Pros: Outstanding audio reproduction, even by comparison with other high-end earphones, and entirely personalized individual fit.
Cons: Exclusive pricing, Y-cable design discourages traditional neck-front use, requires custom-fitting process and potential adjustments.
iLounge has previously tested high-end earphones from Bose, Etymotic, Future Sonics, Shure, and Ultimate Ears, and though the correlation is imperfect, we’ve often found that the quality of audio reproduction generally improves in a non-linear fashion as price goes up. But the word “non-linear” is key here; starting at the $200 price mark, improvements start to become harder to discern, and by the $400 price mark, there’s little left to improve from the average user’s perspective.
After winning over customers with their UE-5 and UE-7 series earphones, Nevada-based Ultimate Ears recently released the UE-10 Pro, an ultra-high end in-ear design that the company claims is the “most accurate earpiece available,” custom fit to the shape of the buyer’s ears during an appointment with an audiologist.
While “designed for ‘professional’ applications,” Ultimate Ears says, the UE-10 Pro “is just as well suited for use with an iPod.” At a $900 retail price – three times the current price of a 15GB iPod and almost twice the price of a 40GB model – the UE-10 Pro presented a fascinating opportunity to test the outer limits of iPod audio performance – and that of our own ears.
“Do your ears have problems with wax?”
Coming from anyone other than an audiologist, this would have been an almost intimate question, and the soft, feminine voice on the other end of the phone didn’t make it any easier to answer.
“No.” I could thankfully say this without reservation. Unlike a friend who had left traces of yellow on the in-ear flanges of my Etymotic ER-4Ps weeks earlier, I knew that my ear canals were clean – ready even at that very moment for the professional inspection and mold-making process she was going to perform. Our appointment was scheduled for a mutually agreeable time several days later. (Depending on where you live, this appointment will cost between $15 and $50.)
She arrived a little late, but had a great excuse. Up in Los Angeles, she had just fit Fleetwood Mac and Madonna for similar custom-fit headphones, and when they ran late, so did she. This made sense: the entire process of checking a person’s ears and creating molds of them was supposed to take twenty minutes or less. No matter whose ears she was dealing with, it was the client’s feet and mouth that would delay her departure.
We talked a little about her experiences with celebrities as she scanned my ears with an otoscope. As promised, there was no problem with wax, and so the molding could begin. Knowing that the custom earphones from Ultimate Ears were available in multiple colors, I wondered aloud – amongst other things – which ones celebrities tended to pick.
Her answers were interrupted by two syringes full of quick-drying pink putty, each instantly filling one of my ears as if I had jumped sideways into a swimming pool. Our conversation died abruptly, first from my left, then my right: I could see her talking, but could barely perceive the sounds. It seemed odd, but not quite ironic, that in order to test world-beating headphones, I would need to temporarily become deaf.
As instructed, I held my mouth open to let the putty fill my ear canals properly, and remained still while it dried. She had earlier inserted tiny cotton balls with strings into my ear canals, and they were now the only things separating the putty from my ear drums. I couldn’t talk, hear, or move.
Several minutes and a twist of each pink mold later, I was looking at two inverted three-dimensional maps of my ears. “They’re different from each other,” she pointed out. “Some people’s are so different that I have to note for the company that their molds are from the same person.” Mine weren’t that different, but they weren’t identical, either.
Something suggested that the molds weren’t quite right, so we needed to re-do them, and went through the process again. Even after making two sets of impressions, the fitting appointment only lasted twenty minutes, though some of them seemed longer than others.
Placed in a resilient cardboard box, the pink molds were then shipped by the audiologist from California to Nevada, where Ultimate Ears would use them to create similar plastic earphones specifically made for my ears. How long it would take, and precisely what they would look like when finished, I wasn’t quite sure.
Before my ears had filled with putty, I’d asked a question: “What colors do most of your clients pick for their earphones and cables?” She paused only briefly. “Clear. The performers tend to get the clear ones for themselves. Sometimes they’ll have backup singers wearing all black, so they’ll get the black ones. But stay away from the mixed color ones. Some people think they can mix the three colors of their band logo together, but the way the colors swirl, they don’t look so good.”
My earlier choice of clear earphones and cables had been validated. Not surprisingly, I had been tempted by iPod-matching white, but passed after recalling several news reports of muggings triggered by visible white earphones. The larger dimensions of the Ultimate Ears headphones wouldn’t help matters, either. From the photographs on the company’s web site, I wasn’t sure just how big they would be, but they surely wouldn’t sneak into my ears like Sony’s tiny MDR-EX70s.
The Metal Box
I felt even better about my choice two weeks later when the finished products arrived. Shipped in a customized locking metal box bearing my name, the UE-10 Pros look incomparably cool as transparent components. Three separate drivers – microelectronic audio components that reproduce sounds – are suspended in fully clear plastic, vividly showing the open-air sonic tunnels from drivers to eardrums in a way that opaque earphones could not. The buyer’s initials and serial numbers are stamped in blue on the left earpiece, red on the right earpiece.
Even the cables are impressive. The intertwining clear cables form helixes of sparkling metal threads that run nearly four feet from end to end, and can be detached from the earphones, leaving two gold pins sticking out of each one. Ultimate Ears currently offers replacements in four colors (clear, beige, dark brown and black); hopefully white will follow in the future.
The metal box also includes an in-earphone wax removal tool that has a brush on one end and a wire loop on the other; a small instruction manual notes that proper care of the UE-10 Pros will include frequent external cleanings to remove wax buildup.
In sum, the UE-10 Pros look unique from moment one – a marked difference from the odd black and white pagoda-style Etymotic earbuds I’d been using, though not nearly as unobtrusive as the MDR-EX70s. When placed into my ears, they looked more like futuristic hearing aids than earphones, fitting exactly into the spaces once occupied by the pink putty.
An Initially Difficult Fit
“Getting good ear impressions is important,” notes the company’s web site, and “[p]recise fit is a must when it comes to enjoying your Ultimate Ears.” I remembered this after inserting my earphones and feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Another iLounge editor was on his second pair of Ultimate Ears headphones and not only felt perfectly comfortable wearing them, but preferred them to anything else for daily listening. Mine, which were based on new molds, felt a bit too snug and pressured both my outer ear and canal in a few small places.
I contacted Ultimate Ears and described the issues, and the company promptly addressed them: replacement, much-improved headphones arrived several days later, without any need for a refitting. The difference was almost night and day – the new earphones were easier to insert and remove, and felt far less intrusive than their predecessors, despite looking almost identical physically.
While discussing the earphone adjustments, I also asked Ultimate Ears about the length of the cables, which are available in two plug-to-ear lengths (46” or 64”) and intended to be worn somewhat differently than most in-ear phones: the wires go above and behind the ear, hanging behind the neck, rather than dangling under your ear lobes and hanging in front of the neck.
The overall length of the cables felt fine, but the length of cable from each ear to the point where the individual ear cables merge (in a Y shape) into a single cable is a bit short for a taller user who wants to wear the earphones conventionally. This turned out to a difference between the needs of casual users and professionals; the cable design was originally made for those who needed to hide the cables during performances.
Ultimate Ears reports that it is preparing a re-tooled cable for casual users’ needs, and we’ve submitted our recommendation that the design take into consideration a longer length for neck-front dangling. In the meanwhile, users who prefer celebrity-style behind the ear cables will already find themselves right at home with the cable design.
Those who have never used high-end earphones cannot appreciate the improvements they offer when listening to music – I know this because I was in this camp myself not too long ago. Back then, I noticed clear differences in sound quality between phones that went into the ear canal, ones that rested on the outer edge of the canal, and cup-style headphones, but most of these differences were attributable to noise isolation: generally, the further the speaker from the ear canal, the more outside audio would mingle with and detract from the music.
