Ultimate Ears, maker of the custom-molded professional earphones that you see bands such as U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wearing onstage, decided a few years back to make commercial earphones, and the results have been overwhelming. Listeners with champagne taste but beer money (well, OK, premium beer money) will appreciate the Super.fi 3 Studio in-ear set. Unlike other similarly priced earphones on the market today, the Super.fi 3s do not offer extreme bass (another model from Ultimate Ears takes care of that--the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 EB). What they do offer is excellent, flat response with enough low end, as well as crisp mids and highs, not to mention ample sound isolation.
The design of the Ultimate Ears Super.fi earphone series is based in comfort and simplicity, though you do get a choice of three colors: white, black, or clear (the last is available exclusively at Guitar Center retail stores). The earpieces, after a bit of twisting, sit firmly and comfortably in the ear canal, and the different sizes of earpiece covers not only aid this process but also effectively block out most room noise, making them ideal for noisier environments, such as airplanes or subway trains. Like other Ultimate Ears 'buds, these have the flexible plastic ear loop that wraps over the top of your ear for a secure fit. These are helpful for active use but can be a pain when you're trying to put on the headphones in a hurry. Our common gripe about the Super.fi series holds true for the Super.fi 3 Studios: At 46 inches, the cable is simply too short for anyone above average height. If your sound source is not in your lap or your pocket, your head movement is quite limited.
Most of the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio's features reside in the design of the headphones, though the company also includes a decent smattering of accessories. Along with five sets of ear fittings, you get a soft leather case and a cleaner pick. One of the niftiest features of these earphones--and all the other Ultimate Ears sets we've tested--is the user-replaceable cable. The earpieces easily snap off so that if the cable wears out, you can easily swap in a new one. (Note that you'll be responsible for replacing the cable--only the earpieces are covered by the two-year warranty.) Inside each earpiece, there's a precision-balanced speaker and an audio filter that shapes the sound. Basically, what this equates to is excellent performance.
The great news about a speaker or a headphone set with relatively flat response--meaning none of the frequency ranges seem to be louder than others--such as the Super.fi 3 Studio, is that almost anything will sound good. While rap or electronic music may seem to lack a bit of the thump that some listeners easily grow accustomed to in today's bass-heavy market, the low end is still quite present. As for rock, jazz, classical, or folk, all seem ideal for this Ultimate Ears earphone set. The delicate guitar picking and bucolic baritone of Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) on his latest LP, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, comes through crystal clear, with just enough subtle low end for hearing the resonance in his vocals. Switching to the heavier, often sludgy textures of art rockers Deerhoof on its latest album, The Runners Four, proves that often the greatest sounds an electric bass makes lie in the midfrequencies, not the low end, and the Super.fi 3s highlight them beautifully.
There are plenty of in-ear sets out there in the $100 price range that sound excellent--and Shure certainly makes a worthy contender--but the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio headphones are probably the best.