Critics of higher end audio say that the further up in the price range you go, you begin chasing demising returns. That is, the more you spend, the less and less of a difference there actually is. But to the most hardcore audiophiles, that pursuit is one worth chasing for ultimate audio nirvana.
I’ve been a fan of personal audio for several years now, owning various different MP3 players, smartphones and headphones across many price ranges, thereby giving me a good spread of knowledge on personal audio. That said, it is the higher end of the market that has me captivated and always looking to one-up my last piece of equipment.
Over my several years of personal audio use one of the brands I’ve come to like the most is Ultimate Ears. Their well made products in terms of hardware produce some of the best sound for the price. Many audiophiles loved this company – and then Logitech bought them. More extreme audiophiles simply wrote off any of UE’s future products under Logitech’s hand because they simply weren’t a professional audio company like UE had developed into. But alas, their first products out of the gate as co-branded Logitech | Ultimate Ears products, the UE 9000 over-the-head and UE 900 in-ear models aren’t weak or crap quality in the slightest. Today, I’m going to focus on the in-ear UE 900. (look for the over-the-head UE 9000 review in the coming days).
Build Quality, Fit & Design
When you buy a $400 pair of in-ear headphones, you no doubt expect a certain level of quality not only in the product itself, but the packaging and unboxing experience. In that regard, Logitech | UE did a fantastic job. The materials used in the packaging as well as how everything is laid out within the UE 900′s packaging is top notch. It really feels like a high-end product. Kudos all around.
Inside of the box are a slew of included goodies such as a hard shell carry case and eight sets of tips (Large to XXS silicone tips + L/M/S Comply foam tips). There’s also a spare black headphone cable (with included mic as well) to replace the standard blue cable if it’s a bit to bright for you. Once you find a pair of tips meant just for your ears, UE says you’re good to go with up to 26dB of noise isolation – real, honest noise isolation that doesn’t require batteries.
Moving past the box itself, the actual UE 900s themselves are something to see. The housing that 8 total drivers call home is a semi-transparent blue. It looks cool, sure. But it also lets the geeks out there see through the casing and into the unit itself and fawn over the four audio drivers in each ear.
Size size the UE 900s aren’t the smallest in-ear headphones made – far from it actually. But if you’ve ever used a UE product in the past, you’ll recall that miniaturization and tiny form factors weren’t exactly traits of the brand. That’s not an immediate knock, though. Somehow, in some way, UE made these seemingly large in-ear headphones quite comfortable to use for long stretches, defying physics and making the large(isn) headphones feel smaller than they actually are. It’s quite a feat, really.
While we’re stricken with admiration for the transparent blue housing, bright blue cabling (black cabling is also included in the box) and surprisingly comfortable fit, we’re disappointed to see the long-hated memory wire stick around. The rubbery type hose that covers the first several inches of headphone wire on each ear piece is a good idea at its roots; it’s there to keep your UE 900s in place and the cable from jumping out from behind your ear. In reality, though, the memory fit wire is nothing more than a constant nuisance. I really wish Logitech/UE would abandon it.
Making up for the memory fit wire is a connector system for the ear piece themselves and how they attach to the wires. Like many high end audio products, the cables are easily removable from the ear piece itself. However, they are also rotational for a full 360 degrees meaning you’ll (in theory) never have to worry about tangling or odd insertion/removal. As far as tangling, the UE 900s aren’t the most tangle-free wire I’ve encountered. In fact, they tangle quite easily and untangling them when storing them in a pocket, the included pouch or a bag pocket can sometimes bring about mild levels of frustration.
One would think that because of the heavier, bulkier design of the physical casing, working out with these would be pretty annoying. But after many hours logged at the gym with the UE 900s, I’m pleased to say that they are actually a very good workout set. For starters, they stay put. No matter what I was doing I rarely had to adjust or push the UE 900s back in. One other piece that helps with this is the clip located about a foot down the cable from where it connects to the individual ear pieces. I clipped it on the neck collar of my shirt while working out with a bit of slack between it and the ear pieces, never once having to experience cable pulling on my ears.
(Its worth noting that I’ve been using Phonak PFE 232s for almost a year as my daily drivers, so that’s what I’ll be comparing the UE 900s to on an audio quality level the most.)
All of the above with the exception of comfort could be sub-par, but as long as audio quality is above average or fantastic, none of it matters. Along the same lines, simple driver count doesn’t automatically make one headphone better over another that features a lesser count. Also, just because one model is more expensive also doesn’t inherently mean it is “better”, either. Taking all of these into consideration, are the $399 UE 900 comparable to or better than the $599 Phonak PFE 232s? First, let’s talk about the UE 900s exclusively.
Wow. The UE 900s are a sonic treat to behold. The four driver (per ear) arrangement works. Two drivers deal with low end output while the mid and high range frequencies each get their own driver as well.
