Selecting the right in-ear monitors for live sound monitoring is important, and there are a number of variables to take into consideration.
(Learn more about in-ear monitoring for musicians and sound techs here.)
Some earphones labeled as “in-ear monitors” simply don’t fit the bill and aren’t worth the time or money to use on stage.
Other in-ear monitors are marketed with so much fanfare that it can be hard to tell if you’re buying into a boutique brand experience or paying for true audiophile perfection.
As a musician and sound tech, I look for something in between. I don’t need audiophile-grade sound, but I absolutely need dependable performance, quality audio reproduction, a comfortable fit, and excellent noise isolation.
With all of those requirements, Ultimate Ears Pro UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors were definitely on my radar.
The following is a full and unbiased review of my experience using the custom molded UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors.
In order to get the perfect fit for molded in-ear monitors, it is important to get quality ear impressions made.
There are two ways to do this: silicone impressions or digital laser scanning. Both options typically require you to go to an audiologist. (The process takes about 30-minutes and costs $50-75 depending on the audiologist.)
Ear impressions are molded to the exact shape of your outer ear and ear canal so that a perfect fit is achieved. This is critical to ensure good noise isolation and great audio quality.
A custom deep fit in the ear canal also means that vocalists don’t experience the occlusion (hollow or boomy) effect that can happen when your ears are plugged with universal-fit monitors.
Once my impressions were made, I sent them off to Ultimate Ears for fabrication.
Ultimate Ears custom monitors are made with an acrylic case that can be fabricated in a number of color options. I chose the clear option (because I’m a geek and like to see the electronics inside).
The UE 11 Pro model features four balanced armature drivers with a crossover network located inside the acrylic housing.
Two ports are drilled into the canal portion of the housing, allowing high and mid frequencies to enter through one port, and lows to enter through the other port. Ultimate Ears says that this design feature helps refine the low frequency performance of the UE 11.
Once the in-ear monitors were completed, they were stamped with a serial number and my initials, then placed in a box with my name on it. Very cool!
You can check out the manufacturing process in this video from Ultimate Ears:
The unboxing experience felt like I was preparing to unveil some fine jewelry, except I knew that these were custom in-ear monitors, so it was way better.
The black textured cardboard box had a subtle dark blue UE monogram on the lid and a certificate of authenticity sticker on the side with a serial number and my name.
Pulling a small strap on the front of the box unlatched the magnetic clasp and revealed a “Thank You” card and how-to-wear and how-to-care instruction guide.
Setting the card aside I found a round puck-shaped container placed in a plush fabric base.
The lid of the round container featured the UE logo and a “handcrafted for: James Wasem” note. I’m starting to feel pretty special at this point.
Gently unscrewing the round lid revealed a small drawstring pouch containing my anticipated UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors.
Under the monitors was a basic cleaning tool with a brush and pick on opposite ends.
The product packaging and unboxing experience definitely gives you the feeling that you’re about to behold a quality product.
Let’s see how the UE 11 Pro holds up to my expectations...
Comfort & Fit
It can be hard to get a feel for the actual size of the in-ear monitors when looking at pictures online or even looking at ear impressions. My first thought was, “is this really going to fit in my ear?”
Of course, I knew they would fit, but somehow custom monitors always look bigger than I expect. These are definitely not one-size-fits-all earbuds.
The right monitor has a red model number, serial number, and my initials printed on the inner ear-facing section of the housing. The left monitor has the same notation, but in blue.
The fit and feel of the in-ear monitors was perfect. There was absolutely no discomfort, and no pressure points. This is definitely an experience you only get from custom molded monitors.
The cables of the monitors are designed to exit out of the forward facing portion of the housing to bend up and over the top of the ear. A 2” bendable metal wire and clear vinyl jacket helps keep the cable molded to top curve of the ear and formed in place.
I personally think this wire could have been about ½” longer to provide more of a curve around the ear, but it still works quite well once it conforms to the ear.
A vinyl cinch slides up to keep the cables tight against back of the head and allows the remaining cable to fall down the center of the back, keeping it out of sight.
Throughout my testing, I was able to wear the UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors for more than six hours without feeling any discomfort in my ears.
The only minor pressure point I experienced after about four hours of constant wearing was not with the acrylic monitor housing but with the cables worn over the top of the ear. This sensation was pretty minor, but noticeable - sort of like wearing sunglasses and a hat all day.
