Having discussed the new UE Switch technology that allows users to swap face plates easily to suit differing gigs, styles, or costume changes, I feel the need to give the Ultimate Ears UE Live IEM a proper review. The UE Live is not for everyone; the price will certainly deter most people but it’s a fascinating IEM nonetheless.
The Ultimate Ears UE Live IEM was introduced in 2018 and was one of two new models introduced that year which featured dynamic drivers; the UE lineup had previously only used all-balanced armatures.
One would think that after two years of availability, the UE Live would have greater acceptance in the Head-Fi space, but it remains as a bit of an outlier in the flagship category because unlike its rivals, there is no universal fit model available.
UE had previously made some universal fit demo models available at trade shows, but the pandemic put an end to that option. Asking consumers to spend $2,300 on an IEM without giving them an opportunity to spend some time at a show listening to it was not a winning launch strategy.
You can’t blame UE for the lack of shows but both circumstances (price and the pandemic) have made the Ultimate Ears UE Live IEM a bit of a mystery compared to popular flagship models like the Legend X ($2,299) and 64Audio U18T ($2,999).
I have owned the universal version of the UE Reference Remastered IEM and really enjoyed the tuning so when I was told that the Live was that same tuning but taken to another level — I was more than just a little interested to try them.
Who Needs This?
I think it’s fair to ask that question. 99% of the human race is never going to spend $2,300 on a pair of IEMs; I’m willing to bet that 99% are not even aware that one can spend that kind of money on headphones.
Who are these made for? It’s certainly not for the casual listener who wants something simple to use on the train in the morning with their iPhone.
The UE Live are made for discerning professionals who need the perfect balance of detail and musicality. Eight precision tuned drivers reproduce your music with maximum purity and power, while the extreme robustness of the design guards against the rigors of the road.
The IEMs feature a 5-way crossover, 6mm Neodymium subwoofer, 2 low balanced armatures, a subsonic filter, 2 low midrange balanced armatures, 2 high midrange balanced armatures, a singe Truetone+ driver, and 1 mid high balanced armature.
It’s an incredible bit of engineering to fit all of that technology in such a small IEM; another reason why they retail for $2,300.
What’s interesting about the tuning is that it is not perfectly neutral; UE have decided to offer these IEMs with a warmer sounding tonal balance that makes them less of a tool to a degree.
For those who have never listened to music with a pair of UE IEMs, there are a few things to know going in. First off, most of the line is only available as a custom fit; which means that you’ll have to send impressions to have a pair made that precisely fit your ears
Most Audiology practices offer this as a service with prices generally ranging from $50 to $200 depending on the market you are in. Once you send Ultimate Ears your impressions, its takes between 2 to 4 weeks to get your new IEMs depending on backlog and parts availability.
They ship with the IEMs, a linum bax cable, an aluminum pill box style case, and a cleaning brush. If you were expecting a fancy hardened travel case — think again. These are tools for musicians who care about reliability and longevity.
The body is an acrylic resin precisely made from the impressions and should fit like a glove. If not, return it and they’ll rework it until it does fit perfectly. UE has more than 20 years of experience building these types of custom IEMs and 99% of their customers report being very satisfied with the fit without having to send them back for any type of modification.
Connect Me If I’m Wrong Sandy…
2 points if you can decipher that reference.
The connectors might look weird to some people and it’s probably fair to provide some form of explanation. The preferred connection for a lot of IEMs has been the two-pin connector because MMCX connectors have a higher failure rate which is completely unacceptable during a live performance.
Previous generations of UE IEMs used the uncommon 0.74mm two-pin connector and experimenting with almost every connector available, UE has never really been very happy with any of them. MMCX connectors allow for better movement while the two-pin is more reliable but also quite rigid.
There had to be a better answer so UE took their concerns to Estron A/S who manufacture the Linum Bax cable series and asked them to help. The result is the new IPX connector on a Linum Super Bax cable that allows the connector to rotate like an MMCX with the reliability of a hard-wired connection.
The cable itself is a 6 conductor Litz with each of the conductors having 7 individual strands that are barely the size of a human hair. The strands are silver plated oxygen-free copper in a TPA sleeve that is sweat-proof and tank tough.
These were designed from the ground up for working musicians who don’t care about cable rolling and just need it to work every time. The default jack on the new cable is the 3.5mm SE which again shows the target market as most pro gear doesn’t offer balanced outputs.
There are some options for balanced cables both through UE and aftermarket vendors, but the choices are limited due to the new connector type. The splitter is also a neat design and again shows a lot of thought as the chin slider locks into the slider when not in use and can be locked at the desired point on the cable when used.
Far too often, the chin slider moves around during periods of high activity but you won’t have that issue with the UE Live.
These cables are also tiny in diameter and have zero microphonics. Far too many cables today have become jewelry with bright colors and exotic materials and the end result is noise that one can hear in the IEM; something that isn’t acceptable at this price level and for IEMs being used on stage.
