Ultrasone is one of the lesser known, yet quite respected, German headphone manufacturers. They just released the newest member of their mid-ranged product line of closed headphones, the HFI-780. Sporting low impedance, decent sensitivity, foldable design, and good isolation, the HFI-780 work well with even the weakest powered MP3 players. This makes them a viable alternative to the ubiquitous in-ear phones and earbuds usually seen with portable players. For a price of $250 (€195) they deliver sound quality that can hardly be matched by small in-ear phones in the same price range – or even above. Their form factor might appeal to people that don’t feel comfortable sticking tiny buds into their ear canals, but still want good isolation and portability.
Enough of the basics, let’s see in depth what they’re all about…
- Quick Look
- Driver: 40 mm dynamic gold-plated driver
- Sound pressure level: 96 dB
- Impedance: 35 Ohm
- Frequency range: 10 Hz – 26 kHz
- Cable: 3 meters (single-sided), straight 3.5 mm gold-plated plug with screw-on 6.3 mm adapter
- Special features: foldable design, replaceable synthetic leather ear pads, “S-Logic Natural Surround Sound”, “ULE (Ultra Low Emission)” Mu-metal shielding to reduce magnetic field emissions
- Accessories: transportation bag, demo CD, printed manual
The HFI-780 comes with a soft cloth transportation bag, small enough to accommodate the phones when they’re folded. The bag sports a fancy embroidered Ultrasone logo and a drawstring to keep it closed.
The printed manual consists of 99% advertisements and 1% semi-useful hints: take care of your phones, don’t listen too loud, and so on. Nobody would miss it if it wasn’t included.
The included demo CD is meant to show off the “S-Logic Natural Surround Sound” capabilities of the headphones – and it is outright misleading. The tracks on this CD are binaurally recorded and display a great soundstage and depth on any headphone, not just the Ultrasones. This CD proves nothing about the “surround” capabilities of the phones. Actually, the CD shows that many other phones have even better spatial positioning than the HFI-780. Nevertheless, the tracks on this CD are fun to listen to if you never heard binaural recordings before.
Build quality doesn’t feel all that great on the HFI-780, considering they’re not exactly cheap phones. They’re an all plastic construction and the thin aluminum veneer on the ear cups is just for decoration. This however doesn’t mean they are going to disintegrate as soon as you look at them – it’s just that most Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, or AKG phones in the same price range have a more solid look and feel to them.
The foldable design of these phones comes in mighty handy on the go. The ear cups can be rotated 90 degrees, effectively flattening the phones. The cups can also be tilted to the inside, towards the headband, resulting in a quite small package which can be stored easily in a jacket’s pocket, a small purse, or similar means of transportation.
Not so great for portable use is the 3 meter long cable. Since the phones are already foldable and thus portable, why not put a little thought in the cable length as well? Better to use an extension cable when you need it than always having to lug an excessive amount of cable around with you… Half the length would be optimal for portable use. The PRO line phones of Ultrasone have user replaceable cables, but unfortunately the HFI series doesn’t. So you either have to use a cable wrapper – or cut the cable and solder a new 3.5 mm plug to it.
Comfort is acceptable with the HFI-780. They’re not as comfortable as, say, the Beyerdynamic DT 770, but they can be worn for extended time periods without getting sore ears. The ear pads are circumaural, but they’re on the smaller side. Large ears might not fit entirely inside of them, but I have no fit issues with my “regular sized” ears. The thin and short synthetic leather headband applies a bit too much pressure on the top of my head, but the somewhat claustrophobic feeling disappears after a few minutes. A wider headband with a gap in the middle (as on the Sennheiser HD 650, for example) would have been a better design, distributing the weight more evenly.
One thing I definitely don’t like is that the ear pads are made of synthetic leather. It might be more hygienic and better isolating than velour ear pads, but the material gets sticky and hot and is certainly the less comfortable solution. Other Ultrasone headphones like the PRO-750 or HFI-2200 are equipped with velour pads, but it looks like they are not interchangeable with the HFI-780. I might try to find some fitting replacement velour pads sooner or later.