By contrast, I can normally wear earbuds or headphones for about an hour or two before my ears start to feel pain on the pressure points.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with how comfortable a set of molded acrylic shells can be. I thought the material would feel softer, but there was absolutely no need for that.
As far as comfort goes, the UE 11 Pro monitors are perfect for long gigs, marathon listening sessions, and all-day/night live productions.
The noise isolation of these custom molded in-ear monitors is superb. It is far better than any other universal fit monitor or isolation headphones I’ve used.
Ultimate Ears’ specifications state that the UE 11 Pro features -26 dB ambient noise isolation. I don’t have a way to readily measure this, but I would argue that it is much greater than that.
I have a set of custom molded earplugs rated at -20 dB and the noise isolation does not seem to be nearly as good as the UE 11.
As a drummer, noise isolation behind the set is super important to me. And as an audio engineer, hearing protection and good sound quality is paramount. Custom ear monitors provide me the best of both worlds.
The important thing to note about this level of isolation is that you don’t need to turn up the volume as loud in order to hear the details in what you are monitoring. This not only protects your hearing, but it also minimizes ear fatigue when working long gigs.
UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors are perfect for musicians who want to protect their hearing but still want to have an immersive monitoring experience.
Live monitor techs can benefit from the isolation as well, making for a more efficient and safe mixing environment.
These monitors certainly exceeded my expectations in terms of noise isolation.
Besides the plush case and screw-top container with my name on it, there are several other features worth noting about the UE 11 Pro.
This set of in-ear monitors shipped with a 46” cable with a ⅛” (3.5mm) L-connector on one end and detachable 2-pin connectors for each earpiece.
The L-connector has a slim profile that works for using with most mobile device cases in case you want to use these for a “consumer” listening application.
The cable matches the “clear” color scheme of my monitors, revealing stranded wires inside. The twisted cables combine to look like a silver braided chain, which is reasonably attractive.
At first glance I thought the cable would be too stiff and feel cheap, but it is quite flexible and feels strong despite its lightweight construction.
This cable design definitely resists kinking and tangling, which is awesome for quickly packing and unpacking the in-ear monitors.
The connectors on the earpieces fit tight and do not come off too easy. This is a good thing. Just be careful when removing the connectors if you need to replace the cable.
A small L and R are stamped into each cable end to allow for easy identification when replacing cables.
There is a small cleaning tool included with the monitors. The bent wire pick allows you to remove any wax that can build up inside the canal ports (yes, that happens). A nylon brush helps take care of any wax or dirt around the tip and surface of the monitors.
Durability & Quality
When you invest in a set of custom molded in-ear monitors, you don’t plan for them to be abused, but live production environments and life on stage can be demanding.
These UE 11 Pro monitors look like they’ll stand up to just about anything I’d be willing to subject them to.
The acrylic shell is super durable and can withstand more than a few drops on the floor. However, the balanced armature drivers inside are a bit more fragile than standard dynamic drivers, so you’ll still want to treat your investment with care (this is common for all balanced armature headphone designs).
I wouldn’t want to step on one, but I’m pretty confident that the asymmetrical construction would survive a modest crush test.
The weakest link of the whole design (and this is a stretch) is the cable connectors at the top of each housing. These could be bent sideways or abused to the point that they might break. That’s unlikely to happen with any normal use.
Cable strain relief was good at all points. The L-connector construction has a softer flexible feel to it, but it’s solid and would be difficult to damage.
The tiny balanced armature drivers and cables mounted inside the acrylic housing of the UE 11 Pro are glued into place and don’t move around or rattle at all.
From tip to tail, these in-ear monitors feel super robust and I’m confident they will last through many live productions for years to come.
Ultimate Ears provides a standard one-year warranty for any issues.
Alright, this is the important stuff.
Let me start this section by saying that I’m not some high-brow “audiophile”.
I love music. I’ve been a musician and sound tech for more than 20 years. And I can critically listen to music and pick out what I hear or don’t hear.
(Notice that I didn’t say, “I can hear things that other’s can’t.”)
Anyway, if you’re expecting flowery descriptions from a guru with “golden ears” and references to obscure listening tracks to show off my music collection, you’ll be disappointed with this section. If you prefer a plain-english description of how something sounds to my ears, here goes…
So, how do they sound?
