Pros: Great sound for the dollar – balanced treble, midrange and bass, with emphasis on the low-mid and bass, delivering a significant benefit over lower-priced options on clarity/detail. Great metal carrying case and nice leather case; good number of silicone and foam earpieces for personalized fit.
Cons: Detail outstripped a bit on high end by competing Etymotic ER-4 series, though it’s made up for in bass; fit and comfort are above-average but not the best we’ve felt.
Given the variety of options available in the marketplace, we’ve broken our reviews of headphones into several price categories – “inexpensive” ($60 and under), “deluxe” ($150 and under), “premium” ($350 and under) and “price no object.” Up until recently, Ultimate Ears made products only for the price no object consumer – custom-fit studio monitor earpieces with the best available in-canal sound reproduction technology. Every set of UE phones required a fitting session with a professional audiologist – described here, and the finished products fit only one person’s ears, though if made properly, precisely.
With the growth of the iPod market, Ultimate Ears has wisely decided to capitalize on its good name to offer “super.fi” earphones – more affordable ($300 and below) one-size-fits-all models in your choice of iPod-matching white or generic black. The first such product is called the super.fi 5 Pro ($249.99), a pair of headphones positioned above Shure’s popular E3cs (iLounge rating: B), and around Etymotic’s ER-4 series (iLounge rating: A), but below Ultimate Ears’ custom fit UE-5 Pro (iLounge rating: A) and UE-10 Pro (iLounge: rating A-).
Looks, Pack-ins, and Features
There’s a lot to like about the super.fi 5 Pros. The package shares certain aesthetic characteristics of the company’s more expensive offerings, including a metal carrying case – slicker and more practical than the one packed with the more expensive phones, actually – and cables with gold tips at both ends, one side cleanly detaching from the earpieces, the other attaching with a slim white L-shaped connector to your iPod. You can replace the cables ($20) if you prefer – most people won’t – or add an old-fashioned two-plug airplane adapter ($10).
Thanks to reinforced wires next to the earphones – also featured in the custom UEs – you can either let them dangle or mold the cables to wrap around the backs of your ears, something that isn’t possible with the custom pieces. An adjustable rubber cable manager lets you tighten or loosen the ear cords to your preferred length, and the medium thickness cables strike a better compromise than the super-thin Etymotic ER-6is or thicker, noisier ER-4s. They’re also around four feet long, just the right length for iPod listening.
While the super.fi 5 Pros’ white bodies and gray flanges aren’t as unique visually as UE’s transparent custom-fit options, they’re certainly identifiable as iPod accessories, and aided in the class department by two things you’ll see even if other people don’t: internal clear acrylic-covered UE badges, and clear piping from the drivers to your ears. Even when you place the flanges on the super.fis, you can see the clear plastic in the center – a nice visual touch.
Flanges are another important part of the package. Ultimate Ears includes a ton of different silicone rubber pieces, including three sets of variously sized single flanges similar to the ones included with Sony’s comfortable MDR-EX70 and 71 phones, a set of double flanges for added isolation, and even a set of foam inserts for those who prefer them. We remain partial to the silicone parts, and found that the best of them provided pretty good isolation – enough to largely (but not completely) drown out nearby dog barks and wind in a dog park. great for indoor listening.
An included leather case can be used to hold the flange collection or the super.fis, as you prefer, while a cleaning tool and two headphone plug adapters (an attenuator and 1/4” adapter jack) for different audio devices can be stored in a rubber insert that forms the middle and bottom of the metal case.
Audio Quality and Comfort
There are four total audio drivers inside each set of super.fi 5 Pros – two for the left ear, and two for the right, which super.fi’s packaging explains simply as one on each side for high frequencies while the others handle low frequencies. Though one good driver per ear is sufficient to reproduce sound accurately for average to better-than-average ears – as is done with Etymotic’s ER-4 series of headphones (iLounge rating: A) – a few companies have combined two or even three drivers per ear, a potentially expensive tightrope act generally designed to satisfy people who want expanded bass or treble.
We decided to put the super.fi 5 Pros in the hands of two iLounge editors familiar with both UE’s top-end offerings and other companies’ lower-end ones. The results weren’t entirely surprising: both editors very much liked the sound of the 5 Pros when they weren’t directly compared to anything else, and praised their superb balance of bass, treble and midrange. Highs sounded crisp, lows and mid-lows sounded rich, and distortion wasn’t initially audible in any way. The average listener who tries the 5 Pros against headphones in the $150 or lower price range will hear an immediate, profound difference, particularly in clarity, but likely also in the clarity and smoothness of bass.
These feelings were confirmed in testing against Shure’s E3cs, showing the super.fis to have greater bass/low-midrange punch and superior clarity. They required very little iPod volume to deliver fuller sound than the E3cs, and brought out additional background details. One editor especially felt as if the music comparatively “came to life” when heard through the super.fis, removing what sounded like a flattened soundstage in the E3cs, and rendering them comparatively radio-like in sound quality. It’s worth a brief note that the bass is richer (and hence the sound will be smoother to some years) than in the excellent Etymotic ER-4Ps, while the ER-4Ps do better with highs and detail.
However, we diverged somewhat on the differences between the super.fis and UE-10 Pros. While we agreed that the UE-10 Pros offered a bit of additional detail, and further agreed that the difference between the UE-10 and super.fi 5 Pros was not significant enough to justify their tremendous ($650) difference in price, one editor felt strongly that both the custom fit UE-5 Pros and UE-10 Pros substantially outperformed the super.fi 5 Pros at higher-than-average volume levels in apparent clarity, bass and treble response, making the custom fit pieces a superior solution for users with hearing degradation. At more typical volume levels, the differences were not as pronounced.
We also differed on the super.fi 5 Pros’ comfort. One of us felt preferred the fit and comfort of the custom-fit earphones, while the other preferred the feel of the super.fi 5 Pros – a difference quite possibly attributable to the latter editor’s slightly less comfortable feeling about his custom-fit phones. In any case, they were preferable in overall comfort (though not in isolation or bass resonance) to Shure’s E5c earphones, placing them somewhere above average but not at the top of our comfort rankings.
The super.fi 5 Pros are large for in-canal phones and jut out of the sides of typical ears, but because of their silicone flanges still manage to feel pretty good inside, not physically fatiguing the ears. But different users will come to different conclusions on their shape and proper positioning. Even if you flip them upwards and wear them with their cords over your ears – a position we tend not to prefer, but can reduce their profile – we don’t think that they’re the match of Sony’s MDR-EX70/71 series in comfort. But so far, nothing is – it’s hard (if not impossible) to achieve that sort of snug, small fit with the drivers used inside high-end earpieces.
Overall, our feelings about the super.fi 5 Pros are highly positive – especially for their price. They’re welcome additions to the premium headphone category, with clean, punchy sound that will satisfy most users, and they compare well to other high-end offerings, particularly if you’re looking for rich but not overbearing bass and don’t mind giving up a bit of detail on the high end. Audiophiles and users who run their earphones loud may have good reasons to prefer the more expensive, custom fit earphones offered by Ultimate Ears and others, but for $250, these are winners.
Company and Price
Company: Ultimate Ears, Inc.
Model: super.fi 5 Pro
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle