Pros: UE 2 Pin connectors, Neutral Signature, Glorious Midrange, Value
Cons: Cosmetic Imperfections, Potentially Harsh Treble
Edit: So UE has announced the new update to the UERM, the UE Reference Remastered... 1 day after my review. Pretty ironic but it is what it is haha. So I guess this review may be more a tribute to the past than I had initially intended it to be as the UERM is now officially discontinued.
The Story Behind the Name:
Back when I first took interest in personal audio early on in high school, there were a few products that seem to have reached a legendary status amongst enthusiasts. HD800, HE6, even the original Audio-Technica M50 were just a few of those ubiquitous names. While some of those behemoths remain relevant today, some have since begun to fade into the past, as this hobby progresses at an incredibly fast pace.
Back in high school, I only had the privilege of reading everyone else’s thoughts on these products. I neither had the resources nor the connections available to allow me to give these products a listen. The only time I did have such an opportunity was when I listened to the Sennheiser HD800 at a bustling electronics market. I wasn’t very impressed. But then again, I heard more of what the dude next to me was saying than what was going on in the music.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with a couple of these old-school legends – well, old-school to me anyways. What I’ve found was that while the market has grown vastly even compared to just 5 or 6 years ago, and the next best “innovation” always seems to be just around the corner, these product not only remain relevant in my eyes, but very much competitive. In fact, they’re some of the best audio products I’ve yet to hear.
Even just a few years ago, the custom IEM market was very different from what it’s like today. The number of potential brands to choose from is certainly not as diverse as it is now. The names you mostly hear of were Unique Melody, Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, and maybe the surging Heir Audio. The first of these classics that I will be looking at is from one of these big custom IEM makers and is none other than the king of neutrality in the world of in-ear monitors: The Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor. No, the UERM is certainly not a forgotten product by any means. In fact, it’s still the reference for many reviewers and enthusiasts alike. However, the UERM doesn’t seem to reign supreme like it did a few years back – and for very bad reasons. Yes, it seems the UERM has fallen victim to the “more driver is better” belief that has taken everyone by storm. Far too often nowadays (grant that’s still not very often), I see someone complaining that the UERM is outdated and overpriced for a custom IEM that has “only” 3 driver. Why can’t I pay 100 dollars more for something that has at least twice the number of drivers that the UERM has? Yikes... The UERM is a testament that more is not better and it remains near the top of the list in terms of sonic capabilities and, even after 6 years, remains a very competitive product at its 1000 dollar price point.
My Right Ear is a Lot Bigger Isn't It... Haha
I do think I should explain my connection with Ultimate Ears a bit before I go any further. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with UE at their booth during RMAF 2015 – and I loved every minute of it. UE send me a pair of the UERM in exchange for my services to them that weekend. I also paid for my own flight to and from Denver, so you can say I paid for the UERM with my service and flight to RMAF. And that’s about as far as my connection with UE goes. They didn’t ask for a review, because why would the need a review of the UERM, and I have no incentive for writing a biased review for them in any way. My bias goes no further than the fact that I like them, and hope they like me as well.
Packaging and Accessories:
My UERM came with the small square storage case, so the overall packaging of the UERM was very small. You get a small black box that opens up nicely to display the carrying case, which has my name engraved on it, lying on a nice silky looking material.
Inside the carrying case, there isn’t all that much in terms of accessories. You find the UERM themselves with a 48 inch cable, a cleaning tool, a 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm adaptor, and a device that UE calls their buffer jack. The buffer jack is awesome. The short description UE has on the buffer jack states that it “lowers audio signals on airplanes entertainment system and buffers electrical impedance mismatch,” which basically means it lowers background noise and hiss – something it does fantastically well. This little adaptor allows me to use my sensitive IEMs with my desktop amplifier with an absolutely black background. Even when I use players with very quiet background noise, like my Sony NW-ZX2, the little adaptor helps give you a cleaner and blacker background. The buffer jack add very little bulk to your audio chain and at 10 dollars, I think it’s a great investment for anyone who uses IEMs.
Packaging of My UERM
Fit, Finish, and Build:
As one of the most successful custom IEM company catering towards stage musicians, it doesn’t come as a surprise that UE focuses on the function of their IEMs above all else. The simple default look of the UERM consists of black faceplates with a UE and Capitol Studios logo and a clear shell isn’t anything particularly fancy or extravagant. UE also doesn’t seem to worry all that much about the aesthetics of what’s inside as long as everything is sturdy. Drivers and circuits are stuck right onto the shell itself with a generous amount of adhesive to ensure that they’re not going anywhere. Those looking for the clean and high-end aesthetics from the likes of Noble Audio may not find the UERM all that desirable in terms of its looks. However, for someone like me who’s always been fascinated with the internal designs of a product, I certainly appreciate being able to see every detail that went into the design of the UERM.
