Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 Earphones
(3.5 star rating)
Never heard of Ultimate Ears? You are not alone. Prior to being acquired by computer peripherals giant Logitech in early 2008, Ultimate Ears (UE) was primarily known in the audiophile and audio professional communities as a manufacturer of upmarket and professional-use in-ear monitors (IEMs).
While their current high-end earphones offerings can still cost four figures, the newly-revamped MetroFi line is aimed straight at the mainstream consumer market, with the MetroFi 220 being the flagship of the series at $79. Did Ultimate Ears succeed in applying their expertise in crafting some of the best in-ear monitors in the world to a consumer-grade model? Let’s find out.
Design and Build Quality
To stand out in the crowded sub-$100 in-ear earphone market, Ultimate Ears designed an all-new two-piece housing for the MetroFi 220. The back part of the housing has a fetching chrome finish. The front part and barrel of the earphones are made of a translucent plastic with a twist – the colors differ by ear. The right earphone is finished in dark red and the left – in dark grey. Color markings are often used in high-end earphones because they are easier to distinguish than printed L/R identifiers, but they are rarely integrated in the design of the shell itself. The choice of colors is spot-on too: they are easy enough for the earphones’ owner to tell apart, but similar enough to appear identical to an outside observer at first glance. Sadly, the design creativity did not carry over to the choice of build materials - the plastics of MetroFi 220 feel quite cheap and the lack of proper strain reliefs on cord entry does not inspire confidence.
A vital part of any in-ear earphone, the cable of the MetroFi 220s is well thought-out. Though it is not rubberized, cloth-wrapped, or braided like some of the competitors cables, it is fairly thick and does not tangle too easily for a plastic cable, especially if the earphones are kept in the provided carrying case. Microphonics, or the ‘cord contact’ noises that are heard when the cable hits or rubs against something, are lower than average and never become particularly bothersome, even when the cables are worn straight down. Still, for those who intend to use earphones while jogging or during some other rhythmic activity, an earphone with an over-the-ear design might be more favorable. Alternatively, a shirt clip (used to hold the cable in place) could be used to make the MetroFi 220 more exercise-friendly.
|Closeup||Accessories||Closeup with 3.5mm plug|
In the Box
The MetroFi 220 comes in a handsome clear plastic box with a mirror-finish backing. The packaging is simple, modern, and stylish. In the box you will find the following:
- MetroFi 220 earphones
- Short instruction manual
- Warranty card
- Three sets of clear silicone tips (in Small, Medium, and Large sizes)
- Dark-grey plastic carrying case
Although the carrying case is quite convenient – tough and easily pocketable - the included accessories are just adequate for the price. The inclusion of a shirt clip and some foam tips would have been nice.
- Frequency response: 10 to 20,000 Hz
- Input sensitivity: 103 dB/mW
- Impedance: 18 ohms
- Noise isolation: 16 dB
- Cable length: 46 inches
- Weight: 0.44 ounces (12.4 grams)
- Input connection: 3.5 mm gold-plated jack
Fit, Comfort and Isolation
The design of the MetroFi 220’s is somewhat detrimental to the fit. The fat housing, short-nozzle design makes them shallow-insertion earphones. Tip choice is crucial as the seal is the only thing that keeps these from falling out. Though the medium tips fit me fine, I can easily see how someone with small(er) ears could find these uncomfortable for prolonged listening. The short plastic stem also makes it more difficult than I would like to wear them over-the-ear, but the microphonics aren’t bad enough to make a major issue out of this. On the upside, the shallow-fit nature of these makes them easier to insert than much of the competition.
The isolation is a strong suit of these. Though highly dependent on fit, the isolation of the MetroFi 220’s is very impressive for shallow-insertion dynamic-driver IEMs. With music playing at my usual listening volume (50% on the Sansa Fuze with the 220s), the outside noise during my usual commute was never much more audible than a whisper.
|In Case||Housings||Side view of Case|
Sound Quality Performance Testing
Testing was done in two parts. The first part, the ‘everyday use’ test, was done using choice test tracks from a wide array of genres in mp3 format encoded at 128-320 kbps. A Sandisk Sansa Fuze MP3 player, my testing player of choice due to the high neutrality and transparency of the sound it produces, was used for this portion. The second ‘critical listening’ part was done at home using a similar selection of tracks in lossless format and my optical-fed iBasso D10 digital-to-analog converter (DAC) as a source. A more high-end source than a portable audio player, the iBasso test ensures that I don’t attribute the limitations of the Sansa Fuze or mp3 rips to the earphones. Naturally, no equalizer settings were used for either test. I listened to a number MP3s with bit rates of 128kbps and 320kbps, as well as lossless audio tracks in FLAC format. A wide selection of classical, rock, alternative and hip-hop music was used in the evaluation.
Out of the box, they sound very muffled and boxed in. The bass drowns out the lower midrange and high-end (treble) extension is lacking hugely. My initial impressions were so poor that I gave up listening to them and put them through what is known as ‘burn-in’ in the audiophile community. That is, I just played music through them at medium-high volume for several dozen hours straight. The point of this procedure is to put the driver membrane through its paces to help it reach ideal flexibility. Theoretically, the manufacturer-intended sound of a dynamic-driver headphone is apparent only after sufficient burn-in. The recommended burn-in period for dynamic-driver in-ear monitors is 100 hours but any major changes usually happen significantly sooner than that.
After extensive burn-in, the sound is much improved – as if a veil has been lifted. The high notes are now present in quantity and can even boast some tonal accuracy, though the frequency roll-off on the high end is a little bit sooner than I would like. The mids have similarly opened up and are now quite smooth and vivacious. Detail, transparency, and instrument separation in the midrange and treble are passable, but not stellar. The soundstage, or the ability of the earphones to place audio images in a 3-dimensional space, is fairly wide.
As expected, the bass is still the most striking aspect of the sound. It is very dynamic – lively and powerful, but still well-controlled and adequately accurate. No cheap-subwoofer-like bass bloat here, just a solid, well-measured thump that doesn’t attack the lower midrange. The integration of the bass with the rest of the sound signature is very impressive. This is the kind of sound that gets your foot stomping to the beat of the music uncontrollably and even the unrelenting bassheads will find little to complain about. Overall, the sound is on the warm side and there is a slight mid-bass hump in the frequency response – these were obviously tuned for that ‘popular’ sound signature. They work extremely well with low bitrate mp3 files while still providing a massive all-around upgrade from bundled earbuds.
Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 Earphones
With their distinctive styling, ease of use, and coherent sound signature, the Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 in-ear earphones deserve a second look from anyone shopping for earphones in the $50-$100 range. Although they do not excel at everything, they have no glaring faults (except for potential fit issues for those with small ear canals) and do a few things well enough to raise them above the competition. No, they won’t win any awards for absolute fidelity anytime soon, but they deliver an incredibly fun sound and a taste of what high-end earphones should sound like without forcing you to re-rip your entire music collection in lossless format. Thumbs up to Logitech for keeping the Ultimate Ears brand true to its name in bringing an excellent audio experience to the mass market.
Pros: Stylish looks, easy to use, fun sound signature, reasonable isolation.
Cons: So-so bundle of accessories, not a bargain at $79 MSRP, less-than-ideal fit.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5