Review: Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 in-ear monitors

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Ultimate Ears, the audio arm of Logitech, makes in-ear monitors for a wide range of musicians, from Metallica to Sheryl Crow. The super.fi line is Ultimate Ears’ consumer angle, and the super.fi 5 is one of eight noise-isolating models currently available.

The big claim on Ultimate Ears’ website is 26db of noise reduction in optimal conditions. On the New York City subway, these headphones did a terrific job of shutting out the sounds of a speeding train. They were similarly good filtering basic office noise. That said, the 5′s largest earbud option was not big enough to fill my (apparently abnormally spacious) ear canal, so I had more moderate results on my proving grounds–my bike commute to work, where I pass traffic, construction sites, and a helipad. Random loud noises were less isolated than continuous sound.

Having been recently spoiled by the clarity of the Etymotic hf2, I compared the super.fi 5s to them side by side. Ultimate Ears does a much better job with rock ‘n roll–they’re significantly louder than the hf2, and handle bass with much more oomph. But they’re muddier than the Etymotics: more like satellite radio and less like a digitally remastered CD. They left me wondering whether the engineering in other Ultimate Ears models, like the super.fi 5pro or the top-line 700 model, would be more satisfying and pro-quality.

Of course, purity isn’t everything, and the super.fi 5s are decidedly peppier headphones. I find it hard to fall into a state of audiophile bliss with them, but I can have fun with them, and thanks to the good isolation I can do so without blowing out my ears. I can see why Kirk Hammett would approve.

Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 headphones ship with a generous set of five silicone and foam cushion options. There’s a cleaning tool–which is clever, although I’m not sure what to do with it–and a delightfully compact hard plastic case.

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9 Responses to Review: Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 in-ear monitors

  1. Chris Murphy says:

    You will get yourself killed.

    The author is an idiot for riding a bike with noise-isolating ear phones. Regular ear phones are bad enough. This guy is tying to block out all sound while riding through traffic and construction in NYC.

    Hey kids, don’t be a bad monkey and ride without ear phones.

  2. David Wertheimer says:

    A word on using headphones while biking. (This came up on the last review, too.)

    I personally use noise-isolating headphones because I have tinnitus. It is not healthy for me–for anyone, really–to blast music on my headphones at levels that compete with city noises. Most of my music is played on an iPod just three or four notches above mute.

    It is pretty much impossible to hear music at that low output level in an outdoor setting. Hence the noise-isolating headphones. These designs cut out roughly 25 decibels on average from the outside world, presenting a nice muting that allows music to be audible.

    One of my observations these past few weeks is that even the best noise-isolating headphones only do a moderate job of shutting out road noises. I hear every car that passes, every jackhammer, every horn honk. It’s quiet, which is great, but it’s not gone. Which in turn keeps me from ramming into a bus, which is a good thing.

    That’s the genius of noise-isolating headphones. I can listen to music quietly without compromising either health or safety.

    The typical jogger, biker or rollerblader on my route using open-ear headphones is actually more haphazard than I am. Consider: traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway is around 70-75 decibels when it whizzes past me. (I have a meter and will check the exact levels if someone asks.) Noise-isolating headphones cut that to 50 db, give or take, which allows me to listen to my music at a healthy 60-70 db.

    In comparison, if you’re using open-ear cans or standard iPod ear buds, you’ll end up cranking the volume so it can compete with the exterior noises, putting 90-plus db of music in your ears at close range: the equivalent of attending a moderate rock concert every time you work out. And you won’t hear the traffic. People like Remmelt (#5) are actually less safe, not more. Sure, it’s safest to ride without headphones at all, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t smart (and less smart) ways to go about it.

    So I’ll take my bike ride with a healthy, sensible dose of muting. Please withhold your judgments for the headphones and not my safety choices.

  3. Daniel says:

    I came here to say something like Chris Murphy.

    Noise isolation headphones are bloody dangerous to wear while operating any machinery.

    I hope you were honorably risking your life for science and that this isn’t a habit of yours.

    If not, I’ll look for your name in the darwin awards.

  4. Jordan Deam says:

    Nice review, but I would be careful about suing sound-isolating headphones on your bike commute. Situational awareness is a little more important than audiophile bliss when you could pretty easily get hit by a car if you’re not careful.

    Be safe!

  5. remmelt says:

    Yeah, basically what they said with the shutting out of outside noise and partaking in traffic.

    That said, what’s the big deal with super duper sound quality in earphones (1) that are designed for use on the go (2) ?

    1 – If you want “personal audio” style, great quality, go with larger, open cans.
    2 – If you’re going to hear sounds from all over the place anyway, even with the noise canceling features on this set, who needs ultra quality? You won’t get it from your ipod and you won’t hear it through the background noises.

    If you’re listening to these at home, why bother? Grab a good pair of Grado’s or something and enjoy listening to much much better quality reproduction of audio.

  6. sigg says:

    I’ve got the UE 700′s and I’m still amazed at the clarity that I get when I listen to them, granted, I’m not on the subway, but at the gym or outside they make it so they’re all I can hear. The bass is good, I wouldn’t say amazing, but the clarity makes up for it, especially with the sound isolition; I’ve actually started hearing things that I’ve never heard before, in songs I’ve listened to for a looong time.

    I’d like to see a comparison between these guys done by you guys as I have not been able to try multiple models side by side.

  7. pupdog says:

    I did a lot of searching trying to decide on a pair of quality IEM’s. After seeing numerous reviews and reports I decided to invest a lot less money than I might have, and bought a set of RE2′s from Head-Direct (http://www.head-direct.com/products.php?m=12). I was completely blown away. If you can, try and get something from their line to try – the site isn’t as fancy and Flash-ified as the big-name guys, and they make no bones about your products coming straight from China, but I’d like to see how you feel they stack up.

  8. Vincent says:

    I just picked up a pair of super.fi4 earphones, and am wondering about the danger of ear damage. Since the ear pieces are so closed in, what’s a safe level of volume, compared to ordinary earphones?

    Thanks.

  9. Matt says:

    I wonder how the higher end models do with transferring vibrational noise from the headphone cord.
    I have a low end set of Ultimate Ears (actually labeled as Altec Lansing “Back Beat Classic”) and as long a you remain very still, the sound is terrific. But if you start moving around, it is like having a string streched between a tin can and your ear canal. Every vibration is transmitted directly to the ear canal via the (very comfortable I feel compelled to add) noise canceling silicone ear tips. Even the sound of the cord scraping across your shirt is transferred with annoyingly high fidelity. Is this “feature” absent in the nicer models? Inquiring minds would like to know.

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