Things sure have changed for music-lovers in a big way over the last decade; I still remember balking at paying $50 for a pair of Sony earbuds not so long ago. Then the iPod ushered in the age of the portable MP3-player revolution, and things would never be the same — the earbud market exploded, and a wealth of hi-fi earbuds roared onto store walls.
The $200 Ultimate Ears 700s, with their phenomenal performance, compact, whisper-light profile and no-frills approach, could be considered the two-seater sports car in this mass of earbuds; right down to their lack of tolerance for abuse.
The two-seater sports car of earbuds: a blast to drive, easily maneuverable — and just as stripped-down and delicate.
Technologically, the 700s are a bit of a marvel: each tiny earbud packs two even tinier armatures in order to deliver a better-defined sound. And it works — highs are extremely vibrant without being harsh, mids are clear and bass is present, if not overly impressive. The 700s definitely made me realize how muffled many other earbuds sounded in comparison — music through these buds sounded alive, bright and highly textured; and the more complex the music, the more the 700s seem to shine. Just don’t expect any thump-thump here — on a few occasions, bassy music was able to overwhelm the tiny speakers with some slight vibration.
The 700s come with the standard three sets of ear cushions, and a pair of foam cushions (just like the ones Shure includes in their sets) that expand slowly after being squished; the latter tend to create a better seal in an ear canal. The cushions — the foam ones in particular — also do a decent job of blocking noise; nothing spectacular, but about what you’d get from any other tight-fitting set. Ultimate Ears also includes one of the simplest but best cases in the business, and an inline attenuator that acts as a volume-limiter when attached.
Unlike the weird ergonomics of earphones with enclosures that extend like the creature’s head in Alien — for instance, Shure’s older E2c, which I never quite got the hang of wearing — the 700s are tiny, weigh almost nothing and slip easily and snugly into the ear canal (perhaps a little too easily and snugly; see below). Because they’re so light and unobtrusive, comfort is above par and they’re probably the easiest buds to just wear-and-forget. The 700s also make matching the correct bud and ear together easy as the left bud has a red band — though I found it a little difficult to distinguish between the two under poor lighting.
All that great sound and comfort comes with a few drawbacks though. First, these are only going to be comfortable for those who have absolutely no problem with anything in their ears. Proximity to the eardrum and a good seal seem to be even more important with the 700s than with other buds — and shoving these guys into my ear canal felt a little like a violation to begin with; but the sensation vanished early on, after a few insertions.
Most ultralight products aren’t the most robust, and the 700s are no exception. Ultimate Ears specifically warns to be careful when handling the actual buds and not pull them out of your ears by the thin cables — which is fairly common sense — but I’d also take care not to put too much strain on the plug, as the designers opted to go with a straight-in plug as opposed to an L-bend. The supplied attenuator does have an L-bend, but it’s bulky, and using it somewhat negates the advantage of having a super-lightweight pair of buds.
And like so many performance-driven products, they’re sans-convenience: No microphone or control buttons on this puppy. But then again, no one buys a Porsche (with the obvious exception of the Cayenne) for its luggage-toting abilities.
Finally, because of the slim profile, both the unit itself and the attenuator are compatible with the Original iPhone, should you be old school enough to still use one.
When he was eight, Eli Milchman came home from frolicking in the Veld one day and was given an Atari 400. Since then, his fascination with technology has made him an intrepid early adopter of whatever charming new contraption crosses his path — which explains why he's Cult of Mac's test editor-at-large. He calls San Francisco home, where he works as a journalist and photographer. Eli has contributed to the pages of Wired.com and BIKE Magazine, among others. Hang with him on Twitter.