Posted on November 17, 2012 by Steve Mu

A Little Bit of History…

My first foray into the world of audiophiles started with an iPod. The iPod was announced in 2001, although I didn’t get my first one until latter half of 2002, and by 2003 iPod was well on its rise to market dominance. Even though iPod wasn’t the first hard drive based MP3 player, it was by far the most elegant, most usable, and most fashionable. Despite all its hardware design prowess, just like how Mac used to ship with anemic keyboard and mice, iPod also shipped with a loathsome earbud of questionable quality.

This qualitative mismatch led to a natural inclination for me to start searching for a better option. After all, pairing up a $20 earbud and a $500 device doesn’t make all that much sense to me. If I was carrying around a thousand songs, wouldn’t I want to make sure they sound at least half decent? I think it was around this time that my friend Dave pointed me to the Head-Fi forums, and the incredible sinking money pit that is audiophilia.

The landscape for portable headphone was quite different back then, most portable headphones were some variations of cheap earbuds. There were very few players in the niche now widely known as IEM (in-ear monitors). In-ear monitors are basically earplugs with speakers built in, with most higher end IEMs using some variation of balanced armature drivers found in hearing aids, and some lower end versions which uses dynamic drivers. IEMs work their magic by creating a seal with your ear, isolate external sounds, and manipulate a small pocket of air to create intricate, detailed sound reproduction.

IEMs are also widely used by musicians as a way to protect their ears. Before IEMs, musicians will have to combat the loudness of stadiums by cranking up their own monitor speakers just to be able to hear themselves. Over time, most musicians end up with some amount of hearing damage. IEMs reduces the incoming decibles significantly and now almost all professional musicians can be seen on stage with them.

Etymotics was probably the first company to make IEMs that wasn’t just for professional musicians, but also audiophiles. The characteristics of BA drivers allows them to create an incredible amount of detail, but at a smaller dynamic range. So around the same time that iPod started getting really popular, and companies like Shure started entering the market with dynamic driver based IEMs, which offered less detail but more bass. Eventually Shure released dual-driver IEMs that had separate drivers so it can cover both the high and the lows better than single driver IEMs.

Of course it didn’t stop there, before soon audiophiles were looking at companies like Ultimate Ears and Sensaphonics, who produced multi-BA-driver custom IEMs that were custom molded to fit your ears. This is where the professional musicians and the audiophiles collided. While some companies, like Sensaphonics, stuck to the professional musician market, others like Ultimate Ears fully embraced the rising population of consumers that wanted better sound from their portable devices.

Ultimate Ears continued to expand its custom IEMs, and started developing a multitude of universal fit IEMs as well. Ultimate Ears became such a well known brand, that Logitech acquired the company in 2008 for $34 million. For the most part since the acquisition, UE hasn’t introduced many new products aside from a few low end IEMs and small refreshes to their older models.

That all changed this year when Ultimate Ears announced a whole series of new full-size headphones and in-ear monitors. And UE 900 is their new top of the line, quad-driver IEM.

UE 900 – Construction

There are only a few quad-driver IEMs in the market, and it’s pretty amazing how they fit four drivers into such a small housing. Some of the quad-driver IEM, such as Sony’s XBA-4, has housing that sticks pretty far out, therefore doesn’t quite fit inside of your ear, and UE’s last generation flagship, the TripleFi, also had this same issue. Others manage to fit four drivers into a housing that is shaped more to the contour of your ears, such as the Westone W4.

UE 900’s construction is somewhere in between those two types of design. The housing is contoured in a shape that will roughly fit inside the ear, but also sticks out just far enough to not fit completely flush for people with smaller ears. The attachment point for the earphone cables are round plugs which can be swiveled in any direction. These new types of plugs are also seen on the newer Shure earphones and UE’s own custom IEMs. They’re supposedly more sturdy than the older two-prong plugs, as the two-prong sockets are known to wear out and loosen over time.

Leading into the cable is a section of memory wire sleeve that loops around the top of your ears. The memory wire sleeves are shrink wrapped at the end to integrated into the headphone cable, while a lot of other IEM will just have an open-ended sleeve. From there, the braided cables will help prevent tangling to a degree. Unlike some of the other IEM cables, it doesn’t have a “joint” where the right and left cable meets. It seems to be simply twisted into a single line with a rubber/plastic shrink-wrap at the joint.

You also get two variations of the cable in the box, one with an iPhone remote and one without. By default the one with iPhone remote is attached, but I’m guessing more than a few audiophile will lament any signal degradation that may be caused by having additional components in the line. So a cable without iPhone remote is included for those who may not need it. The iPhone remote on the cable is very well constructed, this is not a cheap knock-off iPhone remote. The button presses is a mixture of a smooth “squish” and a subtle “click”, the tactile feedback is much better than the default iPhone remote. As of right now there’s no pricing to the replacement cable should you need any, but I’m curious to whether or not this cable will work on other IEMs that uses similar plugs.

UE also generously included five silicone sleeves and three comply sleeves for proper fitting. Most other companies ship IEMs with only three silicone sleeves, while UE’s assortment offers the gradations in between the three traditional sizes. It does not come with a triple-flange tip, so if you’re used to using triple flange for deeper insertion and isolation, you may have to look elsewhere for a sleeve that will fit the size of the bore.

The bore on the UE 900 has two ports, where some proprietary design is used to separate the different drivers and feed them through the bores differently. Having separate bores for different frequency minimizes the mixing of sound before it enters your ear. There are a few IEMs now with multi-bore design, but what makes UE 900’s bore design unique is the combination of a normal sized port, with a tiny “micro-port” that forces some sort of acoustic resonance inside the bore chamber before it exits. Time will tell if this micro-bore will become a problem, as it may get obstructed more easily.

There is a very thorough analysis on the design of the micro-port here: udauda’s headphone analysis blog

 UE 900 – Ergonomics

As mentioned earlier, UE 900’s housing is contoured slightly to roughly fit the shape of your ear, but for those with smaller ears, they might be able to find a way to fit the UE 900 outside of their ear as you with would TripleFi or XBA-4. There are usually two ways to create a proper fit with universal IEM, either by using a sleeve that is small enough to fit deeper into your ear canal, or using a sleeve that is larger and creates a seal outside of your ear canal. By using a smaller sleeve, you get a deeper insertion, which in turn will allow the housing of the UE 900 to sit inside of your ears. If you used a larger sleeve, it should in theory, push the UE 900 out further so it’ll no longer sit inside of your ears.

I was stuck somewhere in between, since I wouldn’t find a fit that will push the UE 900 out. Since I usually prefer a flush fit anyway, I would’ve rather had the UE 900 sit deeper inside my ear, but my ears weren’t quite enough to fit the housing. The housing kept pushing up against the inner backside of my ear, creating a small amount of irritation over time. It wasn’t something I couldn’t get used to, but it wasn’t completely ideal.

As with most of the Shure and Westone IEMs, the UE 900 is only meant to worn in one direction with the cables coming out of the earphone pointed up and wrapped around the top side of your ears. This is in general, a superior design with IEMs, because the “ear plug” nature of their design will also allow any acoustic transference of sound back through any movement of the cable. For example, if the wire of the cable is brushing against your shirt. By looping the cable around the top of the ear, it “anchors” the cable and dampens any vibration that is being passed through. In this configuration, sound transference is usually close to non-existent.

However, the memory wire of the UE 900 is a little bit inflexible, as it’s not quite as moldable as the memory wire on competitor’s products. So getting them into the write shape to wrap around the top of your ear can be a challenge at first. The problem is slightly exacerbated by the new cable attachment design, where the cable can be rotated 360 degrees, thereby making finding the right orientation for the memory wire a little hard as well. Overall it’s not a big issue once you get used to it, but there is a slight learning curve.

UE 900 – The Sound

One would assume that by virtue of this being the new flagship universal IEM for Ultimate Ears, it would inherit a similar sound characteristic from their previous flagship, the TripleFi. In actuality there are only some slight similarities between the sound of TripleFi and UE 900. TripleFi has a bit of a reputation as being an IEM that is extremely punchy, with a healthy about of mid-bass kick that makes it suitable for music with fast pace and strong beats.

By no means is UE 900 worse than TripleFi at all, in fact UE 900 has much better bass extension, reaching deep notes that TripleFi can barely reproduce. The bass is deep, rumbling with accurate definition and texture. However, the UE 900 does not have the same exaggerated mid-bass hump. So for people who might have loved TripleFi for its exaggerated mid-bass presentation, they might find themselves disappointed with UE 900. Although objectively, UE 900’s bass is more accurate, more neutral, more real, and in every way superior to TripleFi.

Also surprising, for a company that traditionally had a very forward sound, the treble on the UE 900 is much more controlled than any other Ultimate Ears product I’ve ever tried. For some ears they might even consider the treble to be recessed. I’ve always had a disdain towards headphones with too much sibilance in the upper register, and UE 900 achieved an amazing balance of reproduction and control to me. The treble might have lost a bit of sparkle, but it also reduced some of the ear-piercing fatigue. For people who like a darker presentation of their music, this is pretty much a non-issue.

Overall, this is by far, the best universal IEM that Ultimate Ears has ever created. The presentation is close to neutral, but you can sense that there is a conscious effort here to balance “fun” and “usable” alongside neutrality. I believe that a more “neutral” presentation would be akin to the old UE-10 Pro (custom IEM that is discontinued now, with the UE Reference Monitor being the closest analog), where you would get the same bass extension but also a much sibilant and forward treble. There were some conscious choice to shape the sound of the UE 900, if ever so slightly, to reduce the amount of fatigue that can sometime accompany a very transparent and detailed sound reproduction.

In the end, UE 900’s sound is a carefully crafted compromise between transparency, neutrality, and average consumer acceptance. I think it’s an incredible achievement that they got to this balance with suffering much in detail and sound.

Final Thoughts

There is no question that UE 900 is worthy of a new flagship. Minor issues aside, the hardware is really well designed with consumer usability in mind. Just look at the attention that was paid to the design of the iPhone remote, and that should tell us plenty about Ultimate Ear’s new direction. It’s not only about bringing high quality audio to the masses, but with “mass” being a key, bring forth a lifestyle product as much as a pure audiophile product.

With that said, UE 900 wasn’t exactly my cup o’ tea. While I appreciate the technical achievement of UE 900, I still preferred using my Sensaphonics 2X-S most of the time. Out of all the  Ultimate Ears product, this is my favorite Ultimate Ears ever. I still think this earphone struck a near perfect balance between “fun” and “neutrality”. Just that my personal taste tend to veer farther away from neutrality, towards a warmer, slightly darker sound.

Still, if you’re looking to try out the best universal IEM out there, you have to give UE 900 a try. For people that’s always loved UE’s sound signature, there’s probably no question they’ll love UE 900. Even for people who aren’t UE fans, this IEM might just have enough to sway them.