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Positive Feedback ISSUE48
HFi Edition8 headphones from ALO
as reviewed by Jeff Parks
Parenthood vs. Audiophile
With having little children in the house more times than not, I have wished for a pair of reference headphones to have on hand—especially for those late night listening sessions where my music can be heard through-out the home. See, being an audiophile is, often times, counterproductive to my children sleeping. With that being said, I have found parenthood to have taken a nip out of my audiophile listening time. Plus, as many audiophiles know, listening at night is usually best since most people are off the grid; resulting in cleaner power in the late evening and early morning hours. It is not until mid-morning that the grid gets noisy once again. This "grid effect" upon our prized audio systems can be realized as increased background noise which can make the music sound hazy and not as defined; along with limited dynamic reproduction, and a more closed in soundstage. All of which seems to disappear as one listens to one's music later and later into the night. I am sure part of this positive effect upon our high end audio systems is a direct result of our gear warming up and settling in as the evening goes on; however, there is no denying that this grid effect does exist. Yes, dedicated lines, better power cords, and line conditioning products do help, but there is still something special about those ‘late-night' listening sessions that are hard to beat.
So as a new father, it now seems like those times are gone forever; at least until I buy a larger home or take over the garage and sound proof it—an idea that is not too crazy if you ask my wife. So, what is an audiophile to do? Race home after work and get some listening time in before the kids arrive, or wait for those times when the kids are out of the house? Or, better yet… for the ultimate audiophile's experience it is those few times per year when the kids are at grandma's for the weekend. Then I can finally do my listening uninterrupted late into evening or better yet, into the early morning hours of the next day. But all of these are not realistic choices, and I was in the middle of a quagmire. Should I give up my late night listening sessions all together since I love my kids, possibly quit the hobby and move on like so many other audiophile dads have done, or find a way for my hobby to peacefully coincide with the new family dynamics? I chose the latter, hence the reason I am now in the process of auditioning headphones.
"It's been a long time"
I haven't listened to headphones in years. Now that I think about it, the 1970's was the last time I owned a pair of headphones—a pair of Sennheiser HD-440s. Living at home as a teenager with a less than patient father, well, using headphones became a necessity in listening to "my music." Now fast forward to 2010 where I have been a two channel, two speaker, no headphone kind of audiophile for almost 30 years; I wasn't so sure I would be happy listening to headphones. I was worried about the ‘potential' compromise to my ears when I went from being enveloped in sound by my two loudspeakers compared to listening to a pair of "cans" on my head.
Coincidentally, at about the same time I was looking for a pair of headphones a friend of mine was going to host a headphone shoot-out at our next audiophile club meeting. At this shoot-out there were several models of headphones from Ultrasone for audition; courtesy of their national representative Paul Taylor who happens to live nearby. Paul was gracious enough to give a seminar regarding what made Ultrasone headphones different from the rest of the pack for our small group of listeners. In my recent past I have heard current model headphones from Sennheiser (the HD-650 and HD-800) along with the Stax SR-404 Limited, but what struck me the most at the meeting, was the Ultrasone Edition8 Headphones and a modified pair of Ultrasone HIF-780 headphones from ALO Audio. I was so impressed with the ALO modified HFi-780 headphones that I made an offer to my friend who hosted the meeting to buy his pair. That evening I had them in my home.
Having heard the stock Edition8s and being so smitten with their sound, I decided to contact the people at ALO Audio. After a brief conversation with Ken from ALO it was decided he would send me a pair of modified Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones for audition. Though I was still impressed with the sound of my newly acquired modified ALO HFI-780 headphones (shown below), the ALO modified Ultrasone8s were in a league all of their own. They were THAT much better! Right from the very first night, listening to the ALO Audio modified Ultrasone Edition8 headphones put me in audiophile heaven. Never in my life had I experienced such an immediacy, intimacy, and liquidity with my CD collection than when listening to this headphone. It mated up with my reference system like tequila and salt—it was perfect! There was such a three dimensionality, along with a clarity, that, in my mind, had never before in any of my audiophile experiences come so close to that of the master tape. I was truly impressed. How could something so small sound so damn good?
Sound engineering creates sound results
Going back to the stock Edition8 headphones, what really blew me away, was how they presented the soundstage with fantastic layering and pinpoint imaging. I felt the sound was in front of me, to the sides, and behind. The presence was so life-like that many times I would forget that I was listening to music with a pair of "cans" on my head. I am sure this experience had a lot to do with the S-Logic TM design of the headphones.
S-LogicTM, or Natural Surround Sound as the Ultrasone Germans like to call it, places the end user in a listening position that is truly unique. Normal headphones place sound directly into the ear canal at the same point in time for both ears. This is what gives many headphones that "headphone" type sound where it reminds one of your old speaker system from the 1970's that didn't disappear within a soundstage, thus, presenting music in a more conventional "stereo" like performance. S-LogicTM on the other hand pushes the sound around your ears giving a more complete surround-type sound that envelops the listener.
