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When we were first approached to review the Pro Reference Remastered in-ear studio monitors (man, what a mouthful) from Ultimate Ears, we were a bit skeptical. Seems like we were going to have to “swallow the Kool-Aid,” as UE fans are almost a cult-like group who swear by their Ultimate Ears products with zealous passion. Anything with that type of devotion can be scary, but the bottom line is this: after taking the journey with these in-ear monitors in our project studio for a few weeks, I’m sold. I mean, not literally, these things are pricey, but you know what I mean.
So, what do you get for a thousand bucks? Well, you’ve got to start at the beginning. I had to take a trip to a local specialist, trained by UE, to get a complete ear scan before I even got started with the review. These are, after all, custom fit monitors, so they’re crafted especially for you and the shape of your ear canal. The specialist cleans and scans your ears with a digital device, and the 3-D images are then instantly delivered to UE engineers, in the cloud, to begin work. The whole session lasted about 20 minutes and was completely painless, as nothing physical actually goes in the ear.
Once the scan is complete, a mold is made back at the UE factory, custom fitted to your ears, and the drivers are installed. All in all, from scan to final delivery, I had my in-ear monitors in just a few days. But again, for the price you pay, you’d expect swift service.
Upon arrival, it’s pretty apparent that these aren’t some off-the-rack, run-of-the-mill set of studio monitors. They’re (almost lovingly) presented in a sturdy display box (complete with magnetic closure), with a cushy lining and smaller, metal protective case inside that houses the actual in-ears. I happened to choose a red faceplate for mine, and I must admit, the way that all these custom drivers are housed in such a tiny enclosure is a pretty impressive feat of engineering. It’s also just plain cool to be able to see the inner workings of these bad-boys through the translucent housing. If we were awarding points on presentation, UE would get a 10.
The earphones themselves are attached to high-quality cabling, some of the best we’ve encountered, with a thin-yet-rugged, braided stereo cable that from one tug, you can tell won’t tangle or fray after hours of tracking in the studio. This terminates in a 1/8” stereo plug, but thankfully a 1/4” adapter is included (as most audio interfaces require 1/4”). We also appreciated the little cleaning tool and clear instruction booklet that round out the package. So far, very impressive.
But, we don’t give kudos just for beauty. Again, these in-ears will run you a thousand bucks, so they better sound friggin’ great. So, how do they sound? Well, pretty friggin’ great, to be honest. But I kept having this nagging feeling that a $400 pair of Audio-Technica ATH-E70’s were almost as good when we tested them out a few months back. And those will only set you back about $400. True, they are not custom fitted to your ears, and the packaging is simpler. But are the UE Pro Reference Remastered in-ears worth almost 3x the price?
It’s hard to say. For most musicians and engineers, my gut tells me you’d get along just fine with the top-of-the-line Audio-Technicas (or even the $400 UE 4 Pro from Ultimate Ears), if that’s the top end of your budget. The Ultimate Ears we tested do sound fantastic, and for tracking, delivered a flat response that was well appreciated. The proprietary “True Tone Drivers” in the UE’s excel at frequency separation perhaps a bit better than the Audio-Technicas. What I mean by that is every range, from deep, round bass to high strings and synth sounds, were well defined, well separated and existed in a slightly better soundstage than other flagship IEM’s we’ve tested. Again, hate to harp on it, but for $1000, they damn well better. Bass was the biggest differentiator here – the UE’s tech specs list them as having a frequency response of 5 Hz – 25 kHz, which explains the tight, rich bass that you can almost feel, and the “only dogs can hear this” highs that you can’t on the other end of the spectrum.
So, in the end, what’s our verdict? If you’ve got the cash, and you want the best, you’ve come to the right place. The sound quality and construction are indeed mightily impressive, and the custom fit obviously can’t be beat. For that alone, if you’re serious about investing in (likely) the last pair of in-ears you’ll ever need, and this is your profession, then by all means we wholeheartedly recommend the Pro Reference Remastered In-Ear Studio Monitors from Ultimate Ears. You will, in no way, be disappointed. We love ours and will be using them all the time whenever we evaluate new gear in the office.
That said, as someone who’s typically price-conscious myself, that nagging feeling keeps creeping in that most artists and engineers might be served just fine with a lower-cost alternative. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from exploring what Ultimate Ears has to offer – luxury products exist for a reason and these are certainly luxury goods. And damn nice ones, at that. I guess it’s akin to the difference between a Chevy sedan and a Cadillac. And these UE’s, we can say without a doubt, are the Cadillacs of the IEM world. Both the Chevy and Cadillac will get you from point A to point B, but it’s all the little touches and appointments that add up and just put a big smile on your face.
OK, no more waffling. Is it worth the price? Well, we’re smiling as we write this, listening to soaring synth tracks in our DAW through our UE Pro Reference Remastered in-ears. What does that tell you?
amazingly well-crafted; great design; custom-designed comfort; flat-response for studio sessions; durable.
expensive; no re-sale value.