Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro review
May 23, 2004 at 6:44 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 101

gorman

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THE BEGINNING

It all began here on Head-Fi, when Welly Wu and Lindrone decided to take the big jump to custom molded canalphones. Welly went with UE and Lindrone went with Sensaphonics. At the same time I was enjoying my Shure E3 but was always fiddling with different tips in the elusive search for the ultimate seal. I was considering getting a custom mold for the E3 when Welly and Lindrone hit the proverbial "sorry for your wallet" spot for me...
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Thus I began reading their reviews and inquiring about the two models they got and, later, I wrote some e-mails to both companies. Here I have to spend a couple of words for Mindy Harvey at Ultimate Ears. She has got to be the most kind, prompt and patient customer care person in the whole world. You see, I had special requirements, I needed my canalphones to be delivered to an hotel in Santa Monica, where I'd be spending just one week (I'm Italian). Well... she put me so much at ease and answered so many questions that, at a certain point, I felt UE were the way to go.

Furthermore I wanted to aim for the best, knewing that if I had bought Sensas I'd always been left wondering if the third driver made a difference or not.

So it was I decided to fork out for a pair of UE-10 in Royal Blue color. Ultimate Ears offers a "full soft option" for these babies and I decided to go for it, since I was looking for maximum comfort as well as maximum sound quality. Regarding Lindrone's reported crack-prone nature of the material used for "full soft" UEs, Mindy Harvey had this to say: " I can assure you and give you my word that if a client ever has a problem with the craftsmanship or any other issue with our products it will be addressed and resolved just as quickly as possible to the customers satisfaction. If you have a chance to view our clientele list you will see that we fit the top performers with our products. We did not establish relationships with these clients without offering the absolute best audio quality and outstanding customer service." This, together with her general likeability put my mind at ease.

I went to an audiologist in Milan and got my impressions taken, you can see them in the picture below. As for all the rest of the pictures in this review, you can enlarge it by clicking on it.



The process of getting your ear impressions is kind of weird. The audiologist mixes two different kinds of silicone to make the chemicals inside react and start to solidify. Then he pours the compound inside a syringe and pours it inside your ear, with a sponge at the end (to protect your eardrum I suppose, I didn't ask). For the following three minutes or so, you have to stay there, with your mouth wide open (a sure recipe to get good impressions for in-ear monitors), until the compound solidifies completely and the audiologist, tugging at the small cord that got embedded in your impressions, take them out. Not a painful process, but very weird sensations going on.

And there I was, waiting to fly to LA and get my babies. Some of the two longest weeks of my whole life...
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THE ARRIVAL

While I opted for FedEx 2nd day shipping, the UE-10 actually arrived one day in advance. Imagine my joy when I received an e-mail from FedEx service stating that my package had already been delivered to my hotel. I flew down the stairs and came back to my room with a pretty anonymous package.

I hopened it in a hurry and, thinking of the good people on this forum, I immediately took some pictures of the content, side by side with my Rio Karma, to give an idea of the dimensions involved.



As you can clearly see from this picture, the UE-10 Pro come in an anodized aluminum box, with your name engraved on it. It looked classy when I got it, it still looks that way after a couple of weeks since receiving it. As we will see, this is not the end of customization for UE.

Opening the box you find... not a lot, to be honest. Ultimate Ears come with just themselves, a cleaning tool and a faux-leather pouch that, in my case is too small to comfortably contain the canalphones. I didn't even bother with taking a photo of it, as I deem it pretty much useless.



Here it is, in all its beautiful simplicity. To be honest I was expecting at least a 1/4-1/8 jack converter, but there was none in sight. The only useful accessory you find is this tool to clean your canalphones on a (hopefully) daily basis:



You use the metal loop to scoop up earwax that could clog the sound bores inside the canalphones, while the small brush is, I guess, for residuates of dead skin, more than anything else.

Taking out the UE-10s we can proceed at examining other elements of their construction. Here you get some detail on the connecting side of the cord, where you can clearly see it's exchangeable (UE offers two standard choices for cord length, 48" and 64", I opted for 64"). As it's shown in the following picture, the last segment of the cord is wrapped in some sort of moldable semirigid material, that allows you to wrap it around your ear (as these have to be worn "over your ear" as Shures E3 and E5). It gets handy when you have to briefly remove one canalphone (to answer the phone, for instance), since the canalphone kinda "hangs" from your ear, and you can then quickly reinsert it.



