According to Paul Manfrini, UE's director of product development, there's some additional hocus-pocus going on inside each of these earpieces, with various acoustic dampers and minute adjustments to the lengths of the tubes that help achieve the appropriate crossover points and affect the sound UE's engineers are going for. Interestingly, despite the company's patents and groundbreaking efforts in miniature transducer design, Manfrini defends the notion that his is not an engineering-driven firm. "We don't start our designs with a curve in mind," he says. "We start by having a sound we want to achieve. A lot of it is trial and error, and we keep trying till we get what we want."
Some part of that sound is achieved through the custom fit. The earpiece seals so perfectly to your ear that you get 26 decibels of sound isolation with no active noise-canceling circuitry, resulting in remarkable efficiency (helpful with portable players) and a clean background from which to hear detail and dynamics. But the 'phones also use the ear itself as part of the equation. With proper fit, the earpiece fits about 2/3 of the way into the ear canal, allowing it to reach the bony material inside the ear. This bone conductivity greatly enhances the transmission and perception of bass frequencies, and is accounted for in the design when they're balancing the sound.
Performance Comfort is a very personal thing when it comes to headphones, and perhaps my only caveat with this or any other tight-fitting in-ear model is that it might not be right for you. I have tried lightweight on-ear and over-ear designs among full-size headphones, for example, and have found the on-ear approach more comfortable for long sessions. This was my first experience with custom in-ear 'phones, and they took some getting used to. Once I figured out how to quickly get them in and out and situated for the best seal and most comfortable fit, it still took a while for my ears to adjust to having them in for long periods. The pressure around the perimeter of the ear canal was at first fatiguing, and the 'phones don't let the ear canal breath, which for some folks may make them less than ideal for wearing during strenuous activity or in sticky climates. But I stuck with it, and in a short while my ears eventually adjusted to where I no longer notice that they're in.
Good thing, too, because I'd be missing out on what amounts to incredibly detailed and extended sound, sonics that border on amazing for such tiny earphones, or for any headphones at all. Among my old favorite audiophile CDs that I use when testing gear is a collection from the New Orleans jazz band A la Carte Brass & Percussion called Boogeyin'! Swamprock, Salsa & Trane. It's a ridiculously challenging recording with a dozen or more brass and percussion instruments playing at once on some tracks, all closely and cleanly miked without compression. "Lucy I'm Home," a percussion-infused rendition of the theme from I Love Lucy, was a revelation on the UE 11. There's a lot going on in this track, and, listening through the headphone output on my high-end preamp, I heard it all with a level of accuracy I hadn't experienced before. The snare drum was particularly revealing, in that I could really hear for the first time all the fine details of the springs rattling against the bottom skin, something that's easily smeared and lost on most systems. Dynamics were outstanding: When the trumpets and trombones came in together to blast the song's final notes, I got a great sense of the first impact of the sound wave, but these and other horns on other good recordings never sounded brittle or blaring.
Another track, a cover of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," features a vocal by bass-baritone Alvy Powell that came through with tremendous power and dynamics on the UE 11 - incredibly smooth and clear, while remaining well balanced against the full bass drum that carried the bottom end, and with the fine, crisp clacking of a wooden stick beat. At the end of the track, after the music stops, one of the musicians can be heard exclaiming, "damn!" in wonderment at the performance, and I couldn't have agreed more.
Female voice was equally engaging. A listen to Shirley Horn singing Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" on The Cole Porter Songbook: Night and Day, a sultry tribute to the age-old profession, revealed every nuance of her sweet, breathy vocal, again with perfectly smooth accompaniment from the trumpets and baritone sax, and tuneful, extended notes from the string bass. To see how the UE 11 handled more serious low end, I threw on Chrisette Michele's hip-hopish crossover album I Am for its deep electronic and electric bass lines. I was surprised by the definition and tautness in the subterranean beat in "Good Girl," and pleased by the exceptionally balanced sonics that gave equal play to the multi-tracked backup vocals and the fine sounds of rattling metal in a shaken tambourine.
What it comes down to is that the UE 11 delivers a remarkable level of midrange and high-end clarity that can be almost breathtaking, and a bottom end that sounds deep and taut for any headphone, but without being overblown or hypey. And it does so with a kind of effortlessness that's unusual in my experience. If I can make a sometimes overused analogy, the music just breathes through these earphones, unforced and naturally. This was driven home on a Chesky recording of the Connecticut Early Music Festival Ensemble doing the "Winter" concerto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The sweetness and delicacy of the violins, and the bouncy quality of the struck harpsichord, came across with remarkable detail and ease, with no hint of edge and with a rich smoothness that's reminiscent of live instruments. These are strings as they're meant to be heard.
Bottom Line I could go on about all the little things I heard for the first time through the UE 11 Pro in recordings well known to me, down to obvious sound edits that had never before revealed themselves. But the bottom line is that plugging these things into my iPod let me rediscover my music collection all over again, which, for an audiophile, is the end goal of adding any new component to your system. Yes, they're pricey, and undoubtedly restricted to those who demand the best or simply need the most accurate earphones they can find for professional use. For everyone else, Ultimate Ears' entry level $80 'phones and mid-level models, which are said to borrow heavily from the technology developed for their custom products, are worth looking into. It's true that you may never have heard of Ultimate Ears. But this aptly named company obviously knows what it's hearing.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.