I was one of the rare few who managed to get a nice fit on UE’s classic and much loved TF10 IEM. I remember it was at the same time I acquired the Sennheiser IE8 and after a brief comparison of both the IE8 was shown the door and the TF10 (admittedly with Lune cable) stayed for much longer.
There was something about the clarity and PrAT that more than compensated for its uneven signature compared with the “boom boom” darker IE8 that just made the whole presentation more engaging and rewarding.
Yeah it was big, blue, and bulky but Jerry and UE’s team were onto something with their triple-balanced armatures and true enough the TF10, despite some of its tuning and fit quirks, was still as popular as ever long after the IE8 was replaced with the IE80 and other variations.
So when releasing the UE900, designed as a successor of sorts to the TF10 with its blue aura, and introducing a 4-way balanced armature setup, Ultimate Ears does have some way to go to eat into the legacy of the TF10.
In some ways you could be forgiven for thinking the biggest threat to the UE900 might be the TF10 itself nevermind the competition from Westone, Sennheiser et al. How do you dislodge a perennial favorite and keep loyal fans from moving away?
Packaging & Accessories
Of course, the whole package is really a subtle homage to the TF10 and its fan base. Everything has that bluish tinge to it from the moment you open the box to the inside lining of the black pill-box type hard case and the standard blue cable.
It does come with an optional black cable without any igadget mic and remote (that’s on the stock blue cable only) if that is your preferred flavor but man I just love the whole blue from the shell right down to the right angle 3.5mm jack. It just works for me personally.
Peeking inside the package you get a whole host of goodies also. Apart from the aforementioned second braided cable in black, UE has seen fit to throw in the following extras:
Black hard case with a UE logo on the outside edge and finished inside with a blue smooth plastic and another UE logo embossed on the floor of the inside finish.
5 pairs of silicone ear cushions (XXS, XS, S, M, L)
3 pairs of Comply ear foams (S, M, L)
¼-inch adapter jack (gold plated which has a really nice snap-in section in the hard case)
Airline attenuator which lowers overall volume for noisy sources such as on airplanes
A nice soft pouch alternative to the hard case
At $399 a pop, I would expect a pretty strong layout in any event but the UE package is well thought out and not just thrown together in haste. Time has been put into the package and for me personally, it shows.
Some die-hard fans would have preferred the old silver pill box case of the TF10 and there is some merit in that given it has a smaller form factor and it did felt easier to lug around. The UE900 hard case does look sexier but it’s a bit more of a mini-chest in appearance.
It is much deeper than the old case and presents more of a challenge when inserting into your pocket. Also, I would have liked it just a shade less deep and a bit wider since about 10% of the inside base and top is lost to the admittedly rather fetching quarter jack and 2 tips “holding area”.
It sort of makes the whole ‘in and out’ process of storing the UE900 a bit more of an exercise in pseudo-origami than I would have liked.
Both braided cables are detachable, suffer from zero memory retention, and are fairly well marked for left and right (color-coded). When connected they allow both ear units to swivel 360 degrees in either direction allowing a high degree of flexibility in getting the fit just right.
The cables are designed as over the ear cables reducing microphonics considerably and the fit itself is a huge improvement on the older TF10 and quite a lot of other more current models out there. Using a degree of swivel the UE900 was able to fit really snugly into my ear using either the silicone or the Comply tips.
The seal was well above average for me personally and a darn sight more than the old TF10 with excellent levels of passive noise being blocked out. Those who couldn’t fit the TF10, and I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have such issues, will have a much more pleasurable time inserting the UE900.
Once inserted they stay in place quite well and I had no discomfort to speak off during prolonged use.
The UE900 and UE900s
Now comes the tricky part. The unit sent to me for review is the UE900 and those following forums and updates from UE will know that the UE900 is now the UE900s.
There have been some reports on the regular UE900 that the cable connections are a bit iffy. Numerous customers have stated loss of sound in one or both units, some corrosion in the connectors, and separation in the housing to cable section.
The argument is “it’s going to happen whether you like it or not to your UE900” and already customers are on their 3rd or 4th replacement as a result. It was no surprise then that UE started releasing the UE900s and there are some changes you need to look out for to make sure you are getting the UE900s.
First up is the shell containing the drivers seems to be now a single acrylic shell with a natural extension rather than a rubberized add on at the cable socket.
The second thing to look for is the little red ring on the right-hand side of the cable for the UE900s as seen below (sourced from weibo.com):
If you have both the singular all acrylic type blue shell and the red ring then in theory you should have the latest UE900s. I do not believe there is a change in price, it still shows at SRP $399 but I do expect it to replace the original UE900 fairly sharpish and start fixing the worrying comments on the quality control of the original UE900.
