Ultimate Ears has made many fine universal-fit earphones over the years, but the firm is perhaps even better known for its custom-fit in-ear monitors, which are used by working musicians and other music lovers around the world. About a year ago I visited UE’s factory in Irvine, California to audition and then be fitted for a set of the firm’s then-new custom-fit, in- ear Personal Reference Monitors (PRMs). At the same time, also took the opportunity talk with Logitech/UE Vice President and General Manager Philippe Depallens about upcoming products, one of which was UE 900 universal-fit earphone (£329) that is the subject of this review.
Philippe Depallens explained that the UE 900 plays two roles in the UE product line-up. First, the UE 900 stands as the firm’s flagship universal-fit earphone range, meaning that it claims to be the best-sounding and most technically sophisticated product of its type that UE has ever produced. Second, the UE 900 is a bridge product of sorts—one that deliberately provides a powerful introduction to the kind of sound quality listeners can expect from UE’s upscale custom- fit in-ear monitors. As Depallens put it, “we want the UE 900 to be the go-to choice for recording engineers, producers, audiophiles, or musicians who want true monitoring quality earphones, but who—for whatever reason— choose not to go with custom-fit monitors.” By way of illustration Depallens added that he could “picture recording artists keeping sets of UE 900s on hand to provide as ‘loaners’ for guest sidemen to use in the studio.” Can a universal-fit earphone realistically keep pace with top-class custom-fit in-ear monitors? That’s one question I hope to answer in this review.
As advertised, the UE 900 is technically sophisticated; it features a three- way design implemented through a set of four balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece (two bass drivers, a midrange driver, and a high-frequency driver). The UE 900 also takes big steps forward in terms of comfort, convenience, and ergonomics. Borrowing an idea pioneered in Shure’s flagship SE535 earphone, the UE 900 features signal cables that are detachable, user replaceable, and that smoothly swivel to give the wearer greater freedom of movement and adjustment. This might seem a small, inconsequential design detail, but the impact on comfort and ease of use is significant. With many earphone designs the signal cables seem to dictate how the ‘phones must be worn or where the earpieces must be positioned. The UE 900s, however, never have this problem; you simply adjust their earpieces as you until you find a comfortable fit and the cables smoothly swivel to accommodate you.
As has become the norm for top-end earphones, the UE 900s come with not one but two signal cable harnesses: and audio-only cable geared for audio purists and a smartphone-ready cable that incorporates on-cord mic and remote control switches. Moreover, the UE 900s arrive with a broad array of ear tips (five sizes of standard rubber tips, plus three sizes of Comply-brand foam tips), along with a host of other useful accessories. In short, the UE 900 does a very good job of anticipating the needs and wants of real-world earphone users. But setting this promising background information aside, one key question remains: how does the UE 900 sound?
Before I tackle that question, let’s establish a few ground rules. First, not unlike some high-end loudspeakers, the UE 900s need a bit of run-in time (though only a few hours or so) before showing their full performance potential. Over those first hours, expect the UE 900 to sound progressively more fluid, open, transparent, and relaxed. Second, please note that the UE 900’s are, like most other great earphones we have tried, quite sensitive to amplifier quality. While you theoretically could drive the UE 900s straight from an iPod, we recommend that you use a very high-quality portable and/ or desktop amp in order to hear them at their best. For our tests we used two very high performance portable amplifiers—the Ray Samuels Audio SR- 71B The Blackbird and the ALO Audio Rx-Mk3B, both of which gave superb results and helped the UE 900s to ‘strut their stuff.’
Very early on I found myself captivated by the sheer smoothness, openness, and resolution of the UE 900’s midrange, upper midrange and treble frequencies. Some earphones (even some very expensive ones) show obvious colorations that spoil their overall sound, but the UE 900s do not. Instead, they consistently exhibit tonal neutrality and qualities of smoothness and evenness of balance that makes them seem uncommonly accurate, honest, and—for want of a better phrase—trustworthy. Moreover, the UE 900s deliver nonstop qualities of subtlety, nuance, and sophistication. This isn’t an earphone that bowls you over with artificially vivid low-level textural and transient details, yet it consistently reveals rich layers of information in the music, while also exhibiting effortless and natural transient speed. The key, here, is that the UE 900 shows a beautifully balanced sense of proportion—never dramatizing one positive sonic quality at the expense of another.