In one word: amazing.
Four balanced armature drivers deliver a powerful, yet articulate and refined sound. There is a driver for each of the high and mid frequency ranges, and there are two drivers dedicated to delivering the low end.
Ultimate Ears clearly says that the UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors are geared towards bass players, drummers, and DJ’s. This is because they have enhanced bass response tuned to assist with monitoring lower tones.
A lot of engineers will interpret this to suggest that the bass could be overcompensating, oversaturated, or out of balance with the other frequency ranges. None of these are the case with the UE 11.
Lows are full, rich, punchy, and crisp. I’m not sure I’ve ever described lows from headphones with all of those words at the same time.
I’m not a “basshead” and I definitely don’t like my headphones or monitors saturating the low end. The UE 11 Pro delivers ample bass with plenty of power without overdoing it. The sound signature is very well balanced in my opinion.
As a drummer, I feel like I can get plenty of bass and kick in my monitors. As a sound tech I feel like I get an accurate representation of the mix. This is especially important when you are battling loud volume from the stage and room.
Balanced armature drivers are known to be very articulate in all frequency ranges, but can lack warmth. The UE 11 Pro low frequency drivers might not be as warm or “analog sounding” as some of my dynamic driver headphones, but they absolutely present a full and pleasant bass spectrum. I also really appreciated the controlled punch that was provided.
Mids are clean and clear. No mud. Guitarists will enjoy the naturally rich blend of lows and mids with these monitors.
The only notable issue in the mid frequency range is that low male vocals on certain playback tracks got slightly lost in the mix. This was very subtle, but discernible when comparing the UE 11 against other headphones.
Highs are super crisp and tightly controlled. There is plenty of sparkle and shimmer from cymbals without any harsh artifacts or sibilance on vocals.
Some headphones and in-ear monitors can push the highs to compensate for the stronger bass, but the UE 11 manages a great balance among all of the frequency ranges.
The amazing thing about listening to the UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors is that the sound quality and frequency response performs well at all volume levels. This is mostly due to the great noise isolation, but it is also a testament to the quality of the components and design.
Lots of headphones (especially those with dynamic drivers) need to be pushed louder to produce meaningful lows, but the UE 11 seems to accomplish this rather effortlessly.
The frequency relationship remains intact as these monitors are cranked to higher volume levels. And there is zero distortion, overdriven tones, or breakup even at uncomfortably high output.
Critical listening to various test tracks revealed a wide and open soundstage, but it wasn’t quite as open as some open-back headphones have provided.
While these in-ear monitors are not intended to be perfectly calibrated reference monitors, the UE 11 Pro produces excellent sound quality with powerful output and minimal coloration.
If custom molded in-ear monitors are in your future and you want a professional grade product with excellent sound quality, Ultimate Ears Pro UE 11 Pro in-ear monitors are definitely worth considering.
At the time of this review, the UE 11 Pro retails for $1,150. This price point is about average for the higher end professional market when considering features, performance, and overall value.
Some hobby musicians or engineers may balk at the initial price tag, but considering the reliability and performance of the UE 11, this could be a worthy investment for the musician focused on quality.
Ultimate Ears Pro also offers the 4-driver UE 900s as a universal-fit model. Other custom molded options include the UE 4 Pro (2-driver), UE 5 Pro (2-driver), and UE 7 Pro (3-driver) in-ear monitors.
- Excellent noise isolation
- Comfortable fit
- Durable design
- Great sound quality
- Solid bass even at low volume
- Crisp highs and clear mids
- Ear memory wire could be longer
- Average warranty for a premium product
Input sensitivity: 119 dB @ 1 kHz, 1mW
Frequency response: 5 Hz – 22 kHz
Noise Isolation: -26 decibels of ambient stage noise.
Impedance: 18 Ohms @ 1 kHz
Internal speaker configuration: 4 proprietary balanced armatures with a 3-way crossover.
Input connector: 1/8” (3.5mm) headphone jack.
More info at: http://pro.ultimateears.com
Disclaimer: This is an honest and unbiased review based on my own opinions and assessment of the products mentioned here. Ultimate Ears provided me with a set of in-ear monitors at no charge for the purposes of this review.