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Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro Review (lots of pictures)

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 

Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro Review


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UE18 Pro with Custom Art - Trans Slate Grey. Click to enlarge.

There’s a lack of UE18 reviews. For every thread that mentions the UE18, there are 10 on the JH13/16, so I am going to do a proper review and hopefully do away with the mystical quality on UE’s flagship customs. If you have any further questions after this read, ask away! There’s a TL;DR towards the bottom with graphs if you want a quick summary.

Stuff You Probably Already Know

The UE18 has 6 balanced armatures: 2 highs, 2 mids, and 2 lows with a three-way crossover. They also sport a new beefy cable that’s built to last.

Input Sensitivity: 110.6 dB @ 1 kHz
Efficiency: 115.6 dB @ 1mW
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 18,000 Hz
Impedance: 21 ohms @ 1kHz
Internal Speaker Configuration: 6 proprietary precision balanced armatures
Noise Isolation: -26 dB
Input Connector: 1/8" (3.5 mm) gold plated

The base price is $1350 + tax + $15 standard shipping.  Custom art is $100 for each distinct image (more on that later). Cables are available in 48” or 66” in black or clear. There is no additional charge for the 66”, but replacement 66” cables are more expensive.

Packaging, Presentation, and Build quality

 

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The UE18 comes in a classy black heavy cardstock box, with a little magnet that makes the box snap shut. Inside, there are warranty disclaimers and other warnings inside a black envelope bound to black cardstock. Beneath that is your medium carrying case, very firmly sitting in the foam-thing cut out. The foam smells really bad and it’s a really, really tight fit.

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Classy presentation.


The plastic carrying case has a sliding lock. It’s not the most exquisite box ever (I was hoping for a shiny metallic case I’ve seen in pictures some time ago), but it’s sturdy enough to take serious damage. The inside of the box is padded with the same smelly foam. Your customized case has your name or phrase printed in silver lettering. The size is too bulky for daily commuting purposes in your pocket, so it’s best for your backpack or carrying bag. The carrying case supplied by TF10 is a much more reasonable size and I will be using that for mobile storage. See the picture below for size comparison.
 

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Inside the box is your UE18s and a cleaner tool. That’s it. I was expecting more accessories, like a ¼” adaptor, shirt clip, and a flight attenuator, because I paid more than $1000 for a top-end product. When you buy a Pagani Zonda, they even come with slippers! C’mon UE, surprise me.

 

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You can see three bubbles on the left, and a whole bunch on the right, including one huge one just to the right of  the red lettering.


The build quality is nice and the cable is superb. The art was well done (more on that later). I ordered my UE18s in transparent slate grey. There are no cracks or scratches, but there are a lot of bubbles. A few days ago I suddenly discovered these bubbles (somehow missing them the first two weeks) and freaked out because I thought water got inside them. They really look like water droplets inside! I threw the UE18s inside a box with rice and desiccant packs for three days before I contacted Todd, lol. The shell thickness is uneven where the faceplate meets the shell body. The acrylic case is smooth to the touch, and the connector is firmly seated. The memory wire is two inches long, and like the cinch and Y connector, is made of hollow plastic tubing. The cinch takes some getting used to because it doesn’t move up and down easily.

 

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Yes, rice! I was that concerned because I thought I somehow f***'d up my thousand dollar IEMs. LOL. Seriously though, that totally looks like water droplets to me.

The sound tube terminations are cut a bit rough, but it has no bearing on comfort. My ear canals are a tad narrow so instead of two distinct bores its one large bore with two “channels”. The acrylic is thinnest here and I suspect this place will crack first after many years of use.

Cable

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Not quad-braided, but twisted pairs for four wires total. Each earpiece has two twisted wires, making a twisted pair after the Y connector. It feels thick and sturdy, able to take a lot of abuse. It’s very flexible without being prone to microphonics. Most of the extraneous noises come from bone conduction and pulse, not brushing against clothing. It’s recommended you wear them running down your back, cinched tightly. The termination is a low-profile 3.5mm right angle gold plug encased in clear acrylic. If you order a clear cable the copper will oxidize over time and turn green, but this has no affect on sound quality as far as head-fi reports. Full marks on the cable.

I’ve additionally bought an Etymotic ER6i shirt clip to clip at my shirt collar (just above the Y tube piece) for minimum microphonics. It’s a really tight fit.


Custom Art

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From artwork, design, picture... to comp... to finished product!

Custom art is $100 for each distinct image. That is, if you want a graphic (no matter how complex) that is the same or mirrored for both sides, then it will cost $100. If you want two distinct images, as in my case, then it will cost $200. There are no technical limits on how complex you can submit your art, but take note the actual printable space is less than an inch high. The custom images will be painted outside of the acrylic shell, so it will be prone to scratches. Mkubota1 reports his UERMs have the logos painted underneath the acrylic, so maybe only custom art is on the outside.

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Right earpiece. The printed art is a bit fuzzy because my art was too complex.

 

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Left earpiece. Again, black lines not solid. Whites aren't super solid, overall less saturated look (as expected).

Being an artistic person myself, I pestered Todd (my rep for this order) a lot about the dimensions, templates, and allowable art. There aren’t any templates for custom monitors because every monitor size is different, so the closest thing you can do is to make a mock-up yourself or request a mock-up by their art department for confirmation. Due to my custom art on my right piece, it is significantly larger than my left ear – see above pictures for comparison. I believe UE will reasonably adjust your earpiece size to accommodate your art. I recommend simpler art pieces and saturated colors for maximum effect on a solid shell color. If you use a transparent shell color, then the colors aren’t as sharp. Take note as with any CMYK printing processes, colors will turn out differently (less saturated & vivid) than when viewed from your monitor.

The printer’s resolution is pretty high. If your artwork is too detailed, then the end result will be fuzzy. Mine was pushing the limitations on what is acceptable, and the black line’s aren’t solid at close inspection. But viewed at one feet away, everything’s beautiful again. If your artwork is a figure or object similar to mine (a shape surrounded by transparent background), I recommend you add a thick white outline to help it stand out. Otherwise your art will get lost with all the inner guts of the earpieces.

Overall my art is slightly greenish in hue (only ever so slightly), and the colors aren’t solid. It’s very good for 90% of customers out there, but I’m the 10% artistic crowd will demand a bit more. I’m sure if it printed in two/three passes – one for white background with general shape outline, then a second pass for colors, then a third for black you’d get an outstanding  piece, but that brings up a lot of horrible alignment issues and more trouble than it’s worth. But as I customer I am allowed to have unreasonable expectations, right? :D

Still though, they’re beautiful. Nothing says custom like customized art, the only pairs in the world to have that design, made to fit your ears only. These UE18s will last 5+ years so enjoy them.

Seal & Fit

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Isolation wise it’s identical to the TF10s. It’s not a magical 100% sound blockage as most people claim with customs. -26dB is -26dB isolation whether it’s universals or customs. However, it does do the seal at more comfort than what can possibly be offered by silicone or Comply tips. My left earpiece fits perfectly and disappears from feel. My right earpiece sticks out slightly more and I can feel some pressure on the bowls of my ears – I’ve decided to send them back for the UE techs to check out. I was able to wear them around for 12 hours each day (roughly) for the week with no problems. Some minor irritation issues occurred on my third day on my left ear, but that has gone away since.

The seal is strong and you’ll be taking your pulse a lot of times. But it will go away with music on. For a full acrylic shell, I find it very hard to make them loose while eating, drinking, or talking. Only a very wide smile or a trollface grin will unseat them slightly, but not break the seal. A lot of times it feels loose, but that’s because your ears have grown accustomed to the customs and it’s not as intrusive as it once was.


Edited by tengen - 4/2/11 at 7:32pm
post #2 of 12
Thread Starter 

Now, to the bread and butter!

Setup

 

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Since most of my desk space is taken up by a gigantic 9 x 12 (which in reality is like 14” x 17”) tablet plus my laptop and other art materials, my portable rig is my main rig. It’s a humble Rockboxed iPod 5.5G 80gb > AudioMinor pure silver LOD > RSA P-51 Mustang.

Overall Sound

A chameleon performer. Aggressive when needed but mostly sweet and lush. Generally laid back sound. It has very quick attack and the leading edges of notes are sharp. Decay is slower leading to a very airy feel. UE18s place the listener in the center of a grand concert hall. Excellent soundstaging and imaging. Bass  tight and controlled all the way down to 20hz, understated highs and drop off at 16khz+. Strong and flat mids. Good for 80% of the genres, and if you fiddle with the EQ then it is magic 100% of the time.

Is the UE18 indicative of the “house” sound and the direction UE is taking with their IEMs? Quite possibly; the UE11 has a similar sound signature, and Shane55 reported similar impressions on his UE4.

Tracks of interest


I’ve uploaded some less common tracks to Cloudsound/Bandcamp because I know my music routine is more Asian/anime centric. For Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky there are plenty of different interpretations, so I uploaded my “reference” tracks. All of the below are FLAC rips. Feel free to listen to them with your own systems.

Radiohead - Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
Seatbelts & Kanno Yoko - Tank! (live) (Cowboy Bebop CD-Box), jazz
Fukui Kenichiro - Badlands (Einhänder OST), electronic
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen Greatest Hits)
Tan Dun - At Emperor's Palace (Tan Dun & China Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus) (Hero: Music from the Original Soundtrack) - Chinese classical, choir
Rachmaninov - Piano Concerto No.2 in c minor, Op. 18 (Karajan/Weissner & Berliner Philharmoniker)
Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony in b minor, Op. 58 (Pletnev & Russian National Orchestra)
Seatbelts - Clutch (COWBOY BEBOP Knockin' on heaven's door O.S.T. FUTURE BLUES), jazz
Seatbelts - Autumn in Ganymede (COWBOY BEBOP Original Soundtrack 3 BLUE) bossa nova beats, jazz
Rebecca Pideon - Spanish Harlem (Chesky's Ultimate Demonstration Disc), folk
Lee Hacken - 我不會唱歌 feat. 郎朗 (Wo Bu Hui Chang Ge feat. Lang Lang) (Lee Hacken No.1 Hits), C-pop - ballad
Utada Hikaru - Final Distance (Final Distance), J-pop - ballad
Johnny Cash - Hurt (Unearthed V: Best of Cash), country
Benjamin Britten - Festival te Deum, Op. 32 (Westminister Choir) (Chesky's Ultimate Demonstration Disc)
Nujabes – Luv (sic) (Part 3) (Modal Soul), J-hip-hop
Justice - Phantom Pt. II († [cross]), electronic
Geinoh Yamashirogumi - Kaneda (AKIRA Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - percussion
Saitou Tsuneyoshi - 崩壊する館 (Houkai suru Yakata) (xxxHOLiC Manatsu no Yoru no Yume Soundtrack), piano & string ensemble

Radiohead - Paranoid Android
My first impression was the presence of the lower mids. I’m not used to having them so emphasized. The instrument separation is top-notch and the shakers sound very real. I think I prefer Paranoid Android on the HD650 more, but the UE18 can deliver more detail. Vocals are spot-on though, and the soundstage gives an out-of-head feeling.

Seatbelts - Tank! (live)
Soundcloud link http://soundcloud.com/user9577506/01-seatbelts-tank-live/s-HeNsM
Good god, the alto saxophone solo is to die for. Before I go on spazzing about how good Cowboy Bebop music is (…must …resist!) I have to say the holographic imaging is dead-on. It’s precise. Now, add to the wide soundstage and the crowd cheers, the energetic presentation, the transparency… the UE18’s midbass hump makes thumping acoustic bass that envelops the listener. The sax is sweet and detailed, warm and engaging. It’s then in the air – where it just lingers a bit and reverberates around the soundstage – and that feedback goes back to my ears and the result is a (un)believable live performance. Then, with the G# finisher right at the end, it’s pure bliss. No holds barred, nothing covered up due to technical limitations.

The live version is a million times better than the studio recorded one, and most definitely a keeper for every music lover out there. Tank! has never sounded better before, and it gets better every time I hear it. (Excuse me while my face explodes, again.)

Fukui Kenichiro – Badlands
Soundcloud link: http://soundcloud.com/user9577506/badlands/s-FSu4x
My standard electronic testing track - good at sorting out bass clarity, transients, and complex details. Not so good as a contender, but easily fixed with EQ. First off, an overview: This piece is brutal on headphones; it requires speed, bass tightness, clean attacks, and ability to sort itself out once all the different elements are chaotically thrown together. There’s ever building elements thrown together and immense contrasts that slow and forgiving headphones cannot render. In this regard, the UE18 passes with flying colors. The textures remain intact and the bass is clean, speedy, and tightly controlled; no booms or muddiness; the highs aren’t shrill; elements in complex passages remain distinct and individual. The voice samples and the haunting choir of [Assault] (another track from Einhänder OST, not as technically meritable as Badlands) are preserved fully without distortions. It’s even slightly quicker than the RS1 on the attack. But the major drawback is the bass emphasis, and it had me surprised. It’s just so overwhelming and disproportionately loud that it overshadows everything else that makes the piece wonderful. In a track like Badlands where the bass comes fast and hard, having the low end cranked a few decibels up means you’re losing a lot more than you stand to gain from the details of the BADABADABADABADABADA bass. On the RS1 it’s much more enjoyable, more reasonable tonal balance. One some tracks (such as Tron Legacy Soundtrack by Daft Punk) the bass is more enjoyable – bass is fuller and more complete sounding there, but most of the time it’s too much.
 
Going back to listen to this track for the fourth time, it’s also a problem with synthetic beats that the UE18 makes unpleasant. I’ll draw my conclusions down at “Genres of Music I Recommend” below. EQ would fix the problem, but I think good phones don’t need EQ – balance should strike naturally.

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
Part 1 Intro: Mmm, the vocals are clear and crisp. In the overdubbed/lip-synced parts, the four voices are very clearly separated and laid on top of each other (I was surprised there were details such as these, because well… it’s dubbing). Additionally, I noticed a lot of air which wasn’t there before, perhaps a bit too airy – it seems like an artificially large hall. Part 2 Ballad: The bass is more present; drums are correctly placed in the back and resonate across the soundstage. Excellent depth and not overly deep. Part 3 Guitars: No sign of sibilance at the end of this section; electric guitars & percussion have plenty of power and force. Part 5 Rock: Plenty of rhythm and foot tapping awesome. Instruments remain distinct despite a lot going on, the guitar riff is spot-on. The UE18s keeps up with the increased pace with no problems.

Tan Dun - At Emperor's Palace
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/06-tan-dun-at-emperors-palace
Wow. Nerd chills right there. Turn this track up - Imagine the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, with hundreds in the male chorus, along with bursts of brass (lǎbā, or suonas) and drum accompaniment. One of the most explosive and aggressive openers – the UE18 handles this beautifully. There’s a sense of overwhelming power amongst the chorus – the quick attack with slower decay makes the soundstage massively expansive (as it should be – it as an epic after all); backed by the emphasized brass that is ephemeral, an image of a massive army laying siege. The sound of drums and the bells ring throughout the air – it lingers throughout the whole track and sets the mood. In this case the brass is supposed to be overwhelming, and the UE18 just shines. No bloat, no boom, just pure unadulterated detail a few decibels more than neutral. Out of all the tracks of interest, this one is my favorite by far – highlights all the emotional and technical strengths of the UE18.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2
Moderato
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/01-piano-concerto-no-2-in-c-minor-op-18-i-moderato
Usually the piano arpeggios are a bit muddy here. To some extent on the UE18 this is still true, but it’s improved compared to other cans I’ve heard, but still not quite at the level of a HD800. On this piece the strings really stand out, the delicate layering of violins that, to me, is the star of the show. The emphasized low end make the piece very full bodied and mellow, providing a foundation which the piano treads on. The piano’s high notes sparkle, no shrillness or unpleasantries. Overall this piece is subtle and dreamlike, and there’s none of the super aggressiveness found in At Emperor’s Palace.  Regarding the piano – it feels a tad more sluggish than usual, but I may attribute that to the concert hall and Karajan’s directional style rather than a fault of UE18s. At the climax of the first movement (~6:30-7:30), there’s some sloppiness in imaging when the passage are the most complex yet; (6:55 especially), and there’s a bit too much “ringing” with all the trumpets, trombones, piano, and horns. Otherwise, it manages itself beautifully, just a darker presentation than usual. Overall a very laid back presentation.

Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony
Not only do I love this piece for its dramatic storytelling, this underappreciated piece also covers a dynamic range of emotions and is my standard go-to track for Classical music.
Lento lugubre - Moderato con moto - Andante
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/02-tchaikovsky-manfred-symphony-in-b-minor-op-58-i-lento-lugubre-moderato-con-moto-andante
The oboes & clarinets sound very pure and natural. The low end makes the sound very full, sets the atmosphere, and defines of boundaries of concert hall space. There’s very good instrument separation and imaging, everything is in its correct location and depth. It delivers power when needed but the cymbals are a bit thin and not as lifelike compared to everything else going on.
Vivace con spirito
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/03-tchaikovsky-manfred-symphony-in-b-minor-op-58-ii-vivace-con-spirito
UE18 demonstrates its high end prowess with the flutes. They sparkle and playfully come to life. Tchaikovsky's interplay between instruments makes image of a magical wonderland - wings flutter and birds sing, it’s all very easily imagined. The highs are very extended (to my audible limits), not overly bright or coarse at all, except the very very highs - triangles sound tinny. Nothing dramatically bad.  It’s a very smooth presentation, and the mids transition beautifully into the mid-highs. This high end quality is not found if accompanied by very present base (ie, Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 2). The highs are at its most beautiful when violins are backed by flutes/oboes/clarinets - simply astounding richness. Storytelling at its finest.
Andante con moto
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/04-tchaikovsky-manfred-symphony-in-b-minor-op-58-iii-andante-con-moto
I’m impressed by bass extension. No roll offs here, very tight and controlled. The presence of the very very low end makes the soundstage extremely believable, something not usually found in other headphones due to roll off. I repeatedly make this observation throughout Concerto No.2 and Manfred Symphony; also very noticeable in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d minor “Choral” as well as other classical pieces.
Allegro con fuoco
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/05-tchaikovsky-manfred-symphony-in-b-minor-op-58-iv-allegro-con-fuoco
Plenty of micro details and textures on the trombones and trumpets, very natural sounding. Reminds me of the days back when I used to play the trumpet. Despite all the action the tambourines are still clear, if slightly understated.

Seatbelts – Clutch
Soundcloud link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/04-seatbelts-clutch
Plenty of rhythm here for foot tapping awesome. The UE18s are very energetic, fun, and quick paced, no sign of sluggishness or sloppiness at all. Very fluid pacing. The sax is silky smooth.

Seatbelts - Autumn in Ganymede
Soundcloud link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/03-seatbelts-autumn-in-ganymede
Revisiting the low end once more – and I think this piece is indicative of the UE 18 balance problem. In this piece the trumpet solo is supposed to shine, but it has taken the backseat to the bass beats. It’s not quite as bad as when the beats were synthetic (see Fukui’s Badlands/Nujabes’s Luv (sic) for that), but I think for a flagship the sound signature should be more balanced fun instead of bottom heavy. I’m not saying UERM neutral (completely flat and uncolored); just colored with a slight emphasis - the UE18 is a bit too heavy-handed still. There’s more oomph and kick when the base is in your face, but I’d like to see Audio Technica midrange philosophy at work here.

Rebecca Pidgeon - Spanish Harlem
As most people are probably aware, this track is extremely airy already (with the RS1 even). I had some doubts before listening to Spanish Harlem given UE18's track record - and undecided. On one hand it’s extremely pleasant to hear the reverberations and the space around her voice, a very euphoric relaxing voice with piano accompaniment. On the other hand it feels like someone forgot to lift their foot of the piano damper pedal and the voice is allowed to linger unnaturally long. I’m a bit harsh here (nitpicky, really), because it’s only her voice that’s the problem. The shakers? Sublime – I’ll listen to that all day.

Lee Hacken - Wo Bu Hui Chang Ge

Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/01-lee-hacken-feat-lang-lang-wo-bu-hui-chang-ge

Wo Bu Hui Chang Ge is one of the few gems in the rough in the mass-produced-idol-centric-C-pop-stamped-crap, and is a ballad with piano by Lang Lang. Lee Hacken has a very thick, soothing and very, very full voice that’s pleasant to hear. Lee Hacken’s voice matches the smooth luscious midrange of the UE18. Again the piano shines with the 18s, giving definite dimensions in space. This time the midbass emphasis works in Lee Hacken’s favor, and his voice is more direct, more sturdy, and more firm. I’ve attended many of his concerts in Hong Kong and this is as close as you can get to the real thing.

Utada Hikaru - Final Distance
Bandcamp link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/10-utada-hikaru-final-distance
Surprisingly intimate. It makes me feel that I was standing right next to her when she sang this – a lot more breathing than I remembered before. There’s a lot more texture in her voice which I was never aware. High mids are more forward than the rest of the spectrum.

Johnny Cash - Hurt
I’d liken his voice to Alan Tam, a manly gruff voice with a lot of character. His voice is reproduced faithfully in all of its glory details (something the B&W P5 could not do well…). This track I am very satisfied. Male vocals on the UE18 are more powerful and firm, while female vocals are more smooth and sweet. This dual specialty suits me just fine.

Benjamin Britten - Festival te Deum, Op. 32
Incredible space and imaging. The soundstage is expansive – the space is very deep, very high, no overstretched soundstages with gaps. Every voice has its place and together paints a nice picture of the whole scene. The airy UE18s make this track holier than natural (euphoric in a good way, as opposed to Spanish Harlem.) Contrasted to Tan Dun’s At Emperor’s Place, the UE18 shows it can do both explosive power and laid-back sound quite well.

Nujabes - Luv (sic) (Part 3)
Soundcloud link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/04-nujabes-luv-sic-part-3
Seeing a problem identified by Badlands, I delved into the hip/hop genre to see how these would fare. Well, now hip hop can be airy too! The bass is still as sharp as ever, tight and controlled. However, like Badlands, synthetic beats just aren’t UE18’s thing. It’s emphasized, but without the variations of naturally produced bass it gets repetitive and can sometimes be fatiguing after long sessions. Some minor EQing is in order to reduce the midbass (yay Rockbox!) and after that I can’t find much fault at all. Perhaps if I were a basshead I’d evaluate this differently, but less is more in this case.  Rap/dubstep genres, be wary.

Justice - Phantom Pt. II
Soundcloud link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/06-jus-ice-phantom-pt-ii
On the extreme end of the spectrum of sampling, distortions, and contrasts, here is an electronic piece that ought to drive the “high art” purists crazy. The jarring nature of this piece is smoothed out somewhat by the 18s. You’ll now be able to stand this song on loop after 5 repeats instead of 3.

On the other hand, Tthhee Ppaarrttyy (from the same album) never sounded so zany and fun. Overall though, I’d prefer to listen to these on the TF10 or RS1, both known to have some bass emphasis. On a good note, attacks and transients are sharp. The UE18s are very agile performers.

Saitou Tsuneyoshi  - Houkai suru Yakata & Lia - My Soul, Your Beats!
Soundcloud link: http://tengen.bandcamp.com/track/20-saitou-tsuneyoshi-houkai-suru-yakata
Honorable mentions: The two tracks that really wowed me and convinced me to shell out for UE18s. They just sounded so open, so airy, and the soundstage so expansive that I had to try out the UE18 magic and dig a bit further.  I never knew such space and information existed in these tracks – rediscovering music is awesome.

Conclusions & Summary

I’m not seeking true neutrality, but balanced fun. If you want something totally flat, 1) buy the UERM, or 2) go to live concerts.

Soundstage/imaging: Middle of large concert hall, with lots of audio reverberation/feedback from virtual walls. It is extremely wide and fairly accurate, a notch below the HD800 but still comparable. Its sound signature is similar to a HD650 – laid back and lower end emphasis, but the UE18 is much more refined and lively – much more energy and fun - than its Sennheiser counterpart. Except for midbass bump, the 18s excels in all aspects compared to HD650.

Airiness/naturalness: Comparable to the LCD-2’s air. Sometimes I feel the UE18 is too artificially airy, maybe each sound lingers on too long - very quick attack but too long decay. If you turn down the volume the air is not as prominent, but if you listen to it loud then you get the concert hall feel. In the future I hope to sit down and do through A-Bing at a future meet to compare in future detail.  I can’t definitively say which one is better, but the UE18 comes pretty damn close with such a small package and cheaper overall cost (if whole rig), plus portability.

Poorly recorded tracks will sound more awkward with missing or unnatural soundstage. In this regard the UE18s are not very forgiving, but the UE18's extra airiness helps smooth out the track's shortcomings. Stay away from anything less than V0/320 CBR.

Details: Very articulate, transparent and  revealing. Instrument separation and interplay is top-notch. The very highs may be overpowered in presence of bass, but still audible.  There’s plenty of micro details and texture across the whole spectrum. With UE18s it’s easy to pick out synthetic sound from actual recordings. Synthesized beats get a breath of air and sound more natural, but live recordings reign supreme. Take a moment to just focus on the crowd cheers to appreciate the subtle details that makes the total package wholly believable. I wouldn’t say analytical, because I reserve that term for neutral phones.

The downside is that I listen to music very softly. On average, even when commuting, the knob is 1/12th of the way turned on my P-51; to really get the details and air that makes the soundstage awesome, you’d really need to turn it ¼ way up, and that makes my ears fatigue after an hour long session. The louder you listen the more details you get, at the expense of hearing health.

Extensions & spectrum: Tight and controlled all the way down to 20hz. The very low end won’t rattle your ears anytime soon, but you’ll definitely “feel” its presence. I’d say the midbass hump is 70hz to 180hz, where it’s a few decibels louder than normal. It very slightly enters the low midrange area, making male vocals very firm. The midrange is very flat and authoritative, mildly warm with slight coloration, and the most controlled and detailed area. There’s a spike in high mids (roughly 4k+)  that’s usually missed but most noticeable from Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in D from Chesky’s Ultimate Demonstration Disc (it sounds harsher/more forward than usual.) The trebles are overall lighter and understated, rolled off towards the high end. At 16khz is where the UE18s drops off in response. Some percussions tracks, like the gamelans [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldPMifPbngc] from Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Kaneda (from Akira Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), lack body and are not as realistic sounding. The trebles are the most playful and sparkly – see Manfred Symphony’s 3rd movement.

Compared to the UE11 Pro (demo'd at Bay Area Head-fi meet; Tank!, Badlands, Paranoid Android, Manfred Symphony 1st movement - skipped around): Definitely more refined. Bass toned down (from "outrageous" levels I'd say), with better extensions and a couple notches up in clarity. More balanced overall.

Going back to the RS1, the Grado’s sub-bass is severely lacking, highs are really harsh, and extensions for both ways don’t go as far. I may have passed my Grado honeymoon phase but I still love my RS1.
 
Frequency Response Graph
Not authoritative in any way. This is what I hear, along with a few notes:

UE18 Frequency Response Graph.jpg
 
If you want to compare to Triple Fi 10s, UE’s highest universal offering, reference mvw2’s thread here, which is almost dead-on: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/522993/finished-review-set-um3x-e-q7-re262-triple-fi-10-re252-ck100-re-zero-custom-3-ok1-hje900#post_7058049; I may do a TF10/UE18 comparison in the near future.

Presentation

The UE18 is overall laid back and smooth but can deliver aggressive power when needed. It delivers a fluid performance (such as Ravel’s Jeux d'eau – see the water glistening!) of whatever the piece demands. Male vocals feel commanding with midbass emphasis; female vocals are more intimate with a forward high midrange. It can resolve a lot of detail (and it loves to pile it on layers high). Also, visuals below! A picture is worth a thousand words.

UE18 Presentation & Forwardness.jpg

Music I’d recommend: Piano is definitely the winner here, and string instruments a close second. I’ll nitpick and say that the UE18 makes piano more grand than usual (everything is a concert grand!). The micro-details and airy prowess of the UE18 makes these instruments vibrant and alive. On the other hand (I might be against the flow here – the general consensus seems to be XB700 for hiphop/rap/R&B, etc, but I’d say to pick a bass-weaker headphones for those genres.) Bass-heavy and synthetic genres get the short stick. See Badlands/Luv (sic) (Part 3)/Phantom Pt. II- I just think it’s too powerful and overwhelming. I’m actually okay with Monster Studio Beats with hip-hop pricing aside, because its emphasized but undefined bass makes you focus more on other elements. But when you add UE18’s resolute detail with big bass, then it competes with the midranges and trebles and they’re all fighting for attention, so the loudest voice wins. Eminem’s Stan is just as enjoyable on the UE18/RS1/TF10 if you’re not picky. At the end of the day the UE18s are fun IEMs, and if you’re listening super critically all the time then you’re missing the point of music – to enjoy listening.

Amped/unamped
Chances are you already have a good amp. The UE18 really needs one (despite low impedance/high sensitivity) to unlock its full potential. If driven out of headphone jack of an iPod the bass isn’t quite as low, rolled off, and muddier. The largest difference was the tightening of the bass, a difference in night and day. Out of the headphone jack the air isn’t there, but the soundstage and holographic properties is just as sharp. Unamped, the UE18 rests amongst the highest tier universals (probably W4 tier). Amped, the UE18 transcends into HD800/LCD-2 tier. Beware of its sensitivity though, anything other than pitch black outputs you’ll be hearing a strong hiss. With less well designed headphone outs you may use a travel attenuator. That will kill any hiss completely, but will create a duller, veiled presentation. Luckily the P51, although not very powerful in its ability to drive high impedance cans, is the perfect at its job. The added bonus is that the volume knob doesn’t go from 0 to deaf immediately.

Sound Summary
++ Air/space, soundstage, imaging, string instruments, particularly piano. Sub bass (20hz) very controlled.
+ Anything live, jazz, classical/orchestra/concerto, saxophones, details & instrument interplay
= bass/low end instruments full & rich. "Thick" but not in a derogatory sense ("emphasized and detailed" would technically more correct). Could be good or bad depending on taste.
- woodwind (if in presence of lots of bass) understated, trebles can sometimes be weak
-- electronic/industrial, rap (boomy bass tracks), synthetic base beats, especially with repetition

Pros:
+ Cost, if you factor overall cost to get equivalent SQ on full-size cans (LCD2/HD800)
+ Fit & Comfort
+ Portability
+ Sound quality, versatile performer, fun sound
+ Build quality & cable quality

Cons:
- SQ balance
- Accessories bare, case too bulky
- These are customs
- Cost - 1964, Livewire, UE 4 Pro etc. offer outstanding value/performance ratio for customs

Score

8.5 / 10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ +1/2
Worthy of flagship status.

