- Good bass response
- Non-fatiguing for long-term use
- Possibly safer for your ears than traditional headphones
- S-Logic technology provides more “outside your head” audio than traditional headphones
- Bulky compared to other portable headphones
- Uncomfortable headband
- Midrange sounds recessed/muffled
- Apparent risk of breaking headphones if you don’t follow folding instructions
- Expensive compared to headphones offering similar (or better) sound quality
Ultrasone’s products have been popular among headphone enthusiasts for a while now, but most of the company’s models have taken the traditional “audio geek” approach to headphone design: big, bulky, and black. Which translates, rightly or wrongly, to “not something a typical iPod owner (or other portable user) will likely look to for their next headphone upgrade.” With the iCans, Ultrasone has taken a very different approach: A (relatively) compact model designed specifically for portable use—and with a design that was obviously inspired by the iPod.
That’s not to say the iCans are small. The chrome-looking earpieces are large by portable headphone standards at nearly 2.5 inches in diameter. But the iCans—“cans” is audio geek-speak for “headphones,” by the way, hence the name—fold up into a fairly compact package for travel, taking up not much more space than Sennheiser’s excellent PX 100. (A metal foam-lined case is included, but at 5.75 by 3.75 by 2 inches, the case is fairly large for storing in your backpack or laptop bag.) And the gray plastic headband and thin white cables are significantly smaller (and lighter) than those of the company’s full-size products.
But what makes the iCans interesting—and unique from other headphones—isn’t their iPod-matching design, but the unique technologies Ultrasone has used in making them. The most significant is the company’s “S-Logic Natural Surround Sound,” which bounces audio off your outer ear surfaces and then into your ear canals, rather than projecting it directly into the canals—in theory, more closely representing the phenomenon of listening to music out loud. The technology indeed offers impressive stereo separation, avoiding the “blob in the middle of your head” syndrome common in headphones. However, it can also make certain music sound distant and muffled, especially in the midrange. I also found that on some tracks the S-Logic approach affected parts of the music that shouldn’t be spread out. For example, a jazz vocalist’s voice should appear in a very distinct location in the soundstage; the iCans at times presented such vocals as diffuse images. (In my experience, a better solution to this blob-in-your-head issue—though a more expensive one—is a “crossfeed” processor, available in portable headphone amplifiers such as those from HeadRoom.)
As for the rest of the audio spectrum, the iCans’ bass response is quite good for lightweight headphones, and detail is clear, if, at times, more distant-sounding than you might expect, thanks to the S-Logic technology.
Overall, the iCans’ audio presentation is perhaps best described as being different from what most people are accustomed to when listening to headphones. (After listening to the iCans for several hours, switching to traditional headphones is a fairly jarring experience.) I’m sure some people will prefer the iCans’ more diffuse, less in-your-head sound; I personally prefer the better midrange and up-front treble presence of good traditional headphones—a number of which are less expensive than the iCans. Bottom line: In terms of sound quality, if you’re considering the iCans, an extended audition is a must.
On the other hand, even if you’re not a huge fan of Ultrasone’s S-Logic sound, the technology has other benefits. Ultrasone claims that because the S-Logic approach better approximates the natural experiencing of listening out loud—and doesn’t send audio directly into your ear canal—the iCans are better for long-term listening. I indeed found that I could listen to the iCans for hours without much listening fatigue. (Physical comfort was another issue; see below.) And Ultrasone estimates that the S-Logic design provides the same “loudness sensation” as traditional headphones, but using as much as 40% lower output, thus possibly reducing the risk of long-term hearing damage. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t test this assertion, but I did find myself listening at lower volume levels with the iCans when compared to other headphones with similar impedances.
(One other unique feature of the iCans: For those concerned with electro-magnetic emissions in their gadgets, the iCans also feature Ultrasone’s Ultra Low Emission [ULE] technology, which uses metal shielding to reduce such emissions.)
The iCans’ comfort and folding design are also worth noting. Although the iCans’ large, fabric-covered earpads are quite comfortable, even during marathon listening sessions, and the weight of the iCans (just 82 grams) is more than light enough for portable use, I found the iCans’ plastic headband to be uncomfortable. Instead of a curved, padded design, such as the one used by the similarly foldable Sennheiser PX 100, the iCans headband is hard plastic and nearly flat across the top. Because of this design, during my testing the headband rested on a single point on the top of my head; I found myself frequently adjusting the iCans to a new position.
The iCans’ folding design is also a bit awkward to use. As with most headphones, the iCans’ earpieces slide up and down to better fit different head sizes. But you must remember to slide the earpieces back to their smallest setting (i.e., fully retracted) before you can rotate the earpieces flat for storage. (Conversely, you must rotate the earpieces out completely before trying to extend them to fit a larger head.) I emphasize must because Ultrasone includes similar exhortations—in a bright pink sticker on the outside of the box and in large, bold type at the top of the manual included inside the box—along with a note that the iCans’ “warranty does not cover any damage or breakage to the headphones when these instructions are not adhered to.” Which makes me wonder if such breakage is a common issue with the iCans.
Ultrasone’s iCans are a unique entry in the portable headphone market both in terms of their iPod-inspired design and, especially, their S-Logic technology. Although I didn’t find the S-Logic sound to be compelling, I can understand its appeal; I’m sure some people will enjoy it. And the other advantages of S-Logic—less listening fatigue and lower volumes than other headphones for similar listening levels—make the iCans worth considering even if you prefer the sound quality of those other headphones.
However, the iCans’ $129 price tag seems high when compared to highly-rated lightweight headphones such as the aforementioned $60 PX 100. And if you don’t ned something that packs up small, models such as Grado’s $69 SR 60 and Beyerdynamic’s $79 DT 231 offer better bang-for-your-buck in a non-folding design. I’d also like to see Ultrasone improve the comfort of the iCans’ headband, and tweak the design so that folding the earpieces isn’t such an apparently risky action.