- Apr 28, 2010
As many of us in the UK are all too aware, our options are pretty limited when it comes to custom IEMs designed, manufactured and sold in our own country. There’s ACS and Minerva (if there’s any others I’m not aware), and from there it’s a case of dealing with shipping impressions off to either the EU, Asia or the States, unless you wish to buy some through a dealer, which can up the cost significantly. In this thread I’ll give you another option, the SoundEar line of custom IEMs from Ultimate Hearing Protection Systems (their website address of UltimateEar is not to be confused with the Ultimate Ears/UE which we’re all familiar on here with). I’ll be reviewing their flagship model, the BA triple driver SoundEar Pro3.
I found out about this company via my parents, funnily enough. My dad snores loudly and after trying and failing with various things for him, my mum simply decided to get some ear plugs made. She obviously looked for local places and in doing so found UHPS, who are based in my home town of Orpington, near the high street, which is in South East London (Zone 6), and only a short train journey away central London itself. This winter we had our bathroom redecorated, and as I work shifts and have to do nights sometimes, I decided to get some plugs myself just because I didn’t want to get woken up by the noise.
Imagine my surprise when I visit the website and see, in Orpington of all places, that a company is producing custom IEMs! From what I understand, their background is in providing products for a range of applications, mostly with racing/driving sports (see here) and their venture into audio territory is relatively recent hence the lack of awareness on Head-Fi and further afield online. Still, from the reviews page it seems a few pro musicians are already using them, as well as some audio enthusiasts.
I contacted the company about getting the plugs made and my interest in IEMs via Head-Fi, and ended up being called by the company owner, Dave Marshall, who wanted to chat audio and see if I’d be interested in hearing the demo/universal versions of the SoundEars when I got my plugs made, which I did.
Unfortunately I didn’t find the demos a comfortable fit, and only had my iPhone on hand to use as a source but for Queen, country and Head-Fi, I decided I’d gamble, as in theory they’d offer something very different to the MG6Pro CIEMs I have, and while I’ve been on this site for several years as a poster and lurked for several more, I’ve never really given much back, so I thought it was about time I offered something for others benefit!
One of the advantages, at least for those living or even visiting the London area, is that you can easily get to their HQ and one of their technicians will take your impressions (they do local visits too). This saves a lot of hassle with both posting and wait times – I simply went after work one afternoon when I got back in town before I went home, and had my impressions taken then. Also since they know what they’re doing, there’s less likely to be any fit issues – mine were perfect first time. Interestingly, they took my impressions with a closed mouth, which is the opposite to pretty much all the other CIEM companies I’ve looked at who state they require open mouth via bite block. Turnaround time is up to 28 days and can be as little as 48 hours if you’re prepared to pay a reasonable fee, although they offer 5 and 10 day times as well (also at a cost).
Price is £625 – which places them in direct competition with ACS’s T1s, this includes impressions
Triple driver in the standard 3-way bass/mids/highs configuration, dual bore.
Dual compound silicone construction – the shell is made from a tougher silicone and the nozzle, which goes into the ear, is a softer and more flexible grade.
Choice of under/over ear cable and cable colour – no memory wire and non-removable
Various colours and finishes, including the ‘swirl’ finish I had on the main body of mine (they do polka dots too, and can do custom printing)
1 year guarantee
Packaging, Accessories etc:
The SoundEar Pro3s come in the familiar-looking small Pelican case, albeit with a sturdy clip attached (see pic), with the IEMs contained within their neoprene soft pouch. There is also the usual cleaning tool, fitting and cleaning guide, stereo jack adapter, comfort cream and your ear impressions themselves. There was also the typical silica packet in the pouch:
We’ll start with the cable. The UHPS are in the process of, as far as I’m aware, rolling out a new cable design for their customs, which upon seeing I chose over the existing options, mainly because it looked nice, it has to be said! The cable is soft and has a springy quality, and while it can get tangled easily, it seems to untangle just as easily too, not curling back up when in use and keeping it’s shape. I couldn’t tell you what it’s made from, other than it’s a transparent outer layer with several different colour strands contained within, but as you can see at the Y, the darker wire goes to the left, which makes identifying which ear is which easy. Speaking of the Y-splitter, this is quite short and although it can just about be worn doing down your chest (which ended up as something like a chin-strap for me), it’s meant to hang down your back, which is how I use it. The little slider thing has the company name on which is a neat touch, and once in place at the back of the head keeps the wires above the ear moving about. They’re obviously non-removable, but the entry point into the IEM itself seems secure and doesn’t look likely to be damaged unless I let my cats chew on it. The jack is a small, unobtrusive right angle affair (they offer a straight jack too). One thing I’ve noticed with the cable is on is it can be quite grippy on skin, so I tend to wear it over my shirt but under my coat.
