The personal audio market is pretty populated these days. To remain competitive, it can mean adapting an extra something-something in order to stand apart from the crowd. This can be a new direction in marketing, improved performance, a significant drop in price, or even having a celebrity endorsement.
But then there’s the aspect of look/appearance. This has always been interesting to me, since it’s a reasonable litmus test to show which brands follow and which lead. Sure, some people say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But I’m sure it can be annoying as all-get-out for the leaders to have so many ripping off their style.
Ultimate Ears doesn’t have that problem, and it shows with their UE 9000 headphones. One might even say they don’t give two poops about the competition, and that they march to their own drummer. And, ya know, it’s really refreshing.
Design & Controls
The Ultimate Ears 9000 headphones have a striking appearance that is very different from most other headphones out there on the market. If you want something in line with “generic” or “cookie-cutter”, you’re not going to get it here. Personally, I really dig the look and how the headphones present itself.
If you tend to be a little rough with your belongings, you won’t have much to worry about with the UE 9000. It has some seriously-solid construction, and nothing feels loose or flimsy whatsoever.
The band is flexible and can put up with a respectable amount of abuse. The metal hinges? They’re not just for show – they’re designed to last.
Hinges in folding headphones are a big deal to me, since moving parts are prone to breaking before anything else. While I’m careful with my gear, there is a piece of mind that comes with owning the UE 9000 and knowing that you don’t need to always have kid-gloves on. So if you or someone you know tends to handle things a bit rough, keep this set in mind.
The only criticism I have about the appearance of the UE 9000 is that the ear cups should have been finished in matte (matching the band) instead of gloss. It’s not just that the glossy parts collect all sorts of fingerprints for display. They rob the headphones of having a fully modern-industrial look to it. Glossy is for pets, children, and immature adults!
The UE 9000 headphones have a smart button layout. Bring your right hand up to cup the side, and the index finger locates the power switch while the thumb button rests on the volume/track control.
The left hand index finger will rest on the pass through button, which, upon the second press, unmutes the music so you can resume the tunes and keep the world on the outside of the ear cups.
I can see how some might complain about the location of the power switch, being that it’s partly obstructed by the band. But this is only if the UE 9000 is currently being worn. I don’t find it to be that big a deal, since I tend to flip the switch before the band rests on my head. And it’s not like I toggle it while listening either.
The volume and play/pause controls could have been done a lot better, though. They probably perform better in principle than in practice. There’s not much that makes the volume buttons feel separate and distinct from the middle play/pause button.
The double- and triple-clicking of the play button for advancing and repeating songs didn’t always work properly with my Samsung Galaxy Note 2. It worked most of the time with the Google Music app, yet far less frequently with Amazon MP3. Overall, it’s kind of clunky.
If a set of headphones aren’t comfortable to wear for long, sound quality becomes a moot point. The UE 9000 has the comfort mostly right, however it’s not something I can wear all day long without periodic breaks.
The over-ear cups are the best part. It’s like having two kittens as audio-enabled earmuffs encapsulating my ears. They have this plush foam padding that presses up against and contours the side of my head.
The swivel hinges provide movement enough so the headphones automatically adjust to different head shapes.
The pressure is perfect. The UE 9000 doesn’t pinch my glasses against my temple. As far as the ear cups are concerned, it’s easy to forget that they’re even on. The headband, however, is a different story.
The band weighs heavy on the noggin, making it necessary for me to take the headphones off here and there. It’s not necessarily due to the weight, since the UE 9000 isn’t that much heavier than other, more comfortable headphones I’ve worn. The problem is the padding.
If Ultimate Ears put the same padding material into the headband as they did the ear cups, everyone would be in business. As-is, the padding doesn’t have enough cushiony resistance, and the tapered design leaves a smaller-than-expected area of effective coverage on the head. This is why the UE 9000 feels like it sits heavier than it does, making it ideal for shorter sessions instead of marathon listening.
The over-ear design of the UE 9000 headphones does a fantastic job at keeping the sound in with no leaking. I’ve sat next to people and blasted my music without any of them them having a clue at all. These headphones make for a really good, private listening experience.
While I did hear the rare pops and spits related to the Bluetooth connection, it wasn’t frequent enough to get on my nerves. This aspect is not related to the either distance either. It’s fine, since I know that there’s worse out there. Much worse.
The overall impression of the UE 9000 headphones is that it presents an amazing amount of depth and distinction with the music layers. Instruments stand out individually, and the lateral imaging is quite good in terms of placing those audio sources in and around the soundstage. Tonality is good across the entire range.