A Closer Look Inside the UERM
Continuing on the topic of UE’s focus on their product’s functionality, it would be wrong if we didn’t mention its connectors. UE’s 2 pin system is, in my personal opinion, the best connector that I’ve come across, just beating out the connector that FitEar uses. UE’s 2 pin connection is probably the most secure connector I’ve ever encountered. In addition to the surface between the 2 pins and their female inserts, the UE’s protruding jack and cover around it means that there are way more frictional surface to keep the pins in place than any other connector that I know of. In addition, such a design also means that water, or any sort of liquid for that matter, is gonna have a real hard time getting to the electronics at the connector, so people that will be sweating a lot, perhaps stage musicians, won’t have to worry about their sweat messing with their IEM’s connection in any way.
The Incredible Well-Designed Connectors
The build and finish of the UERM are fine and nothing exceptional by today’s standards. The shell feels solid and is very nicely polished. There are no bubbles to be seen anywhere on the body of the shell, but there are a couple very tiny bubbles at the nozzles on both sides of my UERM. I guess even with 3D printing technology has adopted, the process of making the shell isn’t absolutely perfect yet.
I’ve been told that the shape of my ear canal is fantastic for making custom molded products. I did have to get a very minor adjustment done for my right ear, but the UERM fits very well in my ears with absolutely no way of breaking the seal. What surprised me most, however, is how different the shape of the UERM’s shell is from that of my custom IEM from Earwerkz (now Empire Ears). The biggest difference between the two is the nozzle. The nozzle from Earwerkz is significantly longer, and inserts quite a bit deeper. On the other hand, the nozzle on my UERM doesn’t insert all that deep, in fact it isn’t much deeper than a universal fit IEM. However, the nozzle is also a good bit thicker in diameter in comparison. I’ve seen collections of custom IEMs before, and of course every unit’s shape is a little different. But I’m fascinated by the fact that the shapes of the nozzle between my two custom monitors are quite a bit different, yet both are able to yield a perfect fit. It just goes to show that there are more than one way of achieve the same goal.
Because my UERM has a more shallow insertion, I do find it a bit more comfortable as it’s less intrusive. However, it does sacrifice a bit of isolation for comfort, as I do find my Earwerkz Supra to isolate just a tad bit better. Both are still above and beyond the level of isolation you’ll get from a universal unit though, so it’s a tradeoff I’d happily take.
UERM Nozzle Length Compared to Earwerkz Supra II
Thanks to the UE buffer jack, I was able to get some fantastically clean and noise free sound from my desktop setup despite the UERM being a moderately sensitive IEM. Because of how good of a sound I got connecting my UERM to my desktop setup, the majority of my listening was done running music of all genres and quality from Foobar on my computer to a Schiit Wyrd and then into my Asus Essence III as a DAC/Amp combo.
True to its name, the UERM has a flat response with a slight bump in the bass and a more forward lower treble that is coupled with an impressive level of resolution.
I think the bass is probably the most misunderstood part of the UERM. While there is less of a bass boost than what many would consider natural or desirable, I find the bass of the UERM to have very good impact and is far from being anemic. It doesn’t have the thump or richness that many love, but it can still demonstrate good authority when called upon to do so. Most importantly, the UERM extends fantastically well. I put on the UERM the first time not expecting too much below 50 Hz or so, as its sub bass presence seems to have been debated on quite a bit. Some have said that the UERM has almost no sub bass extension, while others have said that it is well-extended and can dig deep. After hearing it for myself, I’m certainly in the latter camp. Bass kick, while not bloated or overly thumpy in any way, are indeed able to dig quite deep. A quick tone sweep showed that the UERM is actually able to extend down to 25 Hz without any trouble at all. This is 1 dedicated bass driver in a 3 driver IEM. Needless to say, I was very impressed. I really enjoy the bass performance of the UERM.
In terms of quantity, I actually found the bass quantity quite sufficient for lots of genres of music, even the likes of pop and some hip hop or rap. I say that because so many pop songs these days have such artificially enhanced bass that pairing it with a bassy headphone or IEM results in some overly present bass. Because the UERM doesn’t do that, it actually pairs really well with these tracks. I did find myself wishing for more bass punch when listening to older tracks such as rock music from the likes of Journey. To me, a little extra thump in the bass would definitely make Journey’s sound more explosive and true to their reputation.
Bass quality from the UERM is also really good. The bass can punch hard when needed and impact and decay is always fast and clean. The bass impact also demonstrates that it can dig deep, and you don’t get the sense of “pop” or “plasticky-ness” that’s often linked with poor bass extension from BA drivers. I will say that sub bass texture is probably the weak point of the UERM though. It has long been surpassed in this regard, and there are IEMs out there that can give you a much better defined bass texture, although there aren’t many products out there that give you the sense of cleanliness that the UERM is able to demonstrate.
