Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered Custom In-Ear Monitors

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

It's been nearly 5 years since ToTL Madness—our attempt to survey the growing custom IEM landscape and identify the best of the best. It's still a good read if you want to learn more about the history of the industry, the major players, and the strengths/weaknesses of these colorful little ear gems.

Since then, we've seen the market continue to expand. New players have entered the field, and several firms have undergone "rebranding" of sorts; 1964 Ears became 64 Audio, while Heir Audio gave way to Noble. Some of the smaller brands are no longer with us for one reason or another (Frog Beats, Aurisonics). But for the most part the same companies from our shootout remain just as relevant if not more so.

Technology also marches on though. Where a 6-drivers-per-side custom IEM design was once considered cutting edge, we now have models cramming 14 and even 18 drivers into each shell, with correspondingly complex crossovers. There's also a push towards advanced customized balanced armature drivers, pressure-reducing systems like ADEL and APEX, novel dynamic/armature hybrid designs, and models with variable sound via some form of knob,, switch, or replaceable filter/s. These advancements have brought sound quality to previously unattainable levels, while at the same time significantly increasing prices on top models. As with full-sized headphones, this sort of expensive innovation can be simultaneously impressive and frustrating.

Our focus today is the relatively affordable Reference Remastered ($999) from industry stalwart Ultimate Ears. Even back in the ToTL Madness era, $999 would be considered something of a bargain for a top-tier custom. With the big dogs from other brands routinely pushing $2k and beyond, it's nice to see Ultimate Ears bring a sensible offering that doesn't compromise on performance. But I'm getting ahead of myself just a bit.

Technically speaking, the model name seems to be "UE Pro Remastered", but most everyone (including Ultimate Ears themselves) seems to prefer the name Reference Remastered, or UERR for short. This builds off the original UE Reference Monitor which was liked, if not quite loved, by Tyll and Steve Guttenberg during ToTL Madness. Both reviewers gave it high marks in general but neither quite found it Wall of Fame worthy. That said, the original UERM seemed to be extremely popular with music enthusiasts and studio professionals alike, and would most certainly be considered a successful product by any yardstick.

Still, Ultimate Ears obviously felt they could improve on the original, so they went all in with a show of confidence—the still-popular Reference Monitor was discontinued just prior to the Reference Remaster launch, with no overlap whatsoever to soften the blow. That's quite a gamble for a company who isn't known for a high product turnover...Ultimate Ears seems to update models less frequently than competitors, likely owing to their strong focus on the pro audio market. The original Reference Monitor was well-established yet by no means ancient when the update came along—did Ultimate Ears make the right choice?

In order to reach their design goals for the Reference Remastered, Ultimate Ears continued their collaboration with engineers from Capitol Studios. The goal, once again, was to capture the sound of Capitol's state-of-the-art facility, giving users access to a level of sonic honesty not available elsewhere in the IEM space. As with the prior model, tuning was intended to favor accuracy above all else. Frequency response was supposedly designed to be as flat as possible, setting aside the usual bass boost found in many other offerings (including some from Ultimate Ears themselves).

With the "musically" tuned UE18+ and UE11 Pro being the more expensive models in the lineup, Ultimate Ears isn't necessarily claiming the Reference Remastered as the only correct interpretation. The firm offers a variety of sound signatures to choose from, with each model being focused on a different use case. Drummers might choose a certain model, with a different option working better for vocalists, and still another being recommended for audiophiles. It's a different approach than that of many competitors, where more drivers are generally presented as making better (thus more expensive) sound.

I also don't think Ultimate Ears means to disregard the success of the original Reference Monitor. Lessons were learned from the initial project, and while new technology may allow them to go further the second time around, the ultimate goal appears to be unchanged. They aren't claiming any drastic new revelations in terms of goals—the Reference Remastered is just a more fully-realized product. Or so the theory goes.

Like the first time around, Ultimate Ears uses a triple-driver configuration with a three-way passive crossover. The key difference is that UE swaps out the high-frequency driver for a new unit sporting their proprietary "True Tone" design. This technology supposedly extends higher and delivers a flatter response than before. That new high-frequency driver is noticeably different in that it appears to be oriented "sideways" compared to normal driver placement, with the sound tube connected to an opening on the broad side of the armature. There's no question that UE is doing something unique here, compared to their previous design.


The newly configured trio of drivers is then encased in a "mechanical structure" which ensures frequencies are faithfully represented. This "suspension system" of theirs ends up looking like a clear rubber sleeve, for lack of a better word, which surrounds the drivers and protects them from unwanted vibrations. Remember, balanced armature drivers inherently dislike externally-sourced vibration, which increases distortion and in extreme cases can actually destroy the drivers altogether. I can't say for sure how much this contributes to an improvement in sound quality, but the benefits for driver resilience seem fairly obvious.

Another draw—and perhaps even the main benefit—is that this system keeps the drivers oriented in the same position regardless of the size/shape of your individual mold. Imagine trying to build the same model of custom IEM for two different customers. One has very large ears, giving plenty of room to position the drivers and sound tubes in their ideal locations. The other customer has very small ears, substantially reducing available space in which to place those same internal components. Obviously you want the resulting CIEM to sound identical from one customer to the next, but things like sound tube length and angle have a huge impact on the final output. Getting the same result crammed into a much smaller shell would require significant effort, and may result in a necessary compromise in some cases. UE's enclosed trio of drivers creates uniformity—the driver arrays could even be done in advance, and added to each shell as orders come in. UE's parent company Logitech actually holds several patents covering this process.

Sound exits that patented driver module via three separate sound tubes. One of these is rather large while the other two are tiny. I initially assumed the large bore would carry low frequencies, but visually following the sound tube shows that not to be the case. And then I remembered a conversation I had years ago with a prominent CIEM builder extolling the benefits of very-small tubes to carry low frequencies. Apparently the smaller diameter allows for very tightly controlled bass response, though he (understandably) didn't go too far into detail. UE makes the bores slightly recessed into the tip, which helps keep them from getting clogged with wax. I can tell you from experience—removing a clog from a tube this small is quite a chore.


Odds and Ends
Moving beyond technicalities: build quality on the UERR is merely average. I don't mean that in a bad way, but in this era of jewel-like design and impeccable build quality (see Noble Audio as a prime example, but also Empire Ears, 64 Audio, FitEar, and many others) the bar has really been raised. My review set has a bit of cloudiness in some areas, and just doesn't have the same clarity I've come to expect. Nothing terrible by any means, but also not up to the high standards set by some others in the category—if that sort of thing matters to you.

Also worth noting is that UE offers less than most competitors in the way of customization. There are still plenty of faceplate colors, designs, and upscale options such as wood, carbon fiber, and mother of pearl to choose from. But the shells themselves can only be clear, the upcharge for custom artwork is steep ($200), and there aren't any other options for logos...you get a silver "UE" on each ear, or you pay an extra $50 to omit logos altogether, and that's the extent of it.

On the flip side, thanks to the patented build process, turnaround time on the UERR is far shorter than most competitors. UE is also a big proponent of 3D scanning for impressions, and those with suitably equipped dealers will likely see an even quicker build time. Rather than waiting for physical impressions to ship to the lab, the scans are submitted digitally, so the build can begin right away. Shipping to the home office in California could take a week or more depending on where you live...double that if we count return shipping of the finished product. Digital scanning could therefore shave 2-3 weeks off the process.

If you don't have a nearby dealer with 3D scanning capability, not to worry—I used old-school molds and ended up with a perfect fit, so UE can still work that out just fine.

The bundled package is what I'd call par for the course. We get the usual cable, cleaning tool, and 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter, which is all pretty standard for a CIEM. We also get UE's Buffer Jack product which just seems to be an attenuator. Lastly, customers get a choice of one of several storage containers. I ended up with heavy metal case which looks/feels nice but isn't at all ideal for portable use. The other options appear better in that regard, though I would like to see the ubiquitous "Pelican" style case as one of the choices. It's a tried and true design that many others use, and for good reason.

Now, on to the sound experience.

Ultimate Ears
3 Jenner Street
Suite 180
Irvine, CA 92618
(800) 589-6531