Many audiophiles are often music-obsessed as much or more than they are gear-obsessed, which, frankly, is as I think it very much should be. The gear should serve the music; but, really, gear and music are generally two separate interests that we converge in our own special, personal ways as audiophiles. Some time ago, though, Ultimate Ears contacted me to tell me about a product they were working on that, itself, bridges the two interests--music geekdom and headphone audio enthusiasm--in a very cool way.
As most of you know, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) have their roots in pro audio, intended originally for use primarily by stage performers. (Of course, eventually audiophiles discovered the wonders of great custom IEMs, and we now represent a substantial slice of the custom IEM base.)
Now, however, Ultimate Ears (UE) is targeting a new segment (new as far as a primary segmenet for custom IEMs go), which is the professional studio engineers and producers, with a brand new IEM designed for use by them in a variety of settings, including recording studios, with portable laptops and in live venues and rehearsal studios for recording, mixing and mastering. And what makes this product right for those types is also going to result in it finding much esteem with audio enthusiasts, too.
This new product is called the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor. And, among other things, what makes it so well suited to its intended market is the fact that it is tuned specifically to have a flat curve, and to very accurately represent placement and space. I had a pre-production set for quite some time and, to my ears, Ultimate Ears hit their marks big time. (I no longer have the beta unit, but my production sample should be arriving very soon.)
Now, this is where the music geek part comes in:
To make sure they were meeting the needs of professional studio engineers and producers--for the purpose of mixing and mastering--UE collaborated with the engineering team at the hallowed Capitol Studios. Music geeks know the significance of Capitol Studios to music over the last many decades, including its use by legends like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nate King Cole, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, and innumerable other legendary artists on even more innumerable albums. The Wall Street Journal recently said of Capitol Studios: "Particular studios have been crucial in defining the sounds of whole eras. Capitol Studios in Hollywood gave the Sinatra years their sonic signature." Musicphiles know the "Capitol sound" has played its part in the works of many more artists than Frank Sinatra.
And if you think your audio setups have been meticulously designed, consider the following about Capitol Studios (from Wikipedia):
About Capitol Studios:
"The ground floor, the only rectangular part of the [Capitol Records] building, is actually a separate structure which surrounds the tower and was joined to it after the entire tower was completed. It houses the Recording Department offices, two mastering rooms, three recording studios which were designed by Vincent Van Huff, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Edwards, plus six production/edit rooms.
The studio A and studio B can be used together to make space for 75 musicians to record orchestral and soundtrack music.
To prevent the hum of fluorescent lighting, the fixtures' ballasts were mounted outside the studios. The heating and air conditioning system used 'decoupled ducts, sound traps and soundproofed vents.'
The exterior walls are 10-inch-thick concrete. A one-inch air gap separates the outer wall from the studios' inner wall, which in turn stands on a floor which 'floats on a rubber-tiled, 3-inch concrete slab. This upper slab floats on a layer of cork, which rests on the 6-inch concrete foundation slab.'
The studios' interior walls were built with shutter-like baffles. One side is birch wood, which creates a hard sound, and the other is fiberglass, which has a softer sound. Ceilings are suspended beneath thick rock-wool soundproof insulation."
About the renowned Echo Chambers:
"The Capitol Studios feature unique echo chambers. They are subterranean concrete bunkers built 30 feet underground. The sound isolation and acoustic properties allow recording engineers to sweeten tracks with a rich reverberation.
The echo chambers were designed as trapezoidal rooms by recording artist and sound expert Les Paul. They have 10-inch-thick concrete walls and foot-thick concrete ceilings. With speakers on one side and microphones on the other, they can provide reverberation lasting up to 5 seconds. Sound engineers 'use them like an artist's palette,' as one Capitol worker put it. Sound from microphones in the studios is sent to speakers in the echo chambers, and picked up by the microphones. The amount of reverberation is controlled at the sound mixing board."
Simply put, Capitol Studios is a very rare living, functioning homage to what many consider to be modern music's golden ages and methods. That Ultimate Ears turned to the engineering team at Capitol Studios means much more than being able to mention their product in the same sentence as "Capitol Studios" or the use of the Capitol marks. The Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor is in every way a product of collaboration between Ultimate Ears and Capitol Studios, not just some paper endorsement. One listen to the Reference Monitors, and the results of that collaboration are obvious.
