Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR): who says reference isn’t musical?

Pros:  Airy big soundstage, lovely treble and bass, precision and speed, noise isolation, neutral tonality, excellent tool for reviewing, look awesome

Cons: Can’t share how wonderful they sound with friends, can be a touch thick on some vocals

List price: $999 (£870)

uerr-rating

Acknowledgment

Thanks Mike Diaz at Ultimate Ears for supplying these as a review sample, with special thanks to David Guitierrez for his excellent customer service. These are going to kick butt and take names in lots of upcoming reviews. They already have in a few.

Introduction

Ultimate Ears and Capitol Studios strike gold again! I’ve never heard the original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor, but I hear tell that it was a beauty. I’d never had an experience with custom in ears, so when my buddy ejong7 on HeadFi asked me if I’d like to participate in reviewing the UERR my response was immediate and decisive. You kidding me? Of course I’ll review that monster of audiophile goodness. Now, off to get some impressions. Lets get this thing on!

There’s nothing wrong with ears

Full of goop, ah ah no no

And putting these in your ears can never be wrong

If the music’s true

Yes, verily let us get this thing on.

I don’t think that Ultimate Ears or Capitol Studios need any introduction, but here’s some stuff to satisfy those who disagree:

Ultimate Ears (stolen from Wikipedia)

  • Ultimate Ears was started up by Jerry Harvey in 1995. Jerry Harvey started making designs for in-ear monitors using balanced armatures so that Alex Van Halen could hear what was going on when performing. Westone manufactured Jerry Harvey’s designs. Westone owned all the patents and trademarks. Eventually that relationship went sour. This led to Ultimate Ears bringing a new designer to run their manufacturing and Ultimate Ears breaking up with Westone. Jerry Harvey eventually left in 2007, claiming he was forced out. All three companies are doing just fine now. Drama, drama, but all in the past.
  • Holy crap, 31 years and counting making custom monitors. Ultimate Ears are truly some of the grand-pappies of the industry.

Capitol Studios

  • Capitol studios was founded in 1956, and recorded titans like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and the Beach Boys. They also were the studio setting for Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, probably his best album; and Green Day’s American Idiot, probably their best album (in my opinion, but I’m a political junkie, so pay no mind).
  • In 2010 they first collaborated with Ultimate Ears on the Reference Monitor
  • In 2014, they upgraded their studios to become completely state of the art.
  • Soon to follow they partnered again with Ultimate Ears to develop the Reference Remastered (released December 2015)
  • Unless you’ve been under a rock for your whole existence, you’ve heard some Capitol Studios productions.

 

If you want to know more about me, you can take a look here. Each reviewer has their own set of biases, preferences and beliefs, so it is often worthwhile to know these before you commit yourself to following the opinion of a reviewer.

Form & Function

uerr-audio-primate-4

Lets have a start at this with the unboxing. The UERR comes in a nice magnetic close presentation box with print materials that welcome you to the group like you’ve just joined a really friggin’ exclusive club. You better have your belt match your boots, or you might be out on the street. Inside the box is a velveteen fabric gently crumpled into a circular indent wherein lies all the fun—a personalised metal case that has totally turned me around on the idea of metal cases. This little puck is perfect for storing 2 Ultimate ears cables (2.5mm balanced and plain Jane 3.5mm), the buffer jack, a cleaning tool and the UERR themselves.

uerr-audio-primate-5

When the UERR arrived, I had some touch and go moments when trying to put a cheapie aftermarket cable on. The cable that the UERR comes with is jammed on there like it is trying to keep the weight of the sea from flooding the undersea laboratory. It’s tight. Damn tight. So tight that I had to email David at UE to make sure I wasn’t going to break the headphones minutes after I got them. When you go to try different cables, use pliers to get the stock cables off. They have a little lip on them that helps with using the pliers. I never would have thought of using pliers. I went at the cables for a long time wiggling and jerking on them, and I’m sure that was the reason that my initial 3.5mm cable had cut-outs on the right channel. UE took care of me and replaced the cable quickly. It’s a good warning to have though, use pliers to get the cables off for at least the first time. With repeated cable switches the fit gets a bit more fluid, still firm, but fluid. I have no problems switching between the SE and balanced cables now. Don’t do what I did, I hurt myself and the cable getting it off.

The workmanship is generally good. I have a clear shell, so you can see all the gubbins pretty good. My wife thinks they’re pretty, and so do I. I don’t think most people in public even have a clue that the weird things in my ears are headphones. The people who do notice think they look stunning though. Make yours awesome too. They’ve got some really great designs.

uerr-audio-primate-7

With regards to fit, I find that my ears aren’t always exactly the same shape depending on weather factors, so I sometimes my ears get a bit of fatigue, primarily in my right ear. This may just mean that my digital impressions weren’t perfect. I also had to learn early on that being gentle with the CIEMs was the way to put them in. Initially I tried to push them in a bit. Just rotating them and leaving them be is the way to go. It takes a bit to get used to having hard plastic way inside your ear. I may just never really get used to the sensation. When my ears are right, these are seamless, and do an incredible job isolating noise.

