Recent evaluations of headphones in these pages focused on two new in-ear monitors from Shure: the SE530-PTH (considered in BASS SCL-4 (BASSv30n2). This type of headphone — known also as earphones or pods — was developed for use with portable devices, without great expectations in terms of musical accuracy. By now, examples such as the units covered in those reviews show how far this type of 'phone has come in delivering the sonic goods; some professional users have come to rely on them in their work. Still, however, the traditional over-the-ear 'phones — known in studios as cans — remain the favored option for professional use, and there are benefits and tradeoffs to be considered by home listeners as well
The in-ear models are far less bulky, and for many users more comfortable, than cans. There is no sense of being penned in; they don't leave one's ears feeling battered or sweaty. Users wearing eyeglasses, or who might for some reason wear hats, are not aware of these tiny units or to any degree delimited by them. Moreover, many feel that the in-ear delivery system — placing the monitors on the threshold of the eardrum, with the proper ear-tips (I vote for the flanged conical ones) making a snug seal — has an edge in keeping out noise and providing a richer bass, as well as natural balance through the entire tonal range. The ear-tips are inexpensive and easy to replace.
Cans, having been in the serious sound field longer than the in-ear style, are represented by greater numbers of variations and techniques, and it has to be conceded that, while many people find the in-ear units more comfortable, there are many others who do not like to stick foreign objects in their ears, even if the alternative involves a frame resting atop one's head. Overall, comparative use tends to show that the nearabutment of the eardrum might be a less-critical factor in providing great sound than the nature of the seal, which the best cans do very well. Moreover, while no one would want to use ear-tips that had been nesting deep in someone else's canal, cans present no such problem and are thus more convenient and more hygienic for on-the-spot shared use. The price range for serious cans can run into thousands of dollars, but in general fully satisfying units in both styles are available at prices below $500 msrp. Among the in-ear leaders, the two models I have judged outstanding are the well-established Etymotic Research ER-4S ($330 msrp) and the new Shure SCL-4 ($300 msrp), which may be purchased from Internet retailers for substantially less. Among the cans, the trusty Sony MDR-7506, which has come to be regarded as a benchmark reference unit by a host of respected recording engineers, costs even less — it is still available on the Internet for less than $100.
At issue now is a new line of cans from the German company Ultrasone (www.Ultrasone.com), which might alter the balance among the tradeoffs between the two formats. Ultrasone offers three series, designated respectively Pro, DJ, and HiFi; it is the Pro line that should be of greatest interest to listeners focused on classical music. Sound engineers who had used even the most modest of the four Pro models — the Pro 550: rated 10 to 20kHz, 64Ώ, 102dBspl, 50mm Mylar driver, $270 msrp — have described its performance as doing just what Ultrasone claims for its "S-Logic Natural Sound" technology: taking the sound out of the user's head and placing it in a more spacious ambience that seems to take in the entire room, or an even broader area, more like the soundstage in playback from well-positioned speakers.
Another Ultrasone claim is that its S-Logic process allows the listener to "perceive the same volume at significantly lower sound pressure (3-4dB), up to 40% less" than the norm for headphones, alleviating the sense of strain and diminishing the danger of hearing damage. My use of the Pro 750 (8 to 35,000 Hz, 40Ώ, 94dBspl, 40mm titanium driver, $410 msrp)
tended to validate this claim: I was happily surprised to find that there was virtually no listening fatigue, even after extended sessions. An additional claim that might be regarded as a health benefit is Ultrasone's Ultra-Low Emission technology that reduces magnetic radiation by as much as 98 percent, bringing it down to "about one quarter of the TCO standard (200nT) for computer monitors."
While I have no resources for confirming any of these measurements, I can testify to the effectiveness of the first two processes mentioned and, more to the point, I can report an altogether terrific listening experience. Using the same familiar recordings on which I based my earlier reports on the two Shure in-ear models, I came close to being swept away by the Pro 750's spaciousness and overall realism. The sound is smooth and yet crisp; it's rich and spacious yet exceptionally well detailed, from rich low end to the highest pings and glistening E-string.
Trombones are golden in the opening of Holst's ballet music for where it ought to be — triangle, castanets, etc. coming from their places within the orchestra rather than being spotlighted. Percussion and heavy brass are toward the rear and sides of the stage, with no perceptible distortion and with the character of each instrument or instrumental choir stunningly delineated. Whatever S-Logic might involve, that freedom from sound pressure enabled me to crank up the gain to enjoy maximal effectiveness without feeling punished for so doing.
Among the recordings beyond my usual test and demonstration material, I picked Evgeny Svetlanov's marvelous account of Shostakovich's 7th symphony, recorded in Moscow in 1967 and remastered for CD by MCA Classics in 1989. The last three or four minutes of this impassioned performance — with the entire large orchestra ablaze and different themes coming from the various sections — came to life with an altogether unexpected spaciousness, detail and overall presence. Jukka-Pekka Saraste's exalted realization of the final section of Carl Nielsen's 4th symphony, with the advantage of Finlandia's outstandingly vivid digital recording, vintage 1997, was similarly revelatory.
Back among my test/demo standards, all the wiry character of the string sound in Karl Böhm's affectionate performance of Mozart's Notturna same composer's towering Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 was transformed Hagen Quartet's splendidly recorded performance of Haydn's "Horseman" Quartet seemed to have taken on an even greater level of warmth, and Robert Irving's old mono recording of the "Musique des Automates" from Delibes's Coppélia now reveals the full character of each of the tiny percussion instruments as impressively as the thundering triumph of Svetlanov's Shostakovich. While Xin Feng's Reference model headphone amplifier, feeding the 'phones from a Bryston MP-26 preamplifier, contributed to these impressive results, the Pro 750 was hardly less remarkable when plugged directly into the preamp.
The icing on this aural cake is that the Pro 750 is probably the most comfortable over-the-ear 'phone I've ever used. The ear-pads are not artificial leather, subject to drying and crumbling, but soft, plush velour cushions, which accommodate eyeglasses without the slightest distress to a fine seal, and which are even easier to replace than the ear tips on in-ear units (they just unscrew, and a spare pair is included). There is an additional velour cushion inside the frame where it rests on one's head, relieving physical pressure and possibly contributing to the good sound in some mysterious way. Two detachable 3-meter (10') cables are provided — one straight, the other coiled, both with 6.3mm plugs — as well as a 3.5mm adaptor. I would have preferred a 3.5mm termination that screws into a 6.3mm plug, as on the Sony MDR-7506 and Ultrasone's own Pro 550, but the adaptor, if a tad less convenient, does provide provides a very solid connection. A booklet and demonstration CD are included, and the thoughtful design extends to the attractive and durable carrying case.
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