Isolation is quite decent on the HFI-780. It is on par with most universal-fit in-ear phones (at least the ones equipped with silicon tips). They work well in noisy surroundings and will protect your hearing since you don’t have to turn the volume to eleven. The isolation works both ways, of course: you won’t be able to hear much noise from your surroundings, and people around you won’t be harassed by your Finnish polka and/or Chinese opera tunes.
Ultrasone uses an “ULE (Ultra Low Emission)” Mu-metal shielding to reduce magnetic field emissions in the HFI-780. Mu-metal is a nickel-iron alloy with high magnetic permeability. In the HFI-780 design the Mu-metal plate is put in front of the driver, physically shielding about 70-80% of the ear cup’s surface
. Since headphone drivers certainly do generate a magnetic field right next to your brain it can’t be wrong to take some action against that. We have enough wave pollution to endure already, due to the ubiquitous Wifi and cellphone antennas… If Ultrasone’s “ULE” works the way it’s advertised, it sure is commendable – and we should hope that other headphone manufacturers will follow suit.
“S-Logic Natural Surround Sound” is one of the funniest examples of market speech I ever encountered. It doesn’t do anything for the soundstage or spatial positioning at all. Ultrasone just put the drivers in a slanted way into the phone’s housing, instead of the regular parallel alignment. They also moved the driver down from the center of the ear cup, but that’s about it for “S-Logic”. The HFI-780 have the same old “left/mid/right blob” linear soundstage as almost all other closed back phones. Considering how very verbose Ultrasone exaggerate the benefits of their “S-Logic” technology, you would expect it to sound like a full-blown 5.1 surround setup – which it absolutely fails at. The soundstage isn’t better or worse than most other closed phones, but that’s all there is to say about that. For what it’s worth, my old Beyerdynamic DT 770 have a slightly wider, more 3-dimensional soundstage, and even my tiny MylarOne X3i in-ear phones are rather similar to the HFI-780’s soundstage. I wish Ultrasone would actually improve the soundstage on these phones instead of putting flashy CGI movies on their website that demonstrate how “S-Logic” is supposed to work (but doesn’t), or bundling a deceptive binaural demo CD with the phones (which sounds great with any other headphone as well).
A side effect of “S-Logic” seems to be what Ultrasone calls “safer hearing”. This slogan refers to the statement that the slanted off-center driver construction supposedly reduces the sound pressure level on the eardrum by a few decibels, compared to other headphones. I am not sure what I should make of that statement, since lower sound pressure level usually just means lower perceived volume. How the HFI can have a lower sound pressure level at the same perceived volume is beyond me, but then again I am neither an engineer nor a physicist. Maybe there is a difference between direct and reflected waves reaching your eardrum, but Ultrasone isn’t as verbose about their “safer hearing” as they are about “S-Logic” and “ULE”. So I don’t know if this statement is fact or fiction. On the positive side, the HFI-780 sound good and balanced even at very low volume levels, so there isn’t much need to turn them up to unsafe listening levels anyway.
Some things I gathered from discussions on the Head-Fi forums are that the cable on the HFI-780 isn’t the best quality – it supposedly adds some impedance which might influence the sound quality in a negative way. Furthermore, there’s a small circuit board with some diodes in the audio path, obviously some kind of overload protection, which might also affect the sound. Well, for me the HFI-780 sound good the way they are, but for “tweak-a-holics” they might provide a nice playground for trying a different cable, removing the circuit board, or even putting various dampening materials into the driver enclosure.
Don’t let the advertising blurb that the HFI-780 are mainly tuned for “movies and gaming, classical, jazz, and rock” distract you from the fact that they sound amazingly nice with almost any kind of music. The got enough bass to be fun and enough treble to unveil every little detail in any audio track. Fortunately, the midrange doesn’t suffer because of those sonic attributes – with these phones everything is forward and in your face, you won’t miss any nuances at all.
