Ultimate Ears' new ultimate: The Personal Reference Monitor

The Logitech UE Personal Reference Monitor in-ear headphones are the first of their kind, with a design that's custom-molded to your ears and a custom-tuned sound!

The UE Personal Reference Monitors Steve Guttenberg/CNET

With most speakers or headphones, you're stuck with the designer's sound, but with the Logitech UE Personal Reference Monitors (PRM) you get to play headphone designer and dial in exactly the sound you want.

Each pair is totally unique; they're built with the individually designed equalization curves you selected. My PRMs sound absolutely amazing, but I'm a little biased, I designed them to please my ears! Every PRM buyer will do the same, and if they totally screw up and hate the result, Ultimate Ears will give them another try. Each PRM set is handmade in UE's facilities in California.

The price for this level of customization doesn't come cheap, though; the Personal Reference Monitors sell for $1,999. That's extreme, but so are $285,000 luxury cars . I cover the full gamut of audio, from affordable to the craziest expensive gear.

To get started on the review I visited audiologist Julie Glick 's Manhattan office to have her make impressions of my ear canals, and dial in the sound for my PRMs with Ultimate Ears' Personal Reference Tuning EQ Box in her office (UE works with a small number of audiologists who offer the PRM in other cities that also have the EQ box). There are a total of six bass, midrange, and treble EQ knobs on the box for the left- and right-channel controls (the exact frequency ranges of the controls aren't specified by UE). I worked on the EQ box for around 45 minutes.

I used my iPod Classic as a music source, and started by focusing on the sound of male and female voices. It's easy to instantly return to the flat setting with a push of a button on the Tuning EQ Box, and that really helps keep the changes in perspective. My goal during the tuning session was to make a wide variety of recordings sound good, without forfeiting too much of what I liked about the sound of my audiophile recordings. Two weeks after my tuning session, the headphones arrived, packed in UE's little road case -- cute! The PRM comes with a 48-inch-long braided, user-replaceable cable, but UE also offers a 64-inch cable for $30. The PRMs are the most comfortable in-ear headphones I own. The fit is nice and snug, and isolation from environmental noise was so good I wondered if there was something special about the PRM's earpieces, but no, other than Glick's remarkable fitting, there was nothing special about them.

If accuracy is what you crave, save $1,000 and buy Ultimate Ears' superb Reference Monitor in-ear headphones ($999). They're excellent, but the PRM isn't accurate, and that's why I love it. It's a three-way, balanced-armature driver, in-ear monitor with two bass drivers, two midranges, and one tweeter driver. The PRM is available with cherry, walnut burl, Carpathian elm burl and purple heart wood finishes.

My PRMs' stereo soundstage is downright spacious, but with precise focus. There's an ease to the sound that I associate with ultra-low-distortion headphones, and the sound is cleaner than on any in-ear headphone I've heard to date. They block out more noise in the NYC subway than any battery-powered, noise-canceling headphones I've ever tried, and they also sound dramatically better than any NC headphones. Best of all, more of my music collection, including the less-than-audiophile-grade recordings, sound better than ever over the PRMs.

Thanks to the PRM, I'm convinced that the flatter, more accurate, best measuring headphones aren't necessarily the best-sounding ones. My UE Reference Monitors are definitely more accurate, but they're a lot less fun to listen to. Music is far more complex than test tones and such, and listening to music is job No. 1 for headphones. How well they measure is of little concern to me.

 

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