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
Home Theater

Make better buds! 7 ways true wireless in-ear headphones need to improve

After years testing virtually every set of true wireless in-ears on the market, here are our most consistent gripes, and exactly what we hope to see from the next generation of wireless earbuds.
Home Theater

JLab’s sweatproof wireless headphones are perfect for earbud-hating gym rats

JLab's latest headphones are a pair of wireless, sweatproof over-ears designed for those who hate the feeling of in-ear headphones during workouts. Durable, and with 20 hours of battery life, they're perfect for earbud haters.
Computing

Is the Surface Pro 6 a sidestep, or does it blow away its predecessor?

How good is the new Surface Pro, and is it worth an upgrade? The best way to find out is to pit the Surface Pro 6 vs. Surface Pro 5 in a head to head that tests them both on performance, design, and portability.
Product Review

If Huawei sells the Mate 20 Pro in the U.S., Samsung needs to watch its back

Huawei knocked it out of the park with the P20 Pro earlier this year, and it’s looking to do the same again with the Mate 20 Pro. The Mate series has traditionally been sold in the U.S., so will Americans finally be able to get a taste?
Movies & TV

The best new movie trailers: ‘Curse of La Llorona,’ ‘Jonathan,’ and more

Everyone loves a good trailer, but keeping up with what's new isn't easy. To simplify things, we round up the best ones each week. On tap this week: New trailers for The Curse of La Llarona, The Kid Who Would Be King, and more.
Home Theater

Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

Not all that long ago, budget TVs were only worth looking at if, well, you were on a budget. Thanks to Roku, not only are budget TVs now a viable option for anyone, but they might even be a better buy than more expensive TVs.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I.-powered cat toys, wallets, food containers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (October 2018)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Movies & TV

Best new shows and movies to stream: ‘Apostle,’ ‘Daredevil’ season 3, and more

Need something to watch this weekend? Check out our list of the best new shows and movies to stream right now. On the list this week: Apostle, Daredevil season 3, Making A Murderer season 2, and more.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Home Theater

Google offers a week of free credit after YouTube TV outage, but not for long

Earlier this month, YouTube TV went down for users all around the world, and to make up for it, Google is offering affected users a week of free service. But if you want to grab the credit, you need to act quickly.
Home Theater

How to crack the code and find the best TV resolution for your needs

720p? 1080p? 4K UHD? What does it all mean? Choosing the best resolution for your TV can be tough, but fear not: We’ll break down the dirty details and help you figure out the right resolution for you.
Home Theater

Six sensational subwoofers that will shake any room on any budget

Whether you're a film buff or a music junkie, sometimes you just need to go lower. Luckily, we've put together a guide to the best subwoofers, so you can feel your favorite movies instead of just hearing them.
Movies & TV

‘Iron Fist,’ ‘Luke Cage’ cancellations by Netflix spark serious questions

The cancellation of Marvel's Iron Fist and Luke Cage solo series on Netflix has sparked no shortage of questions, rumors regarding new team-up projects, and concerns about the future of the remaining series in the two companies'…