In the world of live performance, the top brand of in-ear monitors is Ultimate Ears. Even if you never really paid attention to them, your favorite artists use these stealthy monitors both for hearing protection on stage and for the ability to hear their own mix of what's going on musically with the band. Gone are the days of running past a wall of Marshall Amps blasting at 120 dB, causing feedback and, worse yet, hearing loss. Today's performers interact with the other musicians on their own terms and in their own head.
Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors are starting to grow in terms of their consumer appeal to audiophiles and music lovers, and there are lots of reasons why. Ultimate Ears headphones are ultra-lightweight, thus they pop into a briefcase easily for your morning commute or for that "trying to tune out that crying baby" flight across the country. Ultimate Ears' $850 7 Pro Custom In-ear Monitors come with a three-way driver complement and offer 26 dB of isolation when fit correctly, which is crucial with such a product. The build quality of these made-in-California in-ear-speakers is first-rate. The removable cables are nicely braided. The plastic molds are nearly impossible to break. You get a touring case that might be a little large for the casual user, but these are professional tools first and audiophile toys second.
The Fitting Process
The UE 7 Pro is a custom-fitted product; just ordering a pair from Amazon isn't going to get you to the holy land, as the in-ear monitors need to be tailored for you and you alone. This means that you are going to need to schedule a visit with an audiologist who can take a mold of your inner ear and likely will clean your ears during the process, which is a pretty freaky but oddly rewarding experience. The cleaning process can get the impacted, funky ear wax out of the deepest part of your ears without any damage, and the result can be downright enlightening. When getting fitted for your in-ear monitors, it's important that you are sitting down, as the foam molds can leave you off-balance when you have them both in place. The overall process doesn't take more than 10 to 15 minutes. The audiologist sends the molds to Ultimate Ears in Irvine, California, where your custom headphones begin their build process.
Speaking of customization, you can also choose custom colors, logos, and initials if you like. My UE 7 Pro monitors are in a pretty feminine pink-ish purple, but you can pick any color and even add a skull and crossbones or something more menacing. I have my initials etched into the in-ear part of the earphones, which is pretty cool. These might be the most customized product an audiophile can buy.
A few words of warning. First, Ultimate Ears likes your headphones to fit tightly. This is for safety purposes, as well as for hearing protection - as I have learned having been through the fitting process three times now. Not everyone likes the "tight" feel of the speakers, and there is a process to shave down the molds to make them fit a little more loosely. I am not worried about yanking my UE 7 Pros out of my ears when jamming to some Led Zeppelin III on my iPad in seat 3B, as I would be if my old band, Ghetto Chicken, reunited and I had to worry about onstage antics and "audio accidents." You are not being a jerk if you ask for your Ultimate Ears to be fine-tuned in terms of fitting. This is part of the process.
Second, if you are going to use Ultimate Ears for consumer purposes like working out or as part of your travel rig, you will want both the longer cable (no additional cost) and the cables that fall to the front. Ultimate Ears has cables that fall from the in-ear monitors toward your back so that you can hide your monitors down the back of your outfit. Once again, this is something that you don't need while sweating to the oldies on the treadmill or powering down another complimentary Cutty Sark in business class. Neither of these tweaks to your Ultimate Ears monitors costs you a penny, but for consumer use they are key to your long-term happiness.
Click over to Page 2 for Performance, High Points and low Points, Comparison and Competition, and Conclusion . . .
The Ultimate Ears 7 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors are voiced for singers and guitar players. They are not voiced to be "flat" like the company's $1,999 Personal Reference Monitors. The UE 7 Pros are very accurate sounding and amazingly resolute. They do push bass a little more than average, which makes sense when you think about who they are voiced for. From a consumer perspective, a little extra bass (it's not like Beats) isn't the worst thing in an in-ear monitor. My reference Etymotic Research ER-4s are very dry and accurate like the Ultimate Ears, but they have little to no bass. Nor are the Etymotics built to the same standard, as I have broken no less than four pairs - and that's just with them being used as travel and workout headphones.
On "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" from Genesis' Turn It On Again best-of album in the AIFF format, the cricket-like keyboard chirps sounded compelling and accurate. The track's building dynamic threshold was presented very nicely with Phil Collins' reverse gated drums having the needed "processed" smack. On a less-produced track like "That's All," you can hear an amazing amount of the texture of the overall track. The more acoustic feel of the tune blends together while giving you that part-of-the-music feel.
On "Fashion" by David Bowie from his The Singles 1969-1993, I could hear the driving, growling bass line nicely through the UE 7 Pros. The nifty, almost disco beat is kept nicely, with crisp snare pops, sharp claps, and other high-frequency audio goodies. On "Let's Dance," I could hear the more complex mix blend together deliciously with Stevie Ray Vaughn's Stratocaster as the star. The deep horns (sax, I believe) highlight the low-frequency performance of the UE 7s.
One of Ultimate Ears' clients is the super-group Audioslave, which gave me reason to dial in "Show Me How to Live" from their self-titled record on an AIFF 1440 file. The bass-heavy mix is strong in the low end. Right around 1:25, the track explodes in the dynamic window, and it's a great test of how well the speakers hold up. In this case, the UE 7s kept it together very nicely yet never gave up their death-grip on the low frequencies.
In the last scene of 24 "2:00 PM to 3:00 PM" when Jack Bauer gets his last escape after yet another long day of 24-craziness, I heard the sweeping orchestration including strings and woodwinds paired with 24-like technological sounds. The effects and live recorded sounds on the set were vibrant and realistic right in my ears. For watching TV or movies on the go or at the gym, you will be hard pressed to find a better-sounding set of headphones, especially ones that weigh practically nothing and slip right into your briefcase or gym bag.
• The Ultimate Ears 7 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors are super lightweight and travel easily.
• The UE 7s are ultra-customizable in terms of the way they are fitted, they way they look, the way the cables are installed, and more.
• They use a three-way speaker with a highly resolute sound.
• The UE 7s are built to survive the demands that professional, touring musicians put on them, thus their build quality is second to none in the world of headphones.
• The user experience with Ultimate Ears is simply fantastic. From getting you set with someone to fit your headphones to sending you well-produced, enthusiastic videos, this is a first-rate company packing an excellent experience for the customer, be it a musician or an audio lover.
• You will need to take the time to get fitted for any top-of-the-line Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors, which takes time and costs over $100 in a major city like Los Angeles.
• The fit of the custom ear molds tends to err on the side of "tight," thus revisions are a real possibility for many users.
• The UE 7s don't come set up with the cables needed or the cable configuration that consumers would want. It doesn't cost more to ask for this, but it's key to your long-term success.
• These are bass-forward speakers. If you don't want a strong bass voicing, there are other monitors in the line that are flatter in terms of their frequency response.
Comparison and Competition
I mentioned my Etymotic ER-4 in-ear monitors, which I've used for years with great success. Today the Etymotics cost far less than they used to and are well below the price of the UE 7 Pros. For many users, the Etymotics can be used without custom ear molds (although I use molds for them), thus they are more consumer-friendly. The Etymotics are dry sounding but don't have the bass that the UE 7 Pros have.
Colorado-based Westone is another player to come to market with high-end, professional in-ear monitors that are very good. They too require a custom fitting and are priced in the neighborhood of the UE 7 Pros for the higher-end models.
The best competition for the UE 7s is from Ultimate Ears itself. In fact, I have ordered a pair of the $1,999 Personal Reference Monitor in-ear monitors, which were developed using much of the same technology but were voiced to be as neutral as possible. The idea is to be able to bring the most color-less speakers in the world from one studio to another right in the palm of your hand, never having to worry about coloration, room acoustics, and other audio maladies. They cost a lot of money; but, depending on how much you travel, workout, mix, or perform, it might not be crazy - especially when you consider what a top-performing pair of high-end loudspeakers costs. You wouldn't be crazy to compare $2,000 headphones to $30,000 Wilsons or $60,000 Magicos and beyond.
If you want to be the coolest guy on the plane and/or be able to bring that high-end audiophile sound with you in your gym bag for your time on the treadmill, the Ultimate Ears 7 Pros might be just for you. There is a process to making them truly yours, but that time and money are well spent. For roughly $1,000, you walk away with a 100-percent-customized set of headphones that can resolve details, power deep bass, and emote sound in ways that few others can. The UE 7 Pros rock.