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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