**While at Mobius, Jenneth and I were both presented with a set of Ultimate Ears . It seemed redundant to write separate reviews about the same product, so we decided to combine forces and write a dually to post on both our sites – we’re trying something new! For reference: My remarks will be in the regular page colors, and Jenneth’s will be in blue and italicized.**
Just because you have the finest digital music player that money can buy doesn’t mean that it will sound all that better if you are still using the basic earbuds it shipped with. That’s assuming you can even get the OEM earbuds to stay in your ear!
The fact of the matter is that vendors just don’t bundle good-quality headphones with music players. Many users will be content to use the bundled ones and be none the wiser – just hop on any train or bus and you’ll see dozens of people with those tell-tale white earphones. But the difference in audio quality between bundled earbuds and an expensive pair is like chalk and cheese, and in this case, you’ll actually be able to ‘hear’ every extra dollar you spend.
According to their site, Ultimate Ears has “more than 20 years experience in live performance sound engineering and [they] have been designing custom professional in-ear monitors for your favorite artists for more than 10 years. Chances are, your favorite music was made by artists using our custom in-ear monitors. All super.fi earphones are designed with you, the customer, in mind. We have taken all that we have learned from hand crafting custom in-ear monitors for the pros and applied it to what we believe are the best universal fit earphone products available on the market today! We are the leaders in in-the-ear acoustic technology and design products with superior acoustical signatures that deliver exceptional sound to your ears. Our super.fi 5 Pro and 5 EB earphones bring unparalleled Dual Driver Technology to your ears at an affordable price.”
Is there really that much of a difference between the sound quality and fit from a set of $250 earphones and a set of $0.99 earbuds? Jenneth and I were on a mission to find out!
Unfortunately I had to leave the Ultimate Ears packaging behind in Thailand, but I did keep all of the box’s contents. Included are the super.fi 5 Pro Earphones (which have a 46″ cable, cable adjuster and gold plated 1/8″ input plug, a metallic storage case, a 1/4″ adapter jack, a sound level attenuator, a cleaning tool, a Universal Fit Kit which includes 6 single flange silicone (2 small, 2 med, 2 large), 2 double flange eartips, 2 standard foam eartips, and a user guide with warranty detail paperwork.
This is how you know you’ve landed in high-end earbuds turf – a classy-looking case is usually included in the package for stowing the earphones in, with a selection of different tips to ensure you get the best fit for your ear shape – especially important for women, who tend to have smaller ear canals than men. A cleaning tool is also standard for noise-isolation earphones.
The super.fi 5 Pros are available in white, black and clear. The cables themselves all have the same colour – this choice changes the ear-piece colour. Judie and I got given the white ones.
I really like the included metal storage case because it gives me a safe place to tuck the earphones in my bag when I’m not wearing them. However I was disappointed that the metal case did not come with the. The inside of the metal case is just an open compartment where the earphones must be basically crammed for storage.
When you spend this much money on earphones, taking good care of them is a paramount concern, so the bundled hard case is very handy in this regard. It’s not rock-solid – pressing down on either side of the case will cause it to give – but it should provide adequate protection against other things in your pocket or bag like house keys. The case also goes a way towards minimizing cable tangle, but as Judie mentions, something to wrap the cable around would’ve been preferable.
The earphones measure approximately 1.15″ long and are 0.47″ wide; these pictures show them with the medium set of eartips installed. The body of the eartips is composed of pearlescent white plastic.
The cable itself looks very sturdy, with a thick enclosure of clear plastic surrounding the entwined wires.
Each earphone is marked R or L next to the point where the cable connects to the earphone’s body. These earphones are meant to be worn literally in the opening of the ear canal, so it is important to figure out which of the included tips gives the best fit for comfort, noise reduction properties, and sound quality. We’ll talk about how to wear them further in the review…
Speaker Type: Dual driver: low and high range precision balanced armatures
Input Sensitivity: 119dB/mW
Impedance: 21 Ohms
Cable Length: 46 inches
Weight: With Cable Assembly: 0.6 oz.
Input connector: 1/8″ (3.5mm) Gold plated
Frequency Response: 20 to 16,000 Hz
Noise isolation: 26 dB
There are so many included eartips that one of the sets should provide the perfect fit. I usually go with the double-flanged type, but so far I’ve found the medium sized singles are working quite well.
I haven’t felt the need to change the tips that are used by default – they’re soft and don’t create any uncomfortable pressure on my ears after extended use. (Unlike some earbuds I can mention *cough* IPOD *cough*.)
All of the plug tips are gold plated; here you can see the earphone plug, the sound level attenuator, and the 1/4″ adapter jack. Gold is generally the connection plating of choice because it does not corrode and thus maintains a better connection between the earphone cable and the music player.
For those of you (like me!) that were wondering what a “sound level attenuator” is, the super.fi manual says, “When using your earphones with an unfamiliar or unstable sound system (airplane, public access ports, etc…) make sure volume is low and is kept at a moderate level to prevent “break-in” burst of loud sounds. For those environments, we recommend use of the sound level attenuator to aid in buffering unusually high sound output. To use the sound level attenuator, insert the 1/8″ input plug of your earphone cable into the sound level attenuator and then plug the attenuator into the listening device.”