The case is solid metal make. When I reviewed the Fidue Sirius, I was pretty hard on their case, noting that it was heavy and pretty good for smashing stuff in your bag. Now that I’ve had a ton of time with a metal case, it doesn’t really smash things all over, but it will find the bottom of your bag and it will scratch other metals found therein—don’t put your phone in your bag with this, that’s just asking for trouble. The metal puck is easier to put in my backback than a Pelican case. It is just the right size for transporting the IEMs and the circular shape minimizes memory effects on cables. There is also some foam rubber inside the case, so it may have some modicum of weather resistance when the lid is pressed all the way down. After having this I’m now seeing the light on metal cases, but softened edges would be a boon, though less aesthetically striking.

ifi-micro-idsd-bl-audio-primate-17

For this review, I had both the stock cable and the stock 2.5mm balanced cable. These cables are the same cable, with a different termination. Each cable consists of two twisted pairs. These cables are not braided, and after seeing a friend braid some adaptors for me, I totally understand why. A machine can twist cables really tight, braiding is time consuming and it is harder to see which lines are ground and live, hot and cold. So all you folks and manufacturers calling twisted cables braiding, please stop. It is not the same. Both cables are good quality lightweight cables. Nothing really to see and nothing to complain about. You can get the cables in silver or black. I’ve got black.

Audio quality

The UERR have astonishingly good sound quality. Many folks hear reference and think library books, musty tomes with mustier librariens, boring intonality, a lack of life, a place for analysis. The UERR are none of these library analogues. These are not reference like a library, these are reference as in authoritative representations of a state of the world; these are a neutral reference, a tool made for analysing music, but these manage to do so without sounding detached, etched or boring. These have good transients with accurate attack and decay across all frequencies which gives a great sense of realism.

The UERR have natural sounding bass with good texture and accurate timbre. They aren’t high on bass, but I don’t feel that these are bass light. These have good bass with all the things I’m looking for: some violence when called for, dynamic texture, speed and accurate timbre. The bass is only as warm as bass instruments themselves, no colouration here, and I like that.

The mids are flat, in the right way, no peaks and valleys giving fake dynamics or messing with instrument presentation, for the most part. I say for the most part because I have noticed these to have a little thickness in the vocals from time to time. This observation is quite possible the source being revealed a bit. I think many some sources push mids forward a little, so when that happens with the UERR, it can sound a bit thick. These excelled with any kind of instrument thrown at them, and any kind of vocalist.

The treble is special on these. Sparkle is there when called for, for instance on the delicate tings of the xylophone in Time, but the sound isn’t piercing or overly bright. The presentation is natural and fulfilling. It has excellent extension and realism with stellar instrument placement and impressive stage height, depth and width. For me, the most impressive element of the stage presentation is the height. Very few IEMs I have listened to have achieved out of your head height, these do. Similarly, the stage width is beyond the ears by a good margin. Instruments are well layered with excellent ability to pick out detailed location information.

What really sets apart top level headphones from midfi headphones is resolution. By resolution I mean the ability to reveal small details, subtle notes below the noise floor of many headphones, minor inflections, room reflections, instrument placement, correct leading and trailing edges of notes. Whilst the UERR aren’t the top I’ve heard in resolution (Noble K10E for that), they are damn impressive. Damn damn, but not in a bad way like Doc Brown below. In a good way, like a punch in the face making the future all roses, McFly.

Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem (24/96) is dripping with reverb on the vocal, but also has precisely placed instruments and interaction with the studio environment apparent on the recording. The placement of the stand-up bass, the violin, percussion and piano fan beautifully around her. The sound is beautiful and infectious.

When listening to Daft Punk’s Fragments of Time (24/88), the depth of the sound is not as great as the Chesky Recording of Rebecca Pidgeon, which is expected, as the dynamic range is much lower on the Daft Punk recording, but separation between the funky bass and the steady snare drum rhythm is good and all the elements in the stage are easily picked out in space with a natural coherent presentation. The image is never jumbled, just precision rendered.

The UERR will not forgive poor mastering. I love Wolf Parade, but the mastering on Apologies to the Queen Mary is craptastic. The low level hiss from the heightened noise floor, the compressed soundstage, the aggressive sharp treble mastering on cymbals, and boosted distorting guitars are all apparent. When listening to badly mastered music, a warm headphone like the Fidue Sirius will be more forgiving. I can listen to Wolf Parade with the UERR, but it’s a much more pleasant experience with the Meze 99 Classics.

Also playing well in the UERRs favour, it isn’t hard to drive, and doesn’t pair badly with anything reasonable. If you’ve got a nasty shade of colour on your equipment, the UERR won’t lie about what you are doing to the audio. You may or may not like the truth.

Comparisons

For this review I made all comparisons using the Aune M1S in single-ended mode with stock cables, except for the RHA CL1 which used an adaptor from the stock silver cable. I’ve noted that the UERR sound louder than comparable headphones at the same volume. I believe that this is due to the deeper insertion they offer. To adjust for this I play the UERR 2dB lower (76 db) in comparisons. This makes the volume levels sound more matched, but this may introduce imprecision and bias as I have depended on my ears to come up with this reduction. The table below contains the volume match settings.

Headphone Gain setting1 Volume

DAP number (~dB)

UERR Middle 78 (76.2)
Noble K10E Low 78 (78.2)
RHA CL1 High 74 (78.1)
Meze 99 Classics Middle 79 (78.3)
UERR Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered, Noble K10E Noble Kaiser 10 Encore

1All comparisons were made using the Aune M1S in singled ended with stock cables

 

RHA CL1

Listening to Charles Mingus Fables of Faubus (24/88 SACD rip), there is hissing in quiet passages. The soundstage has good width. The mids are a bit recessed which leads to a slightly off-kilter presentation. Cymbals are lively with excellent shimmer but are thrown too far forward in the stage. On the UERR the stage is set back further from you, and instruments have more natural placement with cymbals and the rest of the drum kit being in the same plane. Instrument heights are also better matched in the stage. The UERR has a more coherent representation. Notes sound much more natural for instruments playing in the mids and lower mids. The stand-up bass especially benefits from the switch to the UERR with more correct placement in the stage and more full, organic sounding notes. The UERR doesn’t have a hissing noise like the CL1.

Damien Rice – The Animals are Gone. The hissing is heard on this track too. This song has a mid-forward presentation, which is partly what gives it such heavy emotional weight. The CL1 has an airy delicacy on this track. Damien is certainly not robbed of emotional weight, and the violins are beautifully rendered. At about 2:30 soft swept and tapped percussion comes in. The soft cymbal drags are forward on the CL1. Violins really soar on the CL1 but have more emphasis on the upper reaches of the violin notes. The UERR gives a little richer intonation to Damien’s voice. Violins have a fuller sound with more representation of the lower elements of their notes. The cymbals are placed further back in the stage, with more emphasis on the mids. This isn’t surprising, as the CL1 is a v-shaped IEM, whilst the UERR is neutral. I will note that the volume levels sound very well matched, the 2dB measured difference isn’t perceptibly different on volume.

Hotel California is most notable for the first minute of the song for reviewing purposes. It is a good test for instrument separation, tone, and soundstage. After that, the bass drives the sound. On the CL1, the guitar and bass are a bit recessed. The stage has good width, but the airplane is lost in the stage due to the recession of the mids without a full representation of the sound. The mids feel sucked out on this track. It feels lifeless with the CL1. The mids are in their right place with the UERR with good delicacy on elements of the sound. The kick drum at 40 seconds thumps naturally, whilst with the CL1 it lacked presence. Bass grooves are right on the UERR with good thickness.

Verdict: UERR. Not close.

Meze 99 Classics

On Fables of Faubus, the soundstage doesn’t have particularly electric depth, but instruments have a nice full tone. There is some hiss in this track on the Meze, too. The stand-up bass is forward and really winsome. 36-24-36 action on that bass. Soundstage width is average, height is good, depth is not deep but there is good separation. The stage is definitely more cube than traditional theatre stage shape. Mids on the 99 are very present with excellent texture. Piano has a nice feel, too. The UERR is a bit more restrained, mids are more distant, as is bass, but the treble splashes of the cymbals have a bit more voice. The depth of the stage is greater on the UERR, which allows instruments to breathe a bit more and lays out a bit more realistic musical presentation.

When Damien kicks in, his vocals are sweet and syrupy. Rich pancake breakfast coming up. Unfortunately when the bass comes in, it swamps him a bit. The lack of stage depth makes it a competition for space, jumbling the presentation somewhat. The Meze sounds loud, partly due to emphasizing bass and mids. Both Damien’s vocal and the female backing vocal occupy almost the same space, which gives an intimate impression, as if breaking from an embrace. It’s a nice effect. The UERR doesn’t have the immediacy or warmth of the Meze, and due to the forward presentation of the Meze doesn’t sound as loud. There is far more depth in the sound though, and a bit more width. The Meze wins on height. The female vocal is a bit more fragile and breathy on the UERR, which is also a nice effect. She isn’t as forward in the UERR’s representation. Instruments have a lot more separation on the UERR.