Yet that turned out to be a relatively minor factor in differentiating between headphones: good isolation could be had cheap, but what you hear once your ear is sealed off from outside noise is another issue altogether. Contrary to popular perception, there are very real differences between headphones in two key categories – first is the fidelity of audio reproduction.
Audio fidelity measures the similarity between what was recorded and what is heard by the listener, and here, the step up from $45 to $150 headphones is the aural equivalent of watching your favorite movie on an old DVD player and then Progressive Scan, and the jump from there to $330 Etymotics is akin to seeing the film on a HDTV or movie screen. A first-time user of quality headphones can’t help but be shocked by the sheer quantity of audio detail that they’ve been missing for so long – so much so that an entire library of music will beg to be re-played to hear previously unheard instruments, layers of sound, and even muddled lyrics.
Etymotic came exceedingly close to perfect fidelity with its ER-4 series headphones, with users commenting that the sound was amazingly crisp and perfect in the high range, but not as rich in bass as some would prefer. Similarly, Ultimate Ears’ previous UE-5 series, which produced the best sound we had heard when we previously reviewed it, has given way to something better.
The UE-10 Pros topped both the ER-4s and UE-5s in fidelity, accurately reproducing not only the highs, but noticeably giving fuller body to the audio by improving reproduction of the mids and lows. Ultimate Ears’ tweaks of Etymotics’ reference formula effectively remedy critics’ concerns over the ER-4s, and improve upon the already exceptional performance of the UE-5s, though the changes are definitely not so profound as to deem the UE-10 Pros “bass-thumping” or otherwise overpowering.
The second and related additional category is audio enhancement, and here, the Ultimate Ears will either fit or miss your needs. While Future Sonics’ headphones are well known for providing an enhanced bass response – a change that boosts the audible warmness and power of contemporary rap, electronica and rock, Ultimate Ears’ products lean far more heavily towards accuracy than enhancement of the original audio source.
Isolation is not as clear cut an issue as it might initially seem. On one hand, the Ultimate Ears headphones are sculpted perfectly to fit your ear canal, and the additional plastic fills so much of the ear that it’s hard to imagine better passive noise cancellation than these large plugs. However, even if the fit is perfect, their size may be somewhat off-putting to certain users – a necessary trade-off given the devices’ three audio drivers per ear, which simply take up more physical space than single-driver Etymotics.
In our testing – and we did have two people each using custom-fit Ultimate Ears headphones – we both found the overall comfort level of the earphones to be surprisingly comparable to our favorite pairs of in-ear buds, despite their larger size. Strictly from a comfort standpoint, one of us feels that the UE-10 Pros are now our preferred choice for day-to-day usage, while the other ranks them in the top two or three. But we both know which we would pick if we wanted to be sure we were hearing everything possible in our favorite songs.
At $900 per pair, the UE-10 Pros are at the highest end of two scales: price and performance. Delivering noticeably better performance than cheaper alternatives from both Ultimate Ears and Etymotic, they are also so expensive that only serious audio professionals and rabid audiophiles would consider purchasing them.
It’s no surprise that audio-savvy readers have scoffed at the suggestion that an iPod should even be connected to headphones so high on the food chain: price aside, MP3 compression and output limitations on certain digital media players can reduce audio quality to the point where such spectacular reproduction only exposes flaws, not details in the music. In our testing, however, we found that MP3 audio at bitrates equal to or exceeding 160kb/s was only helped by the UE-10 Pros, and never hurt, and certainly we never felt that lower bitrate audio sounded better on poor headphones.
In sum, though issues of fit and price may limit the potential audience for UE-10 Pros, they’re unquestionably great earphones and worthy of the discerning professional musician clientele they have attracted. By delivering simply the best in-ear audio we have heard to date, the UE-10 Pros present an unexpected new challenge: their users now need to find music worthy of being piped through them.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
Company and Price
Company: Ultimate Ears, Inc.
Model: UE-10 Pro
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle