Waiting for my phono-stage to warm up I was inspired to write a review on the Ultimate Ears UE18, 6 driver, custom made, in-ear monitors that I’ve been listening to for a month now on my iPod, and then compare the experience with my Sennheiser HD800’s through my $9000 analogue set-up. I thought to include some details of my musical provenance in here so the reader could determine whether my impressions hold value to them.
It started a Len Wallis Audio in Sydney 4 years ago when my best mate said “Man, you’ve gotta come check this out, this is the sickest sounding system you’ve ever heard in your life, it’s unbelievable!” A few weeks later we walked in with a burnt copy of “Brothers in Arms” that I downloaded from mp3fiesta.com.
Inside the hi-end, sound treated, audio room lay a holy grail of set-ups; an ultimate audiophile wet dream. The JM Labs Grande Utopias in all their 6 ft 250kg red gloss glory accompanied with the virtuoso of polished steel veneer, the Krell Evolution series. “$400, 000” the salesman said. We all smirked like people who knew why someone would spend this amount of money on audio equipment, but would never have the chance. I was graciously allowed to listen to a few songs, ‘your latest trick’, ‘why worry’ and ‘brothers in arms’ on the couch in the sweet spot of the room.
I won’t try to express the type of auditory revelation I had in the style that Dante wrote when he breached the walls of heaven to look upon the court of angels and the virgin Mary. No sir. I’ll just say we didn’t talk for a few hours afterwards because our voices sounded so disgusting to our ears, flat, bassy, drawn out sounds that had a quirky squawk finish to it; certainly none of the skin tingling, soul searing sensations that we had had earlier. The ever-trusty car stereo stayed off on the way home, it was nearly as awful. I have been ruined ever since.
After this experience I went from digital surround sound, to 2 channel and now to headphones and analogue with meticulously kept vinyl to try and reproduce a similar experience for less than $400, 000 in my own lounge room. I have most of all wanted to reproduce in sound, the perfect clarity of every single instrument throughout a song, every minute musical detail without the muddying of frequencies, notes and vibrations that comes quite naturally in musical reproduction. It’s an aspect that is the bane of all hi-fi engineers and lavishly paid for by audiophiles to reduce to an absolute minimum. For me I feel as though this should be audiophile audio nirvana. I say audio nirvana, because there is a 3rd dimension to music that can only be felt at proper volume through excellent floor standing speaker set-up’s: so this it the trade off, body sensations versus ultimate audio detail. I don’t know how much money you would have to spend to attain both but I’m sure many have done their best, and some succeeded. I am not that lucky.
I am about to put on “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd on my modded out Rega Planar 3 with a RB300 tonearm and Ortofon MC 2000 mkII cartridge, through a Whest 2.0 phono stage and Musical Fidelity X-Can V8p with out board X PSU V8 on my Sennheiser HD800’s. I have just finish an in the dark and full, undistracted immersion into this album through the UE18’s on my ipod, with a downloaded version from the net. A quick note on the provenance of the vinyl: Original Obi mastered vinyl from 1975 (30AP 1875), sold from the collection of a true audio nut through eBay, played only a handful of times for very special occasions. Up until recently the most expensive vinyl I had ever purchased.
Musically it is unfair to compare digital to analogue, the “je ne said quoi” of analogue triumphs here for me. So a comparison of iPod to Musical Fidelity X-LPS V8p needs to be taken out of the equation for a proper review. There are a few points of comparison I would like to make before moving on, to round up the initial out-set of the review. Anybody in the world can put on a pair of your Sennheiser HD 800’s, nobody else can listen to my UE 18’s. The UE18’s are custom moulded to fit into your ear. You have to go to an audiologist and have moulds made of your inner crux and canal before Dave can make you the UE 18’s. These in-ear monitors are used by music professionals for on stage performances, so you can jump around, bang your head and howl your lungs out or beat your drum kit as loud and as hard as you want and these things will never come out of place. There is absolutely zero noise bleed, in or out! I can sit on an aeroplane not hear the annoying loud ‘bing’ preceding the pursers announcement, nor even the purser for that matter. In fact you can have someone scream in your face and still not hear a thing! Nada. Likewise, someone has to put their naked ear to your ear before they can hear any of my music coming out of the UE18’s. Privacy 100%, public annoyance 0%. You can feel a dull vibration in your skull when you sing with these in, so I prefer not to sing at all with them on because it does interfere with the sound. This vibration is not present in the Sennheiser’s however I can hear myself singing through them which is much worse than the dull vibration (my singing voice has a lot to do with this).
