Mini-review: Super.fi 3 Studio (with photos)
Jul 20, 2005 at 12:18 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 18

Omega

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Several people have requested that I post a mini-review and photos of the new Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 Studio, since I seem to be one of the few who has purchased a pair. Mine are the clear version, from Guitar Center. Price was $99. The clerk said they were on sale this week, but I wouldn't be surprised if $99 turns out to be regular price. The included manual depicts a lilght gray version with black tips, so I imagine that model will be available too.

When it comes to matters of taste (such as audio preferences), I've found that objectivity is bunk
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. I'm biased, of course, but I'll try to admit my biases here so you can interpret where I'm coming from and hopefully draw useful conclusions. I wrote this review after owning the SF3's for about 48 hours, though I have had them playing continually on a break-in cycle during that time. Sound DID improve with some burn-in. In listening, I frequently switched to my other 'phones to see what I was missing/gaining.

Biases:
My priorities in canalphones are (in descending order of importance): engaging sound, portability, comfort, price, isolation. Secondary preferences are: warranty, lack of microphonics, appropriate impedance/efficiency and then "small stuff." I'll throw in comparisons to other 'phones which I'm familiar with (Etymotic ER-4P, Sony MDR-V6/7506, Grado SR-60, Sennheiser PX-100), so that you all can have some kind of absolute reference to what I'm describing.

To me, the whole point of headphones is to give a high-quality PERSONAL audio experience. To that end, I want them to be primarily fun and engaging. I put on headphones to rock out while I'm commuting, or drown out background while I work, or to zone out when I need some peace and serenity...but I seldom use them to critique audio material or watch movies. Isolation is a big positive, and keeping my sound to myself is also positive.

I have pretty wide taste in music--in listening to the SF3's I played through many albums: Frou Frou - Details; Jeff Buckley - Grace; Goo Goo Dolls - Gutterflower; The Arcade Fire - Funeral; Dr. Dre - The Chronic; The Killers - Hot Fuss; Yo Yo Ma - Obrigado Brazil; Vienna S.O. - Mozart's Requiem; Common - Be; NIN - The Fragile; Diana Krall - The Girl in the Other Room; Radiohead - Hail to the Thief; John Mayer - Heavier Things. I like clever beats and beautiful vocals
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. Again, I didn't nitpick over certain passages, I just put music on and let go.

I bought these with the intention of using them as a portable solution...so no amplification, no fancy sources. Most of the listening for this review used a 2nd Gen Ipod Mini as the source, but I also listened straight out of a Creative Soundblaster soundcard at work, and my full-sized Harman Kardon at home. Sure, everything sounds best on the HK, but I can't put that in my pocket. Never used any EQ. My source material was original CDs or 192k+ MP3 (usually ripped w/EAC, encoded using LAME). Again, not perfect, but this is for portability, folks.

Yes, I know how to recognize a good seal when using canalphones.

1= horrible
5=average
10=perfect

Packaging and Fit/Finish: 9/10
The packaging for the Super.Fi 3 Studios (SF3) is great. They come with a pleather carrying case that is just the right size and volume to carry the 'phones and a spare pair of tips. A cleaning tool and manual are also included. The standard array of tips is included too: small/medium/large single flange silicone, medium foamie, and medium bi-flange. The apparent quality of the product is very good. Wires are nice and thin, without being very microphonic. Cord length is good; I can put a portable in my pocket and not have it yank the 'phones out when I turn my head (I'm pretty tall).

Soundstage: 6/10
The intimacy of canalphones is enjoyable, even if there is a a sacrifice in ability to correctly localize a true soundstage (I never go to a concert and sit amongs the musicians
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). The SF3's present a more expansive soundstage than the ER-4's, and actually, even outperform the non-canal V6's (not that it was much of a trial). Like all canalphones (and decent headphone), there is a good absence of crosstalk. Still, they totally fail to present an array of instruments/singers in front of me. I can't distinguish space among the instruments, no do I get a sense that the artists are just there playing...it is obvious that the sound is coming from the gadgets in my ears.