The highs have a bit of an added push, which shifts them to the forefront. This is likely due to the active noise canceling, which gives both the highs and lows an added boost. More on that later. The difference is subtle, however, in that the delivery of the highs grabs one’s attention a bit more. It’s more like a movement from gentle to almost-assertive.
I particularly enjoy how the slight emphasis applies to the sounds of string and wind instruments. Female vocals are very crisp and true, pairing well with solid lows. A great example of this aspect can be heard in the song “Shut Up”, by The Black Eyed Peas. The UE 9000 also captures Fergie’s vocal fluctuations, which some audio products miss out on.
The low end of the highs have a bit of an energy gap, as the notes wander in the realm of mids. Again, this is likely due to the active noise canceling within the UE 9000 headphones. The mids definitely take a backseat to the highs and lows in music tracks.
But when I can pick them out, the mids sound warm and true – I just wish there was more of it. Instruments in the midrange, most notably guitars and brass instruments, deliver rich tones that fill the track with body. Vocals, however, can sound a little distant, simply because of how forward the lows can get.
The midrange quality depends on the choice of music. While listening to “Candela”, off of Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album, the mids shine through with energy. This is likely because there isn’t much coming out of the low end for the UE 9000 to attach muscle to. Although the vocals sound strong, they tend to be enveloped by the instruments instead of floating slightly in front of it all.
The lows are where the meat and potatoes are at for the UE 9000 headphones – at least for wireless playback. There is a very fine border between big lows and boomy lows. I can see (hear) how the UE 9000 can spur a heated debate about which side it resides. It’s all subjective in this scenario, especially for different music genres. I tentatively side with the UE 9000 sounding big, since I find the lows to be tight with accurate tones.
Personally, I love the sound that comes from the lows, but mostly with the right kind of music. You don’t simply hear it. You can feel the bass and drums inside of your head. These headphones really highlight albums such as Prodigy’s Fat of the Land, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, or A Tribe Called Red’s self-titled release.
Because of how pronounced the lows are, vocals end up being affected, depending. When I listen to Bruno Mars (his song “Moonshine” in particular), the drums cast a slight shadow over his voice and removes a bit of sparkle from the highs. It’s a different story with listening to AWOLNATION, since those vocals are strong and forward enough to compete with the instrumental lows.
Here’s the funny thing about the UE 9000 headphones. They sound like a completely different set of headphones as soon as you use the included audio cord instead of Bluetooth wireless. The result is a greater balance across all the levels, especially concerning the lows with respect to the mids and highs. Details that used to be eclipsed by the power of the lows can now be heard, making the wired-mode UE 9000 headphones more appealing to purists or anyone who doesn’t listen to heavy music all the time.
The active noise canceling is automatic in wireless mode. The only way to turn it off is to plug in the audio cable and go wired.
Even though the active noise canceling on the UE 9000 is weaker than average, the white noise hiss is still audible when nothing is playing. If you’re looking for some true isolation from the world around you, a different set of headphones is what you’ll want.
For my purposes, the level of active noise canceling works, since I have to stay in touch with what’s going on around me. It’s able to cut out the noise of my kids playing in the livingroom, but it still lets me hear the “disasters” so I know when to pause the music and see who broke what.
The noise canceling in the UE 9000 is pretty well-rounded. The isolation is good, but I think it does a better job at smoothing out the lower-ends of background noises.
Overall, you’re gonna have a good time listening to the Ultimate Ears 9000 headphones. It’s built to last, and, with the slight exception of the headband, they’re super-comfortable to wear. On top of that, you get the entire package in terms of accessories. Very few manufacturers provide a protective case, leaving consumers to scavenge on their own. Not with these. You get a durable case that has space enough for the headphones and included cables too.
The stark differences in wired and wireless sound quality almost creates a dichotomy of listening experiences with the UE 9000 headphones. It’s almost like having two sets of headphones all in one. If you want to jam out with rock, hip hop, or drum & bass, go with the Bluetooth connection. If you’re in the mood for music that’s lighter and/or more balanced, all you need to do is plug in with the cable.
Snag the Ultimate Ears 9000 headphones in the $200 range for excellent price versus value. It puts it right there with a lot of other fantastic headphones that feature Bluetooth wireless. If the headband isn’t a deal-breaker, and if you like the idea of having two sound profiles in one set of headphones (more or less), the UE 9000 is hands-down going to be your new favorite.