Lows, while not overly forward or boomy, are very much present and extend deep – when they need to. If you’re listening to a dubstep/hip hop song, the low end that makes these genres feel alive is very much alive in the UE 900s. For example, in Bassnectar’s “Nothing Has Been Broken and Vava Voom, the UE 900s never miss a beat, wobble or drop.
Flipping to the opposite end of the spectrum, the UE 900s also are pretty fantastic as far as highs are concerned. In busy songs such as Asking Alexandria’s “A Lesson Never Learned” and Periphery’s “Ragnarok”, all of the cymbal action and higher range of strings are very much present but not over the top. More importantly, however, there isn’t an ounce of sibilance. I personally hate sibilance and weird sounding cymbals, so the fact that the UE 900s make them sparkle (literally) is awesome.
Great lows, awesome highs and, even better mid range. The UE 900 definitely does the low and high end of the spectrum well, but the mid-range is where the UE 900s excel. One could call the mid-range on the UE 900s forward and definitely not veiled. Vocals and rhythm/solo guitar is louder and more apparent with the UE 900s than other in-ear models we’ve tested recently. For some, that’s going to take away a bit from low and high end melodies. But for myself, the wider soundstage and lack of mid-range veil is making me find a ton of tiny details in music that I never noticed before because of the mid-range being more recessed. Using the same song from Periphery above as well as many different Linkin Park songs, one can better hear the diverse and multi-layered music present in the mid-range that is often overshadowed by a more “neutral” sound characteristic, or one that favors low end above all else. In As I Lay Dying’s “Repeating Yesterday”, the opening ~1:00 of subtle drum fills sound like you’re sitting *right there* next to the drum set, with the snare drum slicing through the silence with an attack that is also so lifelike we kept closing our eyes and imagining we were actually on stage with them.
One other nice perk of the UE 900s is that despite all of their awesome sound potential, they don’t need hundreds or thousands more in amp and other audio gear to sound their best. True to their mobile-centric design, the UE 900s sound great even straight out of your phone or MP3 player. The 30ohm resistance and 101.2dB sensitivity ratings mean just about anything will drive them well. On our test device, an iPhone 5, we very rarely had to go past ~65% even in louder environments.
Comparisons With Phonak PFE 232
On their own they’re a fantastic pair of in-ear headphones. But what about compared to something like the Phonak PFE 232s which are $200 more expensive and have two drivers per ear instead of four? They hold their own and in some regards are better. You see, personal audio is very much a subjective area. Everyone’s ear canals are shaped differently. And even tiny, tiny differences in ear canal design can lead to huge changes in how a pair of headphones sounds to each person.
I’ve spent countless hours over the last couple of weeks listening to vast parts of my music library and A-B testing between the UE 900s and PFE 232s to see what does what better, and if the UE 900s could actually replace the Phonak PFE 232s as my go-to in-ear. In short: Yes, the UE 900s are now my favorite in-ear IEM at the moment.
Expanding on that, everything I said above about the UE 900s wider sound stage and less “veiled” sound rings true here. The PFE 232s are definitely more reserved in the mid range, though still very clear. The low end on the PFE 232s is a bit warmer and a tad punchier. For those of you who like more bottom end, the PFE 232s do have a slight lead here. On the high end of things, however, it’s not as much of a fight – the UE 900s generally have better highs. One thing that’s always bothered me with the PFE 232s is the weird sound the upper ends of the high frequency range (such as where cymbals live) contain. They’re just too soft and quick. Cymbals don’t sparkle and linger as much as the do with the UE 900s.
So, PFE 232s have better low end, more received, (i.e.: neutral sounding) mid-range and lofty but somewhat odd high end. UE 900s have slightly less bass, more open and forward mid-range and a more sparkly and diverse high end.
To Buy Or Not To Buy
In many areas it’s easy to say yes (or no, don’t) buy this thing. Something like a phone case is straight forward. Ditto for a mouse and keyboard. Headphones, however, are a very hard area. Like I’ve said before, it’s very subjective. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. The best way to test whether or not a certain pair of headphones works for you is to go ears on. Considering very few places have *good* headphones on display to test means you’ll have to take the least efficient route of buying, testing and then returning if you don’t like them, repeating for each new pair until you find one you like.
In regards to the UE 900, if you’re in the $400 market for in-ear headphones, you’re going to definitely want to try them out. The other closest and highly regarded competitor, the Westone 4s, are often regarded by many audiophiles (check out head-fi.org as the better in-ear model with the same awesome mid and high ranges but also a more apparent low end. I’ve tested the Westone 4s as well, but only briefly, and not as extensively as the PFE 232s and UE 900s hence their absence from this review.
In the end, Ultimate Ears’ return to personal audio with new consumer level products under Logitech’s wing is a great rebirth of a once great independent company. The old Super.5 and Triple.fi in-ear models of years past have seen some of their best traits preserved and weaknesses improved upon with the UE 900s, and accomplished at a price point that is more manageable than some of Ultimate Ears’ older flagship products.
For $400, the Logitech UE 900 is one of the best in-ear headphones available at that price point and certainly worthy of your attention.