Ultimate Ears is no stranger to custom molded IEM monitors. In fact, they’ve been making them for a long, long time. Their range spans from a dual-driver model all the way up to a rather pricey (but awfully good sounding) 6-driver unit. Last year at NAMM, they introduced the VRM series. VRM stands for Vocal Reference Monitor. Playing off the Capital Reference Monitor concept they came up with a few years ago, this custom IEM has a very tailored response.
The first thing you realize when you start listening to these IEMs is that they are not designed for general music listening. In fact, if you want a set of ears that will work well on stage and double as a set to listen to music at Starbucks or on a plane, do not get these. Produced and mastered music sounds pretty ugly through these—and this is not a criticism. It’s actually the way they are designed.
The idea behind the VRM is to create a tailored sound that makes it easy for vocalists to hear what they need to hear, and roll off the information that is not important. There are two versions of VRM, male and female. Obviously, the roll off will be different for the two models to account for the frequency response of the male and female voice.
Listening to the male versions, it seems to me that the low end rolls off somewhere around 200 Hz, while the high end rolls off past about 3 KHz. What isn’t immediately apparent—especially when listening to full-range music—is that the vocal range is incredibly smooth. Like butter. It’s almost spooky, actually.
After I determined that I couldn’t test these listening to music, I took them to work and plugged into a few of our vocal mixes. Sure enough, it was incredibly easy to hear every detail in the vocal, and there was enough pitch and time information present that it would be very easy to sing with these in. Not being a vocalist, I spared our team from hearing me try, but there was a silky quality to the vocal range that is really hard to describe, other than to say it’s very, very good.
At this point, you may be wondering, “Why not take a set of full-range IEMs and just re-create the high and low roll off’s with EQ on the monitor console?” That’s a valid question. In fact, I tried it. I took my UE7s and played around with some EQ until I approximated the frequency response characteristics. And it may have been a little easier to hear vocals, but they were nowhere near as smooth. Even after re-balancing the mix, I still couldn’t quite reach the level of goodness the VRMs produce—at least in the vocal range.
I’m not sure what the magic sauce is, but the VRMs make vocals sound very, very good. I talked with a lead vocalist who used them for the first time and he went on and on about how easy they were to sing with, how much less strain he felt on his voice and how much better the overall experience was.
You may recall when I reviewed the 1964 Ears Dual and V6 Stage that I didn’t like how short the stiffened portion of the cable that goes over the ear was. UE does a much better job with this; it’s long enough to get a good bend, which helps the cable flow back behind the ears easier. The cables are light-weight and flexible and are field replaceable.
So, these things really do their intended job pretty darn well. The downside? They are really expensive. With a list price of $999, they are not a casual purchase. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are very few churches who will buy these for their vocal team. Which is too bad, because they really do work. But at a grand a pop, they are out of reach for most.
Now, it’s true that the VRMs are cheaper than say the UE11s or UE18, quad- and six-driver models priced at $1,150 and $1,350 respectively. And those high-end models do sound pretty amazing. So I guess it’s all relative. Whether or not they are worth it will be up to you to decide. But I can tell you the VRMs should help vocalists sing better.
In the interest of full disclosure, and so as not to run afoul of FTC regulations, this pair of monitors was given to me at no cost. Though I have no idea what I’m going to use them for now…