Good Luck And Trouble

Ash Kramer’s entertaining saga of sweat-soaked foreign gyms, faulty earphone cables, and post-paid service beyond compare.

HEY IT’S A set of blue earphones from Ultimate Ears. Hang on, didn’t I review these things a while back? Well, more or less. Back in January 2013, I put Logitech’s UE 900 in-ear ‘phones through their paces (as seen here). I liked what I heard. In fact, I liked them so much they ended up replacing my much-loved Ultimate Ears Super-Fi 5 Pro earphones, which have been in use since 2007 (as seen here).

WDF-UE900SWith a steady parade of review headphones and earphones making their way into my hands in the time since I reviewed the original UE900 model, I didn’t get to use them much, or even to listen to my Super-Fi 5 Pro’s. However, when I hit the road on an extended trip back in July 2014, the review ‘phone drought hit me. I decided to actually put the 900’s to good use, and they became my main ‘phones (and effectively, my hi-fi system) for what was meant to be the next few months.

This meant that they saw a lot of use, but I wasn’t too worried about their durability. If the Super-Fi 5 Pro’s were anything to go by, they’d be fine – after all, it’s usually the cable that goes bye-bye. My Super-Fi 5 Pro’s are on their third cable. The UE900’s come with a second cable (one with Apple mic, one without), so if the cable packed a sad, I’d be fine. Of course, I still took the Super-Fi 5 Pro’s with me on the trip based on my “one set of ‘phones is no set of ‘phones” logic.

Good thing I did, because the UE900’s did in fact go bang. More or less.

I was training in a hot and dusty, ramshackle gym in Pemuteran, Bali, sweating abundantly in the 30+ degree heat, when the right channel on the UE900’s started cutting in and out. Some detective work revealed that the jack wasn’t the problem, so it had to be something more ominous. Swapping out the cable was my hail-Mary pass towards head-fi happiness, but it didn’t pay off. Neither did checking for earwax, or extensive careful cleaning of the intricate little rotating connectors between the cable and the ear capsules.

It seemed that I was out of luck. Maybe over the course of a few moist workouts, I’d sweated these ‘phones into an early grave? So the Super-Fi 5 Pro’s went back into service, shrugging off sweat, ill-treatment and bad choices in music the same way they always did – effortlessly.

I got in touch with Logitech NZ to ask about any known issues with these ‘phones, only to be told they they’d pulled out of the earphone/headphone game. Who was “they”, I wondered. As it turns out, Logitech has given up on consumer ‘phones, moving strongly into the wireless speaker market with the Ultimate Ears brand. Only the UE Pro range of custom moulded in-ear monitors for musicians is still available.

 

“Maybe I’d sweated these ‘phones into an early grave, so the Super-Fi 5 Pro’s went back into service, shrugging off sweat, ill-treatment and bad choices in music the same way they always did – effortlessly.”

 

I’m sure that Logitech NZ would have looked after me if I was in the neighbourhood, but I was 11,000 km away in America’s Pacific Northwest, so the logistics were problematic. In a flash of inspiration, or perhaps a fit of desperation, I called up Logitech USA – perhaps they could assist with servicing the UE900’s, assuming the ‘phones weren’t damaged beyond repair. I’d had sterling service from Apple USA getting an unhappy MacBook Pro fixed just a week before, so maybe I’d get some joy here too.

WDF-UE900S-2Now, given that these ‘phones weren’t purchased in the USA, were close on two years old, and that I didn’t have a receipt or the original packaging, or all the accessories for that matter, I wasn’t expecting much. However, I’d underestimated the American penchant for customer service.

The lady at the call centre was more than a little helpful. Once I’d assured her that I’d tried both cables, that I’d tried them on more than one device, and that the audio drivers in my computer couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the way the ‘phones sounded on an iPod, she jumped into high gear. I was put on hold for a while, a long while, so she could have a natter with a technical type. When she started chatting again, she had good news.

Logitech USA would happily send me a new set of the UE900S model if I’d send them back my broken set. They’d even send me a prepaid FedEx label to make it easier on me. My first thought was that ‘this was going well above and beyond the call of duty’, my second was ‘lucky me’, and my third thought was ‘known issue’.

As it turns out, there does seem to have been an issue with the connectors on the original models. Which is why the contact points on the UE900S model are now gold plated – theoretically that is (more on this later), and the ‘phones ship with a little tube of DeoxIt contact cleaning solution and cleaning instructions. Perhaps some extra-careful cleaning with a similar solution could have restored my set to working order, but that wasn’t an option seeing as I only figured this out after shipping them off.

A few days later, a box arrived from Logitech. Inside I found a set of UE900S ‘phones. The package is impressive. Most notable is the super-sized selection of eartips suitable for everyone from those with tiny elf-sized ears to those with earholes more like cave trolls.

There are six sizes of soft silicone tips, and three memory foam sizes, along with spares of everything. The tips are mounted on “eartip paddles” so the tips can be tested for size before being mounted on the ‘phones. Interestingly, the user manual recommends trying different tips on each side to make sure to get the best fit. Along with the tips, there’s the aforementioned DeoxIt contact cleaning solution, two braided cables (like the original – one with the mic and remote, and one without), a soft case, a hinged plastic hard case, a small shirt clip and… well, that’s it. I’d like to see an airline adapter here, plus a cleaning tool of some description to deal with earwax and gunk. While we’re at it, a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter is very useful too.

