UE’s new flagship consumer earphones sound just like high-end headphones, despite diminutive proportions, and they don’t make a hash of less spectacular sound sources, either.
AS ANYONE WHO’S been following my earphone reviews knows by now, I’m a big fan of Ultimate Ears earphones and I’ve been using the company’s Super-Fi Pro 5 in-ear model since 2007. Many review ‘phones have come and gone but the Pro 5’s have stayed in my ears, thanks to their great sound quality, and in no small part to their replaceable cables – three cables later, these irrepressible ‘phones are still going strong.
Since then, the Ultimate Ears range of products has changed a lot. Actually, these days, it’s the Logitech UE range of products, and when it comes to in-ear models, the 900’s on review here are the flagships. At a fraction under $600, these quad driver ‘phones are by no means a budget product, but there are models in the UE custom in-ear monitor range aimed at professional musicians that run all the way up to six drivers a side and to price tags well over $2000 (check out my comments on the UE18 Pro Custom monitors here and the UE10 Pro’s here).
Features & Construction
That big dollar price means that these ‘phones have to be subjected to intense scrutiny. The first thing to consider when the price tag is this hefty is the looks – fortunately, the 900’s are a gorgeous design, and very modern and stylish as far as little things that pop in your ears go.
The next things to consider are the construction, presentation and features. Like my old dual-driver Pro 5’s the 900’s feature balanced armature drivers, with four of these tiny units housed in each ear capsule, much like Sony’s quad driver XBA-4’s (reviewed here). The 900’s use two drivers to cover the low end, one for the mids and one for the top end. The extra drivers mean that the capsules have to be big, but they’re heavily tapered and narrow smoothly with no edges as they run towards the ear canal. So while they’re not as unnoticeable as the slimmer Pro 5’s, they’re quite comfortable once they’re in place. UE has gone all the way with the various ear tips, and with five sizes of silicon ear cushions supplied plus three different foam tips, it’s no trouble at all to get a good fit. Getting the right fit is vital for comfort and bass response but it also enhances the passive noise-isolating abilities of the 900’s, and with the foam tips, the outside world can be well and truly quietened down.
The cables have stiff adjustable sections at the capsule end, which wrap over the ears and combine with the tapered capsules to keep the 900’s secure once they’re in place. Initially, I had some trouble orientating the capsules because they’re free to spin round and round like a dervish on the cables through 360 degrees. It didn’t take long to get this sorted, but it’s worth looking at the sheer cunning that’s been applied at this critical juncture. The cables are detachable but instead of using a fixed connector with two pins like the one on my Pro 5’s, the 900’s use a tiny split ring on the cable end that compresses into the connector on the capsules. So there’s little chance of twisting or rotation causing damage or of regular cable changes wearing anything out. When using the cable with the inline mic and remote, I did miss the small slider that’s on the standard and Pro 5’s cables, which allows the user to snug the cables tight against the neck so they don’t work loose during vigorous activity. It’s possible to use the little removable shirt clip to more or less do the same thing, but it’s not as effective or as elegant a solution. That said, with the right ear tips, the 900’s tend to stay in place fairly well most of the time.
Two 122cm long cables are supplied – a plain version and one with an in-line Apple remote and microphone. Both cables are the somewhat strange braided versions found on UE’s custom monitors. I’m not convinced that this type of cable construction is as durable as one that encases the conductors in a plastic sheath, but if it’s good enough for pro musos, then it’ll probably go the distance in the consumer world too. If there are any issues, then the cable can always be replaced, a benefit that’s hard to overstate when it comes to six hundred dollar ‘phones – the four hundred dollar Sony XBA-4’s could well be rendered useless in one instant of bad luck thanks to their fixed cables.
One negative with the braided cable is that it’s a high-friction design, so it tends to work itself into frenzied tangles if the user isn’t careful, and these can be a pain in the butt to unkink. The cables are also strongly microphonic, transferring movement and contact to the capsules, although this is only noticeable at low volume levels.
In addition to the multitude of ear inserts and two cables, UE also supplies a hard carry case, a soft pouch, a quarter-inch adapter and an airline attenuator. The attenuator is handy to avoid early onset deafness from all the announcements on a long flight, but UE has neglected to include an old school airline adapter, which is still a necessity on any number of aircraft.
The cleaning tool is also MIA, which is a pity – when the tiny tubes leading to the drivers get clogged with wax (and they most assuredly will at some stage), the user is going to cry. It’s best to stay on top of this grim task, and having the right tool on hand is important; fortunately the one that was in the box with my Super Fi 5 Pro’s is perfect for the job.