Due to this decentralized driver positioning the Edition8 headphones present music to our ears in a manner that is similar to that of ‘normal' speaker listening. This process results in our brain being able to locate sounds more readily and in a manner that is more natural to the ear-brain-perception connection. With S-Logic TM, the signals are reflected off the surface of the outer ear in three different directions before entering the canal, resulting in signals being sent much like how the ear hears music or sound in a natural listening environment. In the end what you have is a reproduction of sound that is natural and more 3-dimensional. S-Logic TM does not change how you are listening to music - it intensifies it! Though ultimately not the same experience as listening to our coveted two channel systems with modern conventional speakers, the Edition8s can get close enough for this audiophile to be happy with the end result. Once again, I am now able to listen to music during those coveted times where the power to our homes has the least amount of grunge while at the same time not disturbing my family. Yes! Another audiophile is saved from obscurity!
Another important feature of the Edition8 headphones is Ultrasone's Ultra Low Emission (ULE) technology. Most headphones drivers produce low-frequency magnetic fields as they convert electrical signals into the acoustic signal we hear as music. In order to limit exposure to electromagnetic radiation, caused by this conversion of electrical signals to the music we hear through our headphones, Ultrasone developed a special MU Metal shielding they call ULE (for Ultra Low Emissions). Studies done by Ultrasone have shown that ULE can lower this type of radiation by up to 98% when compared to that found in conventional headphones. Originally ULE technology was developed for Ultrasone's professional line of headphones due to recording engineer's long term exposure to prolonged headphone usage. However, due to overwhelming demand by consumers, Ultrasone now offers ULE in the other product lines; including the Edition8 Headphones. For you techies out there, refer to the Ultrasone website for a white paper with regards to this discussion. No matter how serious or not this issue may or may not be, one thing for sure is that I don't want my head zapped by any unnecessary radiation—if I can help it as I have already fried enough brain cells during the 1970's, so I need all that I have left. Kudos to Ultrasone for offering this type of ULE technology to the home consumer.
Similarities, differences, and improvements
Knowing that the stock headphones are pretty spectacular what improvements or changes did Ken at ALO Audio do to the Ultrasone Edition8 Headphones? In this particular case, not much really. The only change of note was that Ken replaced the stock cable with one from ALO comprised of proprietary OCC OHNO continuous cast 22 gauge 99.9997% pure mono crystal copper wires that are silver plated and cryogenically treated. In addition, Ken swapped out the stock gold plated mini-plug jack with a clearly superior gold plated ¼" jack sourced from Vampire. Knowing, the stock headphone jack is a mini plug that uses an adaptor to convert it to a standard ¼" jack, I am sure some of the sound improvement was wrought by the elimination of this connection. In comparing the stock phones using only the mini plug (my headphone amplifier has two inputs—one mini plug and one 1/4" plug) I found I preferred the sound of the headphones using only the mini-plug jack as opposed to having it slide into its 1"4" adaptor. Without the adaptor, a veil of haze was removed, thus improving clarity of the music and taking the headphones one step closer to what is in my opinion state-of-the-art. It was under these conditions that I compared the stock Edition8 headphones to that of the ALO/Modified SXC Edition8 headphones.
With that being said, how do the stock phones compare to the ALO modified phones? For those of you who are anticipating huge differences between the two phones you may be in for a bit of a disappointment. Overall the ALO phones follow the same sonic footprint as the stock headphones, in that both sets throw out a huge soundstage, layer the instruments and performers quite nicely, and get the rhythm and pace of the music spot on. Top to bottom the headphones are very similar. Both headphones have great bass (the best I have heard from any headphone to date) throw-out a fantastic midrange which is the headphone's main strength, coupled with a lively top end that does not go ‘over-the-top'. If anything the high end leans more towards the liquid side of things rather than focusing upon articulation and detail, which, when listening to headphones over a period of time, can make things a bit fatiguing. In direct comparison, neither set of headphones (after up to four hours in each session) ever made me feel the need to take them off to give my ears a rest. Both sets of phones were a pure joy to listen to; each could clearly take you away to wherever the music might guide you. The only difference that I did hear while listening the to ALO modified headphones, when compared to the stock phones, was where the ALO phones removed a bit of sonic grunge through-out the entire audio bandwidth. This absence allowed music via the headphones to fully bloom increasing its immediacy and intimacy.
Overall, the ALO phones did everything the stock headphones did, only better! There was better top to bottom clarity, with improved instrument imaging, a slightly larger and deeper soundstage coupled with a slightly better high end without losing the liquid sonic signature that in my opinion makes these headphones unique and very special. Bass was improved to where it now had the same impact as before but with better clarity and depth. What struck me the most regarding the ALO modified headphones was that while keeping all of the good things that the stock headphones did without changing their overall sonic signature, they turned a great headphone into one that is clearly at the top of the class. With that being said, I bought my review pair. This translates to my highest recommendation in addition to my Writer's Choice Award that I gave the headphones in December, 2009.
For more information regarding Ultrasone Edition8 headphones don't forget to check out Bob Levy's article in Issue 45 of PFO. Jeff Parks
Ultrasone Edition8 ALO Modified SXC Cryo
Ultrasone Edition8 (Stock) headphones