Headphone manufacturers are a blessed lot. It’s rare that a product category experiences more than ten years of sustained growth but thanks to the folks at Apple, headphone manufacturers have experienced just that. The traditional brands such as Sennheiser, Grado, AKG, Shure, and Audio-Technica had it really easy for a very long time, but then came the new kids on the block – Beats by Dre, Skullcandy, Audeze, Etymotic, SOL Republic – and the category hasn’t been the same since.
With headphone sales on the rise, loudspeaker sales began to take a serious tumble. For traditional manufacturers like Polk Audio, which built its business on high-quality loudspeakers at a price that most folks could afford, the headphone explosion had to be a genuine wake-up call. Polk wasn’t alone in this reality; brands such as Klipsch, Paradigm, and PSB awakened to the bad news that the next generation of music buyers was sold on MP3s, smartphones, and portable audio.
To Polk’s credit, it embraced the rampaging reptile in the room rather than run from it in sheer terror. With its store at Baltimore-Washington International Airport doing a brisk business, Polk launched a new generation of headphones for hipsters, athletes, and commuters. If Beats by Dre could convince college students and the rest of the planet to shell out between $200-$400 for a pair of headphones, then why couldn’t one of the most respected loudspeaker brands do the same?
Need a great sounding pair of noise-cancelling headphones that are built like tanks and uber-comfortable? Meet the Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise-Cancelling headphones.
Out of the Box
The UltraFocus 8000 make a big impression when removed from their substantial packaging. Polk provides everything but the kitchen sink with its $350 active noise-cancelling headphones, including a padded carrying case, 55-inch headphone cable, airline adapter (-10dB), Skype plug adapter, Nokia plug adapter, 1/8-inch female to ¼-inch male adapter, two AAA batteries, a shirt clip, and a manual.
These headphones are finished in black, but it’s the carbon fiber inlay inside the headband that really makes them stick out in a twisted pile of overpriced transducers. The quality of the ear pads is first-rate, and the construction quality inspires confidence that you did not waste $350 on a fragile toy.
The supplied headphone cord is longer than average, and we like the fact that Polk utilized a flat cable design that doesn’t snag so easily.
At just 8.9 ounces, the UltraFocus 8000 are also remarkably lightweight. They look sturdy (which they are), but you never feel like you’re wearing a small animal on your head, a point which should make them popular with commuters.
Noise-cancelling headphones are designed to shut out the outside world so that you can focus on nothing but the music, but the trade-off with many designs is that the sound quality often suffers. Polk’s approach to noise cancelling utilizes audio algorithms to block out external noise along with its “Optimized Active Tuning” technology, which it incorporated into the design of the headphones’ 40mm dynamic balance drivers. The design of the drivers combined with the noise cancelling algorithm is said to provide up to 15dB of noise cancellation, up to 3kHz.
Polk has also broken with tradition and removed any control functions from the headphone cord; something that may irk smartphone users who have become used to the in-line mic. Instead, Polk has placed every control on the right ear cup, and while it won’t take users that long to remember what each control does, we doubt it will be perceived as intuitive. Still, we found the UltraFocus 8000 work really well with the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, offering the ability to play/pause tracks, shuffle backward and forward, and control the volume.
Finally, we applaud Polk’s decision to incorporate a push-to-talk button that doesn’t just reduce music volume so that you can hear someone who may be trying to talk to you, it cuts it off so that human voices are amplified. The days of struggling to lower the volume as your spouse screams at you to take out the trash are over with the UltraFocus 8000.
Using the UltraFocus 8000 was a rather easy proposition. After installing the supplied ‘AAA’ batteries and plugging the rather long headphone cable into the left earcup, we were ready to give the headphones a thorough work-out.
Some break-in time is necessary for getting the most out of these Polk headphones. Straight out of the box, we got them running for a few hours on a steady diet of Metallica, Rush, Smashing Pumpkins, and Kraftwerk before deciding to let the process continue for a few days.
From a comfort perspective, the UltraFocus 8000 are one of the most comfortable headphones we have ever worn and were surprisingly lightweight. This made them easy to carry and to wear for extended periods, even on our large head. The fancy looking headband with the carbon fiber inlay isn’t just for show; it has just enough tension to keep the headphones securely on your head without getting too tight.