The UE 18’s tie up behind your head and you can feed it through your shirt if you don’t want the cable to drag. You can definitely have some pull from the UE 18’s cable, but I expect professionals may have a certain amount of slack taped onto the shoulders so this doesn’t affect them. You can definitely not do this with the Sennheiser’s, at all. In fact I don’t like to move at all when I have the Sennheiser’s on, they are too easy to displace and for me this is a downside to the Sennheiser’s. The portability of the UE 18’s is phenomenal, and the freedom of movement unparalleled by anything else apart from another in-ear monitor custom made to your ear.
What about the music? On musical reproduction both were flawless. The level of detail equal, though I felt the UE 18’s played quieter, non-musical parts of the album with better volume. The UE 18’s also had a better feel to the drum’s bass and snare with a cleaner punch of sound in the ear. This is due to the extra space in the Sennheiser’s surrounding cannot compete with due to the UE 18’s perfect seal with the ear. However, apart from that, the only difference remains the analogue versus digital and tube versus solid-state argument. I would like to point out that I would not have believed my iPod could sound so good! Even through the Krell KID and my Musical Fidelity 2 channel set-up ($30K) did not even come close to what I hear with the UE 18’s!
Functionally the UE 18’s take a little bit of getting used to if you’ve never had a hearing device plugged so snugly into your skull. There is some listening fatigue with the UE 18’s after a couple of hours if the volume is a little too high. There is little margin for “too loud” from these monitors; your eardrums have nowhere to run, nor the sound anywhere to escape. This is not a problem with the Sennheiser’s, however when the volume is higher on both, the clash of cymbals mixed with piercing guitar notes are clearer on the UE 18’s, more separated and not brash on the ear. I have heard that when studio engineers use ‘monitors’ and not ‘headphones’ it is supposed to make the sound more detailed but some suggest that it makes music less musical? Philosophically and semantically I cannot understand this concept. It sounds like a slur on the monitors’ ability to reproduce music, but for me, every instrument was reproduced with hi fidelity, and came together like the band and producer intended. No slur on the term ‘monitor’ for me with this comparison.
To be fair to the UE18’s I plugged the HD 800’s into my iPod. I was surprised that it drove them quite well! Something I did not expect. However, all the fine background detail from the album such as the tinkling at the start of the album, radio static at the start of the song ‘wish you were here’ or the voices from the radio were very mild, unintelligible and if you didn’t know they were there could have easily been missed. Some may say here that an iPod amp could have been used for the Sennheiser’s, but let’s be fair here: iPod vs Rega analogue shouldn’t be much competition, but are the HD 800’s the best listening device here is the real question.
I found a jack at Jaycar for $2 to adapt the 3.5mm rca from the UE18’s to the X-Can V8p. The first thing I noticed is that they picked up the electrical hum from the phono stage. Pretty standard you may say. Not noticeable on the HD800’s. Once the music was playing and the volume turned up to drown it out that was the end of it, and I didn’t notice it much more after that. It doesn’t require much amplification to run the UE18’s, approximately 3-4 times the volume is needed for the Sennheiser’s. I have to be perfectly honest here, after swapping back and forth with the Sennheiser’s and the UE18’s I came to this conclusion. The UE18’s made the HD800’s sound thin and tinny and lacking in warmth but not detail. The UE18’s were superior in every way except sound stage. The HD800’s were obviously better by virtue of their size but it did make up for the difference in sound by a long shot.
I asked myself why. Open backed headphones vs almost vacuum-sealed in-ear monitors I believe would have to be most of the answer. Dissipation of sound between the driver and the ear, just the same as 2 channel speakers and the bane of all hi quality playback.
In conclusion I have found the UE18’s superior in every aspect except for comfort and some sound stage, but most importantly the sound was dramatically better. The limitations of the HD800’s with portability, even head moving and privacy are real draw back when the two are compared. I believe that the UE18’s are the best all-round listening device that I have heard. Some may think that headphones and in-ear monitors are not a fair comparison I remind myself that it is the music that matters most.
Happily now I can have audiophile playback wherever I go now, whether on a drive, on my bike, in an aeroplane or on a construction site and not miss a single thing. The only thing that observers may think is that I may be deaf because the UE18’s look like hearing aids, but oh how wrong they are.