German headphone maker Ultrasone’s HFI-580s block out noise without plugging up your ear canals or using active cancellation circuitry. The S-Logic “natural surround” technology and radiation shielding may seem gimmicky, but these great-sounding cans give our trusty Sennheiser HD280 Pro’s a serious run for their money. To our ears, they’re best suited for applications where sonic accuracy is key; though we’d have virtually no qualms about recommending them for casual as well as critical listening.
Features and Design
The HFI-580s are full-size headphones that go all the way around your ears. The earcups are fairly large and have foam leatherette earpads that are a little on the firm side. Unlike some other Ultrasone models, these are pretty hip-looking, with a matte black finish and silver accents on the 170-degree-swiveling earcups.
A 10.5-foot cable is attached to the left earcup via a flexible rubber connector, and both earcups swivel about 60 degrees horizontally and about 170 degrees vertically, enbling single-ear listening (mostly for DJs). A third hinge allows the earcups to fold up into the headband, making a fairly small lump in a bag or briefcase.
Ultrasone includes a soft fabric carrying bag, a screw-on 1/4-inch adapter, and a demo CD of very well-recorded musical selections.
Comfort and Noise Blocking
The HFI-580s block slightly less noise than the Sennheiser HD280 Pro, partly because the pads are harder and don’t create as good a seal around your ears. Ultrasone claims they reduce noise by about 10dB, which seems in line with our tests. They took the edge off of loud trucks and planes, and with music playing at a comfortable volume nearby voices disappeared. The padding under the headband is also a bit stiff, and we felt like the entire half-pound-plus weight of the headphones was resting on the crown of our head.
Image Courtesy of Ultrasone
According to Ultrasone, these headphones are ideally suited for bass players and drummers; we find them better suited to horn players, guitarists and vocalists, given their exceptional mids and highs. When we put on our drummer/bassist hat, we find the bass extension slightly lacking compared with that of the Sennheiser HD280 Pros, which lessens the impact of extremely low sounds like large drums, organ bass pedals, and deep electronic tones.
Music on the HFI580s is very tight and punchy but not harsh. The soundstage is wider than the Sennheisers’ but far less spacious sound than with open-backed reference headphones like the AKG K 701. The S-Logic “natural” surround technology — Ultrasone’s name for the way they position the drivers in relation to the average human ear — subtly changes the tonal balance to give the impression of a livelier sound. It’s not drastic, but it definitely helps combat the boxed-in feeling of closed cans.
Reggae and dub tracks by Bob Marley and King Tubby sound beefy on the HFI580s, though this is one genre — along with electronica like Aphex Twin — where we missed the Sennheisers’ deeper bass. Acoustic jazz from the likes of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday sound stellar, with lively cymbals, up-front horns and vocals, and very tight acoustic bass. Rock with layered guitars (Zeppelin, R.E.M., the Stones, and the Killers) had plenty of detail and sounded very clean, even when the musicians weren’t.
While most of our test files were in Apple Lossless format, we gave some 192Kbps MP3s a shot, too: Ron Banks and the Dramatics’ classic soul album Dramatically Yours sounded The headphones’ ability to reveal compression didn’t detract too much from the listening experience, as sometimes happens with ‘phones that emphasize treble. And these 32-ohm cans are even easier for portables to drive than the HD280 Pros.
Ultrasone’s MU metal bufferboard shields your brain from the drivers’ electromagnetic radiation (which is minimal but still measurable). Here in New York City, we’re far more concerned with all of the other poisons that fill the air, but health nuts may get some peace of mind. The company also claims the driver positioning results in a 3-4dB decrease in sound pressure level inside the earcup without actually changing the loudness, making for safer listening.
The Ultrasone HFI-580’s are impressively accurate-sounding for closed-backed headphones. We like the streamlined design compared with the bulkier Sennheiser HD280 Pros, though the latter are more comfortable. We can’t help but wish for a little more low bass power and a coiled telephone-style cord, but we highly recommend the HFI580s if you need very fine detailed mids, upper bass, and highs.
• Very lively, wide sound
• Attractive and health-conscious design
• Well-suited to critical listening and monitoring
• Earcups fold up into headband
• Extreme deep bass could use some extra power
• Headband padding is too hard
• Cable is very long but not coiled