Closing thoughts

8.5 is a score based on the satisfaction I got, the whole deal with packaging, build quality, sound quality, visual appeal, etc. Your mileage will, of course, vary. Reviews are really no substitute to actual demos of UE18s. I know what sound I like, and words can’t 100% describe what I’m thinking.

I also recently discovered HeadphoneAddict’s flagship custom IEM review here:
http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/440051/review-three-flagship-custom-iem-westone-es3x-vs-jerry-harvey-jh13pro-vs-ultimate-ears-ue11pro
I have to say what holds true for the P-51 > UE11 is mostly true for P-51 > UE18. With another amp I’m sure the sound won’t be as laid back and airy. I found no faults with the mids though, it’s not recessed at all. HeadphoneAddict, thanks for popping in! I have a rather limited experience with other portable amps so with this cross-reference readers can probably extrapolate some data. Maybe in the future I might be crazy enough to get a JH13/16, an ES5, and do an updated flagship customs review.

For the price you pay, you get a super awesome sound signature, but the law of diminishing returns hit pretty hard. The resale value is less than half of what you pay, so it’s a commitment for lifetime. Luckily there were only minor  fit issues so no hassles there. UE’s custom customer service was extremely helpful and top-notch, and understanding of my artistic demands. The turnaround was also extremely fast – less than two weeks from when I placed my order. On my invoice it was an expedited 3 day rush service for free – whether this is standard I do not know. Is it worth it for me? Minor dissatisfactions aside (and minor ear irritations), it’s still a definite yes.

$1350 + audiologist molds + custom art + tax (California tax always kills the deal, lol) is pretty pricey in the world of custom IEMs. I also think $1350 price point dissuaded many potential audiophile customers, seeing that it is $200 more than JH16, and $300 more than the JH13, both more frequently reviewed and discussed. If its price was lowered to, say, $1150, it would definitely be more receptive in the Head-Fi community…

I really do want to thank Ultimate Ears for their extremely generous discount that was too good to pass up. I would be hesitant to plunge for UE18s if they were at normal price – double custom art and all – but just their willingness to pay attention on a very niche market says a lot about the company image. We audio appreciators are super picky and complain about every imaginable thing possible yet only make up a small minority in UE’s business figures. Also, I’d like to hate CEE TEE for organizing such an atrocious wallet death-trap known as the Bay Area Head-fi meet. It was an enlightening experience, albeit more expensive than initially planned and I was already on guard mode. FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU---

- Review by tengen, March 2011.




P.S. To future meet organizers, try to get UE to come and demo, and maybe they’ll give you a generous discount too! ;D I also got a nice t-shirt.


Edited by tengen - 4/3/11 at 1:15pm
post #3 of 12
Thread Starter 

Reserved.

post #4 of 12
Thread Starter 

Reserved

post #5 of 12

Congrats on your UE18, tengen lol
Very nice review with so many pictures. Enjoyed reading this morning. biggrin.gif

post #6 of 12

Great review! Nice graph.biggrin.gif

post #7 of 12

comprehensive just barely begins to describe this. thanks for the effort and quality work.

post #8 of 12

Nice graphs!  Those should be standard when writing any review or even giving quick impressions- very meaningful.  Nice rice too; looks like Kokuho New Crop?  It's funny how different everyone's impressions are on these customs.  No wonder we all hear so differently!

 

Edit:

...by "impressions" I meant the actual acrylic molds.


Edited by Mkubota1 - 4/2/11 at 10:53pm
post #9 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mkubota1 View Post

Nice graphs!  Those should be standard when writing any review or even giving quick impressions- very meaningful.  Nice rice too; looks like Kokuho New Crop?  It's funny how different everyone's impressions are on these customs.  No wonder we all hear so differently!


Very close, lol! Botan, but still the same Calrose rice. Thanks!

Edit: It also seems the majority of my Soundcloud links got nuked. They're now fixed and should be working. Enjoy the tracks!

Edit2: It seems somehow Manfred Symphony links got mixed up; that's now sorted out. :S
Edited by tengen - 4/2/11 at 9:10pm
post #10 of 12

Excellent review! i really liked the presentation & forwardness graph :D

Congratulations on your 18's!

post #11 of 12

well done, thanks for putting all this effort into it - nice pix too. I can echo your impressions on piano sound btw (with my UE11)

post #12 of 12

Your review was just recommended by the UE facebook page! Nice worksmily_headphones1.gif

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