This article published in #Issue 18 in winter 2016.
Getting An Earful
At last year’s Summer NAMM, I stepped up to the Ultimate Ears Pro booth to get fitted for a pair of UE 11 Pro custom in-ear monitors. I was assured there would be “no goop.” In the past, the best way to get a mold of the unique shape of the ear cavity was to inject silicone putty that would congeal, and then be extracted. This process has now been streamlined. The “goop” has been replaced with a handheld 3D scanner that uses an array of lasers to map the ear canal, as well as the particular topography of the outer ear.
First, the ears are cleaned with an alcohol-soaked swab. Wax and oil can make scanning more difficult. Next, headgear that outlines the ears in white plastic is worn to provide a guide for the scanner. The position of one’s jaw can affect the shape of the ears. Biting down on a small Styrofoam spacer ensures optimal results. They begin by scanning the ear canal and work their way out. The process takes a few minutes per ear, and you must hold very still, with mouth slightly agape. A paper towel is provided to catch drool.
The 11s lie near the top of Ultimate Ears Pro’s product range, promising low frequencies that drummers, DJs, and bass players crave. This is achieved through the use of four drivers tuned for high, mid, low, and sub frequencies. An integrated 3-way crossover activates the sub only when needed. Sound flows into your ears through a double bore that keeps the high/mids and low/sub frequencies separate and phase-aligned.
After a few weeks, my new in-ears arrived. The packaging was very simple … a small, sturdy metal box with my name printed neatly on the cover. The UE 11 Pros present themselves in a no-nonsense, practical case that I expect could survive being run over by the tour bus. Inside, I found the monitors, a tiny cleaning tool, and brief instructions for wear and care. The in-ears themselves look very nice. For their custom models, they offer a wide range of options, including custom graphics. I went with the “cherry wood” finish. Printed on the inside of the lid, there’s a special reward code. You see, quality in-ears have a very high cost-to-size ratio. I get nervous around such things, as I’m afraid they will be easily misplaced or stolen. So, in the event that your in-ears are lost, they can be returned for a reward by going to rewardtag.com/ue and entering the special code. After all, they won’t do anyone else any good, unless they happen to be your identical ear-cavity twin. And I imagine they would become a great source of pain to those who would attempt to wear them.
As I handled them for the first time, the braided cable easily uncoiled. Anxious to experience the custom fit, I gingerly placed them in my ears. I have owned several pairs of in-ears in the past, but they were all designed to be universal-fit, with varying sizes of rubber ear tips. As the instructions clearly state, the trick is to place them in turned slightly forward, and then twist back. If done properly, they easily screw in to your ears. The sensation of wearing them for the first time is new, but it is something that I’ve grown very used to. Often, I quickly give one or the other a small forward turn to slightly break the seal so I can hold a conversation. Otherwise, you are sonically isolated.
I reached for my phone and selected some music that would be sure to contain fair amounts of low-frequency information. I began by listening to Boards of Canada. Initial impressions confirmed that the lower range is very present and warm, but not overly so. Sitting there, I felt as though I were in my own private listening room, with high quality monitors and a nice subwoofer. Another perk of excellent isolation began to reveal itself. I could hear small artifacts leftover from the compositional process of purely electronic music that would not be apparent coming from standard speakers. Sampled sounds used in electronic music have their own noise floor – a subtle hiss that terminates as the sample ends. I began to notice these for the first time in this particular recording. The UE 11 Pros will not replace studio monitors in a mixing environment, but could certainly be an excellent addition for hearing detailed information that you just don’t get when there’s a room and ambient noise between you and your music.
The Ultimate Gigging Experience
On stage, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Surprisingly quiet? Too quiet? I wore the UE 11 Pros for a Halloween show at a “club-sized” venue. For 10+ years, I’ve played guitar in a metal band, and for most of that time, we have worn headphones or in-ears. I’m in charge of running the monitor mix from stage. Going in, I fully expected that I would need to goose the rehearsal volume to account for higher ambience in a performance environment. This was NOT the case. I was able to keep my personal mix at a comfortable and low level. I have worn several different types of universal-fit in-ears on stage for years and would always have to boost the volume for shows. As we finished our first tune, I had to look up to visually confirm that the audience was indeed still there and also cheering. Ultimate Ears Pro claims -26dB of noise isolation. This is a conservative estimate, in my case. When dealing with a product that conforms to the unique shape of your ear cavity, I suspect that isolation levels will vary, depending on the shape of the ear and how well the product fits.
The UE 11 Pros performed flawlessly on stage. There are several advantages to choosing high-quality in-ears over traditional stage monitors. Fewer feedback issues, lower stage volume, and consistency are all common points. No matter where you are on stage, your mix is your mix. And the UE 11 Pros do provide better perception of low frequencies, which are often lost in the jumble of a noisy performance environment. There are a few possible disadvantages, as well, that will depend on your own preferences. For example, when using in-ears, you are trusting your stage mix entirely to the monitor engineer. With wedges, however, the mix will change depending on your location. Therefore, you can adjust your personal mix by choosing where to stand in proximity to the monitors. It’s something that some of us do subconsciously. We position ourselves on stage to find the best sonic vantage point.
Ultimate Ears Pro offers a full range of products, and I also had the opportunity to check out a pair of their universal-fit UE 900s in-ear monitors. These are excellent for those on a tighter budget. They come with nine different ear-tip sizes (two pairs each) to ensure a good fit. Two detachable braided cables, cleaning supplies, and a plastic case round out the offering. Like the UE 11 Pros, they employ four drivers and claim 26dB of isolation. The frequency response is very balanced across the 20Hz to 20kHz range. They sound very good, but can’t match the comfort and warmth of the pricier and custom-fitting UE 11 Pros. If the $1,150 starting price of the UE 11 Pros are a deterrent, the UE 900s monitors can be had for $399.
The Bottom Line
There is an art to having a good stage mix. Great sound on stage translates to a more confident and spirited performance. If you decide to transition from stage monitors to in-ears, the UE 11 Pros are an excellent choice. Just know that there may be a period of adjustment as you get used to the consistency and isolation. You may feel disconnected from your fellow musicians, and you may need to look up every now and then to see if the audience is still there. In my case, the Pros far outweigh the cons. For more info, visit pro.ultimateears.com.
|Model:||UE 11 Pro|
|Input Sensitivity:||119 dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
|Frequency Response:||5Hz – 22kHz|
|Noise Isolation:||-26 decibels of ambient stage noise.|
|Impedance:||18 Ohms @ 1kHz|
|Internal Speaker Configuration:||4 proprietary balanced armatures with a 3-way crossover.|
|Input Connector:||1/8” headphone jack; compatible with all systems|
|Input Sensitivity:||101.2 dB @ 1kHz, 50mW|
|Frequency Response:||20Hz – 20kHz|
|Noise Isolation:||-26 decibels of ambient stage noise|
|Impedance:||30 Ohms @ 1kHz|
|Internal Speaker Configuration:||4 proprietary balanced armatures with a 3-way crossover|
|Input Connector:||1/8” headphone jack; compatible with all personal monitoring systems|