If you’ve ever seen one of your favourite artists performing on stage and wondered what the discrete-looking earpieces are that they’re wearing, then it’s a good chance that it’s a pair of Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs) from Ultimate Ears. According to their founding story, they produced the world’s first on-stage IEM in 1995 in the back of a Van Halen tour bus, to help drummer Alex Van Halen with a monitoring solution that would both protect his hearing and help improve his live performances.
With over 100,000 custom in-ear monitors produced for music professionals and music lovers alike in the years since, it’s fair to say that Ultimate Ears are at the pointy end of manufacturers when it comes to custom in-ear know-how, and their flagship CIEM, the $4499 Ultimate Ears UE Live Custom In-Ear monitor sits at the very top of their range, representing the ultimate solution for on-stage performance. And if you don’t plan on starting a live music career anytime soon, the UE Live might also be the perfect way to enjoy all the fruits that your favourite musicians have gone and produced for your listening pleasure.
What are Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs)?
CIEMs are chiefly developed to help musicians monitor the sound of their own (or their bandmates’) performance accurately during the demanding environment of a live performance. If you have thousands of screaming fans screaming and singing in unison in front of you (or, in the case of my own band “dozens” of fans), then it can be a little tricky to hear all the musical and timing cues from the rest of your band, and you might not even be able to hear what you’re playing or singing yourself!
Traditionally, this was solved on-stage with the use of foldback amplifiers, but one of the side-effects of having to crank these up to overcome the ambient sound of a live performance space is that you can end up with pretty bad hearing damage, pretty quickly. Not only do CIEMs allow musicians to monitor their own live performance, but they also provide strong levels of passive noise isolation, making it easier to concentrate on the sound of their own music while preventing hearing damage over time.
As their name implies, Custom In-Ear Monitors are, well, customised for the individual wearer. If you’ve used traditional IEMs in the past, you’ve probably noticed that their performance (particularly when it comes to bass) as well as their passive noise-attenuating abilities are highly dependent on the seal that you’re able to form using either silicone or foam tips. CIEMs are individually moulded to the shape of the user’s inner and outer ear, with each unique design being created from impressions that require an audiologist’s assistance to create. The result is a seamless IEM shell that sits completely flush against the contours of your outer ear, with a protruding nozzle that inserts neatly into your inner ear to form a completely snug, flush fit.
Due to their superb fit and isolation, as well as being tuned with audio professionals in mind, it’s no wonder that CIEMs are also often sought as the ultimate in-ear solution by audiophiles and portable hifi connoisseurs. The UE Live may have been developed with the stage in mind, but thanks to its reference-grade tuning it’s no wonder that a good portion of UE Lives make their way into the hands of those who are looking for reference-grade music enjoyment, on-the-go.
How to order and customise your own Ultimate Ears UE Live
Choosing a pair of CIEMs isn’t as simple as choosing a pair of “regular” universal-fit IEMs off the shelf - there’s a bit of a process involved to make your one-of-a-kind pair. If you live nearby an Addicted To Audio store, you may be able to listen to a universal-fit UE Live demo pair before you go about ordering them, but just be mindful that while they’ll give you a pretty great idea of the tuning, they will have standard detachable tips fitted so won’t give you the final idea of git nor tuning. Give your nearest store a call in advance to check that they have a pair available for you to audition.
1. Getting impressions made
The first thing you’ll need to do is to have some impressions made with your local audiologist. Most audiologists will be familiar with the process, as they usually create all kinds of hearing protection, hearing aids, or bespoke listening devices for their customers. It’s a fairly quick and affordable procedure, and usually costs anywhere between $50-$100 depending on where you go.
After checking that your ears are clean, they’ll inject a semi-solid plastic-like goop into your ears, which takes around a minute or so to set. When it’s ready, they’ll pull them out for you to then take home and send through to Addicted To Audio after you’ve chosen the model and customisation options that you’ll be going ahead with. Here’s what my impressions looked like:
2. Choose your model and customisation options
The UE Live isn’t only “customised” due to its shape, but you can also tweak its aesthetics according to your personal tastes. Take a look at the Ultimate Ears “design your own” page to choose what colour and faceplate options you’d like to choose for your own UE Live - you can even adorn it with your own initials, pattern, or logo if you like! Next, get in touch with your nearest Addicted To Audio store to let them know about your final customisation options, and make a payment to get your order underway.
