We made the switch to in-ear monitoring years ago, and while we don’t get to use them for every gig, the shows we do play with IEM support—and a great monitor mix—come off with better sonics for everyone from the players to the singers to the audience. And, our ears are much happier and healthier for the experience.
Investing in quality IEMs is a no-brainer for gigging or touring musicians, but don’t forget that this is just half of the equation, the other piece being an investment in a Personal Monitoring System (PMS). If you work with a dedicated tour/production company, the sound engineers may supply all of the personal monitoring systems for you to use—just grab a bodypack from them, plug in your IEMs, and go. But if you’re supplying your own sound reinforcement or playing the club circuit, it may be up to you to bring your own PMS. Learn more about IEMs and PMS in this tutorial of ours.
The Ultimate Ears 18+ PRO is now in its third generation, and what was already a fantastic custom, in-ear monitor is even better than before thanks to improvements in the design as well as improvements to the process of making custom molds. We were in the enviable position of owning the first-generation UE 18 Pro IEMs, and could thus make direct comparisons between the old and the new.
Internally, what makes the UE18+ PRO special is the fact that it houses six tiny speaker drivers—armatures in IEM-speak, with a four-way mixed crossover that directs specific frequencies to specific armatures. One of the challenges with tiny drivers is that if you only have one or two small drivers (think of your cheap ear-buds), audio with more low-frequency content can mask or smear high-frequency content. By sending the lows, mids, and highs to their own drivers, you can achieve a cleaner overall sound. And with an impressive frequency response of 5Hz—22kHz, that's a good thing.
As with the previous model, the audio cable is detachable, and UE offers two different lengths when purchasing. Our UE18+ PRO came in a round case with a soft carry pouch inside, but a square, metal case is also available.
Typically, you get fitted for custom in-ear monitors by an audiologist who squirts a quick-drying foam into your ears to create customized impressions of your inner ear canal shape. Just like fingerprints, we all have distinct ear canals, which helps to explain why some rigid earplugs fit very differently and with differing comfort levels from one of your ears to the other. From these impressions (molds), custom IEMs are made, and the results are only as good as the impression was accurate. Sometimes a few tweaks have to be made after the fact to get just the right fit (by filing down problem spots, for example).
Ultimate Ears switched away from the gooey mold-making process a few years ago to making 3D digital scans of the ear, and if you have access to a facility that makes digital scans, this is definitely the way to go. We can confirm that the new UE 18+ PRO, made from a 3D scan, fits more precisely (and thus, comfortably) than our older UE 18 Pro made from traditional methods. Not that the old ones aren’t comfortable—they are. The new method is just another bump up in precision fitting. And since most people won’t have access to audiologists making 3D scans, you can still get these custom IEMs made from classic molds.
If the UE 18+ PROs were just more comfortable, we’d be happy. And, we sort of anticipated that there would be a better fit from the precise image scan of our ear (which was very cool to watch on the display, too). What we didn’t expect, however, was just what an improvement in sound Ultimate Ears has made in this third-generation product!
We listened to a variety of audio sources through both sets of IEMs, everything from music in our iTunes library covering a wide range of musical styles to playing our electric guitars. What was immediately apparent was how much cleaner the sound was! In the low frequencies, the new True Tone Plus drivers had less overall boominess, and we could hear low frequency sounds significantly better. Imagine a pop rock mix with some sub-bass keyboard sounds blended in above or below the electric bass guitar. We could hear the musical separation so much better in the new UE 18+ PROs!
And the top end was equally fantastic. There was much more clarity and brightness to the top end. It was never harsh, but what hadn’t sounded bad to us previously in the older UE 18 Pro now sounded almost masked by comparison to the clean and open sound of the new UE 18+ PRO.
For players who desire a bit of natural ambience, or who prefer some bleed from the stage/monitors, Ultimate Ears offers an ambience option, where they cut a tiny port into the IEMs that allows for some room sound to mix in with the amplified signal, though at the expense of a slight amount of low frequency loss. We prefer to keep our IEMs as isolated as possible, and just adapt to the experience of playing live but hearing things as if we were in the recording studio.
So that’s it in a nutshell. The UE 18+ PRO is a great sounding, popular, pro-level, in-ear monitor that sounds appreciably better than the previous version. I wouldn’t race to throw out your older ones if you’ve already made the investment, but if you haven’t been sonically satisfied, these ones sound good enough to mix on, assuming you can live without ambience. And if you’re shopping for your first pro-level IEMs, you can’t go wrong with a pair of UE 18+ PROs in your ears. It will be money well spent.
The Ultimate Ears18+ PRO start at $1,499 for a variety of standard, solid colors. Various options include colored patterns for an additional $100, or for another $200, you can supply custom artwork (which we had on our original pair). For an additional $50, you can add stage ambience, and you can even order different colors/patterns/designs for each ear!