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

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.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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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.

Topic: Hardware

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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15 comments
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  • within what tolerances?

    You give a frequency response of 10Hz-16kHz. Anyone who knows anything about this knows that when quotes like that are made without plus or minus tolerances, it is considered to be 10db.

    Again, if anyone knows anything about that, they know that that type of response graph can look like the one showing the profits of the banking industry over the last two years.

    That kind of sound quality could be so uneven as to be nearly unlistenable in certain circumstances ( and without the tolerances given, probably is ). I, as someone who has been around audio for many years, and also has a distrust of many things evaluated by people that have never heard quality sound ( being of the mp3 generation ) would dismiss out of hand any quote of frequency response that was not wthin plus or minus 3db ( half-power points ).

    In other words, when you priase something here, you should give a specification that allows people to do more than trust your word.

    You may have "golden ears", calibrated to tight tolerances, but we don't know that. By giving the specifications with the appropriate tolerances, you not only give proper information, you bolster your own credibility with those who understand quality audio.
    chrome_slinky@...
  • RE: Ultimate Ears 700 earphones pack powerfully accurate sound in dime-sized package [review]

    You say both "noise canceling" and "noise isolating" in your review, however they're two distinctly different things. Which is it?
    mcgranesp
    • Re: noise-isolating.

      That's "noise-isolating" -- technically, passive noise cancellation.

      I've amended it for clarity.
      andrew.nusca
  • Bizarre

    I get the distinct impression that the reviewer doesn't know very much about the subject.

    First of all, the glowing "review" reads like an advertisement. The only question is how much was paid.

    Secondly, could you define "passive noise cancellation?" I can understand the term "noise isolation, which is what my Shure canalphones (with foam tips) do--they isolate the ear canal from outside noises. And I can understand "active noise cancellation" which uses electronics to sample the outside noise, then invert the phase and feed it to the transducer to cancel it. But "passive noise cancellation?" Never heard it expressed that way.
    Dorkyman
    • Re: "noise cancellation" vs. "noise isolation"

      "Passive noise cancellation" is blocking the sound through
      non-electronic means. For earphones, that means they're shaped
      in such as way to physically plug up your ears from outside sound.

      "Passive noise cancellation" is the same thing as "noise isolation,"
      which is the same thing as "passive noise reduction." There are several
      terms for the same basic insulating concept.

      In contrast, electronic noise cancellation is "active noise cancellation."

      Also: all reviews are performed independently. If the review is
      favorable, it's because I think it's a good product. I think I've made the
      drawbacks to this product clear, and I stand by my review.
      andrew.nusca
      • no, you are wrong

        Although suitably clever acoustic shaping could provide "passive noise cancellation" at a very limited range of frequencies by feeding in an opposite phase version of the noise, it is not practical. Noise cancellation simply is NOT the same as noise isolation or noise reduction. It is explicitly a process of reducing noise by feeding in anti-phase signals. If you don't know the difference, then you should not use the terms.
        keithc
  • regarding bass

    I have something to say about this. Most earphones don't truly reproduce bass, but they rather exaggerate it. This is because people often interpret lots of bass as good sound. Too bad their page doesn't show a frequency response. But they are probably targeting a flat one, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    Another problem is the silicon tips. I have a pair of Westone UM2 and tried with different tips. The UE are tailored for casual listeners and that's why they've chosen silicon. They are easy to get in and out.

    But if you try with foam tips (they look like ear plugs), the sound is much better. Westone for instance sells foam tips in a short and long format. I can tell you that just the size, extra 3mm longer of the long foam tip makes a *big* difference in sound quality. And the sealing created by the foam, in contrast to the silicon, makes an even larger difference.

    Sure: for the long foam tips, I usually put some ear plugs oil first (sold by Westone and also used in hearing aids). This makes you think twice before putting them on, because it takes some time. But once they are in, the sound will blow you away, it's like having a chip soldered to your brain.

    So I'd suggest trying these UE with foam tips, or get used to flat sound. Once you learn to live without the artificial bass, you can't go back.

    You can always pump the bass yourself. If you have an mp3 player with BBE like the Cowons, they do a nice job pumping the bass *only when you want* and not as part of the normal listening experience.
    patibulo
    • Re: foam tips

      You make a good point about the foam tips, and several acquaintances of mine prefer them over the silicone buds.

      I simply couldn't get the foam ones to seal properly in my ear -- I probably would have preferred "long" versions.

      About the bass thing, by the way, which several commenters have noted. You make a good point about the frequency response -- I tried searching for it myself, and I wish I could have seen it to better understand my perceived results.

      I'm not a bass-heavy guy -- I never add bass via EQ -- and I wasn't simply comparing the UE700s to lesser earphones.

      I didn't mention it in the post, but I also listened to several songs that I've heard straight off the soundboard at a studio. I still felt some relative punch was lacking.
      andrew.nusca
  • Literally vs figuratively

    Why is it that the word "literally" has come to mean "figuratively, but to a
    greater degree"?
    These words are the EXACT opposite, To wit:
    I very much doubt that your ears perked up literally and figuratively. This
    would mean that, in addition to you paying closer attention (figuratively)
    they actually stood up on end (literally). While possible, I find this highly
    unlikely.
    SpiritusInMachina
    • You clearly missed the joke.

      I was being facetious. As in, "my ears perked up like Pavlov's dogs would drool."
      andrew.nusca
      • I got it

        But that notwithstanding, that does not change the fact that you used
        the word incorrectly. As the improper usage was not central or even
        peripheral to the attempt at humour, I fail to see how it is an
        explanation.
        SpiritusInMachina
        • The problem with "literally."

          The word we love to hate: literally: http://www.slate.com/id/2129105/
          andrew.nusca
          • Your point being?

            Do you really want a critique of that poorly reasoned piece? Is it really
            necessary to point out that it is hardly conclusive that he was able to
            find literary examples of abuse of language in prose, but that his
            failure to find complaints of anything but recent vintage is more a
            comment on his poor research skills and the lack of longevity of such
            criticisms than of the lack of these criticisms, per se?
            Besides which, if you are attempting to justify (as opposed to
            camouflage, as you were previously) your misuse of this term within
            the phrase "literally and figuratively," then you are subject now to
            claims of redundancy.
            Certainly it is hard to believe you really intended that to be read as
            "figuratively and figuratively." It seems far more likely that the phrase
            flowed literally thoughtlessly from your fingers and onto the screen,
            these attempts at obfuscation notwithstanding.
            SpiritusInMachina
  • right company, wrong product

    Try the Ultimate Ears SuperFi 5pro. I play bass through them as well as listen to music, and they work great. Clarity, definition, and plenty of bass. If you want MORE bass, the SuperFi 5eb (extended bass) could be for you. Both are slightly bigger - and that probably makes the difference.
    RickArrow
    • The SuperFi 5 pro

      Ahh, great headphones, managed to last me about 3 years before I yanked the cable by mistake and it pulled right out. However these were a great investment. Plugged into a headphone amp, really got them sounding great.
      jdstrong