3. 3D scanning of your moulds
Unless you already have 3D scans of your impressions made from previous CIEMs, you’ll need to send your impressions back to Addicted To Audio so that they can make a detailed scan of your impressions using their state-of-the-art 3D scanning tool. Once they’ve made the scans, they’ll then send these on to Ultimate Ears to start manufacturing your one-of-a-kind pair of UE Live, which usually take a few weeks to produce and ship back to you from the US (depending on the volume of orders they have at any given point in time - check with your nearest Addicted To Audio store to understand wait times).
Ultimate Ears UE Live - technical overview
Ultimate Ears describes their flagship CIEM thusly:
“Made for discerning professionals who need a perfect balance of detail and musicality, UE Live goes above and beyond. Eight precision-tuned drivers reproduce your music with maximum purity and power, while the tour-proof design guards against the rigours of the road.”
The UE Live consists of no fewer than eight drivers, expertly brought together in harmony via a five-way crossover to let the UE Live play frequencies between a purported 5 - 40,000Hz range. The UE live boasts a 6mm neodymium “sub” dynamic driver to deliver impactful, round bass frequencies; one of Ultimate Ear’s “True Tone Plus” balanced armature drivers (specially developed for the UE Live); plus an additional four balanced armature drivers that are each tasked with tackling specific frequencies.
The overall goal of Ultimate Ears when developing the UE Live was to grant it both clarity and power. With its low impedance of 10 ohms and high sensitivity of 120dB, the UE Live is able to meet the Ultimate Ears’ goal of it being able to get loud (and therefore work with any number of source devices), while being able to accurately render any instrument’s sound.
Implementing each of these drivers and their associated crossover network is no mean feat of engineering, and the transparent acrylic build of the UE Live lets you peer inside at the maze of wiring and parts that the craftspeople at Ultimate Ears have managed to squeeze inside the tiny shells. The UE Live has both the looks and feel of a product that’s built by professionals, for professionals - it’s solid, precisely manufactured, and looks purposeful rather than blingy. After all, you want the fans to be looking at you, rather than what’s in your ears, right?
Inside the UE Live are four separate “Precision Tooled Branched Acoustic audio paths”, which terminate in a single round nozzle at the tip that goes (somewhat) deeply into your ear canal. The UE Live is a completely sealed design, with no venting holes whatsoever (aside from the nozzle), which presumably aids in its excellent passive isolation which is rated at -26dB, and also helps make them resistant to sweat, rain, and beer (all which could very well become problematic if you’re performing at an outdoor gig!).
UE Live packaging and accessories
The UE Live is intended to be more professionally oriented rather than being pitched as a premium/luxury in-ear offering. But all the same, Ultimate Ears provides you with a comprehensive and satisfying product experience befitting the UE Live’s not-insignificant price tag. Opening up the UE Live’s premium-looking black glossy cardboard box, you’re greeted with your new custom IEMs resting resplendently in foam cutouts, where you first get to glance upon the pair of IEMs that have been made for you, and you alone.
You have the opportunity to flex your own “branding” when it comes to designing your new pair of UE Lives, and there are a few different options you can check when building them. You can either choose from a series of factory colours or submit your own design scheme (for an additional fee) to make them truly one of a kind.
And, if you’re the kind of person that can’t make up your mind, you can select the “UE Switch” option which allows you to swap around the outward-facing design of your UE Lives depending on your mood. Simply twist the faceplates around 90 degrees laterally, and they pop out. My review pair of UE Lives came with three different UE Switch designs inside a handsome leather-bound case, and (naturally) included a pretty sweet “A to A” bespoke design - gotta rep the brand and all, y’know.
Each new UE Live owner also received a sturdy aluminium carrying case, featuring the owner’s name marked on the lid to keep their important stage tools safe while on the road. It’s a nice touch of customisation and helps reinforce the “Handcrafted for your ears only” message that Ultimate Ears has inscribed on the cover of the included (and comprehensive) user manual for the UE Live. Inside the carrying case, you’ll also find a tool for cleaning the nozzles of your new pair of UE Live - critical for keeping them free of build-up and debris, seeing as they sit rather deep inside your ears.
