Editors Note – All radio people would like their headphone to be moulded to the ear, wonderful sound, perfectly fitted to the ear. This comes at a price and is generally saved for musicians and stars. This short article previews a US service for moulded earplugs to fit radio earpieces, noise reducing headsets or audio feeds. If you’re serious about custom moulds there are plenty of businesses around, which will make a mould of the ear and return it to you fit on to the device which are required it for.
First things first: This review is for a pair of $999 (direct) custom-molded earphones aimed squarely at musicians. Unlike most custom pairs in this pricing stratosphere, the Logitech Ultimate Ears Vocal Reference Monitors, as the name suggest, are designed with vocalists in mind. The lowest and highest frequencies are decreased drastically, so that the focus is squarely on the mid-range frequencies that vocals inhabit. As you’d expect from a high-end earphone pair that’s custom-molded to your ear canals, there’s no distortion to speak of, but it bears repeating: The UE Vocal Reference Monitorsare a fantastic musical tool, but not designed for typical music listening.
Visually, there are only so many directions you can go with custom in-canal earphones. When they’re in your ears, the outside, flat panel will make it look as if your ears have been filled with a plastic substance. The earpieces themselves are offered in a wide variety of transparent and solid colors. It’s also possible to customize your earpieces with artwork, for a higher price.
As for fit, if you’ve never worn a pair of custom-moulded earphones, you’re in for a treat. Not only do they fit comfortably and securely for hours on end, they also block out ambient noise more effectively than even active noise cancelling headphones can.
A triple-braided, removable audio cable connects to each earpiece, terminating in a 3.5mm connection. There are no inline remotes or microphones to speak of—these earphones are intended for onstage and in-studio use. A gold, screw-on ¼-inch adapter ships with the Vocal Reference Monitors, as well as an earwax cleaning tool and a very sturdy hard case with your name engraved on it.
The fit of the earpieces will have everything to do with the audiologist you choose. The impression process is safe, quick, painless (though it can be uncomfortable for some), and, typically, the audiologist will then send your impressions to Logitech. Turnaround time will vary, but my earphones took about three weeks to arrive after my appointment. The cost for these appointments will also vary, especially if you have medical insurance that might cover your visit, but expect to add on roughly $50 to the price of the earphones.
Discussing the earphones from an audio standpoint is tricky. Someone who typically likes rich or heavy low-end will hate them, but that’s not the point. The earphones act almost like a filter for singers, turning down lower and higher frequencies that can cause listening fatigue over time and compete with the midrange frequencies the vocalist needs to concentrate on.
From a performance standpoint, the Vocal Reference Monitors do not distort on tracks with seriously deep bass, even at maximum, painfully loud volumes. So, these earphones will always deliver clean audio, but remarking upon their sound signature, beyond saying that they’re quite light on bass or sparkling, bright highs, is kind of pointless.
Instead of discussing our typical testing suite, I decided to test the earphones in my home recording studio, laying down some vocals over instrumental tracks I had been recording. Lucky for you, you don’t have to hear the tracks or my vocals, but I tested using some studio-level gear (a Lomo 19A-9 microphone into an Ampex 351 mic pre, with some very minimal compression via a Shadow Hills Optograph and into Pro Tools, for the recording-gear geeks who want to know the signal chain). So, hopefully, this can at least be seen as comparable with a studio or live set-up, though the gear is far less similar to typical live gear, and it’s safe to say my signal chain is not transparent. But that’s not the point—the point is: Did the tuning of the Vocal Reference Monitors make it easier for me to lay down vocals?
One of the more difficult aspects of recording or performing vocals while wearing in-canal monitors is not being able to hear your actual voice much, if at all—you hear only what’s coming through the earpiece itself, really, and it can be disconcerting at first. It’s common to see a vocalist in studio, singing with one headphone ear cup off—many vocalists prefer to hear a blend of the mix and their actual voice occurring in a real acoustic space.
This fact, combined with the very premise of the Vocal Reference Monitors—that they rid the vocalist of unnecessary frequencies—had me approaching testing with a healthy amount of skepticism. A common studio adage is that most musicians want to hear more of themselves in their monitors; the best musicians ask to hear more of the other musicians. Granted, vocals are different because the sound is literally coming from within, but I wasn’t sure, prior to testing, if I agreed with the concept that hearing less of the bass and higher frequencies would necessarily help a vocalist perform better.
In practice, I can say the Vocal Reference Monitors perform as advertised—I felt that my vocals were almost boosted in the mix, although this was not the case. Instead, many of the frequencies they normally compete with were simply not as loud, and thus my vocals, while recording, seemed louder to me. Admittedly, my first reaction was to turn my vocal fader down, so that I felt that the vocals blended a bit more with the overall mix. This was mainly to help my own performance (trust me, I need tons of help).
The pleasant surprise upon turning the fader down? I could still hear my vocals crisply and clearly within the mix—the volume had been lowered, but they still stood out and were intelligible and clear. The lower-mids, and lows, and well as high frequencies, that might have begun to push them down in the mix at that level were not really part of the equation. Basically, no matter whether I had the vocal fader high in the mix, or relatively even with the rest of the tracks, I could always hear my part, and the vocals always sounded crisp.
Again, the earphones were used in a studio, not during a live performance onstage, so the testing does have its limitations. But the earphones block out so much outside noise, it seems likely that what you hear through them will not be competing much with any PA systems, even—they’re as effective as earplugs, if not more so. The mic and mic pre I used are not likely to be found in any live setting, but the point is the Vocal Reference Monitor helped the vocals stand out against a busy mix by lowering the frequency ranges that tend to make them more difficult to hear. It’s hard to see how this would not translate to better clarity in a live scenario as well.
Some vocalists may still prefer to have the full mix in their ears when performing, or having the engineer customize their mix by carving out the ranges that bug them, but the UE Vocal Reference Monitors do a solid job of bringing vocal clarity to the forefront on its own. Personal monitoring preference in both live and studio scenarios will dictate whether this is a necessary tool or not, but these custom monitors inarguably perform a task that many vocalists will find useful.
Comparing the Vocal Reference Monitors with regular stereo earphones seems a bit pointless, given their unique purpose, although we have reviewed other custom in-ear pairs in the past. Some favorites include the $1,150 JH Audio JH16 Pro, brought to you by Jerry Harvey, the founder of Ultimate Ears before it was sold to Logitech, and the $1,350 Logitech UE 18 Pro, another solid option with a far beefier sound signature than the Vocal Reference Monitor. If these are way out of your range, and you’re looking for a simple, effective pair of home studio headphones, the circumaural (over-ear) Sennheiser HD 280 Pro$99.95 at Sweetwater may not be a custom-molded in-canal earphone pair, but it’s comfortable, accurate, and powerful—three necessary characteristics for studio gear.
For the $1,000 (and audiologist visit), the Logitech Ultimate Ears Vocal Reference Monitors will prove an effective tool for vocalists who often struggle to hear their own performance in monitors over booming bass or crashing cymbals. If this sounds like you, the UE Vocal Reference Monitor may just be the solution you’re looking for.