Few people upgrade overnight from the free earbuds that came with their MP3 players to $1000+ premium performance earphones. Most work their way, incrementally, up the audio food chain. But for the journey to begin there must be a first step. Priced under $30, the Ultimate Ears UE200 in-ear earphones are positioned to be any future audiophile’s first up-market purchase. They are Ultimate Ears’ second least expensive in-ears earphones, and for $30 the UE200 will clue you in on why anyone would bother using ear-buds that you must actually buy.
Ultimate Ears UE200, technical highlights:
• Earphone Type: In-ear
• Driver type: Moving-Coil/Diaphragm
• Accessories: Five sizes of soft silicon ear tips, plastic carrying case
• Frequency response: 20Hz – 20 kHz
• Impedance: 16 ohms
• Sensitivity: 107 dB/mW, 1 kHz
• Noise isolation: -26 dB
• Weight: 11 g
• Warranty: 2 years
• Cable length: 45 inches (115 cm)
• Input type: Angled
• Input connector: 1/8 inch (3.5mm)
• Colors: Purple, blue, or gray
The sound: The most important part of the musical spectrum is the midrange, (from 500 to 5000 Hz approximately) because that’s where most music resides. Sure, the bass and treble regions are important too. But if the midrange is wrong, no amount of extra tiss and boom will make the sound you hear more musical. Ultimate Ears earphones designers realized this and made a heroic decision; they would create an entry-level in-ear headphone that concentrated on getting the midrange right. This flies in the face of the current and unfortunate trend in “premium” earphones toward maximizing the bass and treble and letting the midrange fall as it may.
Thus, the UE200’s sound is all about the midrange. Compared to Sennheiser CX500 ear-bud earphones (which have a similar street price), the UE200s have a far more natural presentation with a smoother, less peaky midrange and better low-level definition. While the CX500s have substantially more bass energy, their low frequencies are not as distinct as those of the UE200s, with the CX500’s bass quantity outweighing quality. Note, too, that the bass of the CX500s overwhelms the lower midrange, making it slightly muddy and thick. The UE200’s midrange is reminiscent of what I’m used to hearing through the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor custom-fit in-ear monitors (which sell at a much higher $999 price point). In short, the UE200’s midrange frequencies are clear, well defined, and make it easy to listen deep into the mix without having to strain.
Even when the UE200s are perfectly fitted with a complete seal from external noise for maximum bass output, the bass extension and intensity will be less than what many headphone users have come to expect from accessory earphones. In many ways the UE200s remind me of a decent limited-frequency desktop monitor—they give you some impression of bass, but they lack the impact, extension, and dynamic drive of a more full-frequency transducer. But like a good monitor, the UE200’s bass rolls off smoothly with no attempt to enhance the bass with a bump around 100 Hz.
For optimal bass through the UE200s, they must fit right. When they are seated properly the bass on the UE200s may not be overwhelming, but it is certainly sufficient to deliver fundamental harmonics and an even harmonic balance. It may seem counter-intuitive that earphones with less bass can sound more harmonically balanced than ones with more bass. But when you listen to them by themselves, the UE200’s harmonic balance comes across as remarkably neutral.
On the treble side the UE200s gently roll off, which robs the music of some air and openness. But on the positive side the UE200s always remain listenable, even with rude-sounding MP3 sources. Once more, Ultimate Ear’s designers have chosen a course that preserves most of the music, sacrificing only the last bit of sparkle in exchange for a more neutral and less obtrusive frequency response. Even after a long listening session, the UE200s generated a low amount of listener fatigue.
Ease of use/comfort and fit: Ultimate Ears UE200s come with multiple ear tips as well as a plastic carrying case. The case broke the first time I tried to open it; I guess I don’t know my own strength. For most people, one of the five different-sized soft silicon ear cushions should fit them fine. But because of my narrow ear canals coupled with a fairly large outer cavity, finding the right fit among the five choices proved to be problematic. After working my way through all five cushion sizes, I looked through my ear-tip stash where I found a pair of Etymotic Research gray double–flange ER6i-18C ear-tips that fit the UE200s and my ears perfectly. Even during an hour-plus workout I only had to reseat the UE200s twice. The downside is that you can only buy these tips by the pack for $14, which (for me at any rate) would effectively increases the cost of the UE200 earphones by 30%. But for most users with typical ears, one of the supplied ear cushions should work nicely. I tried the largest UE200 ear cushions with a pair of Sennheiser CX 500 earphones and found they made these earphones fit far better than with the double flange ear cushions that originally came with those earphones.