The UE Live doesn’t use the more familiar 0.78 two-pin or MMCX connectors that you might be more familiar with if you’ve owned multiple IEMs in the past. Rather, the detachable cable is joined to each shell via an “IPX” connection. It’s similar to MMCX in that it “snaps” in and out, and is able to swivel 360 degrees, making it more up to the task of rough handling during gigs. The IPX system is a little smaller in diameter compared to the MMCX system, and also snaps in and out more securely, giving you confidence that it will be more durable in the long run.
The UE Live ships with Ultimate Ears’ 50-inch black “Superbax” cable, terminated in a standard 3.5mm plug which is the connection most likely to be found in most professional source gear, such as wireless IEM receivers. The Superbax cable is lightweight, flexible, and not prone to annoying tangling - nor does it make any annoying microphonic noises that might distract you from your performance. If you want a balanced termination to plug into your fancy audiophile DAP or portable amp, Ultimate Ears also sells a version with a balanced 2.5mm termination. The Superbax cable also features a simple and effective cable splitter device that can be securely “locked” in place depending on how you prefer to wear your cable underneath your chin. The IPX/Superbax cable is also IP67 water-resistant, providing a firm seal where it meets each shell to help make the UE Live even more road- and gig-ready.
UE Live fit, comfort, and isolation
I’ve owned CIEMs in the past, and so had some idea as to what a proper-fitting CIEM ought to feel like prior to my experience with the UE Live. The UE Live did take a little cajoling to get into each ear, as they proved to be a very accurate, and very snug fit for each ear. It’s always a bit of an anxious wait between shipping off your impressions and receiving your new CIEMs in the mail, but Ultimate Ears absolutely nailed the fit with my review UE Lives. Some CIEMs that I’ve tried previously have had troublesome gaps in seal if I moved my jaw around - say, for example, if I tried singing - but that certainly wasn’t the case here. The UE Live feels both secure and effortlessly comfortable, and I can wear them for hours on end without the slightest sense of pressure or discomfort. In fact, I often forgot that I was actually wearing them.
Once nestled neatly into each ear, you’re greeted with absolute silence while wearing the UE Live. Even with moderate background noise, you can hear virtually nothing if you’re listening to music through the UE Live. Ultimate Ears aren’t kidding when they say the UE Live provides -26dB of isolation - they’re genuinely more effective at passively blocking noise than any Active Noise Cancelling headphones I can recall testing.
Listening to the UE Live
Going into my review with the UE Live, I did remind myself that I needed to be mindful that these were designed to be a professional monitoring pair of CIEMs rather than the usual “audiophile”-oriented fare that I’m used to dealing with. And while my gig days with my band might be behind me, I still think it’s important to evaluate a product of the UE Live’s repute and price in terms of how it performs as a music playback tool and to give you, the reader, an idea as to what it actually sounds like.
I’ll freely admit that out of the box, the UE Live sounded strangely different to what I might have been expecting based on its marketing materials. There were certainly lashings of low-end energy and bass weight that pointed to the fact that there was a dynamic driver at work within the hybrid driver array. But, the thing that initially threw me was a seemingly soft, muted treble that gave me the impression that the UE Live has a notably warm and dark tonality. The detail that I’m accustomed to hearing above 8kHz felt conspicuously absent and left me wanting more. Unsure as to whether this was a deliberate choice from Ultimate Ears based on the needs of onstage performers, or simply reflective of their “house sound”, I then spent a couple more weeks listening solely to the UE Live to get a better idea as to what they’re like to use as your primary tool for music enjoyment.
More so than any other headphone, speaker, or IEM that I’ve listened to over the years, the UE Live completely changed in character the more I listened to them. And the more I listened to them, the more I became enamoured with their powerful, velvety and organic tone. All the detail that I thought wasn’t present was most definitely there, it’s just presented in a uniquely different kind of way. Now I say that the UE Live changed in character over time, but I think it really is the kind of IEM that simply takes some getting accustomed to if you’re going to be able to truly appreciate its timbre and presentation. I’m not a huge believer in headphone or IEM “burn-in”, but with a good 150+ hours of listening put through this UE Live review pair I can’t rule out that those drivers and crossovers may have changed in character somewhat over time. The simplest explanation is usually correct, however. And in this case, I think I just started enjoying the UE Live for what it is: a rich, powerful-sounding IEM that shines thanks to its incredibly natural tonality rather than “dazzling” with strident detail and technicalities. Its mid-range detail and attack - particularly evident on electric guitars feels softer and rounder rather than overtly crisp and aggressive, but it’s a characteristic that actually suits the UE Live’s overall style of recreating music.
