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Sunday, March 31, 2013, 09:49 am PT (12:49 pm ET)

Review: Polk Audio's UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise Canceling Headphones

One way to tell a quality set of headphones is if they make you want to go and listen to different songs just to see how they sound. After about twenty minutes of going through recently-added tracks on Polk Audio's UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise Canceling Headphones, I quickly made my way to Spotify, wondering what new sounds could be uncovered in some old favorites.

UltraFocus 8000


At $300, Polk's UltraFocus 8000s aren't the sort of headphone purchase one undertakes lightly. These are some serious noise-canceling cans meant for serious listening, capable of pumping out up to 15dB of noise cancelation and putting the listener into his own little audio bubble. Polk touts the 8000s' "Made for iPhone" control features, but the headset comes with a wealth of connectors, making it suitable for use airplane ports, home audio ports, and so forth.

So just what does that $300 get you? For starters, a pretty sturdy and good-looking set of ear covers.

Design



Understated and contradictory, one might say, are the best terms to describe the aesthetic of the UltraFocus 8000. With black as the dominant color, the headphones have an air of solidness, with a good deal of quality thanks to the stainless steel and aluminum highlights.

UltraFocus 8000


They are by no means the prettiest headphones you'll lay eyes on, but neither will you be ashamed to pull them out for a listen. This is largely a case of form driving impression, as the 8000s, from the moment you open the box, look as solid and reliable as Polk would have you believe.

Strange, then, that the over-ear cans are such a flat, matte plastic. High quality plastic, no doubt, but plastic nonetheless. This is somewhat in keeping with other headphone manufacturers, but we must admit a bit of disappointment that recurred any time we touched the cans to control playback.

Speaking of controls, these presented one of our first complaints about the 8000s. The implementation of the iOS-compatible music controls works much like it does with the remote on a set of EarPods. Click the play/pause button once to play or pause, twice quickly to skip forward a track, or thrice quickly to skip backward a track. The headphones' iOS and Mac-compatible controls are located on the right ear can in the form of "control Braille" tactile indicators. The intent is to make them easy to feel, but in practice these raised plastic ovals feel ugly to the touch. Given that there are few features to activate — Play/Pause/Skip, Volume Up, Volume Down, and Push-To-Hear Ambient sound — the addition of the "Braille" controls seems a bit unnecessary, especially considering that the same functionality could have been easily accomplished by taking the intuitive step of making the icons themselves touch-depressible.

UltraFocus 8000


Another minor complaint was Polk's choice to go with AAA batteries as a power source. The UltraFocus 8000 gets, according to Polk, about 40 to 60 hours of Active Noise Canceling play on two AAA batteries. That noise canceling is turned on by way of a somewhat inconvenient switch, and the 8000 lacks any automatic power-off function. Those facts together mean that 40 to 60 hours of battery life can be eaten up relatively quickly if, say, you forget to power off the headphones before stowing them.

Add to that the fact that "noise canceling mode" is the only mode allowing you to actually listen to your music — run out of battery and you've just got a set of earmuffs — and you can see why we found ourselves wishing that Polk had gone for a rechargeable internal battery.

That all may seem like a healthy list of complaints, but there were more things we liked about the UltraFocus 8000 than we disliked. In addition to the carbon fiber in the headband and the steel and aluminum aspects, the unit's detachable cable features a StrainGuard design with a Kevlar core. This keeps the cord from pulling apart at common failure points. We didn't put the cord through any sort of torture test, but we've got to say — having suffered through our fair share of frayed and failing cables — we're encouraged by the inclusion of this tech.

UltraFocus 8000


The headphones are also pretty light considering their size. You're never going to forget that they're on your head, but they're not an unwieldy weight, and Polk's Perfect Fit Headband gives a "comfortable, secure fit" just as advertised.

Of course, the things we liked most about the UltraFocus 8000 had more to do with its function than its looks. It functions great, thanks to some terrific tech built in.

Technology



The 8000s feature a range of different Polk technologies. The company's product page for the headset goes on for a bit about Active Dynamic Balance Polymer Drivers and Dynamic Balance Design Technology. The former miniaturizes the sort of driver used in a full-sized loudspeaker; the latter is a Polk-patented analytical technique that looks at a speaker's entire electro-acoustic and mechanical system to identify elements that might reduce performance. All one really needs to take away from this is that these features, in combination with the noise-canceling tech, produce a remarkably lifelike and crisp sound.

