Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 Review [New Version v2]

sf5 PB170028main Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 Review [New Version v2]

Since the reader comments on my Ultimate Ears UE 11 Pro review were quite polarizing (“best thing ever” vs. “who is insane enough to buy such an overpriced thing”) I thought it would be a good idea to give one of the less expensive Ultimate Ears universal fit earphones a closer look. We at abi aren’t entirely made of money – and neither are many of our esteemed readers, so it’s probably good to keep the reviews in balance, financially speaking.

Enter the Super.Fi 5, the newest (and cheapest) member in Ultimate Ear’s series of medium-priced earphones. The name couldn’t be any more confusing, considering there are two other phones from the same range available, the Super.Fi 5 Pro and Super.Fi 5 EB. It’s no surprise these new Super.Fi 5 “Without A Suffix” are often called “SF5 v2”, “2.0”, or “The New One” in blogs and internet forums to avoid confusion.

Read on for the in-depth review.

  • Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 Specs
  • Driver: single custom balanced armature, top-firing
  • Sensitivity: 115dB @ 1mW
  • Impedance: 13 Ohm @ 1kHz
  • Frequency range: 15Hz – 15kHz
  • Cable: 120cm/46” (Y-style), straight 3.5mm gold-plated plug, microphone (optional, on the VI version)
  • Accessories: Carrying case, silicon tips (2xS/4xM/2xL), Comply foam tips (4xM), cleaning tool
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Accessories

The Super.Fi 5 come with a small plastic box with rounded edges. I don’t know how long it will take until the thin latch on the box breaks, but the size and form factor is very nice for use on the go. It’s certainly more secure than storing earphones in cloth or leather bags. Next to the earphones you can store the ear wax cleaning tool in it and there might still be some space left to store a spare set of tips.

The included silicon tips are typical Ultimate Ears quality: thick and sturdy, yet soft and comfortable, with no injection mold ridges. I’ve always been a fan of UE’s older gray Super.Fi tips, and the new white ones don’t disappoint either. They’re certainly my favorite kind of silicon tips. Due to the thickness of the silicon material they might isolate a tiny bit more than thinner tips, but this might also depend on one’s ear canal shape. All in all, their isolation is pretty much average, same level as most other canal-phones out there provide.

Same as with many other medium/high-class earphones nowadays, the SF5 come with some fancy and expensive Comply foam tips. Too bad there are only two pairs of the same medium-sized Comply tips in the box. They’re too small for my ears and don’t seal at all – even if the equally large medium-sized silicon tips are perfectly fine for my ears. I’d appreciate it if Ultimate Ears packed a pair of large foamies with the SF5 instead. Comply foam tips give good isolation and are easy to compress and insert – but they don’t last longer than about a week or two with constant use and are therefore in my opinion seriously overpriced at about $15 for three pairs. So better save them for your next flight or train voyage and don’t waste them on everyday use.

Design, Build, Specs

Contrary to the older dual driver Super.Fi 5 Pro and EB variants, the new Super.Fi 5 use single armature drivers to reproduce audio. Time doesn’t stand still; armature technology is getting better, so it must not be a bad thing having fewer drivers in a phone. The Phonak Audéo for example shows that a single armature can even surpass some dual- or triple armature phones in certain aspects. I’ll say more about that in the sound chapter below, but in general the new SF5 don’t have to fear the comparison to their more expensive dual driver siblings in the SF5 range.

The one detail where the new SF5 completely stomp all over the older SF5Pro and SF5EB (as well as the Super.Fi 3 and Triple.Fi 10, for that matter) is comfort and fit. My personal opinion is that the SF5Pro and EB are the most uncomfortable and anatomically incorrect phones ever created. Their designers appear to never have seen a human ear in their life, which resulted in phones that are – both form- and comfort-wise – a blend of Lieutenant Uhura’s humongous “communicator” earpiece in Star Trek and the head screws of Frankenstein’s monster.

The new Super.Fi 5 are the exact opposite: very comfortable, easy to insert, and they don’t stick out of one’s ears in an unsightly manner. They might not fit exactly as securely as the other SF5 models with memory wire on the cables, but they certainly won’t fall out of one’s ears with normal use. I’ve been using them for some weeks now, even in bed – I couldn’t wish for a much more comfy phone for sleeping, my ears aren’t sore at all in the morning. Kudos to Ultimate Ears for creating an entirely different housing from scratch and not reusing design parts from the older SF5 models.

