Ultimate Ears 700 earphones pack powerfully accurate sound in dime-sized package [review]

Summary:The Ultimate Ears 700 noise-isolating earphones are the tiniest buds I've ever placed in my ears. They also provide ruthlessly accurate sound reproduction.

The Ultimate Ears 700 noise-isolating earphones are the tiniest buds I've ever placed in my ears. They also provide ruthlessly accurate sound reproduction.

When the folks at Logitech first told me last spring that they were introducing a pair of earbuds that were smaller than a dime and packed with the same audio tech used by touring professionals around the world, my ears perked up, literally and figuratively.

The Ultimate Ears brand is well-known among pros for their $1,000 custom-fit in-ear monitors. You've probably seen them in the ears of your favorite musicians -- they resemble clear hearing aids. Logitech bought the company in 2008 for $34 million, and has since made an effort to bring some of that know-how into a more casual setting.

That's where the UE 700s come in.

The UE 700s are in-ear buds that distinguish themselves with a remarkably small body that contains powerful drivers piping audio in two channels -- one for highs and mids, the other for lows. The buds manage a rather broad frequency response of 10 Hz to 16.5 kHz.

The UE 700s come with three different sizes of tapered silicone earbuds and two sets of "Comply" foam cushions that work much like a pair of Hearos foam ear plugs. The plug is a straight 3.5mm type, and an L-shaped dongle is included with a small, stone-sized plastic case that's just big enough to fit the earphones.

SOUND TEST

In testing, I found the UE 700s to be quite powerful, clear and crisp. I tested the earphones with an iPod touch and a direct connection to a laptop, and across several different styles of music -- jazz, live, folk, rock, punk, indie, electronica, pop. For all genres, the different elements were separated quite nicely in my ear. Vocals rose above the music, instruments didn't mingle into a mush, and I perceived much more "depth" than I did with my everyday earphones, the $50 Sony Fontopia MDR-EX71SL.

Here's how they did:

In a test of studio crooning using Harry Connick Jr.'s "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," vocals were clear as a bell, horns were punchy, strings warm and the pitter-patter of the drummer's drumstick on his ride cymbal was soft but distinct. (An alto saxophone on the UE 700s is simply astonishing.)

In a test of electronica using The Prodigy's "Hotride," the individual effects and elements were crisp -- almost too crisp, like a CD versus a vinyl record. Vocals also shone here, but the lowest bass frequencies -- drums and distorted guitar effects -- felt toothless.

In a test of live music using Dave Matthews Band's cover of "Cortez, The Killer" from their Central Park Concert, the snare drum cracked, Warren Haynes' lead guitar was dynamic and alive, and you could still clearly distinguish the keyboards, backing acoustic guitar and audience murmurs underneath the vocals. Along with a crooning vocal track, the UE 700s did the best here.

In a test of mids-heavy rock using the Deftones' "Hexagram," the vocals and drums were clear and separate, but the lush layers of guitar came across crisp but thin, lacking punch.

In a test of garage rock using The Dead Weather's "60 Feet Tall," the clicking and rough studio edges came through nicely (the intention, of course, being garage rock) and the panning, reverb and delay effects were heard clearly without cluttering the mix.

In a test of bass-heavy rap using Jay-Z's "99 Problems," the vocals, drums and samples came across wonderfully bright, and all the elements were distinct (on lesser headphones, this song would be a problem). But the drums and sampled guitar crunch lacked hair-raising punch.

LOVING: CLARITY. WANTING: "KICK," FIT

As you can see, above all, the UE 700s reward great mixing and engineering work from the studio. The better the song recording, the better the performance. Across all musical genres, the UE 700s produced crystal clear audio that let the instruments breathe on the track.

However, the UE 700s have one distinct drawback: low lows. On dense guitar tracks such as Linkin Park's "By Myself" or bass-heavy rap songs, tracks lacked the "punch," so to speak, that you should experience. From a technical standpoint, the UE 700s reproduce bass accurately and strongly; the problem is that they lack the "oomph" necessary for it to make an impact on the ears.

I noticed this problem when I used the UE 700s on a subway ride. The clatter of the subway car, HVAC system and riders meant the bass was lost almost completely. In fact, I switched back to my technically inferior Sonys because I needed the punch to cut through the din.

(I recognize most cheaper headphones use thuddy bass to compensate for poor audio reproduction. That's not the desire here -- what I'm looking for is bass that comes alive and raises the hair on your arms, like a good pair of headphones can do.)

Why such small bass on the UE 700s? After all, it's not like the drivers aren't powerful. My guess is that it's a matter of physics -- a pellet-sized earbud simply can't push enough air for the bass to really make an impact. (In contrast, my Sonys have small vents in their larger frames for the purpose.)

Ultimate Ears does make a (relatively) cheaper earphone for commuting types called the MetroFi 220, and that model's shape seems to lend itself to more powerful bass. The question: can you can have accurate sound as well as punchy bass? Personally, I'd gladly cede some of the earbud's small footprint for punchier lows -- and at a street price of almost $200, I'd imagine others would, too. After all, why have such a tiny, portable earbud if it's overwhelmed in noisy real-world environments?

As for fit, I had a bit of difficulty using the supplied silicone and foam buds to get a good fit. Since sound reproduction -- especially bass -- is drastically affected by how well the earphone seals, this is vital to the experience.

My fit troubles were not necessarily a byproduct of the silicone earbud shape and selection (though Ultimate Ears could have offered more than three sizes at this price point). Really, it's just the small size of the earbud itself. It's so small that it could conceivably sit at many different angles in your ear, making it difficult to find a natural place to seat them in your ear.

Of course, everyone's ears are shaped differently, so what may not be the best for my ears could be great for you.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In the end, the Ultimate Ears 700 noise-isolating earphones offer extremely high-quality audio reproduction in an incredibly small package. They're not optimal as high-quality commuting earphones because they lack the wherewithal to reproduce the punch of the lowest bass frequencies, but they remain powerfully accurate and are worth every penny for use in controlled environments.

Topics: Hardware

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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