Craving Custom? The Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro Satisfy.
Toward the end of last year, Ultimate Ears updated their flagship monitor to include their proprietary True Tone drivers. The result, the UE 18+ Pro, is now available for anyone who wants to get the best of what Ultimate Ears has to offer in custom monitors. But is going custom worth it for an audio fan who isn’t a touring musician? I took a pair of the 18+ Pro for a spin to find out. There are two things to get out of the way before we discuss the 18+ Pro. Firstly, UE’s custom monitors offer a lot of passive noise isolation. In fact, Ultimate Ears claims a full 26 dB in reduction. To give you an idea, the highest noise reduction rating hearing protection products can get is 33 dB, and the recommended rating for indoor shooting is 28-33 dB. So although you can’t use your UE 18+ Pro to hit target practice at the local firing range, you can get a good perspective on just how much external noise these monitors block. Secondly, if you are a fan of open-backed high-end headphones, you’ll be accustomed to the space and depth of the sound that comes with an open design. Listening with the sound source placed outside of the ear is a more natural experience. No matter how good a custom in-ear monitor design is, it’s still far more difficult to recreate a room sound when the sound source is essentially inside your ear canal. Both of these concepts are worth mentioning because they represent the two biggest complaints I hear from people who are audio fans, especially hi-fi speaker fans, who dislike in-ear headphones. There is, of course, one thing that the in-ear monitor provides that speakers don’t: high quality audio with exceptional portability. While yes, open-backed over-ear planar magnetic headphones are technically portable, they are tough to use in your local coffee shop, or to pack in your bag on a trip. And as folks with kids or noisy neighbors will tell you, open-backed designs are wonderful… when you can actually have a quiet listening room. What the UE custom monitor achieves over universal monitors is to create a tight seal and a proper alignment of sound channels so that the drivers are aimed at the perfect direction for your ear canal shape. This alone eliminates the biggest downfall of most in-ear headphones: the fit. Although it is an extra step and hassle to get your ear impressions taken or scanned, it’s worth it for anyone who has struggled with in-ears in the past. In fact, a colleague of mine loves and reviews over-ear headphones, but always found the sound of in-ear universal headphones painful. He would describe a piercing squelch that happened when he’d turn up the volume of music. Turns out, when he finally had impressions taken by an audiologist, he found out that his ear canal shape had a very defined bend in it that was likely causing high-frequency sound waves to reflect in his ear canal when transmitted at such close range. His customs took that angle into account when installing the drivers, and he now has, amazingly, the first pair of in-ear headphones that he could actually use comfortably. True story! So, now that you know why you’re getting custom monitors in the first place, let’s talk about the UE 18+ Pro. They are, in a word, delightful. The 18+ Pro have a whopping 6 balanced armature drivers per ear, with 4 passive crossovers ensuring that the transition from driver to driver is silky smooth. They have a claimed frequency range of 5 Hz - 22 kHz, and a sensitivity of 100 dB at 1kHz. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in these monitors, and it is evident in the listening experience. The highs are crisply detailed but in no way sharp or piercing. The tuning, especially in the highs, feels very authentic and neutral. No punchy jagged response to simulate detail here. The mids, which are often overlooked when headphones are tuned, have a lot of clarity. Individual notes from bass guitar or deeper-pitched horns will have more separation than in any standard in-ear headphone on the market. If you like tuba and euphonium horn ensembles, you’ll adore the way the UE 18 + gives you note to note definition. The low frequencies sound really wonderful. Not bloated, boosted, or overstated, there’s a unbroken, fluid transition from 300 Hz all the way down to the bottom of hearing range. If you’re a fan of the Dr. Chesky Headphone Demo Disk, you’ll love how the 18+ Pro perform on the “Shake, Rattle, and Roll Test” (a low frequency sweep down to 20 hZ.) There’s no one frequency range that suddenly pops up due to poor tuning; everything sounds flat and even. If there is one downside to the UE 18+ Pro, it’s that everything is so flat and even that ears accustomed to a high/low boosted tuning might initially feel as though the soundstage is smaller, or that the bass has less oomph. If a fun bass-thumping tuning is your preference, you may want to look to the UE 11 Pro instead, which have less drivers per ear, but extra low end for enthusiasts. Overall though, the authentic sound of the 18+ Pro is worth the $1500 price of admission. Of course they are far more expensive than most any universal in-ear available, but for those who appreciate high-end audio, spending over $3000 on one pair of headphones is par for the course, and while the UE 18+ Pro will sound better through a headphone amp, they’re low enough impedance that you won’t need one on the go. That price also includes your choice of a wide variety of finishes from solid colors, to wood, microfiber, and patterns. You also can choose from several lengths of cable or one with an iOS compatible three-button remote and mic, and several carrying case form factors. The cases also can be engraved with your name. What that price may or may not include is the cost of the impressions. Some local Ultimate Ear dealers employ an audiologist that will do a free scan with your purchase. For those not fortunate enough to live near a dealer, you may also need to foot the bill for your scan/impressions, which can range from $40-$150 depending on where you live. Check the Ultimate Ears site to find out what’s available near you. All in all, when it comes to in-ear headphones, it’s hard to do better than the UE 18 + Pro. Warm, authentic sounding, with detail where it counts, audio fans who don’t want to compromise while on the go (or on stage) will find these Ultimate Ears worth the investment.