While the market has become flooded with headphones in the $200-300 range, some aimed at teens, some at travelers, some at those chained to their desks, there are just a few that are aimed at the audiophile. Right now, I am sitting back, immersed in sounds coming from one such pair, the KLH Ultimate One headphones, priced at $299.99. Loaded with features made to appeal to the upscale home listener, the Ultimate Ones come standard with genuine ebony outer ear cups. Zebra wood can be special ordered for $379.99. The inner ear cups are lambskin and make for a comfortable experience. Case is included, which is a nice bonus at this price point. In fact, KLH has done a great job overall in the packaging of the Ultimate One.
While the Ultimate One are an open back design, my wife noticed that they did not bleed as much music outside of the ‘phones as (for instance) my Sennheisers (which are also open back- see previous review on HD 598) did. While people on the plane next to you will still hear your music, these may be a bit more public- and office-friendly than some other open back designs.
The head band is immediately comfortable despite the substantial, but not hefty, weight at 340g. I am aware that I’m wearing a quality set of headphones, but it doesn’t feel like I’m strapping on a football helmet.
Moreover, the look Ultimate One is that of a high-end piece of gear. No matter how these headphones are about to sound, the KLH styling department nailed it with this one.
If I had any complaint, it would only be with the 2-foot length of the cord that comes with the headphones, requiring me to sit close to my stereo for my listening experience. Fortunately, the cord is detachable and may easily be replaced and upgraded able to a longer cable. The cord is equipped with 1/8” connectors on each end, with a supplied ¼” adaptor. All connectors and adaptor are gold-plated.
My first impression as I spin Supertramp’s Some Things Never Change disc is that of impressive low end from the Ultimate Ones. As “It a Hard World” starts with its heavy, rolling bass line, the KLH ‘phones pronounce each note with clarity and depth. There is no enhancement of the bass as one sometimes experiences in lower cost headphones, but instead a healthy reproduction of the bottom end. As the rest of the song kicks in, the Ultimate One demonstrate balance and musicality. Moving forward to track 2, “You Win, I Lose,” the kick drum has tremendous depth, even at mid volume. I feel vibration. The movement from the 50mm pure beryllium drivers gives the impression of motion.
Something mellower now, but no less deep- “Water Under the Bridge” by Guy Clark comes off the CD, through my Pioneer Elite player, the Mytek Liberty DAC/Headphone amp, into the KLH Ultimate Ones, and right down to the pit of my soul. A simple recording by three fine musicians with acoustic instruments with a few overdubs, the Ultimate Ones do a splendid job providing separation between each guitar and mandolin. Voices are blended but still heard individually, as well.
This is where I interrupt this review to stress the importance of a fine headphone amplifier when I enjoy a quality set of headphones such as the KLH Ultimate One. The ‘phones themselves are just one part of your “can” system, and the amplifier is a key piece, making a substantial difference over plugging straight into your component or mobile device.
I am a recent big fan of Pixies latest album Beneath the Eyrie, and particularly the track “Silver Bullet.” Just wonderfully dark and well-produced, the album absolutely rocks. Rocking this song on Ultimate Ones, I am immediately drawn to the clock ticking with a little echo. The guitar sounds more distant than it did in my listening room. Percussion is sharp and punchy, coming to the forefront, with ride cymbal clear and defined. The vocal is downright haunting.
Changing over to “Heavy Fuel” from Dire Straits’ On Every Street disc, the Ultimate Ones’ ability to truly reproduce full range music comes through loud and clear. The bass line is full and strong, pulsing through the entire song, while the percussion drives through over the top. Nothing feels forced here in this busy mix. Guitars are clear and crunchy, just a bit to the left in the soundstage. I hear the double-tracking in the vocals.
Regardless of my proclivity regarding the need for headphone amplifiers, there will always be a time and reason to take your headphones to go. Removing the ¼” adaptor and plugging into my 6th generation Apple iPod, I’ve decided to see how the KLH Ultimate Ones sound “naked.”
Pressing play on a lowly 128 mp3 of Al Stewart’s “On the Border,” the sound is expansive and full, though much more restrained than what I was hearing from CD. For traveling, I can certainly live with this! What a beautiful improvement over earbuds. The track now moves into “Year of the Cat.” For an mp3, the soundstage is wide and the percussion is crisp. The Ultimate One give me much more from my iPod than I’ve heard previously and will make plane travel much more tolerable.
I found the KLH Ultimate Ones to be reasonably comfortable while evaluating them all evening – I feel no fatigue, even after 2 hours of wearing them. I realize that some of us listen to headphones for extended periods of time, and I can recommend wearing these for long listening sessions.
Wrapping it Up
Not everyone can shell out two grand for a high end set of headphones, though many of us dream about it. For us dreamers, $299.99 for the KLH Ultimate Ones gets you closer than you might think. KLH packed the look, sound, balance, and comfort of a premium headphone into a budget-priced offering and did it well with the Ultimate One.
Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi SACD/CD player
Mytek Liberty DAC/Headphone amplifier
Apple 6th generation iPod