Ultimate Ears UE 5 CSX Are the Ultimate in Custom Fit Sound

Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to review a pair of custom in-ear monitors. Creating them was a long process that required numerous steps. They still work and sound great. Thanks to Ultimate Ears, though, there’s now a better way to get custom in-ear monitors. Let’s start this review by walking through the process of creating the UE 5 CSX.

I have a new pair of custom in-ear monitors, and the process of creating them was far easier. The Ultimate Ears UE 5 CSX are $499. Let’s check them out.

Before diving into the review of these in-ear monitors, let me talk about the pair I got in 2010. In essence, those earphones are the same as those you see musicians wearing while performing. The molding process was the biggest challenge. In order to get the right molds for the earphones, I had to go to an audiologist. That meant I had to make an appointment, drive over to the audiologist, and be subjected to one of the weirder procedures I’ve ever encountered.

The audiologist put a small piece of cotton inside each of my ears and then squirted molding material into my ears. After that, I had to sit and wait until it dried. It felt incredibly odd and, sitting there while it dried, just felt incredibly stupid. When the molds ready, the audiologist pulled out both the molds and the cotton balls. She then packed the molds up and shipped them to the company. Weeks later, I finally received the box with the earphones. Had I been paying for the earphones, the audiology appointment would’ve cost me a few dollars on top of the cost of the earphones themselves. (At the time, the least expensive version with no design customization was $399 plus the audiologist.) They are phenomenal, but the process of making them was pretty terrible. In addition, I have fewer and fewer devices with a 3.5mm headphone jack, so their usefulness is increasingly limited.

I got the okay to order a review sample and went to the UE. There I was able to select the version I wanted- I selected the least expensive, choose the color I desired- I went with clear, choose a halo accent- I chose silver and add custom initials- I added my initials. I hit “order” and then waited for the next step. I was glad to know I wouldn’t need to head to an audiologist.

CUSTOM FIT WITHOUT THE WAIT: Ultimate Ears changed the way people hear music for the better. Until now, custom-fit earphones required scheduling an appointment with a specialist to get an impression of your ear. Our revolutionary at-home Fitkit is changing the way you get your custom-fit Ears thanks to an easy-to-follow app and quick 60-second impression process.

Fortunately, the process of creating my custom Ultimate Ears UE 5 CSX in-ear monitors was far easier than creating my previous pair of custom in-ears.

It began when I received their “Fitkit.” Inside the kit there are four soft, gel ear molds, one set was slightly larger than the others and there were one of each size for each ear.

In addition, the Fitkit included a USB cable that ended in special connectors that fit the ear molds. The process is made easy thanks to the free Ultimate Ears Fitkit app. Available for iOS or Android, it walks you through the process in a simple, step-by-step manner. The patented gel-filled molding tips are initially soft and flexible so they can fit into your ears and conform to the exact shape of your inner ear. The app them triggers the electronics built into the cable and begins the molding process that transforms the soft tips from “their initial gel-like state to their permanently hardened, customized shape.”

I tried both sizes of the soft your molds and selected the one that seemed to fit best. The company makes it clear that it is entirely possible that one ear will need the small size, and the other will need the large size. So while having two sets of earmolds is a bit wasteful- one of the sets doesn’t get used and simply gets thrown out- including both sizes means each individual should get the right fit the first time out.

Once I figured out which sizes I wanted, I placed the molds into my ears in a fairly careful process to make sure it was seated appropriately. I then connected the USB cables to each of the ear forms, connected the USB system to my phone via Bluetooth, and launched the customization app.

It walked me through the process, and then it sent a gentle current through the USB cable into the connectors. This seems to have heated the ear molds just a bit, and, after a few minutes, the app told me the process was done.

When I pulled the ear molds out of my ears, what had been a soft material was now quite firm and perfectly matched my ears. You can learn more about the process here.

The process wasn’t done, however. The app then instructed me to take a series of pictures with the ear molds in my ears, but the USB cable disconnected. Raina helped me do so in the app walked her through the various angles. Once all of the pictures were taken, and I had a chance to double-check them, I press the button in the app, and those pictures were uploaded to the company. Obviously, the point of this step is to make sure that they not only have the ear molds, but they have additional information, so the shaping process to create in your monitors from these molds can be as precise as possible.

I packed up the ear molds and the USB system and shipped it back to the company using the included return label. About two weeks later, I received notification from the company that I hadn’t done the process properly, and they couldn’t make the in-ear monitors based upon the molds I had shipped. A new outfit kit arrived, and I went through the process the second time. I shipped that box back and, a few weeks later, I received my custom UE 5 CSX.

Ultimate Ears notes that their custom ears are “molded to the precise measurements of your personal earprint leading to incredible comfort, fit, and isolation.” They also note that creating a pair takes over four hours and 100 “individuals touchpoints” during the handcrafting process. There’s a reason the UE 5 CSX is the least expensive in the line, but they still start at $499!

The in-ear monitors came in a lovely box reminiscent of fine jewelry.

When I opened it, I found a metal storage tin embossed with my name; that’s a pretty awesome touch!

Inside the metal tin were the in-ear monitors, a Bluetooth cable, a charging dock for the Bluetooth cable, a braided cable with a 3.5 mm connector (more on that in a moment), a short USB to micro-USB cable for charging the Bluetooth cable and a cable clip for those times when you’re using the braided wired cable.

The in-ear monitors fit quite well, and I was impressed with their comfort. I was also amazed at how much ambient noise they cut out, thanks to their fitting and sealing my ears as well as they do.

I opted for the clear custom enclosure so I could see the impressive electronics packed inside something so small as these in-ears.

The UE 5 CSX has two finely tuned speakers that are proprietary to Ultimate Ears, called balanced armatures. These speakers are professional-grade and far superior to the standard speakers found in a majority of headphones. From the award-winning cable system to the connectors and interior wires — you are getting the same exceptional product that touring musicians rely on for flawless performance.

Here’s a picture of what they look like and what each part of the delicate electronics does.

 

Other than the simplified process of getting custom monitors compared to what I previously experienced, the monitors stand out thanks to the included Bluetooth cable. Being able to cut the cord is key in 2019, and these monitors do just that.

The cable has Bluetooth 4.1 with multi-point connectivity. They include an inline, omnidirectional microphone, take 2 1/2 hours to charge, offer 110 hours of standby time and is sweatproof.

On one side of the Bluetooth cable, there is a thicker area that houses the battery and electronics. One side has three buttons and a microphone on the other. There are volume up and down buttons on either side and, in the middle, there is a multipurpose button.

The other side has contacts for the charging dock. There’s a micro-USB port on one end.

Charging the Bluetooth cable is a bit of a pain because it requires the use of this small, easy-to-lose, charging dock. I was surprised to see the microUSB connector rather than USB-C and suspect that will change in the near future. I understand the need to use a charging dock, and while it’s the best way to keep that part of the electronics small and light, I’m afraid that I’ll eventually lose the dock and have to buy a new one.

NOISE CANCELLATION: Ultimate Ears are custom fit to create the closest-fitting seal possible between the earphone and your unique ear shape. The advantage of this fit is the physical exclusion of external noise, or what’s called passive isolation. Passive isolation blocks out the sound that is trying to get in, versus introducing new sounds to block out ambient noise. The result is 26 decibels of noise cancellation, as much, or more, than most other earphones on the market.

It is worth mentioning again that, with the earphones in my ears, I get a fairly good degree of noise isolation. That’s part of the beauty of custom in-ear monitors – they are so perfectly molded that they don’t leave any openings. With these to have even a little bit of active noise cancellation, I think they would completely block out sound. They don’t, but the passive noise isolation is quite effective.

SWAPPABLE CABLES: Each pair of Ultimate Ears CSX earphones come with both Bluetooth and auxiliary cables. Both cables are sweatproof, include a mic for making phone calls and feature our award-winning cable connection system, allowing for a quick and easy transition from your Bluetooth wire to your hard-wired, so when your battery dies, or you want to plug into in-flight entertainment, you can do so with ease.

If you don’t want to use the Bluetooth cable, your battery is empty, or you are flying and want to plug into the onboard entertainment system you can simply disconnect the cable from the in-ear monitors and connect them to the included cable.

The cable is a thick braided material that won’t easily get tangled. It has a small control area along one of the thinner cables that go to the in-ear monitors. Like the Bluetooth cable, it has three buttons volume up, by and down and multipurpose button. It works well, but I’m not thrilled by the 3.5 mm connector. Like the micro-USB connector used in the charging dock, this feels a bit like 2016 or 17. Hopefully, an upcoming version of this product will use USB-C for both charging and the cable. For now, however, using the cable with most of my devices requires an adapter.

To turn on the Bluetooth cable, you simply push and hold the middle button. You’ll quickly hear a voice say, “Power on. “The voice then gives a readout of how much charge remains. I just turn them on so I could listen to them while finishing this review and got the feared “charge me” notification meaning I will be able to use them for a while. One good thing about the charging dock is the fact that it has a small battery built into it. That means you can get some additional listening time- up to four additional hours- from the in-ear monitors even when you are away from an outlet simply by connecting the dock to the earphones.

So how do they sound? At a starting price of $499, these are the “entry-level” (which only have two speakers), but they sound fantastic. If you want wood caps, the price jumps $100 to $599. Mother of Pearl caps are $699, and there are additional customizations that add further to the price. Other models include the three-speaker UE 7 for $899, the UE 11 with four speakers for $1199, and the six-speaker UE 18+ for $1499. These prices also increase depending on the material you select for the caps. In other words, I could have selected a pair of in-ear monitors that are significantly more expensive and, for a moment, worried that my “inexpensive” two-speaker UE 5s wouldn’t sound that good. Of course, I was wrong. Even “just” two speakers sound phenomenal when tuned by people with the expertise ultimate ears has.

As the company explains:

The UE 5 CSX has two finely tuned speakers that are proprietary to Ultimate Ears, called balanced armatures. These speakers are professional-grade and far superior to the standard speakers found in a majority of headphones. From the award-winning cable system to the connectors and interior wires — you are getting the same exceptional product that touring musicians rely on for flawless performance.

CUSTOM SOUND PROFILES: With our proprietary EQ app, you can choose from a variety of presets optimized for different listening experiences. Find the perfect amplitude for podcasts, classical, jazz, or heavy bass — or play around with the frequencies to match your personal taste and then store them in your Bluetooth cable.

And there’s more. What Bluetooth headphones would be complete in 2019 without their own app?!? Yup, the UE Customs work with a special free app that lets you select from a number of presets optimized for various listening experiences.

 

Of course, you can also use it to create your own custom EQ settings. Once you make changes in the app, those changes are sent to the Bluetooth module in the cable and stored. (As you might expect, the app only works with the Bluetooth cable.)

I’ve been using the UE 5 CSX for a few weeks, and I absolutely love them. The noise isolation means I don’t need to crank up the volume. The balanced armatures pump out plenty of sound with deep bass, clear miss, and highs that are crisp but not overly “biting.” And while, based on their guide, my listening habits would best be served by the UE 11 CSX, I have no complaints about the sound mine deliver. All of this combines with earphones that are so comfortable that I can wear them for hours on end without any discomfort.

ALL-DAY COMFORT: Having a secure, custom fit also provides the most important benefit if you use your earphones for extended periods of time — all-day comfort. Ultimate Ears are designed so you can travel, work, listen at leisure and forget about common irritations like ear soreness.

The UE 5 CSX are a prime example of the adage “you get what you pay for.” They aren’t cheap, but they sound amazing, are as comfortable as any earphones you will find, and they can be used in both wired and wireless modes. Sure, I would love to have the option to turn them into True Wireless Earbuds, but, while that option is currently available on the top of the line UE 18+ CSX with Fostex TM2, those monitors are more than three times the price of mine.

Maybe someday I’ll spring for the top of the line, but for now, these are amazing, and I’m loving every minute with them. Check them out here.

Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample of the UE 5 CSX

What I Like: Custom fit can be done in the comfort and privacy of your home; Truly custom fit which is both comfortable and effective at a good amount of noise isolation; Include both Bluetooth and wired cables; Bluetooth cable works in tandem with a free app for EQ customization; Sound amazing

What Needs Improvements: Dongles stink; Dongles with micro-USB stink even more; 3.5mm cables stink almost as much as dongles; Pricey


About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.