World's Best Headphone Review: The Ultrasone Edition 8

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="198" caption="A terrific looking and compact full-size headphone."]A terrific looking and compact full-size headphone.[/caption] Ultra high-end headphones are curious beasts and will often have a story to go along with the price tag; the Ultrasone Edition 8 is no exception … in fact it has two stories. We’ll start with the easy story: Meet the world’s best portable headphone. The Ultrasone Edition 8 has been designed from the ground up to be the world’s best full-size portable headphone, and it does a darn good job of it. Being compact is a good thing for portable headphones, and the Edition 8 is small for a full-sized can.  The quality of construction hasn’t gone by the wayside in the effort to minimize; while the earpieces are small and you have to tuck your ears into them, they’re extremely luxuriant and comfortable. Ethiopian Goatskin leather earpads form a very good seal around your ears while not feeling artificial or sticky, and the outside of the earpieces are expertly crafted from chrome-like Ruthenium plated, aluminum, and stainless steel materials. A single piece, billet aluminum machined part connects the ear pieces to the compact and like-wise luxuriant headband covered in leather and fitted with brushed aluminum components.  The fit and compliance of skin-against-skin offered by the soft leather earpads does an excellent job of isolation for this type of headphone, and even though the headband is compact its adjustments are positive and feels very sturdy in my hands. The “Y” cord on the Edition 8 is connected to both earpieces and is terminated in an 1/8” stereo mini-plug. While too short for most applications at about four feet, it’s plenty long for portable applications when too much cable can be annoying. The headphones come with a longer extension cord and a 1/8 ” to ¼” adapter for normal uses around the home or office. The Edition 8 also comes with a very nice leather carry bag for storage and transport. The overall result of the design and build of these headphones is a somewhat close fitting but a very comfortable and secure wearing experience during the normal movement you’d have being out and about listening to your portable. Clearly, this is a very nicely built and appointed headphone. Now for the second and more complicated story: How do they sound? The short answer is everyone here at HeadRoom thinks they sound pretty good. The longer answer has to do with psychoacoustics, S-Logic, and Dr. Florian M. Konig (Ultrasone’s inventor) and his theories on sound. I’m afraid it’s a complex subject made somewhat worse by the difficult to read translations from the original German scientific papers (found here) but it boils down to Dr. Konig’s belief that placing the headphone driver in a de-centralized position about an inch lower and forward of the ear canal allows the sound to arrive at your ear canal after having traversed the folds and ridges of your ears in a more natural manner. He posits this will let the outer ear interact with the sound as it normally would and perform its job as an acoustic filter; when the sound is heard at the eardrum it will therefore include all the “psychoacoustic cues” needed to present the listener with sound that appears to come from outside the head. (This is the point where you should skip to the end and just read the summary if you don’t want to slog through the technical stuff.) I have to tell you this is a very complex subject made doubly difficult because all our ears are very different and headphones are a completely artificial way of getting sound to your ears. But there are some things we can say with some degree of certainty to try to get to the heart of the subject: When sound is emitted from a source it radiates outward as a spherical section wave-front, but by the time sound approaches your ears from any meaningful distance the acoustic wave-front is fairly flat as it hits your ears. In headphones, the driver is typically a small dome very close to your ears, and because it’s so close, the wave-front as it hits your ear is fairly strongly curved, so it will reflect off the surfaces of your ears in a substantially different manner than sound from a distant speaker.  Additionally, because the various ear-cup dimensions in which the driver acoustically couples the sound into your ears are generally larger than ½ wavelength of sound below 4kHz, much of the audio reaching your ears is more coupled with, as opposed to propagated at, your ears. In other words, the sound you hear from headphones is substantially different in a number of ways than sounds you hear naturally. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Sound coming from speakers interacts with your head to create psycho-acoustic cues your brain uses to localize sound."]Sound comong from speakers interacts with your head to create psychoacoustic cues your brain uses to localize sound.