Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor

The custom in-ear monitor has evolved from its utility as an on-stage, in-ear monitor for professional musicians to a luxury personal audio indulgence. Both of these evolved out of the hearing-aid industry and Etymotic’s first explorations out of the audiological world and into the Hi Fi world back in the early 1990’s, applying the rather arcane (at the time) technology of balanced armature receivers that were being used in compact hearing aids back then.

Out of those very first products using single BA receivers per ear came designs employing multiple receivers for greater sensitivity, and especially increased output in specific frequency bands … i.e. BASS. Single BA receivers were never that competent when it came to delivering serious LF impact, so the Race for Bass needed multiple receivers in order to compete with dynamic designs.

Because low-frequency (and infrasonic performance) is a very compelling sensation, especially when the music one listens to depends upon that impact to make its statement, and because Bass-head consumers demanded more, deeper, better bass … the headphone manufacturing community generally, and the IEM manufacturing community specifically, responded. What followed were many delightfully bass-heavy designs that satisfied those prurient compulsions of the most profligate bass-heads in the world.

However, that’s not actually High Fidelity … and what I mean by that is this: it’s not entirely useful to the professional recording and audio community, nor to those who want or need a “neutral” presentation for other reasons (reviewers, for instance). I use the word “neutral” in quotes because there is some debate about what the term actually means – at least when it comes down to establishing any kind of official standard.

Harry Pearson defined “The Absolute Sound” as the sound of acoustic instruments being played in a live acoustic space as ostensibly ‘neutral’ – thereby establishing a mission-statement for all of High-End Audio: Recreate the convincing illusion of a live performance in your listening room. That’s all well and good if we’re talking about purist-recordings of live performances done in an acoustic setting, but we start buggering the beehive ™ the moment the music is a mutitrack studio recording, especially one with electronic instrumentation. What is the ‘live’ sound of something that was never live to begin with, or that never existed in the mundance material world at all?

On the other end of the spectrum, those acolytes and offspring of the Julian Hirsch academic camp merely say that if it measures flat, it “is” neutral. Nevertheless, this hasn’t ever really proven to be satisfactory in practice, which is why the reviewing world has been overtaken by the “subjectivist” crowd, while the “objectivists” have been relegated to sitting in their underwear in their parents’ basement, covered in Frito’s crumbs whilst trolling the forums in search of an argument.

“Neutral” seems elusive, at least in the Hi Fi consumer world, because it tends to stem from a philosophical impulse instead of a practical need. When it comes to custom IEMs, though, the opposite is true – at least when considering that the segment emerged from applications addressing the needs of professionals – and Ultimate Ears has a long and storied history of addressing the needs of professionals. The UERM, or Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor, is UE’s answer to the professional need for a neutral standard.

The UERM was designed with help and feedback from recording engineers at Capital Records, and is noted by the company as having the transportable sound of their famous Studio A – thereby establishing two important things: first, that they have defined “Reference” as a particular aesthetic presentation instead of a strict and soulless theoretical standard (i.e. the objectivist’s Frito Filosophy) and second: that by establishing this, professionals will be able to depend upon this signature as reasonably neutral and, therefore, very useful.

That audiophiles and music lovers might also find this balance of attributes desirable is a secondary consideration – but one which I’ve found to be off primary importance to myself, and I have fellow Guru Warren Chi to thank for it. Were it not for his guidance at the 2014 CanJam at Rocky Mountain AudioFest, and his expertise in all things IEM, I might not have been aware of the UERM. It was at that show that I expressed a desire for a mostly-neutral CIEM – a proclivity of mine stemming from my earlier work as a recordist – and it was then that he guided me to the UE booth and told me, without hesitation, that I needed to hear the UERM.

Ultimate Ears had a peculiar setup at their booth: a universal-fit IEM wired with every one of their drivers, each of them wired internally with the ability to be addressed by the amplifier in particular clusters, and this under the control of a computer program. By choosing a model on the computer, the amplifier would fire up only those drivers that are featured in the model chosen. As such, one could get an extraordinarily useful demonstration of the sound of each of their models – each emanating from this Master IEM with all of the drivers inside. This was the best, most useful IEM demo I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear, and it was from this demo that it became unambiguously apparent that Warren was right: the UERM was the model I was after. Within minutes I sat with UE’s audiologist and had my ears filled with the pink goo that would eventually inform the custom shape to my personal set of UERM.

The way in which UE makes their IEMs is, itself, a technological wonder off modern times – and I’m penning a companion article detailing my visit to their US factory in Southern California. I won’t crowd this review with the details from that, but don’t miss it as it demonstrates the intense value that UE puts into both the process by which these products are made, as well as the experience that the customer has.

I received my custom UERMs in a very short time after the CanJam, due entirely to their new and unique process for 3-D scanning of the earmold impressions, quick and expert editing of the file that results from the scan, and their astounding 3-D printing process of the actual custom earpieces that come out as smoothly as if they were cast. The development of this process has led to decreasing the lead time from casting your earmold to getting the finished product considerably. What once took many weeks now takes about a week, and my conversation with Mike Dias lead me to believe that their goal is to cut that delivery time even more.

Inserting the UERM was a strange delight, as they sort of twist-locked into my ear canals with a fit that was so natural that I barely noticed they were there once they came up to body-temperature. This was very unlike the feel of universal-fit IEMs, which tend to call attention to themselves as physical objects jammed into your ear.

The isolation from outside sounds was also extremely good. If music wasn’t playing it was possible to hear what was going on outside, mostly in the same way that one might hear with an ordinary ear-plug installed. Very muted, but still intelligible. Once the music began, it was as it should be: the outside world disappeared sonically and I was immersed in the projected universe of the music.

Sonically, as well, the UERM did very little – really nothing – to call attention to itself. In fact, it wasn’t long after I started playing with them that TIDAL’s lossless streaming service officially launched, and with that a marked increase in my time spent listening to music. As those of you who have read my past articles know, I use my headphones and IEMs in my workshop to act both as hearing protection and as musical vehicles. I had beeen listening to Pandora and Spotify primarily because they are both iPhone apps and, therefore, I would be able to field telephone calls – or at least be aware that someone was trying to reach me and shut down the machines to answer the call. TIDAL also has an iPhone app, but the quality of the music delivered is so much better than I was getting to those other two services that I have neglected them entirely and opted for TIDAL as my exclusive streaming service.

Listening to TIDAL via the UERM has been thoroughly enjoyable, and it satisfies the balance of my desire to listen to a very wide selection full-resolution music while still being able to address my need for monitoring incoming telephone calls. The iPhone isn’t nearly the last word in resolution, but the internal amp mates pretty well with the UERM and, for the circumstances under which I’m operating, its way better than merely “good enough” – it’s better than I thought was possible from a consumer-grade product. From Gypsy Jazz to Indie Rock to EDM/IDM and Ambient – the combination of TIDAL, iPhone, and UERM makes my workday that much more enjoyable.

However, this is hardly a “reference” application, and it is with “reference” in mind that I put the UERM through an audiophile workout. This consisted mostly of full and high-resolution files being fed from the Astell&Kern AK120 II, and (to a lesser extent) similar files being fed from my desktop computer system (iMac) through an iFi ISD Micro – and using either that iDSD’s internal headphone amplifier, or feeding the line output via RCA to the new HiFiMAN EF100 desktop headamp/amp (review forthcoming).

I have plenty of my favorite albums, or course, and also quite a selection of high resolution material that I’ve purchased just for the sake of evaluating performance. This includes a number of DSD tracks that I wouldn’t have ordinarily purchased for their musical value alone. The iFi iDSD Micro will decode DSD natively when being fed via USB from my iMac via Amarra, while the AK120 II will decode DSD as a conversion to PCM (“DoP” or DSD over PCM) and some have said that this conversion sullies the DSD signal. It may, but the results are nonetheless astounding from a purist, “High Fidelity” perspective.

Listening to these files through the UERM had all the hallmarks of listening to a live microphone feed, something I’ve had some experience with. There’s a palpability to the music that preserves it’s unalloyed essence when you’re listening to a live mic feed – finely nuanced contrasting elements emerging from the acoustic field, micro and macro-dynamic cues that are kind of delicate – easy to get lost when the monitoring device is ‘flavored’ to lean mostly this way or that.

