If you’ve been around the headphone industry for any length of time, it is possible that the name Jerry Harvey rings a bell or two. Jerry is credited with creating the IEM for Van Halen; we’re staying out of the David Lee Roth versus. Sammy Hagar debate. Word spread rather quickly among bands and sound crews and it wasn’t long before Jerry had more demand than he did time. That is where the Ultimate Ears Switch story begins.
Jerry formed Ultimate Ears with some friends to meet the demand for this new stage monitor. UE continued refining and improving the IEM with the first triple and quad driver models on the market.
Today, Ultimate Ears still provides some of the biggest names in the music business with IEMs with models ranging from two drivers to eight per earpiece. This means that there is an option for just about every musician in the Ultimate Ears line-up.
The UE customer is looking for the best possible IEM; both in terms of sound quality and reliability because they use them both professionally and for their listening enjoyment on the road, airplane, or while commuting.
When your first client is Van Halen it is hard to get much bigger, but over the years Ultimate Ears has collected artists from every corner of the music industry; including Alice Cooper, Metallica, Dream Theater, Clint Black, and Sir Paul McCartney. When one of the Beatles’ uses your products for their global tour — you’ve definitely arrived.
Ultimate Ears Products
With over 100,000 pairs of IEMs sold, Ultimate Ears continues to drive innovation in the category. That may not sound like a huge number but now that the company is connected at the hip with Logitech, those numbers are likely to rise substantially over the next few years.
When I was approached by Ultimate Ears to review a new innovation that they were marketing, I jumped at the chance. I’ve had a couple of UE models in my collection for some time but the chance to add the Live to that list was certainly a welcome event.
The Ultimate Ears Live IEM is the 8 driver hybrid flagship of the UE Line. The Live is tuned very differently from the UE 18+ (which some consider to be their flagship mode) so even at the pinnacle of performance, UE gives the listener options designed to best suit their needs.
The current UE Line-up includes the UE 5 Pro (Dual Driver), UE 6 Pro (triple driver), UE 7 Pro (also a triple driver), UE 11 Pro (Quad driver), Reference Remastered (triple driver), UE 18 Pro (6 driver), and the Ultimate Ears Live (8 driver).
The driver counts listed are per earpiece. As one can see from the lineup, UE is not about making models based on driver count, but instead designing models for particular tunings. The UE 6 Pro uses two dynamic drivers for the bass and a single armature for the top end, while the UE 7 Pro uses three balanced armatures for a more mid-centric tuning when compared to the UE 6.
They are all custom made and the shells are 3D printed using an impression of your ear to create a perfectly fitted shell that reduces outside noise by as much as 28 dB. This is a critical feature of any earphone claiming to be an IEM, because without isolation, an in-ear monitor is not useful on stage.
Time to Switch?
Ultimate Ears have always offered different colors of resin and faceplates to match the style of the performer; although most went with skin tones at the beginning so that they vanished and didn’t become a focal point. Other musicians went for an excess of bling as a statement, but I’ve never understood the point as who can see them from 50 rows back?
In the early days, monitors were often seen as a tool and little thought was given to how they looked. But thanks to Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms where musicians market themselves 24-7, artists are having UE design rather elaborate IEMs to make a statement; better music couldn’t hurt either.
The issue with this is that most consumers don’t have the kind of money to have custom faceplates made to match their wardrobe or mood. Lady Gaga can swing it but very few people I know are willing to have multiple pairs of IEMs to match their mood or choice of outfit.
But like most things in 2021 — customization is a viable option if enough people wave their money in the air. What started as a few questions on Head-Fi, became a torrent of requests that UE couldn’t ignore for the simple reason that someone else would do it.
Ultimate Ears have designed an interchangeable faceplate system called the Switch. UE offers the Switch option on most of their IEM’s as a $199 option with three faceplates.
Additional sets of faceplates can be ordered starting at $99 with materials varying from stabilized woods, metals, custom patterns, and even user submitted designs.
Granted, if you want a 24k gold halo around a rare wood with your custom artwork on it, the cost be as much as the UE5 pro itself.
This option will appeal to many who may play in multiple groups as the skull and crossbones logo of your Friday night death metal project may not be the most appropriate design for your Sunday worship team performance.
I chose the clear faceplate for photos as I always like to show off the internals as much as possible along with the Royal Blue Sparkle and the Color Waves faceplates.
If a user is going to pay a hefty price for custom faceplates, they need to stay put regardless of how much a person jumps around on stage. Losing the faceplates on your IEMs shouldn’t be a concern every time you go on stage and with the Switch system it isn’t a worry.
The faceplates have a bar on the reverse side that locks into a slot and has to be twisted 90° to lock the plate into place. Once locked into place, it is nearly impossible to tell that the faceplates are detachable.
The plates are custom-fitted to the IEM so the edges disappear. If you look at the pictures of the clear face plate on a clear shell, you’d expect it to be easy to see the attachment mechanism but it isn’t.
If you can’t see the mechanism clearly when both halves of the shell are clear resin then the solid color faceplates make it near impossible to even suspect it is there. The blue faceplate shown below looks almost exactly like the Live model without the Switch option, and the only discernible difference is a slightly thicker face.
The Switch gives users the ability to customize a single pair of IEMs to match outfits, moods, band styles, or whatever suits the user. Another enticing option is the ability to purchase two pairs of IEMs with the Switch option on both and end up with 6 different faceplates available and a spare set of IEMs for your gig bag just in case something goes wrong with your primary pair.
In order to do this, both IEMs have to be ordered as single order through the UE custom shop. When you think about it, having two pairs of IEMs and 6 faceplates gives a lot of flexibility and the fail-safe that most performers want without the expense of having to have 6 sets of in-ear monitors to cover that same territory.
When you consider that a single pair of Ultimate Ears IEMs with Switch start at about $700 USD, having a spare pair is well within the reach of a lot of musicians.
To start customizing your UE Switch go to: custom.ultimateears.com
Related reading: UE Live IEM Review