A half-decade of active, high-profile in-ear earphone innovation began to stall out two years ago with the ascendance of Monster’s Beats by Dre headphones, which were heavily marketed to consumers as large, highly visible fashion statements rather than on compact size or sonic quality. The success of Beats led many rivals to focus on creating similar-looking glossy headphone housings or paying for celebrity endorsers, but thankfully, a handful of companies kept toiling on technical and sonic improvements as well. Today, we’re looking at three recent earbud and canalphone designs — AKG’s K391 NC ($200), Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC33iS ($80), and Logitech UE’s Ultimate Ears 900 ($400, aka UE 900) — as well as a high-end pair of over-ear AKG headphones called K551 ($380). The smaller headsets are some of the best we’ve ever tested, while the largest one is a surprisingly big disappointment.
For the most part, Logitech’s 2008 acquisition of leading canalphone maker Ultimate Ears appeared to be quite successful—Ultimate Ears continued to create new high-end “custom fit” earphones, and considerably improved the designs of its more affordable “universal fit” models, each remaining at or near the top of their respective categories. That said, Monster’s marketing of bigger fashion-forward headphones stole attention from the smaller designs Logitech UE specialized in, and pushed the company to release its own over-ear options. UE 900 marks a return to Ultimate Ears’ classic strengths, as well as a step forward: this is the company’s first universal fit quadruple-driver model, a belated but proper sequel to 2006’s triple.fi 10 Pro, arguably giving Logitech UE ammunition against Westone’s quadruple-driver 4 series earphones.
Long-time Ultimate Ears fans know well that the company isn’t new to the multi-driver or even the quadruple-driver canalphone market: the company pioneered the $1,150 custom-fit UE 11 Pro back in 2007, then followed it up with an even more deluxe six-driver UE 18 Pro in 2010. Given its six-year history with similar technology, and the fact that Westone debuted Westone 4 over two years ago, it’s fair to guess that Logitech wasn’t particularly concerned about its competitor, didn’t want to cut into sales of the considerably more expensive UE 11 Pro, or didn’t have the right design ready.
Whatever the reason, UE 900 does almost everything we’d have expected from a modern universal fit Ultimate Ears design—and that’s mostly great news. As impressive as triple.fi 10 Pro sounded at the time, it was a very large canalphone, described seven years ago as “larger and more conspicuous in your ears by a wide margin than many other in-canal earphones.” UE 900 is so considerably smaller that its entire body, silicone rubber tip and all, fits in the same footprint as triple.fi’s main chassis—a loss of around 1/3 the length and perhaps 1/2 the physical volume. Now capable of resting comfortably right outside your ear canal, it now compares favorably to the smallest triple-driver canalphones around, and is less intrusive than the directly comparable Westone 4 series. Logitech has preserved the “blue and black” color theme from triple.fi, switching to a less green and now translucent blue, glossy jet black sides, and chrome accents to further glam up its design. Though the blue coloration could still stand to be more neutral, all of these changes are welcome, and do improve the aesthetics considerably.
One thing that hasn’t changed much with UE 900 is the developer’s thought that the earphones should be worn with their cables over your ears rather than dangling fully down from them—the way almost all consumer canalphones are designed. While Logitech accommodates either preference with a new rotating cable joint, it also incorporates even more conspicuous memory wire than before, complete with a clear plastic jacket around the tops of the otherwise blue or black included braided cables. The only way to hide the clear plastic is to wrap it around your ears, which increases the stability of the earphones while making them look more like hearing aids. Compared with the Frankenstein look of the prior model, this is an improvement, but the difference between wearing UE 900 and, say, UE 700 remains pronounced. Additionally, the braided cabling may appeal to some audiophile users, but it’s quite susceptible to tangling, and we always found that we needed to spend a little time getting UE 900 ready to use as a result. Audiophiles won’t mind this, but regular consumers might.
UE 900 does benefit from some other welcome tweaks. Logitech’s included blue cable features an in-line three-button remote control and microphone unit, which enables you to play/pause, change tracks, adjust volume, take phone calls, and access Siri—all extremely useful additions. While callers deemed the microphone slightly more distant sounding than the one on Apple’s remote and mic capsules, they otherwise called the sound quality very good, and its dangling location from the right earbud remains fairly accessible regardless of the way you wear the cables. Should you want to go remote-free, or just switch colors, the black included cable eliminates the capsule and blue wiring in favor of a more neutral and device-agnostic option. Each has a nicely tapered, highly case-compatible L-shaped headphone plug. Logitech also packs in six sets of rubber eartips in various sizes, three sets of foam eartips, a 1/8” gold headphone plug converter, an attenuator unit, and two carrying cases—one hard with a glossy black plastic exterior, and the other a soft drawstring bag. Although Ultimate Ears’ classic metal carrying case is gone, what’s here feels even more practical, and equally deluxe in both design and execution.
So how does UE 900 sound? As we’ve said in many prior reviews of triple-driver earphones, once you get up to that level of earphone engineering, you’re not only capable of hearing all of the sounds that were intentionally placed in an audio recording; the narrow high-, midrange-, or low-frequency-focused drivers also let you hear imperfections in the recording or compression processes. Quadruple-driver earphones typically go one step further, adding emphasis to one part of the audio spectrum, typically augmenting the low frequencies to create greater bass presence. That’s what’s been done here.
Ultimate Ears has followed the same path with this model as it did when releasing the four-driver UE 11 Pro as a sequel to the three-driver UE 10 Pro: you get all of the impressive high, mid, and low frequency detail of the triple.fi 10 Pro, plus a considerable boost in the bass department. Pop UE 900 into your ears and you’re hearing the full spectrum of sound from twinkling highs to clean vocals and midrange instruments to rich but tight lows. However, rather than presenting bass with clinical, clean definition, there’s also a sense of thump here, equivalent to a subwoofer turned up more than a little past “neutral.” This isn’t the bassiest earphone we’ve ever tested, but by triple- or quadruple-driver earphone standards, it’s definitely in the top three or four. UE 900 is a bit more efficient than triple.fi 10 Pro, as well, so everything seems a little louder and clearer at lower volumes.
But while comparing UE 900 to triple.fi 10 Pro may be useful for those who have stuck with Ultimate Ears’ prior model, the real question is how UE 900 compares against Westone 4—another quadruple-driver design at a similar price point. The short answer is this: if you’re looking for a more lively, engrossing earphone, UE 900 wins. As we noted in our review of Westone 4, Westone used its four drivers not to expand the dynamic range or emphasis of its prior triple-driver Westone 3, but rather to tighten up the mid-bass and bass performance—a decision that made the model clean and clinical rather than exciting. Consequently, the difference between UE 900 and Westone 4 is almost like night and day: Westone 4 sounds muted and restrained, while UE 900 boosts the highs and lows while preserving nearly all of the midrange detail.
The final factor in Logitech’s favor here is the $400 asking price. While $400 remains a princely sum by headphone standards, it’s very aggressive for a quadruple-driver earphone—less expensive than Westone’s four-driver models, Shure’s triple-driver models, and far less expensive than Logitech’s own custom-fit Ultimate Ears model. UE 900 also benefits considerably from the included three-button remote and microphone unit, detachable and replaceable cables, and nice carrying case options. While we’d still like to see the company improve the ergonomics of the cabling, the microphone performance, and the color options, these are fairly small issues with what’s otherwise an excellent universal fit headphone. Based on its combination of excellent overall sound quality, improved comfort, and nice frills, UE 900 is worthy of our high recommendation and A- rating.
Company and Price
Company: Ultimate Ears/Logitech
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads