In-ear monitors rely upon a proper fit in order to perform at their best. If they don't form a proper seal, there will be a big drop-off in bass response, skewing the frequency balance. It can be a challenge to get a good fit that both seals the ear canal and is comfortable especially from conventional IEMs (in-ear-monitors). Most manufacturers use a universal-fit model and supply the purchaser with a selection of different-sized (and sometimes even different-styled) tips that can be placed on the in-ear monitors. The higher-end option is to go with a custom-molded in-ear monitor like the Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered model ($999) reviewed here.
While several companies make custom-molded monitors, Ultimate Ears has revolutionized the process, which makes this type of headphone a much more attractive option. In the past, you would need to go to an audiologist and have him/her take silicone impressions of your ears, which you would then send to the headphone company to use to build your custom monitors. This takes a lot of time--to go to the audiologist, sit there with your mouth open (and drooling) while the silicone sets, mail in the molds, and wait for your headphones.
Ultimate Ears' radically different approach involves using a 3D scanner system: The technician places a headband on you that has a circular opening around your ear with reference markings on it. The technician uses a scanner (which looks like a hair dryer) to draw a 3D image of your inner and outer ear. I had this done while at a trade show. It only took a few minutes, and the image was then emailed to Ultimate Ears--so they had my ear measurements minutes after they were taken, not a week later. The added benefit is that there's no physical mold that can be damaged or lost during transit. An Ultimate Ears technician review the scan and adjusts it to smooth out certain areas and create a small ridge that helps seal the monitors to your ears, then creates the monitor shell in the colored acrylic of your choice using a 3D printer. The boot module with the drivers is then inserted and sealed into the monitor shell, which is finished off with a customizable plate.
I visited the Ultimate Ears facility in Irvine, CA, and was able to observe the build process from start to finish. The facility was part laboratory and part hi-tech campus--a la Google or Yahoo--with collaborative areas, recreational areas, and even a stage area for musicians. Speaking with the employees, it was easy to see the pride they took in their products. I was impressed with the enthusiasm that everyone displayed, from the engineers speaking way over my head about new technology to the customer service representatives speaking about making service better and easier for the customers. The company prominently displays the phrase "Getting Better Has No Finish Line" in their office, and everyone seems to take that motto to heart.
UE developed the original Reference in-ear monitor about four years ago with input from Capitol Studios, with the goal of producing an in-ear monitor that would have a perceived flat response. The proliferation of high-resolution audio files that often contain more high-frequency information than the previous CD releases (Capitol Studios has been re-mastering its catalog to produce high-resolution versions), coupled with the recent abundance of portable high-resolution audio players, led UE to join forces again with Capitol Studios to produce the Pro Remastered. The new version uses new balanced armature True Tone drivers to extend the high-frequency response to approximately 18 kHz.
My UE Pro Reference Remastered monitors came in a black aluminum carrying case with my name engraved on it, a nice touch for a high-end product that's custom made to my own ears. The case also holds a cleaning tool, a quarter-inch adapter, and a buffer jack. I opted for the clear acrylic monitor body so that I could see inside, but the color options are nearly endless.
I auditioned the Remastered monitors using my iPhone, a few different desktop headphone amplifiers, and the Questyle QP1R portable hi-res audio player.
I spent some time listening to Saint-Saens' Symphony No.3 Organ Symphony, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Charles Munch (Living Stereo, DSF). There is so much going on with this piece, and the extra detail lets you hear into the orchestra with good separation between instruments. The Remastered monitors did a great job reproducing the sense of space between the instruments, as well as the details of each; I was particularly impressed with the details I heard from the pipe organ. The pipe organ did not overpower the monitors and turn the sound into mush; the notes at the beginning of track four (Maestoso) were deep and powerful yet distinct and detailed. The high-frequency performance was just as impressive: the triangles rang clearly, and the warmth of the violin strings did not overwhelm their texture.
When listening to bass-heavy electronica or techno tracks, the Remastered monitors felt a little light in the bass. While their performance was probably accurate, with some genres of music, I prefer a bit of a bass bump. You will not find that artificial bass bump here. That's not to say they don't solid bass performance--the bass capabilities can be shown off with good acoustic bass tracks, such as Herbie Hancock's "Summertime" from Gershwin's World (Verve, DSD). In this track, the bass was full bodied and well controlled, which offset Joni Mitchell's vocals nicely.
• UE has developed the easiest custom-fit process I have seen, which the company has coupled with a streamlined and hi-tech manufacturing process to make it quicker and easier to obtain custom-fit monitors.
• The custom process provides lots of options to personalize the in-ear monitors just the way you want them.
• Last but definitely not least, the Pro Remastered monitors can reproduce audio signals with neutrality and loads of detail.
• As with any custom-fit in-ear monitor, the shape of the monitors cannot change over time with your ears.
• Another consideration with in-ear monitors is that they only work for you. While this may keep pesky friends from borrowing them, it also means you won't be able to sell them down the road to fund your next purchase.
• While these IEMs are accurate, the bass level may be on the lean side if you listen to lots of bass-heavy music.
Comparison and Competition
UE offers a full lineup of in-ear monitors at different price points and sound profiles. For example, if you are looking for something with more bass, the UE 18+ Pro ($1,500) may be the ticket for you. Westone is another manufacturer of audiophile-grade custom-fit in-ear monitors. Westone offers a wide range of custom-fit monitors, from the $49 ES10 to the $1,299 ES60.
The UE Pro Reference Remastered in-ear monitor is a true reference-grade monitor that can best be described as providing a delicate and nuanced sound. It is revealing and provides loads of detail, letting the listener look deep into the recording. In comparison with my current reference headphone, the Audeze LCD-XC ($1,800, not including the Wireworld cables), I found the Reference Remastered IEM to get close in providing the amount of detail I hear through the Audeze, but with a little less richness and very slightly less detail. This may be due to the reduced amount of energy at each end of the frequency range, in comparison with the Audeze. One must keep in mind, though, that the UE model is roughly half the price, can fit in my pocket, and still offer true reference-grade sound.
The Reference Remastered sound profile is balanced and neutral, which is great for quiet listening environments but might be a bit bass-light for mobile listeners when there's a lot of low-frequency background noise. However, listening in quiet environments, the UE Pro Reference Remastered, whether powered by a desktop headphone rig or a portable music player, reproduced loads of well-balanced musical details while excluding outside noises, making for an immersive listening experience.
• Check out our Headphones category page to read similar reviews.
• Ultimate Ears Pro Introduces New Reference In-Ear Monitor at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Ultimate Ears website for more product information.