The left and right earpieces are easy to tell apart because of the distinctive bend in the housing. Nevertheless Ultimate Ears added another subtle visual cue: the inside of the right earphone is translucent red, the left one translucent gray. It’s quite unobtrusive having this color coding on the inside of the phones – contrary to defacing the outside, as seen on some Etymotic or MylarOne phones.

On the outside, the Super.Fi 5 are really quite fetching. I’m usually not a fan of blingy stuff, but the mirror-like chrome finish of the plastic (Ultimate Ears calls it “liquid silver”) and the minimalist UE logo look great. Of course the chrome is a fingerprint magnet, but it can be eas
ily cleaned. My SF5 aren’t scratched yet; I hope they are going to be shiny for a bit longer…

So far, build quality appears to be fine. The phones’ housing feels solid and well manufactured. Strain reliefs should work reliably and the cables have a good diameter. The cables feel a tad stiff and rubbery though – but because of that they don’t tangle much, which is always a very welcome feature. Unlike the older SF5Pro and EB, the new version’s cables aren’t removable. I never had durability issues with any of Ultimate Ears’ cables, so I wouldn’t say this is a real disadvantage.

Personally, I prefer to wear the phones with the cables over my ears, which gives a better fit and reduces cable noise (“microphonics”), but the SF5 can be worn the traditional way as well, with the cables hanging down. With the cables hanging down they transfer a bit too much noise for my taste, but worn up around the ears they’re quite well behaved.

A few explanations concerning the technical mumbo-jumbo might be in order as well. An impedance of 13 Ohm and a sensitivity of 115db/mW means the Super.Fi 5 are loud – really, really loud. There are certain disadvantages to phones with ridiculously low impedances like this: background hiss, stereo separation issues, and bass roll-off could happen on many portable audio players. I really don’t know why companies even make phones with these kinds of exaggerated impedance/sensitivity specs – all modern MP3 players work perfectly fine with phones that provide “reasonable” specs, somewhere between 30 and 60 Ohm, and a sensitivity below 110dB/mW.

This being said, the Super.Fi 5 work fine on my Sansa Clip, with negligible background hiss and deep bass. On my Cowon D2 (and many other players) however they hiss a bit more, and their bass response isn’t as deep and massive as it could be. To fix these issues I use a portable headphone amp in between the Cowon D2 and the phones, then they perform even better than plugged directly into the Sansa Clip. An impedance adapter dongle could help as well. Of course they probably would sound perfectly fine for most people without an amp or impedance adapter; it’s rather subtle, not a “night and day” difference. It’s just sad to see these issues could be easily avoided with slightly higher impedance ratings. There’s really no advantage in using 13 Ohm instead of, say, 32 Ohm for earphones.

Sound

As strange as it seems, the Super.Fi’s armature drivers need some time to settle down (or “burn in”, as some people like to call it). I was honestly shocked how muddy and clogged they sounded right out of the box, but they got better over time – a lot better. After a few hours of listening they sounded fine – something I experienced with only one other armature phone before, the Shure SE530. Usually armatures don’t change their sound characteristics, but as it seems there are exceptions to this rule. Maybe it’s not only the phones but also the listener’s brain that “burns in” and gets accustomed to the new sound. In any case – give them some time; don’t judge them by their sound after the first few minutes you listen to them.

Of all single armature phones I heard to date the Super.Fi 5 certainly are among the bass heavier ones. They have about as much bass as the Phonak Audéo, slightly more than the dual-driver q-Jays, and a lot more than the Etymotic ER-6.The SF5 are almost on par with the dual-armature Super.Fi 5 Pro (just a bit less), the dynamic driver MylarOne X3i, or first generation V-Moda Vibes. The usual deficiency of low frequency impact in single armatures doesn’t apply to the SF5; they should satisfy most casual listeners’ tastes. It’s an enjoyable bass response for MP3 players on the go, even for players that don’t have a decent EQ or a rolled off bass response with low impedance phones.

Ultimate Ear’s claim that the SF5’s bass goes down to 15Hz is of course not true, the bass starts at about 27Hz. This is good enough, since portable players (and even professional sound cards) usually can’t reproduce frequencies below 20Hz anyway (and hardly any music track contains frequencies below 30Hz).

The midrange isn’t really recessed despite the phones’ slight loudness curve or “fun” sound character. Vocals, guitars, etc. aren’t so much in the background that something would appear to be missing from the music. It’s a nice midrange for rock, pop, and also many styles of electronic music work well. Where the SF5 midrange lacks a bit is with dense, layered music, like string ensembles, choirs, or pipe organ chords. The armatures seem to be somewhat overwhelmed by such complex sounds, and the result is a slightly veiled or “nasal” presentation. However, solo guitars, vocals, and similar materials work well and sound good – when they’re not embedded in too dense background music.