UltraFocus 8000


There is, though, one technology we wish Polk had managed to put into these headphones: Bluetooth. If you're listening to the 8000s on a non-mobile device — say, plugged into your computer — it's disappointing to be unable to get up and walk around without having to stop the music.

While the music is playing, though, you're in for a treat.

Performance



It was really fun to put these headphones through their paces. As we said before, it only took a few minutes with the UltraFocus 8000 before we took to Spotify's bottomless well of tunes. Our audio tests, therefore, used Ogg Vorbis files of about 320kbps in quality. We also listened to an assortment of MP3s and iTunes AACs, those of varying but usually high quality.

Our non-music tests for for the UltraFocus 8000 used the rainstorm generator from Simply Noise, several HD episodes of The Walking Dead, and a DVD copy of Megamind.

UltraFocus 8000


As we said before, testing these headphones out was a pleasure. We don't like the fact that noise canceling mode is the only way one can listen to content, but what you get with noise cancelation activated is fantastic. Others have noted an audible hiss during playback when noise-cancelation is on, but that was barely perceptible for us during most music playback and only slightly audible noticeable during video playback. We did notice an occasional clicking or buzzing when ANC was active but no content was playing. That could be a bit annoying for people looking for full-on silence, but it didn't seem a major issue in our tests.

With ANC active, the auditory component of the outside world largely disappears. Turn the volume up in a noisy setting, and you may as well be in sensory deprivation tank. We've missed loud, nearby conversations in the course of our tests, just by switching ANC to the On position.

When you actually need to hear what's going on, the UltraFocus 8000's Push-To-Hear Ambient Control mutes the music and uses the noise cancelation microphones to amplify the world outside your audio bubble. This mode produces clear and recognizable sound, but the music is still audible in the background, which can be distracting.

Our music tests took the UltraFocus headphones through a range of genres. Thump-heavy hip-hop, drum and bass, retro and modern pop, jazz, classical, and healthy servings of many flavors of rock: just about everything we threw at these headphones sounded fantastic. Subtle elements in tunes are crisp and clear, and we learned a few new things about some of our favorite songs.

UltraFocus 8000


A track like Avishai Cohen's version of "Alfonsina y el Mar," on a lesser headset, might sound rather straightforward. Listening on the 8000s, a very noticeable echo becomes apparent. Likewise, multilayered pop in the vein of Justin Timberlake's recent work with Timbaland takes on a whole new dimension, as the numerous small bits that make up a track come into stark relief.

We could go on like this for ages. Toss the 8000s a track like Toumani Diabaté's "Tapha Niang," and the instrumentation comes through just as clearly as do the vocals. Throw on some drum and bass, and the bass pounds just as much as the drums pop. Rock guitars growl and classical strings whine and it's an all around immersive experience that very much justifies the price you'll pay for this headset.

UltraFocus 8000


We were particularly impressed by the unit's high-volume performance. Whereas some premium headphones will see clear distortion — in bass or vocals — at higher volumes, the UltraFocus 8000s performed admirably.

In non-music tests, we saw no drop-off aside from the aforementioned slight hiss. This could be something of a bother if you're just using the headphones to block out ambient noise or to listen to an audiobook. Again, though, it doesn't seem like a dealbreaker in the least. The 8000s provide an immersive sound environment for non-music content: heightening the tension for a zombie drama and the relaxation for a simulated rainstorm.

Bottom line



As we said early in this review: at $300, these headphones aren't exactly an impulse buy. Should you buy them? That depends. If you want some all-purpose cans, you'll likely want to look elsewhere. If you're looking for a reasonably-priced, audiophile-quality sound experience, these might be the ones for you.

We've tried out better premium headphones, ones that address most of our issues with Polk's set — namely, Parrot's Zik noise-canceling cans, which feature the Bluetooth connectivity that these are sorely missing — but those, by and large, are prohibitively expensive. Leaving aside our issues with the 8000s, we can solidly recommend them to sound consumers in search of a quality listening experience. They're available through Amazon, as well as through Polk's website.

Score: 4 out of 5





Pros
  • Excellent sound reproduction
  • Solid build quality
  • Assortment of attachments
  • Great noise cancelation

Cons
  • No rechargeable battery
  • No Bluetooth
  • No playback unless using battery-powered noise cancelation
  • No auto-power off