There’s a reason we don’t review many on-ear headphones at iLounge: they don’t appeal much to us. The concept – placing soft padded speakers on top of your ears with no isolation from outside noise and commensurate leakage of your music to nearby listeners – just doesn’t feel right to us. Besides the fact that leaky headphones typically aren’t great for your hearing, if everyone or even a significant number of people wore these, public places would be a lot noisier, unnecessarily. Apple was right to make earbuds, rather than headphones, the iPod’s standard.
We attempted to put our preferences partially aside when testing Ultrasone’s iCans ($129), a pair of on-ear headphones designed to appeal to iPod users. With a light gray band, chrome sides, and white cabling, they take after the white fifth-generation iPod and older iPod nanos.
Extremely soft, silky gray earpads with roughly 2.5” diameters distance your ears from their integrated speakers, which use an Ultrasone technology called “S-Logic” to provide “natural surround sound,” supposedly a bigger and less artificial soundstage than in typical earbuds. S-Logic actually uses the same principle as most closed-ear headphones, bouncing sounds off of your outer ears rather than channeling everything into your ear canal.
Ultrasone includes a metal carrying box with foam lining and the iCans name embossed into its detachable lid, as well as the iCans themselves. They’re designed to fold up and pivot to become nearly flat, compacting into a 5 3/4” by 3 3/4” by 2” size that’s only semi-portable by reference to a full-sized iPod. Suffice to say that, as with many headphones, you’ll need to set aside quite a bit of extra space in your bag to store the iCans while you travel, but they’ll consume a bit less volume and weight than most headphones out there.
If this wasn’t a formal review, we’d stop writing right here and leave you with a simple statement: our audio and comfort experiences with the iCans were nothing to write home about. In fact, ear comfort aside, they sounded and felt less like $129 headphones than many of the sub-$100 alternatives we’ve heard.
And for that reason, we’re not going to go into great detail in this review, besides to say that we’d consider these worthy of a pass.
Positioning the iCans properly on your ears turns out to be critical. Worn with their band behind your head, the S-Logic speaker design creates odd echoes in your ears that sound like hugely artificial, forced surround sound, so you’ll need to wear these conventionally, extending the earpieces downwards so the band wraps around the top of your head. Turned to a standard headphone orientation, the iCans sound more natural, but the headband then puts pressure on the top of your head, detracting from their comfort.
By “more natural,” we mean to describe the sound as unremarkable in any positive way. Songs with heavy bass sound flat and boomy, treble detail is frequently hard to discern, and the midrange is flat; there’s really nothing special-sounding here.