Review: Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro Earphones Page 3

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PERFORMANCE 
Bass was a strong suit with the UE 11 - well-defined and taut to a point that exceeded any other earphone I'd heard, along with many a loudspeaker. But there's no question that the UE18 takes off some unnatural elevation in the lower octaves that I'd never acknowledged (and which the bass-head in me occasionally missed on some tracks). The effect is to make the bottom end less pronounced but definitely more in balance with the rest of the music, and absolutely more detailed and revealing. I went back to Amanda Marshall's recording of "The Gypsy," a pop track I used for my last earphone face-off that's notable for it's hyped-up bass, and discovered that the UE18 was much leaner at the low end than the UE11 and better at taming the obvious bloat in the recording. It was actually the first time that I've heard real tonality on those bass notes. On more naturally recorded tracks, such as Christian McBride's "Night Train," the effect was to bring better delineation of notes to the virtuoso string bass solo that opens the song. The more laid-back bass also revealed some detail in McBride's finger work and fret-tapping, though other improvements UE made to the midrange and highs probably contributed here. 

To that end, the additional armature driver added to support the midrange in the UE18 was also quite obvious, primarily on vocal tracks and particularly with female vocals. Diana Krall singing "Frim Fram Sauce" was a great test: The UE18 brought out gobs of additional detail in her voice compared with the UE11, notably the subtle raspiness that's somewhat smoothed over by the UE 11, and lost on many other 'phones I've listened with. When I moved to "Song of Bernadette" by Jennifer Warnes, a track that starts out with just piano and Warnes' rich, heart-felt vocal, I also noticed a big difference between the two earphones. Both the piano and her voice sounded clearer and had better spatial definition with the UE18. The sound was generally more open, the voice obviously less veiled and more full-bodied, and the piano notes rounder and more detailed. An audition of Aaron Neville's rendition of "I Bid You Goodnight" also revealed more detail and presence in Neville's voice, along with improved delineation of the several background vocalists. Fine details like the soft brushing of cymbals also came across with better definition and a more natural metallic timbre.

PERFORMANCE
Bass was a strong suit with the UE 11 - well-defined and taut to a point that exceeded any other earphone I'd heard, along with many a loudspeaker. But there's no question that the UE18 takes off some unnatural elevation in the lower octaves that I'd never acknowledged (and which the bass-head in me occasionally missed on some tracks). The effect is to make the bottom end less pronounced but definitely more in balance with the rest of the music, and absolutely more detailed and revealing. I went back to Amanda Marshall's recording of "The Gypsy," a pop track I used for my last earphone face-off that's notable for it's hyped-up bass, and discovered that the UE18 was much leaner at the low end than the UE11 and better at taming the obvious bloat in the recording. It was actually the first time that I've heard real tonality on those bass notes. On more naturally recorded tracks, such as Christian McBride's "Night Train," the effect was to bring better delineation of notes to the virtuoso string bass solo that opens the song. The more laid-back bass also revealed some detail in McBride's finger work and fret-tapping, though other improvements UE made to the midrange and highs probably contributed here.

To that end, the additional armature driver added to support the midrange in the UE18 was also quite obvious, primarily on vocal tracks and particularly with female vocals. Diana Krall singing "Frim Fram Sauce" was a great test: The UE18 brought out gobs of additional detail in her voice compared with the UE11, notably the subtle raspiness that's somewhat smoothed over by the UE 11, and lost on many other 'phones I've listened with. When I moved to "Song of Bernadette" by Jennifer Warnes, a track that starts out with just piano and Warnes' rich, heart-felt vocal, I also noticed a big difference between the two earphones. Both the piano and her voice sounded clearer and had better spatial definition with the UE18. The sound was generally more open, the voice obviously less veiled and more full-bodied, and the piano notes rounder and more detailed. An audition of Aaron Neville's rendition of "I Bid You Goodnight" also revealed more detail and presence in Neville's voice, along with improved delineation of the several background vocalists. Fine details like the soft brushing of cymbals also came across with better definition and a more natural metallic timbre.

BOTTOM LINE
After evaluating eight in-ear phones in the $250-$450 range for S+V's January 2010 issue, I can say that the UE 18 represents a quantum leap over your typical high-end consumer earphone. And with the improvements here over the UE 11 featured in that test, Ultimate Ears has taken its game to a new height. There's an additional level of transparency and unstrained ease in the character of these 'phones that's well worth the modest extra cost over the UE 11.

In fairness, however, readers should know that UE no longer sits alone at this upper echelon. Former UE co-founder and chief designer Jerry Harvey recently re-entered the professional stage-monitor market after leaving the company in 2007, and now has an 8-driver, three-way design under the JH Audio brand that probably represents the UE 18's only direct competition.

Still, even without hearing those, I feel comfortable rating these 'phones a near-perfect 9 for Features (to recognize the innovative design), 9 for Performance, and, yes, 9 for Value. Yeah, yeah, I can already hear your cries: "Are you crazy? How can $1,350 earphones be a good deal?" To which I can only ask in return: What value do you place on musical truth?

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