Review: Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro Custom Ear Monitors
Pros: The first quadruple-driver, triple-crossover earphone, offering impressive full-spectrum audio detail with the addition of subwoofer-like enhanced bass and mid-bass performance. Includes recent company improvements to durability and comfort of custom-fit enclosures, which offer great passive noise isolation in a dozen different colors, as well as thicker new cables.
Cons: Price tag is stunningly high given wide range of excellent triple-driver earpieces, including top performers that rival this level of sound performance at less than half the price—custom-fitting and the fourth drivers aren’t enough to justify the hefty premium. Though added sub-level bass is appreciated, overexaggerated mid-bass sounds artificial and forced, in a manner befitting lower-end earphones; sound signature is better for wealthy bassheads than discerning audiophiles. Though seemingly more resilient, thicker cables aren’t as easy to wrap around the tops of your ears as predecessors.
Contrary to popular misconception, there is no such thing as “expensive sound.” As with speakers and headphones, the prices of canal-filling earphones could conceivably climb infinitely upwards from $5, and with every step on the ladder, though fewer people would be willing to go higher, some inevitably will. As a pioneer in premium-priced, custom-fit earphones, Ultimate Ears has specialized for years in adding new bars to that ladder, and seeing how many people will climb them.
With the release of its latest custom-fit earphone, the quadruple-driver, triple-crossover UE-11 Pro ($1,150), Ultimate Ears has upped the ante in both price and performance. Rather than replacing the company’s arguably outdated triple-driver UE-10 Pro at the same $900 price point, UE-11 Pro adds one extra miniature bass speaker to each ear for a $250 premium, and then more aggressively emphasizes both mid-bass and bass than one might expect from a product marketed to audiophiles. The result is a pair of expensive earphones that will appeal to wealthy bassheads rather than more discerning listeners, who might reasonably hope for similar technology to be employed in more affordable and balanced alternatives.
Background: Ultimate Ears, the UE-10 Pro, and the UE-11 Prototype
There was a point two months ago when we were genuinely excited about the UE-11—that’s when we began to test a supposedly near-final prototype of the design, which was then being considered as a full replacement for the company’s flagship model, the UE-10 Pro. For years, the UE-10 Pro was unique because it placed three speaker drivers inside each of your ears, using a hand-made enclosure that had to be custom-measured by an audiologist and then tweaked to fit comfortably in your canals. This custom fitting process is detailed in our UE-10 review, and continues to be necessary before you take possession of the UE-11 Pro.
When we reviewed it, the UE-10 Pro was the Ferrari of earphones, too expensive for most buyers, but revered as best in class by those who could afford it. However, it was not enough of a step over its closest competitors to fully justify its $900 price tag, and as time passed, the gulf only widened. UE-10 Pro produced accurate, comparatively neutral sound with a bit of extra bass—not as much as we might have imagined, but thanks to a dedicated bass driver with gentle rather than heavy-handed tuning, enough to stand apart from superb, lower-priced audiophile-grade earphones such as Etymotic’s ER-4P.
The prototype version of UE-11 Pro went further. Using a triple crossover to allocate treble, midrange, and bass frequencies to separate speakers, it retained virtually all of the treble and midrange detail of the UE-10 Pro, but added a second bass driver—coupled with the first on the third crossover—to really extend the earphone’s low-end presence. The effect was like adding a good subwoofer to your favorite pair of bookshelf speakers, setting its power level at or a little below “mid.” We described the sound then as appropriate for bass-loving audiophiles. Our only concerns about the prototype were its slightly diminished high-end performance and potential price tag, which we’d hoped Ultimate Ears would address before finalizing and releasing the earphones. In short, the final version of UE-11 Pro not only didn’t address these concerns, but it went in the opposite direction with both of them, then added a third issue—cabling—we hadn’t expected.
Fit, Comfort, and Customization
As with all of Ultimate Ears’ custom-fit earphones, the UE-11 Pro comes in a package with several items: one pocket-sized aluminum carrying case, one significantly larger “roadie” aluminum carrying case with foam inserts for both any iPod and the smaller case, and a simple black cleaning brush. If you didn’t look inside their plastic shells to notice the slight differences between these clusters of speaker drivers and wires and their predecessors, you mightn’t know the difference: the basic shape of each UE-11 Pro is, once again, dictated by the shape of your ears, and the opaque or translucent casings either hide or show off the parts inside, depending on your preference.