[/caption] Also, sounds that you hear in daily life might come from any direction. These sounds change as they arrive at your ears due to reflections from the shape of your body, head, and outer ears. Various characteristics of the sound change with the angle the sound is arriving at your head, and also with movements of the head. It is primarily how the sound changes with angle of incidence and movement that develops the psycho-acoustic cues that allow you to “localize” the sound (sense where the sound is coming from), rather than the cues in the sound at any one static condition. The mapping of these effects for a person is called the “head-related transfer function” (HRTF). With music, the left and right channels are assumed to be sending audio toward your head from speakers located about thirty degrees off axis to either side of your head. So when we talk about audio reproduction on headphones, we can assume that we’re trying to get the sound to arrive at our ears from a thirty degree angle. Generally there are two ways of trying to accomplish this: you could use fancy digital signal processing techniques to try to synthesize the HRTF cues you would normally hear with 30 degree off axis speakers, or you could simply try to get the headphones to emit a flat wave-front and hit the ear naturally at about thirty degrees. (Dolby Headphone does the former, and headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 and AKG K1000 attempt the latter.) [caption id="" align="alignright" width="313" caption="Looking into left earpiece of the Edition 8. The four upper holes are tuned ports to porperly EQ sealed cans. The headphone driver diaphragm is behind the holes on the bottom right which position the sound low and in front of the left ear."]Looking into left earpiece of the Edition 8.  The four upper holes are tuned ports to porperly EQ sealed cans.  The headphone driver diaphragm is behind the holes on the bottom right which position the sound low and in front of the left ear.[/caption] Dr. Konig’s theory is that by placing the headphone driver down and forward of the ear canal entrance he is mimicking HRTF filter function that would be experienced with a sound wave coming towards the head naturally.  In his paper, he offers as evidence the fact that when drivers are in this position relative to people’s ears, there is a greater distribution of frequency responses person to person in the tests. These greater differences are assumed to come from the variation in people’s ear shape, and Dr. Konig holds up this wider distribution of ear frequency response measurements as evidence that the ears are performing their “filter function.”  I would have liked to see the relationship between measurements of a normal headphone, the S-Logic headphone, and the response of that person’s ear with a thirty degree off axis natural acoustic signal, but we don’t always get what we want, and his idea seems reasonable enough. It’s long been known among headphone enthusiasts that moving headphones down and forward tends to move the audio image from above your head to in front of your head. Because changes in psycho-acoustic cues with head movement are much more powerful indicators of location than the static cues at any one position, I suspect that the sense of a more forward image may occur because of moving the headphones to the low-forward position rather than the cues in the sound of them once they’re there. But I agree that changing the position of the driver relative to the ear could have marked effect on perceived audio image. I’m not convinced, unfortunately, that Dr. Konig's theory actually works in practice. I find I don’t hear any appreciable improvement in imaging of Ultrasone’s S-Logic headphones over traditional headphones with a centrally located driver, and in reading the impressions of others at Head-Fi (here or here or here for example) I don’t see a preponderance of people saying they hear an imaging improvement either.  When headphones come along that really image well, you hear about it.  There’s significant agreement amongst headphone enthusiasts that the HD 800 and AKG K1000 image very well, for example. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="298" caption="Edition 8 frequency response shows significant fluctuations in the treble due to interaction of sound and ear; but on the whole, a well balanced response."]Edition 8 frequency response shows significant fluctuations in the treble due to interaction of sound and ear; but on the whole, a well balanced response.[/caption]However --- and this is a big however --- just because a headphone doesn’t image spectacularly well, doesn’t mean it sounds bad. (Real audio imaging is not a strong suit of headphone listening in general anyway.) Quite the contrary, the Ultrasone Edition 8 is a lovely sounding headphone, and it’s a low impedance and fairly efficient headphone so it sounds great directly out of a portable player --- and even better, of course, with an amp. The Edition 8 is a warm and punchy sounding headphone. The bass is somewhat emphasized and ever so slightly loose sounding; to my ears it has a lush and luxuriant bass. The mid-range is full and hearty, and in some ways seemed more present visceral when compared to the HD 800s more distant and airy presentation. The high frequencies are smooth and maybe somewhat hazy, this would make sense as there is less direct sound and more reflected sound entering the ear. Quoting from their web site, “Instead of hitting the inner ear directly, with S-Logic™ the signals are reflected off the surface of the outer ear in different directions before entering the auditory canal to create a natural three-dimensional Sound.” I tend to think this smearing due to reflections acts more to take the “bite” out of highs that might otherwise be sharp when heard directly into the ear. When comparing with the HD 800 it’s clearly obvious that the Edition 8 doesn’t resolve as well, but it does sound less aggressive with harsh material. All-in-all, given the intention for these headphones to be used as high-end portable headphones, and that the front end will often be an iPod (or the like) with or without an amp, I find the slight smoothing in the highs, the luscious bass, and hearty mid-range combine well with a less-than-reference source.  The Ultrasone Edition 8 provides an absolutely engaging and entertaining listen experience, perfectly capable of taking you away from the mundane world of the road and into that place where you and your music are one.  Highly recommended. Please visit HeadRoom’s website to purchase your Ultrasone Edition 8 with our Best Price Guarantee.

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