Hello fellow Head-Fi'ers (Is that our official nickname?)!
My name is Richard Persaud, and I'm bringing you a review of the Ultrasone HFI-680 headphones. These German-designed headphones are part of a hotly contested market of premium over the ear cans, and as such, will be judged HARSHLY.
The HFI-680 headphones are touted as having a detailed, balanced, and natural soundstage, mainly due to the rather unique design of the diaphragm plate and off-axis placement of the driver within the cup. The driver is actually half-blocked by an aluminum baffle, and the exposed part of the driver essentially shoots at your ear itself, and not directly into the canal like most headphones do. Another interesting caveat of these headphones are that they boast a frequency response from 15hz-25,000hz!
These headphones are built solid. Despite using plastic for the headband, which is coated with a very fine grain rubberized coating, these headphones feel rugged. I can personally attest to their durability, seeing that I've owned my pair for over a year now, and they are my primary DJ headphones.
The headphone caps are made of a plastic which is given an aluminum wrap, but it feels darn near convincing when compared to most plastics used in headphones. The cups are leather wrapped, but filled with what I want to assume is just standard wool instead of memory foam, making them slightly uncomfortable for prolonged listening sessions. The headband clamps firmly, but not too tight, but the rigidity of the earcups against your eartips is a bit of a problem. The aluminum baffle is one of the only parts that I can attest to being made from metal, but this is probably a good thing. These cans, despite their profile (a nice midground between slim over ears like the Harman Kardon BT's, and the ultra-bulky HD800's from Sennheiser), are rather light. Another notable feature are the swiveling cups that fold both up into the headband, as well as swiveling for flat storage. The cable is... hefty. It's extremely long, warranting a rubberband and a few folds before being portable, but for home listening, that cable is a blessing.
Ultrasone touts "S-Logic Natural Surround Sound", which is fancy terminology for referring to the off-axis drivers that use your ears to effectively create the soundstage. The theory is that by allowing the audio to reflect off of the shape of your ears, back at the aluminum baffle, and eventually navigate to your ear canals, your perceived hearing should provide an accurate sense of space and soundstaging. But does it work?
I remember the first time I tried these on, when I compared them directly to my Bowers and Wilkins P5's, Harman Kardon BT's, AKG K701's, Grado SR-60 and Beyerdynamic DT 880's. These headphones sat squarely in the middle: miles better than AKG's atrocious K701's, but lacked the dynamics of the 880's, as well as the SQ. However, let's focus on what they are.
For $220 nowadays, these cans are not on the cheaper end. However, they aren't expensive by any stretch. The price point is inviting, but substantial enough to make you ask yourself if this is something you'd invest in. But they sound quite nice; bass is extremely tight, if not a touch recessed, midranges are FORWARD, and treble is extended, sibilant, but not overly harsh. There is a slight bit of a dip in frequencies around the lower vocal frequencies, in the sense that voices sound a touch skinny. However, this is not necessarily bad. These headphones are very clinical, which is why voices tend to sound skinny. We are constantly spoiled with the way headphones fatten and warm the sounds of vocals, so it's pleasing to my ears at least to hear a more accurate representation of vocals.
Songs Used For Testing:
Lady Gaga- G.U.Y.
Major Lazer- Jah No Partial
Procol Harum- A Whiter Shade Of Pale
Eagles- Victim Of Love
Donovan- Mellow Yellow (Mono Version)
Franki Valli and the Four Seasons- Sherry
Christina Aguilera- Hurt
The Beatles- Within You Without You
Disclosure- You And Me (Flume Remix)
Chemical Brothers- Block Rockin' Beats
Tinashe- Another Me
Norah Jones- Shoot The Moon
Amy Winehouse- Moody's Mood For Love
Pink Floyd- Breathe (SACD)
Eagles- Hotel California
All songs are formatted as WMA Lossless, as I have personally ripped them from CD's/SACD's.
