Polk Audio UltraFit 3000

The outer walls of the Cooper Square Hotel reflect blue sky and angle gently as they rise to the penthouse suite. When construction on the hotel began, New Yorkers cried “Abomination!” at the idea of a glass-sheathed high-rise towering over the short brick buildings of the East Village. Now that the Cooper Square Hotel has integrated itself into the Bowery’s landscape, it is the ambitions of the building’s architects that are remembered, not New Yorkers’ gripes.

In this penthouse suite on the eve of September 13, Polk Audio presented their line of UltraFit active headphones to members of the press in an event that featured various athletes, including US National Soccer player Heather Mitts, NBA ballers Rudy Gay and Thad Young, and lacrosse superstar Paul Rabil. In a panel discussion led by ESPN’s Linda Cohn, the athletes and Polk CEO Jim Minarik discussed the UltraFits’ sound quality, the athletes’ varied musical tastes, and Polk’s plans for future headphone models. Gay and Young both like Nirvana. Mitts doesn’t like rap or super-twangy country, but loves everything between.

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Polk’s UltraFit line of active headphones comprises four models: the in-ear UltraFit 500 ($49.95) and UltraFit 1000 ($69.95), the on-ear UltraFit 2000 ($69.95), and the in-ear-canal UltraFit 3000 ($99.95). Prior to the event, I was most excited by the 2000, which reminded me of an old set of Sony behind-the-neck ’phones (model name unknown) I used to wear, and which set standards for comfort, durability, and ease that I have not encountered since. Polk’s threefold goal for the UltraFits is “Quality, durability, and style”: quality in sound, durability in design for extended use in active situations, and style in their strong, simple color schemes of black/red, black/gold, white/orange, and white/gray. All models come with a iPod/iPhone/iPad compatible three-button remote control (volume up and down, pause/play) and microphone; a 41", tangle-free flat audio cable; and a zippered protective case that, I was told, allows “sweat to drain” from it. Eww.

This was my first real audio press event, and I was riding solo, unaccompanied by other Stereophile staff. My nerves fluttered. What do I do? Who do I talk to? Where’s the booze? After the booze, the most important thing was to get my picture taken with one of the athletes. But which one? Duh. Heather Mitts.

911polk.3.JPGAfter awkwardly conversing and posing with Mitts, I made my way to the headphone listening stations. Polk’s Jim Marshall calmly but enthusiastically demonstrated how to correctly insert the in-ear designs, and explained the differences among the models. The 500 and 1000 in-ear phones sit just outside the ear canal, while the 3000 is inserted in the canal itself, to provide a tighter seal and better sound. Marshall explained how the ’phones’ Kevlar-reinforced hinge points prevent cable malfunctions due to extended use or sweating. At the end of the event, I took home a pair of UltraFit 3000s.

While the demo tracks played at the event were good (Little Milton featuring Susan Tedeschi, and one of my favorite tracks, Dire Straits’ “Me and My Friend”), I needed to do some more focused personal listening to move past those first impressions. First I listened in my cubicle at Stereophile, primarily via Spotify. I found myself unmotivated to use them at work: Reinserting them after every interruption was tedious and time-consuming. More than anything, my sedentary (other than the eating of snacks) cubicle existence isn’t the sort of active lifestyle the UltraFits are designed to best complement.

The UltraFit 3000s come with seven pairs of flanges and tips, to fit a variety of ear-canal shapes. For years, I’ve had problems getting a flange that fit with in-ear ’phones. The flanged tips of my Etymotic ER4s slid in snugly and created a good seal when I applied just the right amount of moisture (eg, saliva) to the tips, tugged back my ear, and inserted. Too often, though, the flange would slip out and I’d lose bass response; or, with extended use, my ears would begin to itch and hurt. Polk’s multitude of tips provides more options. Because my ear canal is short, I opted for the smallest circular nubs. (The flanges, Jim Marshall’s favorite, tended to hang uncomfortably out of my ears.) I highly recommend trying all the various tips: It’s fun, and comparing the tips gives you a good idea of the actual sizes of your ear canals.

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Following the day in my cubicle, I wore the 3000s on a walk to the Port Authority Terminal, and then on the 190 bus to Rutherford, New Jersey. The 3000s’ noise isolation proved fantastic—I missed my stop. Feeling adventurous, I then tried a two-block jog to my drummer’s house, which only reminded me how much I really need to get back to the gym. My disappointment in myself distracted me from the listening, but at least the Polks didn’t fall out of my ears. On the way back from Rutherford to Brooklyn, I did some more serious listening. Gang Gang Dance’s “Glass Eye” and “Adult Goth” are two tracks laden with heavy, intricate percussion, and rich synthesizers of various colors and tones. The UltraFit 3000s were percussive and provided tight bass, but seemed dead at both extremes of the audioband: Low-end slam was more like a low-midrangey lump, and synthesized bells and cymbal pings lacked top-end sparkle. The tonal balance was certainly forward, instruments pushed towards the front and a relatively narrow soundstage. With the volume turned up from my iPhone, dense layers of synthesizers fuzzed out and could not clearly be distinguished.

The UltraFit 3000s couldn’t really handle the intense and varied frequencies of “Judges,” from Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges. When Stetson’s baritone saxophone wailed, clicked, and squealed, the Polks fell short. Stetson’s jagged scales and circular patterns dive and twirl over, in, and around each other to paint a rich sonic landscape as his horn tells stories of anger and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this landscape sounded muddy through the 3000s; through my Sennheiser HD428 over-ear headphones ($49.95), the distortion reveals itself as Stetson heaving mighty wind through his horn, his bari sax bellowing and growling. This record sounds best, however, when paid full attention, rather than listened to during a busy commute.

The synth bass in the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning” was also tight and percussive, but the track as a whole lacked that high-end sheen that makes the handclaps pop and the guitar bite so hard I grit my teeth, feeling that synthetic-MDMA rush of pure dirty funky joy.

Sound conclusions: tight bass, rhythmically percussive, but super-midrangey and lacking in high-end sheen.

Finally, I got to the gym. I spent an hour on the elliptical trainer with the UltraFit 3000s, and for that purpose they were excellent. The ’phones maintained a great seal throughout the entire workout, and I when I listened to my music loud, it sounded loud. With so many exercise ’phones, I crank up the volume and still can just barely hear it, while the buds or earpieces fall out of my ears or crackle with sweat. None of that here. I highly recommend the Polk UltraFit 3000s for working out.

The UltraFits are best when complementing an active lifestyle, and particularly a sweaty one. I can’t recommend them for serious listening, as their lack of high end translated into a lack of realism and enjoyment—but their midrange bump is perfect for distorted guitars and kick drums while you’re pumping iron.

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