BY DARTH FADER AND REV. BILL

We did something very different this time. I was fitted with a pair of UE IEMs as was the Sith Lord of Audio, Darth Fader. I got the top of the line “normal” ones and Lord Fader got the personalized ones called PRMs (Personal Reference Monitors) that are “tuned” to the taste of the end user. Originally we had planned on doing it the other way around with me getting the PRMs to see if i could tune them to compensate for high-end loss from years of playing and mixing shows. But the “black box” for tuning was only available in New York and L.A. and it was easier for Darth to make a short detour in his TIE Fighter than it was for me to book a flight. 

 

Over a period of several months, we both used the IEMs in a number of settings. And we chatted about the results. Instead of presenting two separate reviews, we are going to give you a transcript of the conversation. And away we go.

 

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On Feb. 1, 2014 at 9:19 PM darthfader wrote:

OK, I’ll light the fuse.

The first part of the UE process was to go through the tuning process and to get fitted for molds for my custom-contoured earpieces.

So I go to Audiologist Julile Glick in Manhattan (she knows what she is doing) I’ve got reference music with me (on CD… because why in hell would you reference monitors with a low-res file) so I can listen to the Reference Monitors via  the UE “black box” (which is silver)  and contour the frequency response to my taste. Except the UE black box accepts only a 1/8-inch stereo input from an iPod or similar. So (Dr.) Glick connects an iPod that is furnished by UE preloaded with music specifically for the process. And what’s on it? Stuff I avoided listening to in high school. Regardless, I make the best of the poor selection of “reference tunes” and proceed. I’m listening through the Reference Monitors and using the Black Box to adjust the low- mid- and high-frequency response to my taste. Unfortunately the low-frequency contour control for the left ear piece is not doing anything. Glick verifies that this control is not working and our mission is scrubbed.

I go home with nothing accomplished, wasting four hours back and forth from the Death Star to Manhattan. Glick says she’ll get a replacement Black Box and we’ll reschedule the tuning appointment. I’m not happy.

 Your turn.

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On Feb. 5, 2014 at 12:29 AM, Rev. Bill wrote:

Personal Reference. I get the idea and the allure to some people but—and I told the folks at UE this so I am being totally consistent—it is a concept that will make many monitor engineers break out in hives and start drinking heavily. I know guys who have worked hard to get as many or the people onstage as possible on in-ears from at least the same mfg if not the same model so that when they cue up a mix, they hear whet the person on stage is hearing. With everyone wearing in-ears “tuned” to their personal preference?

Like I said, I get it and would have loved to have tried those. But it is because my hearing is damaged from years of playing and mixing loud shows and I could get something that boosts the top end that i am missing. But I’m not sure I would be enthusiastic about it as a monitor guy.

I used Anderson Audiology in Las Vegas for my impressions which is the outfit that UE uses for all their impressions here. No complaints. Professional and easy to work with. I had to go back a second time after clearing out the wax on one side. I know, TMI, Lord Vader. Forgive me.

Your turn. Impression when you opened the box?

-b

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On Feb 10, 2014, at 8:35 PM, darthfader wrote:

Hi Rev. 

On the one hand I totally agree that any monitor engineer wants consistency across their stage so (as you said) when they cue a mix they are hearing the same thing that their talent is hearing. This totally makes sense but because I am a pain in your ass, I’m going to turn this upside down on you:

Who says that the talent’s hearing is consistent with the hearing of the monitor engineer?? 

Let’s suppose that our monitor engineer is intimately familiar with a particular artist, and that artist has a HF hearing loss. Does it makes sense to tailor the artist’s ear pieces in a manner so that when the engineer cues the mix, the extra HF content desired by the artist is already taken into consideration? I’m not offering an answer, just raising a question. Does this help or hinder the monitor engineer? 

And that brings me back to fitting number two. Recall that during fitting number one I learned that the “black box” used for dialing the custom frequency contour could take in a 1/8-inch stereo feed from an iPod. Knowing that, I loaded full-bandwidth WAV files of familiar music into my iPhone because none of the musical offerings from UE were familiar to me. Imagine the steam coming out from under my life support helmet when I was told that I WAS NOT ALLOWED TO USE MY OWN FILES, and that I had to use UE’s files. This is insane. You want me to tailor earpieces to my own liking while listening to music that (a) I dislike and (b) I am unable to use for evaluation of audio equipment? Really? Lame.

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On Feb 11, 2014 at 10:57 PM, Rev. Bill wrote:

OK, Lord Fader. I gotta give you that. But I have heard more than one monitor guy bitch about the concept. And as to the “you can’t play your own tracks” thing. Stupid. But not surprising. Logitech (UE’s parent company) is not an audio company. They are approaching this like high-end consumer electronics. That they want control of the process is not a surprise. But you are more patient than I. I would have stopped the process right there if I could not use music I am familiar with to judge an EQ curve on any transducer.

So, I got mine from the Fed-Ex guy about 10 days after I got my impressions shot. (Does Fed-Ex deliver to the Death Star?). And the unboxing was the most impressive part of the process. The packaging was excellent and UE/Logitech included their top-of-the-line cables instead of shipping with a lower grade and trying to make the good ones an upsell. Which is something I have seen from at least one mfg. 

But the coolest thing was the note that they ear-buds were covered by an insurance policy in case of damage or loss. With something this expensive, that is a very big deal. And my guess is when the policy is arranged and covered by the mfg, it is not real expensive. It is a marketing/production expense that others might want to take a look at. I have had lots of in-ears. I have had two sets just stop working, one broke when it was dropped maybe a foot onto a wooden desk and one set that was chewed up by my dog. That policy would have moderated my response to each of these incidents significantly.

I pass the light saber to you, your Audioness…

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On Feb 16, 2014, at 8:00 PM, darthfader wrote:

Yes Rev, FedEx actually does one run per month up to theDeath Star. I just so happened to catch the timing right, so I received my UE’s in about the same amount of time as you did. 

I agree that the packaging is VERY sexy. In fact I haven’t seen anything boxed that nicely since the Emperor gave me a Limited Edition Empire Lightsaber for slicing up Obi Wan, and the aluminum inner case inspires confidence. The insurance IS a big deal especially up here where personal items go missing frequently. I had a really nice microphone at the Death Star studio that went missing after I saw Zenn Bien hanging around one night. I’m sure he stole it but when I shook him down it wasn’t on him. Sorry I digress. The insurance policy is awesome especially since the UE’s are a significant investment. I wonder if they (UE) warranty damage sustained during battle conditions. Don’t tell anyone but I love listening to Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries when I’m hunting down some rebel snit. And I’ve burned a lot of earpieces in dog fights. 

Initially I was put off by the fact that the earpieces are made of hard plastic. My past experiences with custom-fits have been soft plastic ear molds so I was a bit skeptical. But I put them in when I left the Death Star to go to Coruscant. Next thing I know I’m halfway across the CoreWorlds and realized that I still had them in. Very comfortable, although you know what an ordeal it is for me, getting the helmet off, inserting the molds and putting the helmet back on. In fact I had my doubts that UE would make the molds correctly. My outer ears are quite disfigured from my … mishap… and on more than one occasion manufacturers have attempted to correct for the twist in my inner ear canal because they thought it couldn’t possibly be right. Not so with UE: the molds fit perfectly.

I think I hear the Emperor calling… more later. 

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On April 14, 2014 at 1:23 AM, Rev. Bill wrote:

OK, so now the part where the rubber—or in this case the hard plastic—hits the road. How do they sound?

I have said many times before that reviewing in-ears is tough because the experience is so subjective. I own and/or have reviewed in-ears from Future Sonics, Sensaphonics, UE and Westone. In terms of sound… What do you like? I have used the UEs now for a few months. I have used them is a lot of situations ranging from just listening while at the gym or running and I have used them on gigs. They’re solid. Everybody’s in-ears are pretty solid. When it comes down to choosing for the touring tribe, be they musicians or audio dudes (or dudettes) it really comes down to who you are comfortable working with and who is going to take care of you best when you are in some little town in the middle of nowhere and your buds—or your artist’s—are lost or stolen or just break down.

