Can it do it at a low price for a high-end headphone? After extensive listening to the ULTRASONE Signature Studio headphones, I have an answer and it’s an enthusiastic yes.
The ULTRASONE Signature Studio headphones from ULTRASONE AG in Bavaria were a bit of a surprise. Actually, they were a big surprise. I was skeptical when they appeared in my equipment review queue. The packaging was nice but not flashy. The headphones also visually looked like a sort of 90’s design. Glossy black, with simulated leather around the ear cups. A couple of plugs to match full-size or mini headphone jacks. But when I listened, the ULTRASONE’s had my full attention. Deep bass, sparkling highs, a better soundstage than I would have expected with open back designs, and suddenly, I was listening to something I really, really liked.
ULTRASONE Signature Studio Headphones
- Spacious soundstage for a closed-back design
- The ULTRASONE Signature Studios had some of the deepest bass I’ve heard from any headphone design.
- Extended high frequencies that were very revealing of bad recordings and sublime on good ones.
- Good build quality designed for studio use.
- Easy to drive with a 32 Ohm impedance.
- Designed for studio/home or mobile use.
The ULTRASONE brand has done a good job of being rather invisible to audiophiles in North America, but it’s well known in Europe. Essentially designed for studio musicians and engineers, the several headphones in the ULTRASONE line are utilitarian in finish, but well thought out in their acoustic design and resulting sonics.
The company is just now beginning to try to capture the attention of the North American market, which is why we were sent a pair to evaluate. I’m glad they did. The Signature Studios certainly got my attention, and if you hear them, they’ll get yours too.
The review sample was graciously supplied by Ultrasone’s US Distributor, Manfrotto.
The ULTRASONE Signature Studio Headphones are a dynamic driver design, with titanium-coated 40-millimeter Mylar sound transducers. That keeps the ULTRASONE design in line with most headphones on offer these days. To look at the headphones, they appear, shall I say, ‘utilitarian’. I don’t mean that as a slam; it looks like the pro recording studio tool it is. The headphones are flat black, with an ample headband that looks like it is built to last. The ear cups are covered with faux leather that looks robust. The headband and ear cups are a very heavy-duty plastic, that looks durable.
The hinges for each ear cup are high quality, and they look like they will be working for a lifetime. There is an S-Logic logo (more about that in a moment) on the headband, and the outside of each ear cup has the Signature Studio logo. Nothing flashy, but a serious piece of hardware to the eye and the touch.
With S-Logic, ULTRASONE says they have created a patented technology, over 25 years ago, that allows for two especially important features for pro users. It claims to provide a wide sound stage and an excellent feeling of depth. They want to give users the impression they are wearing a pair of excellent studio monitors rather than a pair of headphones. S-Logic also claims to put your hearing under less strain: a 3–4dB lower sound pressure provides the same perceived volume. This enables, ULTRASONE says, long, fatigue-free sessions.
The headphones came in a box indicating what the content is. Inside is a hard case containing the headphones. The case is structurally firm, protecting the headsets from travel mishaps or someone sitting on the case in your home or wherever you listen. Inside are the headphones, and 2 cords for attaching the headphones to either a 1/4” stereo jack or the more common 3.5 mm stereo mini jack. The cable for the 1/4” jack is 10 feet in length. The other cable is 4 feet. That indicates to me that the pro 1/4” jack is the preferred cable to use since it is longer. Maybe I’m reading that in, but I think it’s a further message that these are pro phones.
Setup is trivial. Choose a cable, plug it into the left ear cup, and start listening. I thought the headphones were comfortable to wear. The faux leather was not irritating in any way. It felt smooth to the touch and was firm but had enough give to fit the contours of my face around the ears. The ear cup material was breathable, and I expected the headphones would remain comfortable over long listening sessions, which they did.
As over-the-ear headphones, they block out sounds from your environment nicely. I missed a phone ringing that was only 4 feet from me. If you want open-back phones, and want to hear what’s around you, pass these by.
To be truthful, I thought this was just going to be yet another headphone review. I’ve done so many over the last couple of years, I’m in danger of getting jaded.
My skepticism melted away rapidly when I listened to the first tracks of some high-resolution music, which was the John Williams Across the Stars Album. In the first track, Rey’s Theme from Star Wars, there’s one deep bass section and I was taken aback by its depth and realism. The bass did not seem pumped up; it was just deep, and you could feel it. I heard no doubling or distortion. The track has some wonderful violin sounds and again, I was surprised that they did not sound strident or boosted. I was also struck by the natural soundstage, something that is harder for a closed-back design to achieve. Instruments were spread from right to left inside my head, and I would have to say that the S-Logic technology made the sound seem more natural with more front-to-back depth. It didn’t work on every recording, but on acoustic recordings, it was highly effective.
The frequency response of the ULTRASONE Signature Studios is extended. On some albums, I could detect a slight dip in the midrange, similar to what many pro audio monitors do, but it was not objectionable. In fact, I’ll bet it was part of the original design. There’s nothing worse in headphones than midrange extension which is just hard on the ears, and it’s absent with these headphones.
Comfort was fine. The headphones are light, and once in place on my head, they did not shimmy around. The faux leather did not cause me to perspire, even in the Arizona heat where I live. The connecting cord doesn’t seem like anything special. No exotic materials, but it seemed to do the job. I plugged in a high-end cable I had on hand and could not tell any difference switching back and forth.
