A Journey with Ultimate Ears
By Marv Chen
As I have an abundance of material, this recollection of my visit to Ultimate Ears (UE) will be split into a series of articles which will be released over time. I decided to name this series A Journey with Ultimate Ears because it reflects a journey in several ways: a journey through the history of UE, a journey through the UE factory, and a journey as an UE customer.
It was not my original intent to take a factory tour of the UE facility, much less act as a journalist (and I do mean act, as I’m not a real journalist) documenting my visit. This journey started when the connector of the right monitor on my In-Ear Reference Monitor (UERM) failed. I was too lazy to search the Internet or dig up the UERM’s storage case for UE’s customer service phone number. Instead, I decided to trouble my friend CEETEE, an UE rep, who just happened to drop in the chatbox of an "underground" headphone hobbyist web forum I regularly frequent:
He got in touch with Mike Dias (I think we all know who he is). And in turn, Mike got in touch with Ms. Jazmin Sandoval, an UE customer service and repairs specialist. Ms. Sandoval contacted me via e-mail in matter of hours. All I needed to do was fill out a repair form and send the UERMs back. The repair form was smartly laid-out and easy to complete: explain the issue and provide current contact information (It doesn’t get any easier than this! The typical repair or RMA forms I’ve completed were more like filling out mortgage applications.)
The next thing I had to do was to ship my UERM with the repair form to UE Irvine, California. Huh? That didn’t make much sense because I live in Irvine! I fired off a reply to Jazmin: “Can I just drop this off? I live close by.” I half-jokingly mentioned that I could take a tour and do a nice write up for Head-Fi or some other online publications.
So one thing led to another and Ultimate Ears was gracious enough to grant me with a VIP tour.
CT: Marv, you've got yourself a tour! I talked about your contributions to headphone hobby, etc. They are excited for you to stop by!
I met with Mr. Philippe Depallens, VP and General Manager of Ultimate Ears by Logitech. Mr. Depallens came to UE from Logitech during the time of the acquisition of UE by Logitech. I know many readers will want to know all the juicy bits related to the acquisition, but we’ll get to that later (I’m afraid there’s really not that much drama concerning it.)
Philippe took almost two hours of his time to give me a tour of the facilities and show me how their custom IEMs are made. I came away really impressed with Mr. Depallens, not only with his management acumen on process improvement in manufacturing and with the customer experience, but also with his deep knowledge of the nuts and bolts of custom IEM production. It was obvious the buck stopped with him at UE. If you are involved in any kind of management capacity with a company, big or small, he’s the kind of guy who inspires you do better – to kick it up a notch.
I had come prepared to Ultimate Ears with a long list of questions, some of them prepared by my wife, who provides a unique perspective, only because she’s not into this stuff as much as I am. Philippe, as I will now refer to him, answered each and every one of them and more. Very little questioning on my part was necessary as he somehow knew everything that I was going to ask. I told you he was a sharp guy.
MC: Tell me about the history of Ultimate Ears
PD: Ultimate Ears was started in 1995, when Alex Van Halen, the drummer, was complaining to his sound engineer that he was having a hard time hearing. At that time, the sound engineer tinkered with some hearing-aid equipment and created a basic Ultimate Ears monitor.
This was the idea behind it: as a musician on stage, the biggest issue that I face is to hear myself, to really be able to hear my performance and also see if I’m in sync with the rest of the team. And the reason for that is because the monitors on the stage are very often setup in a way in which they overpower each other.
So the game that happens is you put your thumbs up and you say get louder for me. Now because now I’m louder, the other guy put his thumbs up…
MC: [laughs] As a former bassist and monitoring engineer, that sounds familiar. I’ve always had difficulty with guitarists because they keep turning up. Many of them have hearing damage because of that.
PD: And soon enough you get a level where the decibels you are hearing, night after night, will actually affect your hearing - to a point where it’s going to deteriorate your hearing, which is exactly what happened to Alex Van Halen.
The way it happens is that your ear will get destroyed over time based on exposure to loud noise. So sometimes you can cause more damage for two hours at 100db than standing next to an airplane very briefly at 140db. It’s because you have exposed your ears for a long duration. It’s kind of like staring into sun. And then of course, you don’t allow your ears to rest, so that constant pounding over time destroys your ear.