All song descriptions are based off of extensive familiarity with the qualities of each song, as displayed through spectrographs in Adobe Audition, as well as many hours of listening on my studio monitor system. This system uses Bowers and Wilkins 685B's as my critical near-field monitors, which are fed by a Marantz NR1403 Amplifier. The system also utilizes a Klipsch RW-12II Powered Subwoofer, and the entire system has been tuned to be as sonically flat as possible for critical work such as remastering and audio restoration. All signals to said amplifier are fed over an optical connection (24 bit, 192khz). The Marantz NR1403 will be driving the headphones in "Pure Direct" for amplifier based review sections.
All songs will also be reviewed from being plugged into a Zune HD, which is my favorite PMP for all around convenience. Decent, SQ wise, but not as good as many Hifimans, but will accurately reflect a midground between cellphones and PMP's.
Lady Gaga- G.U.Y.-
This song was chosen due to the intense power of the chorus, having a combination of triangle and square synths blended with gated white noise hisses, and Gaga's vocals which are ever so slightly stereo-spaced, instead of being placed dead center. The song, when analyzed with Adobe Audition, is heavily compressed, but does not exhibit "ducking", i.e. vocals quickly dropping to accommodate bass and drum hits.
The introduction to this song starts out bold and a trace of distortion (from the song) is immediately revealed, and the leading synth which transitions from introduction to song is sharp and acute. Gaga's voice immediately appears DEAD CENTER and in your face, with the slightest kiss of hearing her voice off to the sides. When the chorus swings in, the song becomes a touch overwhelming, with the synths clashing together. However, Gaga's voice remains present and focused. These headphones do a good job of accurately presenting the slightly chaotic, but powerful chorus sections. The treble comes across a slight bit hissy, but that's mainly because of the gated white noise that was added, as well as the song's affection with high treble sweeps. This song doesn't really have powerful bass, but these cans present the kicks with a tight thump that is neither too forward or too recessed. However, bass performance could be a touch louder, but this might be mainly because of these headphones being a little more flat in nature.
Major Lazer- Jah No Partial
If you've never listened to this song, and you're aching to blow a few speakers, go play this.
This song is another compressed-by-nature track, but does not exhibit ducking to a severe degree. It's artfully soft, so soft that you only notice during the drops and requires a few listens to spot it. With a powerful bassline (not the heaviest, but certainly weighty), very fat but short kicks, sharp and edgy synths, and a chorus drop that is just dubstep/house heaven, this song has so far sodomized a set of Yamaha speakers (and an amp), destroyed a set of Polks, and has a vendetta against my B&W's for surviving this long.
The intro to this song features a jamaican voice with some reverb, a background set of vocals, and a shaker. The headphones, once again, present the vocals as "in your face" as that one boss you hated in your first job, and the shakers are crisp. The treble is starting to feel a touch... "too much", as in being a little bit too present.
Well, the main synths hit so beautifully, with presence. The square wave fill stabs are weighty, but my God. The bass in the background is there. Not there like shaking your earwax into butter, but it's there. Treble stabs become a touch fatiguing when you're in the swing of such a massive drop, but the presence and in your face nature of those center weighted synths just obliterate that little fact. You can still hear the cymbals clearly in the back, sibilant, clear, and defined, even over the frenetic bass and synth stabs.
Procol Harum- A Whiter Shade Of Pale
This song is very dynamic by nature, featuring a very deep soundstage for the organ (forward heading), percussion that is placed far off to the left, with cymbal reverb echoing softly from the right. The vocals are placed a slight bit to the right of center, and also seem to have height to them.
