Sugg. Retail US $399
In all my years as an audiophile I’m hard pressed to think of a piece of equipment that has had the kind of effect on my daily life that the Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10 Pro headphones have. Certainly the timing is right, as I find myself commuting between Toronto and New York every week, and through midtown Manhattan to and from work on foot every day. I’m probably logging somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven to ten hours a week on the iPod with these things right now, and I’m loving them.
Awhile back I reviewed Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 5 Pro in ear monitors, which are a little lower down on their product ladder. I was impressed, bought the review samples and have been using them regularly ever since. They were good enough that it was difficult to imagine that a more expensive model could be much better.
When I put the Triples on for the first time it was abundantly clear, in a matter of seconds, that they were not just better, they were waaaaaaay better; an order of magnitude better; in a completely different class better. It was the aural equivalent to getting an updated eyeglass prescription, putting the new glasses on and saying “wow, so that’s what sharp is”. More like “wow, so this is what clear is.”
Just in case you’re new to this type of headphone and perhaps a little confused by the term “in ear monitor”, there is an important difference between this type of headphone and the “earbud” types that ship with most portable music players. First off, almost all earbuds suck, spitting out thin, nasty, sizzly, bleached sound that will make you wonder whether you should go on living (ok, an exaggeration, but it would feel a bit like going back to nothing but AM radio once you’ve heard good FM stereo). In ear monitors, by contrast, generally do not suck, and that probably has a great deal to do with the fact that they are the descendants, technologically speaking, of the monitors professional musicians often use on stage to hear the board mix (and thereby hear themselves) and protect their hearing. Yes, that’s protect their hearing, not destroy it. Headphones like these can be protective because they’re basically earplugs with speakers, another major advantage over earbuds. In the case of the Triple.fi’s there is 26 dB of isolation from the outside world. For a musician on stage this can be a godsend: a clear, clean, non-deafening feed of the stage mix and simultaneous protection from the high SPLs from the stack of PA speakers right next to them.
Isolation, of course, can be your friend as well, even if you’re going about things far more prosaic than diving into the mosh pit at the foot of the stage every night. As any good audiophile knows, the lower the noise floor (and the higher the signal to noise ratio) the better the sound. The reason is simple: there’s more music, and less to distract you from enjoying it. The other great benefit of a headphone sealed right into your ear canal is that it has an advantage a lowly earbud can never match: complete dominion over the tiny pocket of air between it and your eardrum. As such it allows even a minuscule little thing like the Triple.fi to pressurize that pocket of air with ease, making possible extremely accurate frequency response right down to 20 Hz. The bass response from these things, as many IEM converts will tell you, can be incredible. For the purist it’s a compelling idea. There are, simply, so few variables to get between you and the original recording: no speaker enclosure, no room, no refrigerator hum, no bloat, echo, bloom, slap or nodes, just the sound of the headphone’s drivers, right in your head.
The right in your head thing can be a little disconcerting at first, and may even freak a few people out, but I certainly got used to it fast. For me the oddest thing is the bass. With good IEMs the bass in your ears, which can be so big, fast, true, powerful and dynamic, exists only there: in your ears. You may hear big, fat, violently struck drums, for instance, but you don’t feel them. You may hear the lowest registers of a pipe organ blasting out 32 Hz, but that feeling in the pit of your stomach is probably just gas. The other knock against IEMs is that since everything is happening right in your ear canal, achieving a sense of space, or air, is quite a bit harder to pull off. In other words, the sense of music happening in space is somewhat more diminished than it is with most headphones, and imaging, like the rest of the experience, is very much in your head rather than in front of it.
