POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 28
Super.fi 5 Pro "In-Ear Monitors"
as reviewed by Larry Cox
I like to listen to music at night, but listening at a low volume is not acceptable. I like to experience recorded events at volume levels close to those of the original events. Because I have an eighteen-month-old son, my evening listening sessions have vanished, so I've started a quest for headphones. The problem is that the pressure on my ears and temples has been intolerable with just about every pair of headphones I've tried.
Ultimate Ears calls their Super.fi 5 Pros "in-ear monitors," deriving the name from the monitors that musicians use onstage. With their placement in the ear instead of on the ear, the Super.fi 5s do not cause any temple or jaw pressure. They use a pliable gasket to fill the gap between your ear canal and the ear speaker, and they are way more comfortable than the ear buds that came with my Creative Labs Zen Nano, as well as every other pair of ear buds I've tried. The 5 Pros are a quantum leap ahead in comfort.
The 5 Pros not only produce sound, but block it as well, offering 26dB of attenuation in order to reduce the background noise that dramatically impacts the volume and quality of the sound. To achieve the appropriate level of sound attenuation, the 5 Pros must fit your ears properly. Ultimate Ears provides three different-sized ear gaskets, and you choose the ones that provide the best seal. For my left ear, I needed the smallest gasket, while my right ear needed a slightly smaller one. Bummer. The fit in my right ear was not as comfortable as it was in my left ear, and the right speaker occasionally unseated itself. The 5 Pros became uncomfortable after a little more than an hour, but this was a better average than any traditional headphones I've ever used.
After I found the right gaskets and tried the Super 5s for the first time, the quiet was practically deafening. Walking around wearing them with no music playing, my feet sounded like tympanis when they hit the ground. After about twenty minutes of playing music while using a stair-stepper, the sound became high-pitched and breathy. The Super 5s were not distorting, but becoming unseated, and allowing external high-frequency sound to find its way to my ears.
I have one last ergonomic complaint—the earpieces are not marked left and right. How about adding a red dot for the right earpiece and a blue one for the left earpiece? Now for fidelity. The Super.fi 5 Pros sounded much better than any similar earpieces I've tried in the past. Much of this was due to the 5 Pros' noise-blocking abilities. Other, inferior designs address ambient noise by playing louder, and that's hard on your ears.
I transferred files recorded in .wma format to my Zen Nano, hoping for the best sound. When I walked around, ran on a treadmill, or skated, the sound was extraordinarily good—so good that I suspect I was in more danger than usual of hitting someone or being hit by them. I'd hesitate to move at more than a walk while listening in an uncontrolled environment. Even then, on several occasions I was so immersed in the music that I momentarily lost my equilibrium and fell off the treadmill (which made me feel even stupider than I looked).
With the Nano, the 5 Pros sounded "chunky." There was excellent density in some spots, but emptiness in others. I attributed that sound to the 5 Pros, but when I connected them to the headphone jack on my Niro Reference amplifier, the sound was noticeably better. The sonic density lightened up, and the "bald spots" disappeared. The sonic picture had more space, and instruments could be much more clearly distinguished, without actually occupying their own spaces.
The sound was ever so slightly forward, with a slight emphasis on transients. The top end was nearly silky, with great splashes of cool treble that avoided the white-hot glow that can make high frequencies a torture. On Pink Martini's "Amado Mio," the harp had some of the delicacy of my speakers, without sounding like mush. The sound would be a worthy accomplishment on a $700 pair of speakers. Bass had far less impact than it does with my speakers, but that simply reminded me how much bass is felt rather than heard. While the music sounded less full, the bass was good enough to be enjoyable. The 5 Pros' midrange made vocals easily intelligible. In fact, I found vocals easier to understand than I do with my speakers, which retail for nearly $12,000. With their clean, even-sounding presentation and their very good resolution throughout the audio range, the 5 Pros are a superb choice for subtle music styles and listening tastes. Headbangers might be a bit disappointed, but I found them to be an excellent choice for the audio-conscious traveler wanting top shelf sound in a tiny package.
My only real nit is that the 5 Pros didn't fit my right ear as well as they did my left. Still, discomfort didn't play a large role in my experience of the 5 Pros, and people with larger ears might not have a problem. The 5 Pros appear to be extraordinarily durable, and will last much longer (and sound much better) than the earpieces that came with your portable. I recommend them for home listening, but must add a caveat about using them while driving. This is not just because of their sound quality, but because their sound suppression is so good that you may not hear sirens or the people that honk at you because you're being distracted by the music. Larry Cox