Audiophile quality IEMs in India

I have been a fan of Ultimate Ears since 2007, when I read positive reviews of the brand on Head-Fi, where  the audiophiles of the world congregate to share their passion. Ultimate Ears specialises in creating IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) a type of earphone which is inserted into the ear canal. I like IEMs because they are light and easy to wear, drive MP3 players efficiently, allowing you to listen at lower volumes, and offer passive noise-cancelling (the silicone 'tips' seal the ear canal and cut out ambient noise, negating the need for an expensive battery operated active noise cancelling module).

The history of Ultimate Ears makes for fascinating reading. The company was founded by Jerry Harvey, who was audio engineer for Van Halen. After developing IEMs for Alex Van Halen, and getting his resounding approval, Harvey and his wife Mindy, saw a business opportunity. Initially, Ultimate Ears manufactured custom monitors which were worn onstage by the world's biggest musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Enrique Iglesias and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Founded like the best entrepreneurial ventures on passion, struggle and guts, UE survived and thrived. In 2005, the company rolled out its first 'Universal Fit' IEM; the Super.fi 5 Pro, and then created a whole range of audiophile IEMs targeting the consumer market.

In 2008, Ultimate Ears was acquired by Logitech, who brought the UE range to India last year. The range has regular IEMs as well as IEMs with microphone (the models tagged with vi), which double up as handsfree devices for use with your cellphone. Logitech will not be launching their customs (made to order) range in India in the recent future. What is currently available are the 'universal fit' IEMs, under three different ranges;

1) MetroFi 

This is is the entry range for UE products. There are 3 variants, 100, 170 and 200, priced between Rs. 2000 and Rs. 6500. You could get them for less if you buy abroad; Amazon is currently stocking the Metro.Fi 200 for just $39.

All 3 variants get good reviews for sound quality; clarity in reproduction and decent bass. If you step up from the stock earbuds provided with your iPod, you will be impressed with the difference. Obviously, the more you spend, the better the sound gets.The 170 and 200 get a vote over brands like Sennheisser, VModa and even lower end Shure earphones. The users of 100 report some 'cable noise' (microphonics) which is caused by the cable brushing against your clothes. The upper end models have rubber instead of fabric cord, which eliminates this noise.

What you might have to watch out for with this range is durability. IEMs are delicate. I always use the hard case provided by UE to store my 'phones.



 (Image of Metro.Fi 170)

2) Super.Fi

The Super.Fi range is the entry audiophile range of Ultimate Ears. It features models under Super.Fi 3, 4 and 5. To simplify this confusion, I suggest that if you want to spend this much on a 'phone, go straight for the top-end of the Super.Fi Range. The Super.Fi Pro is not available in India. However, The Super.Fi 5 is a great, fun earphone with a good reputation in the audiophile community,and a comfortable fit in the ear. I put the Super.Fi 5 on my 'buy' list after reading Martin Sagmuller's review on ABI.

Do note that only the Super.Fi 5 Pro has two drivers (speaker) per ear to deal separately with treble and bass. This creates a more detailed and nuanced sound. The rest of the earphones in this range have single armature drivers.

In India, the Super.Fi 5 vi (with inline mic) is available for Rs. 9000 at the Logitech Store on The IT Depot

(image of Super.Fi 5vi)

3) Triple.Fi 10 Pro
The top of the line and highly acclaimed Triple.Fo 10 Pro has arguably been one of the best Universal IEMs around since the past 3 years. Hotly contesting for the position with the equally popular Shure E530, the Trips have held their own and have a huge fan base in the audiophile community. As the name suggests, the Triples have 3 dedicated drivers per ear for low, mid and high sound frequencies. There is some argument I have read about how they are not true-triple drivers (And I can't find the link) but forget about that. What ought to interest you is the sound and having owned the Trips for 3 years, I can testify that it is SUPERB. But don't take my word for it, read the review summaries across sites at ZDNet. If you have the time and inclination, read the Triple Fi Appreciation Thread at Head-Fi, which is 212 pages currently; it has several audiophile reviews and a lot of user comparisons with other IEMs.

Maybe those reviews will make the MRP of Rs. 23,000 a little sweeter. No? Well, you have to be not just an audiophile but also slightly mad (or so rich that you don't care) to spend that much on headphones. I bought the Triple Fi's when I could not afford the price tag (came to Rs. 19000 on my credit card) at Jaben, Singapore. My budget was for the lower priced Super.Fi 5 IEMs. But I heard these, and I was just blown away. For me, that is what being a geek is about. To be able to compare specs, prices etc. is fine, but at the end of the day,buying what you love and crave for, is what counts.

Insist on trying before buying any IEM. Carry your MP3 player and your current headphones with you so that you can really sense the difference. IEMs will sound terrible and tinny without a proper seal in the ear. So make sure that you get a proper fit which does not loosen up when you walk around. You can test UE IEMs at any Croma or Staples outlet.

Currently UE sells through stockists in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Chennai and Delhi/Gurgaon. You can also order  online through IT Depot.

(Price, model availability and retailer information in this post have been obtained from Logitech India)

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