The In-Ear Headphone Face-Off Page 5

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Ultimate Ears Super.Fi5

Overall Rank : 3rd

John Sciacca Ranking: 3

I had a difficult time getting a good fit, but ultimately went with the foam over the silicone tips and after some finagling got them to seat pretty well. This gave a fair amount of noise isolation, but it wasn't as dramatic as the Shure or anywhere near the Etymotic ballpark.

These phones were the most sensitive of the bunch and every time I switched to them, I went running for the volume control. The Super.Fi5's have a very forward sound to them, like you are up on stage with the band. Brass instruments are really up front and present, like the band is sitting just feet away from you. Bass was good but not overwhelming, with low notes present but just subdued compared to the ultra-forward mids. For vocal heavy tracks, these sounded great. It seemed like Fiona Apple was alternatively purring and raging right into my brain. They sound really nice with jazz and light rock where there isn't a ton of big low end.

While it doesn't affect the quality, these come with a tiny carry case, making it tough to store the phones. Fortunately, the cable resists kinking really well. My listening notes accurately sum up my feelings: "I really like the sound; just wish they fit me better."

Brent Butterworth Ranking: 5

What's with audiophiles? They fret about midrange and treble but never worry about bass. In fact, they often prefer to do without it. For them, the Super.Fi5 may be the perfect headphone.

Compared with the other earphones in this survey, it delivers very little bass. But what it lacks on the low end it makes up in the high end. The midrange and treble sound smooth and super-detailed, much like the highs and mids of the Etymotic hf5. Percussion-electronic and acoustic-from Cibo Matto's Stereo Type A CD danced in my head. Vocals sounded natural, save for a few apparent mild dips and peaks in the lower treble.

The Super.Fi5 is a nice, light earphone that fits easily into the ear, thanks in part to the nice foam earpieces Ultimate Ears includes. That might make it a great skiing 'phone, except that I really like to hear that bass grooving to give my legs some extra snap and my turns a sense of rhythm. The cord is surprisingly stiff and tangles easily, and the plug fits tight in the jack of my iPod-so tight that it's hard to push it, but I guess that also makes it hard to pull out.

Leslie Shapiro Ranking: 3

After settling in on the soft earcups, these fit comfortably but didn't have very good sound isolation. The sound of these was more subjective to very slight positioning changes. One moment they're quite thin with a harsh high-end, but a slight twist of positioning, and the bass becomes overwhelmingly boomy. The subtle kick drum and bass line on Brett Dennen's "Blessed" was almost too much on this light-hearted mix. These provided the best sound isolation for my ears.

Mike Gaughn Ranking: 1

This isn't going to come as any great shock but, in general, the Ultimate Ears sounded the most natural to me. On "It Makes No Difference Now," the rim hits were startlingly realistic, as was the overall soundstage. Those triple-forte sax-and-brass chords had the necessary impact without sounding harsh; you could hear the individual instruments instead of a blurred wall of sound. The Ultimate Ears had more punch-a realistic dynamic presence-than any of the other buds without ever becoming harsh. And the acoustic bass, piano, and baritone sax covering the bass line sounded like individual instruments throughout, instead of occasionally merging into an indistinct low-end thump, as they did with most of the other buds. The bottom end was consistently full without ever sounding pumped up. On "Insensatez," the sound was again very warm, full, and natural, with just the right amount of bass. The track exhibited a wide, airy soundstage with natural placement of the instruments. The flute tones were round and open, especially during the intro. And that crucial separation of the percussion hits only came across effectively through these buds. The piano had a fullness of tone missing with the others. Nice bite to the cello attacks, too. There's not much to be said about "Frank Sinatra" without becoming redundant, but the drum kit in the opening sounded-surprise!-full, crisp, and convincingly real.

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