Like any other dynamic driver headphone the HFI need some time to settle down. They might sound a bit harsh right out of the box, but they even out after some listening time. They work great with most portable players, but they do benefit from a proper amplifier as well. I like their sound straight out of wimpy players like a Samsung YP-U1, or more powerful ones like the Cowon D2 or Sansa Clip – but over my Woo Audio 6 desktop amplifier or my portable Corda Headsix they just deliver a bit more, showing off what they’re really capable of.
Bass: whoa, do they have some. It should be enough even for genuine bassheads – but the bass is so precise, focused, and punchy that it shouldn’t overly frighten even the highest-grade “bassophobes/audiophiles” as well. The bass doesn’t overshadow any midrange or treble, there’s not the slightest hint of a veil or muddiness to be heard. It hits hard where it should, it is musical when required. There’s no midbass or low-midrange hump to speak off, all the serious business is below 100 Hz. The only mild complaint I can think of is that the bass is not absolutely linear, some low notes sound slightly louder than others, but it’s nothing that really distracts from the sheer punch and snappiness of the HFI-780. In short: I have yet to hear a better bass from a closed headphone – these Ultrasones are as good as it gets, compared to similar phones.
The midrange is as forward as the rest of the frequency spectrum. No matter if male or female vocals, guitars, or piano, the HFI-780 deliver great detail with great speed. The soundstage and “space” around the various instruments suffers a bit from that, but everything that’s in the recording is there, with no parts missing. Compared to open-backed headphones it all feels a bit narrow, but for a closed one they are really fine.
One thing you can’t ignore with the HFI-780 is their sheer treble power. It might be too much for some people, certainly. For me, however, it doesn’t appear to be sibilant or fatiguing – my ears don’t hurt after using the Ultrasones for hours. The highs aren’t rolled off at all – everything is there – and the truth often hurts with poor recordings or encodings. Cymbals and hi-hats sound like they should, which is something you don’t hear all the time over headphones. If you’re easily annoyed by high frequencies the HFI-780 might not be the right ones for you, but if you like to get even the tiniest bit of detail out of your phones, they’re spot-on.
As for the soundstage and spatial imaging of the HFI-780, just check my rant in the previous chapter about “S-Logic”. The soundstage is nothing to write home about, but it’s not really bad either.
Generally speaking, the HFI-780 are better sounding than the usual suspects around that price range, like the Beyerdynamic DT 770, Sennheiser HD 25-1, or AKG K271 (or the cheaper and more popular K81DJ/K518DJ). Comparing the HFI to in-ear phones would be quite unfair and pointless, so I won’t go down that road. The Ultrasones combine many of the best aspects of most closed headphones and in-ear phones I know – and take it a step further.
The Ultrasone HFI-780 are very good sounding closed headphones for the money. They do almost everything right if you’re looking for forward sounding and precise phones that work great across the whole audible frequency range, no matter what music genre. People looking for a “warm/relaxed/laid-back” sound signature certainly have to look at other phones, but for anyone craving the last word in detail and resolution the 780’s are the right ones.
There are somewhat better closed phones out there regarding build quality, comfort, or soundstage – but those aren’t really negative aspects of the HFI-780 by any means, it’s just that these features are more or less “average” compared to other phones in the same price range.
All in all, the HFI-780 can be recommended for any setup, be it with a standard MP3 player on the go, or with a home Hi-Fi, TV, or computer setup. They perform well in every case (but of course benefit from a good source or amp as well).
If full-sized closed phones are your thing, the HFI-780 are definitely worth considering.
They’re seriously good cans.
- Deep punchy bass, precise mids, fast treble, great clarity and detail, very forward sounding
- Works well even with low-powered MP3 players
- Good sound quality even at low listening levels
- Decent isolation
- Foldable, quite portable
- 3 meter cable, synthetic leather ear pads
- Not the great soundstage as advertised (“S-Logic” doesn’t really do anything)
- Treble might be too bright for some tastes