So going back to that story, the beauty of it was what the sound engineer did at the time. He brought that monitor inside the ear. The second advantage was that the in-ear monitor was designed to fit perfectly inside your ear. By fitting perfectly inside your ear and creating the proper isolation, it would block the noise out. We conservatively say that we have about 26-28db of attenuation.
MC: I use my UERM when I mow the lawn for hearing protection.
PD: I do the same thing when I fly a lot. I just wear this. [points to his IEMs] I never worry any longer about babies being on the plane. I don’t worry about noisy people around me. Why? Because I’m isolated.
So back to 1995. In-ear monitor goes inside my ear. It isolates me from the noise. The second major advantage is because I’m now isolated from the noise and about that way far [gestures with his fingers a few centimeters] from your eardrum, I end up with the best sound I can get because there’s nothing between my eardrum and my earphone. You have pristine quality.
MC: The musician can get an optimal mix.
PD: Exactly what you are saying. Because I’m connected to a wireless pack - I’m going back to the main console where a very precise mix can be rendered to my ear perfectly.
MC: So I’ve noted this space here. I’ve seen it on many occasions where I’ve visited Ultimate Ears to pick up my customs or speak to your representatives on sponsoring Head-Fi meets. Honestly, I’ve never thought too much of it and assumed it was a prop or something cosmetic until now.
I just realized that you can actually demo what you have been describing. You’ve got the drums there. A guitar there. A board and a few wireless packs here. And if a musician wanted to come in and ask “OK. How’s this going to work?” They can actually try it out for themselves. This room is actually functional.
DP: It’s actually more than that. It’s function as what you are describing. But more importantly, and this is something I’ve always been emphasizing really hard with our work here: our products are used with real instruments. Not with devices that are measuring sound. Not with anechoic chambers. All these are important, but ultimately, with my chief engineer, the final check on the product is always with real instruments.
Now we can argue that we have an electronic drum here. [chuckles] This just makes the test a lot easier because when our resident drummer is drumming a lot, he plugs in the in-ears and there’s no noise in the office. We’ve had some neighbors in the past who have complained because of the noise here.
There’s one other thing that he tests: having about 120dbs of noise around him and making sure he doesn’t have that 120db affecting his performance. So at the end of the day, this room is also used to test the product in a real environment.
So, the last great advantage of an in-ear monitor is because now I’m connected to a wireless pack, I no longer have to be in front of my monitor physically. I can roam around the stage and the sweet spot is my head. The sweet spot is always there. This is why you can see bands like U2 who can do a 360 stage. And the Edge goes around the stage without worrying about hearing himself. This was something which was extremely difficult in the 80s, where in-ear monitors weren’t prevalent. You had to have all these wedges throughout the stage where Mick Jagger had to run back and forth to hear himself.
To summarize: three major advantages. You have isolation. Very important because as a musician, your ear is your most important device. The second advantage is great sound quality, great feed. Because it’s so close to your ear, you don’t have to fight with the noise around you. And the third one is great mobility.
MC: So how did Ultimate Ears get put on the map for audiophiles and consumers such as myself?
PD: Now let’s move forward a little bit to about 2004. Ultimate Ears is doing OK selling in-ear monitors to a bunch of musicians. There’s an investor here in Irvine who decides to invest in this company to take it to a new level. And that new level is to bring this in-ear monitor technology, the guts of it, and make it a little bit more affordable and more reachable for people who are not necessarily musicians.
Between 2004 and 2008, the partner decided to bring the armature concept and put that into standard earphones with standard ear tips. Probably the most successful product at the time was the TripleFi 10 (TF10), which lasted for seven years. It was a triple armature product, but with standard ear conforming tips.
PD: We had very very good run with this product and we just replaced it last year with a new product which we call the UE 900. The UE 900 is a quad armature. It has essentially fixed all of the issues with the TF10, implemented all the improvements you can think of with the TF10. The first one, the most important one, was that the TF10 had a pretty thick bore, which prevented smaller ears to be able to use the product. The second advantage of the UE 900 is inspired from our customs. It has a flush fit. What that means is that it just looks just like a custom. I was part of the requirements team that gave this requirement to the designer. You want to have something discreet, because the TF10 made you look like Frankenstein with the things coming out of your ears. [smiles]
MC: It’s interesting you mention those things. I tried to get my wife into IEMs, but she never liked them because of poor fit and how clumsy they felt sticking out.
PD: You’re right. It’s that. And the last piece, going back to your wife, is to a very important point. We put a bunch of different ear tips including extra-extra-small and also foam tips. A one-sized-fits-all solution doesn’t work with everybody, everybody has different preferences. The beauty of the foam tip is that it will conform to the shape of your ear. You press on that foam and the foam expands and naturally takes the shape of your ear.
The last piece, which is the complaint that we’ve heard a lot, is providing a secure fit. So if you have the cord dangling like this [cord dangling down in front of ears], if you are running, or if you are an active person, or if you are a musician: you pull on the cord and the thing is going to pop out of your ear.
With the UE 900, it actually is worn like a custom in-ear monitor where the cable wraps around the back of your ear. If you pull on the cord, your ear will act as a damper. You are not going to have microphonics if you hit the cable, and also it will securely keep the device in your ear.
MC: So let’s talk about the Logitech acquisition. I’ve heard all sorts of wild speculation and assumptions, even to this very day.
PD: In 2008 Logitech is looking into getting in the iPhone and iPod market. What we wanted to do was not just go to China, put our logo on some kind of earphone that was made there, and say it was our own. We wanted to create something, and also base it on a real story, an authentic story.
That’s when we found UE. We fell in love with the story of UE: of them working with some of the top musicians; of the incredible sound quality; we loved the handcrafting. We wanted to build upon that story and expand it. So that’s why we acquired UE in 2008. And I say “we” because I was part of Logitech.
I used to work for Logitech in the Bay Area. I was asked to come down here in October 2008 to help preserve the UE authenticity, but also integrate them into the “mothership” – the Logitech enterprise. And make sure we take advantages of the talent that we have, the ability to procure materials at much cheaper cost, the ability to expand manufacturing without having to worry about credit and all that stuff.
Logitech is a big company, so you have the ability to do a lot of stuff, but what’s important is to not destroy the spirit and soul of what is happening here. So I constantly had to balance that out. And you know, within the first few months, there were a lot of people that were saying “Oh my God!” [inflection reflecting imminent doom] “Since the acquisition, everything was destroyed!”
MC: Even with the customers, there was some concern.
PD: Tons of customers! Had concern. And, and, [excitedly] people started to say “Oh my God. This is a huge difference.” What was very funny is that it was the exact same thing. [pause] Nothing had changed.
MC: Nothing had changed.
PD: [laughs] To everyone, I was the invader going to be telling all of them how to do their job. But it was the exact same thing. Exact same thing, for the first three to six months. Plus, you don’t want to come here and start to tell them what to do. You want to immerse yourself into what they do. And then slowly and surely constantly improve.
There were different things we could do on quality, and I’ll show you what we have done. They were really in love with the product, but they were not thinking of the product as a journey. They were just thinking of the product as a product. So these are the types of things that we have slowly and surely changed here. And you will see how we have done this. I have a thing here you can take a picture of which demonstrates this evolution.
Philippe takes me to a display that demonstrates successive iterations of improvements to the product. We’ll return to this toward the end of the series.
So we acquire UE in 2008, and since then, we have created all types of new products. New earphones, new headphones, new speakers, and also a lot of new IEM tips. We’ve created award winning products such as the UE 18 that have been very positively received by different communities and prestigious press reviewers.
We also, and this was a decision that I decided to make because in my past, I was working in scanners. If you remember, in the late 90s, there was a big war on dots-per-inch. You end up with scanners which could scan 20,000 DPI. And the only thing you could scan was a stamp maybe [laughs] because at 20,000 DPI, it was taking so much memory that you could not transfer this image.
So I didn’t want to go down this path. After adding six drivers per ear in the product, I didn’t want to go to a twelve or fourteen, because the return on the quality and the investment is no longer there.
MC: There was a little joke on Head-Fi. An April Fools joke.
PD: An eighteen driver IEM [laughs]
PD: That joke was exactly what was in my mind. I didn’t want to go down that path. At this point, we challenged ourselves. What is it we can do very differently? How can we innovate around a product that we know that we have, but target something else? And that’s when we realized there was an opportunity for us, which would be the studio.
To be continued...
Edited by purrin - 9/5/13 at 3:41pm