Ultimate Ears is known for designing custom in-ear monitors for live musicians and sound engineers, which simultaneously allow the user to hear what he needs to onstage and protect his hearing from damage due to the typically excessive noise levels. The company takes a similar tack with the iPhone-compatible super.fi 4vi ($149) the best earbuds we've ever heard in this price range. They uncovered details we'd never heard in recordings, and it functions as a hands-free headset to boot.
The cylindrical, gunmetal gray aluminum earphones come with four interchangeable frosted silicone tips for the best possible fit and passive noise cancellation. It took us a several days of testing to find a tip that fit comfortably in both ears, and we still experienced occasional problems with the buds falling out of our ears while walking around. However, we had several other people try the super.fi 4vi, and they reported a comfortable and secure fit, even with movement.
Specifically designed to work with the iPhone (but compatible with other phones sporting a 3.5mm jack), the super.fi 4vi has a small microphone on the black cable leading to the right earphone. Beneath the Y-split of the cord is a very small button that hangs up and answers the phone. This button is so small and the amount of depression to activate it is so slight that we found ourselves pressing it multiple times while trying to answer a call. While the microphone is generally well placed, if you loop the wires behind your ears, as Ultimate Ears suggests you do while exercising, the microphone ends up behind your ear.
The super.fi 4vi earphones come with a sound-level attenuator, which blocks loud and sudden bursts of sound from damaging your ears--such as when a captain interrupts an in-flight movie with an announcement. Also included are a cleaning tool and a small, black, hard-plastic carrying case.
The amount of detail we heard while using the super.fi 4vi was remarkable. High and mid-ranges were exceptionally clear, and low-range sounds were very good.
The best trait of these earphones is their ability to uncover sounds we haven't heard in other headphones or speakers. When we listened to a 160-Kbps MP3 of Pearl Jam's "Black" on our iPod--a song we've heard, conservatively, about 5,000 times--details that previously resided far back in the mix were up front. The super.fi 4vi was so clear that we felt like we were standing right in front of guitarist Mike McCready; we could hear the entire spectrum of each plucked note, not just the fullest part of the note.
The super.fi 4vi has even more tricks up its sleeve. Whereas MP3 compression cuts out the highest and lowest frequencies to create a smaller file, these earphones give the impression of filling in the blanks. Likewise, the super.fi 4vi revealed a whole string section in U2's "Bad" that we hadn't heard previously. In the same song, the bass line was well defined and present, but not overpowering.
Out on the Town
Listening to the super.fi 4vi while walking resulted in noticeable cable thump; we had the odd sensation of hearing our own feet pound on the pavement. While this was irritating at first, we stopped noticing it after a couple of blocks.
While the button to activate the hands-free caused us some frustration due to its size, the hands-free performance was good. Callers could hear us clearly until we turned onto a windy street. At that point, our voice became slightly harder, but not impossible, to hear. Thanks to the headphones, we had no problems hearing our callers, even with the wind blowing.
Ultimate Ears' super.fi 4vi earbuds are a solid investment for audiophiles on a budget and iPhone fans who want excellent sound quality combined with hands-free functionality.