Onto the shells! In terms of finish, I had one of the new processes they have available done – a two-tone swirl which can cover the full shell, or parts of it. I chose mine to fade out towards the upper shell and ear canal in order to show off the company logo clearly as well as my initials on the inside and it made seeing the cleanliness of the bores easier. The finish itself is nice – they do offer custom artwork too but I wanted to keep things simple-ish. The swirl finish vaguely reminded me of the swirl paint jobs offered on various Steve Vai signature guitar models from Ibanez (the JEM line), and although they are three tone rather than two it sort of inspired me. The silicone feels sturdy in the sense that you’re not going to worry if they bump into things, it’s soft to the touch without being squidgy while the tips are obviously quite pliable due to them being a softer compound, you can wiggle them about. They do pick up dust/lint/animal hair very easily though being silicone (see pics haha), although they’re not sticky to the touch, so giving them a regular clean is essential. As you can see, the ear canal section is quite long which means deep insertion and a solid seal. More on this in a sec.
Fit was perfect straight off the bat, great. I attribute this to the impressions being taken properly rather than my magic ears being magic. The silicone shells provide a lot of isolation (although obviously with no music playing, one can hear a certain amount of noise). Even on the Tube, a noisy environment, with any music lacking subtlety or quiet moments, I couldn’t hear any outside noise. The deep insertion is... interesting, especially if you’re not used to it. I’ve found that usually I need to insert them then let my ears adjust, then make a minor adjustment or two and I’m all set. After this, it’s a case of ‘forget they’re there’ – I can wear them for hours, which is what you’d expect from any custom. After a long period of use, I have noticed some moisture build up in my ear, so I’m thinking about getting one of those hearing aid conditioner things to ensure no moisture builds up in the IEM itself, although the case for these does contain the silica packet. Another thing I noticed is that due to the deep fit, there is potential to alter what you’re hearing negatively - if you start moving your jaw around from side to side, as well as craning your head down at an acute angle, the volume can increase/decrease on the left or right channels (or both in the case of looking down). These aren’t the sort of things you’ll do when listening to music though so it isn’t typically a problem, although I’m mindful when reading in bed to not slouch down too much with them in.
A caveat before I start – I don’t do fluffy language, I haven’t heard tons of different IEMs (I have many interests and haven’t gone through a long journey of equipment like some on here). I haven’t left them to burn in for 100’s of hours or anything like that, although I have had them a while so my ears are acclimatised.
First off, most of my listening is done through the DX100, although I have listened to them through various iOS devices, including a brief listen with a Fiio E17 in between the SE3’s and an 4S. I know most wait till the tail end of reviews to write about source-matching, but I’ll do it first...
The SE3 scaled as expected with sources. I didn’t notice a huge difference using the Fiio to not using the Fiio (so perhaps these aren’t too hard to drive), but certainly my DX100 stomps all over any of the iOS devices for SQ, so obviously it’s worth listening to them with the best portable source you can afford. I’d be curious to see how they scale with other amps, but since I have none on hand… I played a few tracks from Koi No Yokan, the new Deftones album on my iPhone as well as some other stuff like newer Cannibal Corpse, Meshuggah etc, and it sounded congested and muddy, yet on my DX100 everything was cleaned and opened up, so I kind of wish I could stick an O2 or something in between the iPhone and the SE3s to see if the iPhone’s amp suck or if it sucks full stop. I don’t want to big up the DX100 too much, but the improvement listening to the SE3’s on it vs the iPhone was really a case of night and day, and I don’t even like using that phrase!
I believe the SoundEar line have been tuned by ear, according to preference. The Data Sheet for the SoundEar (single driver) can be found here but I couldn’t see anything for the Pro2 or 3. I believe from the description it sounds like it’s using the Knowles CI and TWFK but don’t quote me on that. I recall Dave stating that they weren’t using the same drivers as ACS, so who knows… perhaps I can find out as I know you people like knowing these things. I should ask for a data sheet too.
I probably won’t be much cop when it comes to describing frequency response etc so I’ll keep things fairly brief.
First things first, my general approach to this sort of thing is ‘am I just enjoying listening to music, and if not, why not?’ Overall with these things, I’ve just been enjoying listening to music, especially when commuting as the isolation is very good and means I don’t feel like I’m losing much fidelity in a noisy environment like the Tube. These things don't seem too forced in their presentation like, 'look at me!' mids or anything like that, although they have their own character.
