Perhaps as a result, the UE 900 does a much better job than most of its like- priced peers when reproducing the subtler elements of vocal or instrumental expression. Through the UE 900 it becomes easy to hear instrumentalists pour intensity into certain individual notes to give them added emphasis and it is likewise easy to read the presence of heartfelt emotion (or lack thereof) in vocal lines. Through these ‘phones you can instantly tell the difference between musicians who are playing with real conviction versus those who are merely “going through the motions.”
To hear what I mean, just listen to Doug MacLeod’s ‘Lost Like the Wind at Night’ from Unmarked Road [AudioQuest Hybrid SACD]. The song opens with MacLeod singing “Every once in a while/we got to have a war/ and I’ll be damned/if I know what for...” and as the line is delivered one can hear through the UE 900s qualities of righteous indignation and sardonic black humor in the singer’s voice. MacLeod continues with his indictment of war and warmongers until he reaches the song’s chorus, where he steps up and his energy level and sings, “...and I wonder/’bout these few words I write/ will they be heeded/or lost like the wind at night?” At that self-reflexive moment, you hear in MacLeod’s voice both sadness— presumably at the thought that the song might be treated as entertainment but little more than that—coupled with a plea for his words to be heeded and given consideration—not merely thrown to the winds and forgotten. My observation is this: great audio products don’t just try to reproduce sounds and textures in recordings; they dig deep for the thought and emotion that give those sounds meaning and value. This, in a nutshell, is a major part of the UE 900’s appeal.
Similarly, the UE 900 navigates spatial cues in the music in a surefooted and revealing way, allowing listeners to discern in an instant the difference between mixes that capture multiple layers of 3D spatial information versus those made in a ham-fisted way with instruments hard-panned to the left or right and with little information in between. While I won’t tell you the UE 900s offer soundstaging “just like great loudspeakers do,” which would be an implausible stretch, I will say that they vividly convey a sense of three-dimensionality and spaciousness in records where those qualities are actually present.
For a good example of this, try listening to Eva Cassidy’s rendition of ‘Stormy Monday’ from Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street] through the Ultimate Ears ‘phones. On this track, the UE 900 faithfully captures the vibe, feel, and all-round acoustics of a great vocalist backed by a potent electric band in a small-to-mid-size club. In fact, the sense of realism is so uncanny that you might feel tempted to raise your hand to order a fresh round of drinks for your mates as you listen—until you remember that the whole experience is actually unfolding in your head and not in a real club. In my experience, this ability to get listeners to buy in to the musical reality of the moment is a rare thing to find amongst earphones and is a quality that sets the UE 900 apart.
Down in the bass region, the UE 900 proves deeply extended and appropriately powerful, though always taut, well defined, and very well controlled. Frankly, listeners acclimated to the sound of the many bass-heavy ‘phones on the market might at first think the UE 900s are bass shy, though this isn’t the case at all. In point of fact, the UE 900s are capable of deep, clear, and downright prodigious low frequency output when the music warrants. It is just that the UE 900s, much high-accuracy loudspeakers such as Avalons or Magicos, refrains from producing gratuitous bass until low-frequency content is actually present in the music, and even then the UE 900 simply shows you the bass that’s present without embellishment or exaggeration. But when significant low-frequency content comes along the UE 900 instantly rises to the occasion, holding forth with power, clarity, and terrific low-end pitch definition.
What drove this point home for me was listening to the Choeur-Radio-Ville-Maries performance of Dubois’ Les Sept Paroles Du Christ [Fidelio]—a lovely choral recording with pipe organ accompaniment that I found most instructive. Much of the time the emphasis in this piece falls upon the vocal soloists, the choir, and on the middle and upper registers of the organ. But, at certain key moments, the organ introduces powerful, very low frequency pedal notes (think of notes with serious energy way down in the subterranean 20Hz – 40Hz region). Without skipping a beat or becoming flustered in any way, the UE 900 reproduced those notes with power and grace and then carried on with its usual articulacy and resolution. It’s a deeply moving experience to hear those potent low-frequency notes rise up out of nowhere and then gradually dissipate in an accurate, believable way—an experience few earphones can render as convincingly as the UE 900s do.