Even if in some cases there seems to be a slight veil covering their clarity, they are definitely more detailed and precise than any average dynamic driver earphone. The difference might not be as obvious as with “surgical” precision phones, like the Phonak Audéo or Etymotics, though. Nevertheless, the SF5′s dynamics, instrument separation, and attack speed is certainly a lot better than what can be found in most dynamic driver IEMs, and that’s what makes armatures so appealing, at least in my opinion.

An interesting feature about the treble is that it hardly ever seems to get veiled or lose its crispness. It’s usually quite clear and not influenced by the midrange and bass – not a bad feat for a single armature, covering the whole frequency range. The treble can be somewhat forward sounding, but it isn’t too bright in general. It can get a bit harsh and sibilant with some badly recorded material, but for most recordings it’s very enjoyable. I didn’t notice any roll-off, Ultimate Ear’s claim that the driver reaches 15 kHz seems quite reasonable. All in all, the SF5’s treble is quite a bit better than what average dynamic driver IEMs usually are able to reproduce, just as one would expect from an armature.

Similar to the Phonak Audéo, the Super.Fi’s armatures don’t blast their sound directly into one’s ear canals, it goes around some corners in the housing. Ultimate Ears calls them “top fire” armatures. This might be a factor in the better than average stereo positioning and soundstage width of the SF5. While the music of course is still pretty much “in your head”, the Super.Fi manage a noticeably wider soundstage than most of the small direct-firing armature phones, like the q-Jays, Etymotics, or the older Super.Fi 5 Pro/EB models. Soundstage is one of the strongest points of the SF5. I sure hope to see more “indirectly firing” earphones in the future.

Compared to their more expensive dual-driver siblings, the new Super.Fi 5 are a tiny bit less precise (detailed, textured) and punchy than the SF5 Pro, but they have way better soundstage and are somewhat more “fun” to listen to. It might just be me, but because of their “exciting” sound the new SF5 even seem to have slightly better instrument separation than the SF5Pro. Compared to the bass monster Super.Fi 5 EB, the new SF5 of course have less (yet better defined) bass, but also better clarity and treble. Furthermore, considering the quite bad form factor and fit issues of the two older Super.Fi 5 models, I personally prefer the new version in any case. Besides the arbitrary name, they don’t share many similarities with the other two SF5 variants anyway.

In my opinion they are a step up from the older two SF5 versions in most aspects – not a step down, despite their lower price.

Conclusion

So… who are the Super.Fi 5 actually made for? Ultimate Ears’ claim of the SF5 being made for “fashion minded consumers who listen to a variety of music genres” seems about right. In my opinion the SF5 are a good upgrade for people who used some of the inexpensive, higher quality dynamic driver phones like the V-Moda Vibe, MylarOne X3i, o
r people who want a less analytic, sterile sound than the q-Jays, Etymotics, or similar ones provide. The Super.Fi cater to people who like an “euphonic” loudness curve style that works well with portable players. They are tuned for “fun”, not for analyzing sound waves – which clearly must not be a negative thing, depending on one’s personal taste.

If you’re fed up with your dynamic driver earphones’ lack of instrument separation, dynamics, punch, or treble, but also don’t want overly analytic phones that aren’t “exciting” to listen to, then you should take a good look at the Super.Fi 5. They are really nice performers in general. Maybe not the best choice for critical listening, mixing, and mastering – but great for enjoying music on the go. All in all, they’re really precise compared to dynamic driver earphones and they’re really fun sounding for single armatures. Over the last few weeks I have grown to like them a lot – in my book they’re a keeper.

Pros

  • “Fun”, “exciting” sound signature, slight loudness curve character
  • Very good soundstage for an earphone
  • Good comfort and fit, fetching chrome looks

Cons

  • Impedance is very low, may result in background hiss and rolled-off bass response with some audio players (can be fixed with an amp or impedance adapter)
  • Slightly veiled midrange with certain complex audio materials

Purchase

MSRP of the Super.Fi 5 is $169.99 ($189.99 for the VI version with microphone); Amazon.com has them for cheaper, as usual.