Over the past few years, however, Ultimate Ears has been quietly refining the materials, tooling, and comfort of its custom-fit earphones, and the results have been impressive: most notably, both of the UE-11 Pro samples we tested are noticeably more comfortable in our ears than the UE-10s. Rubberized parts we once thought were necessary to make the UE-10s feel okay going in and coming out of our ears have been replaced with surprisingly more comfortable hard plastic, which we’ve been told will not yellow like their rubber predecessors.
Even in extremely extended testing sessions, we found the UE-11 Pro to be more comfortable and less fatiguing than before. Because it fills so much of your ear and ear canal, it also continues to provide superb passive isolation from outside noise, comparable to the active cancellation technologies in circumaural headphones. Our praise is tempered only by the knowledge that the same comfort and fit tweaks are now found across Ultimate Ears’ entire custom-fit lineup, starting with the $700 UE-5 Pro.
UE-11 Pro (top) uses hard plastic shells that won’t yellow like the softer shells of earlier UE custom earphones
The company has also continued to expand the variety of colors and even artwork available to customize its earphones: across all of the line, there are now at least 12 different colors, plus the option to add engraving, ink, embedded stones, or paint at an added cost. A collection of the designs created for professional musicians can be seen here, and as one might imagine, since their purchasers often aren’t as concerned with price as appearances, the designs extend into the category of “wearable art.” As part of the initial two-month promotion for the UE-11 Pro, Ultimate Ears is including your choice of colors and personalized art for free—something that should, in our view, be permanently included given the high asking price here. A simpler default art alternative is a pair of silver engraved UE logos, just like the ones shown in our photos.
UE-11 Pro Prototype (left) and Final (right) have different cables and plugs
Ultimate Ears’ only questionable physical change to the earphones was a well-intentioned switch to new cables. Our past UE-series earphones—including the UE-11 prototypes we received—have shipped with attractive, thin detachable wires that we’ve found easy to wind up and pack in the included pocket-sized aluminum carrying case. For the final UE-11 Pro, the company has swapped in a significantly thicker cable that looks and feels more durable than its predecessors, but also consumes more volume in the carrying case and feels a little heavier over your ears. This new cable doesn’t exhibit increased microphonics or other issues, but its new, oversized plug still doesn’t fit inside the iPhone’s smaller headphone port, and despite the continued presence of user-positionable memory wire at the top, it wasn’t as easy to make comfortable around the tops of our ears. If durability was the concern, we’d have preferred that Ultimate Ears include two sets of the old thin cables to one of the new thick ones.
On a mostly positive note, the UE-11 Pros are extremely sensitive by earphone standards, and intended to be run at around 20% of your iPod’s maximum volume level, not much higher. On an airplane, we found that the top volume requirement was only a little bit north of 30%, versus around 50% for the UE-10 Pro, which is good news for those who prefer not to deplete their iPod batteries just by using inefficient headphones. This will only be an issue for you if you hoped to have a more graduated range of intermediate volume settings to choose from.
From left to right: UE-11 Pro, triple.fi 10 Pro, and Shure E500/SE530
When the UE-10 Pro was introduced, it stood apart from competitors based on its use of three speaker drivers per ear—an engineering feat that was simultaneously expensive and extremely hard to make smaller. That has all changed. Once Shure’s E500/SE530 (iLounge rating: A) proved that it was possible for a company to release a universal fit but still comfortable and more affordable triple-driver earphone with outstanding sound, the UE-10 suddenly made less sense: why spend $900 on a custom-fit earphone when you could have a triple-driver listening experience for $500? Shure also went further than just beating the UE-10 Pro on price, nailing a wonderful sound signature that enhances music just enough to please virtually all types of listeners. The E500’s few critics have had to bend over backwards to find sound issues to criticize, and it has become available in stores for as little as $400—the same price as Ultimate Ears’ own, subsequently released universal fit triple.fi 10 Pro (iLounge rating: A-).
Another way to put this is that the premium earphone market has evolved. Great sound costs much less today than it did in 2004, when UE-10 Pro was the $900 king of the hill, so it would have made sense for Ultimate Ears to follow its early intuition and replace the UE-10 with the UE-11—while preserving the same price point. Then there would have been no need to preserve the comparatively clinical UE-10, and conversely distinguish the products significantly from one another. But when it went final, the UE-11 Pro became a very different earphone from the prototype we heard and liked, perhaps because it was attempting to justify a $250 price premium with a more noticeably different sound signature.
