Ultimate Ears have been in the custom IEM space for many years, and one measure of their success and expertise are the dozens of artists who fill stadiums and arenas around the globe who use their products. Their universal and custom wired IEMs start at $550 for the UE 5 Pro and top out at $2,300 for the UE Live; which makes their products a high-end and expensive option for most people.
On the consumer side, they have not had a strong lineup in the wireless category — until now. The UE Fit were launched a few years ago as a “custom” model where users could form the polymer TWS earbud to their ears post-purchase. It was akin to going to the the Audiologist and having them squirt the material into your ear and waiting 15 minutes for the compound to harden. You walked out the door listening to your TWS IEMs.
The UE Fit retailed for $340 USD and achieved a modest level of success in the market; the knock against them was that their sonic performance was only marginally better than a number of other universal IEMs in the market at the same price.
The UE Drops TWS IEMs are a very different kind of product and unlike anything in the category so far.
As we were setting up the eCoustics booth at T.H.E. Show in June, the folks from Ultimate Ears were building out their show space in the adjacent booth and we walked over to take a look. UE had brought their portable infrared laser unit with them which they use to create a model of your inner ear which can be saved as a file for later use.
After listening to a number of UE models this year, I decided to take the bait at the show and had my ear scanned. Three weeks later, a pair of UE Live IEMs arrived and they have proven to be worth every cent. They were not an inexpensive investment but IEMs are my primary way of listening to music and I carry a DAP or smartphone with Dongle DAC with me everywhere when I travel.
What does this have to do with the UE Drops? While waiting for my pair of UE Live to be manufactured and shipped, the company reached out to see if we wanted to review the UE Drop; supply chain and production issues have left these in scant supply and it took almost 6 weeks for the Sapphire gems to arrive.
The UE Drops retail for $449 in a very competitive category with some very impressive products from Sony, Bose, Sennheiser, and Master & Dynamic. Being good or offering a custom fit is not nearly enough as points of differentiation.
UE did not incorporate ANC technology into the earpieces themselves and listeners have to rely on the app for that. The custom fit provides excellent passive isolation but that doesn’t tell the entire story.
|Wireless Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.2|
|Battery Life||8 hours stream time (6 hours in transparency mode) +14 hours cradle = 22 hours total – 4h HFP (voice call) time|
|Quick Charge||5 minutes of charge = 1 hour play time|
|Max Sound Pressure||110db at 500 Hz|
|Wireless Charge||Wireless charging case – Qi standard|
|Tips||Custom handcrafted tips made with FitKit specifications|
|Cable||USB-C charging case|
The industrial design is slightly understated with the outer shell featuring 3 finish options; Rose Quarts, Onyx, and Sapphire Blue. The inner shell is clear giving users a rather nice look at the internal components. I chose the Rose Quartz which offers a slight hint of purple and doesn’t look garish at all. More than a few people have asked me where I got the UE Drops so it would appear that they made the right color options available.
There are separate microphones on the top and bottom of each earbud which performed very well with phone calls. The inner components are housed in a glass-like shell which houses the single 9.2mm dynamic driver.
All of the electronics with the exception of the sound tube are mass produced; which is how UE are able to offer a “custom” shell for each owner and keep the cost at $449 USD.
The rationale for this was to keep the price of the UE Drops at the same level as most mid-tier premium IEMs; you can certainly spend a lot more on custom single dynamic driver IEMs in 2022 and we think that makes the UE Drops a rather affordable option within the category.
The IPX4 rating permits using the UE Drops at the gym or when exercising outdoors; but they might not survive exposure to an intense downpour or the washing machine test.
One additional benefit of the custom fit is that they don’t require adjustment once inserted and I noticed on my walks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which can experience some less than ideal weather, the seal created by the custom fit earpieces did keep moisture out.
The charging case is on the larger side and delivers two full charges to the earbuds for a total of almost 24 hours of playback time at moderate listening levels. Over the past few weeks, I have put more than 100 hours of listening time on the UE Drops and the battery performance has remained consistent.
