The Highs: Superior sound quality; several tips for perfect fit; retains Apple volume-pause/mic control

The Lows: Great sounds aren’t free

The Verdict: Finally, a pair of in-ear headphones that are the equal to your iPhone or iPod Touch!

I love my 3rd gen iPod Touch – as well as my 2nd gen Shuffle for use when exercising – but can barely tolerate the ear buds that Apple provides.   If you can manage to get them inserted into your ears, the sound quality is reasonably good, but I personally find them difficult to insert, uncomfortable, and prone to fall out.  Other than that, they’re perfect!

As a result, my curiosity was definitely piqued when I stumbled across Ultimate Buds.  Sporting the Apple music/video playback control button and microphone, they utilize either Etymotic ER6i or Future Sonics FS1 in-ear headphones, both of which deliver vastly superior audio than is the case with the standard Apple buds.  I actually own a pair of (standard) Etymotic ER6′s – they’ve been the headphones I’ve used with my Shuffle & Touch, but I’ve always regretted that they don’t have the nifty volume/mic control.  (How can I use Skype or Voice Control w/o a mic??)

Not so with Ultimate Buds.   Ultimate Buds reworks the Etymotics and Future Sonics in-ear phones, mating them to the Apple control.  The control, incidentally, is the later gen version that is currently supplied with iPhones and 3rd gen iPod Touches, and it works flawlessly.  If like me you already own the ER6′s, ER6i’s, or FS1′s, you can send them in and Ultimate Buds will retrofit the Apple controller to them for a modest fee.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s take a look at the specs before going any further

Specifications

MG5™ Proprietary Dynamic Drivers
• 20Hz – 20,000Hz TrueTimbre™ Response
• 32ohm Impedance
• Sensitivity 112db @ 30Hz/1mW
• 43.3″ Cable
• Standard 1/8″ (3.5mm) 90° Stereo Mini-Plug Connector
• Ultra-Lightweight Design
• 100% Armature & Crossover Free Technology
• 6 month warranty & lifetime repair policy
• Multiple Fit Options

Each Package Includes:
• 1 Pair Ultimate Buds/FS1™ Hi-Definition Earphones
• 1 Pr. Comfort Fit™ Foam Sleeves – Large
• 1 Pr. Comfort Fit™ Foam Sleeves – Small
• 1 Pr. Earfills™ Silicone Sleeves – Large
• 1 Pr. Earfills™ Silicone Sleeves – Medium
• 1 Pr. Earfills™ Silicone Sleeves – Small
• 1 Leather Carrying Pouch
• Loop Cleaning Tool

What’s in the box


As note immediately above, the Ultimate Buds/Future Sonics FS1′s come with 5 different pair of tips (or “sleeves”) to make certain that they fit your ears perfectly.  And a proper fit is absolutely essential to fully realizing the sonic capabilities of in-ear phones:  they need to be inserted into the ear canal to provide the best sound, particularly when it comes to lower frequencies.  I’ve found that it’s best to pull up on my ear with my other hand when inserting the buds, twisting them a bit as they enter my ear.  Unlike the Apple buds, they stay put.

They also come with a tool for cleaning out the tube to which the sleeves are fitted, should a ‘yellow waxy buildup’ develop.  As mentioned above, the marvelous Apple controller/mic is included:

A perfect fit is possible – you may even discover that your left and right ears require different size sleeves.  I ended up using the medium silicone sleeves, after experimenting a bit with the small size; one of the medium silicone sleeves is shown here:

Listening impressions

First, an unexpected benefit:  noise reduction.  Although the Ultimate Buds site doesn’t tout it much, the Future Sonics FS1′s block a lot of ambient noise – according to the Future Sonics site, up to 30db  “Ambient Noise Rejection” – which is nearly equal to the SilentEars earplugs that were the subject of a recent post!