From the moment you hear those first few seconds, you realize that these headphones, while agile and frenetic when fed modern music, become amazingly poised and composed with dynamic, non-compressed tracks. The organ just envelops you in a way that only my Beyerdynamics were able to reproduce, as well as my monitors, but it's just coherent. You don't hear two point sources far off, you just hear a soft, but expansive wall of sound. The soft caress of the drumsticks on that ride cymbal, with the drum hits, sound far off to left stage, but not lost. They're forward, yet distant; tight, accurate, but where they were intended to be. The vocals come in, above your head, off to the right, neither forward nor recessed. You can almost hear the reverb flowing down from the voice to the floor.
The chorus comes in and that Hammond Organ just launches into full spate and sings, moving right dead center into that space right above the center of your brow, where if you hover a finger, you get that weird sensation in your forehead (try it now... yeah, that's the spot. Feel that?). The chorus ends, and the organ recedes back to it's place. The treble is not harsh or Jack-Cheddar with razorblades sharp anymore. It's just enough. It's more like Asiago cheese instead of Monterey Jack. Mild, but flavorful.
Eagles- Victim of Love
Well of all the Eagles songs, why this? Well, this Eagles song has everything: articulate bass, no compression, quality recording (no distortion from the source file), soundstage, but challenging sections which only the best speakers can reproduce without losing their composure and muddying up the middle.
That initial guitar stab with the left-placed licks, the right side placed crash cymbal, slightly right placed drums, and vocals which are centered with a touch of height immediately grabs you. These headphones may not be as flat as I thought. They are a bit dynamic in nature, but not to the extent of my P5's or BT's. It's just enough. The chorus comes across forward, but all the instruments are accurately reproduced, and the drum never loses the depth that the touch of reverb on it gives it. The drums launch into a 4 measure roll from the chorus, and pan from right to left. The drums stay at the same volume through the pan, with the toms sounding rich and deep. That tight bass of these cans really sells you on drums; they never sound sloppy. Instead, they sound the way a brand new German car feels: tight, but not squeaky and uncomfy. The song ends, and fades off, and you can hear that floor hiss in the recording fade off with the trailing vocals.
Damn, that's the one problem with flatter, more accurate cans: you hear everything. However, I knew about this hiss from my monitors, so hearing them in the cans was a little bit of a relief, because it meant that if there's an instrument or a subtle nuance, these cans won't hide it.
Donovan- Mellow Yellow
It seems counter productive to choose a song that is not only mono, but recorded on semi-optimal equipment. There is an audible hiss in the song, and the vocals tend to distort against the guitars during the cymbal stabs. However, the mono version of this song is incredibly forward with... everything. Everything is crammed into a Pringles can and shot straight into your faceeeeee. The purpose of this song is to get an idea of balance between left and right drivers, as well as their performance with revealing distortion and claustrophobic sound placement. This song is actually compressed, but not as much as modern pop.
Well, anyone who's heard this song on premium drivers knows that the initial cymbal hits has this odd whoop that lowers in pitch. It's soft, but there. They're right there on these cans. The drums come in tight, and then the vocals join in. Treble on these slightly distorted cymbal hits come across as forward, neither harsh, nor sloppy, but you do notice all the distortion in the song, as well as the floor hiss through the whole thing. I find it impressive that even when you're in the middle of the AM- sound trumpets, drums, and vocals, you can still find the hiss if you want to find it. Every little piece of analog, crispy distortion comes through like a nail, but just sounds authentic.
Franki Valli and the Four Seasons- Sherry
On the opposite end of the oldies-but-goodies spectrum is "Sherry", which was recorded on vintage mics that had very warm mids and silibant highs. However, the mastering expertise of this song make it a pleasure to listen to time after time. It's almost witchcraft as to how expansive it sounds when you just left modern pop music. Features of this song are left placed percussion instruments, with a floor hiss that moves in and out (I feel bad for the guy who mastered it; good job cutting it down a lot). Vocals are placed far to the right, with Franki right in the middle.
Immediately, that tight bass reveals a subtle bass line that just comes across like sugar. It's so damn good that honestly, I wish that all headphones were this tight on bass, albeit with a bit more. Percussion instruments have that "AM is Gold" sound, but are clear and accurately produced. The vocals come in far off to the right, and sound... well... like they're sitting right on the ridge of your right ear, outside your ear canal. Franki is there in the middle, leaning to the right on certain parts.