The cable is of the braided kind, covered with some sort of friction reducing material (I would guess it could be teflon, but it's a guess, not an information). Together with the "over the ear" approach, microphonics are pretty much non existant, in all but the most extreme conditions. In the above photo we see what happens when you choose the full soft option for the UE-10. Only the outside portion of the canalphone is in color. I find this too cool, but others might dislike it.

I was previously talking about further customization, well, here it is:



To help telling the left from the right, the canalphones are color coded (blue and red) on the inside. A big part of this color coding is taken by your initials, forever engraved on your Ultimate Ears.

Let's now take a closer look at the interiors of the UE-10.



Ultimate Ears has adopted a triple driver design for their flagship product. Two balanced armature drivers are used to reproduce the low portion of the spectrum, while a new "proprietary low impedance extended high frequency balanced armature" takes care of the high portion. The reason I put that definition in quotes is that many people on Head-Fi have stated that UE is using the same driver Etymotics is using for the ER-4. I don't know what's the truth, but I prefer mantaining a neutral stance on this, as I don't have solid info on this. Maybe UE has specifically tuned the driver to give it extended high frequency response.

In the above photo you can see, on the top portion of the canalphone, the highs driver, together with the double bore design that conveys sound to your ears. The highs single driver gets one of the two bores, while the double drivers for the bass gets the other, as we can see in the following photo:



This double bore design is reportedly improving sound quality by not mixing lows and highs too early, but letting the sound mix in your ear chamber.

Let's finish with closeups, with a look at the outside portion of the UE-10s:



And if you are wondering how they look once you wear them, here you go:





ON WITH THE MUSIC

Looks and technology are well and good but I didn't spend $950 for looks or tech specs. I wanted these to provide excellent sound quality. Do they deliver? In a very simple word: YES.

As I mentioned, I was coming from Shure E3s. For this review I started with some direct comparisons between the two but... soon enough it appeared that a comparison would be wasted (and probably not very fair to the E3, given the price difference).

Most of the material I used for the listening sessions was LAME APS MP3s, with a couple of Q6 Vorbis albums, on my Rio Karma, with flat EQ. I listened to a lot of the same material from uncompressed sources (CD, SACD) using the headphone amplifier of my Onkyo TX-DS797 Home Theatre receiver, in Direct mode, with no EQ or any kind of effects. From what I know of headphone amplifiers, the one in my Onkyo is probably terrible, but bear with me...

The first test was conducted with Telarc's Super Bass 2 SACD. On the Karma I had to rip the CD portion of the hybrid disc but, nonetheless, the bass was awesome. Tight, punchy, controlled. On "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" the bass bow dancing on the strings is impressive at 1' 06": you get the bass notes, very deep, and the texture of the sound is reproduced magnifically. Compared to multichannel listening, with a subwoofer, you still get all the bass, albeit with no "air moving effect" that only a proper sub can achieve.
What's even more impressing is that for almost the whole song, there's cymbals doing the rythm of the song and, notwithstanding the huge amount of bass spewed forth, they get crystal clear detail too.

Second record used for testing was Jeff Buckley's "Grace". If you are familiar with Buckley, you know he's got a hell of a voice. Too bad he died very young after recording only two albums. Well, Grace helped in reinforcing the impression I got from Super Bass 2: UE-10 give texture to the sound like nothing else I had listened before. Jeff's voice never sounded so... "true" to me, so intimate in the most moving passages of his songs. One caveat, though, at 2' 06" of "Lover You Should've Come Over", when Jeff goes "Too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run", I got heavy sibilance on the "too" syllable. You have to understand I had already been listening to the UE-10 for two good weeks, so this came as a surprise to me, as I hadn't heard any sibilance before. I then proceeded to my Shure E3s and... the sibilance was gone on that passage (along with huge amount of detail and quality in all the rest of the song)... we will come back to this later. Apart from this small "glitch", it was the best rendition of Grace I had ever heard before.

On to Dark Side Of The Moon (SACD edition). Here, right at the beginning of "Speak To Me" the UE-10 went to impress me the most. The heart pulse was *moving* air inside my ears, I could definitely hear the pressure. Controlled, tight, but there nonetheless. An amazing experience. And on the CD rip from my Karma, not from the SACD higher resolution version.
On "Time" at 3' 15" cymbals again impressed me for the level of detail on the centre-right portion of the soundstage. Unfortunately I've never had the chance to sample Etys ER-4, but I strongly doubt there could be more detail than this, my brain could explode for lack of processing power!
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I then moved to Tori Amos "Little Earthquakes". Now, you have to understand I have the whole production of Tori, CD singles included. I've listened to her albums hundreds of times And still... still UE-10 made me discover hidden layers of vocal performance. Tori likes to put layer upon layer of slightly different vocal sections in her songs. And I had been missing several for the past ten years!
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Enough said on this album, for me it was probably the most shocking experience, together with the heart beat I mentioned before.

I played Prodigy, Dead Can Dance, Christina Aguilera (the texture of her voice in "Beautiful" was incredible... has she got some real talent, after all?), Queen, Genesis, Ours, Gomez, Nirvana... and for all the experience was flawless and impressive. Great bass and amazing details. A marriage made in heaven.

But I had that nagging feeling regarding the sibilance from Jeff Buckley... I connected to my home system and put the CD on. The sibilance was almost gone. Much more controlled. I then went on replaying a lot of stuff I listened from my Karma and the sound improved. Even fuller and more involving.
As I suppose the headphone amplifier in a HT receiver is probably crap, I guess that UE-10 could really benefit from proper amplification. Probably in a couple of months I'll be able to report on this. But all the signals are there to lead me to believe this could be the case.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

Perfect. I can't say anything else about cans I've slept with for 5 hours and listened on a 9 hours flight. No ear irritation, no discomfort. Only pure musical pleasure. You know you have something in your ears only if you think about it. Otherwise there's you. And music.

Insertion is pretty straightforward once you learn how to twist the canalphones in place. I can do it in 5 seconds per ear, not more.

Isolation is more or less on level with Shure foamies. I think some sounds get blocked more and some get blocked less. But once the music is going, there's nothing else in your ears. Even with music off, it's pretty much impossible to have a face to face conversation with somebody.

CONCLUSION

Are they worth it? I mean, $950 is not pocket money for the majority of us. Well... for me, yes. They are worth it. Now I know that wherever I will be I will always have access to the music I like with the highest quality. For me that is enough. Furthermore, I'm pretty convinced that once I'll get a good portable amplifier, things will only get better.
Let me just thank Mindy Harvey for her kindness, Lindrone and Welly Wu for boldly stepping where no one had gone before and the whole Head-Fi community for showing me that there was a *right* way to enjoy good music on the go.
 
May 23, 2004 at 7:21 PM Post #3 of 101
Really, really good write-up.
 
May 23, 2004 at 7:33 PM Post #4 of 101
Thanks for the review. I'm still waffling between getting canalphones and regular phones and having another indepth review is very helpful. I'm sure it's worth the money but I'm still deciding if I really have that much money to spend.
 
May 23, 2004 at 7:35 PM Post #5 of 101
Excellent review, gorman! And a terrific color choice. (my UE5cs are blue too!)

Now try them with an Ipod too and let us know what you think!

On balance, do you think you'll use them with an amp going forward? Or are you happy with them without an amp, even knowing that the sound is likely to be better with one?
 
May 23, 2004 at 8:19 PM Post #6 of 101
Bella recensione... BRAVO !!!
E visto che sei di Milano mi tolgo lo sfizio per una volta di parlare nella mia lingua in questo forum (heheheheheheeh)...

Non discuto che questo tipo di aggeggi suoni benissimo però due aspetti mi lasciano alquanto perplesso:

1) Dove va a finire la bella cuffia, grande, comoda anche da indossare e da vedere?

2) Ed è l'aspetto principale, per forza di cosa gli intraurali accentuano il maggior difetto di tutte (o quasi) le cuffie il suono "in the head" o dentro la testa.

Ciao!
Nicola
 
May 23, 2004 at 9:36 PM Post #7 of 101
Great review, I'm already getting some ety's but now I consider holding that off and saving up for something like this.
I agree on christina aguilera btw.
 
May 23, 2004 at 9:45 PM Post #9 of 101
Quote:

Originally Posted by random person
Now try them with an Ipod too and let us know what you think!


I will probably do it, a friend in the office has an iPod (he's the guy I will sell my E3s to). Quote:

Originally Posted by random person
On balance, do you think you'll use them with an amp going forward? Or are you happy with them without an amp, even knowing that the sound is likely to be better with one?


Well... if I had never listened to UE-10 connected to my amp I would have been forever happy with how they sound straight out of my Karma. Now... I'll try to find a very small amp to go with it. I don't want to miss anything that they have to offer.
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May 23, 2004 at 9:50 PM Post #10 of 101
Quote:

Originally Posted by Nik
1) Dove va a finire la bella cuffia, grande, comoda anche da indossare e da vedere?


Where does the good old fashioned headphone, comfortable to wear and look at?

