The Gadget: Ultimate Ears 700, the flagship model of a pretty respected headphone maker that was recently (and wisely) purchased by Logitech.
The Price: As you saw above, these babies are brand new, and list for $230.
The Verdict: $230 is an awful lot to spend on earphones, but as we learned last week, sound matters, and the quality in the $200 range really is twice as good as it is in the $100 range. In fact, in sound testing, the UE700 gave Shure's $300 SE310 earphones a run for their money.
I'm not spoiled, earphone-wise, but I'm not slumming it either—I usually carry Shure SE110s. When the SE115s came out, I had to check them out, and sure enough, what Adrian mentioned about fuller bass is totally true. It's not overpowering, and for the price, they're brilliant, but like all headphones in that $100 range, I still feel like there's something missing, a kind of three dimensionality.
Last night I carefully listened to my favorite songs, spanning many genres—"Bullet and a Target" by Citizen Cope, "California" by Joni Mitchell, "Ms. Jackson" by OutKast, "All This Time" by Sting among others—constantly swapping headphones from UE700 to Shure SE115 to Shure SE310 to listen for the minutest changes in experience. The jump from the SE115 to both more expensive ones was clear, literally. Instruments were more defined, such as the bari sax in the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives," and you could hear more real life behind the recording, such as the buzzing and rustling in "Please Do Not Go" by Violent Femmes.
For a while, though, it was a deadlock between the $230 Ultimate Ears and the $300 Shures, especially since Amazon lists them for under $180 (!). The real breakthrough came when I put on Prince's "7." It has so many layers of percussion and Eastern instrumentation, not to mention vocal harmonies, that it truly benefits from the three dimensionality that only higher-grade audio can manage, and lo, the most 3D experience came from the UE700s. I checked again and again, back and forth, with more songs still, and it was true. I was floored.
There are some downsides to this pair, particularly compared to the Shures. Fit matters when it comes to making the most of good earphones. Because of the way the speakers are arrayed inside the UE700s, they're wider at the opening than the Shures, meaning they may not fit everyone. In addition, they only come with one size of memory-foam cushion (my favorite) and three different sizes of the rubber sealing kind. Shure SE310 comes with like a jillion different "sleeves," and even the SE115s come with six options.
(They do come with a carrying case and an attenuator—pictured below—which limits high-volume bursts, so you can use it on an airplane's sound system without fear of going deaf every time you change the channel or hear the captain come on.)
The other issue that some might care about is cable noise. That's not a buzz or anything, it's the sound you hear when you run your finger along the cable. I didn't notice cable noise while listening to the UE700s, not even when I took a walk with them, but since they do make some noise when you intentionally rub your finger on them, they may be annoying for people who are using them while jogging or aerobically working out. Just a thought, really, but worth noting.
I didn't pit these against every earphone known to man, and I'm interested in seeing how they stack up against our $150 Headphone Battlemodo winner, the Etymotics hf5. But if the performance against Shure's SE310s are any indication, it would handily beat them too. My final judgment is that these are sweet—and worthy of their elevated valuation—but you should wait until they start coming down in price, as all headphones do in time, before plunking down your hard-earned cash for them. [Product Page]