I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an audiophile. I enjoy music and I enjoy good sound but I have yet to be bitten by the high end audio bug. I understand that good audio gear is expensive but have also yet to feel that headphones are worth $1,700.
And yet, why am I so fascinated with the Ultrasone Edition9 headphones, a pair of closed-back cans with natural surround sound and an 8-35,000 Hz frequency range? What makes these headphones better or worse than anything else? What have I been missing?
I began my exploration by just plugging these things into an iPhone and listening to some MP3s. Bad idea. When it comes to audio, garbage-in/garbage-out rules the day so I regrouped and did a little research.
First, my biggest problem with audiophile gear. I cover watches so I understand the luxury gadget industry. When I see a $20,000 watch, I understand, at some visceral level, whether it is worth that much money. Is it handmade? Does it use precious metals or stones? Is the band made from the woven hair of Cuban virgins? Or is the company simply trying to sell a luxury product at a premium price because it wants to part suckers from their money? When I look at high-end audio gear, I see more than a bit of snake oil. While the core gear is nice and sounds great, wooden knobs to reduce vibration and magical electricity straighteners make the entire venture considerably less inviting.
Wanting to come at these headphones with an open mind, however, I asked my audiophile buddies for some advice. They told me to ditch the MP3s and go lossless. I got a few lossless music files, fired them up, and was blown away, with some caveats.
There are two problems I have with high-end audio. First, the brain registers the quality in the first few minutes and then you forget about it. You could stick these cans on my head, make me listen to some Ravel, and then take them off. Half an hour later you could stick ear-buds from a broken Coby CD player into my ears and I’d probably not remember much of a difference. But there’s always that little spot between the first note and forgetting that makes the experience worth it.
The sweet spot on these Edition 9s was right there in front of you, creating a soundscape so detailed that I was amazed at what I was hearing. Best of all, these headphones are designed to offer a sense of loudness even at low levels, ensuring you don’t go deaf while listening to the headphones for most of your life. They are also quite comfortable and filter out most of the surround noise. Now, again, are these worth $1,700, at least to non audio technicians?
I’m up in the air. The audio quality was excellent provided I listened to lossless music in perfect conditions on a good rig. You wouldn’t want to use these traveling or riding the subway. To truly appreciate them you need to sip the music from them in a comfortable setting, like a fine wine. You don’t drink Dom Perignon out of a rinsed out Coke bottle, right? You don’t listen to Mingus on these while sitting in a pool of vomit on the train, either.
So it is with some sadness and mostly relief that I packed these headphones away. Whereas I could recommend a pair of Ultimate Ears or some Sennheisers to any Joe off the street, unless you’re willing to invest in some gold remasters and a smoking jacket, I just don’t feel the impetus to recommend these. If, however, you want amazing sound for an amazing price tag, these are well worth the money. Great audio is a privilege, not a right, and these headphones are proof of that.