Ears (UE) in Irvine, CA was founded in 1995 to address the sound-monitoring needs of on-stage rock musicians. The company developed the first high-performance two-way, custom in-ear stage monitors and has a loyal following of touring musicians, sound engineers and mainstream music lovers, due to the sound quality and comfortable fit. UE was acquired by Logitech in late 2008, as part of Logitech's strategy to expand its portfolio of digital audio products to provide more options for portable music listening. UE offers a full line of custom earphones starting at $400 for the 4 Pro Custom Monitors and as high as $1350 for the new 18 Pro Custom Monitors. According to UE, an estimated 75 percent of today’s top touring rock musicians now use the UE custom-fit in-ear monitors while performing. If true, this represents a huge following that can only be possible if the product delivers high performance demanded by these individuals. We had the unique opportunity to tour the Ultimate Ears facility in Irvine, CA to see just what is involved in making some of the best professional monitors in the world. UE's Director of Product Marketing, Paul Manfrini gave us the grand tour that ended with a set of ear impressions that were used to create a pair of Custom 11 Pro Monitors for this review.
UE Music Room
Musicians will feel right at home on arriving at UE's Irvine, CA facility. There is a music room where musicians can perform while hanging out. The white chair in the center of the room is where the on-site audiologist takes ear impressions for their custom monitors. The process is rather simple with the audiologist placing a cotton plug attached to a string into your ear and then squeezing goop into the ear canal and a good part of the outer ear. The material cures in just a few minutes and out comes the impression. It is a strange feeling at first, but it only takes 15 or 20 minutes to complete the process. UE offers a list of recommended audiologists across the states familiar with the impressions needed for their custom monitors. Here is a YouTube clip of Sugar Ray and his crew during their visit to the UE facility along with video of his ear impressions.
The main production floor at UE consists of the assembly area along with the audio testing station that is used to ensure the earphones meet certain performance standards before they are sent on their way. Each monitor is hand-made and goes through a series of quality assurance tests. It is a very time consuming process with much attention to detail. The custom cases are also made in this area.
This lab area is where the monitors are created from the ear impressions. The monitors need to be trimmed down before the shell colors are added to create the amazing works of art seen in the Custom Art Gallery page. Much of the process at UE is proprietary, so we had limited access into the details of how exactly they are made. However, the final product is a work of art with sound quality that is only available those who can afford the best. We saw several big name musicians on the white order forms sticking out of each of the boxes. It was great to see that Ultimate Ears has a such a loyal following of customers.
Wall of Ears
So one might ask - "Where do they store all of those custom ear impressions?" The answer is in a room called the "Wall of Ears". The many impressions that have been taken from customers are cataloged and kept in storage just in case another set of monitors are needed in the future. For touring performers, this is especially important in the event a quick replacement is needed. There are also 3-D The collection of ear impressions at this location is significant and it will only grow with time. One interesting aspect of our ears is that as we age, the inside and outside shape may change. For this reason customers may require more than one set of ear impressions over an extended period of time.
Custom UE 11 Pro
The Custom UE 11 Pro design combines a quad armature speaker configuration with a three-way crossover (an industry first). The design features a dual driver subwoofer that tightly and accurately details low frequencies. A dedicated mid-range driver provides clean dynamics and a dedicated tweeter handles the upper end of the response. The four-speaker design results in a full range monitor that exhibits excellent response and articulation for the listener. As with all in-ear products, comfort can be challenging at times and it takes some getting used to when first placing the monitors into your ears. The custom models reach deeper into the ear canal than off-the-shelf designs, so it is important that the fit is correct. Achieving the best performance requires a good seal especially for tight bass response. Once achieved, the fidelity of these monitors is spectacular. The Custom UE 11 Pro is also available with the optional ambient feature to allow for stage bleed while controlling the isolation effect.
The Personalized Case
The Custom UE 11 Pro comes with a personalized case (metal box) for carrying the product along with the ear cleaning tool. The box measures 6.75" x 6" x 2.5" and has more padding than needed for the safe transport of your valuable in-ear monitors. A smaller case is also provided just for the monitors. This is the same type of case that comes with other UE earphones. The 48-inch cable provided with the monitors is very light and pliable, making it easy to be tucked away. UE also offers addition 48-inch or 64-inch cables in five different colors.
The impedance of the Custom 11 Pro Monitors is an important characteristic since it can get quite low for earphones. Since many portable media players lack good drive capability, the
sound quality may vary depending on the player. These earphones
have an impedance rating of 18 ohms at 1kHz and our measurements seem to confirm
this (we measured 18.1 ohms). There was a peak impedance of 39.1 ohms at 2.5 kHz and a minimum of 9 ohms at 10kHz. These monitors have a much better impedance consistency compared to some of the other models we have looked at. What we do know is that source impedance seems to play a role in how these monitors sound.
The Custom 11 Pro Monitors have all the makings of great sounding earphones and with the right software and electronics they produce excellent sound quality. There was a good variation of sonic signature depending on the output we used to drive these monitors. For example, when listening to good familiar SACD recording, the best results came from the line level outputs fed into a HeadRoom Micro Amp headphone amplifier. Using the headphone output on the same SACD player just lacked the detail and impact we could hear on the HeadRoom unit. We recommend checking out HeadRoom's complete line of headphone amplifiers for the best audio performance.
The bass response on these monitors set them apart from others we have heard with tight and articulate reproduction of the deepest notes. The midrange was refined with a wide soundstage that produced fine nuances that could only be heard with the extremely quiet background level offered with this design. There were fine textures in reference recordings that became apparent when listening through these monitors. Female vocals and acoustic guitar had an amazing realism that never got old.
There are now seven models to choose from in the Custom line with the Custom 1 Pro and Custom 18 Pro being recently added to the line-up. The Ultimate Ears Custom 11 Pro offer a level of performance not found in the less expensive in-ear monitors. The custom ear impressions used to make these monitors provided exceptional fit and performance, making them very appealing to audiophiles and music professionals. We have been very satisfied with the Custom 11 Pro sound quality and will continue to use them when evaluating high performance electronics.