"Why don't you come onnnnn..." <--- If you've heard this song before, you know this part. The bass singer powerfully strikes every note; powerful as in having a command over his voice, with a nice amount of reverb and spaciousness. A sudden amount of bass in his voice is a touch jarring compared to the song's lack of it, but it's because of the depth of his voice. These headphones deliver every bit of that emphasis, despite only being on the lower right of your soundstage. Impressive.
Christina Aguilera- Hurt
This song is quickly becoming an audiophile favorite due to Christina's super forward voice dead center, deep dynamics, a piano fill that is off to the right; forward, but not in your face. The orchestral fill is both deep and fat, but not far off to the sides. It's nicely spread; not too far off, not too much center. The bass notes, which are plucked, are full and thick, with a moderate decay time. On lesser drivers, Christina's voice is so commanding and upfront that it drowns out the violins in the back. There is a slight floor hiss present.
Immediately, these cans make you realize that those violins during the piano lead are in fact synthesizers (damn). There is this deep, subsonic presence that creates a pressure in your head, which you realize is the movement of Christina in front of the microphone; her breathing only being left over as bass from the mid/high cut of her breath being mastered out. Her voice comes in: forward, in your face, with sibilant treble. Then, she hits that chorus and the orchestra kicks in. Her voice is dead center like a tack, coming through with power, but you still hear the individual notes of the violins and cellos, and you feel that tight plucked bass. These headphones would benefit from a slight EQ damping of treble frequencies, but at the same time, maybe not simply because the treble isn't hissy. It's just more than you're used to. But it makes Christina's emotion just come surging out.
The song then navigates to it's solitary drum section with Christina striding through her vocal notes. It's slightly thick, as this part of the song is hard kneed/compressed, but the headphones navigate you through it as well as they can, given the input their receiving. Nothing is veiled or hidden; everything is as it was intended.
The ending violin comes across sweetly, before leaving you with that subsonic bass of her moving from the mic, and the final orchestral violin notes, and...
(bangs head on table)
The Beatles- Within You, Without You
Those who know this song are undoubtedly smiling because this might be the first time they've seen this song in a list with Lady Gaga. This lesser known Beatles song was probably made specifically for audiophiles, crafted in a time when audio engineers had creative freedom over the quality of the song.
Features of this song are an impressively wide soundstage, exceptional dynamics (compression what?), humming sitars, harps, and tabla hits off to the left, with humming indian strings to the right following the inotation and notes of the Beatles who are placed high, almost dead center but a little to the right. As the song goes on, you get to an orchestral section which builds in size and energy, becoming more frenetic before suddenly tapering back to the slow, methodological pace of the song. The tabla hits are deep as a well, with body and bass that bends (look up tabla bending; you move your wrist across the tabla to bend the pitch of the bass note). The singing strings to the right are sharp, with sitar plucks dead center. The sitar is where most instruments fail, as a sitar "talks" with treble underpinnings that are sharp, but harmonic. Most speakers turn that to mush.
The opening to the song sounds skinny, until that tabla comes in with just NOTHING BUT TIGHT, AMAZING BASS. It's articulate, pleasing, joyously playful with the left driver. The vocals are just crisp, and the soundstage is well placed. Of course, the vocals height is attributed to the fact that the drivers are isolated to each ear, not crosstalking like how speakers are, causing the "height" to be a bit of an illusion (think "voice in your head).
The sitar plucks come in, and holy mother of God, they sound DAMN GOOD. They're expressive, sharp, edgy, twangy, and slightly metallic sounding (just like the real thing). My Auntie Leila plays the sitar and liste...
See how good these cans are? Got me telling you about my family like you know them. Pshhhhhh...
