Review: Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro Earphones
Pros: High-performance earphones with three speaker drivers per earpiece, delivering impressive detail and full-bodied sound across the entire spectrum, with roughly equivalent performance to company’s higher-priced custom earphones, and superior overall low-end performance to class-leading option at lower price point. Includes very nice carrying case, fit kit, and other accessories. Most aggressive price we’ve yet seen for a triple-driver earphone; professional quality sound, rendered almost affordable.
Cons: Outstripped on comfort and sound quality by Shure’s top-of-line triple-driver earphone; larger and more conspicuous in your ears by a wide margin than many other in-canal earphones. Single available color (blue) may not be right for some potential buyers.
Most people owe their knowledge of the phrase “triple-driver earphones” to Ultimate Ears, a premium headphone manufacturer with a reputation for catering to professional musician and celebrity clientele. The company’s most famous earphones are perhaps its least accessible - the $900 UE-10 Pro (iLounge rating: A-) places three miniature speakers in each of your ears, while the $850 UE-7 Pro does the same, minus a tiny additional circuit board found in the UE-10. So large were the drivers that Ultimate Ears sold them only inside rubberized earpieces custom-fit to your ear canals, a measurement process that promised to yield professional-quality sound and isolation from outside noise.
Early in 2006, earphone rival Shure dropped a bomb, debuting a miniaturized $500 triple-driver earphone that required no custom fitting session and promised similarly outstanding sound quality. The result, Shure’s E500PTH (iLounge rating: A), was a superlative design, widely satisfying all of iLounge’s editors despite their varied sound and comfort preferences. Engineering enabled the new triple-driver design to fit snugly in the nook of your ear right outside the middle ear canal, providing even more enticing sound than the more expensive UE-10s.
In recent months, Ultimate Ears representatives began to hint that they were poised to respond with their own one-size-fits-all triple-driver canalphone, code-named triple-X, and over the last few weeks, the company promised a more aggressive price point than Shure’s. The finished product arrived last week with an impressive $400 sticker and new name: the triple.fi 10 Pro, a blending of the triple-driver UE-10 Pro label with that of super.fi, the company’s lower-end universal fit earphone series.
Design, Pack-Ins, and Comfort
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that triple.fi has a lot in common with the earlier super.fis: its shape is similar to last year’s super.fi 5 Pro (iLounge rating: A-) and super.fi 3 Studio models, only larger, and therefore they look and feel bigger than the more aggressively miniaturized E500s. Rather than tucking into your ears and disappearing, they jut out, with glossy blue metallic coating contrasting against Shure’s sleeker, copper-toned chassis. When we first tried the E500s, we couldn’t believe that they were so small relative to our UE-10 Pros; with the triple.fis, we couldn’t believe how much more conspicuous they are. But Ultimate Ears appears to want to make the most of this difference - it has started to treat its high-end custom-fit earphones as artistic surfaces, and there are hints that the blue metallics are only the first triple.fi color. An empty pull-down menu on the company’s web site suggests that other versions are yet to come.
From a comfort standpoint, the triple-fi 10 Pros are just like the super.fi 5 Pros: above-average, but not ideal. The slight added bulk is offset by the newer model’s softer edges and finish, which feel a little better in your ears, and as before, you get a selection of four silicone rubber tips - three single flanges in small, medium, and large, and one double-flange - plus two foam tips to guarantee solid external noise isolation in your ear canals.
Ultimate Ears’ single best fit feature is its inclusion of short memory cords below each earphone, supporting them if you want to wear them upside down in your ears, with cords draping over your ears and behind your neck. The triple.fi 10 Pros provide two wearing options; Shure’s E500s don’t, and without the memory cord, are a little more likely to slip out of your ears when you move around than are the triple.fis. Ultimate Ears has also picked a markedly thicker cord than the one it used with the super.fi series, which we would expect would yield greater long-term durability. As before, the triple.fi 10 Pros feature 46” cables with an integrated neck length adjuster, which can be disconnected from the earphones and replaced with other options.
