The L/UE flagship is an example of a headphone category we've been seeing quite a bit of lately -- the luxury wireless noise canceler, aimed at executive travelers and other grownups looking for a solid performer with a lengthy feature list -- the territory staked out by the stylish Parrot Zik and the Sennheiser MM-550x.
The 9000 comes ready to travel: the earcups fold flat to slip into the substantial zippered (and vented — a nice touch for the sweaty-eared) case; you'll also find a USB charger block and a cable sporting an Apple mic/remote pod. And a microfiber cloth to keep things shiny, a nice touch.
The first thing you'll notice is that the 9000 is a substantial piece of gear — its target audience won't be disappointed in the build quality. Hinges and fittings work solidly, and the earcups are deep and well-padded with memory foam. Fit and finish are what you might expect at this price point -- reassuring heft, understated details, and muted colors. It's suitable for most any ensemble, with a bt of a tilt to the high-tech.
Controls are minimal: a switch at the top of the right earcup turns on the Bluetooth receiver and the NC circuit; the back of that earcup holds the function and volume up/down buttons (laid out along the familiar lines of the Apple three-button remote. There's another button on the left earcup, this one, interrupts wireless playback and pipes the signal from the external noise-canceling mics directly to your ears; handy if you want to hear what a train announcer or flight attendant has to say (also nice for eavesdropping, perhaps). S+V headphone head honcho Brent Butterworth disliked the control layout, finding the buttons "too hard to find and use by feel"; he also found the ear cups mashed his lobes — I've got smaller ears, and found they worked well for me, but the 9000 (and 6000) do have fairly small in-cup volume for over-the-ear phones, so the larger-eared among you may want to try before you buy.
Though these are marketed as a wireless headphone, a jack at the base of the right earcup lets you use the 9000 in wired mode. And that's where we started. And you know what? These things sound, to my ear, pretty great in passive mode, something that can't be taken for granted from a 'phone designed for NC, let alone wireless use. Mids are smooth, there's plenty of detail up top, and imaging is quite nice for a closed can.
Brent concurred, finding the 9000 "a good headphone, overall — the mids and highs are clear and unusually well balanced. There's almost no excess sibilance, and voices sound smooth. It doesn't have that lush, airy sound of the PSB M4U 2, but the mids and highs are still above-average for an NC 'phone."
The sensitive interplay between performers and audience on "Two Folk Songs" (from Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, and Charlie Haden's Magico on ECM, via HDtracks) was far better represented than I'd expected, with the ambience of the hall, the patter of the audience, and — of course — the authoritative playing of the three master musicians set
Bass is perhaps the weak point here; there's the tendency towards warmth that you might expect from UE, with a touch of honky thickness in the upper bass. It's not unwelcome for a portable phone (where such warmth can cover for less-than-perfect acoustics of your average city sidewalk), but in a quiet environment it can muddy things up a bit. The gloomy orchestral percussion of PJ Harvey's "On Battleship Hill" gets murky fast on the 9000s, though mids and highs are well represented despite.
Brent felt similarly, noting that "there's a high-Q bass peak that makes the balance too bass-heavy, especially with rock. It's not crazily bass-heavy, like a rapperphone, but still, it's too much for me. The high Q also makes it excessively (and for me, uncomfortably) punchy."
This is cause for complaint (as it was in the case of the Yamaha Pro 500 that Brent checked out in December) since the manufacturer has otherwise gotten response across the frequency spectrum so generally right-on, without quite wrangling the low end correctly. It'd be great to see the low-end addressed on these things — Logitech/UE would really have a nice product on their hands, so far as sonics in passive mode go.
Where's the off switch?
As for the 9000's noise-canceling performance, while the dense, deep earcups provide solid isolation from your environment, NC isn't incredibly effective (Brent found it "can't touch even the AudioTechnica ATH-ANC9, and is much less effective than the Bose QC15"), and given that the overall effect isn't really a net positive, I'd imagine that wired users will want to leave it off. It takes a bit of the edge off of steady-state environmental noise, but no more.
Turning on the NC mode has some deleterious effects on sonics, however. It brightens things up a bit, with a little too much sizzle on top, which lends things overall an artificial flavor, and also boosts levels considerably, losing some of the smooth midrange in the process. Bass also gets quite a bit bigger — I think some dub, and hip hop fans may appreciate the effect; it may stray from accuracy, but it does give the 9000 some muscle.
L.A. voice actress and regular headphone contributor Lauren Dragan enjoyed the 9000 in passive mode ("With the NC off, the bass is decent — it handles dense music deftly"), but was unimpressed with the bass tilt accompanying the NC mode; "When the NC is on," she found, "you lose a sense of the acoustic environment, there’s a flatness to the sound, and there’s too much bass."
Now here's the big caveat with the 9000: If you're planning on using it wirelessly, you're going to want to make sure you like the sound of the noise-canceling mode. Because there's an significant oddity regarding the implementation of the NC feature on the 9000: If you're using them wirelessly, you can't turn it off . It's not that the toggle is hidden in an app like the Parrot Zik's, NC's actually integrated entirely into the active circuit. Only in passive mode can NC be switched out. This is especially frustrating given the presence of apt-X in the 9000; it'd be nice to have access to high-quality streaming without NC, if so desired.
To measure the UE6000, I used a G.R.A.S.43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the earpieces to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves.
The frequency response measurements for the UE9000 in NC mode show a resonant bass peak around 70 Hz, an unusually flat midrange, and a gently rolled off treble. Response in passive mode is almost the same, except the bass peak moves up to 130 Hz, which means the UE9000 will sound thinner and less bassy in passive mode. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has no effect in NC mode; in passive mode, it tilts the tonal balance slightly down, increasing bass and reducing treble by about 1 dB each.
Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is negligible in NC mode below 100 Hz, but rises in the bass, to 11% at 20 Hz. THD in passive mode is a little higher overall, running 2% to 4% from 30 to 300 Hz, rising to 10% at 20 Hz.
Impedance in passive mode runs from a max of 62 ohms in the bass to 41 ohms in the treble.
Isolation in NC is a little above average at low (<100 Hz) frequencies, and typical otherwise. Between 40 and 400 Hz, isolation runs between -5 and -14 dB; many NC headphones have little effective cancellation below 100 Hz. Above 1 kHz, isolation is average or perhaps slightly better than average for an over-ear headphone, ranging from -12 to -35 dB.
Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms impedance in passive mode is 94.7 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 95.7 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz. With NC activated, it’s 101.7 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 102.8 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz. — Brent Butterworth
Granted, Logitech's cancelation is hardly extreme — you get the sense that passive isolation is doing more of the work than the active circuit anyway, but if you dislike noise cancelation and you're looking for a wireless headphone, the 9000 may not be for you. Overall, among the current crop of Bluetooth noise cancelers, the 9000 ends up somewhere midpack if you consider its balance of sound quality against features — Brent and I both felt it didn't quite live up to the standard set by the Parrot Zik and the Sennheiser MM-550X. It's a market that's beginning to get crowded, and while Logitech's done some good work with these, there's definitely room for improvement.
Luckily, the 9000's little brother, the 6000, avoids the flagship's main pitfall.