The Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones arrived last week. At $1499, these headphones compete directly with the Sennheiser HD 800s that I’ve been reviewing lately. This is a premliminary review, with more to come later.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ultrasone, they are a German headphone company (as are Sennheiser, AKG and Beyerdynamic). Founded in 1991, the company is focused on headphone design and manufacture (whereas the other German brands also make microphones among other devices) and has many patents in this field.
My initial impression is that the Edition 8s are extremely well done. Frequency balance is very linear, and the dynamics are impressive. Low-level information is well presented, and yet the Edition 8s don’t seem to fake this transparency. The sense is that high frequencies are smooth and have low distortion. The bass end of the spectrum seems well balanced as well.
So, what’s not to like? Well, really there isn’t a lot to criticize (so far, more on that below). I’d say the mid-treble might be slightly bright, but this seems like a very small error so far. Deep bass may not be as strong as one would hope for, and bass definition might be a little higher. I think.
Beyond that, we have spatial characteristics. For this, the Edition 8s have a technology called S-Logic Plus. The idea is similar to the concept that Sennheiser has employed on the HD 800: place the drivers so that your outer ear is involved with the result that you get a sense of space that is closer to live music. If you’ve read my HD 800 review, you’ll know that I found that the Sennheiser technology does indeed add a sense of space around instruments but that it doesn’t simulate the imaging of speakers or live music. I’d say the same thing about Ultrasone’s S-Logic, though I think the airiness is a bit higher on the HD 800s. In any event this is good stuff backed by inaccurate marketing.
But before you get the impression that I think S-Logic is a minor thing, I need to tell you about one other important design goal behind it. In an AES paper, Ultrasone’s Dr. Florian Koenig explains detailed experiments that were conducted to find the headphone architecture (closed, open, centered driver, offset driver, offset geometry) that minimizes perceived frequency response variations between listeners. It seems that, partly due to different ear shapes, different listeners perceive headphone frequency response differently. All other things being equal, a headphone would be better if there were a smaller variance in perceived response across listeners. S-Logic Plus, as far as I can make out (AES paper 116.AES 2004 is written in full and unrepentant Germglish), is the latest version of the architecture that Dr. Koenig found minimized perceived response variance.
Of course, I can’t tell you whether this really works, because I can only be me. But the Ultrasone Edition 8s sound pretty darn good, and part of it could be that I’m hearing what the designers intended more than I am with other headphones.
Now, back to the preliminary nature of these comments. When I wrote that I was better able to understand the HD 800s over a few weeks than I was initially, several readers wrote that this seemed odd, bizarre or inexplicable. I’m not sure if I was supposed to know before I took them out of the box that they were nirvana induction devices, or if a quick listen should have done the trick.
Just to be clear, there is solid if not unassailable reasoning behind always offering preliminary comments with a cautionary note attached. Here’s the deal. First, an experienced person would be cautious about quick conclusions about complex phenomena. The Western musical canon easily qualifies as complex, as does the human hearing mechanism. And complex, by definition, means there is a lot to understand. Now a savant may be able to understand complex phenomena quickly, but your humble servant is no savant. Even if he were, there is a second problem. To perceive a characteristic of a device (e.g. headphones), one has to feed the device a signal that triggers the characteristic. When using music as the signal, it can take a while to listen to enough music (triggers) to get a grip on the resulting characteristics.
Some of you may be wondering if I’ll ever get around to comparing the Edition 8s to the HD 800s. For you, now that I've explained the limitations of preliminary findings, here are my first thoughts:
- The Edition 8s are a little more accurately balanced in the upper midrange
- The Edition 8s are slightly brighter than the HD 800s; not sure which, if either, is right