As I mentioned last time, I have an enviable job. I have to somehow try to describe how these very nice, custom IEMs sound. And compare them, which means that I have more than one set. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
I was about to start in on a paragraph describing the configuration for the UE11, and how it’s marketed. But then it occurred to me that I should probably start by stating that you can’t just an IEM by its price tag; at least not in the UE line. I have UE7s, Reference Monitors, Vocal Reference Monitors (Male), UE11s, and UE18s, $850, $999, $999, $1150 and $1350 respectively. And I can’t honestly tell you that the most expensive ones are the “best.” That’s because, much like microphones, each of those is designed to do something slightly different. I always recommend the UE7s for guitar and keyboard players and most worship leaders who play guitar or keys because the frequency response profile of the 7 is perfect for that application. The midrange is really detailed and there is a slight rolloff at the high and low end which helps keep the mids clear.
To some extent, the UE18, while it has twice the drivers as the 7, would not be as good a choice for those musicians, despite its higher price tag. This is not to say the 18 is not worth it, because they sound fantastic. I don’t know if that cleared anything up or not, but I wanted to point out that each model is designed to work really well with a particular type of musician. And, as it turns out, they are each suited to different types of music, as I eventually discovered.
The UE11 is marketed towards bass players and drummers. It’s a four-driver, three-way system. There are two low drivers, a mid and a high, all driven through a 3-way passive crossover network. The drivers exit through two ports—a low port and mid-high port. One of the low drivers is a “sub low,” though I’m not exactly sure at what frequency it kicks in. Frequency response is rated from 5 Hz - 22 KHz, with a sensitivity of 119 dB @ 1 KHz @ 1 mW. Impedance is 18 Ohms. I don’t really have a way to test the response down to 5 Hz, but I can report they go deep.
The low end very satisfying with the 11s. To put it in practical terms, it’s a bit like a PA with and without a sub turned on when you compare the 7s and 11s. To further the PA comparison, when I compare the 18s with the 11s, the 11s are like a PA with both 15” and 18” subs, while the 18s feel as though only one set of subs is active. Both have plenty of detail, and both extend to low frequencies, but the 11s just have more oomph. A bigger bass haystack in PA tuning terms.
One thing that surprised me is that I felt like I was hearing more detail in the music with the 11s. And that’s compared to both the 18s and the Reference Monitors. As I dug into this more, I realized it was most likely because the 11’s are the most sensitive of the three (the 18s are rated at 115 dB with the RMs rated at 112 dB at 1 mW). An extra 4-7 dB will definitely reveal more detail.
The downside of all the detail is that you can begin to hear stuff you never heard before, like distortion. While auditioning tracks for this review, I found an album that I used to really like and can’t listen to any longer due to the amount of distortion I can hear in the recording now. On the other hand, you’ll hear amazing things you never heard before, like spring reverbs and real plate reverbs.
Of course there is more to the story. Much of it is the tuning, and my own personal frequency response. And that is one of the things that is important when selecting a set of IEMs. It’s really going to depend on what you want to hear and what you can hear. For me, the 11s sound the most pleasant. They will probably be the ones that spend the most time in my ears, which is not to say that the others don’t sound good. It’s a little like comparing a Meyer PA to an L’Acoustics PA. Both will sound great, it simply depends on what you prefer.
With that said, the amount of detail in the low end is amazing and for all my bassist and drummer friends, these are the ones to get. If I could have only one pair of UEs, it would probably be the 11s. Again, not that the 18s, Reference Monitors or 7s aren’t great, I just like the sound of the 11s better for most of the music I listen to. Except for Jazz. For Jazz, the 7s rock. And mixing. For mixing, the RMs are my go to. But for general mixing and movie watching, I suspect the 11s will be the ones with the most hours on them. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Disclaimer, Ultimate Ears gave me a set of UE11s. FTC, you can relax now.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As I write this, I realize I have an enviable job; evaluating high-end custom in-ear monitors. A while back, I told you about the new 3D scanning process that Ultimate Ears has developed for taking virtual impressions of our ears. Before that, I told you about the very cool new 3D printing process they have been using for a while to print the shells. And today, I sit at my dining room table with four pairs of IEMs, trying to figure out the differences between them.
