Disclaimer: The UE900 used for this review is the in-store demo unit for AnalogHead. I compared the UE900 directly to the Triple.Fi 10, Sony XBA-4, JHAudio JH5Pro, Aurisonics ASG-1, Ocharaku Flat-4, and the FitEar 334ToGo. The comparison to other IEMs is a memory-based comparison.
I am not so big on doing IEM reviews, but the release of a new flagship from Ultimate Ears definitely calls for a review. To understand what the big deal is about the UE900, we’ve got to understand the context under which this IEM is released. The fact that it comes as a four driver IEM is less important to me than the fact that it’s the official successor to the Triple.Fi 10. Please bear with me while I take some time to talk about some history before the UE900 was released. If you want to jump straight to the sound impressions, go ahead and jump to the Sound Impressions section.
Sometimes roughly last year Westone started the war on the quad-driver universal IEM. It had that perfect tonality from top to bottom, smooth from top to bottom, warm, well controlled bass, very clean sound and instrument separation. Put that under the rating system of a typical IEM review, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a flaw. Yet it wasn’t a successful product. My guess is that they went too safe they end up with a bland sounding IEM with a very weak PRaT factor.
A few months after the Westone 4, Sony introduced their new Balanced Armature IEM line up with the XBA-4 as the flagship model of the line up. I auditioned all of their XBA line up and came home not wanting to write anything on any of them. The XBA-4 easily was the worst of the line up. It simply is a case of boombox tuning in the form of a fancy 4-driver BA IEM.
All these years, headphone enthusiasts are looking for the next big thing creation in IEMs. Whenever a new promising product came out, a strong positive review would be written with strong promising words that this is THE one that everybody’s been waiting for. I remembered how it started with the Sennheiser IE8, quickly followed by the Westone 3 and the UM3X. Ah, how powerful was the image of the UM3X back then. Then you have the SM3 and SM3v2. Shure updated their longtime favorite SE530 with the SE535 and received more criticism (at least sound wise) than praises. Sennheiser also updated their IE8 and released the IE80, but the reception has been quite lukewarm too. Sony came out with the somewhat superb but flawed EX1000: excellent technicalities but failed miserably in making the tuning mainstream-recording friendly. Aurisonic’s ASG-1 is my current favorite IEM, but I don’t see it taking a mainstream spot anytime soon.
What all these new flagships have failed to do is taking over that legendary, time-tested spot that is the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 aka the TF10.
From the Triple.Fi 10 to the UE900
The Triple.Fi 10 is not a perfect IEM. It lacks the refinement the way some of the newer IEMs like the UM3X and the Westone 4 are tuned. Personally I don’t even use the TF10 mostly because of the awful fit, but from what I gathered from observing the enthusiast’s circle, the Triple.Fi 10 must be THE most universally loved IEM spanning the period of the last ~4 years. It does not have the best sound and the fit is awful but for some reason, people just keep on coming back again and again to the old Triple.Fi 10. People would sell it, only to buy it again and again. The low $179.99 price tag from Amazon.com is much lower than the other triple or quad driver offerings in the market, and its occasional $99 sale only makes the Triple.Fi 10 an even better proposition for people looking for a serious high quality IEM.
Enter the UE900. This is the first serious attempt from Ultimate Ears to update their flagship IEM, amid a much crowded industry than when Jerry Harvey designed the Triple.Fi 10. With Jerry Harvey no longer in Ultimate Ears, obviously the UE900 is the creation of a new team of designers. With the backing of Logitech, I don’t doubt their ability to recruit the brightest talents in the audio business to design their new UE900. Judging from their recently released UE9000 and UE6000 headphones (and Tyll’s favorable review of the two) seem to indicate that the bosses at Logitech are taking personal audio very seriously.
Despite being created under a different team than the Triple.Fi 10, people expected the UE900 to be that IEM that would finally be the update to the TF10. There is something about the tuning of the T10. Though far from perfect, the extremely fast pace and speed, snappy rhythm, awesome PRaT and bass punch, combined with the lively treble just strikes a perfect tone with modern fast-paced music. The treble and midrange on the TF10 do sound a bit dry, lacking the warmth, body and smoothness offered by some of the competitors. The awkward fitting IEM body is universally agreed to be the worst fitting IEM in the business. Certainly, there is room to improve the TF10 and we’re eager to see if the UE900 succeeded in doing that.
Last week, a friend brought the UE900 to a small headphone meet where a few headphone enthusiasts gathered.
Some of the memorable statements among the sea of enthusiastic comments being said about the UE900 were: “It’s a more mature TF10”, “The TF10 has graduated from college”, and “It’s going to be out of stock for a very long time”. Clearly, the small crowd we had on that meet loved the IEM.
I had a listen to the UE900 too and I agree with the positive sentiments. The UE900 definitely improved on the tuning of the Triple.Fi 10 while retaining the forward and fast-paced sound: fuller bass and mids, smoother treble, warmer, all without losing that PRaT that people love the TF10 for. The bass is its strongest point: full bodied and weighty, it remains quick and agile to take on the pace of fast rock and electronic music. You get absolutely no boomyness with the balanced-armature driver, only fast punchy impactful and deep beats over and over again. Transients, like the majority of balanced-armature drivers, are more than enough to handle any recording though overall the UE900 is slightly slower than the Triple.Fi 10.
The signature is forward and engaging like the Triple.Fi 10 with a little less treble. The treble is bright enough to be lively yet safe from sibilance tendencies. Sound stage is just average, but I don’t see that as a weak point as any bigger sound stage and you’re bound to lose that energy and the forward sound (the JH5Pro being a very good example). Despite being a quad driver, there is very little driver phase coherence issues: not only is the UE900 better than the TF10 on this but also better than the JHAudio JH5 with only two drivers.
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