As noted above, the prototype UE-11 was a more complete implementation of what the UE-10 Pro had promised: full-spectrum sound, with noticeably enhanced low-end performance. Thanks to the company’s decision to dedicate two separate speakers per ear solely to creating rich, powerful bass, the prototype UE-11 Pro’s rendition of low-frequency details was almost entirely positive; the company had, in effect, created a subwoofer for your ears, and though the bass was a little on the aggressive side, we liked it. We could still hear all of the mid- and low-range detail and virtually all of the high-end detail we were accustomed to hearing in the UE-10, but beats, bass-rich voices, and certain strings were even more pronounced and lifelike. Treble aside, it was as if Ultimate Ears had combined the UE-10 Pro with v-moda’s Vibe to produce the ultimate earphone for wealthy, discerning bassheads, and even if we didn’t think we’d wear the UE-11 Pros ourselves all the time, they’d have a time and place in our own collections.
In the final version of the UE-11 Pro, the good news is that you will get a more dynamic overall presentation of the audio spectrum than with the UE-10 Pro: highs and lows sound a little higher and a lot lower than before. But the bad news is that the prototype’s nuanced performance has given way to heavy-handedness; besides extending the bass, the UE-11 Pro also ups the mid-bass. As with v-moda’s Vibe, XtremeMac and Future Sonics’ FS-1, and Ultimate Ears’ super.fi 5 EB, the UE-11 Pro sounds like it’s been colored to create “bass presence,” or the sensation that your ears are being filled with warmth, like many of Bose’s speakers and headphones. By contrast with the prototype, the final sounds like it uses a subwoofer turned up above medium, though not quite to the maximum.
Though we were initially inclined to call the final UE-11 Pro akin to a UE-10EB, following the company’s super.fi 5 Pro and super.fi 5EB naming conventions, the comparison’s not completely accurate. You don’t lose as much stepping up from the UE-10 to the UE-11 Pro as you do stepping down from the super.fi 5 Pro to the 5EB. In fact, the UE-11 Pro’s added sensitivity often makes it sound better than the UE-10 Pro at comparable volume levels, though you trade off neutrality for more bass emphasis in the process.
Where UE-11 Pro suffers the most is in direct comparison to the Shure E500/SE530, an earphone we’ve loved at less than half the UE-11’s price. Even when we flip between the two earphones, we still think that the E500 has just the right sound balance for the majority of our music, adding just enough sparkle to the highs and oomph to the lows without compromising on midrange detail. UE-11 Pro’s bass reaches down a little lower, but the final version’s added mid-bass emphasis sounds somewhat forced and artificial, which we didn’t find to be the case with the prototype.
Some readers might wonder how the quadruple-driver UE-11 Pro compares to Ultimate Ears’ $400 triple.fi 10 Pro, and our answer is this: your findings may vary. Ultimate Ears told us that it had changed the sound of the triple.fi 10 following our review (and, we think, its initial shipments) last year, so the “final” pair we have here may or may not sound like someone else’s. Our triple.fi 10 adds a bit of bass and treble accentuation to the more neutral UE-10 Pro, and UE-11 Pro goes even further, proving decidedly more capable of revealing low-end detail, but also skewing the sound more towards the mid-range and low-end.
Pricing and Conclusions
When we review a pair of earphones, the critical question we pose before issuing any A-level rating is whether a product we’re testing would replace the ones previously at the top of our list of comparable items, and if the answer is yes, we’re open to the possibility of issuing a high recommendation. Despite its quadruple-driver technology and improved ear moldings, the audio balance, cabling, and pricing of the final Ultimate Ears’ UE-11 Pro forced us to conclude that it wasn’t an earphone we’d pick over less expensive alternatives. Shure’s E500/SE530 not only delivers considerably more bang for the buck; we also preferred how it sounded with our iPods. Notably, this wasn’t always the case with its prototype predecessor, but Ultimate Ears surely had a reason for going with the heavier sound it picked.
At a $1,150 price, we think that buyers should reasonably expect nothing less than the best sound available from an in-canal earpiece; in fact, given that it demands a $650 MSRP or $750 street price premium over top triple-driver solutions—enough to buy an iPhone or another pair of super-expensive earphones and still have some cash left over—the UE-11 Pro should sound something close to incredible. Thanks to its over-aggressive low end, which can be found in earphones at any price, it doesn’t.
Customization frills aside, we see the UE-11 Pro as an expensive earphone for people who love bass so much that they probably don’t need a quadruple-driver earphone in the first place, and would as easily be satisfied with a more heavily bass-skewed double- or triple-driver design that costs less. This needn’t have been the case; with slightly different tuning and a more reasonable price, UE-11 Pro could have been a product we’d recommend widely to audiophiles with as much or more vigor than its predecessors. Our general level recommendation acknowledges that there is enough good in the UE-11 Pro design, particularly in the depths of its low-end response, to satisfy some users, but for the time being, we’d hesitate before climbing to this particular step on the earphone ladder.