Ultimate Ears Super.fi 4vi For iPhone Review
My favorite gadget? Easy. My iPhone. It goes everywhere with me. Sure it has faults but compared to every other cellphone on the market it kicks butt. But while the iPhone has lived up to my expectations, the earbuds that ship with it haven’t. I guess I could be considered a headphone snob. I have owned many models over the years, sinking more money that I care to admit into finding the perfect set. However, my problem with the iPhone stock earbuds isn’t all about acoustics. The iPhone has been on sale in the UK for about three months and I have already broken four sets of the white earphones. I confess that two sets were wrecked by my own stupidity (and with a little assistance from my washing machine). However, the remaining two pairs have both failed me in general use, developing loose connections in the small inline microphone/switch. The last time this happened was about 3 miles into a 16 mile walk leaving me without music for the remaining 13 miles. Very frustrating. A visit to the Apple Store was in order.
Now I am not particularly familiar with the run-of-the-mill Apple Store but the selection of iPod/iPhone cases and earphones on display at the San Francsico store on Stockton is bewildering. I spent nearly an hour browsing and scratching my head. I wanted good sound quality but without loosing the ability to take calls using the inline mic. This reduced the number of suitable headsets to a few, one of which was the Ultimate Ears Super-fi 4vi.
The Ultimate Ears are ‘in-ear’ buds meaning they are actually inserted into your ear canal, blocking the majority of external sound. When inserted for the first time I would liken the experience to being underwater. Once a good seal is achieved virtually no mid to high frequency sound from the outside world can be heard. Lower frequencies are a little more difficult to block out. In fact the first few hours wearing this type of earphone can be a little disconcerting. With your ears effectively blocked off from the outside world all thats left if the sound of your own heartbeat and the occasional rumble caused by the headphone cord rubbing on your clothes. But fear not. Once you hit the play button the eerie effect of being underwater receeds and great sounding music comes to the forefront.
The best way to describe the sound quality is as ‘natural’. There is nice balance of highs, midtones and low frequencies. I have worn these for many hours at a time and have suffered none of the listening fatigue I experienced with other earbuds that try to emphasize the bass. While bass lovers may feel these buds need a little more thump, if you like your music to sound realistic and natural these are the iPhone buds for you.
I already own a (very expensive) set of Shure E5c in-ear buds and while these deliver a wider frequency range, the Utimate Ears come very close to being my preferred earphones of choice for a few reasons.
Firstly the Ultimate ears are far more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. In comparison, the Shures rely on a design that loops the cable back over the ears and down the back of the neck. I find that after prolonged use the cable tends to rub the top of my ears, making them sore. In contrast the Ultimate Ears are more conventional with the cable dropping down in front of the listener.
Secondly, the Shures use a very thick and quite rigid cable. This tends to result in more transmission of rogue low frequencies to the ears, caused by the cable rubbing on the listeners clothes. The Ultimate Ears buds use a thinner, softer cable and while the problem is not eliminated it is much reduced.
Thirdly, the Shures ‘cable wrapped over the ear’ design makes the earbuds non-trivial to insert and remove. With practice this becomes easier but remember, whilst wearing, it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation with someone, or to hear traffic when outside. It can be a real pain in the ass to be constantly inserting and removing the Shures. The Ultimate Ears fare much better. While still preventing interaction with the outside world, it is much easier to pop an earbud out and then back in when required.
Being designed specifically for the iPhone, the Ultimate Ears also sport and intergrated mic and switch, enabling the wearer to accept, participate in, and end phone calls without having to remove the buds from their ears. However, this is where the Ultimate Ears stumble.
Firstly, while the microphone sounds great to the caller at the other end of the line, the inability to properly hear ones own voice makes for an unsettling experience. I would like to say I have gotten used to it, but in reality I find myself removing an earbud, unplugging the headphones and holding the iPhone up to my ear. This maybe something others have less of an issue with but I don’t see myself making many phone calls using the inline mic in the future.
My second grumble is about the inline switch used to accept and end calls (as well as to stop and start music and to move forward one track). When new it is very difficult to press and does not provide much tactile feedback. While I was able to execute a single click (used to accept and end calls) it was damn near impossible to perform a double click (used to advance one track when listening to music). However, I am happy to say that This has gotten better with time. With repeated use the switch becomes less stiff and gives a more defined click when pressed. I still feel the Apple stock earbuds outshine the Ultimate Ears in this department but I am learning to live with it.
Lastly I wanted to touch upon the aesthetics. The drivers are enclosed in a solid lump of aluminum. They feel solid and look great. The cord and inline mic are black. Of course, colour is a matter of personal preference. There are those who prefer black to the obligatory Apple white. Unfortunately for me, I am not one of them. I am a proud Apple follower and have always liked the fact that I can be identified as an Apple user by the white cables dangling from my ears. I guess this goes back to the first generation 5GB iPod I bought shortly after its launch. Back then iPods were a Mac-only product. Coupled with the price this made them a rarity. Owning an iPod back then was akin to being a member of an exclusive club. I guess those days are gone but, to me at least, white signifies cool, black signifies Sony. I would have preferred the Ultimate Ears to have a white cord but it’s not a deal breaker.
So there you have it. The Ultimate Ears Super-fi 4vi earbuds. Retailing at $149 they are obviously more expensive than the stock Apple earbuds. However I believe you get what you pay for. The Ultimate Ears are by no means perfect but if you care about sound quality and durability they make a great replacement for the standard iPhone buds.
Filed under: Apple, Hardware, iPhone | 6 Comments