEM manufacturers often do is tune a particular model for a purpose. For example, the UE Vocal Reference monitor is tuned to deliver the goods over the vocal range. And they do that very well. But I wouldn’t listen to music through them for pleasure. But the vocal performance is incredible. 

I’ve heard other IEMs that are better for bass players and drummers as they have hyped low end. Some push both the lows and highs. Others accentuate the midrange. You can choose the right response for the instrument you’re playing.

But when it comes to mixing, you really want flat. And as far as I can tell, these are. More than that, the detail is just incredible. The articulation of a bass, for example, is often hard to reproduce in a small IEM. These nail it without it being over-hyped. The high end is crisp and detailed as well. Compared to my UE7s, I’m hearing a ton more of the subtleties of the cymbals and keys. 

Fit is another important aspect to the sound. Currently, I have three pairs of UE monitors and two pair of 1964 Ears. The UE’s simply fit better than the 1964s. The better fit means I can listen to them longer without discomfort, and the fit also improves the overall response. When I first started talking with the folks at UE about getting a set (and this was shortly after they were introduced), they said some people don’t like using them to just listen to music because they are so flat. Personally, I have enjoyed them immensely, probably because they are so flat. I don’t feel like I’m getting an over-hyped bass or muddy mid’s and high’s. The music just sounds like the music. That works for me. 

My conclusion is that these are great IEMs for just listening to music. But they are supposed to be Reference Monitors, so how do they work for that task? That’s a question we’ll tackle next time.

Roland

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Lessons Learned at a Concert

Last week while in Atlanta for the Catalyst conference, I got to hang out with my friend Nick Rivero and his new wife, Sarah. Not only did we have some great BBQ, but we had a great time talking about production, touring, and building stuff. As we talked, I was reminded of a night a few years ago when Thomas and I got to hang out with him at the Staples Center in LA. Nick was touring with Lady Antebellum as a video system tech. We got a tour of the entire production; backstage, the stage itself and FOH. And then there was the show, which was also pretty impressive. 

I won’t go into a lot of details about the evening itself as that is not the point of this article. I will say the show was great; and everyone we met was very gracious and friendly. We felt very welcome there and stayed all the way to the end of tear down. I tend to really pay close attention whenever I get to do something like this as there are always things I can learn to make my processes better. What follows are some of my key takeaways.

Predictability and Consistency is Important

On multiple occasions I asked Nick how much things changed up for the evening’s show over the course of the tour. And on each occasion he said, “Not much.” At one point we were talking about how they wire their system up each day and he said (and I’m quoting from memory, so it may not be word for word, but it’s close), “When you’re doing this every day, you want things the same as possible.” Another time I asked him about the walk-in playlist, wondering if it changed up each night. Again, the answer was, “Nope. It’s kind of nice to have that predicability. After a while, you know when you get to this song, you have a few minutes to go.”

As I am a huge fan of consistency, this was really more of a reinforcement for me than a lesson. But still, it’s always good to challenge your thinking, then come to the conclusion that you’re headed in the right direction. Doing things the exact same way has saved me on many, many occasions. Once I find a process that works, I repeat it over and over again until I come up with a better process. 

Many Hands Don’t Make Light Work; Many Skilled Hands Do

We’ve heard that verse repeated over and over again in church and in many respects it’s true. However, I loved watching the union hands come out to strike the show after the concert was over. The various team leaders on the tour would give a bunch of guys some brief instructions and off they would go. Near the beginning, I watched Nick say, “OK, green shirt guys, my name is Nick. I need you to take all these cables, coil them up to the end and bring them back here. Thank you.” Within a few minutes all the projector and camera looms were neatly coiled and returned to video world. Even more fun to watch were the riggers. Without hardly a word, trusses starting coming down, fixtures were removed and returned to road cases and lines coiled. The whole show was loaded out in a few hours.

Contrast that to the typical church “y’all come help teardown” party. It’s chaos! One or two technical people will try to herd the army of cats on stage as cables get coiled improperly, equipment gets put away in the wrong spot (or worse, lost), things get taken down that should be left up. Sometimes, people even get hurt.