These are light, tough, and guaranteed for at least 3000 connect/disconnect cycles. Your typical IEM cable can’t handle that level of abuse.
For $2,300, it’s reasonable to expect a lot from a pair of custom IEMs with 8 drivers. UE basically invented the IEM and the UE Live feature a custom 5-way crossover and drivers that are all custom-tuned to handle specific parts of the frequency range. The result is an IEM with a nominal impedance of 10 ohms and a sensitivity of 105dB/mW.
I tried the UE Live with several different sources but the three I used the most were an RME ADI-2 Pro FS R BE DAC ($1,999), Sony WM1A ($1,198), and the Astell & Kern Kann Alpha ($1,099) DAPs. Remembering the impedance of the UE Live, I wanted to make sure sources were appropriate due to the low impedance of the IEM.
The RME has an output impedance of <0.1 ohms, the Sony WM1A is borderline at 1.3 ohms and the Kann Alpha is 0.8 ohms. All paired well with the WM1A and RME being a little cooler while the Alpha brings a touch more warmth to the mix. Before any serious listening took place, I ran 48 hours of pink noise through the the IEMs.
With a name like “Live” one shouldn’t expect a reference tuning and you won’t find one here. There is bass emphasis and a lower treble push that do indeed make the music seem more alive.
Those looking for an analytical sound will want to look elsewhere as the UE Live are a bit warm, lush, and rich and at moments even a bit thick. It shouldn’t be thought of as lacking detail as it has that in spades but it won’t compete with something like a 64Audio A18T ($2,999) or Vision Ears Elysium ($2500) for absolute detail.
That being said, I would rather listen to the Ultimate Ears UE Live than either of those flagship IEMs when listening for fun or while performing.
There is something very organic and natural to the sound that I don’t find in those aforementioned IEMs and the mild lift in the lower treble makes sure I know where the vocalist is regardless of what else is going on in the mix.
The bass response is solid without sounding bloated or obstructing other elements and retains good clarity while providing more slam and rumble than typical BA bass. The UE Live probably comes in just slightly behind the EE models that utilize the Weapon 9 Driver for absolute quantity of bass but is ultimately a more organic presentation that will never overwhelm you or the mix.
The midrange is simply reference quality; clarity, texture, and just enough energy to make electric guitars come alive but remain very well defined. Strings sound incredibly natural; classical fans will be in heaven with these.
What’s so remarkable about these IEMs is how they are able to handle rock, blues, jazz, and even complex piano concertos so easily. There is a confidence to the sound that you don’t get from a lot of expensive IEMs with every genre of music.
The lower midrange is tilted slightly which helps male vocals cut through the mix and the upper midrange is not shelved back at all; vocalists get equal attention and everything feels very well balanced.
The treble stands out because up to this point, the UE Live trades a little detail for a smoother presentation so I expected more of the same, but the treble instead brings great detail and good top end extension.
There is a push around the 8 kHz mark that is likely responsible for some of the clarity but it is mild enough that it doesn’t set off my aversion to 9 kHz peaks. Roll-off is somewhere right around 13 kHz which keeps the Live from having as much top end energy as some of its rivals. The flip side is that the UE Live never sounds strident or hard unless the mix is really tilted that way.
The soundstage is quite good as well with nice proportions. It isn’t cavernous, but it doesn’t feel like the vocals are pushed up too close to the listener.
I found the width and depth of the soundstage to be source dependent and here the A&K DAP was decidedly better than the Sony WM1A. Imaging is good but due to the focus on musicality instead of absolute precision, specificity isn’t as precise as on some of its rivals.
$2,300 is a lot of money for any IEM. It’s like spending $10,000 or more on a pair of loudspeakers. But is it a reference quality audiophile IEM? The truth is that nobody ever claimed that it was and I’m sure some will find that crazy when we’re talking about such an expensive pair of custom IEMs.
There are certain things about the Ultimate Ears UE Live that I think are exceptional; build quality, driver technology, customization, cable and connector, and many aspects of its sound quality. No IEM is perfect and I won’t pretend that the UE Live are perfectly neutral sounding.
I always review 2-3 pairs of headphones at the same time; it gives one something to compare the various models to and I was fortunate to have the Audeze LCD-5 and Shure SE 846 arrive around the same time.
Having just reviewed the new Audeze LCD-5 flagship over-ear headphones, I have to tell you that the Ultimate Ears UE Live were so good that I wasn’t tempted to take them out to spend more time with uber expensive planar magnetic headphones from California. That’s very high praise considering what I think of the LCD-5.
Musicians looking for a robust and excellent pair of IEMs for their live work, should place these near the top of the list and that puts them in very rare company.
Music listeners with the finances to spend $2,300 on a pair of custom IEMs need to take a serious look. One of the best currently available in a very competitive category and built to last and customize with the UE face plates.
Where to buy:
$2,199. $1,549 at ultimateears.com (Save $650 during Black Friday Sale)