The bass is big and bloomy on the Meze 99 in the intro to Hotel California. The airplane flying over head has good presence and is definitely not lost in the mix. The Meze 99 chugs firmly with a bass forward sound, but vocals and other instruments still have good presence. The treble sounds a touch thin compared to the weightiness of the mids and especially the midbass, but the tones are accurately represented. Greater width on the soundstage still goes to the UERR. Don Henley’s vocal tone sounds better on the Meze 99. There is more fullness to the tone on the Meze 99. The UERR is definitely more accurate, but there is something addictive to the sound of the Meze 99. It just has soul.

Verdict: I like both, but the technical capabilities of the UERR put it out in front for me. In practice, this would come down to mood.

Noble Kaiser 10 Encore

Delicate sounds around the bass are nicely revealed on the Noble K10E. The stage height on the K10E is comparable to the Meze 99, but the stage width more closely matches the UERR. Instruments on the periphery of the stage have excellent presence and all instruments have their own little bubble of space. Truly excellent resolution. The bass is a bit forward on the K10E compared to the UERR. The UERR has a bit more stage width. Instruments sound a little less refined on the UERR, and less real and alive. Resolution is excellent, but the Noble K10E is better.

The clarity on The Animals Were Gone is higher on the Noble K10E, there is just more feeling of space around the sonic elements. Vocals sound more natural. It feels like Damien is singing right to me. The bass sounds natural and warm with good delineation from where notes originate. Attack, decay, body, tone—on these the Noble K10E substantially beats the UERR. The female vocal in the refrain is much more emotive and present too with a cozy presentation with Damien’s vocal, whilst maintaining a separation that the Meze 99 couldn’t accomplish. The descriptor for the Noble K10E is natural. It is wondrously natural. This song breaks my cold little heart on a normal headphone, but the emotional content of the K10E just destroys my pitiful little sensibilities.

On Hotel California, the airplane is a bit more distant. Don Henley’s voice is more natural and the thump of the kick drum a bit more present. There are areas of the mids that are more present than the UERR, but nothing is overdone. In fact, I prefer the little boost in musicality. Vocals especially benefit from this. All instruments in the mids have a more organic feel to them. There is just more resolution and instrumental feel on the K10E. The bass notes sound flatter on the UERR, by flatter I mean they have less texture. I prefer the bit of romance and texture on the K10E. The stages are similar, but the K10E sounds airier.

Verdict: Noble Kaiser 10 Encore is the winner. The UERR is not sterile sounding, but it lacks the supreme resolution and emotional content of the K10E, the improved body and airier feel of the K10E set it apart. There is no shame in losing to the K10E, it does cost $850 (£600) more. You can buy an HD800 for the difference in price between these two. You could also just skip the HD800.

Specifications

Manufacturers have lots to say about their products, and they should! The audiophile market is big, competitive and a lot of what differentiates product success and failure is how well they talk about their products. Here’s what Ultimate Ears had to say about their UERR:

Quote:

Designed For Producers And Studio Engineers

Record and mix. Anytime, Anywhere.

Mix, Produce, Enjoy

The Ultimate Hi-Res listening experience. Featuring True Tone technology — providing expanded highs and lows, defining our commitment to fidelity.

The Ultimate Sound Remastered

The second collaboration with the engineers from Capitol Studios. Based on the sounds of their state-of-the-art facility.

UE Pro True Tone Drivers

Proprietary True Tone Drivers extend the frequency range and deliver a flat response to 18KHz.

Commitment To Fidelity

Hear the harmonic structure and overtones that are usually missing from most headphones

Not much in that description. Kind of like, hey these sound nice and are excellent tools. Whilst there isn’t much in the description, Jude has some good coverage on HeadFi which shines a little more light. Check it out.

Specifications  
Price $999 (£870)
Drivers 3 proprietary balanced armatures with multiple passive crossover points and triple bore sound channels.
Frequency response 5 Hz – 25 kHz
Impedance 35 Ohms@ 1 kHz
Sensitivity 100 dB @ 1 kHz, 1mW
Noise isolation -26 dB
Shell Custom acrylic, I went for legos, as this is a building block piece.
Accessories Personalised metal carrying case, cleaning tool, buffer jack, 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter (1/8” to 1/4″), display box with velvet insert
Warranty 1 year

Conclusions

The Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered gives me about 80% of the sound quality of the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore at 54% of the price. That is excellent value for money. The sound is neutral and revealing, with natural musical tones and an encompassing soundstage. There is now an official universal version of these (UERR To Go, I think), so if you aren’t ready to make the jump to custom and all that entails—including not being able to share how lovely these sound—then Ultimate Ears now has you covered.

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