Disclosure- You and Me (Flume Remix)
I switch to this french-housesque dubsteppy song because of it's modern pop compression, stereo vocals way off to the sides, and a drop unlike no other. The bass is deep and powerful, with these french sounding stabs that just smack you. This ringing sound kicks in at times, kind of like the sound of a coin that falls and right before it comes to rest flat on a glass table, vibrates really fast. That sound, with a very fast attack and fast decay. The vocals are expansive and deep, slightly flanged.
These headphones mince this song. That bass bounces like a kangaroo that got into your best friend's stash of cocaine and PCP. It hits, bounces off your ears, not in a loud and overbearing bassy way, but in a tight, composed, but attentive way. The synths are digital glory, expansive and trippy. Go check out this song; it's interesting, and these cans reveal their overly enthusiastic treble sibilance once again. It seems that modern songs which utilize more of the upper frequencies make these headphones really... edgy. This is also because most headphones are tapered off around those higher frequencies, so modern mastering usually applies a "v" shaped EQ to give songs "punch". Unfortunately, these cans convey that "v" shape, but more on the treble side of things.
Chemical Brothers- Block Rockin' Beats
This song is summed up as this:
Funk with in your face percussion, heavy reverb on the bridge, edgy, in your face synths that scream, and that one guy (or girl..?) saying the name of the song every once in a while with a decay on the voice. This song will bend your speakers over and pound on the voice coils until they say their name and then fly out the drivers, into your eyes. The kicks at times have distortion, and the song is compressed, but so much damn fun to listen to.
The song launches into the kicks after the initial synth lead, and the headphones wallop you with sound. The kicks and snares are tight, the cymbals are edgy and tart, and the synths are dangerously sharp. These cans take your eardrums on a ride, never once losing their composure during the fast transients between kicks and snares, cymbals and synths. That wailing synth hits you like a cinderblock every time they come screaming into the track. Treble is once again a bit edgy and sibilant, but you have so much fun listening to this track that you don't care. You just keep turning it up until your head explodes from the Chemical Brothers kicking your eardrums in.
Tinashe- Another Me
Little known artist Tinashe attempted to enter the arena of modern pop, blending the vocals of Nina Sky, Beyonce, Rihanna and Britney Spears. Her sound is beautiful, her voice is sexy, and her songs are as bold as her headfirst launch into the music arena. Her song "Another Me" starts off with a compressed, AM-sound intro, before suddenly hitting a kick that is deep, tight, subsonic, with her vocals dead center, and instruments off to the sides adding harmony and balance to her higher pitched voice against black hole bass hits.
The headphones reveal their modest bass performance decibal wise- over the monitors, my Klipsch is basically vibrating the house with sub frequencies, and the kicks actually broke dishes. The headphones tone this down substantially, until the second half of the song, where she just goes for stupid compression and distortion for a grungy down tempo feel. The headphones suddenly offer up this delicious subsonic bass that lets you know that YES, IT CAN HIT LOW. But your heart is just wishing that it was more, despite knowing that it's enough. The tightness of the bass is just too encouraging. The distorted, forward vocals designed to be harsh and in your eyeballs, are indeed right there rubbing your face against the chalkboard.
Norah Jones- Shoot the Moon
This song is as delicate as an old lady in an antique china shop, save for Norah's exceptionally clear and forward vocals. A large, expansive soundstage has soft brushed drum notes, soft piano and guitar notes, and textured guitar plucks.
Immediately, the introductory guitar strums image left and right beautifully, with tasteful and articulate presentation. Norah's voice jumps right out at you, and the drums softly pulse center stage. You can hear the brush strokes against the drum surface, and the cymbal crash glows with every dainty strike. Piano notes are warm and full of life, and the sound just envelops you sweetly. The midrange performance here is something to behold.
