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Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro: Our first take

These are the $1,500 custom headphones you want to listen to on your deathbed

“Audiophile” is a loaded term. It calls to mind fastidious collectors arguing about the virtues of vinyl versus digital in online forums, or which cable offers the purest representation of an original recording from the lost files of Thelonious Monk. In truth, “audiophile” is just a clean-cut word for the less flattering label: audio junky.

As a member of the latter group, I’m always searching for that next “high.” One of the most notable and purest expressions came in the form of Ultimate Ears Pro’s UE Reference Monitors, a gorgeous pair of in-ears which offer a crystalline representation of every track they’re fed for professional, studio-level accuracy. Now, thanks to the company’s all-new flagship UE 18+ Pro, I’m happy to say I’ve got that special feeling again.

The goods

Custom fitted to your ears, modeled in a computer to near perfection, and layered with uncompromising precision in a 3D-printed shell, UE’s top-tier in-ear monitors are part professional tool and part sonic discovery vessel, allowing you to dive deeper into your music than just about anything else on the market (save a few exceptions like Shure’s thrilling KSE1500). Part of the magic is the fit — while the company does offer more affordable universal in-ears like the UE 900S, it’s hard to underestimate how incredible a bespoke pair of in-ears really sounds, let alone the comfort of a custom shell.

That earphones arrive in a circular metal case wrapped in satin, complete with personal monogram.

Of course, the fit doesn’t matter much if it isn’t backed by outstanding design and innovative engineering, and UE’s 20 years in the business give the company a serious edge in that department, as well. For the new UE 18+ ($1,500), Ultimate Ears Pro went all out, dropping in the company’s new True Tone Drivers along with a “redesigned acoustic system” to uncover even more detail, clearer dynamic extension, and better instrumental separation than their UE 18 predecessors. UE Pro claims the drivers extend the frequency range by a full 3kHz, while offering improved midrange presence for a clear yet “warm” sound (more on that in the next section).

Like the original UE 18, each of the earpieces is loaded with six balanced-armature drivers, set in a four-way crossover design to separate the frequency spectrum into low, mid-low, mid-high, and high registers. The earphones also incorporate UE Pro’s triple-bore sound channels, aimed at keeping the low, midrange, and treble regions separated until the sound is actually piped out of the shells and into your ears.

ultimate-ears-ue-18-hands-on-5
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

Dropping four digits to order up a pair gets you the royal treatment upon delivery. That includes a sleek magnetically locked box, bearing within it a circular metal case wrapped in satin, complete with personal monogram. Inside, the glistening plastic shells are wrapped in a coil of triple-wrapped, tangle-resistant cable. Along with the custom fit, you can also choose the faceplate color and shop designs on the site. The earphones also come with a cleaning tool and a quarter-inch jack.

The sound

Surprising no one, the UE 18+ sound absolutely gorgeous from the instant you slip them delicately into your ear canals. There are plenty of similarities to the RM when considering the UE 18+’s overall talents: deep dives into your music catalog for astonishing detail, a wide and dimensional sound scape, rapid-fire transient response, and effortlessly brilliant instrumental separation, all of which allow you to virtually walk around inside each track, stand next to the performer, and examine each moment as they lean into the microphone.

But steering away from the stark and almost austere quality of the RM’s musical reproduction, the UE 18+ are a richer mouthpiece for your sound. A sheen of gold waves across each instrument, creating a more savory flavor to the soundstage.

The UE 18+ sound absolutely gorgeous from the instant you slip them into your ear canals.

Piano lines are creamy yet tactile, while vocals can often be almost eerie in their intimacy. Listening to the Beatles classic (redundant, we know) Martha My Dear is a stirring experience with the UE 18+; the piano is layered in musty nostalgia, rising softly above the tape hiss on the left side. The entrance of the gleaming vocals brings perfectly audible harmonic inconsistencies as the doubled melody breaks this way and that. As the horns break in, the UE 18+ show off their effortless instrumental separation chops, laying out a trumpet that’s flat and silvery here, a wonderfully textured tuba there, while a French horn rises above the fray to offer a counter melody you’ve likely never noticed before.

One of the most standout differences between the UE RM and the UE 18+ comes with the added depth in the click of drum sticks as they vibrantly crash against cymbal and snare. Eager to prove it, UE offered reviewers a high-resolution version of Buddy Rich’s Nutville. They’re not kidding. I heard the deeper punch afforded by the UE 18+ in Rich’s frenetic thumps and pops, while the cymbal went from a clear-cut clink in the RM to a glinting slice of silver in the UE 18+, allowing for audible differences in velocity, and even pitch variations as the sticks met bronze.

But it’s the exposure of instrumental timbres I always look for in high-powered audio weaponry, and the UE 18+ deliver. Though UE’s accuracy-first RM earphones sound perhaps audibly “cleaner” on the attack – they’re the reference model, after all – it’s hard to match the UE 18+ when it comes to revealing the core timbral detail of each sound. Elton John’s All the Young Girls Love Alice is a study in texture, laying out gritty organ, chainsaw electric guitars, and warbling analog synthesizers that border on special effects. Other rock tunes, from Ben Folds’ Best Imitation of Myself to AC/DC’s Back in Black, hold similar moments of flare, making it especially fun to explore the full library of craggy and crunchy lead guitar tones.

Conclusion

I’ll never forget my first love in the Ultimate Ears Pro’s catalog, the RM. But the UE 18+’s warm and savory flavors melded with all the detail, intimacy, and textural exposure I could handle have given me that warm and fuzzy feeling all over again. Those looking for an uncompromising in-ear monitor with a luscious touch of ruddy color throughout the frequency spectrum will want to think hard about investing in the UE 18+.

Highs

  • Rich and savory sound signature
  • Supreme textural and timbral exposure
  • Vividly cut instrumental separation
  • Deep and dimensional soundstage
  • Impressive body and depth

Lows

  • Sound signature not as linear as UE RMs

Editors' Recommendations

Ryan Waniata
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Waniata is a multi-year veteran of the digital media industry, a lover of all things tech, audio, and TV, and a…
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