Portable headphone styling almost always falls into two camps--swoopy or utilitarian--but Ultrasone's new German-produced iCans ($129) are upscale and elegant. The sturdily constructed chrome and white headphones are obviously iPod inspired, yet they're still unique. The Ultrasone iCans combination of high style and stellar sound are hard to beat.
Wrapped in shiny, metallic-gray cloth, the ear pads will apply a moderate amount of pressure against your ears, so you can jog or work out without losing them. We certainly found the Ultrasone iCans comfortable over extended listening sessions. The skinny 45-inch-long white cable, which terminates in a gold-plated miniplug, is just the right length. Instead of the usual soft storage pouch, the iCans come with a cool-looking, casket-shaped metal case to ensure the headphones will survive rough treatment from even the most abusive baggage handlers. And, of course, the headphones fold for easy storage.
Conventional headphones fire sound into your ear canals, but Ultrasone's patented S-Logic Natural Surround Sound design uses "decentralized transducer positioning" to spread sound over your outer ear to mimic the sound of speakers. We're not convinced about the Surround Sound appellation, but S-Logic absolutely delivers a more out-of-the-head experience than most headphones. Ultrasone also claims S-Logic lets you listen longer without blasting you ears. And for your protection, the iCans' Ultra Low Emission shielding virtually eliminates the electromagnetic radiation produced by most headphones.
For our music auditions, we used a 15GB iPod and immediately sensed the S-Logic creating an open, less stuck-inside-the-head sound. The orchestral strings swirling through Beck's Sea Change sounded like they were coming from outside the headphones, and the bass was weighty without sacrificing definition. The Rolling Stones' Live Licks rocked with genuine authority. The Ultrasone iCans' sound is highly detailed with a neutrally balanced bass-midrange-treble response that flattered all sorts of music. The Spider-Man DVD was also impressive over the iCans. The wrestling scene early in the film had lots of punch, and the roaring crowd noises spread out just beyond the headphones.
Finally, we compared the Ultrasone iCans to our reference Grado SR80 headphones. The iCans' bass power and depth clobbered the substantially larger SR80s, and the iCans were more comfortable, but the Queens of the Stone Age's hard-core music kicked harder over the SR80s. The big Grados thrived on the thrash and sounded more lifelike on aggressive music, but the Ultrasones came into their own on more laid-back tunes.