Maybe at some point, the midrange of the UERM had the most detailed sound out of any IEMs on the market – but that’s certainly not the case anymore. However, the midrange of the UERM is, bar none, my favorite amongst all IEMs and CIEMs I’ve ever encountered – and, to be completely honest, by a long shot. After listening to the UERM, nothing else sound quite “right,” and I find myself longing to return to the UERM. Even IEMs that surpass the UERM in terms of texture and detail don’t cut it for me. To put it simply, the UERM has a sense of naturalness and coherence that I’ve never experienced in an IEM before. The midrange is full-bodied, but not thick, and it’s resolving and clean, but not overly analytical. In short, it’s the only IEM I’ve heard with a midrange that truly walks the fine line between being musical and analytical.
The UERM’s midrange is ever-so-slightly relaxed with a presentation that puts the music slightly in front of you. The sound is clean, well-textured, and very smooth. But as I’ve said, there are IEMs that surpass it in terms of sheer detail and texture. Separation is top-notch, and the background is clean. I also find the midrange of the UERM to be very dynamic.
The treble is where people also have trouble with the UERM. The treble of the UERM is, without a doubt, somewhat emphasized, giving the UERM its more analytical nature as well as its potential harshness. As someone who appreciates a bit of extra brightness, the UERM is right up my alley. I do admit that while I love the crispness of the UERM’s upper region, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s to a point where it’ll start making those more sensitive to treble peaks wince a bit.
The treble is clean, has fast decay, and crisp. Detail is very good and will bring out faults in poor recordings. However, while there’s some treble emphasis with the UERM, its upper register is surprisingly smooth, with just some fairly minor peaks at around 6 kHz and 10 kHz. Treble extension is fantastic, giving the UERM a very natural sense of spaciousness that doesn’t give the listener a sense that it was artificially done.
Something that IEM manufacturers have worked tireless to change in the past half a decade or so since the UERM’s release is the limitations that IEMs have when it comes to soundstage. There are plenty of products out there now that can outperform the UERM in terms of the sheer distance that instruments can extend outwards to, but most of those products are also expensive and are not necessarily natural sounding in that regard. At its 1000 dollar price tag, the UERM still performs valiantly in terms of soundstage and it presents the music in a very nice way. If I have to nitpick, I would say that while the depth is good in the sense that the music is presented in front of you and not so much in-your-head (which is a huge plus to me), I do feel that, compared to a lot of TOTL IEMs, the UERM can be lacking just a bit in overall layering.
While I’ve never been one to use the description “chameleon-like,” I will say that the UERM brings out the character of its source quite a bit. I’ve loved pairing the UERM with smooth and slightly warm DAPs such as the Lotoo PAW Gold and Sony NW-ZX2 as the UERM responds by giving a richer sound. I’ve found these DAPs to complement the UERM well as it prevents the UERM’s sound from becoming overly analytical.
On the other hand, the UERM’s sound differs quite a bit when paired with my Asus Essence III, which is a good bit flatter and overall more analytical sounding in comparison to the Sony and Lotoo DAPs. With the Essence III, the UERM has a much more linear bass response, replaces the smoothness that the DAPs provide in the midrange for a slightly thinner but ultra-precise sound, and a slightly sharper treble as well. Every headphone and IEM changes with the source, but I really think that the UERM does so more than other products I’ve had experience with.
UERM With Sony NW-ZX2
Not surprisingly, the UERM has pretty much become the reference in my arsenal of audio gear. Comparing it to another product really make it obvious when something has any sort of color in the midrange, peaks in the treble, or extra bloom in the bass. It’s not ruler flat, but it is very close indeed. If I could boost the bass just a tiny bit and pull back the treble just a tad bit as well, I think this would probably be the most natural sounding product I’ve ever heard.
As for recommending the UERM, I think you’re making a mistake if this IEM is not on your list and you’re looking for a CIEM under the price of maybe $1500 or so. No, I’m not saying that you should just buy the UERM because you’ll automatically love it, or that if you don’t love the UERM then you’re a criminal, but it needs to be on your list. Once you get your list, then it comes down to researching what you’re looking for and getting that right sound for you. I don’t think I’ve yet to hear an IEM under 1000 that competes with it, and I find that the UERM can still hold its ground in many cases when competing with IEMs much more expensive than itself. Honestly, I feel a little inclined to give the UERM a 4.5/5 because I feel that its build quality is a bit mediocre when you have companies making some incredible works of art, but I honestly think that the sound of the UERM deserves some bonus points.
The UERM is not an IEM of the past. It’s a product created in the past that is still an absolutely beast today. We get so tied up in the “next best thing” that we forget why these past products were so well received and so legendary. I’ll be completely honest, if I didn’t get the opportunity to demo the UERM 2 years ago, Ultimate Ears would be a forgotten company to me. While they’ve innovated their production process and have completely changed how they interact with their customers, they haven’t released anything new in terms of products.
At the end of the day, we gotta trust our ears. This thing has 3 drivers, folks – and it sound incredible.
UERM With Norne Audio Therium Cable