In each comparison I used SP1000 SS and Plenue 2 mk2 as my sources. Also, each pair was volume matched for consistency.
UE Live vs UE18+ Pro – relative to U18+, Live soundstage expands a little wider while the 18+ has a little more depth and more out-of-your-head perception. When listening to both IEMs, the first thing that stands out is the difference in bass response where Live slams harder with a deeper chest pounding sub-bass rumble and a boomier mid-bass punch, giving the sound a more analog “big” speaker feeling, while U18+ sub-bass has a leaner sub-bass rumble and a more neutral mid-bass, more typical of BA driver performance. The same with lower mids, you will hear a thicker and fuller body sound with Live, while 18+ is leaner, above neutral but still leaner when compared to Live. With mids, both have organic musical mids, but Live has a more natural smoother tonality, while 18+ sounds more revealing in comparison. Also, 18+ mids are more forward due to a better balance with the bass. With treble, each has a unique tuning where Live puts more emphasis around 8k and then rolls off the treble to keep it smoother, while 18+ starts to roll off after 6k and then has a distinct peak around 12k to give the sound more sparkle and higher definition. These differences are what keeps me from referring to Live as an upgrade of 18+. Instead, I find them just following two different tuning paths, where Live is suited better for musicians who want a thicker and more analog bottom end with more natural smoother mids and less treble emphasis, while 18+ is for audiophiles who want a more balanced natural revealing tonality with a better treble extension and definition. Also, Live is more efficient, doesn’t have to push volume as loud as 18+.
UE Live vs 64 Audio N8 – In this comparison, Live soundstage has a more intimate feeling while N8 is a little wider and more further out. Both have a very powerful deep analog bass, where N8 hits a little harder in mid-bass and has a faster and tighter overall bass, while Live bass goes deeper, more rounded, and has a bit longer decay. Both have a natural organic mids, but Live mids have a little thicker body and more intimate closer presentation, while N8 mids are more revealing and with a more forward presentation. With treble, the extension is similar in both, more controlled and with less airiness, but Live is crisper in tonality, giving upper frequencies a little more sparkle, making N8 sound smoother. One obvious difference is around 8k peak. This peak is on a borderline between higher definition and sibilance, and depending on the quality of the recording, can swing either way. When I took FR measurements (with Veritas coupler) of both N8 and Live, their FR had a striking similarity, yet they handle this 8k peak differently. You can throw in a poorly recorded track at N8, and it will handle it with more forgiveness in comparison to Live which can be more brutally honest.
UE Live vs EE Legend X – While Live has a decent soundstage expansion, LX goes wider and further out of your head with a more holographic expansion. The biggest difference here, which jumps at you from the first second of listening, is the bass impact which is overwhelmingly more powerful in LX with a more elevated sub-bass rumble and a lot harder hitting mid-bass. Those loathing after a basshead level bass would probably prefer a faster LX slam, while Live bass is more relaxed and with a slightly reduced quantity and longer decay. Both have a thicker fuller body lower mids, and natural organic upper mids, though I find Live upper mids to be a little more revealing while LX is a little smoother in comparison. But in general, mids between these two have more similarities. With treble, Live has a more pronounced 8k peak while LX keeps it under control, but then Live rolls it off while LX picks it up with 12k peak to give its upper treble more sparkle and crisper definition. Still, in my opinion, the most noticeable difference here is in bass response where LX hits a lot harder which I found a little overwhelming for my personal taste.
UE Live vs W80 – Both have a very similar soundstage width, while W80 has more out-of-your-head staging depth. In this comparison the upper hand in bass slam goes to Live which has more sub-bass and mid-bass quantity, going deeper and slamming harder, while W80 with its enhanced low-end response feels more neutral, a little faster, and with shorter decay in comparison to Live. Lower mids are also a little leaner in W80, closer to neutral, in comparison to a fuller body thicker lower mids in Live. In terms of tonality, upper mids (vocals) are closer in comparison, maybe with W80 being a little brighter. The biggest difference here is in presentation which is more forward in W80 while pushed a little back in Live. Part of it also has to do with a signature where W80 bass is more balanced, helping to bring mids more forward, versus Live where the bass has more focus while pushing mids a little back.
