Ultimate Ears UE 11 Pro In-Ear Monitors

Mention the word "headphones" to the average audiophile geek, and the name Ultimate Ears is hardly the first to come to mind. In fact, it probably won't come to mind at all. One reason is that this small firm out of Irvine, CA has virtually no traditional retail distribution with which to expose itself: Though the company recently inked a deal that placed some of its high-performance in-ear 'phones in Apple's branded storefronts, UE does virtually all its business direct through its website (ultimateears.com). Then there's the far-from-mainstream pricing: In a world where most people consider $40 earbuds an expensive iPod add-on, UE's entry-level model costs twice that, and it jumps up from there: $130, $150, $400, then into the stratosphere with the company's custom in-ear monitors. The top-of-the-line UE11 Pro - the subject of this review - goes for $1,150, which doesn't even include the visit to your local audiologist to get a mold taken of your ear (typically about 50 bucks). Three other custom-fit models cost between $700 and $900.

The Short Form
Price $1,150 (plus cost of fitting) / ultimateears.com / 800-589-6531
Though incredibly expensive, these custom-fit in-ear headphones deliver unparalleled performance in a compact, carry-along design.
•Remarkable midrange and high frequency clarity •Unusually deep and taut bass for a headphone •Custom-fit blocks out ambient noise without active circuitry •Lightweight, compact design
•Custom-molded in-ear design may be uncomfortable for some listeners •Breathtakingly expensive
Key Features
•Quad armature system with 3-way crossover •Custom-molded fit provides 26 dB of noise isolation •Supplied engraved storage case, portable carrying case, and cleaning tool •Input connector: 1/8-inch (3.5mm) gold-plated Published Specifications: •Input Sensitivity: 119db @ 1mw •Frequency Response: 10Hz to 16,500 Hz •Impedance: 18 Ohms at 1kHz

Arguably, these would have to be pretty special earphones to warrant such breathtaking price tags, and, indeed, they were never originally intended for mere mortals. The company was founded by a professional concert engineer to create in-ear stage monitors for performing rockers, who need both accurate sound and superior isolation to avoid going deaf from traditional blaring stage monitors. As unknown as UE is to typical consumers, it is well known to professional musicians, and, nowadays, to Hollywood's iPod-toting celebrity set. I should note that Ultimate is not alone in this niche: Etymotic Research and Shure both play in high-performance in-ear 'phones. But it can be argued that Ultimate has taken the concept to a fairly high level.

As a serious commuter (up to 4 hours each day on mass transit between New York City and my rural Jersey digs), I've auditioned a number of high-end noise-canceling headphones. One thing I can tell you is that once you've thrown away those white ear-buds, there's no going back. Good sonics on a quiet background reveals so much more of the music in every track that the reward quickly outweighs the inconvenience of carrying full-size on-ear or over-ear 'phones. But I admit I missed having earphones that fit easily in a pocket, so when UE inquired about my auditioning the UE11 Pro, I jumped. Could the tiny drivers inside each earpiece possibly deliver the fidelity of full-size headphones? Or even better? I was soon to find out.

Setup & Features Getting a pair of Ultimate Ears custom monitors takes more effort than plunking down a credit card. It takes a credit card and a bit of time to be fitted by an audiologist, (i.e., a hearing aid expert). UE has a list of recommended audiologists in most metro areas familiar with the type of mold they need; essentially a full impression of the ear canal and most of the outer ear. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. The audiologist gently sticks a little cotton plug with a string attached into your ear canal, then fills the canal and outer ear with a gooey liquid that expands into a spongy foam. When it's all cured a few minutes later, he or she gives a gentle tug on the string, and out comes a rather large alien-looking earplug. Ship these off to UE, and your 'phones are delivered to your door inside of a couple of weeks.

Your custom monitors arrive nicely presented, in a metal storage box which opens to a foam insert that in turn has a your 'phones in a smaller brushed-metal pocket case. You also get a little plastic wand with a short wire poker on the end, used to clear out any wax that might build up in the two tiny channels that funnel sound from the transducers to the end of the earpiece. UE offers a wide variety of translucent or opaque colors for the earphones' plastic housings and you can customize the flat portion that's exposed to the world with your own artwork, some celebrity samples of which are shown on the company's site. My favorite is the bejeweled skull and crossbones on black favored by Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, but I went with an icy cool translucent housing in what Ultimate calls Electric Blue. Plus, my initials RS are imprinted on my earphones for identification, lest I mix them up with my fellow band mates' during another drug-infused drunken orgy following one of our stadium shows. Yeah . . . right.

Of course, it's what's inside that counts, and for your grand-and-change you get an admittedly sophisticated if miniature product. First, UE skips traditional drivers, with their voice coils and diaphragms, in favor of armature transducers. Imagine a turned coil through which the signal passes, and what amounts to a pin suspended inside that moves up and down with the signal. This engine is mounted inside a tiny rectangular can so that the pin strikes the cap of the can as it moves and makes sound. The benefit is said to be a more precise level of driver control than can typically be achieved with a conventional diaphragm, particularly in the mid- and high frequencies.

Incredibly, there are four of these armatures crammed into each earpiece, marking the first time Ultimate has managed this in one of its 'phones. One of these is specifically dedicated to high frequencies and operates from around 4 kHz on up. The sound from this feeds into your ear canal through its own sealed channel, one of two in this so-called "dual-bore" design. A dedicated midrange driver operates from 4 kHz down to about 250 Hz, and stacked atop it are a pair of bass drivers, with all three feeding your ear through the second channel. The bass armatures operate in overlapping ranges as well, covering in total the frequencies from about 10 Hz up to 250 Hz. In essence, this makes the UE 11 Pro the world's first headphone with its own dedicated subwoofer.