Ultimate Ears 18 Pro in-ear headphones

Headphone listening is hot these days, due not only to the ubiquity of the iPod as a music source but also because it is possible to get state-of-the-art headphone playback without having to have stupidly bottomless pockets. A plethora of affordable high-quality headphone amplifiers are available, and high-performance 'phones can be had for a few hundred dollars. Used with a computer or iPod to play uncompressed WAV or AIF files or losslessly compressed FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC) files, a headphone-based system can offer the audiophile on a budget seriously good sound.

My own headphone listening takes place mostly on my commute to work, by bus or subway, so I have been most interested in in-ear models, especially when they offer some isolation from external sounds. I was very much taken by the sound of the Ultimate Ears UE-5c ($600; since renamed the 5 Pro) when I reviewed it in December 2004, and Stereophile has since reviewed the Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro (October 2006; no longer available) and the 11 Pro ($1150; May 2008).

All these Ultimate Ears Pro custom models require that impressions be taken of the listener's inner ears; the resultant molds are used to form the bodies of the headphones, which are inserted into the ear canals, sealing off the outside world. Instructions for how to have an "open-mouth impression" taken by a local hearing-aid center or audiologist can be found here, as well as a search engine to find recommended audiologists in your area. Low-frequency extension will depend on the effectiveness of the seal, which is why it is important to have the molds taken with care. The Ultimate Ears molds used to be offered in either hard or soft plastic. The soft molds offered excellent isolation, I found, but took quite a long time to expand and fully seal the ear canal. UE's current molds use a fairly hard acrylic shell that I found comfortable, even over multi-hour listening sessions. An optional Ambience feature ($50) permits a small amount of bleedthrough from the outside world, but my review samples were not fitted with this.

The molds contain the drive-units and crossover components; the Ultimate Ears models basically differ in how many of each are used. The original UE-5c used two proprietary balanced-armature transducers, one handling the low frequencies, the other the highs, with a passive crossover. The 10 Pro added a second LF armature, while the 11 Pro has four balanced armatures, adding a midrange driver to the 10's tweeter and double woofers. Like the 11 Pro, the 18 Pro is a three-way design but takes things a step further by using six balanced armatures. Two each are used for the bass, midrange, and treble, the latter allowing the 18 Pro to have the most extended top end of any UE model.

The six armatures communicate with the user's inner ear via three tubes within the body of the headphone—two of these, for the low and midrange frequencies, are concentric—so that the three frequency bands remain separate until they combine at the eardrum. (The less-expensive Ultimate Ears models have two tubes.) Acoustically tuned filters in these tubes equalize the signal for the flattest overall response. Since its acquisition by Logitech in 2008 (footnote 1), Ultimate Ears has invested heavily in headphone R&D, including the purchase of an expensive G.R.A.S. Kemar manikin for testing in-ear frequency response and other parameters.

"I love this music . . ."
When I reviewed the UE-5c, I was most impressed by the smoothness of its midrange and high frequencies, though its low frequencies were definitely larger than life—what my friend Martin Colloms once referred to as "the JBL Effect." (Listen to the kick drum and bass guitar at a live rock concert—both will be mixed at a higher level than the rest of the instruments to maximize the visceral effect of the sound on the audience.) By contrast, the 18 Pro, even with twice as many LF units, didn't sound as fat as the 5c. However, it sounded cleaner in the bass, with better extension and definition. The warble tones on Editor's Choice (ALAC files, ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH015-2) were audible down to the 20Hz limit, with harmonic distortion evident only on the 25 and 20Hz tones, and then only to a slight extent. The ultralow bass lines on "Nightwalker," from Anders Trentemøller's The Last Resort (ALAC file, ripped from CD, Pokerflat PFRCD18), made my skull pulse in and out in sympathy. (The clarity of the Ultimate Ears does tempt you to play LOUD!)

The 18 Pro's midrange was uncolored and smooth—the massed voices of the Elora Festival Singers in Eric Whitacre's "I thank you God for this most amazing day" (ALAC file, ripped from CD, Naxos 8.559677) had a luminous intensity through these 'phones. The restored Steinway piano used for Robert Silverman's performance of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Handel (24-bit/88.2kHz AIF files), which Erick Lichte and I am preparing for eventual release as a Stereophile CD, sounded as powerful and as clean as it had the day I recorded it in Sauder Hall at Goshen College, Indiana. The orchestra backing Joni Mitchell in "At Last," from Both Sides Now (24/96 ALAC file, ripped from DVD-A, Reprise 47620-9), sounded rich and clean, with delicate details—such as drummer Peter Erskine's brushwork—readily audible.

The Ultimate Ears' midrange clarity had a downside, of course: it allowed me to hear that the version of "For Just Once in My Life," from the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody (CD, Verve 847 248-2, 1990)—Bobby Hatfield's high tenor, Bill Medley's rich baritone, a Goffin-King composition, a Phil Spector production, what more could anyone want?—is actually a dub from LP, with low-level groove noise just audible in the quiet passages.

The Achilles' heel of in-ear 'phones is a lack of top-octave extension. Some models, such as the Phiaton PS 200 I reviewed in September 2009, try to compensate for this by exaggerating the mid-treble level. Through the 18 Pros, however, the acoustic guitar and percussion on "Satellites," from Rickie Lee Jones' Flying Cowboys (AAC file, ripped from CD, Geffen 24246-2), had top-octave air to spare, but without the highs sounding fizzy or bright. (This album, produced by Walter Becker of Steely Dan, has the widest dynamic range of any nonclassical recording I have measured, with an average peak:mean ratio around 14dB and a peak level on "Satellites" of 4.4dBFS.)

As with the other in-ear headphones I have tried, binaural recordings, such as my recording of the 1992 Canadian Grand Prix on Test CD 3 (ALAC file, ripped from Stereophile STPH006-2), obstinately refused to image in front of my head with the UE 18 Pros. This, I assume, is due to the absence of the acoustic modification of the sound reaching the ears by the pinnae, which is, by definition, absent with in-ear 'phones. However, sounds to the sides were reproduced well outside my head, as were the ambient sound effects in Trentemøller's "Nightwalker."

". . . I love this philosophy"
With the temporary demise of the UE-5c, due to a failed cable and connector, the Shure SE310 ($300; September 2009) became my daily earphones. But as much as I like the Shure, the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro plays in a different league. Its ability to play low frequencies at high levels with minimal distortion is unmatched by other in-ear 'phones, and the clarity and smoothness of its midrange is Class A. Yes, the 18 Pro is expensive—and $1350 is within spitting distance of the best regular headphones money can buy, the mighty Sennheiser HD800. But you're not going to take the Sennheisers with you on the subway, and that's where the Ultimate Ears come into their own.

Footnote 1: Ultimate Ears cofounder Jerry Harvey now has his own company, JH Audio, offering, naturally, in-ear headphones.
Ultimate Ears by Logitech
5 Jenner Street, Suite 100
Irvine, CA 92618
(800) 589-6531