Amy Winehouse- Moody's Mood For Love
Oh Amy. This song features massively bold bass lines, which blend harmoniously with a left side placed wailing sax, Amy's vocals crisp as a bag of chips freshly opened, an echoing clap and soft kkkkkkrak sweeps off to the right, alongside a soft guitar line on your right side.
These headphones once again show off their tight, composed bass, which bursts forward, but is somehow spacious but fat. Amy's vocals just sound sublime, dead center, with that echoing clap off in the center distance. That wooden kkkkkrak sweep softly kisses in and out, off to the upper right.
The song ends all too soon, with that powerful bass note lingering on just vibrating...
Pink Floyd- Breathe (SACD)
My favorite Pink Floyd song of all time. "Breathe" starts with a deep, powerful chopper intro, singing guitar line off to the right with tasteful reverb, a mellow yowl guitar line center stage, articulate cymbal taps, clear percussion lines, and an overall warmth and breadth. Vocals are not as forward as other songs, with a slightly "v" sound to them, as in the mids being a touch claustrophobic compared to vocals from other tracks.
The 680's start off the powerful intro with a tight, focused well of bass, right up until the crash into the soft, percussive expression of guitars and drums, wide sound staging, and warm overall presentation. There's not much to be said here: these headphones perform this song on par with some of the best electrostatic sources that I've heard. Cymbals are just gorgeously textured, and that organ wails like it's no one's business.
Eagles- Hotel California
We end our song selections with a bonafide classic of rock music. Featuring an exquisitely textured lead guitar introduction, wide sound effects that pan, that panning tri-cymbal hit that goes right-left-right, that deep double kick on the right, before the tight percussion, double short strum behind the forward, clear vocals, and warm but articulate fill guitar.
These headphones are dramatic. Like ex-girlfriend finding a picture of you with a new girl on your Facebook dramatic. This song just comes alive, with the guitars revealing the rub of the fingers on the strings, the vocals neither too forward nor too back, allowing the deep melody and dynamics to share equal footing. Nothing is overpowered; every instrument feels like it is right at home in the soundstage.
The chorus hits, and that distorted guitar hits those two high notes with such an effortless presentation that you just crack a smile. There is no harsh, sibilant treble here; the treble is perfection. The three hits to the toms and drums after the chorus come through deep and expansive, powerful and tight. Then the guitar solo kicks in and the guitar just talks with that analog, creamy, pleasing overgain, and the tom drums, acute high hat right on your right ear drum, and fill guitars just balance like a ballerina performing her final act. The guitars really talk to you, telling you every little vibration that makes them come alive. The drums oppose the lead guitar for those double hits on the cymbals and snares while the guitar hits those tri-notes over and over, neither one wanting to overpower the other.
While the bass is lacking in sheer decibel value compared to other headphones, it makes up for this in spades with absolutely rock solid and tight representation. This bass is nowhere near sloppy; it's so composed and expressive that you find yourself only wishing for more, simply because of how good it is.
Midrange is sublime on these cans, being their strongest point. The articulation of the midrange, which is forward when told to be, but laid back and subtle when one needs to perform surgery with a scalpel, not a chainsaw, is just breathtaking. The only mar on this would be that the vocals are a little skinny, because they lack the warmth embellishment of many other cans that fatten the vocals. These headphones are the Audi R10 race car of the headphone world: clinical, scientific, and engineering over the warmth, sumptuous dramatics of the Ferrari's.
As you have probably concluded, this is my one sticking point with these cans. On songs where treble is pushed, and most headphones express said push sweetly, these headphones reveal the harshness. However, this is not a weakness per se; the treble is technically accurate, so you'd have to use an EQ to dial it back to where you'd like it to be. However, on tracks where the mastering is rock solid and the highs are slightly tapered, the treble practically sings.
I am receiving a set of Bowers and Wilkins P7's in a few hours, so stay tuned for an in depth review of those when I get them!
C.F.O. and Audio/Visual Artist
Edited by CapturedSociety - 3/27/14 at 11:50pm