I prefer fewer people with more skill. Give me a few guys that know how to wrap cable and ask good questions over a dozen completely unskilled people every time. During my last few years as a TD, I adopted this approach for our big events. Instead of recruiting huge teams, I hand-picked a few guys who I had worked with and knew would do things the right way. It went much better. 

Being Together Still Matters

With the rise of “online church,” some of us are wondering what the future holds for the weekend service experience. At the show, I was again reminded of the power of being in a large group, experiencing something together. I am not typically a fan of large crowds, but I will say there was an energy and excitement in the room that doesn’t exist when I listen to their CD or watch a video in my office. One of the big things we still do well as the Church is bring people together for a common experience. When God is doing something in our midst, it is palpable, and being part of that with a few hundred or a few thousand others is powerful. We mustn’t forget that.

What do you learn when you go to a concert?

Setting Up a Redundant Dante Network

Last time, I shared with you the problem you can have if you set up a Dante network improperly. Without redundancy, a single break anywhere in the system can cause major problems. With redundancy, if you cross the streams, the whole network refuses to work properly. Based on my experiences a few weeks back and some conversations I had with people who know a lot more about this than I do, I have revised my set up process to make sure things work properly. 

Configure First

My biggest mistake was wiring everything together then powering it all up. I freaked the switches out without even knowing it, then nothing I did after that worked properly. So the new tactic is to configure first, then wire. In some cases (like Yamaha Rio boxes), this will mean flipping dip switches for redundant mode. In others, it will mean powering it up and selecting redundant mode in the setup menu. No Cat5 cables will be connected until each piece of gear is verified to be in redundant mode.

But it’s not time to connect anything yet. The next step is to set up the switches. It’s important to get the QoS settings correct, build VLANs, configure settings for wireless use and disable energy efficient modes. This is all best done without anything connected to the switch. In fact, the next time I do it, I’ll be programming switches in the office before heading out to the field. 

Wire Primary First, Test

Once everything is configured properly, and we’ve triple-checked to be sure everything is in redundant mode, we will wire up the primary network side and make sure that all works. The system will function just fine on just the primary network, and this is the time to mount all stage racks to consoles, make sure signal is flowing between devices and the system is functioning as expected. 

If everything checks out with just the primary network connected, then it’s time to connect the secondary network. If everything was configured properly, nothing should happen. If the system freaks out when you plug in a device’s secondary port, you have the streams crossed somewhere. At that point, disconnect the secondary, power cycle everything and check your settings again. 

Once you get everything working with both networks, you can test the failover by pulling the primary from one device. Audio should keep on flowing and stay working when you plug primary back in.

Label Well

The take away for us on this install was to make sure everything was labeled well once we got it all working. We further hosed ourselves during trouble shooting by accidentally plugging a primary port into a secondary switch. I didn’t do it for that install, but in figure ones, I will even use different colors for the Cat5e cables and patch cords to make sure the two networks stay separate. And I’ll standardize on those colors so as we build networks all over the country, we will always know what is primary and secondary. 

It’s Not That Hard, Just Different

I know a lot of people are afraid of the digital network revolution in sound systems. It’s true that when we used big copper snakes, it was a little easier to troubleshoot things like bad cables and improper patches. However, we still had to make sure the system was wired correctly with regard to polarity. We still had to pay attention to power and grounding. The transition between balanced and unbalanced connections still had to be handled properly. There were plenty of places for things to go horribly wrong. The biggest difference was we could typically physically see the problem. 

In the networked world, we can have problems that we can’t physically see. The problems can exist inside a switch and it takes a different set of troubleshooting skills to figure it out. But it’s not really all that hard once you do it a few times and get some basic knowledge of the system. Yamaha actually has some great information on setting up network systems and switches, and I highly recommend you check it out before you set up your first Dante network. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive guide, just an overview. 

It’s a brave new world out there, folks. I’ve been saying for a few years that our job as technical artists will involve a lot more network skills. Now is the time to beef up that skill set!

Roland

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