So kudos to Ultimate Ears for all the eartips and the dual cables (not all that common in earphones, more so in headphones) but a few more accessories wouldn’t go amiss in a set of ‘phones at this price.

Hang on again, I hear you say. What price? In fact, who cares? The company isn’t making these ‘phones any more from what I can tell, and while they remain available as backups for professional musicians on the UE Pro site (for the moment), they’re not exactly thick on the ground. So why bother with what’s turning into a full- blown review? They’ll still be out there for a while. Even much older Ultimate Ears ‘phones can still be found on Amazon – the long discontinued Triple Fi 10 model is still out there for example, so if these ‘phones are a good buy now, they might just stay that way for a while.

Image from a review with a large image gallery http://forum.xda-developers.com/general/accessories/review-logitech-ultimate-ears-ue900s-t2864040
Image from a review with a large image gallery http://forum.xda-developers.com/general/accessories/review-logitech-ultimate-ears-ue900s-t2864040

So, onto the ‘phones themselves: Not much has changed, just enough to cause some confusion. Remember the theoretical gold plated connectors? Nope, they’re not on this set. However, these capsules do have the new blue barrel and marginally different ports, and they seem to use ultrasonic welding instead of glue in the manufacturing process. According to the enormous (254 page) UE900 thread on Head-Fi, I’m not the only one who happens to be confused. Buyers have been getting a number of different versions out there – some have what seems to be the original model in the new box, some got totally new ones with gold connectors, or something in between like the set I have. According to a UE spokesman in that thread, they’re all much of a muchness:

“We are aware of the confusion around the UE 900S earphones and wanted to provide clarification. Everyone who has purchased a pair of UE 900S earphones is being sent the correct product, which we fully stand behind in terms of robustness and reliability.

The UE 900 earphones and the UE 900S earphones are sonically identical – both are tested and measured against the exact same specification. The differences between the two earphones are the packaging and the contents within the box…”

Despite this assurance, many posters report hearing sonic differences between the 900 and 900S models. I regret not having the two to compare side by side but I am happy to report that the ‘phones I received (UE900S v0.5?) sound damn good.

 

“Most notable is the super-sized selection of eartips suitable for everyone from those with tiny elf-sized ears to those with earholes more like cave trolls.”

 

They’re still substantially lighter in the bass than the Super-Fi 5 Pro’s but my gut (and ears) tell me that there’s a touch more low end extension than there was before, especially when the foam eartips are in use thanks to the great seal they provide. Funnily enough, they also seem to have a wider soundstage than I remember with performers appearing from further outside of the ears than expected.

The sonic character is still warm, and the all-important top end is much as it was before – treading the fine line between resolving fine details without being so forensic as to make things analytical. This means that most of the music on my iPhone was eminently enjoyable – a feat not so easily pulled off by ‘phones with better overall resolving abilities and a more forward balance such as Sony’s XBA-4’s (reviewed here) or Etymotic Research’s ER4P MicroPro (reviewed here).

You’ll never feel as if you’re missing anything with the UE900S in your ear because they’re not at all veiled, just smooth enough to get the balance between too much and just enough right. They’re particularly good when it comes to dynamics – if the recording allows, these ‘phones will show off shifts in volume with stark intensity. Listening to the hard drum strikes in the intro of ‘Couldn’t Stand The Weather’ from The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble had me reaching for the volume, all the better to experience the way the music seemed to live and breathe. And this was the case on a number of albums that I haven’t heard in a while.

So I still definitely like the UE900S – whether they’re new or new-new. The service I received from Logitech USA was superb, so that has to count in the product’s favour but that doesn’t help people in NZ. What doesn’t help either is the fact that I needed that service in the first place. In my original review, I said, “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.” Well, that’s still the case, assuming the connectors are now rugged enough to deal with daily use. I have to admit to being a little nervous about my shiny new UE900S set.

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have subjected my original set to such a hard life, preferring to use a cheap set of ‘phones for gym use, but you do what you have to do when you have to do it, and of course, build quality should be a given at this price. My Super-Fi 5 Pro’s seem immune to harm (touch wood), so I’ll be using them as my rough and ready road and gym ‘phones when I head off to Thailand. The UE900S set will be used a lot as well, but mostly for listening when there’s less chance of them being tugged, tangled and generally oppressed.

Which brings us to the questions around purchase decisions. Would I buy a set at full price to use as daily ‘phones? It’s tough to say. In my mind, there’s just too much uncertainty around the connectors – it’s impossible to tell what’s actually changed to make this particular implementation of the MMCX connectors more rugged. These connectors are used by a number of manufacturers, so it really shouldn’t be an issue but my own experience and that monster Head-Fi thread make me wonder. Is a drop of DeoxIt every few months enough? One would hope so. I’ll see how this set goes over the rest of the year, and hopefully over the next few years too.

There are an enormous number of competing products out there, so buyers have a lot of choice. My advice to potential buyers is that if these ‘phones pique your curiosity, and you happen to find a set at a sweet price as some on Head-Fi have, then you might want to give them a shot. They certainly sound good enough to make them a good sonic choice. Just don’t get into the habit of changing the cables twice a day – pick one and live with it to give the connector the best chance of a long life. By the way – the consensus is that the black (sans mic) cable sounds better than the blue one. ASHLEY KRAMER

 

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