I often get asked to recommend decent-sounding universal fit IEMs. And while I love my custom molded UE7s, I’ve not been a huge fan of the UE universal fits. Thus, I typically recommended somethings else (Westone UM 1s or 2s). And it’s not for lack of trying the UE universals; I think we have 4 different models in our drawer of earbuds. So it was with a mix of excitement and skepticism that I gave the new UE 900s a shot.
The first thing I noted right off is the packaging—it’s almost Apple-like. The outer box is held shut with magnets (very cool), and the inner box for storing the headphones is very slick. It has a nice heft to it, is piano black and one corner is beveled (it is a little on the small side, however). Not that this effects the sound in anyway, but being a premium product, it’s nice to see premium packaging. In the box, you get two cords; one with a volume control and mic for use with a phone, and another plain cord. You also get five different sets silicone tips and three sizes of foam tips. If you can’t find a set that fits your ears, you must have either very big or very small ears.
The cord is high quality and the connection to the buds themselves is a clever swivel which makes it easy to get fit over your ear. And yes, these are proper over-the-ear wraps—finally! That’s been one of my biggest criticisms the UE universals—the cords just don’t fit well. The 900s change all of that.
As I was anxious to get listening, I picked a set of medium-small silicon sleeves and put them on. Right away, I was impressed with the fit. I’ve been known to fall asleep wearing my Westone UM1s, and my UE7s are also super-comfortable. Even with the silicon sleeves (which I still have on…) it took about 3 minutes for me to forget I was wearing them. For that first listening session, I went upstairs to the palatial studio, put on some Suzanne Vega and laid down. It was wonderful. While at NAMM, I told the big cheese at UE that after a few minutes, I forgot I was wearing ear buds and there was just music in my head.
So how do they compare to other buds? Well, the first test I did was to match them up with my UE7s. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the UE7s list for $850, while the 900s are $400. But listening to the same material back to back, it’s pretty close. The UE7s have a little more HF rolloff (past about 4K) than the 900s do, which is beneficial for a live monitor. The LF extension is also better on the 7s. The midrange is different, but comparable. That sounds odd, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. The UE7s sound perhaps a little more open, but the 900s sound in no way bad. It’s not that the 900s aren't clear through the mids, the UE7s are just more clear.
When compared to the Westone UM1s, well there is just no comparison. The UM1s roll off much higher at the low end of the spectrum, the mids are over-emphasized and the highs just don’t sparkle as much. Perhaps this is not a fair comparison because the UM1 is a single driver IEM that sells for just over $100. The UE900 is a quad-driver (dual low, single mid, single high) item that retails for almost 4 times the UM1. A fairer comparison would be with a UM2 or UM3. Westone, if you’re reading and want to send a pair; I’m game.
The quad-armature design really makes a difference, by the way. I think that’s why they sound so much better than the UM1s. The UM1s sound compressed, and it’s easy to tell a single driver is trying to do all the work. The 900 divides the workload, and it lends a lot more clarity and space to the sound. It even sounds like stereo separation is wider.
I’ve been listening to a lot of my favorite music over the last few months with these, and I’ve heard things I’ve never heard before, which is always fun. I really like the way these are voiced, and they now serve as my preferred music listening IEMs. I keep the UE7s for live work, a task they excel at in my environment.
Are they worth it? I would say yes. Sometimes, you can spend 4x as much but not get 4x the quality. In this case, the difference between a $100 IEM (and a quite decent one at that) is dramatic. My UM1s haven’t even been out of the case since I got these. If you want a great sounding universal fit IEM, these are a no-brainer. I would say they would even serve well as a set of in-ear monitors on the stage if you have someone who can’t quite afford customs, but wants to up the quality level. The UE 900s get a dual thumbs up from the CTA Labs! Side note, when Van listened to them at NAMM, his comment was, “Wow! These are awesome!” So there you go.
3-2-13 UPDATE: I forgot to disclose that UE gave me this pair of 900s. Hopefully by now you know that I write what I think regardless of whether the item was given to me or not. But it's only right that you know and the FTC requires it. Sorry for leaving it out the first time. END UPDATE