I like the UEs as much as anything I have tried (which is pretty much all of the major brands except JH Audio) and the inclusion of the insurance thing is a pretty big deal. Enough to make UE a contender if I were buying my own or outfitting an artist I was working with.

Back to you Lord Fader…

-b

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On April 19, 2014 at 8:17 PM, darthfader wrote:

Hi Rev:

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to use the UE Personal Reference Monitors quite a bit in a variety of situations. From a subjective standpoint, I really like the way they sound — but then again, I’d be dumber than Jar Jar Binks if I didn’t. After all, UE tailored the frequency response to my personal preference via their proprietary “black box.” ‘Props to UE for limiting the box’s range of adjustment so that the user can’t take the frequency response of the PRMs out of the local solar neighborhood, and completely ruin the sound of the ear pieces.

As I mentioned last time I was pleasantly surprised that the hard plastic molds were comfortable over the long haul but I also noticed that — as long as I kept the volume to reasonable levels — ear fatigue was minimal. I sat in with the Max Rebo Band at a show to benefit abandoned droids and they can get pretty loud (the band that is, not the droids). When using the PRMs I wished for a bit more isolation from the stage noise. UE estimates the isolation with a proper fit at around 26 dB. I estimate Rebo’s stage volume  at around 105 dB, so if you do a bit of math I’m starting with a noise floor of 80 dB, which is on the high side. Wireless receivers from Sennheiser and Shure in-ear systems had no problem whatsoever driving the PRMs to sufficient levels and in fact they could easily drive the PRMs to levels far louder than I wish to expose my ears.

Fortunately the PRMs don’t need to be cranked up to sound good; they sounded consistent across a wide range of volume levels. I even fell asleep wearing them on more than one occasion.

From a more objective standpoint, anything that is present in the audio path will be revealed by the PRMs. For me this is a good thing; for other people maybe not. Some musicians like sonic euphoria. I prefer audio honesty. If there is a buzz, a squeak, a squeal musical or otherwise — I want to hear it. Listening to Gaeriel Capens remix of “The Sequential Passage Of Chronological Intervals,” it was easy to hear that she used a RetSpan Audionics Tri-bot mimic series droid. Old-school instruments like cymbals and acoustic guitar came across crisp and clear, with realistic transients and lifelike reproduction. Listening to some of the early recordings I did with Greeata Jendowanian, you could really hear Greeata’s Rodian inflections as well as the sound of her breathing behind her singing. It is this kind of detail that made me appreciate the sound of the PRMs.

For the past few weeks I have been mixing through the UE Personal Reference Monitors and the results have been very good. Given the fact that it can be difficult to judge the level of low-register instruments (for example kick drum, bass mando, bass vye and electric four-string bass) via earphones, the mixes I created using the PRMs translated very well to loudspeakers. There were no surprises (which is always a good thing) and for the most part what I heard on the PRMs is what I heard over loudspeakers. The bass instruments came across a bit on the loud side through speakers which I attribute to two things: (1) the aforementioned difficulty of judging bottom end through transducers that don’t move air (i.e. headphones and ear pieces) and (2) I may have dialed a slight low-frequency attenuation into the black box when I went for my personal tuning because I don’t like a hyped bottom end. I honestly don’t recall. EQing instruments and vocals while mixing through the Personal Reference Monitors yielded timbres that simply sounded good when heard on other systems. In general I felt like I could work quickly and hear what I needed to hear through the PRMs.

During the time that I used the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors they performed flawlessly but there is one thing that concerns me: each ear piece employs five armatures and a three-way crossover. That’s an awful lot of parts in a very small space, and more parts means a greater possibility that something might break. But I have to judge on what is, not what might be and I had no issues with reliability.

Ultimate Ears’ Personal Reference Monitors are not for everyone. They truly are custom in-ears, not just in appearance but in audio performance, and such personal catering does not come cheap. The noise rejection spec may not be up to the challenge on very loud stages but for artists who are more about finesse than volume and have the budget, the PRMs would be a good choice.