Ultimate Ears UE900: Hi-end audio for everyone

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The Ultimate Ears UE900 is an earphone born of the marriage of two companies, each a giant in its own right, representing an unlikely yet unsurprising union of quantity with quality. While known most widely for their computer products, Logitech recently acquired Ultimate Ears, a smaller company that was started by engineer and audio industry guru Jerry Harvey, in order to begin offering higher quality audio products to the everyday user. Replacing a long-time portable HiFi favorite, the Triple-Fi 10, the UE900 is Ultimate Ears’ latest high-end earphone, and it easily earns its place among those in its price bracket.

The UE900 utilizes four balanced armature drivers, a type of transducer that was originally designed for use in hearing aids and other hearing assistive devices, but has been adapted for use in earphones. Some earphones use fewer drivers, and while more is not always better, earphones using higher numbers of drivers tend to be more expensive, with most multi-driver setups costing over $200 and some running over $1,000 for hybrid or custom-fit models, of which UE makes many.

In fact, it was their custom molded earphones that first established UE as a competitor in the professional market, making ultra high-end fitted earphones for audiophiles, professional performers, and sound engineers. It was with this pedigree that they branched into the consumer market and became one of the driving forces behind the now rapidly expanding market for high-end universal (non-custom) earphones.

The UE900 continues Ultimate Ears’ pedigree of sonic excellence and adds to the mix a sturdy build along with ease of use that gives this earphone the potential to help bring high-end earphones even closer to the mainstream consumer focus.

With the dawn of the Beats era, which has exposed many buyers who were previously unwittingly limited to the lower quality headphones sold by big box retailers and mainstream consumer electronics outlets to the idea of high quality audio, the demand for better sound quality has become an ever-growing focus of both the tech community and the wider market. Although Beats have granted consumers the new standard of replaceable cables, their own products rarely live up to the durability that this feature suggests.

Fortunately UE seems willing to buck this trend, both with their own full-sized headphones designed to compete directly with Dr Dre’s abominable lovechild, with Monster, the UE6000 and UE9000, as well as with their upscale in-ear counterpart. The UE900’s ergonomic design is smooth, attractive and sturdy. Though it is not without a bit of excess chrome flair, it is built well enough to outlast the two cables that come packed with them.

The UE900 delivers music and sound in a manner that will both please and surprise a first time listener who is unfamiliar with the potential for multi-driver earphones to produce first rate sound and yet will not fail to impress seasoned audiophiles, especially those who are fans of a warm yet balanced sound.

The UE900 sports what is commonly referred to amongst enthusiasts as a “v-shaped” sound signature, meaning that it emphasized bass and treble, or lows and highs, over the rest of the sound; this is an exciting and very popular tuning for headphones of all kinds and even speakers, as it resembles the way most live venues tune their systems and emphasizes the most naturally pronounced and appealing aspects of music.

The UE900 does not possess the kind of whalloping bass that we should expect from most consumer-oriented earphones, but it is still very punchy and well textured. Fans of rock, acoustic and more complex electronic music will be especially pleased with its speed and ability to convey a satisfying impact without sounding bloated or overbearing, the way some more popular high-end earphones, like the Bose IE earphones, Monster Turbine series, and Sennheiser IE8 tend to present their lows. The bass extends very deep and sounds extremely rich, while never overwhelming any other part of the music. It won’t quite rumble like these bass monsters, but it gives a much more realistic presentation of sound.

One area in which the UE900 excels very notably is soundstage, the ability of a headphone to convey a sense of space and ambience in music. This is a quality rarely discussed seriously with earphones, but the UE909 is actually quite capable in this regard, creating a dynamic, spacious soundscape that makes orchestral music, more sophisticated electronic tunes and especially live recordings so much more involving, and I daresay intoxicating, when compared to traditional earphones, or even more popular expensive models like Bose’s IE series.

Lower-bred earphones simply do not possess this level of sophistication and realism, and the difference is extremely noticeable when switching between typical consumer earphones and something truly high-end like the UE900. This is perhaps the area in which the difference between high-end earphones and the kind you’ll find on the shelf (or even in a glass case) at Best Buy is most obvious.

The goods don’t stop there. The UE900 works great as a daily companion for your smartphone, easily replacing headphones and Bluetooth in one fell swoop. It comes well prepared for every day use as a mobile companion: UE includes a carrying pouch and two braided cables right in the box, a black one for audio only and a blue version with iDevice compatible controls (the play/pause/answer button and mic play nice with Androids, too). Both include memory wire to help familiarize new users with the over-ear style fit and keep them secure during active use. Also included is a moderate selection of silicon and foam eartips to help find the most secure, best sounding fit for your ears.

Overall I do not hesitate for a second to recommend the UE900 as an excellent step into the world of high-end earphones; with an MSRP approaching $400, it may be best to tread in the shallower $100-$200 range before diving into something like the UE900, and I always say that higher quality audio products are best appreciated after working up to them steadily in order to truly appreciate the level of sophistication they provide. But, nonetheless, these earphones are impressive in their own right, and if its your style to shoot straight to the top, the UE900, with their sturdy build, replaceable cables, smartphone compatibility, and very user-friendly design, could easily be the first and last stop on your journey, as I’m sure they will be for many in search of truly high-quality portable audio.