Premium in-ear headphone comparison review

On April 26, 2006, in Headphones, Review, by John Nemerovski


Super.fi 5 Pro (available in white, black, or clear)
Company: Ultimate Ears

Price: $250
http://www.ultimateears.com/superfi/superfi-5-Pro-white.htm
(Specifications, user’s manual, and informative FAQ are available from links at the above page — well worth reading if you are interested in learning as much in advance as possible)


FS1 High Definition Earphones (available in white or black)
Company: XtremeMac

Price: $150

http://www.xtrememac.com/audio/earphones_recorders/fs1.php


(Specs do not appear to be posted on the company’s web site)

In the interest of complete transparency and full disclosure, MyMac.com is letting readers inside our Internal Standards Department, where every product we evaluate goes through a comprehensive Q & A process. Read through to the end for our conclusions, but first let’s discuss some pros and cons of premium in-ear headphones, generally and specifically:

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE EARBUDS THAT COME FROM APPLE, INCLUDED WITH AN IPOD?

From personal observation, at least 70 percent of iPod owners are using standard issue Apple in-ear headphones. The expensive third party in-ear headphones being discussed in this review are not for everybody, either due to cost or lack of need.

WHY CAN’T I GET REALLY GOOD IN-EAR HEADPHONES FOR FIFTY BUCKS OR LESS?

These special headphones under discussion are audiophile quality, meaning the listening experience is designed to be as superb as possible. Engineering and design costs are substantial, and sales volumes are not.

HOW DO I KNOW THEIR LITTLE SPEAKERS WILL FIT COMFORTABLY WITHIN MY EARS FOR HOURS OF LISTENING?

Each of these two manufacturers, Ultimate Ears and XtremeMac, provides many different ear inserts in their original packaging, and most purchasers will be satisfied with one of the included sets.

WHAT ELSE COMES WITH THE HEADPHONES?

Both companies give you little carrying cases. XtremeMac’s FS1 travels within a little round grey zippered case, and Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 5 Pro has two options: a small, square leather case and a sexy metal+rubber all weather hard case.

CAN I HEAR OUTSIDE NOISES WHEN LISTENING THROUGH THESE IN EAR HEADPHONES?

It depends upon how loud you play your music (be careful, please!) and how loud is the outside noise. Under typical listening conditions, exterior noises will not distract from or diminish your audio experience.

WHAT ABOUT DISTORTION?

If you are using in-ear headphones, even cheapo ones, and blasting your brains out with high output levels, you need your head examined, not your ears. Moderation is the key here, and both models are plenty loud and clear.

ARE THE HEADPHONE CABLES AS FLIMSY AND VULNERABLE AS THEY APPEAR TO BE?

Sort of. If you’re careful and don’t let your dog chew on them ($$ ouch $$), or allow the strands to dangle inside your toaster oven, you’ll get years of enjoyable use from either brand, although Ultimate Ears’ headphones have longer, more flexible cables than do XtremeMac’s.

Hint from Ultimate Ears’ representative: “I would also mention that our cables are user replaceable in case something ever does go wrong. We do not feel that you should loose your entire investment when you slam your cable in your car door – I speak from experience;)”

DO I GET A PRINTED INSTRUCTION MANUAL WITH THE HEADPHONES?

Yes, from both companies, although FS1’s is miniscule and minimalist, while Super.fi 5 Pro’s is large and detailed.

WOULD I BE BETTER OFF WITH TRADITIONAL OR WALKMAN-STYLE HEADPHONES THAT EITHER COVER MY EARS ENTIRELY OR REST ON THEM WITH FOAM COVERS?

Over-ear headphones can be potentially very comfortable, and not allow much outside noise in, but they also can be clunky, heavy, and awkward. Higher quality modern foam cover headphones can provide terrific listening for a modest price (under $100), but do not equal the listening experience of premium in-ear headphones.

ARE ANY OTHER ACCESSORIES INCLUDED?

