POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 48
The Neoteric Listener...
the Ultimate Ears 700 Noise Isolating Earphones
The Ultimate Ears 700 Noise Isolating Earphones represent a step up in quality and sophistication from the models most commonly purchased in electronics stores and online. I should know, as I've spent a small fortune trying to find a pair of headphones that could take the rigors of daily use, while still offering superior performance. To backtrack a bit, I may look like a portly sack of creamy filling and nougat whip now, but there was a time when I dazzled my corner of the world as the standard bearer for all joggers great and slow. I was the plodding reincarnation of Emil Zatopek, Jim Fixx, Rosie Ruiz—you name it. The irony of all this (besides the apparent lack of any lasting physical benefit) is that I really hate to run, jog or amble. Running offers no battered opponents. No funny Euro cap. No immediate promotion from geek status (thankfully, I have the audiophile cool-dude upgrade). Nothing to show for it except for a momentary flash of condescending superiority and a pair of arthritic knees (got both, thanks). Admittedly, there is the occasional adrenalin-induced endorphin frenzy but, for me, the only thing that really propels my motion-at-rest is the daily soundtrack of ear melting sonic Armageddon.
All right, I'm not sure if Kitty Wells really qualifies as "Armageddon," but the fact remains that the sound of pedal steel and cowgirl need to be mighty rootin' tootin' to get me out of the house on a cold rainy morning. And maybe my Sony cassette player does jerk along like Barney Fife, but that doesn't make its and my illusion of superior performance any less pleasurable. Still, I've had a hell of a time finding headphones that can really offer durability and musicality. Over the years, I've accumulated an impressive tangled debris of cords and earphones bearing familiar names—Sennheiser, Klipsch, Audio Technica, Bose, V-Moda, Shure, Phillips, Skullcandy, to name a few—all lasting about the same time as a new pair of shoes. I was pleased with some, but many are an absolute joke. One well-known pair has all the accoutrements of the real deal (fancy leather bag, gold plate connectors, glossy black styling and two bill price tag) but sound as if the music is being squeezed through a pipette. I've tried all the iPod tricks but it still comes out iPutrid.
Too many earphones described as "audiophile" are basically aural catheters that simply discard any semblance of producing any sort of range, content to settle for a mediocre midrange innocuous enough to forestall criticism. Dangling from my iPod nano prior to the arrival of the Ultimate Ears was pair of Sony headphones that cost about $70 new. I've spent more than triple that on other brands, but the Sony's worked, and if I yanked out the cord or squashed them (which happens fairly regularly) no big deal. I kind of liked them, actually, and I even fancied that their sound made most other products sound, well, anemic. Until the 700's showed up, that is...
Comparing the Ultimate Ears to the models that had come before enabled me to learn quite a bit about what makes a good set of earphones stand apart from the others. I suppose it's not very different from evaluating any pair of speakers, but because an earphone is loaded like a bullet in your ear canal, the effects are more pronounced. To that end, the way bass is presented by the 700s illustrates the musicality that can be achieved through good design. At first listen, I thought that I was being shortchanged on the bottom end, because the 700s were not filling my head with Crazy Horse bass player Neil Talbot's proto-Punk noise on "Welfare Mothers" from Rust Never Sleeps. Going back and forth from the 700s and the Sony's, I realized that there is a big difference between bass and boom. Through the latter pair, the reverberant racket sounded like it was recorded in a basketball gym. Then I put on the 700s and really listened. Hey, there are actual notes being played, and some of that low-life low level is coming from the drummer! Likewise, the anthemic bass and drum procession propelling Arctic Fire's ubiquitous "Wake Up" is made more immediate and engaging because it is rendered so precisely. It may seem counterintuitive, but by not trumping up the bottom frequencies and, instead, reproducing them more accurately makes bass drums, organs, and Fender P's (which covers about 95.5 of the instruments on my iPod playlists) stand out much better than my usual practice of cranking the volume and waging war on the tissue strands in my cochlea. This premium on a detailed presentation continues to good effect on House music provocateurs The Sneaker Pimps' single, "Spin, Spin, Sugar." I like the occasional diversion of synthesized bass, drum, and ambient effects, and this Gary Newman-meets-the-Motels techno romp benefits from the expansive soundstage offered by the 700s. The soundstage is located in the usual behind-the-ears position for headphones of this type, but it's airy and not in any way distracting.
In fact, the ample space created between all sounds and instruments is certainly one of the virtues of these earphones. "Chicano Zen" by Charanga Cakewalk features a dense mix of percussion instruments, keyboards, guitar fills and highly stylized vocals. The song builds in layers, and it's often hard to track every element, many of which only appear for a moment before vanishing in a "what the hell was that?" moment. One of the joys of a precise set of earphones such as the 700s is sitting at one's computer, living room, or someplace quiet and enjoying the craft of musicianship as it unfolds. I had just such a moment with the Ultimate Ears while listening to the clarinet and organ on Burning Spear's "Walk" and discerning the marvelous tone of the flanged guitar fills emerging from the background and reaching full prominence by the song's end.
It's a curious thing that, though I don't like my loudspeakers to be the last word in resolution, I can't get enough of it in ear buds (and full headphones, too). Too many teenage hours listening to trippy headphone doses like Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain," I suppose. Yet, the ability of the 700s to retrieve so much information from recordings is highly satisfying. To achieve this clarity and balance, the manufacturer touts the professional-grade dual drivers that "use a custom-tuned dual-armature layout that separates the broad frequency response—10Hz to 16.5kHz—into two high fidelity channels per ear." Some may find a high level of accuracy to be fatiguing, but I didn't notice any in my hours of careful listening, and I'm notoriously impatient with headphones and ear buds as a rule. Surgical precision has its disadvantages, however, for listening to 128 bit mp3 files via my headphone amp-less Mac was like an initiation to a club I didn't want to join. Can't blame the Ultimate Ears for my recordings and computer setup, but steer clear if you plan on using these with your 1980s voice recorder, as the sound can be a little bright and edgy in the wrong circumstances. They work great with a headphone amp or an iPod with high bit rate recordings, thankfully.
To be perfectly honest, I rarely sit still and listen to headphones anymore. When I'm listening to music at home, it's usually not by wearing my headphones and ignoring my girlfriend (I don't yet own a smashable iPod). No, I use earphones when I'm exercising, or cleaning up in the yard, or spraying Critter Ridder to ward off the skunks that like to turn my world into a nasty smelly fen. As such, any earphones that I own is likely to get sweated up, mashed into a gym bag, snagged on branch, or dropped in the sand. Not on purpose, of course, but my gracefulness runs more geezer than geisha. For this reason, I'm unlikely to spring for the cash for proper injection-molding custom earphones. I know that I'm sacrificing performance and a good ear cleaning, but I'm type who waits for a half-priced sale on salvation, so the very best is out of reach for me. The 700s run at just about the top of my price point for earphones of this sort, and their superior performance more than justifies the total cost. They've held up well, too, as I've used them in all of my usual settings, with no ill-effects at all. I've also discovered the noise isolating properties of these headphones are sufficient enough to almost tune out loud crowd noise and the inexplicable "Hey, watch out, dipstick" shouts that seem to be embedded in many of my recordings. All in all, these headphones offer an improvement over all of the models I have auditioned over the years. Almost makes me feel like training for a 10K again. Almost.
700 Noise Isolating Earphones