- Review Price: £74.99
I first came across Ultimate Ears while researching a Christmas wish list for TrustedReviews back in 2005. I was looking for super desirable kit – the sort of thing that I’d like for Christmas if money was no object.
Two years on and I still don’t own a pair of in-ear monitors, custom moulded to the individual twists and turns of my ear canals – hardly surprising given that a pair of the firm’s top-end canalphones cost in excess of $1,000 a pair. But I have managed to get my grubby mitts on a pair of Ultimate Ears’ latest consumer ‘low-end’ lug-busters.
Of course Ultimate Ears’ definition of low-end is different to most people’s: the Super.fi 4’s cost £75, which is a lot of money for most normal folk to spend on a pair of headphones, especially when most would probably shy away from spending more than £100 on an MP3 player. What’s less surprising is that they’re available in an iPhone-specific version for a tenner more. The 4vi’s include an inline microphone so you can take calls as well as listen to music.
For this sort of money you’d expect top quality build, sound and accessories and on most counts these headphones do not disappoint. In the box there’s a hard, plastic carry case to protect the phones while they’re not in your ears, plus an extensive ‘fit kit’ that consists of four pairs of ear inserts. You don’t get the foam inserts you do with a pair of Shures, but there is a decent selection of all-silicon rubber, flange-style fittings, including a double flange pair. The latter help ensure a truly tight fit and block out even more external sound than the single flange designs – an unusual inclusion at this price level.
Also in the box is a volume attenuator, which you can use on aeroplanes to prevent the incredibly loud in-flight announcements from turning you deaf, and a tool for cleaning purposes. Both are useful and again make unusual inclusions for the money.
Build quality is also as you’d expect. Despite the fact that we’ve had issues before with the quality of cable and housing of Ultimate Ears’ headphones – the Super.fi 5 Pros Riyad reviewed a couple of years ago had thin, unsubstantial cabling and plastic bodies that didn’t feel as if they would stand up to much abuse – the firm has since brushed up its act considerably. The Triple.fi 10’s we looked at last year were much more solid in design, and the Super.fi 4s are even more impressive.
The cable is thick and somehow manages to be tangle-resistant. The point at which it meets the earpieces feels well made and the bullet-like earpieces are splendidly engineered. They’re machined from two pieces of aluminium and feel weighty in your hand when you pick them up. This does translate to a design that’s quite bulky – I found that the earpieces completely filled the inner part of my ear, even with the canal flanges pushed right down as far as I could get them – so those with small ears may well want to consider a pair of smaller ear canal headphones.
They are comfortable to wear, however, if you can squeeze them in. The Super.fi 4’s differ from Ultimate Ears’ more expensive models in that the cable isn’t designed to be looped over the top of your ears for a more secure fit, but I didn’t find this to be a problem while out and about, commuting on London’s crowded underground and walking around the bustling streets. The supplied silicon rubber flanges are light and comfortable, and easy to get used to, though the double flange – the most effective in terms of noise isolation – requires you to push the earpiece right down inside your ear to achieve a full seal, which isn’t the most comfortable experience.
Another area where these cheaper headphones can’t match their dearer brethren is in the technology they use. Where the Super.fi 5 Pros and Triple.fi 10’s use double and triple drivers respectively, the Super.fi 4’s are limited to a single armature driver in each earpiece. While there’s nothing wrong with single driver design – I’ve listened to excellent examples under £100 including the now defunct Shure E2c – inevitably decisions have to be made as to how this sort of design is tuned.
As with Shure’s low-end headphones, Ultimate Ears has chosen clarity and flat response over the mass-market appeal of thumping bass for the Super.fi 4’s. There’s no doubt that this results in a much more realistic sound than, say, the CX400, but the sheer power and sound pressure that these headphones are capable of give them a hard, clinical edge that makes them tough to listen to.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Newton Faulkner’s superb cover of Massive Attack’s ”Teardrop”. Even my venerable Shure E2c’s, which I consider to be pretty dry and light on bass, manage a warm, rounded grumble when the crisp acoustic guitar intro gives way to the main part of the song. That just doesn’t happen with the same degree of warmth through the Super.fi 4’s. There’s power here, but it’s delivered in a measured way that’s lacking in emotion and intimacy.
Moving on to another cover – Mary J Blige’s version of U2’s ”One” – emphasises and underlines these traits. Vocals don’t ring out; they seem to thrust, slash and tear at your ears. Sibilants irritate and while the bass is incredibly defined with clear edges and amazing separation, it lacks warmth.
The Super.fi 4’s fared a touch better with live music. Listening to Georgie Fame’s amazing album ”Live At The Kentish Town Forum” gave a much more realistic sound than, say, the £40 Sennheiser CX400’s did. But again that tiring harshness continues to come through, giving unnecessary weight and significance to cymbals, snare drums and other sibilant noises.
Competition is hot under £100, and at £75 the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 4s come in at possibly the trickiest price point there is – at the bottom end of what an audiophile might consider, yet at the upper end of the scale of what a keen yet stingy iPod owner might buy.
And these headphones don’t quite hit the mark. Build is top quality and there’s a good range of accessories in the box, but the sound quality just doesn’t come up to scratch for me. There’s no doubting these are highly capable headphones, but the tuning of the single driver is just too dry and this results in a sound that’s hard-edged, harsh and difficult to listen to for extended periods.
After several days of listening to these, I was more than happy to go back to my Sennheiser CX400’s and Shure E2c’s. Neither is perfect, but both are a lot easier on the ear.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7