I cannot comment on the tonality and sound presentation of the UE900s at present simply because I only have the UE900 with me but I do see the usual placebo talk and discussions that UE stated “some improvements” were made but as yet I cannot verify that just what is in front of me.
The UE900 packs 4 drivers in total, 2 of which are used as dual bass drivers. Using this setup the UE900 reproduces a much more mature and balanced presentation that packs plenty of punch, snap, and extension on the bass.
Considering the rather excitable bass response of the TF10 UE knew they couldn’t sacrifice the PRaT and engaging response of the TF10 but then again simply couldn’t roll out the same old experience.
In the case of the UE900 what I am hearing is a much better bass extension with far more detail than the shallower mid-bass hump of the TF10.
This is an elegant bass reproduction designed to add coherence and impact rather than a cheap thrill in the middle. It’s a reasonably fast-paced bass section though I don’t think it is quite as fast as the TF10’s bass response but the weight and extension are far more critical to me in the long run.
Mids & Treble
UE also addressed the mid-range problems of the older TF10 somewhat with a more forward lower mid-range in the UE900 allowing vocals to become more intimate and detailed and more engaging as well as giving the overall tonality a more solid and weighted feel.
However the further up the range we find UE nod increasingly to a more consumer flavor with a slightly laid, smoother almost tapered top end.
There is reasonable articulation but is just not as forward as I would have liked overall especially on orchestral work where single instrument solo’s need to take center stage among a plethora of background instruments and remain vivid and clear. It just lacks a bit of bite at the top.
Now the plus point is a lack of sibilance thankfully and I can see a lot of people giving the two thumbs up to what is a very smooth experience.
The UE900 soundstage is above average for an in-ear outside of pricier 6-way and custom IEM’s with hybrid technology. I am used to expecting more intimate fast-paced detailed presentations with armature designs but the UE900 manages to convey an impressive sense of depth with the dual bass drivers and excellent extension without losing too much intimacy as a result.
It is a fine balance between grandness and musicality and I think the UE900 manages to pull it off with a more forward, engaging, and richer sound that avoids being sterile and monitor-like.
Surprisingly, the UE900 was not as efficient to drive as I thought it would be and for most of my DAP matching. I found the volume had to go up about 1-2 notches higher than some of my other customs and IEM’s.
For the HM-901 this meant around 3-4 using the Minibox (it’s a fun card for IEM’s for me personally), around 195-205 on the DX90, 60 on the AK100, and around 65 on the FiiO X5.
I do not normally play IEM’s that loud so your mileage may vary according to your tastes. The UE900 though does not really need separate amping unless you are using one for a slight variation in tonality. A good source or DAP will suffice in general.
With the Minibox card, the HM-901 delivered a very spacious soundstage, more so than the other DAP’s I tested. This card with the UE900 is much more suited to orchestral works and atmospheric pieces in general and the UE900 responded excellently.
The Lord of the Rings “The Council of Elrond” from the “Fellowship of the Ring” had just the right touch of dynamics and a sense of width and space for a really engaging experience. The DX90 sounded just a bit more restrained but still very detailed and a bit more centered than the surround sound of the minibox card.
The dynamics of the 901 was more evident than the DX90, pushing the UE900 bass response just a bit more than the latest Ibasso creation. In the favor of the DX90, there is a lot more control possible with IEM’s volume-wise, and the slightly brighter tonality suits the UE900 thicker presentation.
The UE900 also paired quite well with the FiiO X5 with its slightly warm to neutral tonality but lost out to the DX90 in terms of clarity and punch.
Interestingly a touch of sibilance crept into the upper midrange that was not present on the DX90 such as Deadmau5″s The Veldt from “Album Title Goes Here”. This has a fairly whispy vocal to begin with but the X5 left it hanging a bit more than the DX90 resulting in some annoyingly long sibilance on the UE900.
In a month or so that I have had the UE900 I am quite impressed with it, to be honest. I am not sure if it is the groundbreaking new IEM flagship that will steal the thunder totally from the TF10 and consume every hardcore TF10 in its path.
However, they do have a very technically impressive, mature, and modern BA earphone that pairs very well indeed with a lot of music out there. It is a pity the initial UE900 had enough QC issues that a UE900s has to be brought out but should the UE900s dispel the notion that the UE900 is a shakey build then certainly we are onto a good thing.
Westone has also responded with an overhaul of its universal flagship just recently and has pushed the BA war even further with the universal W50 and W60 so the UE900 is not going to find the IEM market as easy to dominate as the older TF10 did some years ago.
Is it better than the TF10? Yeah, really it is in so many ways, and with the street price coming down by about $50 here and there and some flash promos below $300 it is very hard to resist.