As far as headphone audio goes, this year is like one gargantuan irony. The economy is in the toilet, yet we're being bombarded by one cool product after another. Well, here's another great new product, but this one is more in keeping with the state of our times--sort of like Ultimate Ears' response to our shrinking wallets. Read on.
To this day, my reference in-ear monitors (IEMs) are the Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro and UE11 Pro. (There are other top-flight custom IEM makers out there, too, like Head-Fi Sponsor Westone, but I haven't heard any customs by them yet.) From an audiophile standpoint, the more reference-type sound--more neutral, more balanced--comes from the UE10 Pro (versus the 11). The 11 is the more bassy, more exciting of the two (but still very transparent, though certainly not neutral). Once I got the UE11 Pro--very exciting sounding, and fun with its bass emphasis--I all but stopped listening to my UE10 pro.
Then Sennheiser announced the HD800--one of the most neutral transducers of any type that I've ever listened to--which I've had a chance to live with for quite some time. With the HD800, my tastes started veering heavily back to more neutrality and transparency, and the UE10 Pro put the 11 back on the shelf. For those of you who haven't heard it, the UE10 Pro is a very revealing, very neutral custom IEM. For evaluating other gear, the UE10 Pro remains one of my neutral references, and, from the standpoint of resolution, nothing in the universal-fit world that I've heard comes close.
If there's a problem in recommending the UE10 Pro or the UE11 Pro, it's certainly not with respect to performance, but with price. They're expensive. The UE10 Pro is $900. The UE11 Pro is $1150. Add the $50 to $100 you pay for ear impressions, and we're talkin' big simoleons there.
When Ultimate Ears asked me some time ago if I'd be interested in helping evaluate new custom in-ear monitors, I, of course, said yes. It was a rather straightforward process--they had my ear impressions on file already, and they were to ship out two different versions of what would be the UE4 Pro (unit A and unit B). The only other thing I was told was that the UE4 was going to be less expensive than my reference 10 and 11 (which, given the UE custom-naming nomenclature, was pretty easy to figure out).
The first one I tried was unit A. Unit A was bassier than neutral, but not too transparent. It was, as best I can put it, pleasant. It wasn't altogether unlike the UE11 Pro in terms of bass, but without the transparency of the UE11. In other words, it was bassy and mellow. It still sounded good, and still sounded better than most of my universal-fit IEMs I had on hand--but it wasn't the jaw-dropper that the 10 and 11 are. My initial conclusion? This is probably the price that's paid for making a more affordable UE custom. I enjoyed unit A for a day--and that was about it, because the next day was unit B's turn.
Peeking through the shell of unit B revealed, as with unit A, a two-drivers-per-side configuration (though it was clear that there were different drivers than B's, just based on the size of the driver units in there). I figured I was in for a different flavor of unit B, but wasn't prepared for it to be completely different. And it was completely different.
The UE4 prototype unit B was simply leaps and bounds ahead of its unit A counterpart. The bass was deep and impactful, but definitely on the more neutral side. Detail through the rest of the audible range was also much greater, and the treble extension was better than the A unit by a good margin, too. The UE4 prototype B reminded me of the UE10 Pro! Transparent, neutral, highly resolving.
I filled out the beta evaluation survey, and pushed hard for B. I knew that the rest of the beta team was made up of mostly non-audiophiles, so it was with some emphaticalness that I campaigned for the release of B over A. As it turns out, I think most (if not all) of the beta evaluation team agreed with me, and so the UE4 Pro production version announced today is what I knew as the UE4 beta prototype version B.
Of course, having the UE10 Pro here, I had to compare the two. The UE10 Pro presents a slightly larger soundstage, a freer breathing midrange, and a touch more treble extension. With its greater driver count (one more driver per side), I'd imagine the UE10 Pro would likely have a higher maximum amplitude, too, which might matter to someone who performs on a very, very loud stage, but matters not a lick to me, because the UE4 Pro plays far louder than I can tolerate listening to. Yes, the UE10 Pro is better, but the UE4 Pro gets you a long way to it, and for $501 less.
How did UE come to the table with something that performs like a UE4 at just $399? Well, for one, they've minimized (read: eliminated) just about every option available with their other custom models. No custom colors--just clear, with a UE logo on each piece. No custom artwork--just clear, with a UE logo on each piece. (And there's value to UE, by the way, in knowing that what will likely be their most popular custom IEM will have the UE logo on all of them. The businessman in me says that does actually factor favorably into the price.) The only cable color you can order with the UE4 Pro is, yep, you guessed it, clear. Also, there are fewer deliverables that come with the UE4 Pro, so don't go looking for the famous UE custom roadie box--it ain't in there. Overall, the packaging is simpler and less expensive (but has the side benefit of being more environmentally friendly).
I'll say more about the UE4 Pro later, but it is, as my thread title states, to me, the poor man's UE10 Pro. That it sounds the way it does, contains UE's expertise and quality, and can be had for just $399 (not including ear impressions costs) is outstanding. Consider the UE4 Pro to be Ultimate Ears' own small economic stimulus package for Head-Fi'ers and performers--UE's first affordable Pro-class IEM. Simply put, I haven't heard a better IEM yet for its price.