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The in-ear monitor shootout
By Nick Burklow

I have been on the hunt for a nice set of in-ear monitors that won't break the bank for a while now. I can't stand the cheap ear buds that come with the majority of mp3 players, including Apple's famous white ear buds. I swapped those out for a cheap set of Skullcandy Ink'd headphones the day I got my iPhone. Since then, I have managed to go through five pairs, and it's getting tiresome.

Thus my search for a good set of in-ear monitors that both sound good and are affordable. Two contenders made it: the newly released (Nov. '09) Sleek Audio SA 1 and the ever-popular Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 Studio.

The first to arrive at my doorstep was the Sleek Audio SA 1s, so they go first. The SA 1 is beautiful with its Siam rosewood body construction and silver tips. It has a replaceable cord, and it incorporates the Sleek Audio VQ tuning system, where you can replace treble tips to fine tune the sound.

The SA 1 reproduces sound using a custom 6mm dynamic driver (more on this later). The SA 1 retails for $79.99 and can be purchased direct at sleek-audio.com.

I was very excited to test out the SA 1, but that excitement soon faded. The first night I had them, I spent about 30 minutes going through the six different sets of ear tips and trying out both treble tips to find the combination that worked best for me.

This is no big deal; I expected to go through this process. Once I found what seemed to be the best combination, I played a few tracks from the new Vampire Weekend album 'Contra,' then retired the headphones for the evening.

I had a positive listening experience. The mids and highs were pronounced, and the low end was thumping. The sound signature was warm, and a bit bass-heavy.

Since I used to play bass guitar, I had no complaints. I did find, though, that these headphones are not the most efficient; I had to turn the volume setting on my iPhone past where I usually have it to get the same amount of volume.

The next day, however, things did not fare well. In-ear monitors require a good seal to reproduce bass well, so they have to be seated somewhat deep in the ear canal.

When taking the SA 1s out, I twisted side to side gently as advised by the user manual, but lo and behold the metal tip on the right ear bud separated from the rosewood body. After only two days, this was not acceptable.

I fired off a polite e-mail explaining the situation to their customer service. They asked me to ship them back and said I would receive a replacement set. I spent $12.95 to FedEx them back, and as promised, I was sent a replacement set.

Excited again, thinking the first time was just a fluke, I unpackaged the headphones and put them to use. That excitement also faded on day two of use, as the left ear bud devolved an intermittent crackle.

This time, I called their customer service to discuss the issue, and I spoke with Shelley. It's a pretty small company, and you get a live person right away.

Shelley was very helpful, and she shipped me out a replacement pair once again without having me send back the second set that broke. This time, she shipped them out two-day air even! Unfortunately, they have not arrived yet and I have a deadline.

With my brief use of the SA 1s, I found that the cable length is good, and the replaceable cable is a nice feature at this price point. I did, however, notice cable noise. The ear tips also became an issue. With the second set I had, the ear tips came off in my ear more than once, and this seems to be a complaint others have noted online.

Overall, the SA 1s sounded good, but the build quality issues seem to be enough to not warrant a solid recommendation. If they get that worked out, Sleek Audio will have a real winner on their hands.

The Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 Studio in ear monitors arrived a couple days after the SA 1 debacle started. I was hesitant to get excited about their arrival, but I did, and it was well-rewarded.

The Super.Fi 3s feel solid. On top of that, they also have a replaceable cable that is designed well and all but eliminates cable noise, although at 46 inches it's a bit on the short side.

The Super.Fi 3s retail for $129.99 but can be found for about $100 online, including good old Amazon.com.

The Super.Fi 3s implement a different type of technology than the SA 1s. They use a balanced armature rather than a dynamic driver.

For all the nitty-gritty technical details, check out the headphones entry on Wikipedia. The short version: A balanced armature is faster and reproduces sound more accurately, highlighting the finer details of the music.

The Super.Fi 3s do just that, too. The highs and mids were crystal clear across many different musical styles. The bass was present and clean as well, although it was not thumping in my head as it was with the SA 1s. This is a downside of the balanced armature. Ultimate Ears has other models higher up in the price range that address that issue by using multiple drivers dedicated to bass, mids and highs.

It should be noted too, that the Super.Fi 3s are very efficient. Unlike the SA 1s, I barely had to raise the volume setting to get a usable amount of volume out of the headphones.

The fit of the Super.Fi 3s is the most comfortable I have used yet. They don't fit as deep as most in-ear monitors, but with the inclusion of five different ear tips, you can still get a good seal. The cable also has a moldable section right near where it meets the earphone. This is meant to wrap around the top of your ear, and it really does a great job of keeping the monitors in place.

In conclusion, the Super.Fi 3s' flat response, while lacking thumping bass, was my preference, and I find myself making excuses to use them because the music sounds so clear and detailed. Their comfort is superior to the Sleek Audio SA 1s.

After a solid week of constant use, the build quality does not seem to be an issue, either. The Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 Studio in-ear monitors is my personal pick, and I would recommend them to anyone looking to upgrade or try a good in-ear canal headphone on a budget.

 

Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )

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