The sound quality is excellent. Although I’m hardly an audiophile, I was impressed by the richness of the bass response which was full and deep without being at all flabby.  As I type this, I’m listening to Sly Stone’s “Family Affair,” and the mid range clarity is superb.  Switching between the FS1′s, the Apple buds, a pair of (inexpensive) Altec-Lansing MHP136 in-ear phones, and – as a reference – a pair of Bose QC noise canceling headphones, the differences are remarkable.   A few comments:

  • The Apples aren’t altogether bad, but thin on the bass; decent mid range; a bit harsh on high frequencies; uncomfortable
  • The Altec-Lansings: fat, flabby bass completely dominates; muddy; bass is impressive, but at the expense of everything else
  • Bose Quiet Comfort headphones: NR is remarkable – near silence when I flip the switch!  Good bass; mid range a bit sloppy; for the price, I’m not overwhelmed, but the NR is amazing
  • Ultimate Buds / Future Sonics FS1:  No BS – in terms of pure sound, to my ears, they’re the best; bass is rich w/o overpowering; mid range tight, rich, and clear; high frequencies very good without any tinniness

Switching to Carolyn Leonhart’s Steal the Moon album, I listen to “A Sunday Kind of Love,” concentrating on switching back and forth between the Bose & Ultimate Buds FS1′s…   the Bose phones are more comfortable, and the sound is very good, but there’s a mid range flatness – even muddiness – that the FS1′s lack altogether…   the FS1′s now:  there’s a clarity and dynamic quality that all the others lack.  Again:  overall, purely on sound, they’re better.  They certainly are not as comfortable as the cushy pads on the Bose phones, but the sound is remarkable.  Can this be?

Continuing – Steely Dan:  “Show Biz Kids.”  That’s it.  The FS1′s are better than the $300 Bose Quiet Comfort over the ear headphones.  Don’t get me wrong – the Bose phones are good, but the sound is muted and lacks the richness of what I’m hearing with the Ultimate Buds FS1′s.  Frankly, I’m stunned.  The sound is richer and livelier with the FS1′s.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible; in fact, I pulled out the Bose phones on impulse, just to serve as (I imagined) a much better sounding benchmark.  Whodathunkit??

Future Sonics

Never heard of Future Sonics?  In business since 1985, the firm quickly established a stellar reputation, and now makes ear monitors for some of the biggest performers in the music business – U2, Daughtry, Beyonce, Eric Clapton, and many, many more.   The FS1 is their entry level universal fit product, and is priced at $119.  Mind you, that’s before Ultimate Buds gets hold of them and adds the Apple controller.

Thus equipped, Ultimate Buds sells the FS1′s for $134.99 (The version with the Etymotic ER6i’s is $145.99)   If you send in your ER6′s, ER6i’s, or FS1′s to Ultimate Buds, they’ll add the Apple controller for $39.99

Also of note:  the firm offers a 10 day “listening trial period” during which you can check out a pair of Ultimate Buds.  If not satisfied for any reason, you can return the headphones for a full refund; you’ll pay the return shipping but it can’t be much for something that’s so light.

Wrapping up

I should note that Apple offers an in-ear headphone, and they’re less costly than the Ultimate Buds FS1′s.   I need to get a pair and try them.  I’ve scanned a few reviews on the ‘net, and wasn’t overwhelmed by what I read, but nevertheless need to try them.   Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Klipsch has come out with a version of their venerable S4′s with their version of the Apple control/mic on the cable, for $99   An in-ear headphone showdown is definitely in order…  stay tuned!

For now, suffice it to say that I’m stunned by how great the sound is with the Ultimate Buds/Future Sonics FS1′s – they’re amazing, and I’m curious to see if anything else in their price range can touch their sonic quality.  You can see them at the Ultimate Buds site:  Ultimate Buds / Future Sonics FS1

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8 Comments on Quick Take: Ultimate Buds Apple / Future Sonics FS1 in-ear headphones

  1. Kevin says:

    A “next morning” Postscript: The Etymotic ER6′s — which I forgot to include…

    Switching between the FS1′s and the ER6′s, the sound on both is quite good, with the Etymotics somehow sounding a bit brighter, if that makes sense, than the FS1′s. They’re both very good. The cord on the Etymotic’s is about a foot longer than with the Future Sonics, and frankly seems a bit flimsy. I should note that these phones are ~3 years old, and the cord may have been upgraded in the interim.

    Still amazed and perplexed by what I heard with the Bose over the ear headphones, I pull them out and switch to them. The sound is flatter, duller, and the music (C. Leonhart again) doesn’t sound as immediate as with either the Future Sonics or Etymotic in-ear phones. They’re simply not as good in terms of sound reproduction; as mentioned, the NC is amazing, however.

    Something I didn’t emphasize quite enough in the post: you really need to insert in-ear phones correctly in order to ensure a good seal. Without that seal, you’ll lose the rich bass that these phones are capable of. The Ultimate Buds site goes into a bit of detail about this. It isn’t difficult; you just need to be aware of this, and get it right.

    I’ve written to Klipsch to see if I can get a pair of S4i’s to test; stay tuned for more.

    Kevin

    [Reply]

  2. Miguel Marcos says:

    Like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady:

    Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

    I’ve been wanting a decent ear bud with the remote and mic for a along time. Nalong ow you come and spread the good news on the Ultimates. My wallet has suffered. Oh, man!

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Sorry, Miguel! I think you’ll love them if you do pick up a pair.

    [Reply]

    Miguel Marcos Reply:

    I did order a pair.

    I used to have a pair of Etymotics I splurged on years ago when I had an iPod 5g, the hard drive version. Man those sounded great but they were a pita to clean. They did seal sound really well.

    I ordered the FS1s, we’ll see what they’re like.

    In any case I’ll be able to do my T-Pain singing in higher fidelity!

    [Reply]

    Miguel Marcos Reply:

    BTW, this is probably a good a place as any to link this which I think is a fabulous way to keep earphone cables handy yet untangled using a badge clip. Very cheap, too. See here:

    http://lifehacker.com/5476627/.....badge-clip

    [Reply]

  3. Michael W. says:

    My main problem with the standard Apple earbuds with microphone is that they fall out! I’m surprised more users don’t have this problem, since the surround on the Apple standard earbuds is hard and won’t mold to fit an ear canal. In terms of quality, I’m not a big music listener and I don’t rip at THAT high a standard, so I’m not too fussy about the quality nuances. I mean spending north of $100 on earbuds would basically give me a heart attack!

    I have very inexpensive Griffin Ear Thumps which make a nice seal (same type of flexible cone, with sizes) and that solves the “falling out problem” but of course there isn’t a microphone at that price point. For an inexpensive microphone equipped, set I found these JBuds for under $40:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ.....ss_product

    The microphone has become essential for me, since I found myself using the iPod Touch (32 gb model, with microphone in earbud cord) a lot for Skype while overseas. It’s a shame Apple didn’t include a microphone in the iPod Touch body. And a camera, for that matter, but the microphone is more essential imho.

    [Reply]

  4. Richard says:

    I switched to a pair of these FS1s after my beloved Future Sonic EM3s died (had em’ since 2005) and believe me I soldered those suckers at least 5 times.

    The first thing I noticed was the actual size of the cylinder that protrudes into your ear was shorter and the diameter was smaller than the EM3s. Sound wise, the EM3s were better, not to say the FS1s are bad, they are great. So I miss the EM3s, they are no longer made, but I needed something with a mic for my iphone.

    I have basically had the FS1s since Feb 09 and the cable is totally trashed now so I’ll be returning them for a new cable to be fitted – I’m a runner and use them all the time.

    I also have a great tip in order to keep the silicone rubber tips from sliding off as they will over time and you’ll lose the buggers. Wrap a thin layer or pipe sealing teflon tape (about 99c) around the shaft of the headphone, works great and you’ll notice you can barely pull off the silicone rubber ends.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Richard,

    Thanks for a great comment!

    [Reply]

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