Ultimate Ears 5 Pro In Ear Headphones

      Date posted: June 9, 2006

Ultimate Ears 5 Headphones
Sugg. Retail: $249 US

      Having been working in New York City now for the better part of a year I’m starting to really miss my home audio system. Inevitably I’m relying more and more on my ipod and computer to get my music fix. I, like seemingly every single other NYC subway commuter, don my ipod and headphones every time I ride the subway (excluding those too hypnotized by their Blackberries to listen to music, much less do anything else but tap away furiously with their thumbs). If Akio Morita, the former Chairman of Sony who agonized over the development of the walkman for fear that it would isolate people into their own private worlds (he insisted the first models have two headphone jacks so users could share), spent some time observing the subtle head bobbing, blank stares and downcast eyes of the ipod set on the Brooklyn bound C train at 8:30 in the morning he’d probably commit seppuku right on the platform. Mind you, he may also take solace in the fact that he had nothing to do with text messaging or mobile email.

     If only the other bleary-eyed, white-earbud-using subway riders knew how good I have it with headphones like these. Not only am I being spared the concerto for shrieking brakes and deafening track clatter by the’s 26 dB of isolation, I’m enjoying fantastic sound; Sound that, until recently, had absolutely no business coming from such tiny headphones.

     Like the Shure E5c’s, which I reviewed awhile back, the’s have two drivers and a crossover, giving them a decided advantage when it comes to overall clarity and freedom from compression. They also, like the Shures, have short sections of stiff cable which can be shaped to run around the backs of your ears. Another nice touch is that, like the cables on the big Sennheisers, the’s cord can be detached, and therefore replaced if you manage to accidentally sever it or otherwise mangle it. No word on an upgrade cable, but considering the fidelity these little guys are capable of, I wouldn’t be shocked to see one appear.

     Like most of their in-ear ilk, the’s are exquisitely sensitive, turning a single watt of amplifier power into 119 dB of sound pressure in your ear canal; a statistic which should serve as a warning. When you first fire them up, you’ll want to make sure the volume is off or very, very low. Sensibly included in the package, along with a spiffy little metal case, an array of different sized ear sleeves and a 1/4″ adaptor plug, is an attenuator built into a 1/8″ mini adaptor. In cases where you simply can’t get the volume of your source low enough, and/or the steps on the volume control are just too large, this is the answer.

     This attenuator is what I should have been using when I used the’s to listen to the sound of the Direct TV service on a recent JetBlue flight. In order to maintain a tolerable level the volume control had to be in its very lowest setting, which, aside from also being able to hear the signal of my neighbour’s TV about 6 dB lower than my own, was fine (nothing like listening to two conversations at once to focus the mind). What was less fine was when the system abruptly shut off as we left the gate. The system shutdown was accompanied by an electronic pop that, through the’s, was loud enough to convincingly simulate the sudden application of approximately fifteen amps of electrical current to my scrotum, causing me to levitate from my seat for about half a second. My seatmate, who was using the JetBlue phones and may or may not have been aware of a little electronic pop when the TV went off, cast a curious glance in my direction, thinking perhaps that I took excessive umbrage to the interruption of the Colbert Report. Despite the shock, neither the headphones nor my hearing suffered any permanent damage.

Good Seal, Great Sound

     In terms of use and listening I got off to a very good start with the’s. Unlike any other in-ear phone I’ve used so far, these fit properly right off the bat, even with the stock silicone sleeves (several sizes of silicone sleeves are supplied in addition to foam sleeves). Right away I had a good seal and a very comfortable fit. What was also immediately apparent was that these were the most open and transparent in-ear headphones I’d ever heard. While they lack the bottom end authority of the Shure E5C’s, the’s are definitely cleaner and clearer in the top and mids, and, as such, more neutral and revealing through most of the audio band. The bass, however, is by no means an afterthought. These are definitely headphones that can rock, with lightning fast, punchy, dynamic sound which manages to avoid fatiguing the listener. As can be expected from in-ear phones, the bass is amazingly deep and powerful, the tiny drivers able to energize the miniscule amount of air sealed in your ear canal with excellent control. This is bass with no bloat, no overhang, no room-reinforcement, no rattling picture frames; nothing but the signal on the recording. As with the Shures the sensation of hearing big, powerful bottom end, but not feeling it with the rest of your body at the same time, was a little disconcerting at first.

     Unlike the less expensive Xtreme Mac FS1 in-ear (also recently reviewed), the’s don’t succumb to any apparent dynamic compression at high levels either. Here, I think, is where the twin driver approach really pays dividends. Befitting a product descended from in-ear monitors for professional musicians, the’s are coherent and composed to volume levels higher than any sane person should listen. And this brings us to another and increasingly oft-heard warning: these headphones are capable of creating extreme sound pressure levels. The human ear, however, is not capable of withstanding such abuse for very long and hearing loss is the inevitable result. Like the rear-drive muscle car with more than a little too much horsepower, these headphones might not be the most prudent gift for a teenager (although one can probably do just as much or more damage by overdriving crappy earbuds into abject distorion, I suppose; It just won’t sound nearly as good).

     Another thing which impressed me about these headphones was that they managed to sound airier than the Shure’s or the FS1’s. They were still no match for my Sennheiser HD-650’s in this department, but they did manage to convey some sense of space and not sound as relentlessly “in your head” as I’ve come to expect from in-ear headphones. Listening to Jack Dejonette’s Ocean Wave (from the excellent, self distributed album Music From the Hearts of Masters - demonstrated just how good the retrieval of ambient information is with these headphones. Midrange/vocal performance was also excellent. Actually, by earbud standards, outstanding is probably a better choice of word. The’s presented a highly detailed, harmonically rich and always believable sound and while capable of very high levels and big dynamics, were never harsh, shouty or edgy unless the music demanded it. One train ride with the’s and memories of sizzly, thin, harmonically bleached, bass-shy white earbuds will fade very quickly indeed.

     Despite all their strengths, for listening at home I would still reach for my big Sennheisers. The’s just can’t match their ease, air, ability to swing, and general musicality, and it’s unreasonable to expect that any in-ear headphone will ever sound like a pair of big, top class, open back cans. For commuting or traveling, however, I have yet to hear anything better than these things. Great fit, excellent isolation, surprising transparency, admirable midrange finesse, great bass, refined top end, and, considering the preceding list of compliments, a very reasonable price. There’s very little else I could ask for, so Ultimate Ears will not be getting this pair back. My only complaint? Reading the little white on white embossed Left and Right indicators is damn near impossible. It generally requires a great deal of squinting and holding the headphones up to the light just so to figure out which is which. Anyone with bifocals (or anyone who needs them) will pretty much be guessing. Now that I own them, however, a couple of little black tattoos from a Sharpie pen will put that problem to rest.

Aaron Marshall

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One Response to “Ultimate Ears 5 Pro In Ear Headphones”

  1. sigsegv0x0b c-ca Says:

    To really enjoy these headphones google on the flip-flop mod. Which is also listed in the Ultimate Ears own support section on their site. It makes the fit of these IEMs far more useful.

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