While it isn’t what I’d call a “reference” tuning in the classical sense, the UE Live’s powerful, organic presentation and subtly textured ability to layer instrumentals and vocals with genuine realism eventually became my “new normal”, and they simply make music sound bloody enjoyable. By not force-feeding treble information into your brain, the UE Live allows you to lean back and leaves you room to think - you have all the information you need to hear (and enjoy) in a track, but I can imagine that if you’re trying to sing or perhaps ad-lib a guitar solo over the top of it, the UE Live would be the perfect creative accompaniment.
Not having the benefit of playing any live music over the course of my time with the UE Live, one thing that made me appreciate its tuning and abilities was enjoying live music recordings - a decent proxy for what it would be like to monitor the performance on-stage. Live recordings can often blur all instrumental tracks together into one indistinct “blur”, but not so with John Mayer’s Where The Light Is (Live in Los Angeles) album when listening via the UE Live while I was spending some time driving around on a ride-on lawnmower. Even with the 95dB or so noise from the lawnmower, I was easily able to not only hear, but enjoy listening to this terrific example of a live blues concert. Each pluck of even the lowest bass guitar notes in Good Love Is On The Way were precise, weighty and tactile, while it was easy to groove along in time thanks to the distinct and physical-sounding drum and cymbal strikes.
The UE Live’s 8-driver hybrid set-up does a genuinely great job of giving every instrument in the band a faithful and distinct performance, and it’s able to hop between genres and styles with aplomb. Whether it’s the precise grinding percussion snaps of Nine Inch Nail’s Only, or the walking bass and deft piano tinkling of Bill Evans Trio’s Autumn Leaves, you’re able to follow each track coherently - they’re not only accurate in terms of volume and tone, but the UE Live also does a great job of separating them into distinct musical layers. The UE Live does not have a particularly wide or exaggerated soundstage, but manages to sort everything correctly and cogently within your head while listening to it.
Perhaps the most impressive and entertaining listen I had with the UE Live was the brilliant musicianship of the full live band in Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP record. There are some 20+ instrumentalists at work in this complex (and at times wild!) live recording, and the UE Live kept my feet tapping the whole time while managing to let every individual horn player shine distinctly within the mix. It’s live music in its truest and most challenging form, but the UE Live plants you firmly on stage with the band the whole time.
One benefit that the UE Live has, thanks to its incredibly high sensitivity, is that it sounds great out of practically any source device. It’s designed to partner-up with professional monitoring equipment for live performances, but it’ll happily deliver a first-class performance out of even the most modest equipment. I’d happily enjoy it straight out of the headphone jack of my M1 Macbook Air or Apple USB-C dongle with my Pixel with plenty of headroom, and not a skerrick of background hiss or noise-floor. It will, however, reward you with a more deft and articulate performance when paired with more capable source gear. My Astell&Kern A&futura SE200 Digital Audio Player created a greater sense of depth and layering between instrumental parts, making for a more immersive and impressive way to enjoy well-recorded music. The new Astell&Kern A&ultimata SP3000 Digital Audio Player, unsurprisingly, took things up a notch further with greater precision and timing in the UE Live’s bass notes, making its powerful low end feel even more agile and snappy, while its imaging chops and spatial cues also felt a degree more vivid and 3D-like.
From the moment you land on Ultimate Ears’ website to the moment you listen to their UE Live flagship CIEM, you feel like you’re dealing with a product that’s been made by professionals, for professionals. The UE Live is a precision-crafted tool that’s impeccably well-made, and I’m certain that it’ll be giving me year’s-worth of enjoyment while riding shotgun on the road with me, whether it’s stuffed into my pocket or jumbling around at the bottom of my bag.
The UE Live has also made me pause and reflect on what kind of tuning I enjoy when it comes to IEMs. I can say without question that as an accurate tool for on-stage performance it is without peer when it comes to telling you what’s happening in the most challenging of environments. But, it’s also an in-ear monitor that does music like no other, and I mean that sincerely - it’s different-sounding at first, but you’ll eventually realise that it places tone and texture above all else, and that’s ultimately what makes music a joy to listen to. Whether you’re a performing artist or someone who wants to just sit back and enjoy a recording of a performance, the UE Live is first class all the way.