Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors

As You Like It

Equipment report
Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors

As you will discover (if you haven’t already), one of the many shocks your flesh is heir to as you grow older is the way your hearing deteriorates. (And before you make that leap into ageism, understand that this deterioration happens to everyone—and it starts early in life.) I, for example, have known for better than two decades that my left ear has a slightly different response to certain midband frequencies than my right one, and (much more recently) that I’ve begun to lose sensitivity to the highest frequencies, particularly in my left ear. (Though I can still hear out to 12kHz without any boosts, 16kHz and above have become an increasing challenge.) When you combine these vicissitudes with the problems everyone, regardless of age, has hearing very high and very low frequencies at less than thunderous levels (e.g., the Fletcher-Munson curve), assessing the actual value of flat frequency response in a speaker (or any component) becomes a lot more complicated, and dubious, proposition.

Of course, if there were a way to equalize our ears—to make them identically flat in response—it might be a different story. Then again would you really want perfectly flat hearing? Aren’t the very different ways that our ears work (or don’t), together or apart, fundamental to our taste in gear and music? Can the sound of gear and music even be said to exist for each of us apart from the way we’re used to hearing them?

All these thoughts went through my mind when I ordered up a pair of Personal Reference Monitors from Ultimate Ears.

These $1999 in-ears are unique to my experience in two major respects. First, they are custom-made to fit your ears—and yours alone. When you order a pair of PRMs you have to visit an audiologist (who belongs to the network of audiologists associated with Ultimate Ears) and have him or her make thermo-plastic molds of your inner and outer ears. Those molds are then sent to Ultimate Ears where they are used to build a set of PRMs that fit you perfectly and perfectly seal against ambient noise. Second, you must eq your PRMs for your own hearing or your own taste. You do this by using Ultimate Ears’ Tuning EQ box and a “test” pair of PRMs at Ultimate Ears’ Southern California facility, at a show, or at another venue where the company is exhibiting. The “test” pair of PRMs is fully functional and equipped with variously sized earpieces, though not yet ideally shaped for you. The Tuning EQ box allows you to dial-in equalization in the bass, midrange, and treble. (What you are actually doing is tuning the four crossovers among the PRM’s six balanced-armature drivers to suit your different sensitivity to these frequency bands in each ear.) Who said you can’t equalize your hearing?

Of course, the big question is how to equalize your hearing. Do you want to eq your PRMs to compensate for the inevitable aural vicissitudes I talked about, and that we all perforce live with—to make the sound transmitted by them come closer to equal volume in all frequency bands by correcting for known losses and other differences in your hearing in either ear? Or do you simply want to generically “sweeten” the sound—to make it more appealing at anything short of jet-engine SPLs by boosting the lows and highs (where the ear/brain is least sensitive) and slightly reducing the upper mids (where the ear/brain is most sensitive), rather in the way that Raidho (and others) “voice” their loudspeakers.

Happily, you can do a bit of each of these things with the PRMs, which was the path I chose: I eq’d to compensate for the differences in the way I hear certain frequency bands in either ear by dialing in different adjustments for the left and right channels, and I also eq’d both channels to slightly boost the bass and top treble to make these bands sound more or less equal in volume to the midband for the SPLs at which I typically listen.

Be forewarned: Though the three pairs of dials on UE’s Tuning EQ box seemingly allow for big increases and decreases in level within their various bands, the changes they effect are actually deliberately limited in scope, which means you can dial in the presentation you want with a good deal of subtlety. Nonetheless, don’t overdo the dial twiddling, particularly in the bass. Also be sure to listen to a wide variety of music through the “test” in-ears before deciding on your final settings.