I've reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed some of the very best custom in-ear headphones on the market, including the JH Audio 13 Pro headphones and the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, so I thought it was about time to check out an entry-level custom in-ear. The Ultimate Ears UE 4 Pro model retails for $399, and looks much like the company's other custom models. No surprise there; they all come from impressions made from the customer's ear canals, hence the "custom" part of custom in-ear headphones, from UE or other manufacturers. Each one is a unique, hand-built device. So, sure, they're more expensive than most universal, off-the-shelf in-ear headphones.
Most people are familiar with universal-fit in-ear/earbud headphones, so I compared the best-sounding set I own, a $400 Monster Turbine Pro Copper, with the UE 4 Pros. One thing was apparent from the get-go: custom in-ear designs more effectively isolate the wearer from external noise than universal-fit headphones, and the UE 4 Pros are at least on par with battery-powered noise-canceling headphones (custom-fit designs don't use batteries). One side benefit of superior noise isolation is that it allows the headphone wearer to listen at a lower volume than with other types of headphones in noisy environments (you're not trying to block the noise by turning up the music). The UE 4 Pros provide 26 dB of isolation and passive noise cancellation. If you want to listen at higher volumes, the UE 4 Pros have lower distortion and therefore music sounds cleaner than through most universal-fit headphones when played loudly.
The UE 4 Pro headphones feature Ultimate Ears' proprietary dual-armature speaker system, with an integrated passive crossover circuit that directs the low frequencies to a dedicated speaker for bass and mids, and the high frequencies to a dedicated speaker for treble frequencies. The balanced armature drivers are said to produce lower distortion than the more common dynamic drivers used in conventional headphones. The UE 4 Pro may be the company's most affordable custom design, but the headphones are built to the same quality standards as the $999 Reference Monitors. The UE 4 Pros are hand-built in Irvine, Calif.
The UE 4 Pro headphones' tonal balance was nice and smooth, bass went deep, and definition was good, but how do the UE 4 Pros compare with the $999 Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor custom headphones?
The Reference Monitors are more immediate-sounding headphones. More detail and textures came through, but the family resemblance of the two 'phones was clear. "Dollars & Cents" from Radiohead's "Amnesiac" CD had a bigger, more spacious reverberant cloud surrounding Thom Yorke's vocals and the band. The cymbals' metallic clang and shimmer came across like gangbusters over the Reference Monitors; the UE 4 Pros softened the transients and lost the airiness of the highs. The Reference Monitors' dynamic punch and bass definition trumped the UE 4 Pros'. Still, the UE 4 Pro headphones deliver 75 or 80 percent of the Reference Monitors' sound for 40 percent of the price.
The UE 4 Pro headphones come with a one-year warranty, but if you don't beat them up, they could easily last 10 years. If you're rough on cables and break 'em on a regular basis, that's a good reason to consider UE custom earphones. User-replaceable plug-in 48-inch-long cables go for $40; the highly flexible and braided wires do seem extremely well made and should be very durable over the long run. UE also sells 64-inch cables for $45.
I next compared the UE 4 Pros with my Turbine Pro Copper universal headphones. That was interesting: the Pro Copper's bass kicked harder and went deeper, but the UE 4 Pros' midrange and treble were more dynamically alive. The UE 4 Pros' sound was also more "open" and less stuck inside my head. With Gregg Allman's new "Low Country Blues" album, the UE 4 Pros let me hear more studio ambiance, so it sounded more like I was listening in on a live event; the Pro Copper headphones couldn't retrieve the same level of detail. The UE 4 Pros' superiority wasn't subtle, or stuff only hard-core audiophiles would notice--the custom earphones' sonic advantages were dramatic. At least in this case, the $400 custom clobbered the $400 universal headphones.
Though both sets of headphones carry the same retail price, the UE 4 Pros will definitely be more expensive to buy. The Coppers are widely discounted, and the UE 4 Pros' $399 price does not include the additional fee (typically $50 to $100) required to make molds of your ear canals. Since each custom in-ear headphone is handmade to fit your ear, you'll need to schedule an appointment with an audiologist who can make impressions of your ear canals. The molds are sent to UE, where they're used to make your headphones.
I think the UE 4 Pro headphones offer superlative sound for the money, and, for serious listeners, a terrific value. UE currently offers six custom in-ear headphone models, and many more universal-fit models, with prices starting at $20 for the UE 100.