15 Comments

David on December 3, 2008 1:21 AM

I am looking for a new pair of earphones that could do well in commuting and walking type situations. My secondary concern after sound quality is comfort and after reading and re-reading the reviews for the Phonak Audeo PFE’s and now the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5′s I am stuck. Both are similarly priced and both seem to have a trait that I would like that the other does not. The Phonak’s seem to have the best sound, but lack somewhat in comfort, and the UE’s have comfort, but do not have the sound quality to match the Phonak’s. I really only listen to music for an hour at most at a time and would any suggestions on which earphone would be best for me to buy.

edward on December 3, 2008 9:50 AM

I was wondering how today’s “modern” and expensive earphones like the UE 11 Pro compare to the “old” standard like the Shure E1. IMO the E1 was pretty hard to beat, and was certainly affordable as compared to the price tag on the UE 11 Pro.

james on December 3, 2008 9:09 PM

Nice review. Is it possible for the next round of “round-ups” ABI has lined up to be based on reviewer terminology and their meanings? I’m not trying to be sly or anything, it’s just I honestly am not entirely sure what “mushy-bass” or “rolled-off bass” is supposed to sound like. These are some quick examples that have been used quite frequently… I’m sure others can come up some more examples.

Martin Sägmüller on December 4, 2008 7:02 AM

“Rolled off” bass is what many MP3 players display with low impedance phones. Look at the frequency response graph on this page:http://rmaa.elektrokrishna.com/Comparisons/Comparison%20-%20Cowon%20D2%20-%2012%20-%2048%20Ohm.htmThe lower the headphones’ impedance, the more the bass deviates from the ideal “flat” frequency response. You see that with a 12 Ohm phone the bass response at 50Hz is 4dB quieter than it should be – that means almost half the loudness, compared to the ideal 0dB. With a 48 Ohm phone however, the roll-off is already negligible.

w00ty on December 4, 2008 7:15 PM

Can ABi run a review of the new Apple in ear headphones? I’m really curious as to what it sounds like as the cheapest dual driver phones on the market. And also costs less than this pair here :-/

sputnik00 on December 4, 2008 9:15 PM

thanks for the review.would you perchance have had the opportunity to compare this with the audio technica CK7?

Holzmann on December 15, 2008 9:33 PM

I too am coming from the ATH-CK7s and would love a comparison with the SF5s and Phonaks.Between the SF5s and Phonaks, is there a clear winner?

Martin Sägmüller on December 18, 2008 6:54 PM

Yes, the Phonaks.

Confispect on December 31, 2008 4:23 PM

I have a question about the isolation part of these in ears Martin what would you suggest for this part of the in ears the Phonaks or the Ue’s?

Martin Sägmüller on January 1, 2009 4:36 PM

They are both pretty much equal, concerning isolation. The Phonak might isolate a tiny bit more, but it’s really negligible and only apparent in an AB test. Both of course benefit from foam tips in that aspect.

aXit on March 15, 2009 2:23 AM

I’m slightly lost as to what your opinion is, concerning theses two comments:”Ultimate Ear’s claim that the SF5’s bass goes down to 15Hz is of course not true, the bass starts at about 27Hz.”"I didn’t notice any roll-off, Ultimate Ear’s claim that the driver reaches 15 kHz seems quite reasonable.”Was one of the statements accidental?

Martin Sägmüller on March 18, 2009 3:04 PM

It’s 15 Hertz and 15 KILOhertz. ;) The lowest and highest frequencies, respectively.

aXit on March 19, 2009 1:59 AM

Well, uhhh…. I really don’t know what to say… Completely missed that :SHeh, well thanks for the “clarification” *sigh*

austin on March 31, 2009 8:34 PM

Thanks for the review, like some of the previous comments, I am split between these and the Phonaks. I’m looking to upgrade a step up from the first gen v-moda Vibes. I saw that you said the Phonaks were the clear winner, but you mentioned that the Phonaks don’t quite have the soundstage compared to the Vibes.What I got form reading the reviews for the SF5′s and the Phonaks was that the Phonaks were much more precise and instrument seperation was great, but the SF5′s are good with a great soundstage. Since I’ve only had the Vibes to compare to, how do the Phonaks differ from the Vibes? Is the difference in soundstage that noticable?Could you also maybe mention which one out the SF5′s and Phonaks you prefer for a few different genre’s? Since the SF5′s are more “fun” and all.Sorry that was so long, but thank you in advance!

r4i card on December 11, 2009 4:41 AM

I recommendation on these is to treat them very gently and don’t plan on wearing them outdoors in cold weather. Let’s not forget that these are quite expensive and one would expect more from them.

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