Evaluating noise-canceling headphones can be tricky—some offer excellent cancellation, some offer excellent audio performance, a rare few do both, and many do neither. The Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 ($349.95 direct) delivers above-average noise cancellation, but if that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, how about this: These are possibly the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever tested. And they offer exciting audio performance with deep bass and no distortion. Throw in a slew of accessories and a built-in remote and mic for iOS devices, and the UltraFocus 8000, though not necessarily a standout as a noise cancellation pair alone, has plenty to offer.
The UltraFocus 8000 features an understated black frame with rubberized material on the outside of the earcups. The black earpads themselves are extremely plush and comfortable, as is the underside of the headband, causing virtually no fatigue or discomfort during long listening sessions. The top of the headband is also black, but features some carbon fiber along the top panel—a nice design touch for an otherwise flourish-free pair.
The left earcup houses the battery compartment, which is easy to remove and replace. Unfortunately, the UltraFocus 8000 runs on two AAA batteries. They’re included, but we’d rather see a more environmentally-friendly, rechargeable option.
The right ear houses the Apple remote control and microphone for track navigation, playback, and making phone calls. Operating can be annoying at first—you obviously can’t see the controls, so you have to memorize which button accomplishes what, but it’s not terribly complicated. Call clarity is better-than-average, but we’re still dealing with cell phone audio quality here, so don’t get too excited.
The big bummer here is the switch on the right earcup—it not only controls the noise cancellation, but it also needs to be on if you want to hear any audio. Unlike the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1050, the UltraFocus 8000 doesn’t output audio in passive mode. If your batteries die on your trip and you still want to listen to music, oh well.
The headphones fold down flat and fit compactly and easily inside the thin-but-sturdy zip-up carrying case. Also included with the UltraFocus 8000: A shirt clip, an Airplane adapter, a Skype adapter, an adapter for Nokia phones, a ¼-inch jack adapter, and an external attenuator jack (for controlling volume). Throw in the fact that the cable is removable, and thus replaceable, and the accessory lineup here is one of the most generous and value-adding we’ve seen.
Despite the disappointing fact that it requires battery power to output audio and won’t function at all in passive mode, the Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 is a winner when it comes to sonic performance.
The UltraFocus 8000 does not distort on deep bass tracks, even at maximum volume—which is quite loud and an unsafe listening level, by the way. But the point is that these are powerful headphones with drivers that won’t be rendered a fuzzy, crackling mess when confronted with intense sub-bass frequencies, such as the electronic drum hits on the Knife’s “Silent Shout” or the resonant synth drum loop of Thom Yorke’s “Cymbal Rush.” Not only are deep lows delivered cleanly, but the bass response can be downright thunderous.
Are things exaggerated? Yes—so this is not a pair for audio purists seeking a more accurate, flat response. But for those who prefer a little extra bass presence, the UltraFocus 8000 brings the sub-bass frequencies powerfully, cleanly, and without making a muddy, unbalanced mess of the mix. This is partly thanks to the solid high-mid and high frequency response of the headphones—vocals, percussion, and guitar are delivered crisply to add some edge to the booming lows.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the boosted lows and tweaked highs combine wonderfully. The wood block hits sit above the mix, tapping out with a bright attack that is always prominent, never overly bright. Meanwhile, the lower register strings and large drum hits are lent an extra bit of low frequency depth that walks the fine line between subtle enhancement and overblown boosting. The result is a mix that already has excellent dynamics and feels broader in scope. When the low drum hits occur, the thump grabs your attention, but never in an over-the-top manner that sounds unnatural, and the low strings glide along gracefully, with a bit more body to them than a flat-response pair would allow. The UltraFocus 800 almost sounds like a movie theater sound system—there’s enough rumble to get your attention, but a high priority is placed on clarity and clean delivery.
From a noise-cancellation standpoint, the UltraFocus 8000 does an above-average job of eliminating room noise. Much of this, however, comes from passive noise reduction—the plush earcups are excellent sound barriers on their own, eliminating enough ambient noise that I had to check to see if the cancellation was activated a couple times during testing. (It wasn’t, but I thought it was.)
When the circuitry is activated, the noise levels decrease noticeably more, but some unfortunate high frequency hiss is added to the equation. This is a common issue with noise cancellation, and you’ll find it in other pairs, even high quality offerings like the aforementioned Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1050. This is what separates Bose’s QuietComfort series from the crowd. Both Bose QuietComfort pairs generally have far less hiss, while offering highly effective noise cancellation. So, the UltraFocus is better than some pairs that seem to only add hiss, but it can’t quite hang with the leaders in this category.
If optimal noise cancellation is what you seek, the above-mentioned Bose QuietComfort 15 offers excellent performance in a circumaural design, while the QuietComfort 3 offers near-equal performance in a supra-aural (on-ear) headphone design. If you’re more interested in an in-canal earphone design, check out the Phiaton PS 20 NC.
Back to headphones, however, our favorite recent noise-canceling pair is the AKG K 490 NC, which is one of the best melds of noise cancellation performance and excellent audio performance we’ve ever tested. The Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000, however, holds its own quite well—let’s call it as an exceedingly comfortable pair of headphones with exciting audio performance first, and a better-than-average noise cancellation pair second.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc