Perfect Seal Deca ($1450)
Deca and the UE18+ Pro both share a similar intention to sound ‘right’, finding their own way to make tonal accuracy sound beautiful. And in both cases the tuning reveals some audiophile tendencies, such as the neutral quantity of their bass. Their main difference is the warmth in the tone, with the UE18+ Pro being decisively warmer, and smoother as a result.
Both iems construct a classic stage with a wide stage, and average height and depth in good proportions. The UE18+ Pro’s is a bit wider, Deca’s a bit deeper. In both cases the stage is moderately airy, with just the slightest breeze running through. In fact, there isn’t much to separate them here, as in both cases the imaging and quality of separation is very similar. They perform admirably, while not being the most pinpoint precise.
The bass of both the UE18+ Pro and Deca can be considered roughly neutral, although Deca’s is lighter. Especially its mid- and upper-bass is attenuated. As a result, the impact of the bass is not only significantly less, Deca’s overall tone isn’t nearly as warm. In terms of low-end extension and speed, both perform equally well.
The UE18+ Pro’s midrange is warmer, thicker, and full-bodied in comparison to Deca. It isn’t an overly dense midrange, its instruments are greater in body as a result of its linear tuning, while its vocals are impressive. Deca’s midrange is more skewed towards the upper midrange, resulting in a leaner body of especially male vocals and heavier guitars. But it isn’t all lost; by enhancing the upper midrange, Deca’s string instruments truly sparkle and shine. There’s a certain clarity in the signature, without sounding bright. The resonance of an acoustic guitar or violin just feels ethereal, combining an accurate timbre with great beauty. The UE18+ Pro sounds accurate, but doesn’t quite sparkle.
As a result of the upper mid emphasis, Deca’s treble is slightly clearer. But the UE18+ Pro’s warmer treble tone is not only smoother, its more accurate in its timbre. But their tone is also their main difference, as there isn’t much difference in their speed and definition. Their top-end extension however is a different story, and Deca can’t quite match. Accordingly, the UE18+ Pro’s resolution is greater, despite it being warmer in tone.
Empire Ears Zeus-XIV ($2099)
Zeus and the UE18+ Pro don’t have too much in common, while not being completely different either. You could say they find each other in a midcentric signature, but that wouldn’t quite capture how truly different they are. Zeus for instance has a larger, more 3D stage, while it’s more neutral in tone. The UE18+ Pro in turn is significantly warmer, and sounds more natural. But more than anything, this is the battle of the vocal specialists.
Zeus impresses with the quality of its stage. Its width is roughly similar to the UE18+ Pro, but it adds a good deal more depth. Importantly, its layering is more precise, as is its imaging. As a result, the image feels more organized, resulting in better separation, as well as a larger degree of three-dimensionality.
Their bass again is quite different. The UE18+ Pro’s relies more on audiophile qualities such as better low-end extension, and a more natural tone. In addition, its speed is slightly quicker. Zeus however delivers slightly more impact in its hits, partially due to a slightly greater quantity, while its relatively lifted treble provides more clarity in its hits.
But its in the midrange where the true battle is fought, with two of the most impressive midranges facing off. The UE18+ Pro’s midrange is smooth and warm. Its tone is exceedingly natural, an iem built for instruments, as well as vocals. Its vocals are elegant, subtle, and incredibly realistic. Zeus can’t play the UE18+ Pro’s game, but it can beat it on different terrain. For starters, Zeus’ bests the UE18+ Pro in midrange transparency. But more importantly, it impresses with a more denser, solidified vocal – raw vocal power. You listen to Bruce Springsteen with the UE18+ Pro; for Bocelli, you go with Zeus.
Zeus treble is close to neutral, both in terms of tone and quantity. It isn’t particularly bright, but it isn’t warm either. The UE18+ Pro’s treble in turn is the mere definition of a warm and natural sounding treble, besting Zeus in both its timbre and smoothness. Zeus’ treble however is slightly more precise in its definition, resulting in a more detailed treble presentation. While both have good top-end extension, the UE18+ Pro’s is slightly greater.
The first time I briefly auditioned the UE18+ Pro, I thought it might even win the shootout – I found it that good. Its general presentation isn’t anything out of the ordinary in terms of stage and forwardness; but while perusing my favorite bands, the tone felt exactly right – realistic, but nevertheless smooth and natural. A lifelike reproduction, while focusing on musicality. But as always is the case, once you start breaking it down into little pieces, there are always little faults to find. But these aren’t mistakes in tuning – these people obviously know what they’re doing when designing an iem. They’re the result of tuning choices that had to be made, and every one of them has its ups and downs.
In this case, the UE18+ Pro was designed as the ultimate stage monitor for stage performers. I didn’t get this out of a marketing brochure, it’s evident from the tuning. And in my opinion, it probably is. Ultimate Ears accomplished the UE18+ Pro’s natural and accurate tone by attenuating the treble. It not only results in a beautiful tone, it’s extremely smooth to listen to – important for musicians that need to play for hours on end. I would have liked to see the UE18+ Pro in the top 5 because I think it has that potential, especially considering the scoring parameters of this shootout.
But the greatest downside resulting from its lower treble dip, is that its transparency takes a hit – the main thing that keeps it from being one of the truly elite. Because the UE18+ Pro is up there, regardless of its price. It’s a bit of shame, since transparency is one of the more abstract, neglected constructs for most listeners and probably artists. But in a shootout nitpicking over every small aspect, everything counts. Nevertheless, the UE18+ Pro is another personal favorite, and always remains in heavy rotation. It might be an essential piece of equipment for performers, it’s a treat for audiophiles.
Ultimate Ears UE18+ Pro
+Instrument timbre and naturalness
-For some, a touch of sparkle