A set of active noise-cancelling headphones gets the nod of approval from Ashley Kramer for the first time ever.
ULTIMATE EARS’ SUPER-FI Pro 5 earphones have been my personal reference ‘phones since 2007. Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of earphones but the Pro 5’s offered the best balance of sound quality and reliability – shrugging off the abuse of nearly a year of daily use while I was on a long holiday in 2011. Neither sun, sunblock, rain, sweat nor being crunched into their carrying case over and over had any impact on the capsules and when the cable eventually started playing up, I just bought a replacement from a local retailer. That’s an astonishing level of service from a product that basically falls into the “break and replace” category.
So yes, I’m a huge fan of Ultimate Ears, which explains why I recently grabbed three boxes of new Logitech UE products, including the UE6000 over-the-ear, active noise cancelling headphones being reviewed here.
It’s not really a secret that I don’t have much regard for active noise cancelling ‘phones. I’m one of the lucky listeners who can tolerate in-ear passive noise isolating ‘phones for extended periods of time – I wore my Pro 5’s for nearly 40 hours straight last year on a long haul trip. So with the equivalent of earplugs, I’m not going to sully my listening experience with an active circuit that messes with the audio signal in order to cancel extraneous noise.
However, for those who don’t like shoving things in their ears, active noise cancelling ‘phones like UE’s 6000 model are a must-have on a long trip, or in a noisy office, or even while commuting on public transport.
Features And Construction
The 6000’s are good looking ‘phones and are well built, albeit with plenty of plastic in the construction. There are chunks of metal where it counts though – in the headband and the hinges – that allow these ‘phones to fold. Extensive bending, pulling and quite frankly, heavy abuse had zero impact whatsoever. The left earcup pops open to reveal the AAA batteries (supplied) that power both the noise cancelling circuit and the built-in amplifier, which according to Logitech will run for around 40 hours on a set of batteries.
There’s a little button on the right earcup that turns the active noise cancelling circuit on and off, so if you just want to listen to music, you get the pure audio signal with no interference at all. You also get to continue listening if the batteries die, but AAA batteries are cheap, compact and common, so picking up a replacement set wouldn’t be at all problematic. Best just to use rechargeables in the ‘phones and to keep a spare set of alkalines in your bag or backpack.
The product presentation is excellent, and the 6000’s are supplied with a neoprene carrying case, a detachable cable with Apple remote and mic, and bizarrely a splitter that allows a second set of ‘phones to be plugged in so that users can share their music. While I applaud the sentiment, there are few pursuits more solitary than listening to headphones, so while it’s nice to include a splitter, where on earth is the much more useful airline adapter?
The 6000’s are very comfortable ‘phones. They’re not featherweights because of the batteries and amplifier, but the design has been carefully considered to work around this. The ear cushions are the perfect grade of memory foam, and a soft lining covers the drivers, so if they do touch the ear, it’s not a problem. The inside of the headband also has a soft padded surface, so wearing them for a long period of time is not an issue at all. I had some trouble with the 3.5mm jack from the cable into the earcup working loose, but give it a good shove and it locks into place in a big way.
The drivers are 40mm units housed inside “computer-optimised dual acoustic chambers”, and much is made in the marketing material of the “tuned by Ultimate Ears” concept, where the company claims to be heavily focused on sound quality. With a background in professional in-ear monitors, Ultimate Ears certainly has the in-house skill to get a set of ‘phones to perform, and this is exceedingly evident here. Why? Because they absolutely rock!
The best way to summarise the sound of the 6000’s is that they combine the best characteristics of a set of sealed box speakers and a pair of studio monitors. While sealed box loudspeakers may not go as low as ported models, they tend to have tighter and more agile bass. The bass coming from the 6000’s is commendably taut and quite addictive; there’s no waffle and no pronounced low bass emphasis masquerading as weight, just loads of impact. It really is a pleasure to crank the volume with bass heavy music and to feel the low frequencies drive into your ear canals.
However, like many sealed box speakers, the 6000’s are hard to drive (when the active circuit is off, that is). I had to run my iPhone at over 90 percent of maximum volume to get the levels I wanted when listening to AWOLNATION’s ‘Sail’ from Megalithic Symphony. This track has become one of my low-end reference tracks because with the right speakers or ‘phones and enough volume, it’s shockingly powerful. Through the 6000’s, I was blown away with the impact and punch in the bass notes. While these ‘phones don’t try to get down super low, they hit damn hard.
With the active circuit enabled however, the bass went even crazier. I’ve seldom felt a set of headphones punch this hard at the bottom end and I’ve never encountered any capable of generating quite this amount of pressure. With ‘Sail’ turned up very loud (for a short time), the earcups were literally throbbing in tune with the music, compressing the ear cushions with every beat. It’s like having your head inside a really good subwoofer. In a word: awesome! The bass is slightly less taut with the active circuit activated but the extra power and additional available volume more than make up for this. There’s also more low frequency extension in active mode.
The 6000’s emulate studio monitors in their revealing nature and in the fact that they just don’t lose their composure regardless of the volume levels being poured into them. At 100 percent volume, with the active circuit on, they never compressed, never hardened and sounded as if they could sustain that abuse indefinitely. My ears could tolerate only a couple of loud tracks from AWOLNATION and Gnarls Barkley before I bailed into saner territory but later on, I did come back to one of the grandest bass test tracks of them all – Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Stand Inside Your Love’. At max volume, the 6000’s sounded humungous at the bottom end – the enormous drum strikes on the intro were rendered with weight and brutal impact, yet had the layers of detail and textural information that some ‘phones just can’t quite get right.
So the 6000’s are remarkable at the bottom, but they’re by no means a one-trick pony. The midrange and treble are also very good. The overall balance leans towards the warm side, and they’re smooth in nature but there’s a lot of detail on offer, which means that these ‘phones are revealing, yet remain unfatiguing over long term listening sessions. The treble could have more sparkle in passive mode but it’s in keeping with the overall sonic character, and in any event, the top end does gain some energy when the active circuit is on, without much, if any damage to the sound quality. The active circuit muddies the midrange a bit but this is common to every set of active ‘phones I’ve ever heard, and in this case, the effect is negligible.
I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ over and over on the 6000’s. From a purist perspective, the passive sound was slightly better because the midrange was clearer, but the active mode’s extra treble sparkle was appreciated. The rumbling bass line that runs through the song had plenty of heft and the strummed guitars notes were fast and clear. The noise cancelling effect was about as good as it gets from active ‘phones and it did a great job of cutting out consistent noise like traffic or a droning lawnmower running nearby. The 6000’s were also outstanding when used to watch movies on my MacBook Pro, dealing with soundtracks with the power and dynamics of a high end home theatre system and making the LFE channel effects such as explosions, car chases and gunshots far more than mere noises.
Logitech made a very good call when the company bought Ultimate Ears a few years ago, and the 6000’s are evidence that the partnership is paying off. These ‘phones offer a lot of value, even in the face of a huge amount of competition; for example, Focal’s Spirit One’s (reviewed here) are built to a higher standard for $50 more, but the 6000’s have their own charms. Their build quality is good, they’re sturdy and sharp looking, and the sound is involving and a huge amount of fun. The noise cancelling functionality does its job well without killing the joy of the music and that’s a huge cherry on top, as is the comfort of the 6000’s.
There’s a lot to recommend them and nothing really holding them back, so these ‘phones get my unqualified recommendation, and that’s saying something given my historic disdain for active noise cancelling headphones. This is the pair of active ‘phones that I’d buy for my own use if I ever develop an allergy to in-ear types. ASHLEY KRAMER