Review: Ultimate Ears 700 Noise Isolating Earphones
When JAYS released q-JAYS in late 2007, we were genuinely wowed: the Swedish company had come up with the smallest pair of double-driver canalphones we'd ever seen, tiny enough in fact to make some single-driver earphones look gargantuan by comparison. A year and a half later, Logitech's Ultimate Ears unit has debuted Ultimate Ears 700 ($230), a pair of almost identically sized earphones that use the same dual micro-armature technology, new styling, and different audio tuning to offer an experience that's similar in many ways to JAYS', but different in others. The result is a premium-priced, excellent-sounding earphone that's worthy of our high recommendation, though not quite as ahead of the times or pricing curve as q-JAYS was back in 2007.
Once known for its often Frankensteinesque large plastic earpieces, Ultimate Ears has spent the past couple of years designing smaller, sleeker earphones that use comparatively beautiful metals and metallic plastics, and the results have been impressive: the Super.fi 4 and Metro.fi 220 both benefitted from these redesigns. But they also packed only one mini-speaker per ear. Users familiar with these earphones but not q-JAYS will be shocked to find that the 700 model is physically much smaller than these less advanced UE models: it will literally rely upon its included silicone rubber or foam eartip to stay in place in your ear canal. When placed directly next to JAYS’ earlier design, eartips removed, 700 is actually a millimeter or so shorter, though with the eartips attached, they become the same length. We’ve never seen a dual-driver earphone as small as these, and though it appears that 700’s body is made from “liquid silver” and black plastics rather than metal, UE’s design is still cooler than JAYS’, if a little less neutral.
Like JAYS, Ultimate Ears packs 700 with a collection of accessories that are only a little short of great given the premium price point. Rather than the metal hard cases included with many prior UE headphones, you get the same plastic hard case that’s bundled with the Super.fi 4, plus four total sets of silicone rubber earpieces, two sets of foam Comply eartips, a fixed (knobless) sound level attenuator, and a headphone plug cap. On the plus side, we like the carrying case, and love the fact that users can choose between foam and rubber eartips—both great for isolation and comfort—without making an additional purchase. That said, the 700’s eartips are skewed very “medium” in size, with two pairs of medium rubber tips and two pairs of medium foam tips, while JAYS’ package included some extra-small tips that made them comfortable for a wider swath of potential users. Additionally, both companies give you so many extra items—JAYS includes more—that you’ll need to find someplace to put them all after opening the box; they fill the included carrying cases with next to no room to spare for the earphones. We’d have no issue with the switch from UE’s metal earphone cases to this cheaper plastic one if something was included to hold all the accessories.
Thanks to the company’s sonic tuning, which has almost invariably impressed us in its dual- and triple-driver earphones, there’s a lot to like or love in the sound of Ultimate Ears 700. Whenever we haven’t used q-JAYS for a while, we think of them as we described in our prior review, as offering clean, detailed, and generally neutral sound with a bit more bass relative to the most accurate single-driver earphones we’d tested, Etymotic’s ER-4P. Notably, most single-driver earphones—including the UE Super.fi 4—aren’t as accurate as the ER-4P, so in comparisons with the less expensive Super.fis to the 700, there’s an immediate difference: the 700 sounds cleaner and more “stable,” while the otherwise nice Super.fi 4 sounds like it’s struggling a little to produce similar sounds, creating a little distortion.
When directly compared against q-JAYS, however, an earphone that offers similarly stable, low-distortion audio, UE700 sounds like the same pair of earphones with more dynamic equalization: highs sound a little higher, standing out more from the midrange, and the bass sounds just a little lower, with a more slightly pronounced thump in low beats. In short, like Etymotic’s ER-4P, q-JAYS sounds accurate but a little flat, while UE700 sounds more a little more dynamic and exciting. Different listeners obviously have different preferences, but we’ve very much liked the recent trend of judicious EQ bumps in higher-end earphones, and Ultimate Ears 700 delivers. The only people who won’t be thrilled with its sound are those seeking more clinical-sounding audio, heavy bass, or even wider frequency response; typically, they’ll need to consider bigger and/or more expensive earphones to achieve these ends. Given the size of these earphones, this model and q-JAYS still seem something only a little short of miraculous in sound performance.
Our high recommendation and A- rating of Ultimate Ears 700 is a little nuanced because of some market conditions that have changed since the time of our q-JAYS review. When q-JAYS first appeared on the scene, tiny, great-sounding, and at a $179 price point, it was impossible to ignore as an alternative to the similarly-priced, larger single-driver earphones that were then on the market. Typically, accessory prices fall as time goes on, and there’s less need to caveat or adjust our ratings as a result. However, that hasn’t happened with q-JAYS. The falling value of the U.S. dollar has led to street prices that now start at $179 and go upwards from there, so miniature double-driver earphones can’t be had for much less than that these days.
Ultimate Ears 700’s $230 MSRP—matched by even higher online pre-order prices—means that for the time being, even aggressive online shoppers will most likely wind up paying more for this model than q-JAYS, which is unfortunate: though our sonic preferences lean towards the 700’s somewhat more dynamic tuning, we can’t say that we’d pay a premium over the highly impressive q-JAYS to get it. If you’re reading this review from a country where, or at a time when Ultimate Ears 700 has fallen to a price equal to or less than the q-JAYS, we’d pick the 700 first; it is a beautiful-looking, great-sounding earphone with solid pack-ins. But at least as of press time, from where we shop, q-JAYS is a highly similar option at a more aggressive price.