The product presentation is excellent, with a heavyweight box and an outer sleeve surrounding a lift-out double layer package. UE has done away with the previous crush-proof aluminium hard case, which was both exceedingly rugged and commendably low in profile. The replacement is a glossy, double-walled, hinged plastic number, which admittedly has space for a spare set of ear tips and the quarter-inch adapter, but it’s too chubby, and unlikely to resist scratches and scuffs as well as the old one could – the extra bulk may not really be relevant to any bar the hard-core explorers out there, but the new case is a fat presence in a slimline laptop bag and even in the front pocket of my backpack.
For six hundred bucks, these ‘phones need to be able to deliver some serious audio goodness; fortunately, they have zero trouble in this regard. UE has been building ‘phones with multiple armature drivers for ages, and with a background in monitor ‘phones for professionals, it’s no surprise that the engineers know what they’re doing.
The 900’s are able to walk the fine line between being very revealing and being too clinical. They’re easily able to capture the nuances of good recordings but they still manage to make bad recordings just about bearable, and to somehow flatter lower quality sources. I spent as much time listening to Shoutcast Internet radio and Spotify streams as I did to high-quality audiophile type recordings at CD quality, and the 900’s never disappointed, except of course with the really bright or heavily compressed recordings that would be agony on any hi-fi system or ‘phones capable of this much resolution.
Much of this juggling ability comes down to the 900’s smooth and warm character, as well as their treble, which is clear and reasonably extended without being too brightly lit. There’s much more treble energy on Sony’s XBA-4’s and a brighter overall balance that’s more likely to have users reaching for the volume control on sibilant recordings. Not so with the 900’s – they make for extremely pleasant long-term listening tools.
Their overall detail levels are beyond reproach, right down to the lowest part of the bass spectrum, where the 900’s provide a hyper-clear window into the sound of upright basses, bass guitars, drums and percussion. The response of the 900’s lowest frequencies is much more linear than previous consumer-focused UE ‘phones I’ve heard; for example, my old Super-Fi 5 Pro’s carry more weight in the bottom end, and they reach lower, but as good as their bass is it actually sounds slightly muddy and bloated compared to the oh-so precise bass on the 900’s. There’s enough of a boost through the mid-bass to give most of UE’s signature sound, but this isn’t enough to mess with the overall accuracy of the ‘phones.
I could have spent a lot more time just listening to the power and textures of instruments like the big drum strikes on ‘Closer’ from Kings Of Leon’s Only By The Night, and then contrasting that with the delicate sounds in the treble range and the clarity of the vocals. Like all really good ‘phones, the 900’s have the instrumental separation that allows you to listen to the smallest parts of the music without losing the whole. Another plus with the 900’s is that they sound big and dynamic even at lower volumes – some ‘phones can’t match this and need lots of volume to really come alive. There’s also a nice three-dimensional quality to the soundstage of the 900’s; they manage to place performers and instruments further out into space and more layered front to back than many in-ear ‘phones I’ve heard.
You won’t be able to hear just how good the 900’s are and how much of the music they can deliver while they’re hooked up to a smartphone or portable music player, even with good quality files. Plugged into my Perreaux SXH2 headphone amp and hooked up to my Marantz SA8260 SACD player with silver Slinkylinks interconnects, the 900’s showed just how much they bring to the party. This isn’t really a case of feeding them extra power, but of more of the source information being delivered to the ‘phones via a very high-quality amplification stage, rather than a DAC and output stage that cost pennies at most. They sounded superb in this exotic environment, revealing remarkable amounts of detail, effortless low-end extension, a smooth treble that’s to die for and a beautifully judged tonal balance. Actually, they sounded much like a smoother version of the ultra-revealing UE 10 Pro monitors – in other words, like high-end headphones, just smaller. That’s high praise but what’s even better is that they can function at this level without making a hash of their day-to-day portable tasks.
I spent many hours with the 900’s, including one late Friday night session that was meant to be “just a couple of tracks before bed” but stretched out till well after two in the morning. I found myself wondering just how good the next song would sound, and like a really good book, I found it hard to put them down and just kept finding excuses to play “one more tune”. That kind of enjoyment means that they’re worth the price, especially when you consider that they’ll last for a long, long time if the owner looks after the capsules. Look at them as an investment in your music pleasure. Pop a new cable on as needed (and you may never need to) and you’ll still be listening to them via your iPhone 12 – assuming that Apple doesn’t change the 3.5mm jack output to some newfangled standard that no one wants or cares about. ASHLEY KRAMER