I don't know what to say. I find much more aesthetically appealing my UE-10. And as far comfortable is concerned, it's relative. Once I have them in, I can do whatever I want. Lay on my side, fall asleep embraced by music... Quote:

Originally Posted by Nik
2) Ed è l'aspetto principale, per forza di cosa gli intraurali accentuano il maggior difetto di tutte (o quasi) le cuffie il suono "in the head" o dentro la testa.


Yes, soundstage suffers. You are right and there's little that can be done about that. But I have to say that, compared to E3s, UE-10 offer a much broader soundstage.

Ciao e scusa se sono tornato all'inglese.
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May 24, 2004 at 11:23 AM Post #11 of 101
Good review..
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A few things... what's been said about the balanced armature driver source for Ety, Sensa, Shure, UE and so forth.. is that they are pretty much all from the same manufacturer. Not that they're exactly the "same driver". It's an important difference, as all the underlying technology behind the driver are all the same, it's just tweaking, tuning, and different sizes.

Personally, I don't get the color thing too much. If I had gotten an UE, I would've gotten clear anyway. I like the way clear just sorta shows my normal ear color through, and the driver surface would reflect some sunlight and other light sources (got some "bling bling" in my ears.. heheh). I don't think making them different colors (other than flesh tone, so they're less noticeable) really helps making them look less like a hearing aid or whatever. They're weird, the average folks will just not understand what they are regardless. Blue just directs even more attention towards them, I would think... Anyway, that's all personal preference.

They do look quite a bit larger than my Sensas though. It's hard to judge since everyone's ear are different, and they'll fit differently given ear shapes. I've noticed in all the pictures I've seen, they do look quite a bit larger. Maybe it's just that third driver.


Quote:

Lindrone and Welly Wu for boldly stepping where no one had gone before and the whole Head-Fi community for showing me that there was a *right* way to enjoy good music on the go.


You give me way too much credit
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May 24, 2004 at 10:39 PM Post #12 of 101
Quote:

Originally Posted by lindrone
Good review..
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Thanks. It's a great honour from you!
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Quote:

Originally Posted by lindrone
A few things... what's been said about the balanced armature driver source for Ety, Sensa, Shure, UE and so forth.. is that they are pretty much all from the same manufacturer. Not that they're exactly the "same driver". It's an important difference, as all the underlying technology behind the driver are all the same, it's just tweaking, tuning, and different sizes.


Ok, as I said I knew I had not nailed down this concept. It would be interesting to get an engineer to give us some examples of what they actually do to these drivers to make them sound different. Quote:

Originally Posted by lindrone
Personally, I don't get the color thing too much. If I had gotten an UE, I would've gotten clear anyway. I like the way clear just sorta shows my normal ear color through, and the driver surface would reflect some sunlight and other light sources (got some "bling bling" in my ears.. heheh).


I swear that mine go "bling bling" too with the proper light
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Quote:

Originally Posted by lindrone
I don't think making them different colors (other than flesh tone, so they're less noticeable) really helps making them look less like a hearing aid or whatever. They're weird, the average folks will just not understand what they are regardless. Blue just directs even more attention towards them, I would think... Anyway, that's all personal preference.


Seriously, though, so far I've only had reactions like "cool! how much did you pay them?" when people looked at them. Obviously they asked what they were before!
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Quote:

Originally Posted by lindrone
They do look quite a bit larger than my Sensas though. It's hard to judge since everyone's ear are different, and they'll fit differently given ear shapes. I've noticed in all the pictures I've seen, they do look quite a bit larger. Maybe it's just that third driver.


Note I do have big ears, I'll measure the UE-10 tomorrow and give exact size here (and maybe add it to the review itself, maybe somebody else will be interested).
 
May 25, 2004 at 2:45 AM Post #14 of 101
Great review Gorman, and may I say you also have great taste in music ! When you were talking about the detail of Jeff Buckley's voice I was on the edge of my seat, I truly LOVE his voice and songwriting ...He was amazing. I can only imagine how the UE's make him shine, as I only have my Sony V 6's as a reference. I have now set another goal...the UE 10's sound wonderfully exciting ! Bills first, then ears get my full attention !

Regards,
S.
 
May 25, 2004 at 9:34 AM Post #15 of 101
Quote:

Originally Posted by Sweet Spot
When you were talking about the detail of Jeff Buckley's voice I was on the edge of my seat, I truly LOVE his voice and songwriting ...He was amazing. I can only imagine how the UE's make him shine, as I only have my Sony V 6's as a reference.


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"Lilac Wine" is also impressive through the UE-10. Heck... all his songs are. His voice benefits enormously from a crystal clear rendition.
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I took the liberty to quote your sig in mine... it's *so* defining of this place...
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I hope you don't mind.
 

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