Well… the truth hurts. It is neither of those. The new UE18+ is basically an entirely new model, and newer doesn’t mean better.
The Original and the Revolution
In the old days of the audiophile community, the UE18 was a flagship that not many cared about. It was like how the Live is today; it was primarily used by on-stage musicians at the time and not many audiophiles cared for it for one reason or another. My time with the original UE18 was short but somewhat memorable in that it was a shock to my senses. It was bloated, muddy and had no resemblance to any kind of “hifi” sound I was familiar with.
The UE18+ on the other hand was a complete 180 in tuning direction. Rather than filling the signature with bass and bloat to overcome the stage environment, the UE18+ was warm, smooth and characterised by a highly pleasant midrange. It wasn’t exactly neutral due to its warmth and relative slowness but its main draw was its presentation. Vocals sounded right, strings sounded right, winds sound right… it was essentially a midrange master. Sure, the drop in midtreble killed off quite a bit of snap and definition to plucked strings and percussions, but if that wasn’t a dealbreaker then one would be hard-pressed to find another monitor that did timbre like it.
In short, the UE18+ was something really unique in the audiophile game. It had, as my friends would call it, a certain “magic” or “special sauce” that made it such a joy to listen to. Make no mistake, to some it may still be reference monitor, but it was a monitor that sounded a lot more real than the typical sterility and dryness commonly associated with the studio sound.
Eighteen the Third
The latest iteration of the UE18 is what I would define as “cookie cutter”. It is a monitor, and with that there isn’t much else to praise it for. It also isn’t a very technical IEM; the 2nd generation UE18+ may have been a timbre and coherency specialist but its technical ability wasn’t exactly top-dog by most audiophile’s standards. The soundstage was small, the separation was at bare minimum of acceptability and its detail retrieval was average in the TOTL industry.
The 3rd Gen is different in a few ways. First, it is less thick in the midrange. Second, I detect a treble boost, though I am unsure if it is due to the reduction in note thickness. Third, it doesn’t sound as “natural” as the 2nd Gen and is tuned in such a odd way that the tone is now completely off balance.
Imagine what happens when you take away the aforementioned “magic” of what made the UE18+ a UE18+. The vocals doesn’t flow as well as it did anymore. The strings lose their body and satisfactory reverb. The midrange as a whole sounds okay but had nothing special going for it. At this point, what you’re left with is the UE18+’s technical prowess, which isn’t much to begin with in the first place. The UE18+ 3rd Gen is just. Another. Monitor.
The 3rd Gen is different enough to be a completely separate model and that is the issue. Instead, UE has replaced their still-very-capable 2nd generation UE18+ for what I believe to be a completely average (in terms of TOTL), directionless monitor. In terms of the typical audiophile customer, there isn’t much going for the new UE18.
You wouldn’t buy it for neutrality; the UERR (just to name one) does that job far better.
You wouldn’t buy it for bass response; it’s still just as bad as the old UE18+.
You wouldn’t buy it for mids; the tone has been knocked out of balance.
You wouldn’t buy it for treble; sure it does have more perceived treble than its predecessor but there were too many compromises.
You wouldn’t buy it for technical ability; the market is saturated with technical IEMs that the new UE18+ cannot compete with.
At very least, I wouldn’t buy it.