Review: Ultimate Ears UE 4 Pro Custom Monitors
Rather than sitting still during challenging economic times, premium earphone maker Ultimate Ears has released its most affordable custom-fit headphones to date, UE 4 Pro ($400). Yet it's important to realize something about UE 4 Pro up front: this isn't an attempt to offer high-end earphones at a discount price. Rather, there are obvious signs that Ultimate Ears, maker of earpieces for professional musicians, either views this as a training wheels model for its more expensive earphones, or as a tool to convince budget-conscious customers to aim higher. Amidst rock and rap star photos and testimonials for higher-end products on its web site, for instance, the company notes that potential UE 4 Pro customers might be "playing gigs at a local club or performing at church," and mentions that they "probably don’t have roadies - yet." In other words, the UE 4 Pro target user is an "emerging artist" looking for the Ultimate Ears experience, but willing to settle for a diminished experience.
And that’s what they’d get. Customers still need to make an ~$50-$65 appointment with an audiologist to have molds of their ears made, and after those molds have been sent to Ultimate Ears, the result will be a set of clear hard plastic casings that are shaped to their ears and no others. UE 4 Pro’s shells are cosmetically and physically near-identical to the company’s highest-end UE-10 and UE-11 models, which is to say that properly fitted earpieces will block out 26 decibels of ambient noise, the same isolating capability as is found in the considerably more expensive versions. Users lose the ability to customize UE 4 Pro’s colors, a feature that starts with the more expensive UE-5, but still get the new-ish, nice silver UE logo markings on the earphones’ visible sides.
There are some changes in Ultimate Ears’ included accessories. UE 4 Pro is shipped in a new, gunmetal version of its prior aluminum carrying case, and in a black cardboard box rather than the larger metal “roadie” cases of its predecessors; you won’t find a bunch of adapters or other frills in the package. A four-foot audio cable is included by default, with a 64-inch version as an alternative; both are detachable from the earpieces for future replacement. In each case, the headphone plug remains oversized and L-shaped, a design that we’ve found to be durable but more than occasionally incompatible with certain iPod and iPhone cases. As with other custom-fit models, UE now also optionally offers a $50 “ambient feature” that allows musicians to hear both their music and crowd noises through the earphones at the same time, reducing isolation from 26dB to 12dB.
The major differences between UE 4 Pro and other models are inside the shells. This version features two drivers per ear rather than the three found in UE-10 and UE-11, and we’d describe UE 4 Pro as equivalent to a top-of-line ~$200 dual-driver earphone sonically, with the balance of the price going towards its customized body. Having previously surveyed quite a few different Ultimate Ears earphones, including a number of the company’s custom-fit in-ear monitors, we’re pretty familiar with the three sound signatures its engineers have gone for: flat neutrality, modestly treble and bass-boosted audio, and heavy bass. Most of the UE line is either neutral or modestly boosted, and heavy bass models such as the UE-11 and Super.fi 5EB are rare; the goal is more often than not to provide users with a “balanced” listening experience. UE 4 Pro is one of the modestly boosted ones, rather than slanted heavily towards one side of the spectrum or the other.
Consequently, the dual drivers produce crisp high-end and midrange sound with slightly emphasized bass, the latter coming up against an apparent wall of limited definition due to the double-driver design. Higher-end Ultimate Ears earphones have dedicated bass drivers, but in UE 4 Pro, treble is handled by a dedicated driver, while mids and bass share a second driver, and the sonic results are obvious: bass sounds are there, but a little rough at the edges, such that a careful listener may hear some low-end notes straining a little. Users of the UE-10 would hear smoother bass, and UE-11 users would notice considerably enhanced, richer and more powerful bass, both due to additional dedicated bass hardware. That having been said, high-pitched notes and instruments sparkle in UE 4 Pro, and there’s more than enough definition in the midrange to render music accurately; instruments and voices sound detailed and distinct from one another. We actually enjoyed listening to these earphones, as we most often do with Ultimate Ears designs, and found the clarity to be very good for a pair of double-driver earphones. At half the price, this would be a truly excellent pair of earphones for any listener other than bass fanatics.
While we’re not going to try and justify the price premium, we will say that we understand it, especially having seen these custom earphones get made by hand in the company’s facility. It’s true that users can get a pair of excellent universal-fit double-driver earphones for around $200 from either Ultimate Ears or competitors such as JAYS of Sweden, and their overall sound quality will be only a little below UE 4 Pro’s mark. Ultimate Ears knows this; many users do, as well. People who are shopping for this model will be doing so because of the custom-fit moldings, which have the look, feel, and isolation of professional-quality gear, all available at a lower price point than before. Our advice to potential customers is straightforward: consider these if you’re actually planning to make music with them and need both the accuracy and ear protection that custom-fit monitors bring. Otherwise, universal-fit versions will deliver more bang for the buck.