With their headquarters based in sunny-side California, Ultimate Ears was initially founded in 1995 by Jerry and Mindy Harvey. The former of which has played such an influential role in the design of headphones that within just a few years of UE’s induction, The Rolling Stones, Enrique Iglesias, and Faith Hill were loyal customers. A decade later, the company was acquired by Swiss electronic giant Logitech. Though an initially controversial move, the vice president of headphones, Phillipe Depallens, claimed that even with Jerry Harvey’s departure they have still managed to produce some of the best in-ear monitors the market has ever seen.
Enter the UE 18+ Pro, the third-generation flagship custom in-ear monitor, resulting from more than two decades of experience in ear phone and audio product manufacturing. The UE 18+ Pro, like the flagship UE Live, adds the same proprietary True Tone Drivers to reinvigorate the original UE 18s and deliver a more refined acoustic experience which is said to present more “detail, separation, and coherence” than its predecessors. Despite the new type of drivers, the topology remains very much the same with a four-way crossover design and triple bore system which earned the original their many accolades since their induction.
Designed for musicians and audiophiles alike, the UE 18+ Pro aims to provide versatility with a 5Hz – 22kHz frequency response (an improvement of 3kHz in the higher frequencies over the original UE 18+ Pro) and a -26dB removal of ambient stage noise. At a hefty $1500, however, the UE 18+ Pro does not come cheap and represents a significant investment for any individual who wishes to add this fine piece of craftsmanship to their collection.
The custom in-ear process
As with all custom in-ear monitors, custom impressions can be obtained from audiologists which then have to be sent to UE Pro’s lab in California where they are stored and shaped to make the final product. Interestingly, the company have revolutionised their manufacturing process with ear impressions now being scanned and stored on computers. Whereas before, silicone ear impressions were shaped by hand, now new software can easily shape the final product with a 3D printer. The aim being to improve consistency and reduce rates of returns from poor custom fits. Fortunately, UE have noticed positive changes with this new system with an overall 50% reduction in returns from poor custom in-ear fits.
In addition, UE plans to exploit the benefits of the digital laser scanner in order to make the process of obtaining ear impressions digitalised too. The aim again being to improve consistency and obtain better fits to improve customer satisfaction rates and pioneer the future of custom-in ear models. Virtual impressions can also be sent directly to UE labs reducing the transit times from shipping normal silicon ear impressions and thus minimising overall time from placing order to receiving the final product. As of now, however, there are only a few places which do digital scanning, but UE hopes to soon roll out the procedure to retail establishments across the U.S. as well as abroad. If digital ear impressions are not obtainable from near your location, Ultimate Ears Pro have a database of trusted audiologists (to find those near you, do visit their site).
What you get: the box & accessories
Sticking to their minimalist and bold themes, Ultimate Ears accessories pay homage to the company’s premium feel. Customers have the option to choose between several cases including a small square hard case, black round case, large roadie house case, and silver round case. The larger cases do not come at an extra cost and are a great addition for those who are likely to take these monitors on long commutes. For all intents and purposes, this review presents the black round case which feels sturdy and weighty to the touch. While perhaps not as durable as the large roadie case, this case offers a compact and neat solution to store monitors for quick and off-the-go uses.
The box which stores this small case is also minimalist and compact with a nice textured feel that opens via a magnetic latch system. Inside, the box is lined with a felt lining which houses the round case and protects it from scratches and drops. In terms of other accessories, UE Pro provide a 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm gold plated adapter and cleaning tool. The tool provides easy removal of wax which may accumulate within the sound bores of the monitors. A possible suggestion for UE Pro would have been to include an ear monitor cleaning spray to make it easier to clean the body of the monitors themselves.
Build quality & Design
Ultimate Ears Pro never fail to disappoint with their build quality—the monitors are extremely durable and have no noticeable bubbles trapped within the shell material. The faceplate is securely attached onto the body and both the cable and their insertion sites are securely placed. Perhaps an MMCX connector could have been used to enable more manoeuvrability when placing the custom monitors in the ear.
As with their other models, Ultimate Ears Pro provide a huge selection of customisability options allowing customers to truly personalise monitors to suit their tastes. Users are given the option to choose between 4 categories: solid colour, wood, specialty materials and pattern. It should be noted that the solid colour option comes at no extra cost, whereas the latter three categories come at an extra $100 cost.
Cables also come in different varieties with their being 50″ clear, 64″ silver, IPX Bluetooth cable, and Combo IPX Bluetooth & 50″ cables. Customers are also given the choice to engrave their case.
Fit & Isolation
With their new systems in place, comfort and fit is excellent with the UE Pro 18+ delivering a seal-perfect fit. One thing to note is that the ear bores are relatively deep which does take some bit of getting used compared to other IEMs. However, once placed and poised the UE Pro 18+ monitors seemingly disappear and you are just left with sound. Noise isolation is also great as expected from a custom in-ear allowing individuals to drown out ambient sounds with an average 26dB noise reduction.
The latest UE 18+ Pro adopts much of the same extensive sub-bass as the 2nd generation edition. At heart, there is a tonally satisfying growl to low frequencies which brings a slightly warmer character to the table. With that said, 64 Audio U12’s bass is more enveloping albeit less agile and precise. Compared to Heir Audio IEM 8.0, the UE 18+ Pro captures accuracy and depth but at the expense of the same impact that makes the former model lean towards a more musical in-ear monitor. This is evident in 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” where the lower frequencies extend, but lack a bit of impact. Overall, the bottom-end frequencies are pleasant with good extension and tautness, but may not satisfy those wishing for that added impact.
The midrange is perhaps the area where the UE 18+ Pro 3rd gen differs the most compared to its 2nd gen predecessor. The frequencies are brought more to the forefront and less thick compared to the 2nd gen’s more organic sound character. Instead, the 3rd gen goes for a reference tonality with more intelligible vocals and clear cut sound. This is tactfully done without the addition of harsh leading transients or sibilance that monitors like the DUNU DN-2000J are culprits of. Again, like the bass frequencies, the strive for a more reference signature is something consumers should decide for themselves whether it fits within their own sonic palettes. Female vocals shine brighter here owing to the monitor’s slight emphasis in the upper mid registers.
The high frequencies are more extensive with more sparkle than the 2nd generation UE 18+ Pro model. Owing to this more reference-take on the sound spectrum, the 3rd gen presents with more energy than the otherwise laidback 2nd gen predecessor. As a result, the 3rd gen evokes a heightened perception of sound.
Soundstage & Imaging
Since the UE 18+ Pro’s midrange is more forward centred, it does lose a bit of the soundstage width that the 2nd gen had. However, the sound is still by no means congested with great separation and projection of sonic stage.
Overall, the UE 18+ Pro (3rd edition) is a different beast to the former 2nd edition version. Both are still made of high quality materials, precise in contouring, and have some of the best impression to build finish. Having said that, it is hard to say whether one is better than the other. Yes, the 3rd gen has more detailing and more energy in the high frequencies, but the 2nd captures a very natural and organic midrange that many had grown to love. With this $1500 investment though, consumers will still be getting a top of the line product to suit both audiophile and staging needs. The huge array of customisability options and accessory choices are only an added bonus for an already great set of in-ears. Stay tuned for what more Ultimate Ear Pro has to offer…
UE 18+ Pro