It’s always fun to sample a “budget” product from a high-end company. Ultrasone is a famous maker of very good headphones and one unbelievably priced and sounding model, the Edition 8. It is considered one of the very best headphones available at any price. But I’m not testing that one (darn!). Instead, I have been listening to the lightweight and affordable Zino model, a very modern looking and extremely comfortable headphone that also include Ultrasone’s S-logic sound, which I’ll explain later.
Zino is the successor to the iCan, a an earlier, lesser version of a headphone with an awful name. I’m ambivalent about the Zino name, but not its looks, or sound. Ultrasone revised the design a bit and replaced it’s white earpieces with a metallic, gunmetal color that looks more expensive than it is. On the down side, there were a lot of smudges that will not rub off easily. I don’t know if it’s a production flaw or it’s supposed to look that way. It just looks blotchy to me. Also, one side of the sliding size adjustment on the headband gives a satisfying clicking sound as it is adjusted to size and the other side just glides smoothly. I can’t tell if something is broken or not. However, both sides hold well once adjusted. The headphones have what is called MU Metal Shielding for people concerned about possible magnetic radiation which can come from the magnets used in headphone speakers.
Something I really like about the Zino is the hard case it comes with. The case is zippered, softly lined with a form-fitting foam insert and metal ring for clipping on, whatever. If you break your headphones using this case, its your fault. This is one of the better cases I’ve used regardless of how expensive the headphones were. Good job.
Let’s talk S-logic. What is it? It’s a way of expanding the sound of the music. It makes you feel like you are listening to your songs in a larger area, not just in your head, as most headphones sound. That’s called soundstage and its hard to achieve with phones that are not open-backed.
While it’s an added benefit to have high-end technology – like S-logic – trickle down to more affordable products, the overall improvement on the Zino is subtle. I would imagine S-logic is more pronounced on Ultrasone’s closed-back headphones, because the sound is aimed at the natural curvature of the ear itself which is what gives sound that 3D effect, as in real life. But the Zino rests on the ear, so you’re not going to get that “Oh, wow!” moment on first listening. But it is there and it does help expand the sound somewhat. I realized after listening to various recordings on the Zino that S-logic also works better on newer recordings. Fans of older material may want to check out other headphones in this price range with a more forgiving, warmer sound (Koss’ PortaPro headphones, for example).
Patrick O’Hearn’s “At First Light” from his first solo album, “Ancient Dreams” has always been one of my favorite instrumental pieces. Trivia: It’s one of the first all-digital recordings made. The sound is crystal clear and edgy. But it lacks that visceral punch on the Zino. The opposite is true on the new Devo song, “Human Rocket” from the “Something for Everybody” album. Here, the song kicks. It has power, presence and makes you want to move.
Icehouse lead singer Iva Davies’ solo version of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also benefits from S-logic. (Is there any musician who has not covered this song?) Davies’ modern mix has depth, and the melancholic mood comes through intact. The same holds true for Simple Minds’ cover version. But all of that is missing from Nico’s vocals on the original version. The Velvet Underground sound flat in comparison. Again, it’s that modern technology which S-logic seems to take advantage of.
Brian Eno’s “Bone Bomb” from “Another Day on Earth” has a throbbing, relentless bass line supporting an emotionless, harrowing female vocal describing her last moments before committing an act of terror. If the Zino couldn’t hold on to that bass, the song would have dissipated into nothingness. But because all holds together, the singers voice gets in your head and won’t let go. The song becomes unforgettable in a very disturbing way.
There’s not a clearer example of the differences in how the Zino handles older recordings vs. newer ones than two songs by one of my favorite groups, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “Joan of Arc” from “Architecture and Morality” features a bass drum kick that should be felt, except that you can only hear it. So the emotional impact is lessened. However, the song, “New Babies : New Toys” from their new album, “History of Modern” can be felt and is much more engaging with its 80s musicality and Andy McCluskey’s snarling vocals. It’s this newer “in your face” mix that makes the Zino sound much better.
So it all boils down to what you prefer from your tunes. Classic rock just sounds better on other headphones. But the newer stuff – even when done by classic rock artists – is meant for the Ultrasone Zino.