A common complaint about the iPhone is that it has no physical buttons for playback control; you’re forced to use the phone’s touchscreen, which presents challenges when carrying the iPhone in a bag or pocket. Another complaint is that the iPhone’s recessed headphone jack prevents you from using many third-party headphones that offer better performance than the stock earbuds.
Apple provides a workaround for the first issue via the special earbuds included with the iPhone: the right-hand cable provides a small, inline module that includes a microphone and a control module. Squeeze the module once to pause or resume iPod playback, or to answer or end a call; squeeze it twice in succession to skip to the next track. The functionality is limited — you can’t skip back, skim, or perform any other action, but it’s a welcome way to get at least some degree of playback and call control.
Third-party vendors have provided workarounds for the second issue through small adapters that let you connect other headphones to the iPhone’s headphone jack. (We’ve reviewed two, and we have a few more to cover.) Unfortunately, when you use most third-party headphones, you lose the stock earbuds’ control module and microphone. Shure makes an adapter that includes such functionality, but it’s $40 and somewhat bulky.
For those who want better audio quality without losing the additional features of Apple’s earbuds, an appealing alternative is provided by Ultimate Buds. The company takes a set of quality in-ear-canal headphones — either the Etymotics ER-6i (MSRP $149) or the Future Sonics/XtremeMac FS1 (MSRP $150) — and a set of Apple’s iPhone earbuds, and then performs electronics surgery, grafting the iPhone-headset’s cable and controller onto the in-ear-canal headphones. The result is the Ultimate Buds UB7 (pictured above) or UB7EB, each $150 (at the time of this writing, the UB7EB is on sale for $120). You get the sound quality and noise isolation of the ER-6i (UB7) or FS1 (UB7EB) with the playback-control and phone-making convenience of Apple’s own iPhone earbuds. (Ultimate Buds will instead modify your favorite set of headphones for $40; we didn’t test this service.)
Despite the “hackiness” of the concept, I was impressed by both models. The cables look like they were originally made for the headphones, and after straining the connections between the earpieces and cables by repeatedly pulling and yanking, both models continued to work well. In terms of microphone performance, other participants in phone conversations couldn’t tell the difference between a stock set of iPhone earbuds and the Ultimate Buds. (This is to be expected, given that both use the same microphone and circuitry, but I tested it to be sure that the conversion didn’t affect performance.)
As for sound quality, the iPhone-cable-equipped ER-6i or FS1 sound just as good as the unmodified models of each. We’ve published mini reviews of the originals, so I won’t get into the topic too much here. Suffice it to say that both headphones are very good products for their ~$100 street prices. Those looking for a fairly neutral presentation, and don’t mind a lack of prominent bass response, will likely prefer the ER-6i; those who want a warmer sound with strong bass should opt for the FS1 (hence the EB designation — for extra bass — for the FS1-based Ultimate Buds model).
On the other hand, there are a few things to keep in mind about both Ultimate Buds products. First, because the company is disassembling the headphones, the original 1-year manufacturer warranties are void. In their place, Ultimate Buds provides its own 90-day warranty. Second, we noted in our primer on in-ear-canal headphones that most headphones of this type suffer, to some degree, from the occlusion effect, a phenomenon where your voice and other bodily noises — breathing, coughing, eating, etc. — seem louder or unnatural while wearing canalphones. This is indeed the case here — using in-ear-canal headphones as a phone headset is an odd experience. (Your voice sounds normal to people on the other end of your phone conversations, and their voices sound normal to you; it’s only hearing your own voice that sounds strange.)
That said, most people will get used to this phenomenon after a while. And even if they don’t, many people in the market for a set of stereo headphones with headset functionality will spend much more time listening to music than talking on the phone, and my guess is that the advantages of good canalphones over the iPhone’s stock earbuds — in terms of both sound quality and noise isolation — and the ability to take a call without removing those headphones will be an acceptable tradeoff. If you’re a fan of the ER-6i or FS1, Ultimate Buds’ versions are attractive accessories for your iPhone.–Dan Frakes