You have to admire a company like Ultrasone, which comes into an entrenched market of European headphone manufacturers, such as Sennheiser, AKG, beyerdynamic and U.S. brands like Grado. Ultrasone, a German-made headphone however, has its own unique signature.
Ultrasone USA, with distribution based in Nashville, sent me three PROline models from its line, including two sealed-back models the HFI.550 and HFI.650 and the unsealed HFI.2000. All the models include a choice of coiled or uncoiled cords, 1/4-inch adapters and carrying pouch. A patented driver placement technology, S-Logic, is said to create more of a surround ambiance.
Ultrasone also claims to reduce magnetic emissions by as much as 98 percent over other headphones, magnetic emissions so close to the head, the company claims, can contribute to listener fatigue and create a long-term, potential health hazard.
For comparison, I listened to the Ultrasones and my own headphones, including the closed-back Sony MDR-7509, Grado SR-320 open back headphone, the closed-back AKG K271.
Priced at $239, the HFI.550 is the lowest -cost headphone provided by the company for the review. Features include Mylar drivers and S-Logic, a driver mounting technique said to offer more ambiance to approximate a surround soundfield.
Spec-wise, the HFI.550’s factory measured response is 10 Hz to 22 kHz frequency response, no tolerance listed and an excellent 103 dB SPL.
As with the other Ultrasone models, the 550 feels lightweight, and the headband is adjustable to ensure a secure fit; the earpieces fold up for easy transport. The headphone was quite comfortable and sealed out much of the external noise I purposely piped into the studio.
I tested the HFI.550 (and all the other models) by driving it with a variety of headphone amps including, the custom-designed headphone section in my Audio by Van Alstine FET-Valve monitor preamp, the Benchmark Media DAC-1 D/A with headphone amp, and the headphone outputs of a Sony PCM-R700 DAT recorder, Midas Venice 160 console and an Alesis MasterLink.
The HFI.550 sounded more like the Sony MD-7509 (which I like more than the popular 7506). The 550 has more of a flat response without the enhanced sparkle of other headphones including its Ultrasone big brothers.
It did not quite have the ambiance of the HFI.650 or HFI.2000 either. Compared to the sealed AKG 271 and the open-back Grado SR-320, it also had less sparkle, but that characteristic was not a bad thing. In actual use in the studio, I preferred the 550 to the 650 because it was flatter sounding.
The 550 is way more efficient than its brothers. The efficiency should make it useful for loud tracking and mixing environments.
Priced at $299, the HFI.650 is similarly sized sealed headphone as the 550 with a gold-colored back, but it contains a metal driver. It boasts a slightly extended frequency response but is 10 dB less efficient (93 dB SPL). It was just as comfortable as the HFI.550, but the sound was noticeably different.
The HFI.650 has a high mid/treble peak that makes it seem punchy and bright — too bright with some kinds of music. For accurate mastering and mixing work, it would not be my first choice of the three, but it should be good for a tracking headphone where isolation and punchier high end are needed to cut through the clatter; drummers might like them because of the isolation, but prerecorded cymbals sounded a little too hard for my taste.
Live mix engineers should like the 650 for its ability to isolate out the extraneous gig noise and the punchy response to make sure the mix is heard.
Priced at $299, the HFI.2000 is an open back (semi-aural) headphone and is more comfortable feeling than the other two. It boasts the same frequency response as the 650. It is slightly less efficient than the 650 and 13 dB less efficient than the 550.
The HFI.2000 is my favorite of the three test units; it is more neutral sounding with just enough treble sparkle, like the Grado, but with more bass. The extra ambiance relayed by the S-Logic driver placement design was audibly apparent — with a nice sense of space.
I preferred the HFI.2000 for accurate, mixing, mastering and recording in a quiet environment. It was comfortable, almost as comfortable as the AKG 271, and more comfortable by a considerable margin over the Sony MD-7509 and the Grado, which press my ears against against my glasses’ earpieces.
In a crowded field where headphone buying habits die hard, Ultrasone is serious about getting its share of the U.S. market. With the HFI-PROline, it has products that warrant a professional audio engineer audition — especially the HFI.2000.