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October 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Ultrasone HFI-2200 Natural Surround Sound Headphones
Entertaining and engaging.
Review By Nels Ferre
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Ultrasone HFI-2200 Headphones  I purchased my first pair of headphones, Koss Pro 4AA's, when I was a teenager. At the time, I thought they sounded great. I wonder if the 42-year-old version of myself would agree- probably not. It was a love-hate relationship. I loved the sound, but I hated the fit. They were literally very painful to wear after only a short time. They put excessive pressure against the ears, and the fact that I wear glasses only aggravated the situation. The pressure of the earpieces would cause the back of my outer ear to press against the temples of my glasses. Then all of that would press against my skull. And that was not the only problem- the sheer weight on the 4AA's would, within half an hour, cause pain on the top of my head as well. It had not been a fun experience at all. I eventually gave them away to a classmate.

Fast forward 10 years. I finally purchased another pair of headphones. (There had been a pair of forgettable AKGs in between- so forgettable that all I remember was the brand.) I did not even consider Koss cans, this time purchasing a pair of Sony MDR-V6 models. Much more comfortable, and better sounding than my memory of the "heavyweights", I still own them. I find that I use them rarely, however, as I am not a big fan of the "music in the center of the head" syndrome that plagues headphones in general. I do not use them for listening enjoyment, so much as to keep the peace at home — "Do you have to listen to the Beatles all the time?" It's not that bad. I have a large music collection and am very open minded. I will admit, The Beatles are a favorite though.

I had a memorable headphone encounter I had was a number of years back, when I was writing for another publication. The folks over at Headroom lent me one of their big headphone amps and a pair of Sennheiser HD600's. I liked the headphone amp, but positively fell in love with the HD600s, until I realized that I would have to upgrade my headphone amp to something better than the Creek OBH-11 (which I still own.) I had planned to do it piecemeal- upgrade the headphones first, then at some point afterwards, the amplifier. This has remained in the back of my thoughts for some time, but has been a low priority, so I have not purchased anything headphone related. When the editor, Steven R. Rochlin, sent an email offering an opportunity to review a pair of headphones that reportedly reduced the "music in the center of the head" syndrome. Therefore I quickly accepted.

 

Ultrasone
Headquartered outside Munich, Germany, Ultrasone has been manufacturing headphones since the early 1990s. They have 4 distinct lines aimed towards professional users and broadcasters (with built in boom microphones), home use, DJs, and portables. The Taiwanese manufactured HFI-2200 ($299) is right in the middle of the Ultrasone lineup. Open backed, finished in brown plastic with chrome accents and butterscotch colored ear pads, they benefit from the effects of trickledown technology. The S-Logic technology, which first appeared in the Professional Series, is designed to reduce hearing damage for those who wear headphones many hours per day. S-Logic also is also responsible for the "surround sound" effect, which is how the "music in the center of the head" effect is reduced. What I really like about S-Logic is that it is deceptively simple. There is no electronic voodoo, no digital signal processing in play, just the headphones and the user's ears. Humans localize sound with their outer ears: if the position of the outer ear is altered, so is the ability to localize a sound source. The open air Ultrasones do not press at all upon the outer ear. The earpieces surround the ear instead, leaving the outer ear untouched. The drivers are offset within the earpiece housings as well. That's it. Extremely well thought out and executed, the concept also makes the HFI2200s a joy to wear for extended periods, as no pressure is exerted upon the outer ear.

The foldable HFI2200s are supplied with a velour carry bag, instruction manual, and demonstration CD, as well as a 1/8 to 1/4 inch adaptor for use with both home and portable electronics. Connections are made with a supplied three meter straight audio cord. (Nice, I hate coiled cords.)

 

Health Concerns
We all know that listening to music at high volumes for extended periods will cause hearing loss. I remember a conversation I had with Mike Allen of JoLida on this very subject. He is concerned that the ongoing craze with powerful bass heavy car audio systems is creating an entire generation of people with hearing loss, as there is nowhere inside an automobile for the bass waves to dissipate. He makes a good point. Professional rock musicians say the same thing. Pete Townsend, who suffers from Tinnitus, has expressed over the self-inflicted damage with the ear bud type headphones that are most commonly used with iPods. I recently watched a 2005 documentary on Cream. Ginger Baker stated that his hearing was "wrecked," attributing the damage to high sound pressure levels from Jack Bruce's Marshall stacks used during live performances.

Ultrasone's patented S-Logic Technology addresses this problem. What Ultrasone has produced are several models that reproduce sound with 3-4 dB lower sound pressure levels, resulting in a 40 percent reduction of pressure against the eardrum in comparison to conventional headphones, without any loss in perceived loudness. That not to say the HFI-2200s cannot cause hearing loss if abused: their maximum output is rated at 94 dB. What I found is that I actually listen at much lower levels with the HFI-2200s as opposed to my trusty Sony cans. I am listening to Dire Straits Communiqué as I am writing this paragraph, and due to the headphone's open air design, I can easily hear the "rat a tat" of the keys on my wife's Macbook as I hunt and peck. At the same time, I do not feel the need to increase the volume to enjoy the music. I am perfectly content at this low listening level.

Ultrasone also addresses another problem that I had never even considered- electromagnetic radiation. Headphones are quite simply speakers that are placed, depending on the type, around or on the outer ear, or within the ear canal opening. Just as home loudspeakers radiate electromagnetic energy, and unshielded models cannot be placed close to a CRT monitor as it will cause distortion of the picture, headphones create electromagnetic energy as well. The concern becomes the drive units' close proximity to the brain. This is the same general idea behind the concern about brain tumors and cell phone use- just substitute electromagnetic energy for radio frequency energy.

Other than safe listening levels, there are currently no other safety recommendations for headphone users. There are, however, worldwide recommendations in place for computer users regarding safe levels of electromagnetic radiation originating from computer monitors. At 30 centimeters, a maximum level of 200 nT (nanoteslas) is recommended. Ultrasone, during research performed in 1999-2000 on a sample of 60 headphone models, measured levels of electromagnetic radiation at an average of 1000 nT, with a peak of 2100 nT. — more than ten times the recommended safe levels for computer monitors. Through the use of MU Metal Shielding, Ultrasone has managed to reduce their headphones electromagnetic radiation to a much safer 90 nT. Scare tactics? Maybe, but the concept seems to be logically grounded.

 

False Alarm
While doing research to write this review, I poked around online gather additional information about Ultrasone as well as the HFI2200. I came across the previous U.S. Distributor's website. Statements that customers needed to contact Ultrasone AG in Germany for service work and the impression of a neglected website gave me an uneasy feeling about this review. Looking around a bit more, and visiting the official Ultrasone AG website, I discovered that Ultrasone AG opened their own branch in the United States on April 14, 2008. Located in California, this office is responsible for distribution and customer service for the North and South American markets. There seems to be no reason for concern after all.

 

Setup
For this review, I listened almost exclusively to my digital music collection, with either my old Dell Inspiron 2200 or my new MacBook (our second- I use my wife's MacBook to write reviews.) feeding a KECES DA-131.1 DAC (recently upgraded.) When using the Dell, a Trends UD 10.1 converted the Dell's USB output to SPDIF to provide signal to the DAC. With the new MacBook, signal was fed directly to the DAC with a Toslink to mini Toslink cable. I used iTunes with both notebooks. My Creek OBH-11 took care of amplification duties. Cables were Belkin Pure AV models.

 

Listening
Ultrasone HFI-2200 HeadphonesLet us get this out of the way. The HFI2200s sound as if they have a gentle roll off in the upper frequencies. This is a good thing. Think for a moment about attending a live show or listening to a music system at home. The amount, type, and arrangement of furnishings, carpeting and wall covering make all the difference in the world as far as sound quality. Make a change in the room, and the sound is changed. Headphone users, obviously, do not have this option. If the HFI2200s had a ruler flat frequency response, the final result would be way too bright and fatiguing, not the warm, relaxed (although dynamic) sound that make the Ultrasones such a joy to listen to.

Let us also visit the "Surround Sound" claim for a moment. Ultrasone would have is believe that the HFI2200s allow the listener to hear sounds in front, beside, and behind them. While the HFI2200s are very open and spacious sounding, it just isn't so. They are definitely sound different from "conventional" cans. With my Sony headphones, I hear left, center fill and right reproduced at equal levels, of course recording dependent. With the Ultrasones, it is Left, Center, Right.

This greatly reduces the music in the head effect that I dislike, without altering the balance of the recording, as one might expect. And while I do not hear "Surround Sound" - I do hear "Rainbow Sound." Depending on the recording, music seems to travel overhead, along the plane of the headband. Instruments can appear, for instance, at 11:00 (slightly to left of overhead) 12:00 (directly overhead) or anywhere between the earpieces. The effect can be subtle or pronounced, again depending on the recording. One of the most famous "sound effects" recordings has to be The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Listening to "Being For Benefit of Mr. Kite!" at the verse when John sings "in this way Mr. K will challenge the world" the phrase "challenge the world" goes from a close mic arrangement to a spacious arrangement. We are talking an album I have heard literally thousands of times, I am certain. I never noticed his with my Sony headphones. Listening again with the Sonys, the effect is there, but nowhere nearly as pronounced as with the Ultrasones. The sound effects at the end of the final verse are stunning.

