Ultrasone HFI-2200 S-Logic Headphones
Most headphones beam sound directly into the ear canal. Ultrasone takes a different approach with the HFI-2200. With these German-made headphones, sound enters the ear just as it does in real life--bouncing off the complex fleshy surfaces of the outer ear, or pinna. This S-Logic technology has two desirable outcomes. One, according to the manufacturer, is more natural sound with better perception of distance, depth, and imaging. Another benefit is a 40 percent drop in sound pressure level for the same volume. The headphones are also shielded against electromagnetic radiation. See two different videos on the Ultrasone site and Amazon.
These are large full-sized headphones, with open gold-plated diaphragms measuring 40mm (1.73 inches). Their very comfortable fabric cups fit over nearly the entire surface of my average-sized pinnae, touching the bottoms, though so gently that there was literally no pinching. The headband is also upholstered in the same rust-colored velour, so there was no sensation of having a monster sitting on my head.
The HFI-2200 is clearly designed for home, as opposed to mobile, listening. It comes with a single cable nearly 10 feet long and terminated in gold mini-plugs at both ends (a quarter-inch adapter is also provided). Though the cable is detachable, the terminal on the left earcup doesn't lend itself to replacements--the jack is both recessed and threaded. Ultrasone seems to assume you're going to plug into a component system and sit in your favorite armchair some distance from it. These are not the headphones for a walk in the park. If you're more into mobile listening, take a look at the iCans. Ultrasone also offers products designed especially for the needs of DJs.
The HFI-2200 could deliver some high-frequency bite on toppy instruments, allowing Fender Strats and Teles their distinctive attacks. But it also had a fully developed midrange lacking both the lower midrange emphasis of my ancient AKG K240 and the upper midrange emphasis of my first-gen Bose TriPorts. Bass, though not as strongly emphasized as in either the AKG or the Bose, was deep and proportionate. Even with the flea amps of my iPod nano and SanDisk Sansa players, I could hear a string bass navigating the lower end of its range. But the Ultrasone didn't overcompensate for the flea amps--this wasn't a boomy or uncontrolled bass. Rated frequency response is 10-25,000Hz.
Tonal character aside, it was the nature of imaging that came to the fore, especially when I switched back and forth between the Ultrasone and my other reference headphones. Using conventional cans, I had the familiar sensation of sound in my skull, traveling in a straight line between my ears. The more I got used to the Ultrasone, the more objectionable this between-your-ears sensation got with other headphones. With the Ultrasone, the in-head soundstage got deeper, as though my skull had expanded, and at times it even extended outside my head. This wasn't a false, phasey kind of sound--more of a clean spatial expansion. And the more I was exposed to it, the better I liked it.
I regret not having had a chance to test the Ultrasone HFI-2200 with a first-class headphone preamp. If you're interested, you should find a dealer who will let you demo the product with a signal source and preamp you trust.
But there's no doubt in my mind that the Ultrasone HFI-2200 is a great set of headphones. Try A/B-ing it with a familiar set and you'll see what I mean. Price: $299.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.