Despite the extraordinary price tag, these custom-fitted, magical in-ear monitors are indispensable for professional musicians and wealthy (or committed) music lovers
You give the nice man two thousand lovely New Zealand dollars and he puts some semi-liquid gunk in your ears and sends you on your way with nothing but your one hundred and thirty bucks change?
Sounds a bit crazy right?
Well of course it does, at least until he calls you up to let you know that your new earphones are ready for collection. That’s the point where it’s all likely to make sense, except for the fact that you won’t actually be collecting earphones.
Sure. The guy in question is Thomas Muller at Auckland’s Acoustix Hearing. He’s the NZ authorised dealer for UE and he happens to be an audiologist, so he can handle the fitting of the custom monitors. If you’re based down country, an audiologist in your area would work in conjunction with Muller to do the fitting.
The “earphones” are actually Logitech’s Ultimate Ears (UE) custom in-ear monitors, which are aimed at professional musicians for on-stage monitoring. There’s nothing in the NZ legal system stating that audiophiles can’t use them, which was my excuse to borrow a set.
Fitting, Moulds and Audiologists
What’s with all this chatter about fittings and audiologists? The custom part of the product name means that every set is custom fitted to your ears. Moulds are taken of your ear canal and your monitors are hand made by UE, using the mould to get them right. This perfect fit helps with comfort and sound isolation but also affects the sonics, as the drivers are tuned to the exact volume and shape of your ear canal, so the frequency balance and response is spot on to the reference specification.
I’ve had moulds taken of my ears for a set of custom fitted musician’s earplugs and it’s not as pleasant as getting your hair cut by a beautiful stylist, but it’s not as bad as going to the dentist. A little uncomfortable but entirely bearable.
Before we get to the products, a short history lesson if you please. The UE story goes as follows: back in the wild days of 1995, Alex Van Halen (Van Halen’s drummer, naturally) had his hearing disappear smack bang in the middle of a concert – really, really loud noise will do that. This was probably a little disconcerting, so a bloke named Jerry Harvey (the band’s monitor engineer) crafted a set of custom moulded monitor earpieces for the distraught drummer.
More in ear monitors were created for the rest of the band, other musicians became interested and the company grew from there. So Van Halen were good for something, after all. UE originally made monitors exclusively for professional musicians but in 2002, it started making products for consumers. Then in 2008, Logitech acquired the company.
The custom in-ear monitor range is still going strong today, but the obvious question is why would a consumer technology website like Witchdoctor be reviewing professional audio products? Because if you want to hear the earphone pushed to its current limits, this is where it’s at, that’s why.
You read that correctly. I said drivers. The entire range of custom monitors features more than one driver, and none of them use conventional dynamic drivers as found in those white things Apple chucks in with an iPod.
UE use balanced armatures, which are a fairly specialised type of driver (still using diaphragms and magnets). They’re most commonly found in hearing aids because they’re tiny and efficient, which makes them perfect for this type of in-ear monitoring application, where size matters.
While the UE consumer earphone range tops out with a triple driver model, the custom monitor range goes all the way to six drivers per side in the form of the UE18 PRO. The UE10PRO reviewed here features three drivers per side: bass, mid and treble just like a three way speaker. A close look through the transparent plastic body reveals some of the thinnest wiring you’ve ever seen, running to an almost unfeasibly small passive crossover network that allows the three drivers to speak with one voice.
Construction is first class, with thin but sturdy braided cables and the 90-degree 3.5mm mini-jack that I prefer on earphones. The review unit was a generic fit demo model, which accepts the standard UE foam earbuds; it would be a little extravagant to custom fit a set of monitors for everyone who wants to review them, after all they’d be no good whatsoever to anyone but the reviewer (hint, hint Logitech NZ hint, hint). So I won’t have experienced the full noise isolation or tuning of a custom pair, but all that means is that what I heard would be better in the custom versions.
The 10PROs are more difficult to insert in the ear than conventional earphones or even a set of the UE consumer phones. The large body means that they need to be orientated in a specific direction, but once they’re in, they’re comfortable and the noise isolation is impressive. If you’re not into sticking things in your ears you may not like these phones, but if you’re happy with the idea (I am – see my blog post on the subject here) then sonic excellence awaits.