UE Live vs CFA Vega – I hear Vega with a wider soundstage, while both have a similar staging depth. In this comparison, Vega stands out with more sub-bass rumble and a harder hitting mid-bass slam. It felt like Vega bass scales up in quantity while trying to maintain a similar quality, maybe just with a little shorter decay. Both have a similar above neutral fuller body lower mids, and quite similar natural organic upper mids. There is a little resemblance here, perhaps with Vega upper mids being slightly more forward. When it comes to treble, both have a very similar 8k peak in lower treble, which is a little more pronounced in Vega. Either monitors are not as forgiving when it comes to poorly recorded tracks, especially with sibilance. Mid-treble has some variations where Live sounds a little smoother due to a sharper roll off, while Vega has a touch more shimmer. But overall, with an exception of scaled up higher quantity bass (Vega), these have a lot of similarities in mids and treble.
From Live spec, it has 10ohm impedance (lower than an average), and 105dB sensitivity, which is also on a lower side. Usually, with lower sensitivity you need to push volume a little harder, but to my surprise I had to lower the volume down by about 10 clicks. In my pair-up notes below I noted the connection type (balanced or single ended) and the volume level. With an exception of my smartphone, everything was tested balanced, and with WM1Z and DX200 w/amp8 – I used 4.4mm adapter.
A&K SP1000 SS (BAL, v54) – wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smooth rounded bass, clear organic mids (nicely balanced), sparkle in lower treble. Overall sound is lush and smooth.
Cowon Plenue 2 mk2 (BAL, v44) – wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smooth bass with a little extra kick, clear organic mids (slightly pushed back, more intimate), a little more sparkle in lower treble. The sound is still lush and smooth.
Hiby R6 (BAL, v37) – wide soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, bass sounds a little faster and tighter, and has a better balance with mids which are smooth and detailed. Treble has a bigger roll-off here, even 8k peak in lower treble is slightly attenuated. I suspect 10ohm output impedance of R6 to have an effect here.
iBasso DX200Ti w/amp8 (BAL, v48) – very wide soundstage, the sound sig is more balanced here, even so bass still has stronger impact, while mids are more forward and more revealing (in a natural way), and treble has more sparkle, even some additional crunch. Probably one of my favorite pair up.
Sony WM1Z (BAL, v63) – very wide soundstage, maybe even wider than DX200Ti/amp8, the sound sig is more balanced, the bass has a deep sub-bass rumble and a faster attack and shorter decay of mid-bass punch which has more control. Mids are natural with a more revealing tonality and layered sound. Lower treble has more accentuation on “s”, with an overall treble being brighter and crisper. Another great pair up to my ears, but at the same any poorly recorded track with sibilance will be more fatigue since it gets more accentuated. I enjoyed it similarly to DX200Ti.
FiiO X5iii (BAL, v32) – even so soundstage has a nice expansion and the overall sound sig was more balanced, I couldn’t get pass the “waterfall” of the background noise hissing which is quite strong here.
FiiO X7ii (BAL, v26) – wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smoother rounded bass, clear organic mids (slightly pushed back, more intimate), sparkle in lower treble. A little bit of background hissing/noise. To my ears, not a bad pair up, just lacking some dynamics.
Samsung Galaxy S9 (SE w/adapter) – a little narrower soundstage, bass has a slight sub-bass roll off, while mid-bass is faster and has a nice punch. Signature is more V-shaped. Mids are a little brighter and less organic, and lower treble is peaking with a little bit of sibilance.
Not the first time I mentioned this, but in the last few years we all got a little spoiled with so many flagship releases that push our expectations to the next level with a desire for more drivers, thirst for more resolving tuning, need of more complicated crossovers, and craving for fancier aftermarket cables. There is nothing wrong with incremental updates and relative improvements, but I realized that even with some of these improvements a new flagship doesn’t have to dethrone the old one. And certainly, a new flagship doesn’t have to follow a set of predefined rules. A company could have multiple flagships, coexisting and targeting different audience, with some preferring UE18+ Pro or UERR, and others going for UE Live.
I do think that UE Live was tuned to please musicians as their primary target, as well as audiophiles who want a more natural organic tonality with more low-end analog quality impact and less treble emphasis. This tuning is not as forgiving as some other smoother tuned natural tonality IEMs because there is a little bit of spike in lower treble, but even with that – the sound is not fatigue or harsh. Another thing that stands out for me is the included SuperBax premium Linum cable with a new IPX connector system ($250 value) which shows that UE takes every aspect of the design very seriously because musician rely on it and us, audiophiles, also get the benefit of this meticulous process improvement. UE updated all their CIEMs with this new connector, and I’m curious now if any other manufacturer will follow it.