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.