Posted on March 9, 2013 by Steve Mu

A few years ago, it was pretty difficult for discerning audiophiles to get headphones that are stylish, fashionable, and have great sound. As polarizing as Beats by Dre may have been in the audiophile community, I have to give them some credit for changing the expectation for headphone industrial design. Now there’s a whole new category of “lifestyle headphones” which combines high sound quality with great looks. Sennheiser has the Momentum, Sony has their MDR-1R series, and V-Moda has a slew of great looking headphones. Now Ultimate Ears, who has traditionally focused on IEMs, has also entered the market with a line-up of full-sized headphones.

Today I will be looking at the UE 6000, an around-the-ear (circumaural) high-end headphone from Ultimate Ears.

Design

The UE 6000 uses high gloss plastic for the ear cups, with a metallic plate attached to the side. The UE logo is raised, rather than embossed or printed. On most headphones, the headband is attached to the ear cup using a hinge either around the edge of the ear cup, or directly on top of the ear cup. On the UE 6000, headband is attached into a recess on the top side of the ear cup, completely hidden from plain view, another very nice touch. The outside surface of the headband is finished with a matte, soft touch plastic; and the inside surface has foam lined on the top. The headband adjustment is achieved via an embedded metal band that adjusts with a satisfying click. The headphone is also foldable for transport.

The ear cups are lined with faux-leather covered foam. The size of the ear cup is fairly large, enough to go around the outside edge of most average sized ears. There is minimal amount of pressure/clamping from the headband, so it doesn’t need to be loosened up or stretched out. The inside of the ear cup is finished with a blue fabric that matches the color of the headphone cable.

There is a single port on the bottom of the right ear cup for cable attachment, another feature that we’re seeing more and more on these lifestyle headphones, replaceable cable is always welcome since it’s one of the most oft damaged part of any headphone (the frequency of which seems to go up dramatically if you happen to be a cat owner). On the bottom of the left ear cup is a little button, which will release the left ear cup to reveal the battery compartment inside (more on this later). Finally, on the top edge of the right ear cup, there is a little power switch and a LED power indicator.

Operation

If you noticed, I mentioned in the last paragraph that UE 6000 takes batteries (2 AAA’s, to be exact) and has a power switch. Part of the reason is that UE 6000 does provide a noise cancellation circuit, at the same time the batteries also help the headphone with some slight amount of self-amping to bring some extra oomph without requiring an external headphone amp.

However, unlike a lot of other noise-cancellation headphones, the UE 6000 operates just fine in passive mode. It’s not a requirement to turn the power on. Although if you do, the batteries are rated to give you about 40 hours of listening time. In my month with the UE 6000, I’ve yet to run out of battery, so I would guess that estimation is slighted towards the conservative.

The UE 6000 comes standard with an iPhone-compatible cable. The remote control has large buttons that are easy to operate with a solid clicking feel to them. In my phone calls it performed pretty much the same as the standard iPhone earphones.

Sound Quality: Passive Mode

I actually prefer to use UE 6000 in passive mode most of the time. Without its NC circuit and amp turned on, UE 6000 tend to have a more “audiophile”-like characteristic. The highs and lows are more balanced, and the sound signature is pretty close to neutral. It is overall, a musical rather than analytical headphone. The rising notes aren’t quite as sharp as more analytical/monitor headphones, but that allows the sound to be more relaxed and enjoyable.

The highs are clear without excessive sibilance, with a good amount of “sparkle” from the top without it becoming overbearing. The bass has good extension, accuracy and texture from an audiophile’s point of view; however it might be a surprise for those who are more used to the bass-heaviness that is on most consumer headphones. The amount, not the accuracy, of bass is certainly lacking if you were to look at it from the typical consumer point of view, but to be fair, this is often true with all audiophile quality headphones.

In passive mode, it’s really the midrange presentation that sings (no pun intended?). Instruments such as pianos, guitars, really comes through beautifully. Vocals take center stage with strength and clarity. The combination of the forward mids, lighter high, and neutral bass, produces a soundstage that, although still very extends well on a horizontal plane, compresses just a bit in the front region. This results in an overall flatter soundstage.

Sound Quality: Active Mode

Turning the UE 6000 on revealed its first major flaw: The noise cancellation circuit. Like a lot of other noise cancellation circuit, once turned on, produces a constant background hiss that can’t be reduced by any means. On busier tracks I can easily ignore the noise floor, listening to hip hop, rock, pop really isn’t an issue at all. However with music that has very distinct “quiet” spots, the noise floor is a constant bother.

Having the internal amp on, also changes the sound characteristic of the UE 6000 quite a bit. It instantly turns from an “audiophile”-like headphone into a more typical consumer headphone. The mid-bass becomes much more boosted and powerful, and the highs are also slightly more sibilant, although still nowhere near the sharpness of most monitor headphones.

One would think the mids would also be recessed like many consumer level headphones, but UE 6000 maintained a very good balance between the mids and the boosted bass. It is slightly recessed by comparison with the other boosted curves, but it’s not in itself, much different than when the headphone is in passive mode. So the mids maintains most of its clarity, although the balance of the headphone has shifted quite a bit.

There is also more spatial separation when the amp is turned on. I’m not sure if this was caused by the tonal balance of the headphone, or Ultimate Ears had some other tricks up their sleeves (3d sound emulation, perhaps?). There is more depth in the frontal soundstage, certainly everything sound less flat than they were in passive mode.

The boosted bass in this mode is probably welcomed by some, but in long listening sessions I’ve found the bass to be fatiguing. On some tracks already with heavy bass, you get this reverberating bass that just seems to want to beat you over your head. I’m sure bassheads will love the way the UE 6000 sounds when it’s turned on.

Noise Cancellation Performance

I’ve never been a believer of noise cancellation technology, especially compared with the noise isolation offered by most IEMs. Unfortunately the UE 6000 didn’t do much to change my mind. For most day to day situations, the noise cancellation circuit didn’t do much at all; its best application is still for reducing noise of airplane engines.

I was able to take the UE 6000 on a recent flight, and it did perform much better against the humming of the airplane engine, although the noise reduction is only about half, instead of the silent bliss that most of us were inclined to believe.

Conclusion: Another Fine Mix

I think the overall goal of the new Ultimate Ears lineup is pretty clear, to find that perfect mix between the audiophile and consumer quality sound. While the clarity of the UE 6000 speaks to audiophiles, the sound signature is more consumer friendly, especially in its active mode. Although I have to admit to some level of frustration when I really wished I can combine the characteristics of both the passive and active mode into something else, but just having that type of choice at the flip of a switch is a very worthy accomplishment.

The only other complaint, and it might be a major one for some, is the noise floor with the noise cancellation circuit turned on. I wished that Ultimate Ears could’ve separated the amp and the noise cancellation control, so I can have that choice of putting the headphone into active mode without the noise cancellation. I don’t listen to enough “quiet” music for this to really matter much on a day to day basis, but I imagine people who are heavily into jazz, classical, and ambient music might not be so happy with this aspect.

Comparing the UE 6000 with my recent review of the UE 900, I feel that this headphone is a far better mesh of the audiophile and consumer world than the UE 900. The UE 6000 managed to maintain clarity while not sacrifice musicality, where UE 900 veered into being too analytical and fatiguing for me.

UE 6000 sounds great, minor quips aside, and the industrial design is beautiful. At $199.99 MSRP it’s actually priced very aggressively against other headphones in its category. If I was to pick one headphone that can satisfy the need of portability and sound quality, the UE 6000 would probably be on the top of my list, and that’s just for the passive mode alone.