A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly--you. One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. Today, Ultimate Ears is going to announce what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM--one in which the physical fit isn't the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It's called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.
To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an order for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If you don't happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears is currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places.
(Clicking on a photo will show a larger versions of it.)
A few different shots of the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box.
The Personal Reference Tuning Box incorporates both analog and DSP circuitry. I visited UE's Irvine offices last week to get fitted for a pair, and found the tuning process to be quite simple, straightforward. On the Tuning Box, there are three tuning knobs per channel, for lows, mids, and highs. (The process starts with the tuning knobs center-set to produce a perceived neutral, flat tonal balance.) There is also one "bypass" button per channel. The bypass button, when held down, allows you to bypass any changes you've made with the tuning knobs, and so returning to a neutral (flat) tonal balance for as long as they're pressed. The bypass buttons are critical to the process, as they allow you to instantly compare your custom tuning to neutral, on a per-channel basis, or both channels at once.
Here's what I did with mine. I have a set of the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor, and I love it for what it is-- a neutral reference. The In-Ear Reference Monitor is my sonic palate cleanser--when I forget what neutral sounds like, I can always turn to it to remind me. The IERM is also a great-sounding, very revealing headphone, and neutrality is a great sonic flavor to have at the ready. But perceived neutrality isn't what I'm after all of the time, or even most of the time. What I want most of the time is something with mids slightly bloomier than neutral, and bass just a touch (and I mean just a touch) above neutral. As for treble, just a hint of sparkle (without accentuating sibilance) works very well for my tastes. With the Personal Reference Monitor (PRM) I tuned, I hope to have exactly that.
(Left to right) Chuck Reynolds (Ultimate Ears director of sales and marketing)
and Philippe Depallens (Ultimate Ears vice president and general manager)
There's one more thing I tuned for, though, and this speaks even further to the "personal" in the name "Personal Reference Monitor." Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Our brains are amazing things, though, working to make the sound of the two ears combined more coherent and balanced than listening to them one at a time might suggest they could be. Still, though, it's not going to be the same, not as ideal, as if the ears could somehow be made equal, or at least more equal. And it was with this in mind when I tuned my set. Using a variety of test tones on my iPhone (which I plugged into the Tuning Box), I fine-tuned my PRM settings to better center the image through the mids and highs. Again, my brain does a great job combining my ears to be centered-ish, but through fine-tuning (and liberal use of the bypass buttons), I carefully tuned the image to fill my headspace even more uniformly, more perfectly.
Of course, I don't listen to test tones except for testing, so the bulk of my tuning session was with some of my favorite music from the various genres I most listen to. The final result through the demo earpieces was awesome, clearly more to my preference with my music than in bypass mode. How long did this take? For me, about 45 minutes in total. You can take as little or as much time as you'd like with the Tuning Box--there's no set tuning session length.
How did the final product--my custom-molded Personal Reference Monitor--turn out? I'll let you know after I receive it in a couple of days. I've found demo units of custom IEMs generally good approximations of how the final product will sound, but have consistently found the final custom product to always edge out their universal-fit demos (and I've demoed the final products against their universal-fit demos on several occasions). I'm hoping this trend continues with the custom-fit PRM, because, again, the universal-fit Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor demos I tuned were exceedingly good to my ears. After spending some time with my self-tuned UE's, I'll let you know how I did.
The Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor is a three-way, five-driver-per-side design. Like other Ultimate Ears custom monitors, the PRM can be adorned with custom designs and logos, and made in just about any colors you can dream up. There are also four custom wood faceplate options available exclusively for the Personal Reference Monitor. Here are photos of the four custom wood faceplate options available only for the UE PRM (I chose the Carpathian Elm Burl):
(Clockwise from top-left) Carpathian elm burl wood, cherry wood, walnut burl wood, purple heart wood.
The Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor will be available for sale June 2012, with a suggested retail price of $1,999.99. You can find out more at UE's website.
Again, I'll post more after I've heard the final product.