Despite the popularity of noise canceling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 15, in-canal noise canceling earphones remain a rare alternative. The reason seems simple: The circuitry and battery compartment for noise cancellation has to go somewhere, and unfortunately, as with the $149.95 (list) Polk Audio UltraFocus 6000, it’s awkwardly placed along the cable, requiring a shirt clip for mobile use. Thus far, the only earphones to actually fit the circuitry inside the earpieces themselves are the Sony XBA-NC85D, an overpriced underperformer. The UltraFocus 6000 provides deep bass response and powerful, distortion-free audio performance, as well as top-notch noise cancellation, but if the shirt clip compartment is a dealbreaker, check out some on-ear headphone alternatives.
The circuitry may exist outside the earpieces, but even so, the UltraFocus 6000 still has bulky earpieces compared with many of today’s streamlined earphone options. Regardless, the black, rubberized plastic design is lightweight and quite secure. The aforementioned battery/circuitry compartment is located along the thick, linguini-esque cable, more or less midway down, so that it can be clipped either to a shirt, a belt, or a pants pocket.
In addition to the Power switch, the Ultrafocus 6000 features a sound attenuator switch, which lowers sound sources by 10 decibels—useful for airplanes, which often have louder outputs. There’s also a push-to-hear ambient control, so you can hear your surroundings clearly without removing the earphones. Unfortunately, the UltraFocus 6000 does not output audio in passive mode. You must use the battery, and the noise cancellation, to listen to music.
The Polk Audio UltraFocus 6000 is also offered, perplexingly for the same price, as the Polk Audio UltraFocus 6000i, which features inline mobile phone controls and a microphone. If you’re looking to use it with your iOS device, make sure you buy the version with “i” appended to its name. We tested the version without controls, but this review should serve as an evaluation of both.
With seven included ear tip pairs—some are the typical silicon shape, some are flange-shaped, some are foam—there is quite a variety to choose from, which bolsters the already secure-fitting design of the 6000 even more.
One AAA battery is included with the UltraFocus 6000; Polk Audio estimates the battery life for the earphones at roughly 30 hours. It would have been nice to see a rechargeable option here, but we’ve thus far seen only one rechargeable in-ear pair, the Sony XBA-NC85D. Also included: a Nokia device adapter, an airline jack adapter, and a rigid zip-up protective case.
The UltraFocus 6000 has no issues with deep bass frequencies. At high volumes, it churns out sub-bass content with some serious power. Even songs with particularly challenging sub-bass frequencies, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” are delivered distortion-free, all the way up to maximum (and unsafe, by the way) listening levels.
There’s a significant boost to both low and high frequencies. On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” his vocals sound a bit overshadowed by the intense lower frequencies, however—the treble boost doesn’t quite bring out enough of the edge in his baritone vocal delivery, and the mix ends up sounding a bit muffled.
The higher frequencies also feel a bit dialed back on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild.” Vocals are delivered with enough clarity, but the intense kick drum loop is missing the hi-mid grit that it usually packs, detracting from the power of the mix a bit.
The UltraFocus 6000′s sound signature fares better on classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” lending enough edge to the higher register strings to balance out the enhanced resonance of the lower register strings. Things are not muddy here, and never approach overly bright or harsh. It’s a boosted, but balanced, sound.
There’s a dirty little secret about active noise cancellation and in-ear earphones that’s rarely acknowledged: Passive noise cancellation—using ear plugs, for instance—works just as well, if not better, and it’s far less expensive. This is particularly relevant here because I’d venture that roughly 80 percent (conservative guess) of in-canal earphones achieve a significant level of ambient noise reduction just by sealing off your ear canal. Are they as effective as earplugs? No, but they come pretty close.
In other words, in-ear noise canceling pairs have less work to do than headphones, because they already block out so much of the sound. The UltraFocus 6000 is nonetheless armed with some solid noise cancellation technology. Turn the system on, and wide swaths of ambient sound are drastically dampened. Unlike many on-ear pairs that use less-than-top-of-the-line circuitry, the UltraFocus 6000 seems to avoid producing much high frequency hiss. But these earphones already reduce much of a room’s noise just by sitting in your ears.
Thus, the obvious question: If in-ear noise cancellation is so much easier to pull off, and as the UltraFocus 6000 demonstrates, also less expensive (compared to, say, the Bose QuietComfort 15), why are there so few in-ear options compared to on-ear options? And the answer, I believe, is the dreaded battery compartment/circuitry box. The bulk of the inline compartment, and its weight, makes the shirt clip a necessity. There’s no way around it: It’s annoying.
Other in-ear options, like the Phiaton PS 20 NC, exist, and yes, it features the cumbersome shirt-clip compartment as well. But unlike the UltraFocus 6000, the PS 20 NC can output audio in passive mode, which is a huge advantage. If you dread the clip as I do, you’ll need to go the on-ear headphone route, as we don’t highly recommend Sony’s ground-breaking—but very overpriced—in-ear, external compartment-free option, the aforementioned XBA-NC85D. If excellent noise cancellation is your main priority, the Bose QuietComfort 15 is a tried and true winner. If better music performance is your priority, consider the AKG K 490 NC, which also features solid noise cancellation, as well as Polk Audio’s own Ultrafocus 8000.
But, in the in-canal noise canceling realm, the UltraFocus 6000 is a solid contender, armed with quality noise cancellation circuitry and distortion-free audio performance. If solid, in-ear noise cancellation is what you’re looking for, the UltraFocus 6000, though far from flawless, is worth your consideration.
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