Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro in-ear headphones Page 2
A musician's ultimate responsibility is to the music itself
I'm not quite sure what I expected from the UE-11 Pros, but I was stunned by their reproduction of James Genus's bass on "Persistence of Memory," from Dave Douglas's In Our Lifetime (CD, New World 80471). The bass was deep, taut, and perfectly controlled, with the type of physicality I don't normally expect from headphones. HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens once told me that he thought of the skin as an underrated component of human hearing, which is one reason headphones frequently don't have U-R-there bass. In light of what the UE-11 Pros did down there, he may have to reconsider that.
As "Persistence of Memory" progressed, I began to notice that, in addition to the powerful bass, the UE-11 Pros also had detailed, extended high frequencies. Joey Baron's cymbals had plenty of brassy bite and were suspended in loads of "air." Douglas's trumpet sound, too, was rich and lifelike, with flickers of intense power when he'd overblow, soaring into his highest octaves.
What I was hearing, I suddenly realized, was soundstaging more akin to what I experience with a great speaker system than from any headphones I'd previously used. No, I don't know what I expected from the UE-11 Pros' addition of a midrange transducer, but what I got was a revelation.
Mickey Jupp's Move-like "Nature's Radio," from his Juppanese (CD, Repertoire 1084), reinforced my thoughts about the Ultimate Ears' soundstaging—as the song developed and instruments were added to the mix, the UE-11 Pros just kept making the stage bigger and bigger, until it was waaaay bigger than the inside of my head. I've experienced that with headphones before, but usually the effect has been created by crossfeed processing or by getting the headphone drivers physically away from my ears (as with the AKG K 1000s John Marks loves so much). The UE-11 Pros achieved that effect better than any other in-ear monitor I've heard.
Joseph Jarman's "Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi," from the Art Ensemble of Chicago's :rarum VI: Selected Recordings (CD, ECM 440 014 496-2), did not so much create a 3D stage as immerse me in a sonic world filled with synthesized pedal tones and flute, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, and trumpet repeating a simple modal melody. The bass and percussion of Malachi Favors Maghostus and Famoudou Don Moye create the foundation and outer limits of that sonic world. I found myself grinning from ear to ear—that is, until I remembered that I was in the middle seat of a red-eye flight to Las Vegas for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, and resumed the serious but slightly bored mien of a 21st-century air traveler. Furtive glances to right and left suggested that I hadn't actually been caught in the throes of an eargasm. But be warned: Listening to the Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pros, you just might embarrass yourself.
Ultimate grudge match
Because I still have (and still use) the UE-10 Pros I reviewed in 2006, I compared them with the UE-11 Pros. In that review, I'd said the UE-10s' bass was good, though "Not best I've ever heard good." Compared to the UE-11 Pros, however, the UE-10s lacked punch. On the other hand, the UE-11 Pros might have had a shade more bass than should be considered "flat." As much as I loved the '11s' sock, somewhere between the two would be just about right.
But where the UE-11s were unmistakably "just right" was in the midrange, where they had a warmth the UE-10s just didn't. That meant, among other things, that "Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi" and "Persistence of Memory" had body, richly nuanced timbre, and, yes, air galore.
I still respect the UE-10 Pros. But the UE-11 Pros make me happy. Happy good.
Must there be only one?
At the Wongs' Lunar New Year celebration, Paul the lawyer challenged me to explain how a $1200 set of headphones could possibly offer a sonic improvement sufficient to outperform his $200 Etymotics ER-4Ps.
It's a hard argument to make. Yes, the Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pros have deeper bass, a less aggressive top end, and that warm, expansive midrange to die for—but a price difference of $1000 takes a heap of convincing. Paul, rationally, chose not to accept crappy sound, and was willing to spend an amount he considered reasonable to get the sound quality he was content with. And Paul has good ears; the ER-4Ps are better than merely "good enough."
But audiophiles tend to be obsessive types, and hard-core headphone enthusiasts tend to cluster near the cutting edge of "obsessive," which means that nothing less than Best in Class is good enough. And best in the class of in-ear headphones the UE-11 Pros most certainly are.
Are they the "best"? I still love the AKG K 701 circumaural headphones, and if I listened only at home, they'd undoubtedly get my vote for "Best Headphones." But they don't mask external noise, and I can't see myself flying with them and the portable amp it would take to drive them. The UE-11 Pros' size and 26dB reduction in environmental noise make them my current favorite traveling headphone.
The UE-11 Pros are so good that I'm tempted to say, That's it—no more headphone reviews for me. But then I think, Well, if someone can make a better in-ear headphone, wouldn't I want to hear it?
Of course I would. Until then, I'll "settle" for the Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pros. They're the current champions.