My Big Idea

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large

Illustration by Baker LeeNote: Baker Lee was among those East Coasters plunged into darkness via a massive power failure resulting from hurricane Sandy, so his column this month combines some new material and with a bit of a classic “FOH at Large” from 2010. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past. —ed.

Just recently, I had a conversation with a former FRONT of HOUSE editor. We were discussing the particular qualities of the different IEMs on the market and, during the conversation, he mentioned that he was getting a new set of Ultimate Ear monitors that very day. I reminded him that, a few years back, I had received a set of UE earsets and that I was going to write about them in this column.

Doing a UE

At the time, he also mentioned that he had a set of Ultimate Ears and had really liked them, until he received a pair of Westone IEMs, which made his UE units sound muffled. I suggested that he try cleaning the wax out of his UE IEMs, but he told me that they were clean and that the Westone’s were just a superior brand. Therefore, it surprised me that he was getting another pair of UE’s, as he was so adamantly opposed to them in comparison to the Westone models.

I suggested, as I have for years, that any company making IEMs would be best served by doing an audio exam of each person while they were getting their ears shot for molds. In this way, the company could EQ the IEM for each musician’s particular hearing or hearing loss, be that the case. At this point, I was told that he was excited about the new UE IEMs, because they did exactly what I was suggesting.

I suppose it would be pure vanity on my part to assume that UE took my idea, but back on September 6, 2010, I wrote an article regarding the Ultimate Ear IEMs and how they would best be served by designing their molds around each individual’s hearing — or lack thereof. Let me say now that I do not consider myself a genius, and I am certainly not a Nikola Tesla suffering at the hands of Thomas Edison, but I do find it coincidental —considering the article I wrote — that UE should now have an IEM/hearing aid.

By the way UE, there is no need to give me credit in any way or form, but you know a check or two every now and then on the side might be a nice gesture to ease my pain and suffering. For the record, sections of the original text are reprinted below.

Fact or Fiction: You Decide

About seven years ago, my mother decided to move into a retirement community and has been living there ever since that momentous decision. I say momentous only because most decisions my mother makes come after long hours, days and months of weighing all her choices and options concerning the required decision. Therefore, I was a bit shocked to learn she purchased a hearing aid without discussing it with me first.

Even though hearing aids are not in my scope of expertise, unlike some of the other topics she has discussed with me, here is a subject that is at least remotely related to what I do. Be that as it may, my mother went out and purchased a very expensive, top of the line hearing aid. Coincidentally, she received her hearing aid on the same day that my very first pair of in ear monitor molds arrived. Go figure.

Since it appears that my mother and I are on a parallel course of sorts, I would like to take this time to point out some of the similarities and differences of our respective situation: She wears her hearing aid in both ears; I wear my molds in both ears. We both went to an audiologist; her audiologist tested her and measured her hearing loss, but did not shoot her ears for a mold. My audiologist did not test my hearing and shot my ears for molds. Her “buds” are, to my knowledge, not fitted specifically for her ear canal, whereas mine are an accurate measure of my ear canal.

Her aid does not have a noise isolation of -26dB when in her ears, while mine does provide that feature. Her aid requires batteries and has a microphone and amplifier built into the processing unit; my molds are passive and connect to an audio source such as a belt pack or IPod. Her aid is tuned to her hearing and has one driver per ear while mine are not specifically tuned to my hearing, but have six tuned armature drivers in each mold. Her aids are discreet and barely noticeable while mine are cranberry red and fill my whole ear. Her aids have a built in microphone and my IEMs rely upon an external drive source for audio. She paid a lot of money for her hearing aids, and while mine are relatively expensive to buy, they were given to a few of us at S.I.R. for evaluation by Ultimate Ears as evaluation samples.

My mother is a classical pianist and is still adjusting to playing piano with her aids in her ears. She says it sounds brittle, but she only has a volume control at her disposal — and not an equalizer, so when she plays, she turns her aids down or takes them out altogether. My assumption is that they tuned her aids to compensate for high frequency hearing loss and probably gave a boost at 1k and above to help her hear speech. After years of hearing herself play with a dip of 3 dB at 1k and above, I would assume it would take a while for her to get used to hearing those amplified frequencies once again. Her audiologist recommends that she leave her aids in while playing so that she can acclimate herself to the sound, and that once she does get used to hearing music with all its restored frequencies, it will be difficult to play without the hearing aid.

Listening Tests

UE generously provided two sets of IEMs to evaluate, with the one model being the 18 Pro and the other model being their new release “In-Ear Reference Monitor.” UE has quite a variety of different models ranging from those with a dual armature speaker to the 18 Pro, which has “Six individually tuned drivers in each ear” and I regret that I cannot hear them all and A/B them to each other to aurally compare the differences, but that said, I am enjoying the experience with the molds I now have in my possession. From what I understand, other than the amount of drivers in each mold, some of the variables between models include frequency response, input sensitivity, impedance and noise isolation — not to mention the different equalization curves of each one.

The UE 18 Pro’s spec sheet lists a frequency response of 20 Hz to 18k Hz with a noise isolation of -26dB, whereas the UE In-Ear Reference Monitor frequency response is noted as being 5 Hz to 17k Hz with the noise isolation rated at a -32 dB. While I could use, and get used to, each of the UE IEMs, I must first say that I probably don’t hear — at best — below 50 Hz, or much above 13k Hz, and I probably don’t hear a great difference in isolation between -26dB and -32 dB. I do think that the UE Reference Monitor has a flatter response than do the 18 Pros, and I would rather use them for mixing and use the 18 Pros for when I am on stage and playing, as there seems to be a bit of a boost in the low-mids, thereby adding a bit of warmth to the sound. Personally, I would opt for the ambient feature, which allows for some of the stage volume to bleed through, but only for the 18s and for onstage work. I wouldn’t want bleed in the Reference Monitors, as I like the isolation when I mix.

Like my mother with her hearing aid, most musicians have trouble at first adapting to wearing ears on stage due to the isolation, which often causes something called the occlusion effect. The occlusion effect is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and trying to sing. This effect is the main reason singers take off one headphone in the studio or remove one IEM on stage. I have spoken to quite a few people who swear by their UE ears and others who swear by different models, and I have seen monitor engineers who just swear because they have four different sets of molds that they use so that they can mix for a band that is all on different sets of ears.

The Next Step

Technology impresses me, and as technology becomes more refined, we, as engineers or players, have to fine-tune our skills to keep up with the new and improved tools at our disposal. One thought I had while comparing IEMs is that many of us, due to the business we are in, are getting older and suffer from some form of hearing loss at one end of the spectrum or the other. So the next step in IEMs would be to equalize each IEM in accordance with each user’s hearing loss. Blending in-ear monitors and hearing aids for the aging soundman or musician might just be the next big thing for us baby boomers. I can see it now, in a few years we will all be carrying a touch pad and mixing our own personal in-ear hearing-aid monitors.