In hearing the pre-production version of the In-Ear Reference Monitor, I could hear the accurate representation and dimensionality of soundstaging they were after--an aspect needed for its intended use by the studio engineers and producers. It may also be the most neutral and uncolored of all the in-ear monitors I've heard, again a product of necessity given its intended customer base. You need not be a studio engineer or producer to appreciate its qualities, however--you just need to be able to appreciate its neutrality and imaging, and there are a lot of us who want and will appreciate those very things about it.
If you're the type to customize via EQ, the In-Ear Reference Monitor flat curve provides, to my ears, an honest baseline from which to start. As someone who rarely touches equalizer settings, I'm more the type who simply enjoys the neutrality of this piece.
Most of the models of custom IEMs I've heard were designed with mild to more-than-mild bass emphasis. I do enjoy that flavor, too, and will continue to. But, in my stable of in-ear monitors, what I've been missing was a piece designed for utter neutrality that I could turn to when the mood strikes, as often it does, especially when I'm desk-bound (with little to no ambient noise that I might wish to counter with some extra thump). The Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor has become my bespoke in-ear equivalent of a neutral go-to piece that Sennheiser's HD800 has become for me in the over-ear headphone category.
Apparently, isolation is also a priority for the studio engineers and producers, as the UE In-Ear Reference Monitor is available with a new material that results in better isolation than any of my other custom in-ear monitors (up to 32 decibels). This more isolating version is made of a softer material that I also found more comfortable for long listening sessions. (The backplates are still made of a harder material.)
If you look at the photos below, you'll also notice that Ultimate Ears came up with a new cable plug type. When I receive the production sample, I'll take some photos of it, cables on and off, so you can see just how nice this new plug configuration is. It seems to me to be unquestionably more durable, as well as more resistant to moisture, with a plug overmold that covers the plug/jack junction. That overmold is also designed with a permanent angled-back shape that I found improved comfort, kept the cable in place better, and had me wondering why nobody had done this before. I believe the cable will also use UE's new design that eliminates the molded piece at the Y-junction, opting instead for a design at the Y that is flat and seamless, as with the UE-18 Pro.
The UE Reference Monitors come contained in a gorgeous new black custom aluminum carrying that feels as solidly built as a ZERO Halliburton piece. This new case closes with a sliding lock mechanism and has custom molded internals designed specifically for custom IEMs. I'll post a photo of the production version of the new carrying case very soon.
Who do I recommend the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor for, other than studio engineers and producers? I'd recommend them for any audio enthusiast who is seeking a highly resolving high-end custom in-ear monitor with a neutral balance, and fantastic soundstaging (easily among the best soundstagers of any in-ear monitors I've used).
Leading up to the beta testing phase of the Reference Monitors, I spoke with Phillipe Depallens (vice president and general manager of the Ultimate Ears product unit for Logitech), Paul Manfrini (product marketing director at Ultimate Ears), and Chuck Reynolds (worldwide director of custom sales at Ultimate Ears), and their enthusiasm for the Reference Monitor was nothing short of rabid. Having heard the product of this great collaboration with Capitol Records, I can completely understand why.
I'm going to reserve further comment on the Reference Monitors' sonic properties until after I hear the full production sample (as I understand that some minor refinements may have been made since the manufacture of my early beta unit). Until then, check out the following photos of this absolutely gorgeous new product, and make sure to see UE's product page for this new piece on their website, as well as their official press release.
The Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors will be available in September 2010, and priced at $999.00.
Efficiency: 112 dB SPL @ 1 kHz, 1mW
Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 35 Ohms @ 1 kHz
Internal Speaker Configuration: Three balanced, precision armatures (woofer, mid driver & tweeter)
Noise Isolation: -26 dB (100% acrylic housing) and -32 dB (soft silicone material option)
Input Connector: 1/4" jack adapter gold plated; 3 pole 1/8" (3.5 mm) standard jack