Scott Faller (Joe Audiophile) and I have been great friends for years, from back in the days where we both wrote for another publication. We were talking about music recently (big surprise) and the subject of Jethro Tull came up- one of my favorite bands. Scott caught me by surprise when he stated that Crest of a Knave was one of his favorite Tull albums. I nearly never listen to it, as it reminds me of "Tull does Dire Straits." I asked him if he had ever heard "Roots to Branches", their 1996 release. Answering negatively, I recommended he search out a copy. Listening to the fifth track "Valley" I was reminded how well the album is recorded. Ian Anderson has become in interested in all things Indian (as in India) in the last number of years, and "Valley" really tells the tale. Opening with a solo flute, with percussive accents, the both the flute and the percussion struck me as super realistic sounding while listening through the HFI2200s. While the HFI2200s are very revealing they are never fatiguing. Bass frequencies are the strong suit of the HFI2200s, making my Sonys seem slightly tinny in comparison.

Some listeners may find the HFI2200s a bit too far on the warm side of neutral, and in absolute terms, I agree. Voicing towards warmth, however, makes the HFI2200s a compelling choice for those who listen to headphones for extended periods- remember that Ultrasone makes pro models as well. The only headphones I have been able to enjoy for hours on end are the Sennheiser HD600 and the Ultrasone HFI2200.

My only complaint with the Ultrasone HFI2200 is not aimed at the HFI2200, but all open backed headphones in general. Because the rear waves of the drivers are not isolated, some sound leakage into and from the listening room is to be expected. Depending on the volume level, true private listening may be impossible. Listening may be interrupted by a ringing telephone (good) or someone watching television in the same room (not so good.) The open design adds to spaciousness, but as with most things audio, trade offs are involved.

 

Portables Can Sound Great Too
As the HFI2200's cord is fitted with a stereo mini plug, I decided to give them a try with my iPod Touch, loaded with ALAC (Apple Lossless) files. I didn't expect much. Boy, was I wrong! An iPod and a pair of HFI-2200s would make fantastic combination for those who do a lot of traveling by plane or mass transit. Any one of the models in the iPod lineup would easily slip inside the HFI-2200's carry pouch. The three-meter cord would be a bother, but because the HFI-2200's use a standard connector on both ends (unlike the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650) substituting a shorter cable would be a breeze. Alternatively, the cable could be kept neatly bundled.

 

Conclusion
How the Ultrasone headphone lineup has flown under the radar for so long escapes me. Well built and excellent sounding, the HFI2200s deserve to be on headphone shoppers' short lists. I have mentioned the Sennheiser 600 series headphones numerous times in this review. While I did not have a pair on hand for direct comparison, the HFI2200s very much remind me of my memory of the HD-600. Given that the list price of the Ultrasones are very close to the street price (at least on eBay) of the Sennheisers, which would be the wiser choice? Between the two, considering the extra engineering that has gone into the HFI2200s in relation to heath concerns, for me, the scales would tip towards the Ultrasones. I recommend seeking out an Ultrasone dealer. You may find them as entertaining and engaging as I do. For my needs, if Ultrasone made a closed backed model with all of the endearing attributes at the HFI2200s, I would be on board straight away.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Comfort

Fit And Finish

Self Noise N/A

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Closed ear headphones with Input-Logic Natural Surround Sound 
Driver: Dynamic principle 
Driver 40 mm gold-plated 
Frequency Range: 10Hz to 25kHz 
Impedance: 75 Ohm 
SPL:  94 dB 
Weight: 292 grams (without cord) 
Cord: detachable straight 3 meter 
Adapter
Transportation bag 
Demo CD 
Price: $299

 

Company Information
Ultrasone AG
Bernrieder Str. 17 b
D-82327 Tutzing 
Germany / Bavaria

Voice:

 

United States Distributor
Ultrasone Inc.
20602 Fox Den Rd.
Wildomar, CA 92595

Voice: (951) 678 9091
Fax: (951) 678 9036
E-mail: infoteam@ultrasone.com
Website: http://www.ultrasone.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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