Nope with FS1, and yes, indeed with Super.fi 5 Pro: gold-plated (that’s good) 1/4″ plug adapter and volume attenuator extension plugs. Very nice additions!

WILL BOTH MODELS UNDER REVIEW PLAY MUSIC FROM ANY ORDINARY MUSIC DEVICE?

Yes, but Ultimate Ears’ 1/4′ adapter jack allows you to use them with your home stereo equipment, out of the shrinkwrap.

CAN I CLEAN THE EAR INSERTS, AND BUY ADDITIONAL ONES?

Yes and yes.

WHY SHOULD I SPEND MORE ON MY REPLACEMENT HEADPHONES THAN I DID ON MY MUSIC PLAYER?

These are after market considerations for demanding listeners. Why do you use a Macintosh instead of a Dell, or own an iPod instead of a CD Walkman? The choice is yours, and your money is well spent if your overall experience is enhanced significantly.

CAN YOU REALLY HEAR THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN $150 FS1 AND $250 SUPER.FI 5 PRO?

Yes. I’m spending every available waking hour using and comparing these two in-ear headphones. FS1 is a very nice model, but the audio presence is somewhat flat and withdrawn when compared to the open, expansive sound from Super.fi 5 Pro.

Hint from Nemo: experiment with every EQ (equalizer) setting within iTunes, and built into your iPod, for your preferred listening “tone.”

WHAT ABOUT COMFORT COMPARISONS?

Different companies use different speaker cover insert design. In this case, FS1’s comfy cones are more or less equal in fit and feel to Super.fi 5 Pro’s round blobs. I have peculiar ear orifices, and after a lot of cover switching back and forth, I’m satisfied in both cases.

ARE LEFT AND RIGHT CLEARLY MARKED ON THE EARPIECES?

No, not from either company. Big mistake. P-l-e-a-s-e figure out how to indicate which ear is which without compromising your high class design, such as a RED DOT = RIGHT SIDE and BLUE DOT = LEFT SIDE, clearly visible in low and high lighting situations for both youngsters and oldsters.

WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE FOUR SETS OF ULTIMATE EARS HEADPHONES OR A NEW IBOOK?

What an idiotic question. We all have spending priorities. Expensive, diminutive, premium headphones are at the top of the lists for a select group of listeners. It’s one of those situations where if-you-have-to-ask-it’s-not-for-you, and you-know-who-you-are.

WHAT ARE THE CONCLUSIONS AFTER ALL THESE PROBING QUESTIONS?

1. Comfort is paramount. No matter the sound or the cost, if the darn things don’t feel good, hour after hour, week after week, you’ll wish you had never purchased them. Comfort is worth FOUR POINTS out of a total of 10 in our final score.

2. Attention to audio output is serious from both companies, and the extra “oomph” built into Ultimate Ears’ headphones is worth the extra cost, if you can afford it and know you can hear the difference. Audio quality is worth THREE POINTS.

3. Package contents and product design are taken very seriously by Ultimate Ears, and less so by XtremeMac. If it’s fair to compare products that are essentially similar but at difference price points, then we’re on a level playing field in this category that is worth TWO POINTS.

4. Retail price is worth ONE POINT, because it is a decisive factor for nearly everything we buy.

AND OUR RATINGS ARE:

Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro [$250]:

Comfort = 3 (good but not perfect)
Audio = 3 (very good)
Contents and design = 1.5 (extensive, except for Left/Right identifiers)
Price = 1 (reasonable)

Total score = 8.5 out of 10, and MyMac.com rating of 4 out of 5

XtremeMac FS1 [$150]:

Comfort = 3.5 (very comfy but still not perfect)
Audio = 2 (room for improvement)
Contents and design = 1 (room for more improvement)
Price = 1 (reasonable)

Total score = 7.5 out of 10, and MyMac.com rating of strong 3 out of 5

 

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