These Polk Audio in-ear ‘phones are ideal for sports loving music nuts but not the best for dignified critical listening
It’s apparent from my semi-continuous earphone and headphone related writing on this site that I’m something of a fan of sticking things in my ears or wrapping them around my head. My preference is to review and listen to the high end marvels but that said, there’s a time and place for budget minded models. While the cheaper ‘phones may not be able to dissect a recording down to revealing how much coffee the mastering engineer had on the day, some of them offer stupendous bang for the bucks when one considers just how well they perform for a price that’s often less than three ten dollar notes.
One area where less expensive ‘phones excel is in tough physical environments, such as the gym. A truism about portable audio and exercise is that if you haven’t destroyed a player and/or a set of ‘phones, it’s only a matter of time till you do. In this regard, I’m Captain Careful (mostly because I’m also Corporal Cheap and I hate replacing broken gear) but even so, I’ve munted two USB stick style MP3 players and a few sets of ‘phones over the years in gym related accidents. Don’t ask me how, they just seem to have been magically smashed by some random bit of iron. My brother seems to mangle a set of ‘phones every couple of months and friends of mine display the same destructive patterns, often with expensive devices.
How does this all tie into the Polk Audio earphones being reviewed here? Good question. Because of the ‘disintegration danger’, my gym ‘phones of choice are a set of el-cheapos that came with a Samsung MP3 player. They’re not exactly a great solution because their sound quality is marginal, they fall out all the time and they do nothing to block the “doof doof oonst oonst” music played on most gym sound systems, let alone the squealing from the aerobics classes. I started using my Ultimate Ears Super Fi 5 Pro ‘phones at gyms while I was travelling last year and the sound quality and noise isolation were a joy but I also liked the the fact that they stayed in my ears while I was doing my thing.
Polk Audio’s UltraFit 3000 earphones seemed to fit the bill as gym ‘phones, so I grabbed a set and got sweaty. They’re unashamedly sports orientated, right down to the moisture shield designed to keep sweat from killing the electronics and the vented case to allow them to dry off after a workout. They’re a good looking set of ‘phones but the orange and white finish isn’t exactly subtle; more restrained colours are however available. At $159, they’re not my idea of expendable audio gear but the Polks have some features that should keep them alive for a good while. They come with two different lengths of flat, tangle-free cable to suit various portable player placements, so dangling cables getting caught in exercise machines shouldn’t be a problem. This of course dictates that the cables are detachable via a 3.5mm connector, which functions as a handy strain-release should the cables get caught. Said cables even have a Kevlar core to further resist abuse.
Open their box and you’re greeted with a set of ‘phones and a ziplock bag filled with bits and pieces. These really are a completist’s dream. The ‘parts list’ reads as follows:
2. Protective case
3. 35.6 cm cable
4. 104.1 cm cable with three-button remote control & mic
5. 3 Pairs StayFit silicone ear tips (S/M/L)
6. 2 Pairs StayFit 3-flange silicone ear tips (S/L)
7. 2 Pairs memory foam ear tips (S/L)
8. Nokia connection adaptor
9. Shirt clip
That’s as many goodies as I’ve ever encountered with a set of ‘phones – the only thing missing is some kind of cleaner for the dark day when earwax somehow makes its way onto or into the body of the ‘phones (and it will, believe me) but a paper clip will do the job if it’s handled carefully.
It’s easy to get the Polks to fit properly thanks to the many tip options and proper fit is critical to getting the right sound. Like most ‘phones that are inserted into the ear, a good seal is the key to achieving the tonal balance the designer intended. Get it wrong and the sound is all treble but once they’re seated, the bass notes put in an appearance.
The acid test for any (any!) headphone is to live up to the bang for buck champions of the world – Sennheiser’s MX460 or 470, which can be had for slightly less than the aforementioned three tenners. Initially, I was a touch nonplussed by the way the Polks sounded – the treble seemed to be almost non-existent in comparison to the Sennheisers but after repeated switching back and forth, I began to appreciate that the Polks are voiced in a radically different fashion. The top end is very restrained compared to the weighty bottom end and rich midrange, which makes for a warm balance to say the least – big floorstander speaker in small room kind of warm. Bass levels are prodigious and listening to Wyclef Jean’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here laid out the low notes in no uncertain terms. With enough volume, it felt as if the silicone ear buds and the pressure in my head were pulsing in tune with the music, which sums up the Polks pretty well, they pump and drive, making for an exciting sound.
They still do a decent job with music along the lines of Steely Dan or even James Taylor, and although I was always aware of the rolled off treble, it wasn’t an issue or a distraction. For critical listening in a quiet place, I’d choose the budget Sennheisers, which should be a terrible inditement against the Polks. Relentlessly accurate, they aren’t but I’m not averse to some bass weight in a set of ‘phones that are meant to be used in a sporting environment and it’s in the active context that the Polks are stand outs. Their sound characteristics suit the kind of music I listen to when I’m training (heavy metal, hard rock and rap), they’re comfortable, the passive noise isolation is good, especially when the foam tips are used and they absolutely, totally, bloody well stay put!
The combination of the over the ear design and the right tips stops them from falling out or loosening up even when events get quite acrobatic. Having two cable lengths available is a great feature as the long cable has enough reach to snake all the way from a set of cargo pants pockets, while the shorter one is just right for an MP3 player clipped to my waistband. It’s also possible to dispense with the extension cables altogether and just use the ‘phones themselves as a short lead if you’ve got a light player that can be clipped to a shirt.
The longer cable has a remote control and microphone that is seriously useful when used in conjunction with an iPhone or iPod (although your Apple device will inevitably get smashed according to my disintegration danger theory). Being able to skip tracks and change volume levels without having to dig for the device is the best way to integrate music into your training sessions but the little remote control section of the cable is a vulnerable point and I’ve come close to crushing it a few times, so it’s something to be aware of.
So a mixed bag then for Polk Audio’s new sporting superstars? That depends entirely on the way you intend to use them, with no less than nine sets of suitable earphones on hand during this review, I found myself grabbing the Polks whenever I headed out to the gym. I treated them as brutally as I could and they laughed off the abuse, while I just ignored the rest of the gym junkies and trained like a wildman on PCP. I may well keep this pair just so I don’t have to reseat my ‘phones fifty times per workout. Three stars for sound, five stars for sporting achievement.