This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.
For the past five years, Ultimate Ears has been focusing inward on process improvements and refinements rather than solely on product introductions. We made a conscious decision to ensure that reliability, dependability and stability were the core tenets of all design choices.
In that spirit, we recognized that what our users needed most was a failsafe product they can trust for the entire tour. And while this sounds good and easy on paper, implementing that vision was anything but simple.
In-ear monitors are unique in our industry in the sense that they are an instrument that actually enters the body. They go in your ear canal, which means they are constantly exposed to sweat, earwax, makeup, hairspray and all other forms of gunk. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you were to spill soda onto your console at every show. Or if you were to pour a bucket of water onto your guitar and amp nightly. Bad things would happen.
Related: In-Ear Monitors vs. Things in Your Ears, by Erica Basnicki, July 29, 2015
Historically, we would accept the harsh realities of IEM use and compensate users with top-shelf customer service. When something failed and needed repair, we’d accommodate. We’ve made over 100,000 pairs of in-ear monitors throughout the last 20 years, so we’ve seen it all—every type of issue you can think of. We’ve seen monitors that have been stepped on. We’ve seen monitors so chock-full of earwax that the drivers could no longer even move, let alone resonate. And we’ve seen sweat corrosion quite literally eat away the metal within the interconnect sockets.
After a thorough assessment of all possible points of failure, and with the goal of making a tour-proof, rugged in-ear monitor that engineers don’t need to worry about, we made a strategic plan and a business commitment to address each issue. We’ve been slowly chipping away at that goal ever since. When other manufacturers would announce new products with an ever-expanding number of drivers per monitor, we stayed on the ropes, focusing on 3D modeling for maximum shell wall thickness. When stories went around that we don’t innovate, we kept experimenting with precision-tooled PVC driver housing. And when we lost a long-term customer because something failed in the field, affecting the sound engineer’s reputation because they had recommended Ultimate Ears to management and to their musicians, we apologized, made it right, and doubled down on our transition to cell manufacturing with total accountability, transparent visibility and built-in real-time learning to minimize product issues.
None of these changes alone is sexy or headline-worthy. There’s no pizazz in continuous process improvement. But we stuck to it because we knew that the industry needed this. We knew we could slowly and surely raise the bar on quality while simultaneously increasing manufacturing productivity.
Of course, we also made refinements to our existing products when better technology became available. When we were able to get our high-frequency balanced armatures to push out past 18k at +/-3 dB, we took that to our partners at Capitol Studios to refine our Reference monitors so that they could take full advantage of high-resolution audio recordings. Once we established that protocol, we went even further and doubled up, putting two True Tone drivers in our UE 18 stage monitors.
• Review: Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, by Strother Bullins, June 14, 2011
• UE Pro, Capitol Team on In-Ears, Nov. 19, 2015
We were comfortable with evolving our products because we had committed to solving real-life challenges first. Of course, we were cooking up something special—our recent Ultimate Ears LIVE monitors—but before launching the new flagship, we still needed to address one real pain point.
What still remained were the cable and socket problems, the most common point of failure for an in-ear monitor. For that, we had to look for expertise outside of our industry. We sought out a medical-grade cable manufacturer that specializes in hearing aid interconnects for cochlear implants. If those connections can work in that environment, then we knew they’d work for rock ’n’ roll!
About 18 months ago, we began our co-development process with estron a/s for the brand-new Ultimate Ears IPX Connection System. Our design parameters were simple: We needed a cable and socket system that was sweatproof, weatherproof, lightweight, wardrobe-friendly, comfortable, ridiculously strong and capable of high-resolution audio reproduction.
We also needed testing, validation and stringent tolerances.
We knew that one of the biggest industry concerns was intermittence, so we needed failsafe double redundancies in the wiring schematics. We also knew that in order to combat the fear of intermittence, engineers will routinely disconnect cables after every show in order to clean the sockets and ensure integrity. The problem with this approach is that while all in-ears have user-removable cables, none have been designed for multiple disconnects—so we made sure to test for over 3,000 disconnect cycles.
With all of these realities in mind, we released our new cable and connection system, the IPX Connection System, rated IP67 for waterproofness. They are tested separately for sweat resistance. And they are self-cleaning. At .75 ohms, they deliver enough power to properly drive balanced armatures, which really helps open up the low and high frequencies.
Related: Ultimate Ears Bows Flagship IEM, IPX Connection System, May 2, 2018
The IPX Connection System is now offered as standard on every in-ear we manufacture because each and every customer is deserving of the quality that this system provides. It shouldn’t be an optional add-on; it should be standard. We expect this connection system to cut in-field service needs down to a fraction of what they have been, putting artists and engineers minds’ at ease, day in and day out.
While most headlines and chatter will focus on our new flagship monitor—the UE LIVE, a hybrid dynamic that captures the pure raw energy of playing an 80,000-seat arena—all of us boxing fans will know that the real knockout punch is the cable.
Mike Dias is director of sales and marketing for Ultimate Ears Pro.
Ultimate Ears Pro • pro.ultimateears.com