The size of the case might be an issue for those who enjoy wearing skinny pants but it was fine in a pair of cargo shorts or jacket pocket. The UE Drops are certainly larger than the typical TWS earbuds which is why the case has slightly more girth.
UE include the earbuds, charging case, USB Type-C to USB Type-C charging cable, and a cleaning cloth and tip cleaner in the package.
The control app allows you to customize all of the operational taps, use the pre-set EQ settings, monitor the battery levels for both earpieces and the charging case, and turn the “Transparency” mode on/off.
Transparency mode isn’t advertised as an actual ANC setting, but it does allow you to hear external noise like cars and conversations rather clearly.
Not having active noise cancelling might seem like a huge negative, but the passive noise isolation is rather effective and I managed to use the Drops on flights and not feel that I was really hearing that much external noise while listening to music.
Apple has done a remarkably good job with the call quality of the AirPods and it’s certainly a benchmark that every other manufacturer desires to hit. The UE Drops proved to be one of the better TWS earbuds that I have tried so far when it comes to call intelligibility and stability. The imaging is dead center and voice clarity was quite respectable in some rather remote areas. We even used the UE Drops during a recent eCoustics podcast and had no issues with signal strength or sound quality.
My first inclination was to compare the UE Drops to the UE Live IEMs, but the price difference between the two makes the comparison rather silly; consumers shopping for $400 TWS earbuds are not the same type of customer buying a pair of $2,300 IEMs.
That being said, the UE Drops do offer a taste of the UE Live’s reference quality clarity and presentation; the more expensive UE Live deliver a more linear sounding tonal balance with greater detail retrieval and top end extension.
The bass performance of the UE Live is also rather different; leaner, faster, and certainly better defined. The impact is there but it doesn’t extend as far down as I would have preferred and it lacks some of the richness that the UE Drops certainly deliver.
The UE Drops have a thicker presentation in the bass range but it never feels too loose or wooly; listening to some my favorite Big Head Todd & The Monsters tracks revealed that the Drops strike the right balance between impact, texture, and clarity in the range.
With a single dynamic driver, the tuning needs to be very balanced or one part of the range can overwhelm the rest of the music — UE have done a remarkable job in that regard because the Drops really retain that clarity and impact from the sub bass up into the upper bass.
The midrange is wonderfully clean sounding but there is a slight dip that came across as sounding somewhat hollow with some recordings. Some may confuse that as being ethereal in its presentation, but we really think the midrange dip is stripping away some texture and body that will rob vocals of a degree of warmth that some might really want to hear. That won’t be the case with every recording but it was certainly noticeable to us.
UE has a “house” sound and most of its IEMs offer excellent detail retrieval and clarity; some might call that “accuracy” but I would demur somewhat with that characterization. The UE Drops are not entirely linear with their tonal balance and presentation; the low end has some added richness and the top end has some additional energy and airiness that makes them just lively enough to keep your attention.
The treble strikes the right balance and that extra degree of presence helps create a more spacious sounding soundstage. Stereo separation is excellent and the imaging was surprisingly accurate allowing one to place each performer on the stage in the correct place.
$450 is a lot of money for a pair of TWS earbuds that don’t actually offer ANC technology. From that perspective, they are not a great deal compared to the Sony WF-1000XM4 TWS earphones that offer state-of-the-art noise cancelling and above average sound quality.
The app doesn’t really offer a lot of features and the case is rather large making it something you are not going to carry in your shirt pocket or a tight pair of pants.
Where the UE Drops really shine is the combination of the best possible fit and seal and very good sound quality.
The battery performance is more than acceptable and the ability to charge these wirelessly is an additional bonus.
If you are willing to rely on the custom fit which creates excellent passive isolation, the UE Drops are one of the best “noise cancelling” wireless earbuds we’ve tried in 2022.
Where to buy: $449 at custom.ultimateears.com (available in 3 colors)
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