Ultimate Ears has been making custom IEMs for musicians for years and has more recently branched out into the consumer market (and, incidentally, just been bought by PC accessory giant Logitech). They claim to hold 80% of the professional IEM market, a startlingly dominant position. The Triple.fi is, apparently, basically one of their high-end, custom headphones minus the bespoke molded body made to fit your ear canal (moulds for these headphones must be made by an audiologist and sent to UE where they use the mold to make truly custom, one-off headphones for your ears and yours only). I suppose it should come as no surprise that there are three drivers in the Triple.fi, hence the name (no word on crossover points), Ultimate Ears going one better than many other manufacturers who feature dual drivers (like Shure’s E5C, for instance). Sensitivity is a whopping 117 dB and impedance 32 Ohms (making them easy for an iPod to drive, so start with the volume low) and frequency response is rated at 10 Hz to 17 kHz. They ship with a variety of silicone and foam earpieces to help you get a comfortable fit with a tight seal (which is crucial if you expect to hear any bass) and the cables are detachable, and thus replaceable, which is great if you manage to mangle the jack or your two year old gets a hold of the scissors.
But the Triple.fi’s wouldn’t be the most important piece of audio equipment I own right now if they didn’t sound fantastic. If I had to sum them up in one word it would be easy: transparent. These are incredibly open, honest, true and accurate sounding headphones, right down to 20 Hz. They offer a listening experience as rich, colorful and compelling as the music you pump into them. It’s a pretty specific kind of experience, to be sure, happening in your head, and in your head only, but an undeniably musical one. The bass, in a word, is phenomenal. Hugely big and powerful when called upon, but not in the slightly fat and woolly way I heard with the Shure E5C’s. On Daniel Lanois’ new album, Here Is What Is (which is downloadable off his website as WAV files, by the way) the bass guitars are massive and unrestrained in places, their size undiminished by the Triple.fi’s and their grandeur conveyed with the kind of dictatorial control and effortless authority that only the world’s best (and biggest) loudspeakers can pull off.
Like the Super.fi’s the Triples’ simply eat electronica and dance music for breakfast, punching their way through huge beats with lightning speed, impeccable precision, a complete lack of overhang or bloat, and, most importantly, unfailing smoothness. It would be so easy for an IEM to become fatiguing, being millimeters away from your eardrum, but the Triple.fi’s do an even better job in the top end then the Super.fi’s, producing hyper-detailed treble that never splashes, sizzles or fries. And yes, they will play ridiculously loud and remain as clean as freshly fallen snow, but have some restraint or your ears will pay. At reasonable levels I can, and have, listened to them for hours on end with no fatigue. The story is just as good in the mids, which are amazingly neutral and clean. Any other headphone I’ve heard lately, with the exception of my big Sennheiser HD 650’s, sounds coloured to me now. I suppose you could fault the Triples for being “dry”, or not warm enough, but I love the fact that they have basically no sonic character of their own: their “sound” changes with every song and is wholly appropriate to whatever music they’re playing. That’s pretty much what hi-fi is all about, isn’t it?
The other word that springs to mind to describe the Triple.fi’s is “resolution”. If one were to make a video analogy the Super.fi’s would be standard definition, and the Triple.fi’s most definitely 1080p uncompressed HD. There is not just incredibly fine detail on offer, but the ability to delineate and unravel dense music passages that rivals any transducer I’ve ever heard. As valuable as these headphones could be to a musician, they could be an equally useful tool to an engineer, laying bare every nuance and layer of even the most complicated mix. Imaging could be a little tougher to judge than on speakers, perhaps, but the Triple.fi’s innate balance, coherence and honesty will really tell you exactly what your music sounds like. Huge dynamics, vibrant tonal color, incredible speed and rhythmic prowess, etc. etc. The list goes on. Some may complain that they lack warmth and bloom, and there’s the whole issue of not feeling the sound you’re hearing, but I can really think of no other sonic caveats. These are true high end headphones with nothing to apologize for, which also happen to be incredibly practical, easy to drive, and, compared to the audiophile approved, top drawer Sennheisers, AKGs, Stax, Grados etc., very reasonably priced.
Yes, compared to many other IEMs, let alone earbuds, they’re still expensive. Probably cost more than your iPod did. If they cost twice as much I’d still buy them. If you care about sound and listen on the move a lot, you need to hear these headphones. They improved my day-to-day life in a way completely disproportionate to their price. I’ve been using them every day for months and I’m still amazed how good they sound every time I put them on. The scary thing is that UE has higher end models (all with custom ear molds), which promise an ever better fit, greater isolation and ever better sound. Maybe it’s time to visit my local audiologist to get some molds made…
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