I bought the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio Isolation Earphones last week and have been enjoying them. Key benefits include: clean open sound with good separation of instruments and performers, very detailed yet smooth response in the upper frequencies, controlled, tight bass if not a little muted (though may improve when I figure out how to reliably lodge them in my ear canal, more later), adequate sound isolation from both your environment and the headphone wire itself thanks to over the ear hard, but pliant to fit snuggly over your ear, plastic encased wire stress relief, low listening fatigue and good comfort with the correct sized ear plug (still don’t know if I’ve found mine yet). Another great upgrade to the iPod sound system in my pocket. Read on for a more in depth look at my continuing headphone struggle.
I have bad luck with my headphones. I discovered headphone.com a few years back when I knew there must exist better sounding phones than the terrible iPod stock buds. Headphone.com is a manufacturer of headphone amps for both home and portable electronics. I started out purchasing their cheapest ear bud replacement, the Sennheiser MX 500s, which were definitely better than stock but could pick up lots of EMI/RFI, I eventually stepped on them or gave them to a friend who stepped on them, whatever. The first fancy (expensive) in-ear headphones (required for bus/train/bus commuting and inter-office flights) I owned, Shure E2Cs, lost the left ear after the solder failed at the plug end strain relief a couple of months out of warranty. I gave them to my boss and he soldered them back together and enjoyed them for a few more months before they broke again.
At the time of the Shure’s failure the Etymotic ER6i’s were the best choice for iPods as they had tuned bass to make up for the iPod’s or compressed audio’s (not sure who to blame) truncated frequency response. The Etymotics were a revelation. I never knew you could get such deep, clearly defined bass with headphones. They also featured great sound isolation. As strong as their bass performance was, the same couldn’t be said for the highest octaves: symbols crashed into undefined static and both male and female voices annoyed and fatigued with sibilance. Another negative was high impedance: sometimes I had the iPod’s volume cranked to 90% to get an acceptable kick from the music. A few weeks ago the left ear cut out, again due to a bad solder joint at the jack. I was one month out of warranty and Etymotic charges $76 for a repair, so I was back at headphone.com and checked out their latest buying guides. Enter the Ultimate Ear 3s for only $99.
By the time I had found out about the UE’s I was desperate for some commuting headphones, as I’d been without my ER6i’s for a couple weeks. I didn’t want to wait for online ordering and shipping so I spent my lunch break shopping Chicago’s Magnificent Mile for the set. Apple was out, Virgin Megastore doesn’t carry Ultimate Ears and CompUsa only had the expensive UE 5 pro and EBs ($200-$250). Fruitless downtown I was left to Chicago’s western suburbs. Oddly enough, the Aurora, IL Guitar Center carried the exclusive clear UE 3s. After a stock check I was off to pick up a pair from J who was holding them for me. The movie Wayne’s World is set in Aurora, and you might remember a scene of Wayne and Garth playing guitar and drums respectively in a Guitar Centerish store. This is not that store. The Aurora Guitar Center is overrun with pushy, Nu Metal sales kids that follow you around for commission. After some browsing (I would like to take up guitar again, if only to be my 2 year old’s minstrel), I lucked out and found J (says so on his name tag) behind the home recording studio counter, the guy next to him was helping a couple buy a Shure microphone and they couldn’t get over that you had to a microphone cable separate. J was new so ringing up my purchase took a really long time as we waited for a manager to approve it, somehow the manager was annoyed that J got my sale.
Guitar Center Small Talk Transcript:
J: Do you do any home recording?
J: Do you play guitar?
Me: No, I used to when I was a kid but I was never any good. My friend just gave me a ukulele. I just chase my daughter around the house with.
J: That’s cool, that’s cool… Hey, Eddie Vedder plays ukulele, you know from Pearl Jam
Needless to say I went for the extended warranty, paranoid my headphones would break after another year of commuting. The Ultimate Ears already have a 2 year warranty so now I’m covered for 4, I’m sure I’ll move on to the next big thing in that window. Four years into the future I should have the iPod brain chip embedded, so my $20 extended warranty may go unused.
I’ve been using the new earphones all week. My satisfaction with the included ear plugs is low. None of the small, medium, large, telescoping (these are just wrong, I think they touched my brain) or foam plugs conforms to my ear canal. So I don’t feel like I can properly evaluate the true isolation and bass characteristics yet. Ultimate Ear wants you to use their "Rock n Roll" technique, watch their video to get it right.
All these growing pains aside the phones sound great and are comfortable. The first time I listened to them I felt some listening fatigue but haven’t experienced it since, guess they need some time to break in like other fine audio components.
So if your high end headphones just broke the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio Isolation Earphones make a great replacement for only $99. This is the most obvious sonic upgrade you can make to your iPod. If you’ve only ever used Apple’s supplied ear buds, stop ruining your hearing and check out the Ultimate Ears.