UERM doesn’t editorialize the feed tonally, and does a good job dynamically in terms of preserving the ‘living essence’ that natively recorded DSD sessions can often have. Its sensitivity coupled with what seems to be very low distortion draws out astounding amounts of texture and detail, even when the music gets quite busy. Acoustic spaces are rendered with the kind of authentic decay that could convince even a seasoned engineer that they’re listening to the live mic feed and not the tape monitor. To mention the low distortion again – it becomes perhaps a little too easy to crank the volume ever higher. There’s a bottomless well of detail to be drawn out of many of these recordings, and giving way to the temptation to crank it up for a moment can often lead to some exquisite experiences. But that’s not all too safe for extended listening periods …

I get a listening experience quite close to this from Todd Garfinkle’s hi-res recordings, and I’m especially fond of La Segunda, the second album from Sera Una Noche. The music, classified somewhat as “Nuevo Tango” (for whatever that’s worth), is gorgeously emotive, effulgent with midrange lusciousness, dazzling and effervescent highs, radiant harmonics, and – when the occasion calls for it – thunderous low frequencies that emanate from a bass drum. While my favorite all-in-one track form this album is “La Roca” the truth is that the whole album is splendid, and I love to sit back and luxuriate in its musical treasures. I have the original CD, the LP, and the high resolution DVD ROM of this album, such is its preciousness to my collection.

As Todd is also a friend and colleague, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the high resolution file through his Stax headphones (which are his reference monitors), so I have some idea of what his intentions were as a recordist shaping the sound of this recording, and to what standard other monitors would be held to with consideration for this and other MA recordings. UERM comes reasonably close in many respects, perhaps being a little less dynamic, somewhat less transparent (both native strengths of the Stax monitors and hard to match), and slightly more pronounced in the midrange by comparison. This latter aspect lends voices a greater sense of emotion, but it isn’t so much that I’d call it out for editorializing … it’s rather slight in effect. The UERM bests his Stax in the LF extension department, but the Stax bests everyone in dynamic contrast and effortlessness.

Once again, UERM is able to parse mindboggling nuances and details out of an acoustically rich atmosphere even when things get complicated. They’re not getting overwhelmed, even when I indulge in the occasional volume bump, my eyes rolling back in eargasmic joy …

I’ve got some tasty selections from the brothers Chesky and their HD Tracks site, and as a diehard jazz-guitar fan I couldn’t do without a few titles from their collection of high resolution goodies. Bucky Pizzarelli is one of the handful of “jazz guitar godfathers” still gigging, and there’s a live recording of him playing with Bernard Purdie (drums), Peter Appleyard (vibes), Michael Moore (bass), and Allen Vache (clarinet). “Swing Live” is the album, and the session was recorded with a live audience. I may never get to see Bucky play live (though I’d love to), but recordings like this are the next best thing.

The energy of the live performance translates well, and the UERM puts me right into that space without calling attention to itself at all. I can imagine myself right there, soaking in the rays of jazz. The reason I site this recording of Bucky is that he’s both a soloist and a sideman, as the other musicians take their turns inventing lovely melodies through the changes. It’s lovely to hear all of their voices, and also to hear Bucky hold things together with his chord voicings in the background. Of course when he takes over the melodizing, the Master’s touch is undeniably nimble, tasteful, and always a gentle object lesson from the school of less-is-more.

These recordings, as well as others of the same ilk, prove to me that the UERM is about as neutral of an IEM as I’ve had the pleasure to experience. They’re certainly a top notch reviewer’s tool, and I can understand why engineers would benefit by having a set of these on hand – especially at location gigs where it’s important to isolate external noises to be sure of what is being fed into the recording gear. If I were back in the recording game, I’d consider the UERM to be indispensable.

Ultimate Ears has certainly earned its stripes in many corners of the music industry, with many a satisfied soul logging countless hours of joyful music listening. In the case of the Reference Monitor, Ultimate Ears demonstrates that they know how to produce a precision instrument worthy of any engineer’s go-bag, but also a monitor that is musically engaging enough to be a musical indulgence.

At $999, folks will have different opinions as to the value of the UERM. I can’t spend your money for you, so it’s not up to me to say that the UERM is a bargain or not. But if you’re thinking about a reference-level IEM, and the price is not intimidating, the UERM should be on your short-list of must-hear monitors. It might just spoil you for others if, like me, you value neutrality and transparency.

I can think of no higher recommendation to make for the UERM except to say this: UERM is my reference-standard for IEM performance, and it’s also my constant companion.

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Chris Sommovigo

Chris Sommovigo is an audio veteran that has worked in the industry in various capacities since 1992. For his "Darko Disclosure Doctrine" disclosure of financial interests, please visit: CLICK HERE

  • Kev
  • 2015-04-30 22:58:07
  • I'm just curious... How do the EURM pair with the AK 120 II...with regard to floor noise? The EURM is 35 ohms, whilst the AK 120 II (unbalanced) out is 2 ohm I assume it would be OK...direct without an addition low impedance amp...like the CL Picallo or ALO Rx, etc. I'm a recording musician so I'd like a decent pair of flat-response, neutral CIEM's....to use with my portable music rig...but, a black background is a must.
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