Ultimate Ears 10PRO Custom In-Ear Monitor Review

The Sonics

I compared the UE 10PROs to my UE Super.fi 5 Pro phones, a dual driver (armature) model costing around $449 when new. The Super.fi 5 Pros are sweet earphones, which replaced a set of Shure e4c phones as my personal mobile audio tools of choice. They’re detailed, with lots of bass and a powerful sound but the 10PROs left them for dead, much to my disgust and dismay. The consumer models sounded thin and restrained in comparison with bass that was soft and cut off. They’re really good phones, it’s just that the monitors are better.

The 10PROs go low, with real weight and presence that will have a heavy bass line throbbing in your head the way it should. These are monitoring devices first and foremost; accuracy is paramount (and they’re billed as the most accurate in the range) so the bass isn’t overblown at all. It’s also as tight and fast as just about anything you’ll ever hear – there’s no overhang and the initial attack of notes is hyper-fast. To really hear what Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ from the Collected CD sounds like, you need either lots of big buck hi-fi gear or a set of good phones; there’s more happening there in terms of detail than you think.

The 10PROs also reveal a great deal of what’s going on in the rest of the frequency range. Vocals and instruments are clear and the detail resolution is relentless, even disconcerting at times. You can hear things through earphones that are hard to pick up on speakers – the intricacies of fingers on guitar stings, tiny vocal inflections, even the quality of the backing vocalists. The 10PROs are neutral monitors, so they don’t hide with warmth or highlight with extra presence.

That’s a fine thing, but the bad news is that studio noise, equipment hum, mic distortion and the like are all here to be dissected. If your music is badly recorded, shrill and harsh or heavily compressed, you will hear every iota of rubbish. On the other hand, if the recording and production values are of superior quality, you’ll bask in the glory.

There’s a relationship between deliberate mutilation of music and the way these monitors make it sound. Rough live recordings, bootleg discs and even unearthed treasure troves recorded on less than stellar equipment still sound great through the 10PROs despite (or because) of all the flaws. Some maliciously manipulated modern pop sounds simply awful though; it just grates and sounds wrong, you can literally hear things you don’t want to hear and that’s no fun.

I found the 10PROs to be extremely distracting. The noise isolation with music playing is dramatic, so you can’t hear people, cars, bikes or dogs. I’d occasionally stop dead in my tracks as a particular piece of music kicked in and I thought “damn that’s bloody amazing”. I even found myself totally tuned out in the Auckland public library drumming along on the shelves to the huge bass lines in a Wild Beasts track. Not really the cool look I was aiming for. They really do cut through the BS of the world and put unadulterated music into your head, and that makes them a joy to live with.

Compared to my Sennheiser HD650 headphones, I felt the 650s had the overall edge. The big single drivers give more weight and impact to the bottom end, and they can resolve more detail, but they need a good headphone amp to sound their best, and they’re not exactly street smart. The 10PROs can be driven by an iPod, although they do sound their best through a good headphone stage as well.

Conclusion

So, can these monitors possibly be worth the asking price? As onstage monitoring tools for pro musos, I’d say so. Anything that makes a band sound tighter and more polished is going to sell albums in the long run. They’re certainly easier to lug around on the road than a stage full of monitor speakers and associated paraphernalia.

As ‘earphones’ for an audiophile or music nut (different creatures by the way), that’s another thing entirely. Let’s be honest, they’re mega-expensive even though they’re not the top of the custom monitor range. You can buy a quality USB DAC/headphone amp and an excellent set of headphones for this price, but you couldn’t really use that lot on the street. Alternatively, you could buy a few sets of really good off-the-shelf consumer earphones from UE, Shure, Sennheiser or Etymotics and still have change for a concert or two, but none of them will sound quite as good as these and they won’t be custom fitted either.

So the value proposition is a hard one to quantify. The overwhelming reaction from people who asked about the phones was along the lines of “insanity” when they heard the price, but the same lot think it’s madness to spend money on audio cables, so I’m not too worried about that.

My take on this is that once the evil recession ends and the loot is again flowing freely, I’ll try a few of the lower priced dual driver UE custom monitors and hope I can find a set I like. If not… God help me, I might have to spend up large for a set of these. Yes, I do like them that much. ASHLEY KRAMER

PS – I also had the top of the range six driver 18PROs to review…coming soon.

www.plugmein.co.nz

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