Review: Ultimate Ears Sound Tap

December 5, 2017

As soon as a bass player’s work moves out of the bedroom or rehearsal space and onto the stage, a new reality makes itself apparent: It’s hard to hear everyone in the band clearly, including oneself. The plight varies in severity depending on the stage’s size, the quality of the venue’s PA and monitoring system (and its human operators), and bandmates’ volume awareness. Still, dialing in a stage mix that feels comfortable and inspiring is one of the most frustrating bits of playing live, especially because it’s often outside any one player’s control.

One increasingly popular solution is in-ear monitors, rather than (or in addition to) conventional wedge monitors. In-ears isolate monitoring from a stage’s messy acoustic environment, and when properly set up, they are a revolutionary step-up over the old way. One obstacle to the in-ear upgrade is the need to purchase all the associated gear to make it work, typically including a wireless transmitter and receiver pack. The good ones are costly, and then there’s the relative unreliability of batteries and vulnerability to RF interference. Plus, once that’s addressed, there’s the task of convincing a harried live-sound engineer to do a separate line out and mix to the transmitter, a task that occasionally pushes their already overly touchy buttons. All of these hurdles make the Ultimate Ears Sound Tap an ingenious product—and perhaps a must-have for folks looking to make the in-ear leap on a budget.

As its name suggests, the Sound Tap runs inline with the feed to a stage monitor, tapping the signal, transforming it to headphone-level, and feeding it to its ⅛" output jack for connection to a set of in-ear monitors (not included). You then run a cable from the Sound Tap to the wedge monitor, leaving the signal to the wedge unchanged.

The Sound Tap can deal with both speaker-level and line-level signals, for setups with either passive or powered monitors. The speaker-level I/O uses Neutrik Combo jacks, accommodating either Speakon or ¼ " inputs, and the line-level I/O uses combo XLR/ ¼ " jacks. Separate gain and volume controls allow for appropriate gain-staging. The Sound Tap requires two 9-volt batteries, and there is no facility for an external DC input. That would be a cool addition in future revisions. Cleverly, Ultimate Ears includes a threaded insert on the rear to mount the unit on a tripod or a mic stand, helping to mitigate the likely inadequate length of the lead off a set of in-ears. Also helpful is the included headphone extender cable. Our review unit felt durable and was well-constructed, with high-quality hardware and a clean and space-efficient surface-mount circuitboard.

I used the Sound Tap on several gigs, and it quickly proved itself indispensable for blending the immersive presence of loud wedges with the clarity and articulation of my in-ears. Since it had such minimal impact on the monitor engineer’s basic setup, I never got any pushback, and it was empowering knowing I had some control over my mix level. The one time it didn’t quite offer an ideal solution was a venue I played that used bi-amped monitors, fed by a 4-conductor Speakon. The Sound Tap can’t contend with the two separate feeds from the monitoring console, so I was left with just the low-frequency part of the spectrum. This isn’t a flaw of the product, but rather something to account for in certain clubs.

If you’re dipping your toe into in-ear monitoring, or you want a superb-sounding backup for clubs that may not be well equipped for your existing system, the Ultimate Ears Sound Tap is a no-brainer must-buy.

SPECIFICATIONS

ULTIMATE EARS

Sound Tap
Street
$250
Pros Quick and easy way to join the in-ear revolution; clever design
Cons No external power option
Bottom Line Anyone from an in-ear newbie to a big-shot touring pro (or their tech) will love the why-didn’t-I-think-oft-hat Sound Tap.

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