The $1,350 'earbud': Is it worth it?

The Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom Monitor headphones are really good, but $1,350 good?

The Ultimate Ears 18 Pro, the world's best headphone? Ultimate Ears

The Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom Monitors are really expensive, but the best stuff always is. Then again, $1,350 may be a lot for headphones, but it's cheap for state-of-the-art speakers. Wilson Audio's Sasha W/P floorstanding speaker is in the middle of the company's line, and it goes for $27,000 a pair; Magico's entry-level tower model, the V2, runs $18,000 a pair. The UE 18 Pro is on par with them, it's that good. It's the best headphone UE makes, but UE's custom fitted models start at $399 for the UE 4 Pro, and universal fit UE models start at $50.

The UE 18 Pro is no "earbud," those things are placed in the cupped area around the outer ear canal; in-ear headphones fit into and, most importantly, seal the ear canal. The isolation from outside noise allows listening at significantly lower volume, so it's safer to rock out with in-ears than earbuds. The UE 18 Pro's custom fit (more about that later) hushes outside noise more completely than standard in-ear designs. With external noise hushed, you hear a lot more detail and subtlety from your music.

Never heard of Ultimate Ears? That's understandable; the company originally made its mark building custom in-ear stage monitors for musicians, including Aerosmith, Arcade Fire, Mary J. Blige, John Fogerty, the Rolling Stones, Linkin Park, and hundreds of other touring bands.

I'll tell you this: the UE 18 Pro is drastically better than say, my old favorite: the Etymotic ER-4P in-ears. That's not to take anything away from the ER-4P, but it sounds constrained and contained compared with the UE 18. It's hardly a fair comparison, the ER-4P lists for around $300, the UE 18 Pro is $1,350, plus the expense of getting custom ear molds made (figure about $100). Each UE 18 Pro is a one-of-a-kind creation, hand-built for your ears.

I know some of you are thinking you can't hear the difference. The thing about quality audio is that it's something of an acquired taste, few people yearn for high-end sound, and even a brief encounter with a great speaker or headphone might not win you over. You don't miss what you've never heard, and I'm reaching for analogies here, but if you never tasted fresh-squeezed orange juice and only drank OJ from a carton, would you automatically appreciate the superior taste of the real thing?

Once you've lived with the UE 18 Pro, there's no going back to moderately priced 'phones. Treat it like the valuable piece of audio gear it is and it'll last 10 or more years, so maybe it's not as crazy as an investment as it might seem. Frankly, I don't understand why people expect headphones to last forever when they toss them around. Would you do that with an expensive DSLR camera? The UE 18 Pro can take some abuse, but one too many knocks and it will break. That said, UE provides service on all the phones its made. How many $100 headphones will you buy in 10 years?

Then again, it's usually a broken cable that puts headphones out of commission. UE's 48 inch braided cable is more durable than most, but it's still the most likely part to break. That's no big deal, it's user-replaceable so you won't have to pay big bucks to get your sound back if the cable breaks. My 6-year-old UE 5 headphone's cable still works perfectly, but I take care of my stuff.

So the question is, what does a UE 18 Pro do that a Shure or Etymotic in-ear headphone cannot? The UE 18 Pro strips away layers of fuzz from the sound; the difference in clarity is pretty astounding. Drums kick harder, a lot harder than you've heard over headphones. You'll feel, literally, a more direct connection to the music; great recordings sound like a live mic feed. Bass is powerful, deep, and extremely detailed, you'll hear superior bass clarity to any headphone (or speaker) you've ever heard.

For these evaluations I listened to the UE 18 Pro with a Hifiman HM-801 , my old iPod, and at home with a Hifiman EF5 headphone amplifier . The iPod was certainly the least wonderful sounding of the three, but it was still pretty amazing. But if you're going to drop this kind of money on headphones, you'll miss a lot of the quality you paid for if you restrict yourself to iPods. An iPod sounds puny once you've heard what the HM-801 can do.

I rocked out to Amy Winehouse's "Back To Black" CD turned up pretty loud, and I felt more of the raw power of Winehouse's rhythm section than ever before! "Addicted" moves and grooves like nobody's business. I don't usually listen at high volume, but the UE 18 Pro is so clear it doesn't hurt my ears when I crank it way up. I'd go further; it sounds better and better as it gets louder. Remember, UE builds these things to work as stage monitors, so playing loud without distorting was an essential part of the design mandate.

Backing down to sane levels I sampled Jonny Greenwood's (Radiohead's guitarist) orchestral score for the film "There Will Be Blood." It's pretty intense, soul-stirring music, and the UE 18 Pro lets you feel the bows scraping the strings, but the sound is never unduly harsh. Treble detail is outstanding, though I wouldn't characterize the sound as bright.

I can't put my finger on why, but I didn't enjoy classical music with the UE 18 Pro as much as with other kinds of music. It didn't sound bad, maybe the perspective felt too close or something.

Even so Peter Gabriel's new "Scratch My Back" CD also features strings and lush arrangements, and the sound was remarkably open and spacious, even while it was all coming from between my ears. Right, there's a lot of empty space in there!

To finish up I compared the UE 18 Pro to a more affordable UE model, the UE 10 ($900). It was no slouch, and it still creams every universal in-ear headphone I've heard, but the UE 18 Pro's sound is more immediate. The UE 10 has a richer, somewhat more laid-back tonal balance, the UE 18 Pro has a more brilliant presence to it. I was also more aware of subtle dynamic shifts with the newer UE. They're both great, but the UE 18 Pro is clearly the better 'phone and worth the extra cost, if you can afford it.

Coming soon: a review of a serious UE 18 Pro competitor, the JH Audio JH 13 Pro.

 

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