The ear pads, which we found to be very comfortable, are heavily padded and form a decent seal around your ears. The overall fit and finish is very high, which helps justify some of the high associated cost.
The arrangement of the touch controls on the right ear cup can be a little confusing at first. Your fingers will eventually remember how many taps it takes to advance the track forward (two rapid taps at the 12 o’clock position) or that the touch control at 6 o’clock mutes the sound so that you can hear your spouse yelling at you. We grew to like the approach once we got used to it, but we expect most users will get a tad frustrated at first.
One of the benefits of active noise-cancelling circuitry is that it negates the need for an external headphone amplifier – something we can appreciate. However Polk made a big mistake when it chose a design that makes the headphones essentially useless once the battery runs out. On top of this posing a huge hassle for anyone that fails to pack spare batteries on long trips, it also means that the headphones can’t be used with external headphone amplifiers. That’s a shame, because we think a good headphone amp would unleash a sleeping beast in these cans.
Quite simply, they sound better than any noise cancelling headphones we’ve heard so far, and not by an insignificant margin.
Later, watching Dredd 3D in bed on our iPad 2 would turn out to be an amazing sonic experience, but the leakage from the ear cups awakened our wife who claimed that she could hear the sound in her sleep. So, if the noise-cancelling performance of the UltraFocus 8000 is only a mixed bag, why should you consider buying a pair for $350? Quite simply, they sound better than any noise-cancelling headphones we’ve heard so far, and not by an insignificant margin.
The first thing you notice about the UltraFocus 8000 is that they are extremely clean sounding in the midrange – transparent, punchy, and above average in the detail department. Both Nick Cave and Tom Russell came across with just enough growl to be utterly convincing.
Adele’s Oscar-winning “Skyfall” has been played to death at this point, but the massive orchestration that accompanies her can turn into a congealed mess with lesser headphones. The UltraFocus 8000 took this challenge in stride and reproduced the track with excellent transparency, and a relatively wide sounding soundstage. The orchestra didn’t collapse into a bowl of mush and instead came across with convincing space around the musicians and abundant detail.
The UltraFocus 8000 are supremely confident with all types of music and barely winced when we fed them a mix of Eric Dolphy, Andrew Bird, or R.L. Burnside. Dolphy’s bass clarinet had wonderful texture and notes hung in the air before naturally decaying into the background. Electronica such as Kraftwerk benefitted from the Polk’s taut bass and speed. If you like your music fast and hard, the UltraFocus 8000 will not disappoint.
The UltraFocus 8000 were also supremely satisfying while viewing films on our iPhone 5 or Google Nexus 7 tablet. Dialogue was clear and punchy, and the headphones did an excellent job recreating a stable stereo image.
While not inexpensive, there is a lot to like about the Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise-Cancelling headphones. Good engineering, excellent build quality, and superior sonic performance makes them a better alternative to the noise-cancelling models from Beats or even our beloved Audio-Technica. The headband provides a snug fit and the ear pads are comfortable enough for long listening sessions. Polk also supplies enough accessories for almost every possible listening scenario, and a beautiful padded case to protect your investment when you are not listening to them.
Where the UltraFocus 8000 stumble is on the noise-cancelling/ noise-isolation front, offering only average performance in that regard. The Polks are fine as long as you’re not trying to eliminate a lot of crowd noise. Also, the inability use the headphones passively (after the battery runs out) is a considerable oversight.
$350 is certainly not inexpensive for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, so we suggest trying them first if noise cancelling is one of your chief priorities. But, if sound quality trumps all, the Ultrafocus 8000 are one of the better sounding headphones we’ve heard below $400 and should be on your short list.
- Remarkably comfortable to wear for extended listening sessions
- Solid construction and well engineered
- Clean midrange with good detail retrieval and soundstage depth
- Excellent travel case and collection of accessories
- Can’t turn off the noise cancellation and run them as passive headphones
- Noise cancellation does good but not great job of tuning out the world
- Bass is taut but not necessarily meaty enough with some music