Sonny: Since Josh and I are sharing the load of Custom In-Ear Monitors to review on Inearspace, I wanted to add a control to our reviews. You see, while I feel me and Josh interpret in a very similar fashion, it just made so much sense if we had a product that we could both reference toward in reviews of new CIEMs. Now I thought long and hard about an apt product to use for this task and then I thought back to my visit to Dr. Julie Glick’s office in New York in the summer of 2013 and how I tried Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor demo there. In my impressions I said how I found it be very neutral in tuning and impressive in technical ability. Did we have our match? It seemed so after we presented our idea to UE and they were on board. It was time for josh and I to get our impressions sorted and our CIEMs made.
Josh: We really must mention our experience as UE consumers, it was really rather special. As you guys know we both get a fair amount of customs through and the usual procedure is that we will pay £25 for some impressions, £10 postage, and a month or so later some wonderful or not so wonderful customs arrive at our doorstep. In terms of communication it is usually a simple few emails about design and postage details, not so with UE this was a far more “privileged” experience than we had ever had previously.
Sonny: See when you order an Ultimate Ears monitor they don’t expect you to have to pay for anything, it is all part of the cost. Now ideally you will live near enough to an Ultimate Ears recommended audiologist and they handle your ear impressions for their standard rate and do all the things that UE want (open mouth, cotton blocks). If you live in the USA there are hundreds and you’re almost guaranteed to live near one. Across the pond in the UK, we are not quite as lucky and we was a couple of hours from the nearest UE recommended centre but they were still happy to work with one of our local audioligists we had used before and gave us intsructions for eaxctly how they want the impressions to keep things nice and simple. Yes it could still be a time consuming process for the un-initiated but they helped make it as smooth a process as possible.
Josh: These impressions were my very first open mouth impressions’ by the way guys, and this was at the request of UE. Once they were done and posted to their lab over in California they very much work in “the digital age” of custom IEM manufacture. The impressions are placed in a little chamber and blasted with lasers to determine the exact shape of the impressions which are perfectly rendered onto a computer monitor for touch ups and turning them into the finished shape, although without the worry of making a cut that cant be undone, a problem with the traditional method. Digital impressions are now stored for future reference and any future purchases or at least that was the idea, but they couldn’t actually find mine when we requested them to be sent to ACS, although they located Sonny’s with ease.
To the 3D printer we go for a much faster manufacture time, here is the big time saver, plus the accuracy and consistency of the product, which should mean no refits! Once you have the shell all the electronics are place inside the shell by hand and connectors are soldered accordingly, again by hand. Faceplates applied and shell finishing completed, they’re done. We were lucky enough to witness a similar process at ACS a few months ago and it really makes you appreciate the level of technology these companies are investing in to offer the best quality product on the market.
Unboxing The UERMs:
Sonny: For this is am going to hand you other to my friend, the Sony NEX-6, his attention to detail is a little better than mine. Talking of attention to detail check out the packaging and how pleasant an experience it is.
Sonny: When they came through the post, two things shocked me. First was the speed, they received our impressions on the 10th of February and both our completely finished products were shipped out on the 20th, we had received them by the 22nd. That is under 2 weeks from them receiving our physical impressions to getting them on my doorstep!
The second really noticeable thing was just how well they fit. They were very snug and tight to my ear but not at all in a sense that was uncomfortable. On top of that the seal was incredible, nothing would break it, I have even been able to eat and laugh with these on and my seal remains intact and so does the quality of my music.
Now while other Ultimate Ears models differ in regards to design, the Reference Monitor that we have comes with one stock aesthetic and that is a clear shell, with a black faceplate that on one side has the Capitol Studios (the studio who hlped tune this monitor) logo and on the other UE’s own. This is included in the price of £900 (or $999) as is a choice of case, a cable, a ¼ inch jack and an earwax cleaning tool. Now Ultimate Ears do offer some alternative designs, not at a level of customisation you may get from Heir Audio or Custom Art but you do get some designer options and some very impressive artwork choices nonetheless. These do come at an extra cost.
Josh: Much like Sonny I have only good words on the fit of my reference monitors, they are truly excellent. The open mouth impressions that Sonny and I had are the reason for this unbreakable seal. I had actually assumed that a monitor this snug would become uncomfortable after a while but amazingly they don’t. I must admit I do own more comfortable monitors but that’s purely because they don’t insert as deeply as these, not because these are lacking. I also have far less comfortable customs such as my Lear BD4.2 and Minerva Mi-Artist, so I have to commend UE for producing a custom that fits as sturdily as this one without becoming uncomfortable.
Now when we look at the finish of my product I actually have some rather large bubbley areas or “gaps” in my shells with the left ear being worse than the right, but this doesn’t really bother me in all honesty especially on clear shells because it’s not like I have a gap of no colour and until I actually looked for them, I hadn’t noticed. The faceplates are great in the way they have absolutely seamless integration into the shell, lovely smooth edges and a lovely shine off the black surface. If you really look, and I’m talking holding up close to your face, the logos are a little grainy but at any normal distance they are completely acceptable and I’m assuming we are working to the restrictions of UE’s manufacturing gear here, but as a normal user, apart from the gaps, these are a seriously professional and well finished product.
