Ultimate Ears owns the lion’s share of the custom-fit in-ear monitor marketplace, a position the firm has earned partly through the quality of its products and partly through its long experience in the field (they built their first in-ear monitors back in 1995 for the band Van Halen). It would be fair to say that the majority of UE’s custom-fit in-ear monitors are designed for and sold to working musicians who are looking for a superior way to monitor their own live onstage performances. One notable exception to this pattern, however, would be UE’s distinctive In-Ear Reference Monitor (IERM), reviewed in Playback 42, a product developed specifically for studio monitoring and mastering applications where optimally neutral response curves and uncolored sound are the order of the day. In contrast, UE acknowledges that its more stage-oriented models do introduce a judicious amount of response curve shaping calculated to produce a potentially more enjoyable and euphonic—though perhaps technically less accurate—sound that the IERM provides.
Having heard and come to appreciate the sound of the IERMs, which is about neutrally balanced as any in-ear monitor I’ve heard to date, I was curious to know how UE’s top stage model would differ. Would it sound unduly colored, or perhaps tastefully reshaped in a manner complimentary to most music, or would it perhaps give results falling somewhere in between? Inquiring minds (and ears) wanted answers, and so I was delighted when I got a call from UE’s public relations firm asking if I might be interested in reviewing the firm’s flagship stage monitor—the UE 18 Pro ($1350). I quickly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and—with help from the UE team—shortly got a new set of ear mold impressions taken and a pair of UE 18 Pros on order (my pair were built up in a dynamite shade of translucent orange acrylic, though UE offers tons of color options to please all tastes). Within a few weeks my new UE 18 Pros arrived and I’ve been listening to them carefully ever since. This review presents my findings.
Before you begin the review, let me offer one suggestion: go back and ready my review of the Ultimate Ears IERM (see link above), since this review will provide some careful comparisons between the UE 18 Pro and the IERM.
On the surface of things, the UE 18 Pro is undeniably a more complicated design than the IERM. Specifically, the UE 18 Pro is a three-way, six-driver monitor, where all six drivers are highly tunable, precision balanced armature-type drivers. In contrast, the IERM is a much simpler design: a three-way, three-driver in-ear monitor, also featuring balanced armature-type drivers.
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you want a very high-quality monitor that, while not as accurate as Ultimate Ear’s own IERM in a strict textbook sense, features subtle (and that’s the operative word here) response curve shaping that complements many types music and that makes the monitors particularly effective in moderately noisy environments. The UE 18 Pro offers a full-bodied presentation overall, with a terrific amount of dynamic headroom (it can effortlessly play louder than you’ll ever need it to do).
Look further if: you require the most detailed sounding in-ear monitors available (where several models including the Westone ES5s, the JH Audio JH16 Pros, and UE’s own IERMs offer very stiff competition). Similarly, look further if you require the highest degree of noise-isolation possible, where Sensaphonics’ 2MAX monitor is the undisputed class leader.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
• Tonal Balance: 8.5
• Clarity: 9.5 (“in the hunt” with the best available)
• Dynamics: 10
• Comfort/Fit: 9.5 (UE’s expertise in molding custom-fit earpieces really shows, and the UE 18 Pro earpieces, much like the IERM earpieces, do a great job in terms of noise isolation and achieving long-term comfort)
• Sensitivity: 10
• Value: 9.5
• Custom-fit, earpieces feature outer shells molded from solid acrylic. Note: as with the Ultimate Ears IERMs, the fit of the UE 18 Pros is significantly better than the norm in a field where the bar has already been set pretty high. I found it hard to put my finger on any one aspect of the UE earpieces that made them superior, so perhaps it’s a matter of getting a number of small variables right at the same time. But whatever the reason, I’ve come to trust that UE will do a consistently superior job of converting ear mold impressions into finished earpieces.
• Earpieces can be molded in any of 31 translucent colors or 37 solid colors—something for everyone.
• “Rugged, low-profile, low-distortion” signal cable fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack.
• Passive three-way crossover.
• Six high-quality miniature balanced-armature type drivers.
• Claimed frequency response is 20Hz – 18kHz, a somewhat narrower response range than the 5Hz – 20kHz response range claimed for the IERM (5Hz – 20kHz).
• Impedance is rated at 21 Ohms, the same as the rating for the IERM.
• Efficiency is rated at 115.6 dB vs. 112 dB for the IERM—a noticeable difference that tends to make the UE 18 Pro sound more dynamically expressive.
• Comes packed in a hard shell road case whose interior provides a well-padded chamber for the monitors with an adjoining space for the signal cable and accessories. As a very cool detail touch, the owner’s name is engraved on the outside of the road case.
• As with the IERM, UE has gone all-out in the packaging for the UE 18 Pros, which arrive in a beautiful black presentation case beneath whose flip-open lid you’ll find the user’s manual, plus a padded chamber that protects the road case and in-ear monitors within.
• Accessories include a cleaning tool (for removing ear wax, etc. from the monitor’s bore tubes).