Polk UltraFocus 8000 Review

Good engineering, excellent build quality, and superior sonic performance makes [the UltraFocus 8000] a better alternative to the noise-cancelling models from Beats or even our beloved Audio-Technica.
Good engineering, excellent build quality, and superior sonic performance makes [the UltraFocus 8000] a better alternative to the noise-cancelling models from Beats or even our beloved Audio-Technica.
Good engineering, excellent build quality, and superior sonic performance makes [the UltraFocus 8000] a better alternative to the noise-cancelling models from Beats or even our beloved Audio-Technica.

Highs

  • Remarkably comfortable
  • Solid construction and engineering
  • Clean midrange with good detail retrieval and soundstage depth
  • Excellent travel case and collection of accessories

Lows

  • If the battery dies, so does the music
  • Poor noise isolation, average noise cancelling
  • Expensive
  • Bass is taut but not necessarily meaty

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.

polk ultrafocus 8000 active noise canceling headphones padded on ear passive isolation technology

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.

Features

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 ultrafocus 8000 active noise canceling headphones driver on ear apple microphone audio control buttons

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.

Setup

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.

Performance

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.

polk ultrafocus 8000 active noise canceling headphones perfect fit headband

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.

The UltraFocus 8000 do a decent job with noise cancellation, but we were slightly disappointed by their passive noise isolation performance. Noise-cancelling is rarely useful for blocking out anything but long, droning sound (like road noise, engine noise, etc). To knock out noise like the bustle of an office or crowded coffee shop, we must rely on good noise isolation – that natural blocking of noise that comes with sealing off the ears. When we took the UltraFocus 8000 with us to our local Starbucks at 8 am on a busy weekday, they were only moderately successful at blocking out the din of the morning.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Highs:

  • 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

Lows:

  • 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
  • Expensive
  • Bass is taut but not necessarily meaty enough with some music
Home Theater

GoPro changed how we watch. Now Jabra wants to change how we listen

Jabra and Red Bull spent two years developing the perfect action microphone, aiming to capture the sounds of athletes without wind or background noise. Here’s how the game-changing tech works, and where you’ll hear it in the future.
Home Theater

The best noise-canceling headphones paint your music on a cleaner canvas

Drowning out the sound of babies, jet engines, and the outside world isn't as hard as it seems. Here are the best noise-canceling headphones, whether you're concerned with style, comfort, or sound.
Home Theater

Lynxsonic’s 4:33 headphones offer premium features at a not-so-premium price

If you're looking for a set of wireless headphones that has a similar feature set to Bose's QuietComfort 35 but with a lower price, the Lynxsonic 4:33 is an intriguing new contender on Kickstarter.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Movies & TV

The best new movie trailers: ‘Curse of La Llorona,’ ‘Jonathan,’ and more

Everyone loves a good trailer, but keeping up with what's new isn't easy. To simplify things, we round up the best ones each week. On tap this week: New trailers for The Curse of La Llarona, The Kid Who Would Be King, and more.
Home Theater

Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

Not all that long ago, budget TVs were only worth looking at if, well, you were on a budget. Thanks to Roku, not only are budget TVs now a viable option for anyone, but they might even be a better buy than more expensive TVs.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I.-powered cat toys, wallets, food containers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (October 2018)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Movies & TV

Best new shows and movies to stream: ‘Apostle,’ ‘Daredevil’ season 3, and more

Need something to watch this weekend? Check out our list of the best new shows and movies to stream right now. On the list this week: Apostle, Daredevil season 3, Making A Murderer season 2, and more.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Home Theater

Google offers a week of free credit after YouTube TV outage, but not for long

Earlier this month, YouTube TV went down for users all around the world, and to make up for it, Google is offering affected users a week of free service. But if you want to grab the credit, you need to act quickly.
Home Theater

How to crack the code and find the best TV resolution for your needs

720p? 1080p? 4K UHD? What does it all mean? Choosing the best resolution for your TV can be tough, but fear not: We’ll break down the dirty details and help you figure out the right resolution for you.
Home Theater

Six sensational subwoofers that will shake any room on any budget

Whether you're a film buff or a music junkie, sometimes you just need to go lower. Luckily, we've put together a guide to the best subwoofers, so you can feel your favorite movies instead of just hearing them.
Movies & TV

‘Iron Fist,’ ‘Luke Cage’ cancellations by Netflix spark serious questions

The cancellation of Marvel's Iron Fist and Luke Cage solo series on Netflix has sparked no shortage of questions, rumors regarding new team-up projects, and concerns about the future of the remaining series in the two companies'…