You've seen Ultimate Ears headphones before, even if you didn't know exactly what they were. These days, on-stage performers almost without exception use in-ear monitors while they are getting down, and Ultimate Ears is one of the most prolific brands among rock and pop stars. Ultimate Ears offers a variety of in-ear monitors, many of which need a custom fitting for your specific ears, but only one in-ear speaker meets the company's reference standards, developed in conjunction with the engineers at Capitol Records Studio. The In-Ear Reference Monitor is a $999 pair of in-ear headphones that are designed to bring the most accurate, studio-quality sound reproduction to audio professionals no matter where they are in the world. Gone are issues with differing gear or changing acoustics. The insides of your ears are pretty much the same if you are mastering a record in Hollywood, New York, or Tokyo.
The Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors are a three-way design, which is pretty amazing in that these drivers fit inside a housing that literally fits inside your ear. Their goal is to be voiced to have no specific flavor or sonic character whatsoever. Unlike what is so popular in the hip-hop community, these headphones let you hear exactly what is on your music file, master tape, or whatever audio source that you choose to listen to.
By no means do you have to be a professional engineer to own a thousand dollar set of headphones, but you need to be into audio. I upgraded from a more on-stage type of Ultimate Ear headphone that was mixed to be more bass-heavy to the far flatter In-Ear Reference Monitors. If you are going to use the In-Ear Reference Monitors for your workouts or in your travels, you likely will want a longer cable than the stock one that comes with the monitors. You also will need to get a professional fitting with an audiologist who will send your molds off to Ultimate Ears in Irvine, California. Some fine-tuning (including buffing and grinding of the ear molds) might be needed, as Ultimate Ears likes to make a very tight fit in your ear that you may or may not find comfortable. Personally, I needed some more space in there, so I had them ground down a bit.
When you get your In-Ear Reference Monitors back from the factory, you will also receive a customized, metal case with your name printed on it. You get a little ear wax cleaner (see if your audiologist can clean your ears when you get fitted, as you never know what kind of funk you've got down your ear canals, and only a pro can clean that up).
I spent a good amount of time going through my music collection stored as 1440 AIFF files on my iPad. The In-Ear Reference Monitors are truly resolute. They don't boom on bass like my other in-ear monitors, but the bass sounds fast and tight. With no outside noise present, you get a really intimate look at recordings, even in places like the gym or on an airplane. With tracks like "Misty Mountain Hop" by Led Zeppelin from their fourth record, these in-ear monitors presented a lively and amazingly accurate sound. John Bonham's cymbals dissolved beautifully with sheen but no glare. John Paul Jones' keyboard lines were back in the mix but still easily heard behind the vocals and in conjunction with Jimmy Page's guitar lines. You feel like you can ear everything even when the stewardess is asking you if you want another Diet Coke.
With the Foo Fighters' "Monkey Wrench," the monitors allowed me to hear the resolution and space of the track. The pregnant pause between measures in the song's intro highlighted how quiet the listening environment was. The chorus, with guitars and cymbals raging and bass guitars droning, were both accurate sounding and musically enjoyable.
On "Love Her Madly" from The Doors' L.A. Woman, I could hear Jim Morrison's voice front and center, with wonderful space between the backing musicians. Robbie Krieger's twangy rifts had life but knew their place in the mix. The 60s-tastic keyboards had a groovy-groove with an analog flair yet still sounded live, dynamic, and HD.
• The In-Ear Reference Monitors are light, small, high-performance in-ear headphones that might not have a direct competitor in the high-end realm in terms of overall neutrality.
• Ultimate Ears makes the ownership process special, with custom naming, a lost-and-found program, and custom colors and designs for your specific in-ear monitors if you want something more than the black-and-white Capitol Record logo on your headphones.
• These in-ear monitors make traveling easier. Crying babies are 25dB less noisy. Raging jet engines on a plane or whirring elliptical machines at the gym are simply not as annoying when you've cranked in your Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors and tuned out the outside world.
• The build quality is really first rate. The cables are nice. The connectors are nice. The monitors are plastic but pretty durable. The case that they give you with your name on it is also pretty sweet and helps protect your headphones when they aren't in your ears.
• You need to get a fitting for these headphones, thus you can't just impulse buy them. You also can't test out a friend's set, as they simply won't fit in your ears. You need to trust that they are as good as the $999 asking price (plus fitting) implies.
• The cables that come with the headphones aren't really designed for traditional use at the gym or on an airplane. You can and likely should order a longer cable to give you a little more wiggle room.
• Like any good audiophile component, it's a garbage-in/garbage-out situation. If you are rocking MP3s at 128-kbps resolution, don't expect these headphones to turn lemons into lemonade. They are designed to let you hear exactly what you have on your files.
• I would really recommend against using In-Ear Reference Monitors while driving or riding a bike. If you need to be able to hear some of the outside world, these aren't the right headphones for you.
• More of a suggestion than a downside, but I would consider using a high-end DAC for serious listening sessions. I have a USB DAC from Resonessence Labs that's tiny, powered by your computer, and sounds far better than anything inside my Apple products.
Comparison and Competition
Companies like Westone, Grado, and Fostex also make high-end in-ear monitors that are pretty good. Westone and products like my former reference in-ear headphones from Etymotic Research are the closest match to the In-Ear Reference Monitors, as they need to be fitted to your actual ears. The Etymotic ER4s are much less money than the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, but they don't have the same performance, nor do they offer the same durability -- I have broken four pairs of the Etymotics over the years.
At $999, the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors are an expensive toy that's not for everybody; but, if you want to take the sound that you love from your $50,000-plus audiophile rig with you on the road or to the gym, these headphones are a must have. Simply put, you can't buy better-sounding in-ear monitors. Yes, you have to have them fitted, which is a bit of a pain, and for less than half the price you can find suitable in-ear monitors. However, nothing comes close to the performance, neutrality, and build quality of the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors. If you travel a lot or have hours to listen to headphones, you really owe it to yourself to invest in this product. It is simply fantastic.
• Ultimate Ears 7 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Ultimate Ears Brand page at HomeTheaterReview.com.