The company also includes a few standard items in its package - a nice rounded aluminum carrying case large enough for the earphones, a 1/4” headphone jack adapter, a level attenuator, and a cleaning tool. Through the end of 2006, Ultimate Ears will be bundling most of its triple.fis in a Limited Edition package that includes the larger UE Roadie case shown above, wrapped in exclusive Ultimate Ears artwork, and bundled with a certificate of authenticity. Roadie has enough room for the earphones and any sized iPod; foam inserts can be pulled out or put in to accommodate larger and smaller models.
Our single biggest challenge in writing about the sound quality of the triple.fi 10 Pros is choosing the appropriate benchmark: Ultimate Ears has priced its first triple-driver offering at a mid-point between two of our top-rated in-canal offerings, Etymotic’s $300 ER-4P and Shure’s $500 E500PTH, leading to two obvious initial questions: does the triple.fi offer $100 worth of additional value over the ER-4P, and does it equal or better the more expensive E500 or UE-10 Pro, both of which use similar technology?
On one hand, Ultimate Ears has essentially lived up to its promise that the triple.fis rival the $900 UE-10 Pros in sound quality: other than some acknowledged tweaks to the triple.fi’s sound signature, specifically equalization boosts on both the high and low ends that collectively create a slightly richer, more bassy sound without compromising on apparent detail, the two headphones are very similar to one another. With the UE-10 Pros, the company promised professional-caliber accuracy; with the triple.fi 10 Pros, it appears that Ultimate Ears is aiming for a more “enjoyable,” less precise type of sound.
For similar reasons, the triple.fis do outstrip Etymotic’s vaunted ER-4P earphones overall, particularly in low-end performance, where the Etymotics have always been tight and detail-focused by comparison with warmer, bigger-sounding alternatives. The difference in bass is even more noticeable here than with the UE-10 Pros, which had dedicated low-end speakers inside; in essence, the triple.fi is a ER-4P for bass fans, at a $100 premium. (For reference, Ultimate Ears’ super.fi 5 EB was made for bass fans, but fell a step below the ER-4Ps in sound quality; the triple.fis add less bass but sound markedly better overall.)
The only place where the triple.fi 10 Pros fall short on audio is by direct comparison with Shure’s E500PTH earphones, which established a new gold standard for triple-driver sound: truly full-frequency and detailed across the spectrum, with just enough power in the low-end and sparkle on the high-end to make music sound agreeably better rather than over-exaggerated to different types of listeners. As was the case when the E500s were compared with the UE-10 Pros, the triple.fi’s sound is flatter, lacking the E500’s punch, and with less distinction between individual instruments. If the two earphones had been priced at the same level, one would be good and the other great, but with a $100 price gulf between them, it’s a much closer call. When fulfilled, Shure’s promise to release less expensive E500 earphones without their included PTH microphone pack - a major feature differentiator - will likely shift the balance more towards E500’s favor.
Value and Conclusions
Time after time, Ultimate Ears has released impressive earphones that we’ve really liked, and despite whatever small flaws they’ve had, virtually all of them have been highly recommendable in aggregate quality. The new triple.fi 10 Pros are cut from the same mold, but present a reviewer’s dilemma for two reasons: from a technology standpoint, they’re best benchmarked against a better-sounding competitor, but from a pricing standpoint, they’re considerably less expensive.
While we’d love to trot out the old standard buyer’s tip - “if you only have $400…” - the reality is that there’s a “price no object” marker for every type of product at some point, and by headphone standards, the triple.fis are above that level; you’re not buying these if you’re super price-conscious - rather, you’re looking for quality. So if you’re shopping for premium high-end headphones, we’d point you to the Shure E500s first, regardless of the price difference, and only to the triple.fi 10 Pros if your budget, fashion needs, or sound preferences (slightly flatter, more accurate balance) demand them. Primarily because of their above-average rather than great physical size and comfort level, the triple.fis teetered on the edge of our high and standard recommendations, but we ultimately felt that they merited a high rating because of their impressive performance for the dollar. With the triple.fis, you no longer have to be a rock star to afford professional-quality earpieces, and that’s great news for every iPod owner.