Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro in-ear headphones
But when I was asked about good headphones at a Lunar New Year celebration held by the clan of my buddy Jeff Wong, the conversation actually got going. Two other discussions paused as people concurred that they were getting disgusted with the sound of the ubiquitous white iPod earbuds. For once, I wasn't the geekiest guy at the party. Paul the lawyer said, "Getting better headphones is just the tip of the iceberg. When you get better phones, you have to re-rip all your files, because now you'll hear how bad lossy compression sounds—and even then, you'll discover that not every recording sounds good."
Somebody asked, "In that case, why get better headphones?"
"Because good music sounds so much better," Paul said. "And I don't just mean it sounds better. You have more of a connection to it, both emotionally and physically. It restores the musicness of it—it's no longer just masking less appealing noises."
People seemed impressed by this, and a lively discussion ensued—but then I had to go all audionerd on it: "I'm reviewing a set of custom-molded in-ear headphones right now that employ four separate drivers."
Mild interest was expressed. "What do they cost?"
End of conversation. I never learn.
The ultimate goal of the human mind is to become acquainted with truth
You don't have to go from $20 earbuds to $1150 monitors to feel that emotional and physical connection to music, but some people get obsessed about extracting that last bit of it—and the Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro is aimed straight at them. Er, me.
Before you even order a pair of UE-11 Pros, you need to have a custom earmold made by an audiologist. The procedure costs about $50, and UE's website, can direct you to an audiologist near you. You then send the mold to UE, and they reproduce it as a plastic shell, into which they insert the phones' innards. UE retains a copy of your earmold as a digital file, so they can reproduce the shape of your ears on demand. They had me on file from two years ago—see here and here—so my UE-11 Pros are as precise a fit as my UE-10 Pros (which I reviewed in the October 2006 Stereophile). My UE-11s came in electric blue—a very subtle hue. Other colors are available, as are any number of custom color and art options.
Ultimate Ears sells most of its Pro line to musicians for use as onstage monitors, and so offers two versions of its earmolds. Mine, the standard version, provide about 26dB of external noise reduction; the Ambient is a $50 option that offers a controlled "stage bleed" so you can hear more of what's going on around you.
You could say that the UE-11 Pro is a supercharged version of the UE-10 Pro ($900, footnote 1). The UE-11 has four balanced-armature transducers, adding a midrange driver to the UE-10's paired bass transducers and high-frequency driver. The paired bass transducers and midrange transducer share a tuned "channel"—essentially, a tube trimmed to work with the earmold to achieve flat response. The HF driver has its own tuned channel. The last stage of manufacture at the Ultimate Ears facility in Irvine, California, is measuring each transducer's output within the earmold, then hand-trimming the channels to work in that specific ear canal. Obviously, a multiple-driver transducer requires a crossover; the UE-11 Pro's three-way crossover is also contained inside the earmold.
When I say that the UE-11s are measured to be "flat," that's a bit of a misnomer. The ear canal works a lot like a horn loudspeaker's horn, only backward, amplifying sounds in the 1500–2700Hz range. So UE has to nudge that region up a bit, because their products bypass that part of your anatomy.
Footnote 1: Ultimate Ears is actively patenting aspects of its proprietary technology.