Review: Ultrasone HFI-580 headphones

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You may have seen the review of Ultrasone’s mega-high-end Series 9 headphones the other day. Well, the company doesn’t just make $1600 cans; these HFI-580s represent the more affordable end of their product spectrum, and although they cost about 90% less, I’m thinking they probably sound 90% as good.

I’ve always believed that at about $200 with headphones is the beginning of diminishing returns. And although I’ve had my eyes opened in the last couple years on just what my music can sound like with a good pair of cans, I’m skeptical of the benefits of spending more than this, especially when $200 sounds so good.

Ultrasone is very proud of the technology that goes into their headphones, touting the virtual surround effect, radiation shielding, and lowered sound pressure. I think they have a right to be so, because their S-Logic system for expanding the soundstage works wonderfully.

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The HFI-580s reproduced my music very well, and with a feel totally different from the excellent Klipsch in-ear headphones I use with my laptop or pocket player. While the Klipschs seem to put the music beautifully right inside your head, these Ultrasones, as must be expected with a large isolating headphone pair, expand the sound enormously. It seems to be taking place everywhere but your head. Whether you prefer one or the other is a matter of taste, although with movies and games in general I’d say it’s better to go with the “external” sound.

I know my music pretty well, and I’ve found that even with the best headphones there are tradeoffs: songs sound different in one pair than in another, not necessarily better or worse, but depending on what the song has going on, a pair can accentuate or fight against the natural sound. I found this to be the case with the Grails song “Burning off Impurities,” in which I detected a growing theme several seconds earlier due to the way the sound was reproduced, but then a horn part that comes in a minute later (which I love) was much less noticeable than on my speakers.

The sound range was great. I pushed the low end up super high on a few songs to see if the headphones would distort before the equalizer clipped the sound, but the bass remained warm and loud. The high end is powerful, perhaps a bit too much so; when I was testing the headphones out in Far Cry 2, a certain (possibly buggy) sniper rifle’s noise made such a crack every time I fired it that I had to avoid the gun altogether or else turn the volume down when I needed it. The mid range is present but I feel that because of the expanded soundstage, the low and highs overpower it. You can tweak the sound, of course, but the HFI-580s don’t have the incredibly even coverage that my in-ears have.

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The headphones also fold up, which is nice. They’re pretty comfortable although you’ll want to take them off occasionally to let your ears breathe. It gets hot in there.

As usual, my review is going on too long. I don’t need to detail the minor shortcomings of these great headphones — it’s more important to say that their best asset is the large soundstage they create, which makes every piece of music simply seem bigger. They’re very powerful and yet, if you believe what Ultrasone says, they produce more loudness with less direct pressure on the eardrum; I think this is because they get that surround sound by bouncing the waves off your pinna. The HFI-580s can be found for quite a bit less than the list price of $200, and if you’re looking for a good pair of closed-type headphones with good isolation and great sound, you can do a lot worse than these.

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