Review: Ultimate Ears Super.fi 4vi Sound Isolating Headset for iPhone
When Ultimate Ears is hot, it's hot. And after a 2007 that was colder than past years for the premium earphone maker, its new Super.fi 4vi ($150) -- an iPhone-ready, metal canalphone design -- marks a mostly triumphant return to past form, complete with a long-overdue rethinking of its approach to cabling and enclosures.
Metal has recently become the go-to material for premium earphones, and like V-Moda’s $100 Vibe Duo and Maximo’s $70 iP-HS2, Super.fi 4vi’s earpieces are made entirely from metal—here, machined aluminum that’s been dual-finished with a matte body and a polished barrel. Just like V-Moda, Ultimate Ears has positioned its non-detachable cables on an ear-friendly 45-degree angle rather than sticking them straight out or down, and five total sets of included silicone tips give you a great opportunity to make Super.fi 4vi fit comfortably while providing passive noise isolation.
There’s almost entirely good news about the Super.fi 4vi design. Lightweight and right-sized, the earphones feel and look good in your ears—color aside, they’re a step or two forward from the company’s prior, low-end Metro.Fis and a number of steps better than the more expensive, higher-end Super.Fis and Triple.Fis in comfort. We found the tips, which include one pair of double-flanges and four single-flanges in various sizes, to be very comfortable and snug, providing just the right amount of isolation for our needs. And the cabling, which has a dangling mini-microphone on the right side near your mouth, plus a separate box for play/call control under its Y-splitter, is easier to use than Apple’s iPhone pack-in earbuds.
A dialless airline adapter is in the package, providing fixed-level attenuation for the sensitive earphones, and Ultimate Ears has also included a very nice little hard plastic carrying case for Super.fi 4vi, capable of snapping in 1/3 to 2/3 sections to hold the earphones or all the other pieces inside. Thanks to the better tips, nice case, attenuator, and a couple of other factors, the package feels more complete than V-Moda’s Vibe Duo set, and even that of Etymotic’s more expensive hf2.
That having been said, V-Moda has outclassed Ultimate Ears’ design on colors and materials. Varying in cool cabling, single- or dual-colored metal-bodied earphones, and color options, the less expensive Vibe Duo is a step up in style from Super.fi 4vi, which though billed as Gunmetal Silver is actually more of a light baby blue in color; there are no other options. The black plastic cables are, like Etymotic’s, functional but not sexy, and while UE’s case does a good job of holding its parts, Etymotic’s zippered, compartmented one works even better, and V-Moda’s looks better. Etymotic’s triple-flange and foam eartips are also extremely strong on providing passive noise isolation with a snug fit; we’ve loved them for years. Which of these options you’ll prefer will depend mostly on what you’re personally looking for.
Thankfully, Ultimate Ears has a great sound signature on its side. Like its better high-end products, and unlike its overly bassy highest-end UE-11 Pro, the Super.fi 4vi performs audio with flavoring that we’d describe as slightly skewed towards warmer low-end, without over-exaggerating or flooding the bass, and while preserving enough high-end detail to let you feel as if you’re hearing the complete sonic range, not just part of it. While the slightly more expensive Etymotic hf2 offers superior detail and a crisper overall listening experience, Super.fi 4vi is—like Super.fi 5—an earphone with sound that’s hard for a listener of almost any persuasion to complain about. If you like bass, you’ll find more of it here than in hf2; if you like treble and midrange detail, you’ll find more of it in Super.fi than in Vibe Duo. It’s between two extremes in just the right spot; added definition is all we’d ask for.
Callers praised Ultimate Ears’ microphone, as well. Once again, the differences between Super.Fi 4vi’s mic and the ones included with Apple’s packed-in earphones, V-Moda’s Vibe Duo, and Etymotic’s hf2 were not profound, but callers described 4vi’s mic as sounding “very good;” like Apple’s and Etymotic’s mics, it’s better at screening out ambient noise than Vibe Duo—possibly the best of the bunch by a hair—and callers said we sounded at least as good as with the Etymotic and Apple mics, perhaps a little better.
There is a lot to like about Super.fi 4vi: Ultimate Ears has improved on its past products in both industrial design and comfort, and assembled a package that delivers both nicely balanced sound and strong outgoing voice quality for cell phone use. While additional colors and materials would provide reasons to prefer it over the stylish Vibe Duos, and added detail at the same price would make it a clearer pick over the Etymotic hf2, Ultimate Ears has developed an nice compromise option that offers a nice mix of V-Moda’s style and Etymotic’s sound quality. In our view, it doesn’t completely replace our need for either prior product, and the $50 premium over the similarly detailed Vibe Duo isn’t trivial—the reasons it just misses our high recommendation—but this is a very good iPhone headset, and an especially good pick for users who prefer judicious added bass to either a super-warm or highly detailed sonic balance.