Laying out four Benjamins to replace an accessory that comes for free in the box with your phone seems, I don’t know, totally and completely stupid.
But after listening to my favorite music through this in-ear headset for the past month, I can confidently say I’d drop $400 of my own cash on a pair without remorse. The only tear I’d shed would be for all my other in-ear headphones, which would go unused forevermore.
The headphones in question: Logitech’s UE 900. They’re the new flagship audiophile earphones from the venerable Ultimate Ears brand, and they’re just as awesome and perfect and beautiful-sounding as you’d expect from a $400 headset.
Ultimate Ears became well known for making custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) and noise-attenuating ear plugs for musicians to wear on stage. Professional IEMs usually require you to have custom molds made of your ears, and the results are super-fancy, but expensive. Later, with the iPod explosion, the company found a way to distill the essentials of its pro-level in-ear design into a non-custom consumer model. Its UE-5c and TripleFi 10 models basically defined the early consumer IEM market, and they are still some of the most well-regarded IEMs among audiophile consumers. (I had a pair of TF10s that I recently retired from service after several years.)
Now, Ultimate Ears — which has since been acquired by accessories giant Logitech — has worked up a new design for its latest flagship in-ear. Like previous in-ear monitors, this one takes many cues from the pro-level models before it. If you want a pair of pro-level IEMs, but you don’t want to pay out the nose for the privilege, this will get you remarkably close for “only” $400.
The UE 900 uses a unique four-driver design: two balanced armature drivers for the low-end, one for the mids and one for the highs. The result is some truly glorious sound, supremely rich from one end of the audio spectrum to the other. The bass is heavy and direct. Mid-range frequencies are perfectly represented, and the chiming highs are only slightly tempered at the very, very top end.
The new flagship audiophile earphones from Ultimate Ears are just as awesome and perfect and beautiful-sounding as you’d expect from a $400 headset.
The clarity? I was totally floored every single time I hit “Play.” In my testing, I listened to songs I thought I knew by heart, and I was able to hear details I’d never picked up on before. Whenever I listen to really nice headphones, I can’t resist the temptation to throw on The Beatles. So imagine my embarrassment when I heard Paul and John whistling in the background during “Taxman” for the first time. Or all the bass string noise in “Come Together” — how could I have missed that the first two thousand times? But there it was. Pink Floyd Animals? I listened to it twice. Oh, and Karajan’s reading of The Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic? As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures.
I got so carried away during the first session, I kicked back on my bed and didn’t get up again until I had completely run down the battery on my iPhone.
This level of clarity and drama of course has a lot to do with the quality of the drivers, but it has just as much to do with the fit. Logitech ships the UE 900s with eight in-ear options for obtaining the best seal: silicone tips ranging from size large all the way down to size XXS, as well as three different sizes of Comply foam tips.
The in-ear fit these require is not for everyone. And just putting the things in properly takes some practice. Like other high-end IEMs, the first few inches of the cable extending out of the ear pieces is made of “memory wire,” a coating that stiffens the cable and lets you bend it into different shapes.
You actually position the UE 900s upside-down, so the cables leave the bodies through the top. Holding the body, you wrap the stiff part of the cable over the top of your ear, then tug it snug and push the rubber tip into your ear canal. This configuration is weird if you’re not used to it, and as a lifelong glasses-wearer, I’d rather not have to futz with memory wire. But the UEs have the most comfortable over-the-ear cable system I’ve encountered yet — certainly preferable to the rigid plastic cable guides you get with some IEMs.
When properly fitted, Logitech says the UE 900s will give you a full 26db of noise isolation. I trust this claim — I listened on city buses, while walking the streets at rush hour, and while at my desk in the bustling office, and I have no complaints about the level of isolation.
The totally immersive experience is enhanced by the braided cabling, which produce only a minimal amount of noticeable noise as it rubs and bumps against your clothes. Because the cable ends run down the sides of your neck, you can wear the main cable across the front of your shirt, or down your back, which is better for runners. An optional collar clip helps, too, by keeping the cable tucked to whatever piece of clothing works best.
I listened to the UE 900s through a couple of headphone amps — a Total BitHead and an Apex Butte — and they were of course even more impressive and huge-sounding. But they were primarily made for mobile use, and they are sensitive enough that you won’t need an amp. Just plug them right into your phone. The default cable is bright blue, as seen on other UE gear, and has a three-button remote that works with iPhones and iPods (though it acts janky on Android phones, a troubling trend I’ve noticed on almost every headset I’ve tested this year). Each pair ships with an alternate, remote-free black cable, and they’re easy to swap out.
There are a lot of things you could spend $400 on. A world series ticket, a couple of car payments, the tasting menu for two at Alinea (sans wine pairing). But if you love hearing music beautifully represented without distraction, and you crave that level of audio perfection all the time, everywhere, Logitech’s newest Ultimate Ears are some of the best mobile headphones you can buy.
Your friends or loved ones may pick on you for spending so much. But if they do, just shove these in your ears and go to your happy place.