Ultimate Ears super.fi 5vi Review

By | October 30, 2008

I’m not an audiophile. I don’t believe that placing different feet on your CD player will “bring out the finer details and ambience”. So it troubles me to say this: I am hearing new things in songs I have listened to hundreds of times.

I’m wearing a pair of Ultimate Ears super.fi 5vi earphones. Or more correctly “personal in-ear monitors”. UE are serious about their monitors. They are the same company that will direct you to an audiologist to get an imprint of your ear in order to fit you for their custom monitors. They proudly list some of the biggest names in the music business as happy clients. Logitech acquired Ultimate Ears in August 2008, but will be hanging on to the UE brand name because of it’s cachet in the industry.

The 5vi earphones don’t have quite the same internals as UE’s high-end custom monitors, but they do share the balanced armature driver configuration. The higher-end monitors use multiple drivers, while the 5vis use just one. I’d love to hear what the multiple-driver ‘phones sound like, because the single driver is brilliant.

The “vi” in the product name indicates that this particular model comes with an integrated microphone and multi-function button. Used with my iPhone, the button performs the same functions as the iPhone headset:

  • One click to answer/hang-up phone calls
  • One click to play/pause if listening to music
  • Double-click to advance to the next track
  • Triple-click to return to the previous track

To add context: I’ve been using in-ear monitors (IEMs), or canalphones, for some time now. If you haven’t used IEMs before, they do take some getting used to. The seal they create isolates a lot of external noise, to the point that I can happily hear music on 1/4 volume when mowing the lawn. The downside is the noises created by the cord rustling on your clothing, and your own bodily noises. To get an idea of this, block your ears and listen as you breath, chew or talk. You do get used to this, and it is easier to deal with these noises than external noises that you have no control over.

Sitting in a quiet room, listening to some of my favourite tracks from Wilco, The Beatles, Keane, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon and others, I was quite simply stunned by the quality. I’m using mostly 192kbps MP3 files on a 3G iPhone. Audiophiles will cringe at the thought of these compressed MP3s, but what I was hearing was fantastic stereo separation, and some very nice nuances on things like reverb, delay, and acoustic instrument subtleties.

I’m quite horrified to say that these ‘phones have actually got me thinking about the production techniques used on different songs and albums. They made me think twice about my current favourite songs – Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon. The stereo separation is so apparent that I started to get a little irritated by the demands of listening to both lead and rythm guitar in different ears at the same time. By comparison, The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles was a wonderful new experience, with the expansive orchestral segments filling the background behind Paul McCartney, and clear separation between the various instruments.

With a retail price of US$189, these aren’t your typical cheap replacement earphones, but the experience is neither cheap nor typical. If you’re looking for an upgrade from your iPhone stock earbuds, give these a listen.

11 thoughts on “Ultimate Ears super.fi 5vi Review

  1. kleinman

    Any comments on durability and construction for these as I'm also looking at potentially getting them to replace my current VMode Vibe model.

    Thanks – Martin

    Reply
  2. beng

    Martin,

    I have only been using them for a couple of weeks, but they seem pretty robust. Good molded connectors everywhere, including the join between the split ear cords and the main cord. They also come with a small hard carry case. It's a bit fiddly to coil up the cords to fit in the case, but it does offer good protection. It also doubles as a good way to carry the extra compressible earbuds if you want to swap between those and the silicone ones depending on the environment.

    Ben.

    Reply
  3. John

    Ben,

    Does the cord stay straight? I am also thinking of getting these after seeing them on Engadget, but if I am going to shell out $150+ then they may as well be perfect.

    Thanks,

    John

    Reply
  4. beng

    As straight as you'd expect really? It's made of the same material as 90% of headphone cords. No issues from my end.

    Reply
  5. Joe

    I have had the Super.Fi 5 Pro for two years now and I am very happy. The Pro have replaceable cables and the new type UE is providing is very solid and can easily be straightened out. I believe they now use the same quality cables for all their in-ear phones. Also, the company is great in supporting their product, you can get a cust rep on the phone and talk about problems (if there are any) and get working solutions or replacement parts quickly (and for free in my case).
    Joe

    Reply
  6. Martin Dufort

    Finally decided to get these earphones and they arrived today. What a HUGE surprise compared to the VModa Vibe I had.

    The sound definition is much clearer and the overall balance (treble / bass) is 500% better.
    Thanks for enticing me into getting those… Super purchase.

    L8er – Martin

    Reply
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  10. grootjet

    Beware when buying these. I’m on my third pair now after they keep shorting out and the right earphone won’t work anymore… They seems to have the same problem as VModa, except that they cost more.

    I can’t fault the sound quality which is excellent, but for this amount of money, I expect them to be working longer than 6 (and than 2) months.

    Unfortunately, I can’t get my money back but thankfully, UK law dictates that there has to be a 2 year warranty on these consumer products…

    Reply

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