Spectrum Fidelity: 3.5/10
The SF3's are most deficient in this area, to my ears. They totally fail to reproduce deep bass notes, whimping out with a weak thwap. Upright sting bass sound is horrible...which pretty much ruins a jazz album. Bass guitar has no growl, no texture, which pretty much elminates the fun from lots of rock. I'm no basshead, but this kind of deficiency actually draws me out of the music when I know there should be real bass instead of a whimper. Similarly, they roll off the high end...and the resulting sound is akin to listening to the world through a tube. This high-end deficiency wasn't immediately apparent, until comparison with the V6's or ER-4's. The V6's are too bright on the high end, but the ER-4's get it just about right...and switching among these phones and the SF3, I just can't accept such a deficiency. I have no measurement data, but I wouldn't be surprised if the SF3's boost upper mid frequencies to compensate for a real high end. The SF3's are a single armature design, which I'm sure is a compromise made to hit the pricepoint, and I laud UE for trying to do so, but for $40, the PX-100's give a much more engrossing audio experience simply becuase they don't obviously drop so much of the frequency spectrum.

Portability and Comfort: 8.5/10
It is obvious that UE got some quality input in order to achieve good portability on the SF3's. The cord is thin and appears durable, but doesn't really suffer from microphonics. The cord is a good length so I can stow my Ipod mini in my pocket and forget its there. The large silicone tips work best for me achieving a seal, but I find they're just slightly too large comfort-wise. After a couple hours of listening, my ear canals are ready for a break. The SF3's are MUCH more comfortable to me than the ER-4's. They don't need to be inserted as far to get a good seal, and I found getting a seal was much easier than with the ER-4's. Also, it is worth mentioning that the impedance is only 13 ohms, and the sensitivity is 115 db/mW...which bears out on the fact that I can run the SF3's at about half the volume as other 'phones and still get good volume. There is a memory wire for about 2 inches where the wire runs into the drivers. I don't particularly like the memory wire, but it looks pretty easy to remove or bend into a non-annoying position. If the SF3's didn't hurt my ears after 2+ hours of listening, I'd give full marks here.

Impact: 3/10
My reference for impact is the excellent Grado line, and these phones fall notably short of the fun, rockin' Grado sound. In hindsight, after a few hours of listening, I'm rating impact relative to how much I found myself head-bopping and toe-tapping. The ER-4P's involve me with detail, the V6's involve me with their studio sound (nice bass, good detail), the PX-100's involve me with their flabby but not unpleasant presentation (ie, sloppy kiss), and the SR-60's involve me with each vocal attack or guitar riff. The SF3's just don't get me in the music. I like the immediacy of the sound, due to the inner ear design, but that's all.

Resolution: 2.5/10
Guitar notes blur together and I have a hard time finding strum/pick attacks. The thwappy bass smears into the midrange. Cymbals sound horrible, with no space. The SF3's do seem to make an attempt at getting some kind of decay, but it is overshadowed by the bigger deficiencies. Putting on ER-4P's after using the SF3's is (sonically) like taking cotton balls out of my ears. Where the ER-4P's are revealing, the SF3's actually obscure details that I would expect a decent set of headphones to present. I can't even describe the feeling of "airiness" becuase things just blend together. I realize I'm relatively demanding of good resolution from my headphones, but with several great alternatives out there, there's no good reason to compromise.

Personal tilt: 7/10
I really want to like the SF3's. They look good, they're packaged nicely, come from a company that should know hi-fi sound, and it would be really cool to see a great canalphone at this price point. They're obviously designed to work with a portable source.

Overall: 4/10
I haven't spent any time with the other headphones at this price point (Shure E2c, Etymotic ER-6/6i), so if my review seems harsh, recognize that I gave an absolute rating to my ears, not a price-adjusted rating. The SF3's may very well be the best choice at the price point, depending upon your criteria. But I found the SF3's missing the mark in my most important categories--the sound is lacking impact and resolution. The most straightforward judgment I can give is this--I don't particularly like the PX-100 (sounds boxy and sloppy to me), but for portable listening, I would still choose the PX-100 over the SF3 for a on-the-go solution...despite the sacrifices in portability (less isolation, an actual headband to get in the way), their sound is acceptable, while the sound of the SF3 is sufficiently lacking that I don't get into the music nearly so much.

A couple photos:

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Jul 20, 2005 at 12:33 AM Post #3 of 18

Omega

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You're very welcome, glad someone actually read it
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. I haven't heard the Super.Fi 5 Pro's but I'd imagine that the dual armature would go a long way towards rectifying the problems I have with the SF3's.
 
Jul 20, 2005 at 1:19 AM Post #5 of 18

BRBJackson

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Well thought out and executed review, Omega. I'm suprised at the results you got, though, and can only suggest that you give your ear canals a solid week to come to terms with the shape and size of the eartips. I find them much more sensitive to slight placement variations than the flanges I've used on my E3's and old ER4P's. Anyway, the sonic characteristics you describe seem somewhat consistent with positioning issues and seal. Not suggesting you did anything wrong at all, just that the Super.fi tips appear to be a different beast than what you (and I) are used to.
 
