When buying audio equipment, aficionados can easily go overboard in search of devices that will produce the truest sound. At first blush, a $1,000 pair of earbuds would seem to fit that mold, but Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors perform as advertised. These custom-fit earbuds deliver some of the best audio we've ever heard.
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Design and Setup
As with the Altec Lansing A1, we first had to get molds of our ears made by an audiologist. First, a piece of cotton was inserted deep into our ear canal, and then a pink silicone was injected using a plunger. We were also required to hold a bite block in our mouth during the 10 to 15 minutes it took for the silicone to harden. The audiologist then removed the forms and shipped them off to the factory.
Unfortunately, we only found two Ultimate Ears-affiliated audiologists in Manhattan. Also, for $1,000, we wish that the cost of the fitting was included with the price, as it is with Altec Lansing's. A fitting can cost anywhere between $50 to $150; our audiologist charged $75. And, no, it isn't covered by insurance.
Unlike the Altec Lansing A1s and the Sonomax eers PCS-250, both of which have soft silicone buds, the Ultimate Ears are made of a hard plastic. Initially, we were dubious that they would be as comfortable--you have to twist and turn them, like a key in a lock, to seat them properly in your ear. But once in place, they blocked as much, if not more sound, than the A1. While comfortable, we liked the flexibility of the A1s slightly more.
We liked that the braided cord running from the earbuds came with a plastic loop to help guide them over and behind our ears, and that it was detachable from the buds themselves. Though it can be argued that this connection can degrade audio quality, that's a sacrifice we're willing to make if it means spending $30, rather than $1,000, if the cord breaks.
The Ultimate Ears monitors came in a massive jet-black aluminum box with our name printed on the lid. Inside the rubber-lined box was our earbuds, along with a ¼-inch adapter and a tool to clean the buds' canals.
To test the Ultimate Ears, we listened to a variety of tracks, some of which were MP3s recorded at no less than 160 kbps, as well as FLAC and Apple Lossless files. The three drivers in the Ultimate Ears buds did an amazing job reproducing music of all genres. We heard new details on songs we'd listened to hundreds of times. For example, on Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise," we could better hear the strums of the Boss' guitar, and the backup vocals in the chorus like never before.
While the Altec Lansing A1s did a great job in this regard as well, the Ultimate Ears produced not only a much more robust sound, but one that was more defined, too. In Billy Joel's "Piano Man," the guitar strums in the background were even more defined and bass was more present, but didn't overwhelm the other instruments.
Jay-Z's vocals on "Empire State of Mind" weren't as bright or present as on the A1, but the bass line was punchier. On Tchiakovsky's 1812 Overture, not only could we hear bows hitting the strings of the violins, but the roar of the cannons was truly thunderous, and the bells pealed as they never did before.
All of this is somewhat expected, considering that the A1 only has a single driver, as opposed to the three in the Ultimate Ears.
Is there a difference between $500 and $1,000 earbuds? Yes. Will the average listener be able to tell? Probably not. But that's not who the Ultimate Ears Custom in-ear reference monitors are for. They're designed for audiophiles and musicians who listen to the highest fidelity recordings, and who demand (or require) the most accurate sound reproduction. Overall, the Ultimate Ears in-ear reference monitors are truly the ultimate.