Rank #8: Ultimate Ears UE18+ Pro

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Comparisons

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.


Verdict

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
+Vocals
+Instrument timbre and naturalness
-For some, a touch of sparkle
-Transparency

The scoring can be viewed in the introduction post.

Manufacturer website:
pro.ultimateears.com

Dutch distributor:
www.audique.nl

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About Author

Nic is currently in pursuit of a PhD degree in social neuropsychology, while trying not to get too distracted by this hobby. In pursuit of theoretical knowledge by day, and audiophile excellence at night. Luckily for him, both activities are not mutually exclusive which helps to lighten the workload. Always on the go, Nic's enthusiasm for hi-fi is focused on all chains of the portable system: iems, cables and daps.

6 Comments

  1. dongster on

    Hi FLINKENICK,

    thanks for the epic review.

    Could you please tell me how the UE18 compare to the NT6 Pro?

    and a point to clarify, u said UE18 has a dip in lower treble, but you gave it a higher score than the NT6 Pro, which is known for its quality treble? is this just a reflection of your preference or? I mean a dip from what i understand is same as recessed, which is a bad thing or?

    • flinkenick on

      Hi buddy, thanks for the kind words. This is the complicated thing about audiophile terminology, attenuated refers to its response in a frequency graph. But this is something different than recessed; recessed just means it is lacking. The treble of UE18+ is not lacking in this sense, by dampening its lower treble frequencies, they simply created a warmer more natural timbre of its treble, as well as a generally more natural signature.

      You’re asking a very good question about the NT6pro’s vs. the UE18+’ treble. But as it happened, I wrote a very detailed post about the interpreting the scores last week on Head-Fi, and I used the NT6-pro as an example. Maybe I will repost that to THL sometime. In the meanwhile, take a look at it and let me know if you have any questions after. TLDR: both are good treble, but the UE18+’ treble has a more accurate timbre.

      https://www.head-fi.org/f/threads/ranking-the-stars-flinkenicks-2017-iem-flagship-shootout.826876/page-134#post-13551884

      • dongster on

        Hi flinkenick,

        thank you so much for the reply, i read through your post in the link, very insightful, a great read! Especially the part about how hifi companies tune towards older and richer consumer segment, blew my mind a little, never thought about that.

        I listen mostly to k-pop and female vocal/ballads, and enjoy some violin/piano too.

        How do you think NT6Pro UE18+ and SE5 ultimate would perform for such genres? would the lower treble dip in ue18 and the softer nature of SE5U’s treble mean less satisfying female vocal and violin?

        btw do does the silicone make u sweat more than acrylic? thats my main concern with SE5.

        Best,
        dongster

        • flinkenick on

          Hi buddy, my guess is the NT6-pro would be the best match for you. The determining factor here is how you like your treble. If you are you a sensitive listener, the UE18+ or 5-Way would be better. But if you like your k-pop, as well as violins and pianos, to sparkle and shine, the NT6-pro is the easy choice.

          In all cases, the vocal presentation would be satisfying. Even though their vocals are slightly different, the NT6-pro, Ult and UE18+ all have really outstanding vocals. The UE18+ and Ult sound warmer though, while the NT6-pro sounds a bit clearer and sweeter perhaps. UE18+ in my opinion has the most realistic and detailed vocals, but the others are also a treat to listen to.

          I live in a cold European country, so my only concern is rain, not humidity. But I will check with others about silicone and get back to you.

          • dongster on

            many thanks for the response, i might be able to audition a ue18+ and UERR next week 😀

            • flinkenick on

              Nice! Hope they’re to your liking, and let me know if you have any questions after.

              As for the silicone, I asked two others and they said they didn’t have any problems with sweat. But you might want to check with others to be sure if you’re serious about them, maybe people in your own country if possible.

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