Jul 20, 2005 at 1:56 AM Post #6 of 18

warpdriver

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Now that was a great review....I can almost imagine how they sound.

If that was a mini-review, your maxi ones must read like a small novel.
 
Jul 20, 2005 at 2:02 AM Post #7 of 18

James63

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Thanks for the review............ I was hoping they would sound better though. Oh well I guess that is what you get for $100 bucks.
 
Jul 21, 2005 at 7:09 PM Post #8 of 18

Omega

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Quote:

Originally Posted by BRBJackson
Well thought out and executed review, Omega. I'm suprised at the results you got, though, and can only suggest that you give your ear canals a solid week to come to terms with the shape and size of the eartips. I find them much more sensitive to slight placement variations than the flanges I've used on my E3's and old ER4P's. Anyway, the sonic characteristics you describe seem somewhat consistent with positioning issues and seal. Not suggesting you did anything wrong at all, just that the Super.fi tips appear to be a different beast than what you (and I) are used to.



Thanks. I appreciate the comments on ear shape/tip placement...it is very possible that more tweaking could have given me a sound I liked better...but in the end, I don't really want to be spending time tweaking placement when I could just slap on a pair of <something> and enjoy the music. Also, to be fair, I only had them for a short time and burn-in/acclimation wasn't probably ideal (I've since given them to a friend). I guess I'm finding that despite the great benefits for portability, canalphones just might not be able to provide the flavor of performance I seek for <$200.
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Ah well, an enjoyable experiment
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Aug 4, 2005 at 1:16 PM Post #10 of 18

kin0kin

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u know what, I love how you point out the deficiency of the phone directly without trying to be as "neutral" as possible till it doesnt convey anything, I've read some reviews that do that and I have no idea how "badly" things go...and how "well" things sound. good job there. it leads me to believe that it is just an average phone in an IEM form. What do you think it sounds closely to (a full size can)? regardless of different experience in canal phone vs headphone/isolation...whatsoever...just the resemblance of the sound quality(signature).
 
Aug 6, 2005 at 4:08 PM Post #14 of 18

albau

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Omega, excelent review in all substance, approach and style! That's how I should've written my review of super.fi 5 pros
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Quote:

Originally Posted by joelongwood
Nice review, Omega.......thank you!
Your impressions lead me to believe these new, less expensive Super.Fis are nothing like the Super.Fi5 Pros.
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Actually for most non audio (comfort, etc.) points Omega's observations can be directly applied to 5pros.

There's also Omega's dissapointnent with what he callss "Spectrum Fidelity" which I understood mostly as perceived lack of bass texture. I can relate this to some extent to 5pros as well. Though 5pros have a very strong bass there's also a tendency where I have hard time recognizing what kind of instrument producing it. That especially, as Omega also noted, applies to jazz records. With supposedly bass shy K-501 and even E4c I can always recognize whether it's a bass tube, contrabass or a bass guitar and hear string attack. On 5pros too many times it's just a very enegrgetic "boom-boom" with everything lumped together
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Here's how I would rate 5pros in Omega's categories:

Soundstage: 8/10
Not K-501 but really magnificent especially compared to closed phones and other canals I've heard (ER-4, E3/4c). Sound envelopes head instead of coming from some narrow spot within.

Spectrum Fidelity: 6/10
As I said lots of bass but it's not always a "good" nuanced and detailed bass.

Resolution: 3-7/10
Ok, here I have to put a range. 5pors are very inconsistent. On some type of music/recordings they tend to lump everyting all together exactly like Omega describes. This happens mostly with complicated and massive uptempo symphonic music (e.g. Mahler), Bach organ fugas or even something like Merilin Manson and thrash metal when there's a lot of things going on at once at fast pace and in full spectrum. On the other hand 5pros could sound wonderfully detailed and airy with excelelnt 3D instrument separation with something slower but no less complex like most of chamber music, jazz, blues, King Crimson, Pink Floyd. How track was recorded is very important here.

Impact: 8/10
To me 5pors for portable and uncritical type of listening are very engaging and "tip-toeing" phones though their sound signature is less Grados and more Senn but withgout "laid back" aspect of latter.
 
Aug 7, 2005 at 10:06 AM Post #15 of 18

shoeseal

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Hi Albau,

excellent sequel to what omega has started on 3 pros. Since you mentioned how 5 pro lacks in distinguishing what produces the bass, compared to E4Cs, I was wandering can you do a more extensive comparison of both of these (super fi. pros vs E4C, in terms of Omega's categories ?

Thanks,
-- sushil
 

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