Wearing the earphones is a little bit different than just pulling on a headset or slipping in some earbuds. When worn properly, the super.fi 5 Pros’ cable goes over the ear and behind the head. Here are the instructions straight from the source:
According to the Ultimate Ears site, “Noise isolation is a reduction of external or ambient noise achieved by using flexible silicone or foam ear tips applied to in-ear, noise isolating earphones. Our noise isolating earphones are different from noise canceling earphone products primarily in the method of noise reduction used. Our super.fi noise isolating earphones use a passive approach to noise reduction delivering a virtual sanctuary of sound by utilizing the natural position and seal of the earphone in your ear to block out undesirable external noise. In contrast, noise canceling earphones apply an active approach to noise reduction by using a built in microphone and a battery powered integrated circuit to measure and cancel undesirable external noise. The electronic circuitry used in noise canceling earphones often has the unwanted side effect of adding tones or sounds to the playback that were not intended by the musician. The unique design of our super.fi earphones provides superior noise isolation by blocking out undesirable external noise allowing you to enjoy the subtle nuances of your music without the need to turn the volume up to excessive levels.”
So how do the super.fi 5 Pro earphones sound? Well, I’m not going to try to impress you with any super-star audiophile reviewer terms, so I’ll just keep it simple. Inserting the earphones creates a tight seal which immediately and noticeably cuts down any background noise.
Unlike my previous set of earphones, the Etymotic ER6i, these don’t dig uncomfortably deep into the ear canal. But it still creates an effective seal if you wear them using the over-the-ear configuration shown above. The monitors themselves are angled inwards to follow the curve of your ear canal. A bit more fiddly to stick into your ears, but very comfortable to wear for extended periods.
When listening to music, I found that I did not need to turn my digital player’s volume as high as usual. I have noticed this phenomenon in the past when reviewing other noise reducing in-ear earphones, so I have come to expect and appreciate this quality.
Yes – it always astounds me when I go back to ‘regular’ earbuds and have to turn the sound all the way up!
Because background noise has been seriously reduced and because the sound coming through the earphones is so clear, elements in the music which might otherwise have been missed are evident. Fingers or picks brushing across guitar strings, feet tapping in the background, words whispered between band mates, all of these sounds are revealed. The music itself is clear: Bass is thumping, but not to the point of bottoming out; highs are crisp – not brassy or sharp, they just sound right; and midrange levels are clear and not muddy.
Listening to your favourite songs for the first time with earphones like these is an extraordinary experience. You’ll hear parts of the song that you didn’t even know existed. Subtle nuances in the music that make you feel you’re hearing your favourites for the first time, with you able to hear every single instrument and vocal, providing for a much richer and more powerful music listening experience. This is especially the case for the sort of music I usually listen to – alternative – where songs are very multi-layered. Being able to hear every single layer means I can enjoy and appreciate the music much more.
On the other hand, if you have music that has been poorly encoded or is at a low bitrate, you’ll notice it immediately.
Now we need to talk about something very serious… 😉
Over time the nice clean holes shown in the center of this earphone – the very same ones through which the sound flows – will eventually gunk up with the user’s ear wax. When you notice that the usually pure sound seems “muffled’, and you look and see that the holes are funked up, then it will be time to whip out the ear wax tool to do some cleaning.
This is one of the drawbacks of in-ear earbuds over headphones – they’re a bit more high-maintenance and require regular cleaning. Using the ear wax tool is simple, though. A fine metal loop on the end pulls out any of the wax caught in the holes, and overall the procedure should take less than a minute.
Considering you can buy a new 30GB iPod for the same amount as these Ultimate Ears super-fi 5 Pro earphones, it certainly begs the question as to whether they’re suitable for ‘average end-users’, or simply something designed purely for sound technicians, performers and audiophiles. I’m none of the above – I’m simply a girl that likes listening to music. As Judie mentioned at the start of this review, we were given these earphones at the last Mobius conference. However, having used them for the last couple of months, I would buy another set in a heartbeat if mine went missing or got stolen. Once you start using good earphones, you really can’t go back to using crappy ones – they just don’t do justice to your music once you know how they songs are meant to sound.
Unfortunately earphones are not exactly an item you would want to share with a friend to “see how you like them”, so there isn’t really a practical way to try before you buy. That’s what makes going with an established brand that will back their product – as well as one that includes enough fitting pieces to get a proper seal – so important. I’ve tried the Etymotic 6i earphones, Future Sonics FS1earphones and the Ultimate Ears super.fi 3 earphones in the past and of them all I am most torn between the Future Sonics and these. If noise reducing properties are very important to you, then the Ultimate Ears would probably be worth the extra $100, as the Future Sonics aren’t really billed for that purpose, although they do provide some noise reduction due to their in-ear design.
I’ve bought Shure e3cs and Etymotic ER4s and ER6is in the past, but the Ultimate Ears earphones beats all of them when it comes to build quality and durability. Fit is also excellent, with an angled, over-the-ear design that keeps the monitors securely inserted. As to sound quality, I don’t have those other earphones on hand to compare them with, but they’re night and day when you compare them to stock earbuds. I liken the experience to a common household drain: sound coming through the Ultimate Ears is the equivalent of water flowing through unimpeded, while stock earbuds sound more like there’s a lot of food and gunk stuck in the pipes!
The Ultimate Ears are available directly from the manufacturer as well as from other retailers; they are available in white, black and clear. They come with a two year warranty from purchase date.
What We Like: Noise reducing properties, clear and multi-layered music, multiple fits for different sized ears, comfortable fit
What Needs Improvement: The price will seem steep to many, but the performance of the earphones may win them over