Pros: Punchy bass, UE support
Cons: Mids/highs could be a bit more apparent, the sound signature is one that pushes you toward higher volumes
This is my first written review on Head-Fi, so please take everything with a grain of salt, but I am going for a detailed review here, and I intend on doing more in the future, so please feel free to comment on anything I can do to improve! Anyway, let's dive right in!
A little about me:
A little over a year ago, some switch flipped inside of me, and I discovered the wonderful–regretfully expensive–world of high end audio. It didn't take me long until I was hooked, and since then, my love for audio progressed exponentially. Now, I feel as though I own some pretty nice gear, and I can truly appreciate the quality of the audio I'm listening to. Another little fun fact, I happen to be one of the "high school audiophiles," a rare breed as far as I can tell. I guess there's positives and negatives to that. Hey, I may be a stupid teenager, but at least I have young ears!
Addressing the need for this review:
I decided to purchase the UE18's because of the timing of a good deal. They seemed like a great monitor, the price was right, and I jumped in. There was one thing that kind of caught me off guard, though, being used to the Head-Fi presence of my Fiio and Shure products. Well, there wasn't much of a Head-Fi presence. There was no impressions thread with hundreds and hundreds of pages, and there were not many reviews in general. A few here and there, but nothing like other products I was used to. I began to get a little nervous about my purchase, but I decided I would just trust my gut and hope for the best. Well, for the life of me, I still can't figure out why this pair of monitors gets so little attention. I understand the UERM may appeal to more people, but as I am about to get into, this monitor is fantastic, and it deserves some respect. Personally, I am extremely happy with my purchase, and I use my UE18's all the time.
I'm not going to go into too many details here since plenty of other people have done so already, and you can see for yourself on UE's website, but I would like to touch on the fact that it's a very good, streamlined process. UE has an excellent sales team that will answer any questions for you, and they will do their best to accommodate your specific needs. These are a custom after all; just because something isn't on the website, that doesn't mean it can't be done. Additionally, UE has an excellent website, it screams "professional" whenever you browse it. My only criticism is that the colors UE shows on it's design tool are not very accurate relative to how the monitors look in real life. UE makes enough monitors, it seems as though they could include a real picture of each monitor color. Again, this is something the sales staff can do for you if you ask, but I think it would be nice if they implemented it into the system.
I decided to go with the Carbon Fiber option (with the red UE logo added upon request) since I have always loved carbon fiber. You get to pick between the black cable and the clear cable; I thought black would look better with my monitor. Let's take a look at some pictures:
UE's entire building process is now done with 3D printers. Your impressions are scanned, and your monitors are printed. Some may appreciate the hands-on craftsmanship of most CIEM companies, but it's important to recognize the accuracy of 3D printing as well. Plus, UE has managed to do this while still making a beautiful finished product, and their turn around is one of the best in the business: Around 7-10 business days.
The monitors feel solidly built, and they do a nice job presenting all of the drivers and wiring from the canal area. When they are in ear, they look fantastic. I do not know this for sure, but I get the feeling most of UE's business is from artists who are using these for performing, and many popular artists are seen on stage with UE products. As a result, they carry a very cool look when worn in public. One thing I particularly love is how they've done a fantastic job aligning how the face plate looks with your entire ear shape. It's very obvious–even to an untrained eye–that something about what's in your ear is special.
My only slight gripe with the UE18's is that the carbon fiber does not really look like carbon fiber. It's cool, and it's not like I'm unhappy with how it looks, but it doesn't quite carry the carbon fiber look I was expecting. I think each rectangle on the pattern is just too big. Again, it looks cool, but not really like carbon fiber.
UE uses their own connector on their monitors. While it would be nice if they used something standard like MMCX, I think they've done a very good job with the cable and the connection. The connector fits very snug, which makes replacing cables a bit of a pain, but it leaves you with the peace of mind that nothing is going to happen to the cable. Additionally, UE's cable is good-looking, slim, and their implementation of memory wire is probably my favorite of any IEM cable I've ever put on. It's easy to bend in the way you want it on day 1, and once it's there, it does not move.
It's a CIEM, and a relatively light one, so there isn't too much to say here. You get what you expect from a monitor custom-fit to your ear. What I will say is that when I first got it, I had some issues with my left helix especially, but everything would just get a bit uncomfortable after an hour or so of use. I worked with UE on the issue, and it got a little bit better, but ultimately I think I just had to "break them in." I just wore them all the time, and after a little while, they stopped hurting. Now I've worn them for hours and had no issues. After around 3-4 hours I might start to feel a little fatigued, but nothing that I would personally consider out of the norm. UE was fantastic about working with me and trying to get me to love my monitors, though, so they definitely deserve some praise there.
If you are looking to wear this monitor for any exercise, you should have no issues. I use mine at the gym for about 2 hours every day, and I never have any issues. They fit in perfectly, and I've never lost a seal, had them pop out, get knocked out of place, or anything of the sort.
As far as isolation goes, I think the UE18 is about on par with what is expected. It's not like the UE18's have ANR or anything, so the isolation isn't incredible, but they do just fine keeping the outside world away from you. When I use mine at the gym, they almost always block out the grunts, metallic bangs of weights, and other unwanted gym noises. I frequently like to do homework at my kitchen table while my parents watch TV in the next room over where there is no door to seal the two parts off, and if I play music at a very low volume, it completely drowns out the noise of the TV.
Time to get down to business, what do they actually sound like? I'll break this down into a few parts. Lows, Mids, Highs, and then an overall conclusion.
- Lows: If you like low end, you will not be disappointed with the UE18's. The low end is so punchy and apparent, I really can't stress enough how much emphasis there is there. The Shure SE846 is often appraised for it's fantastic low end for an IEM. While I can't say if the UE18 has better low end than the 846, it certainly has more low end. Bass heavy songs absolutely blew me away. How is there such an emphasis on the bass that usually disappears on IEM's with rap or electronic music. Every deep detail pops on Energy by Drake or Roses by The Chainsmokers. The UE18 walks a fine line of being fun, and having uncontrolled bass. However, I don't think it crosses that line. The bass on the UE18 is just straight up fun to listen to.
- Mids: Mids are the weakest link of the UE18, but that's not to say they are weak in general. The details, the clarity, and the quality are all there. Most of the time, everything sounds as it should. However, listening to more bass-heavy songs, this is when I began to wish the UE18 was tuned just a little bit differently. At times, the mids can seem kind of distant, and I find myself striving for more–wanting to turn up the volume to get there. Again, it's not that the clarity and quality aren't there, it's just that they're being somewhat overshadowed. Of course, much of this can be remedied with EQ, and it is far from an issue with every song.
- Highs: The highs on the UE18 are excellent. Similar to the mids, at times they can be a bit overshadowed, but the emphasis on the low end on the UE18 most certainly did not come at a cost to the high end. The detail and clarity in the treble is absolutely outstanding, and when I really focus on it, it kind of shocks me. Last night, I had a very long listening session with my UE18's with many different genres of music so that I could get any final comments. I was listening to Holocene by Bon Iver when I decided to really focus on the highs. I tuned everything else out, and focused on the distant snares and cymbals that Bon Iver intentionally made so quiet that most wouldn't even think about them. What amazed me is the depth and clarity of each crash of the cymbals–each cacophonous boom of the snare drum. Shimmer does not begin to describe how wonderful it sounded. How was I hearing so much detail in a sound so high in frequency, and so far from the main focus of the music? I must give UE some serious credit on creating such detailed highs in a monitor with clear emphasis on the low end. I was expecting rolled off and disappointing highs from a monitor so heavy on the bass, but that in no way describes the UE18.
In conclusion, I really like the UE18's sound. I want to return to what I said about the lows. The UE18 walks a very fine line between fun and uncontrolled bass, but I truly believe it never crosses that line. What I love about the bass on the UE18's is that I can play a bass-heavy rap song and have lots of fun with them. I can feel the bass, have a good time, and enjoy its deep presence. However, when it's time to get down to business and listen to a well-recorded song that deserves appreciation to each aspect of its sound, the UE18 can handle it. At times, the detail and quality of the mids can get buried under the intensity of the lows, but it does not happen very often. The best thing I could compare the UE18's to is to a planar magnetic headphone. I'm not trying to say the UE18's are competitive with my LCD-3's, but I could compare them in sound signature. The bass on either is not too much, but they carry a satisfying punch. The UE18's are just straight up fun to listen to, and while a few things could be tweaked with the sound, I absolutely love them. I still do not understand why they have received such little attention from the community, and they deserve more of it.
One last side note:
There's one final thing that relates to UE in general that I think is worth nothing. I'm not trying to take any jabs at other CIEM companies because of their physical limitations, but the size of UE as a company leads to some advantages that deserves to be addressed. UE is one of the biggest CIEM companies out there. In terms of volume, they probably are neck and neck with JH, but I wouldn't be surprised if they do the most volume of any CIEM company. As a result, the experience for the user is just a bit different. This begins with the turnaround time. Sure, something from Noble (not including their 3D printed monitors) or any number of other CIEM companies is fantastic, and many would argue is worth the wait, but UE can do something many others can't: Get you your monitors fast. This also leaves a sense of security in case something goes wrong. If you have an issue with your monitor, you have it sent out, fixed, and back in your hands in under a week. I'm not trying to knock Audeze or anyone else here, but when I sent my LCD-3's in, they were gone for long enough that I somewhat had to forget about them, and be okay with parting with them. When I sent my UE18's in, they were back so quickly that I barely had a chance to miss them. I've had one of the best customer service experiences with UE that I have ever had, period–with any product.