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. Our ears were drawn less to any “natural surround sound” than how mediocre our music sounded by comparison to less expensive earphones we’ve tested, and the complaints we received from nearby listeners.
With the iCans at the required volume level we needed for “typical” listening – around 40% of the iPod’s maximum – people told us that our music could be heard, loud, outside. We found ourselves turning the audio down to less audible levels simply to satisfy those around us, but also felt that – contrary to their marketing – the iCans needed to be heard at higher volume levels than most earbuds in order for their range and detail to be evident. Put together, their volume requirements and leakage made for an automatic loser of an earphone design.
iCans are supposed to appeal to users on sound, comfort, and ear safety, but in our experiences, whatever small gains you get on one performance axis are offset by bigger compromises on another. Consider these headphones only if you want something that matches a full-sized iPod, are willing to pay an almost ridiculous premium for the privilege, and have an opportunity to give them a thorough listen prior to committing your money. Even then, you’ll certainly get less bang for the buck here than with any of the in-canal earphones we’ve reviewed at or below this price point.
Company and Price
Company: Ultrasone USA
Compatible: All iPods