Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Mark Vignola
- Published on 28 August 2013
Design, Use, and Rating of the Ultimate Ears 4 Pro Custom In-Ear Headphones
As a resident of New Yorker City, headphones are a part of my daily existence. Most of the residents of this city use their feet to get around and when moving from point A to point B, we need to listen to our music privately to keep ourselves entertained. Just look around any subway car and you'll see nearly everyone has a set of headphones on. When I leave the house, whether it is to go to the office or meet friends for dinner, my checklist is: wallet, keys, and headphones.
Given their reputation, I was confident a set of custom IEM would sound good, but would they fit this lifestyle? As a result of this near constant, on the move use, I'm hard on headphones. Inevitably, even well constructed, burly units tend to fail eventually. Given that the UE IEMs have replaceable cords, they seemed like the ideal solution for this type of abuse. Add in other important features like terrific sound isolation (NYC is LOUD!) and UE's recent introduction of replaceable cables with in-line controls and mic, and I became curious: can the UE 4 Pro Custom's not only provide reference sound, but also be an all-in-one solution for the audiophile on the go? Let's dig in and find out.
The first step of getting custom IEMs is a fitting, which takes place with an audiologist. UE set me up to see Julie Glick, an audiologist located in Manhattan who focuses her practice specifically on professional musicians and audiophiles looking for custom IEMs (http://www.musicianshearingsolutions.com/about.html).
I met Julie at her office for the impressions, but she is able to do the impressions pretty much anywhere. Some foam was first placed in my ear canal to protect my ear drums, and then a hardening foam mixture was inserted in via syringe. After a few minutes the impression are removed, packaged up and sent off to Ultimate Ears. The process takes about 20 minutes and is totally painless. The normal charge for fitting is $75.
As I said above, Julie's practice is specifically focused on custom IEMs. To help her clients make the right choice, she has a collection of generically fit models from UE and other manufactures. This allows her customers the ability audition and compare various models before purchasing. If you're in the NY area, I highly recommend contacting her if you think custom IEMs may be right for you.
Once the impressions arrive at UE's California lab, the process of making the monitors takes about 2 weeks. I was sent automated emails from UE updating me when the started the process, and again when they shipped. This final email also contained information regarding use and care of the Ultimate 4's.
In addition to my new monitors, the box that arrived also contained a welcome packet that instructions on use and care of the units, a customized carrying case, and a tool for cleaning. UE was also kind enough to provide a cable that included an in-line mic and controls, compatible with an iPhone.
While the 4 Pro's are UE's entry level unit, they share many characteristics with their far more costly models. The monitors themselves are made of clear plastic – higher end units can be made of different colored material (the 4 Pro's are limited to clear only). Because they are clear, it is easy to see the proprietary dual-armature speakers. The 4 Pro's make use of an integrated passive crossover circuit that send bass and mid range frequencies to one speaker and high frequencies to another. Higher end units in the UE line add additional speaker assemblies (up to 6 in the UE 18 Pro, $1350).
I first wanted to get an idea for the overall sound quality of the Custom 4 Pro's. I started with the Grateful Dead's newly released May 1977 box set, which contains five complete shows from this epic run, remastered from the original multi-track recordings by Jeffrey Norman at Mockingbird Mastering. I used an Oppo BDP-105 as a transport, DAC and headphone amp for FLAC files created from these discs. I started with the first show in the set, 5/11/77. "Wharf Rat", from the second set, is a beautiful, subtle tune. The 4 Pro's did a phenomenal job resolving Garcia's guitar and vocals. Lesh's bass was also amazingly well represented. The overall presentation was detailed and very neutral – I didn't notice any bias across the entire frequency spectrum – not surprising given the original application of IEM is for sound professionals.
My reference headphones are Shure SRH840.'s Compared to the Shure's, the UE's have a different presence. As you might imagine, the UE's were more forward and direct compared to the over-ear Shure's – I believe simply from the mechanics of how the IEMs interact so intimately with your ear as compared to an over the ear unit. While details were similar between the two, the in-ear nature of the monitors resulted in a more immediate presentation of the music. I don't mind this, but others use to the slightly more distant sound of over the ear units, may find the UE 4 Pro's a bit to internal sounding.
For a bit of a change, I next tried Steve Martin and Edie Brickell new bluegrass album Love Has Come For You. The title track is one of my favorites on the album. Playing FLACs of this song on the Oppo, I was again pleased with the neutrality of the UE 4 Pro's on Martin's banjo and Brickell's vocals. Again, resolution was excellent and bass reproduction, while not difficult on this track, was very good.
I ride the train out to the beach almost every weekend during the summer – hours that I fill by playing catch up on various TV shows on my iPad. From a video perspective, the UE 4 Pro's performed admirably. I have recently been unable to keep up with True Blood midweek, and I'm happy to report the 4 Pro's did very well resolving dialog and had enough dynamic punch to keep up with all of the craziness that one gets in a typical episode of this show. Also impressive was the amount of clean bass the monitors were able to generate – a good example of which was the plant explosion in the first episode of the current season. Certainly not the same as I'd get from conventional speakers, but enough to let you know something big just happened.
I wanted to not just evaluate overall sound quality, but also the feasibility of the UE 4 Pro's as a complete headphone solution. As a result, my review of the entailed not only critical at-home listening, but also implementation of the 4 Pro's in to my daily life, be it commuting, traveling or casual listening. As I mentioned above, I have headphones on me at all times of the day.
As a daily commuting headphone, the UE 4 Pro's did well, but with some caveats. They are easily driven by my iPhone, and with a wide variety of content, from music to podcasts, they always provided a neutral and pleasing sound. My normal walk around headphones are Apple In-Ear's fitted with Comply foam tips. From a sound quality perspective, there was really no comparison with the $79 Apples. The 4 Pro's had far greater bass extension, clarity and detail – not unexpected from a unit greater than 4x the cost of the Apples. The in-line controls work as advertised for basic control of the iPhone's and the mic performed well in normal use.
As anticipated, noise isolation was exceptional. External noise is almost entirely blocked out – so much so that if someone asked me a question with them in, I was generally unable to hear what they were saying. They also blocked out a significant amount of subway noise, allowing for lower volume levels in these settings.
As I said above, there were a few caveats to note in daily use of the 4 Pro's. Firstly, popping the monitors in and out isn't as easy or seamless as a typical over the ear or in-ear headphone like my Apple's for example. Disengaging the 4 Pro requires just enough additional finesse that when running errands, where I'm repeatedly walking between stores and removing and reengaging my music, it can become burdensome.
While the sound of the 4 Pro's never becomes fatiguing, use of the monitors for hours did fatigue my ear canal a bit physically. The 4 Pro's reach well into the ear and fit snugly. Over hours of use, I found my ear tiring of having the monitors in. If I had hours of use in front of me, I'd probably grab my over ears instead of the 4 Pro's
After living with the UE Custom 4 Pro IEMs for several weeks, I can report back that UE has constructed a solution that not only sounds fantastic, but offers enough additional features that many audiophiles could employ them as their primary headphone. All of this comes at an incredibly competitive price for a custom product. With the addition of an in-line remote and mic, you can not only use these monitors for at home critical use, but also a complete mobile solution. Engaging and removing the monitor takes more effort than a more typical solution, and extended use did fatigue my ear canals a bit, but on the whole, I found myself grabbing the 4 Pro's on my way out the house more often than not. At a price of $400, plus the cost of the fitting (~$100), the investment isn't minimal, but with proper care and replaceable components, the 4 Pro's could easily give you enjoyment for many years. Additionally, if you have access to an audiologist like Julie, who can provide you feedback, advice and even the ability to let you audition different models, the decision to give something like the 4 Pro Custom's a try is an easy one.