For this article, I’m not going to focus on the sound, but rather the fit. I finally have the trifecta of IEM production, three completely different ways to make custom-molded IEMs. I have been waiting for this ever since my friend Mike Dias told me about the 3D digital scan in January at NAMM.
Setting the Table
About 5 years ago, I received my first pair of custom IEMs; the UE7s. Those were made the traditional way—an audiologist took an impression of the inside of my ears by squirting some quick-setting silicone stuff in there. It feels really weird and for some, is uncomfortable. I didn’t mind it, but it does feel odd, sort of like going underwater. Afterwards, the molds went off to the production lab. They created a positive mold of the negative the audiologist made. From that positive, they cast acrylic shells, and it takes no small amount of hand polishing and grinding to make sure everything matches properly. It’s not a perfect method, but it works well enough. Or did anyway.
A few years ago, UE recognized there had to be a better way. They started to investigate 3D printing and developed a proprietary process that produces perfect, clear molds. The clear part was harder than you might think. In that case, they still took a silicon impression of my ear, but that impression was scanned and “polished” in the computer before being printed. Once it came out of the printer, it was virtually done. Just the slightest amount of touch up by hand and it was off for driver insertion.
Knowing they were on to something with the whole 3D thing, UE also saw that one of the biggest challenges for people wanting custom IEMs was getting impressions made. It was inconvenient, and typically required a trip to an audiologist. And, not all audiologists know the proper procedure for getting a good impression for IEMs. But what if we could simply scan the inside of an artist’s ear with a Star Trek-like device? That took a little doing, but they did it. A few weeks back, I finally had my ears scanned, and a set of UE11’s printed.
So I have all three methods—silicon impressions and cast shells; silicon impressions (3D scanned for printer prep) with 3D printed shells; laser ear scan straight to 3D printed shells. So, which is better?
As I suspected, as the process has evolved, the fit has gotten better. Fit is perhaps the biggest key for custom IEMs. If the fit is not good, the shells won’t seal to the ear, and the low end will be virtually non-existent. Moreover, if they don’t fit well, they will be uncomfortable. I have a set from another manufacturer that sound pretty good, but I can’t stand to wear them for more than about 30-40 minutes because they just don’t fit right.
As I go through the progression of my IEMs, the first set don’t fit terribly. They are comfortable and I can listen for a long time with them. But they are a bit loose, and I sometimes notice they unseal. They are easy to get in and out, however.
The middle technique, impressions with 3D printed shells fit really well. They are supremely comfortable and seal up great.
The final set, well, that one is just amazing. Not only are they very comfortable, they really do seem to match the inside of my ears perfectly. They don’t take as much fiddling to get seated right; they snap right in and seal. I recently took a 4 1/2 hour flight with them, listening for 45 minutes before and after the flight, making for a total of 6 hours of IEM time. I could have gone another 6.
Convenience for All
As the technology matures—and it’s doing so at a very rapid pace—Mike tells me he is looking forward to getting UE Ambassadors out in the field with scanners to make it easy to get virtual impressions for the entire band in one sitting. Rather than trying to line up an audiologist to come in and take impressions, everyone can get scanned. Because there is no cost for the scan, it’s easy to go ahead and do everyone on the team, knowing they can place an order at any time.
My friend Duke had his ears scanned recently as well, and as soon as he got his new IEMs, texted me to tell me they were the most comfortable he’s ever worn. This is something I’ve heard from many people now. Mike also tells me the returns for fit problems has gone way down since they started down the 3D path.
So if you’ve been on the fence regarding custom IEMs, the time is now. The fit is better than ever, and it’s easier than ever to get perfect impressions. To see the process, check out the video we shot a few months back. It’s really pretty cool.
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