The headphones are easy to drive. Even a mobile phone can get them to play loudly, but the quality won’t be as good as you can get from a better device. I listened to Hi-Res files on the headphone outlet of an Emotiva RMC-1L processor in pure stereo mode. I also did some of my auditioning with a FiiO M15 portable player. It too had no issues driving the Studios to high volumes. I also listened on a Schiit Valhalla headphone amp. It was taking the output of the FiiO M15. It was a good experience, and my perception is that the Valhalla smoothed the high frequencies a bit. I want to be careful here because a good recording does not need to have the highs smoothed, but some prefer the sound of a tube amp, like the Valhalla, and I found the sound of the Studios quite agreeable with it.
Now here are some details of what I listened to. Regular readers will note that in reviews I use these tracks often. That’s because I know the music well and can discern small and large differences in playback through headphones or speakers.
John Williams “Across the Stars”
John Williams – Across the Stars – A terrific collection of John Williams music with a demo quality recording. I listened to 24/96 FLAC files. The violin of Anne Sophie-Mutter was just wonderful. No distortion of the very high frequencies and this is the album where the bass was so stunning.
Citizen Kane “The Classic Scores of Bernard Herrmann”
Citizen Kane: The Classic Scores of Bernard Herrmann – A great listen and a great test of the best transducers. This recording is a 24/96 FLAC. Herrmann was the favorite composer of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. The best demo of the Studio headphones was the track ‘Talking Drums’ from the film White Witch Doctor. The percussion instruments had a very quick transient response, and the tympani went deep. The ULTRASONE Signature Studios gave me the best rendering of this music I’ve heard on any set of headphones. Bravo.
Magnificat “Trondheim Soloists”
Magnificat: Trondheim Soloists – I listened to both the FLAC files and to the SACD disc. One of my favorite albums from 2L. Recorded in a Church in Norway, the sound is spectacular, especially if you hear it in multi-channel. Still, the stereo mix-down is a wonder. Wonderful choral music well played and it’s one of the great recordings of all time. On the Studios, the stereo image was solid, and the depth was there. The wide frequency response of these headphones made for a thrilling audio experience.
Leonard Bernstein “Leonard Bernstein conducts West Side Story”
Leonard Bernstein conducts West Side Story: It’s West Side Story with opera singers. The 1984 recording is still stunning. It’s like hearing these familiar pieces for the first time. Voices are natural on the Studios, and separation of the soloists and chorus has a “you are there” quality. The orchestra is splendid, and the mix is perfect.
Pat Matheny Group “Pat Matheny Group”
Pat Matheny Group: Another great demo of good sound. Not quite rock, not quite jazz, and there is some folk sound swirling in the mix. This is electronic music (keyboards, guitars) along with percussion. I listened to a FLAC rip from CD. The Signature Studios got the positions of the instruments right, fixed and not floating, and the smooth frequency response was well rendered.
To my ears, this ULTRASONE SIGNATURE STUDIO is the best headphone I’ve heard in this price range, and it’s challenging higher-priced headphones too. This makes it an excellent value for audiophiles and professional audio producers.
- The sound is excellent with a wide response, superb dynamic range, and quick response to percussion.
- Build quality is very good.
- Fit and comfort are good. I had no problem listening for 2-hour sessions.
- The case is sturdy and ready for safe travel.
- Prepare for a very revealing experience suited to the best quality recordings. Low-bit-rate MP3s are not going to cut it on this device.
- These headphones could be externally ‘prettier’. They are rather industrial-looking and are not going to appeal to all buyers.
- Lack of any documentation. Open the carry case and the headphones and cords are in there. That’s it. I’d like a little booklet with info on the company, the specifications, the features these headphones have and a description of them.
The ULTRASONE Studio Signature headphones are a high-end revelation at a mid-range price. These aren’t even Ultrasone’s top-of-the-line transducers, but they sound certainly as good as anything I’ve heard at or near their price. Some extremely high-end headphones, like the recently reviewed Stax Electrostatic headphones, can go a bit higher and a bit smoother, but the ULTRASONE seems a B+ to the Stax A.
These headphones aren’t going to stun anyone with their matter-of-fact styling, but if you put high-quality audio through these headphones the output will be superb. Less than good recordings are not helped by these headphones, they reveal every bit of distortion or air conditioners running in the background, or music stands being moved. They are analytical to the extreme.
The bass is excellent as I’ve said. It’s clean and plays without strain. That doesn’t mean it is overemphasized or pumped up. It’s realistic, and when called for by the source, it is deep. While the whole frequency range is generally smooth, I’ve also noted there is a slight midrange dip, probably by design. It’s not a problem to my ear, and it is not always audible depending on what type of music you are listening to. It’s most obvious to me on small acoustic instruments and especially male solo voices.
I’m not sure why these headphones are so good to listen to, but they are. I’m sure they are well designed. The drivers have a very wide range, and there must be something to what ULTRASONE calls their patented S-Logic. Looking into the headphones, one can see that the transducer is not centered as expected, but in the lower portion of the ear cup. That’s part of the S-Logic feature, and it seems to reduce glare. I can’t say the headphones sound like loudspeakers, but they are closer than other headphones I’ve auditioned in moving the apparent source further out of your head.
ULTRASONE has had little impact in North America, but I predict when people hear them, they will get excited and spread the word. The company is now beginning to market them here through a U.S. distributor, Manfrotto, and they can be purchased at online outlets like B&H and Amazon. That makes them difficult to audition, but most sellers have good return policies if you don’t like them.
Whatever ULTRASONE is doing, it is certainly working, and it’s easy to understand why these headphones are so often being used in recording studios. They are that good.