When Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI) first acquired the high-end headphone maker Ultimate Ears (UE) for $34 million four years ago, it was a hefty endorsement of a particular style of headphones and a prediction of where the market for consumer electronics and mobile audio devices were going. UE specialized in making in-ear “canal phones” that ran anywhere from $40 to more than $900.
This type of boutique headphone is still one of UE’s core products—today they offer one model for $1,150 that is custom molded to fit perfectly inside the listener’s ear. This was when before the current smartphone craze took over consumer electronics, after all. The iPod was still the undisputed standard of mobile listening devices, and its iconic white earbuds illustrated the paradigm of what sort of listening experience was expected. Headphones were meant to be small and unobtrusive, even the thousand dollar ones were supposed to latch directly into the ear cavity, molding themselves to the listener’s body.
It was, in other words, also the time before Beats by Dre. Beats Electronic debuted its first product in collaboration with Monster Cable the same year Logitech first acquired UE, but it obviously took a few years before it could seem cool to walk around with a massive pair of over-the-ear headphones dwarfing your head and drowning out any outside noise. Today, walking through the subway it’s hard to find anybody listening to music who doesn’t look like an aspiring music producer dwarfed by one colossal Beats headset or another. Despite UE’s history making in-ear headphones, this new market was too promising for Logitech to resist. And so this year, Logitech finally announced two new “around the ear” headphones to add to its current line-up: the UE 6000 ($199) and the wireless Bluetooth UE 9000.
UE kept its original branding following its acquisition by Logitech, most likely to retain its prestige as an audiophile developer. Logitech itself had only made Bluetooth headsets before this point, so a joint venture between the two had the promise of finally combining the sound quality of a seasoned audio equipment developer with the technological wonkiness of a wireless innovator.
Neither of these headphones disappoints. After testing them alongside similarly priced products from other respected over-the ear headphone brands including Audio Technica, Grado Labs, and, of course, Beats itself, I can say that both the UE 6000 and UE 9000 offer an incredible balance of sound and applicable features for their relative price points.
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The noise cancelling feature on the UE 6000 headphones makes them an ideal choice compared to similarly priced headsets on the market, and I found that with it turned on, noise leakage was all but nonexistent (pro tip: make sure that the green light is on before you start blasting Rick Ross or Carly Rae Jepsen at the office). An important factor here lies in their relative subtlety. Despite their ubiquity, Beats are often criticized for turning up the bass at the expense of every other sound, which would make sense given their g-funk pioneer namesake. This has lead to a sort of arms race for many headphone creators keen to prove how much their products can melt listeners’ ears, an unfortunate side-effect that Grado Labs president John Grado calls a quest for the highest level of “distortion,” similar to the heavy thumping that comes out of any ostentatious set of car speakears.
Both the new UE headphones had a much richer and more complex sound mixture without sacrificing the head-rattling experience some listeners may want to have at the highest volumes. But while the sound quality is no doubt impressive for the new UE products, my favorite part of these headphones is in their design itself. I may just have big ears (I’m pretty sure that I don’t), but my problem with many over-the-ear headphones is just that -- they sit over the ear rather than around it. With a hefty headset like the ones offered today, this means I have to either press my ears against the side of my head of wedge them into the cushions themselves. This is no doubt uncomfortable, but it also reflects a larger weakness: the inability of many large headsets to successfully create a chamber for the sound to stream through.
Changing the name to “around the ear” headphones as Logitech did with the UE 6000 and 9000 is a subtle shift, but a meaningful one. Like any pair of sizeable headphones, they may eventually start to weight on your head or make your ears sweat. The UE 9000 in particular is top-heavy since the Bluetooth and rechargeable batteries add some heft to the device. But so far they’ve been the most comfortable sets of headphones of their quality that I’ve worn. I can’t think of a similar pair that I’d be willing to wear all day at work and still want to put on in the subway or at home.
While the sound of the UE 9000 is incrementally beter than the 6000, its main difference is the Bluetooth and rechargeable battery. And there are still the standard problems of connectivity that many Bluetooth systems suffer from. Using the UE 9000 with my Android smartphone (which many of its Bluetooth features weren’t expressly designed for), I would occasionally drop out of service. Watching videos or playing games, the sound lagged far enough behind that I usually just settled for audio streaming services alone.
The $200 price tag may seem like a steep price to pay for these two add-ons, but the real achievement of the UE 9000 is its ability to produce the same quality of sound, if not better, than many of its wired counterparts while still offering the ease of access of a Bluetooth system.
Audio geeks and purists will maintain that any Bluetooth or wireless device cannot reproduce the quality of a wired sound system. They may be right. But after spending several weeks trading off between several pairs of headphones, it’s hard to overstate the benefit of a wireless system. Commuting on the New York City subway system is never an easy task, and the ability to drop on headphones seamlessly and link it to a service like Spotify or Stitcher Radio through my smartphone without having to worry about snagging a stray wire is a tremendous achievement in its own right. Even Beats itself has bent to this demand, as it released its new “Executive” headphones shortly after the UE 9000 hit the market. Wires have always been the umbilical cord that links us uncomfortable to our devices, forcing us to maintain an undue proximity that’s often irritating or even unhealthy. With the UE 9000, we can finally take a step away from our devices again while still enjoying them.