Ultimate Ears

What do you get when you visit an audiologist, have impressions of your ear canal(s) made, send those impressions to a headphone manufacturer, wait about two weeks, and end up getting a headphone custom-fit to your ears? You experience auditory awesomeness, that’s what!

I’ve somewhat officially run the whole gamut of in-ear monitor price ranges. From $100 FutureSonic EM3s, then the $300 Etymotic Research ER-4Ps, then up to the $500 M-Audio IE40s 1 Ultimate Ears Triple-fi OEMs, and now the top-tier custom monitors with my new Ultimate Ears IERMs 2 In Ear Reference Monitors which hit the thousand dollar price-range.

As such, I guess I’m in a position to be able to give a reliable review/comparison of the difference in audio quality as you jump from one price-range to the other… as I still own every single one of those headphones mentioned above.

Disclaimer

Since I don’t own “competitors” products at similar price ranges (e.g. Shure SE530s, which are in direct competition with the IE40s), I won’t bother getting into the debate of which brand/model is better at a given price-range.

Instead, this post is meant to be an analysis of the improvements across price-ranges. Simply put, think of this as a “what more do you get when you invest more in your headphones” sort of thing.

First thing’s first

First question posed by people who actually know about custom in-ear monitors is why I didn’t go JH Audio 3 Given that UE was founded by Jerry Harvey (the “JH” in JH Audio) before selling it to Logitech or Westone.

Let’s just say I did my research and while each brand had its strengths, UE, specifically with their IERM catered to my personal need/preference in audio. All other brands, while claiming “frequency neutrality” are honest enough to admit that their monitors will still invariably have unique sonic characteristics (“color,” as it were).

Having said that, I found that UE’s collaboration with Capitol Records to develop the most “neutral” reference-grade monitors very appealing. Marketing or not, I doubt a well respected studio like Capitol would allow its name to be used if these headphones didn’t deliver the same sonic signature you would get as you recorded/mixed/mastered with their own hardware.

But like I said earlier, this is not about brand comparison, so I’ll stop at that.

What do you pay for

… as you cross price-ranges, that is. I guess in a nutshell, you pay for “resolution.”

One thing that I immediately noticed when trying the IERMs is that even more elements “readily jump out of the mix” – and I’m going to have to qualify that statement since it can be pretty ambiguious/subjective. The reason for such a statement is because I’d really like to say that these babies made me hear things I’ve never heard before… which felt that way when I first tried it (and usually every time I try “better” headphones) – especially since I didn’t have the other units to do an A/B comparison with (as I was still in the US then).

It’s usually the little details; like the sound generated by the palm rubbing against the neck of the guitar while doing a vibrato on an acoustic guitar.

But now that I’m home, and have done the A/B, I confirm that these little nuances are also present on even the EM3s, the difference was that I had to listen for them – as against clearly, unmistakably (and unavoidably) hearing them with the IERMs.

So the answer I’ve come up with is that [more] expensive headphones make you respect/appreciate the work put into the mix more and more. Those little details, no matter how faint they may sound, show how much detail can packed in a recording. And as you get better headphones, the less effort it takes to hear those things – to the point that you’ll think you heard stuff you’ve never heard before. But the more correct assessment would be that you’ll hear stuff you’ve never noticed before. And in that sense, the marketing lingo is in fact correct: good headphones can indeed make you “re-discover” the music.

The question that remains is if that enhanced accuracy/resolution is worth the added cost. Do you really need $1,000 headphones when I just admitted that even a $100 can do the same (although in a much inferior manner). The answer to that will always be different from person to person. Just like asking a golfer what is there to be gained when you buy an astronomically priced golf-club.

Personal impressions

Now that I’m done with the “facts,” I’ll just shoot the breeze of what I noticed while A/Bing the 4 different models. Here’s a list of facts I got to confirm over time regarding the respective models.

  • EM3s are indeed, [too] bass-heavy 4 due to dynamic drivers and have a very early roll-off on the high frequencies.
  • ER-4Ps actually have the ideal mids and highs, it’s no wonder why these became the standard to compare mid/high freq resolution performance with.
  • IE40s/Triple-Fis are pretty well balanced, but it has a bit of a bass/treble boost, and a slight dip on the mid.

The IE40 was still the best despite the EQ curve it had because I’d rather have a slight dip on the mid than severely lacking bass. But I will not deny that the ER-4Ps still had the best sounding high/mid performance I came across.

The IERMs sound like a perfected version of the IE-40 in the tonal sense. They backed off a bit on the bass/treble (more on the bass) and flattened the mid. So the result is like an ER-4P with balanced bass – with much more resolution.

So I’ll be hard pressed not to say that the IERM undoubtedly had one of, if not the most flat frequency curve I’ve ever heard to date. And that’s exactly what I was going after.

And the sound-isolation on the IERM’s phenomenal, as expected from any custom fit headphones. Once I put them on, everything else just disappears. In fact, have to make a disclaimer to the people around me that if they want to ask me something, they have to physically nudge me – else I wouldn’t hear them.

This probably adds to the clarity of the IERM’s apart from having top of the line components, an excellent seal will also do wonders in audio clarity since there’s no other outside “sound” muddling the sound coming into your ears.

Conclusion

Once again, these units sound so good that I cannot imagine going back to anything less 5 Save for emergencies … the next time I ever consider getting a replacement, I’ll probably be looking at the $1,000+ price-range here on out.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Ultimate Ears Triple-fi OEMs
2. In Ear Reference Monitors
3. Given that UE was founded by Jerry Harvey (the “JH” in JH Audio) before selling it to Logitech
4. due to dynamic drivers
5. Save for emergencies

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