The soundstage is wide enough to give you the out of head feel, at least in terms of width. They image well, as you’d expect from a custom, small details are audible, instruments distinct (recording dependant obviously). Forgiving? Not particularly, although I have some pretty crappily recorded stuff and it’s not unlistenable on these – just recognisably poor. Par the course for anything decent I’d say. The trade off obviously is well recorded stuff is very enjoyable if you close your eyes and give it your full attention. Are these the last word in clarity, micro detail etc? I don’t know, I haven’t heard things like the ES5, the SE5-way, or any other CIEM sporting dual highs/mids/lows, special woofers for low bass etc. Annoying because I feel like I need to hear one of these to see how these rank – as I’m a bit of a comparison noob so while I can waffle away here, it’s going to be less useful than some of the other people’s impressions on here.
When I read reviews like Shigzeo’s on the ACS T1s, I feel like these share many similarities and I’m hearing similar things (this isn’t me attempting to escape reviewing them!), although they’re not identical. Indeed one of the design goals I believe was to rustle up some healthy competition with ACS by seeing what they thought they could do to improve upon them – so while they’re their own product, if you were thinking of getting the T1s, then these are also worth your consideration. I’ve not heard the T1s myself, but thanks to Head-Fi there are plenty of other people’s impressions. Reviews often talk about the treble roll off relative to the bass and mids on the T1 – I don’t think is the case with these, I think they’re fairly balanced top to bottom and come across as a cohesive unit that seems to work well with whatever I throw at it genre wise. I wouldn’t call them bright though, the treble certainly isn’t searing and fatiguing. I can’t hear any sibilance either. Being stage-orientated I’m not inclined to use words like exciting, lush or anything like that, but I feel hesitant calling them polite... it’s somewhere in between, balanced with a touch of excitement or something like that! There’s definitely something to be said about silicone customs and a more organic sound as well; it does provide a certain touch of warmth and thickness, which is something I see written about most of the silicone custom IEMs sold.
In terms of bass response, depth, speed and impact is good and there’s that reverberant quality that I’ve read about before from silicone customs, quite fun without sounding boosted. I’d love to try some of the customs with multiple bass drivers to compare but alas… in any case they’re certainly better than any of the universals I’ve tried and they’re certainly not overly hyped (i.e. bass light tracks are reproduced as bass-light where as something like dubstep certainly gets them excited) and it the response seems linear enough as you go down so there’s no big bass hump to contend with. That said, they’re still very enjoyable with EDM and big bass lines, there be bounce and punch here (It has to be said, I like boosting the sub-50hz region via the DX100’s EQ though!).
Mids seem natural and not too far forward or back. This is obviously the most important part of the spectrum, and in a way these remind me of some of the monitors I’ve heard in that they don’t really scream ‘look at me’ but just give you what they’re fed with the appropriate nuances and details of the track. If I had to nitpick, it’s that at higher volumes the upper-mids can start to get a little shouty, which is something that only pops up certain things like some snares and a few female vocals, but we’re talking about listening louder than you probably should – don’t want hearing damage do you? At a reasonable listening volume it doesn’t seem to intrude in the same way... although this is something I noticed more with dynamic recordings, so it may just be a volume thing: I listen to a fair bit of modern stuff that isn’t recorded with the same level of dynamic range as a lot of older/more audiophile stuff, so you listen at a certain volume and it’s fine, but you play a more considered recording and get surprised by the jump in volume in some tracks.
The treble doesn’t seem to draw much attention to itself like some of the more ‘sparkly’ IEMs I’ve heard briefly, i.e. I don’t think it’s boosted unnaturally, just a fairly natural presentation. They’re not shrill or piercing which is fine by me as my preference is for realism rather than artificially bright upper end. I can’t think of much to add here!
Just as a reference, my listening preferences are fairly wide although mostly contemporary-ish. I’ve run death/black/techy metal through these, pop, dubstep, psy trance, film scores, prog, ambient, classic rock, all sorts really – everything sounded right (i.e. I trust my near field monitors to give me an accurate reproduction, and these seemed quite faithful compared to that).
No complaints with these – I have no idea how they compare to the flagship customs packed full of drivers (maybe average_joe can get a pair!), but to me they disappear when I’m listening to music, which is what I want a speaker/IEM to do. The silicone provides great isolation, there’s plenty of customisation options, they’re good blokes (support the UK economy!) and most importantly they sound good, so if you’re in the UK and considering a custom IEM then you can’t go wrong checking these chaps out. If you’re in London then it’s very easy to get down to see them personally, which is something I’d recommend as you’ll get experienced audiologists, no shipping to worry about and you can gas to the owner about audio. They seem to deal with all genres well, and aren’t voiced in a a way as to favour certain things over another, at least to me. Basically, if you’re from these parts and want a custom IEM, you should certainly add them to the shortlist.
Cheers! And thanks for reading.
EDIT - as I was about to post this, I've been informed that they'll be a 20% discount for any SoundEar orders over the next 4 weeks, as an introductory offer to Head-Fiers. To receive this discount, simply put the 'as seen on Head-Fi' in the instructions and link to here.