In August 2004, I went into a local music store to waste some money on a ProTools digital recording device. They had finally gotten to 96/24, so it seemed like time to experiment. As I was leaving, the store manager, known for such tricks, threw some new headphones on me. I was hooked, and for days couldn’t get the sound out of my head. Come October, when I went into a studio to work with Rosanne Cash, we were faced with the usual studio ’phones—not even the mediocre but tolerable AKG 240, but some edgy-sounding units from Sony and Fostex. It was a tough few days. So when Cash returned from New York in November, I insisted that we purchase for everyone the headphones I had heard.
Made by Germany’s Ultrasone, these headphones are creating quite a stir in the professional community. For this survey, the American distributor agreed to send us four models: the PROLine 650 ($299), 750 ($399) and 2500 ($399), and the HFI-2200ULE ($299)—all variations on a theme. In addition, we received Sennheiser’s HD650 ($549), AKG’s K 501 ($275), Grado’s SR325i ($295), and Shure’s E5c in-ear monitors ($499). Save for one, I found all of the models a pleasure and could happily live with most of them.
Ultrasone makes two significant innovative claims. First, it moves the driver off the center of the earpiece, so that rather than firing straight into your hearing canal it fires at the pinnae, the folds making up your outer ears. The company says this creates a more natural spatial presentation, which it calls “natural surround-sound.” I can’t attest to anything scientific in this regard, only that it works, and with certain recordings and surround-encoded movies, can be spectacular. Second, Ultrasone claims its designs have far greater magnetic shielding than conventional headphones—60 percent greater for its HFI line, and up to 98 percent for its PROLine. For an explanation of long-term safety issues, I refer you to the company’s Web site (ultrasone.com). As to whether or not it’s effective, let’s talk in a decade or two.
The PROLine 650 is a gold-plated, closed design with mu-metal shielding. The PROLine 750 has the same housing but with a titaniumplated driver. Next to the 650 is the gold-plated driver, open ’phone HFI-2200 ULE. Above this is the top-of-the-line PROLine 2500, which is open and titanium plated. Stepping up from gold to titanium, and closed to open, the sound becomes more detailed and refined. However, the perceived spectral balance also shifts, which can throw off attempts at quick A/B listening. Some Ultrasone models come with a demo CD filled with what sound like very well-made binaural recordings. There’s a mixture of musical and nature tracks, and the one I found most useful featured gentle waves lapping at a shore, from left to right. Listen to this track over any of these ’phones and you’ll start looking behind you. When I compared the 750 to the 2500, my first impression was of hearing information farther left. But when I went back to the 750, I realized I could hear just as far. So what was the change? Going back to the 2500, it wasn’t distance; it was minute details at the point when the wave starts to be audible.
At a certain point, trying to listen to every revealing moment of the tracks I evaluated with every Ultrasone model became disorienting and overloading. Even though other Ultrasone models revealed different aspects of the music, the 2500 had the best balance of virtues. I utilized it for comparison with the other brands.
Using the JVC XRCD of the Reiner Also Sprach Zarathustra, I compared the Ultrasone 2500, AKG K 501, Sennheiser HD650, and my trusty old Sennheiser HD600. Trying to sort out my preference between the two Sennheisers took some time. Originally it seemed as if my old 600s might be more revealing, but after a lot of listening I decided that the 650s were just as revealing—if not more so—and not quite as pronounced in the upper reaches. The middle and lower range was more present and balanced. During Parts 1 and 2 of the Strauss, massed strings seemed sweeter and more truthfully rendered with the 650. By comparison, Ultrasone’s 2500, while outstanding overall and perhaps more dynamic, was occasionally strident with strings. I’d pick the HD650 for orchestral music. Yet the AKG K 501 was clearly the best for this recording, and not by a small distance.
This is the best work I’ve heard from AKG, but because the drivers sit at quite a distance from the ear, more power is required for equal volume. The presentation is easy and spacious, and everything from the lowmids on up sounds like a high-quality small speaker. Putting them on while my speakers were running resulted in very little change in the sound. The AKG was the favorite of my colleague Neil Gader, so why not mine? While it’s a truly excellent headphone, there is no serious bottom end—not good for a bass player, so forget the organ pedal in the Zarathustra intro. While I recognize how good it is, I couldn’t live with this lightness of presentation for large-scale works or rock music. If you’re a small-speaker lover, these may be the ideal headphones for you.