Sonny: I find the shell quality to be great but the logo on the faceplate lacks certain crispness with blurred edges but that’s only on close inspection. Worth noting as well is that they use the standard 2 pin connectors for removable cables but they protrude at the top of the monitor. With the stock cables, the male connectors have a sleeve so nothing sticks out but using the standard connectors of an upgrade cable, the connectors really stick out at the top.
What is Reference Quality?
Sonny: Going back to the reason that I picked these monitors and that was both the way they are tuned and for their technical abilities. Obviously this was all from a demo of the universal version over a year ago and when they arrived I was actually quite surprised by their sound. Not in negative way, or even a positive way, they were just not what I had in my mind. In the time since summer ’13, I have tried a lot of new stuff, I now use a different source and have different references for headphones and earphones and it is clear, I now perceive things a little differently. Too me this was why it is just so important to have something as a reference piece and even more so, that Josh and me are using the same reference. Everything is now on a level playing field for us and will continue to be long into the future.
Josh: Many of you will be aware that Sonny and I tend to hear and perceive products extremely similarly, this is one of the reasons this idea would work brilliantly. I’m saying this because after Sonny’s demo in summer ’13 he was impressed by their sheer speed and analytical capabilities, not a musical earphone nor the most enjoyable of the day, but a reference tool for sure. However that was over 18 months ago and as Sonny says, the way WE perceive things has changed. The thing that shocked me the most on first listen was the boosted mid bass, it was much more present than I had anticipated, they weren’t massively fast either, fast enough to be a good earphone, for sure, but not the rapid reference monitor I had imagined. One thing that had remained from Sonny’s description was the rolled off sub bass; this was strange because earphones with lifted mid bass tend to be tuned to also extend pretty well.
I found the UERM quite enjoyable in the bass actually, quite fun and rhythmical, good quality too; it’s not woolly or sloppy at all, just well-timed and textured. This would be a real strong point for any other earphone we were to review but this is titled a “Reference Monitor” and do I think the bass qualifies as a reference tool? No, not really, but I do enjoy the quality.
Sonny: We both had our first listen to the UERM at pretty similar times, in our own houses and the bass was something we both instantly messaged each other about. I am sure my message to Josh was something along the lines of “these aren’t how I remember them” and mainly because of the bass. I too saw it to be a little boosted in the mid-bass, while clearly being flat from the midrange through treble. I think there are two contributions to why things have changed for me now, even though I am sure, the product hasn’t changed. Firstly and without blowing my own trumpet, my listening ability has improved, as one would hope almost two years on. The second is more what I am surrounded by. I now mainly am looking at flagship CIEMs and top tier headphones, while back then I was reviewing pretty much every budget earphone I could get my hands on. Budget earphones have a tendency to be very bass forward and obviously don’t have the best speed or other technical levels. Go from a lot of that too the UERM and you won’t be wrong in thinking it is hella fast and a little bit lean on the bass, especially with the roll off in the deeper regions Josh mentioned. Coming off of something as neutral as the Sennheiser HD800 or as fast as the Hidition Viento-R though and things become a little more apparent and that is the case here.
Now while I am sure Josh and I are interpreting products the same I think this still is pretty well tasked to the job as reference because it is still without doubt an incredibly balanced earphone. Compare it to any JH Audio model I have tried (other than the latest two sirens) or even UEs other offerings such as the UE18 Pro and this is nowhere near as suited to the bass head. It just hasn’t turned out to be the ruthless, lighting quick studio monitor sound we may have had in mind. Now for us that’s ok and this is still going to be a brilliant tool that we can use to gauge off of and get a feel for other monitors each other may have so our original plan, is still looking good.
So for the bass I can’t disagree with anything Josh has said, it feels natural, well positioned and never rushed or overdone. In fact the mid-bass may not be perfectly neutral but that would probably be a rather dry and boring listen, this is much more enjoyable. The sub-bass is probably the biggest flaw of the entire earphone and that is because at about 100hz things start to calm down a bit and at 50hz it goes for a skydive. With a bit of rumble this would be the complete package, not struggling in any specific area and in reality this could be a lot more rolled off but it is our job to point out the flaws so that’s what we will do.
Josh: I’m going to chat a little bit about the mid-range of these monitors. We are more back in line with the reference sound I was expecting here. Precise would be my choice of description here, we have bags of vocal detail for one which is really refreshing against some of the earphones we have been getting through at the moment. The ability these earphones have to pick out macro details and tiny nuances is really impressive and makes for an insightful listen. The near perfect positioning of vocals is great there is no vagueness about the presentation, its precision is unshakable, and this characteristic continues with the staging in general.
It terms of tone, it’s far from the full bodied baritone of the Heir 8.0 and we don’t have the velvety ease and realism of the Vision Ears VE6 but then this IS a very different earphone made for a different people and as a different tool. Some people could be excused for thinking vocals lack a little warmth and depth but what you sacrifice here you gain in transparency and real information transfer. I really appreciate the mids for what they succeed in and it makes a great listening tool for us.
Something I want to mention before I let Sonny talk about treble is the transition between the two. There is a real coherency to the change in drivers, an unnoticeable blend from one to the other, many earphones, even in the high end struggle to do this as well as the UERM, and you have to remember it manages to do this seamless change while being extremely transparent, no mean feat believe me.
Sonny: The midrange among the many things Josh mentioned also has a slight tilt to the lower midrange, not in a bad way, one that just takes out a little bit of a bite from the upper midrange that when overdone (I’m looking at you Apollo Audio Viper 8) ends up leading to fatigue and forced, artificial clarity. The UERM are more honest than that, more natural and nothing is forced or pushed it is just there. Also worth noting is that why we have said the mid-bass does come across a little boosted, the mids are nothing less that where you want them to be, full bodied and in the limelight.
The treble has a similar ethos to the mids and that is keeping balanced, not struggling with details and having great presence. HOWEVER this is the first area that I hear things a little differently to Josh and I think the coherency is just a bit off between mids and treble with bass and midrange flowing a lot more freely while mids to treble just seems a little uneven. The reason for this again is likely the use of different reference pieces in this area; we use different sources, different cables, different amps and different reference earphones. This is why it is so important that we will now have the same product to gauge our self-off of as far as earphones go. For me the Hidition Viento-R shifts a lot more naturally, accounting to a better separation, faster transitions and a blacker background. Also nit picking the timbre has an ever so slightly metallic taint to it. No it isn’t harsh, or to excited or even overly fatiguing, I just find it snappy and clear and sparkly at 10kHz. In reality everything is pretty dandy and VERY good and the treble also extends nicely with good air and that air contributes to a pretty amazing sense of space and imaging, wouldn’t you agree Josh?
Josh: Absolutely, it goes back to what I was saying about the presentation of vocals. Everything is placed in its own space without interference from the item next to it. You are presented with an image of a performance rather than a blob of sound that’s just “there”. It’s important to mention that it’s not a massive soundstage like the JH Siren Series, the Layla and Angie universal fits being the biggest I’ve ever heard and I know Sonny feels the same about his Roxanne. What we do have though is a respectable sized soundstage with good width, height and depth, but it’s what it does within the space that’s impressive everything is precise and isolated but in a wonderfully cohesive way, it doesn’t sound disjointed in any way either and you are able to easily pinpoint each component of the music. You really don’t need huge driver counts to achieve top quality performance, believe me. It’s easy to go too far on the airiness and space which creates an artificial sounding image, I had it on the Exogal Comet for example but we don’t have that fault with the UERMs, it is both those things but in an enjoyable and dare I say it, reference sounding way. I really am impressed with the accuracy of the stage it’s a great thing if you have a good source, but the transparency will also show you if your source isn’t up to the job so a great tool for us as reviewers and a great addition to your system if the rest of it is of high quality.
Sonny: At the end there what Josh said is really important. You do have to feed these well if you want them to grow up into the amazing earphone they can be. I personally have used my reference system of my modified PWAK120-B with its line out to the Vorzuge Pure and I choose this because out of all my gear it gets on the best with the UERM. Now that is not because it doesn’t hiss, which it doesn’t but more because I think the frequency response is what it should be. To keep things fair I have stayed with the stock cable through out the review, I do know that Josh has been a little more adventurous with both amps and cables.
Josh: I will start by telling you the setup where I think these sound the best and it use an AK240 as source with a line out to the Leckerton UHA760 and on the earphones I use either a Beat Audio Silver Sonic MKV or Effect audio Eros. The reason I think this is so successful is not just down to the quality of components but due in large to the low output impedance (OI) of the Leckerton. Straight from the 240 single ended they don’t sound as “correct” as they can; the 2 Ohm OI isn’t a favourite for sure. It sounds a little skewed and treble takes a hit. I know the AK240 has an output impedance of about an ohm in balanced but the cable I used from Linum has 1.5 ohms itself and that all started adding up and still didn’t give me an ideal sound. The rock bottom output of less than 0.5 Ohm from the Leckerton though was spot on in terms of linearity across the frequency response. To get the best out of your UERM, to do them justice, keep your OI low.
We Picked a Winner:
Sonny: It is easy to say it but we are so happy we chose this as the model to be the websites reference. It has some room for improvements, which is great as I hope to see products in this arena grow and get better from any manufacture but is still a damn good benchmark that is really a jack of all trades in terms of its qualities, if I was to tell you pick out an individual favourite quality after listening to 3 tracks, you’d be having all sorts of arguments with yourself. It is also a relief to see another company along with ACS, pioneering the industry with the work in the digital domain and 3D scanning and printing that allows for better precision and quicker turn around times, even if don’t have the hundreds of customisation options but that has never really been what UE is about. For those looking for a sub $1k all rounder, UE could well have everything you ever wanted with a balanced earphone that is enjoyable. Also expect this to be used as the tool we got it for in up coming CIEM reviews as well as our EPIC Flagship CIEM round up we will be using to announce what CIEM is on our pride of place.