CTA Review: Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors Pt. 2

Last time around, we started looking (or listening…) to the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors. We established that they fit well, were of high quality and sounded great for listening to music. But…

Do They Translate?

One of the questions we have to ask with a product like this is, do they translate? In other words, if I put together a mix on these IEMs, do the decisions I make listening to them translate well into other listening environments. Ideally, they would be accurate enough and give me enough information to make good decisions so that when I play a mix just about anywhere else, it will sound good. That’s kind of the point of reference speakers and these monitors. 

For the last few months, I have been working on a mix of a song we did at Coast Hills some years ago. When I started working on the mix, I had a set of M-Audio BX-5 monitors, which are not terribly accurate. I also used various headphones and IEMs to work on it. But I was never happy with the results. The mix either came up too muddy, too busy or lacking in dynamic range. It didn’t feel punchy enough, but at the same time, it felt overly processed. 

So I broke out the Reference Monitors and started over with the mix. Immediately, it became apparent what the problems were. I started making corrections and quickly forgot I was listening to IEMs. They present a terrific sound field and it was easy to get the mix wrangled into shape. Though I had spent hours on the mix prior, in just a few hours I had it rebuilt and sounding fantastic. Now, one could argue I had already done much of the hard work—selecting plug-ins, getting overall tones correct and the like—but it wasn’t until I had some accurate monitors to get it sounding good. 

I’ve also upgraded to a set of Equator Audio D-5’s in the Palatial Studio, so I was curious to see what the mix would sound like on them after I mixed it on the Reference Monitors. The result was quite good. I’m still getting used to the D-5’s, but I didn’t find much in the mix that I would change. Subsequent listening led me to the conclusion that the Reference Monitors are indeed a solid reference. 

The Bad News

If there is a downside to these IEMs, it’s the cost. They are expensive at $999, though they are not UE’s most expensive model. On the other hand, were I a recording engineer and wanted to be able to work on my mixes anywhere, they would be totally worth it. One could pay for them in just a few hours of saved studio time. Personally, I’m not sure I would have payed for them for my needs. However, now that I have them, they are pretty much the only pair I listen to. Whether or not they’re worth it for you depends on what you need to do with them. For a volunteer musician that plays once or twice a month, these are overkill. For a professional engineer, having the right tool at your disposal is pretty much priceless.  

I suppose it really depends on what you want from your monitors. If you’re looking for massive bass, these are not for you. If you want a cheap set to listen to while you work out, again, not for you. But if you are looking for highly detailed sound, plenty of accuracy, a great fit and great support, these deserve a look, er, listen. 

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll be heading back to UE to check out the latest in custom IEM manufacturing. I saw a brief preview of it when I did my last tour, and I can tell you it’s cool. Stay tuned!

Finally, so as not to run afoul of FTC regulations, I’m required to report to you that my super-great sounding UE Reference Monitors were provided to me by UE at not cost for the purposes of this review. There are days when it’s good to have the #1 church tech blog…

“Gear

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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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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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Important Safety Tip: With Dante, Don't Cross the Streams

One of my favorite scenes in Ghostbusters is when Egon gives the guys a warning about crossing the streams. As we know, it’s not good. Not good at all.

Dr. Egon Spengler: There's something very important I forgot to tell you.

Dr. Peter Venkman: What?

Dr. Egon Spengler: Don't cross the streams.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Why?

Dr. Egon Spengler: It would be bad.

Dr. Peter Venkman: I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?

Dr. Egon Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

Dr Ray Stantz: Total protonic reversal.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

 

That scene played out in real life for me a few weeks back. Well, sort of. I didn’t exactly experience total protonic reversal, but I did discover that it’s a bad, bad thing to cross the streams in a redundant Dante network. But let’s back up a step. 

Two Types of Dante Networks

There are a few different ways to lay out a Dante network. Ignoring topologies for a moment, you can either set up a redundant network or a switched network. All Dante devices have two Dante network ports on them, and they will be labeled Primary and Secondary. By default, most devices have those two ports connected together in switched mode. That means you can plug one device into the primary and another device into the secondary and data will flow freely between all three devices. 

The benefit of this method is that you don’t need any switches. Just keep daisy chaining all the devices together and the network works quite well. The downside is that if any link in the chain breaks, audio stops flowing. If you had a console and computer at FOH, two stage racks, a processor and a few amps on stage and someone breaks the cable between the two stage racks, you will lose audio in the house as the data is no longer flowing from the console all the way through to the system processor and amps. 

Now, you could just take all the primary ports and connect them to an external switch. That way, if you lose one link, only that device is affected; the rest of the system still functions. This is clearly a step up in reliability from the daisy chain, but you can still lose a device if a cable fails. 

That’s why the better option is a redundant network. In a redundant network, you connect all the primary ports to a switch (or series of switches, depending on the layout) and all the secondary ports to another switch or set of switches. I highlight “another” because it’s very important that the networks remain separate. 

Don’t Cross the Streams

I learned this lesson the hard way a few weeks ago. It turns out that if you wire the system up properly, with all the primary ports going to one switch and the secondary ports to another, but have one device set up as a switched device, you essentially build a bridge between the two networks. And that’s bad. While you don’t have total protonic reversal, you do get what is called a broadcast storm, and the switches freak out. The only way to fix it is to separate the networks and power cycle everything on the network. 

Dante devices will stop working properly, probably won’t pass audio and devices will not mount properly. Basically, it’s bad. I chased this problem for a while before my friend Jake Cody helped me figure it out. I learned an important lesson that day, and it changed the way I will set up a Dante network next time. 

Why Redundant?

You might be asking, why bother with redundancy if it’s so fraught with peril to set up? Well, it’s really a safety net. When we used analog copper snakes, one wire could go bad, and we’d still have signal in the others. In say, a 56-channel snake, if you lost one channel, you still had 55. On a 16-channel drive snake, you could patch around a channel that went bad. Even if you lost 2-3 of them, most of the system would still function. And if you got creative, you could make it all work. 

But when the entire system depends on four 24 gauge solid copper conductors, it doesn’t take much to wipe the whole system out. If one of those wires breaks, you don’t lose 75% of the system; you lose it all. Or if a single switch freaks out, you can lose the whole network. And the only way to fix it is to stop audio, and reboot or reconfigure. 

Building a redundant network will let you fix a problem in one leg while the other still passes audio. For any system that is mission critical—and that pretty much means all of them—you should go redundant. 

Next time, I’ll share with you my revised process for setting up a network that will work the first time.

“Gear

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