or Connect
AppleInsider › Forums › General › General Discussion › Review: Polk Audio's UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise Canceling Headphones
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

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

post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 
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 Diabat?'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



ratings_hl_40.png

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
post #2 of 17
In actually relevant news - Apple has been denied a trademark application for 'iPad mini' by the patent office.
post #3 of 17
It's a bit unfair to criticize these headphones for requiring a battery for them to work, and for not having an auto-off switch -- regrettably, this is how the competition behaves as well, last I checked. And it's this is a case where it's definitely a good decision to use removable batteries instead of following the trend or internal rechargeable batteries, given that these will most often provide the most value on a plane flight, and it's trivial to travel with a couple of those in you bag versus being completely stuck once you're on a plane and out of internal, non-swappable battery. But otherwise, this is a great review. I may have to pick up a pair.
post #4 of 17

Apple will get the trademark.

 

"Apple, however, has until July 24 to better explain how the iPad mini is different and unique from the larger-sized iPad to counter the rejection seen as largely a formality."

 

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jFZpPObLN6PONM0MRTHveEYChFOg?docId=CNG.775052b28f0ef5265b6290c6bca95bfe.141

post #5 of 17
Technically a good review but to not compare these headphones to the gold standard in noise cancellation: BOSE is a critical omission.
post #6 of 17
Agreed. A review this long should have mentioned the Bose & some other competitors. Otherwise it's just like "Dudes, I got some cool headphones!"
post #7 of 17
FWIW there are sites that perform better noise cancelling headphone reviews that include useful information like testing attenuation across different frequencies. While I appreciate the time and effort Kevin went through to do this review, it is more of a blog post than a serious review/comparison of noise cancelling headphones.

I'd still come here if this site did nothing but republish DigiTimes rumors.

"Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone."

John C. Dvorak, 2007
Reply

"Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone."

John C. Dvorak, 2007
Reply
post #8 of 17
"Understated?" Hardly. Audio Technicas are understated, plus cheaper and better.
I have a hard time taking serious any review that used a highly compressed audio source like Spotify instead of a lossless source like FLAC or Apple's own lossless encoding. High end headphones are meant to put out a wide spectrum of rich sound. If all you're doing is listening to Spotify, a 50 dollar pair of Skull Candy cans from Walmart is all you'll need.

As for knocking their use of AAA's, that's something I have to argue with. My Audio Technicas run on AAA's, which is great because if I do happen to leave them on or they do die on me in the middle of a flight (where I use them most) I just reach into my bag and pull out a spare which I always keep on hand. My wife, who insisted on the newer Bose model that runs on a rechargeable pack, however, is up doo doo creek if the same happens to her. If you insist on rechargeables, a pair of Eneloops will perform as well if not better than any proprietary rechargeable pack.
post #9 of 17
I totally agree with cash907. Reviewing a pair of cans should by done by professionals who know what they are talking about. I wouldn't trust anyone who thinks he can measure the quality of headphones by listening to a 320kb music file regardless of the compression type.
With that being said. These cans might be a rather good buy if you're really into noise canceling headphones. The guys from headphone.com are very positive about these cans and the specs seem to backup their story.
http://www.headphone.com/headphones/noise-cancelling/polk-ultrafocus-8000-nc.php

Personally i'm not a big fan of noise canceling headphones. While noise canceling technology is getting better and better these days, it still always makes the sound a bit hollow and listening fatigue kicks in very quickly. I personally think it's better to spend your money on a good pair of regular headphones instead. But if you're a someone who travels a lot by plane or by train or like to listen to your music in other loud environments, than this might be a good pick. I haven't listen to these cans myself, so i'm basing this purely on reviews I read on the internet from audiophile websites.
13" MacBook5.1 4GB 160GB
Reply
13" MacBook5.1 4GB 160GB
Reply
post #10 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Derek Pearcy View Post

It's a bit unfair to criticize these headphones for requiring a battery for them to work, and for not having an auto-off switch -- regrettably, this is how the competition behaves as well, last I checked. And it's this is a case where it's definitely a good decision to use removable batteries instead of following the trend or internal rechargeable batteries, given that these will most often provide the most value on a plane flight, and it's trivial to travel with a couple of those in you bag versus being completely stuck once you're on a plane and out of internal, non-swappable battery. But otherwise, this is a great review. I may have to pick up a pair.

If you want rechargeables, it's easy enough to carry spare rechargeable AA (or AAA, if that's what it takes) batteries so you can get the best of both worlds.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Cash907 View Post

"Understated?" Hardly. Audio Technicas are understated, plus cheaper and better.
I have a hard time taking serious any review that used a highly compressed audio source like Spotify instead of a lossless source like FLAC or Apple's own lossless encoding. High end headphones are meant to put out a wide spectrum of rich sound. If all you're doing is listening to Spotify, a 50 dollar pair of Skull Candy cans from Walmart is all you'll need.

That's absolutely not true.

First, I spend a lot of time on airplanes and noise cancellation is important to me - even though I'm 'only' listening to my iPod.

Second, for many of us older people, our hearing is far more sensitive in the range where noise cancellation occurs than in the high frequencies where most of the differences between encoded and lossless audio occur. A good noise cancellation system can greatly improve my listening enjoyment.
"I'm way over my head when it comes to technical issues like this"
Gatorguy 5/31/13
Reply
"I'm way over my head when it comes to technical issues like this"
Gatorguy 5/31/13
Reply
post #11 of 17
Cans.

iPod, iPad, iPad2, iPad 3, iPad Mini, iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, AppleTV (1,2 & 3), 13" MacBook Pro, 24" Cinema Display, Time Capsule, 21.5" iMac (Mid 2011)

Reply

iPod, iPad, iPad2, iPad 3, iPad Mini, iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, AppleTV (1,2 & 3), 13" MacBook Pro, 24" Cinema Display, Time Capsule, 21.5" iMac (Mid 2011)

Reply
post #12 of 17
Jeez guys, yes there are sites that review noise cancelling headphones but how many people apart from audiophiles and people doing research before a purchase actually read them? These have iDevice controls on the side, that's why they are on here. Reviews are usually opinions with a few facts copied from the side of the box.
post #13 of 17
If money was not relevant, would you choose the Parrot's Zik over the Polk's?
post #14 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by dsdevries View Post

I totally agree with cash907. Reviewing a pair of cans should by done by professionals who know what they are talking about. I wouldn't trust anyone who thinks he can measure the quality of headphones by listening to a 320kb music file regardless of the compression type.
With that being said. These cans might be a rather good buy if you're really into noise canceling headphones. The guys from headphone.com are very positive about these cans and the specs seem to backup their story.
http://www.headphone.com/headphones/noise-cancelling/polk-ultrafocus-8000-nc.php

Personally i'm not a big fan of noise canceling headphones. While noise canceling technology is getting better and better these days, it still always makes the sound a bit hollow and listening fatigue kicks in very quickly. I personally think it's better to spend your money on a good pair of regular headphones instead. But if you're a someone who travels a lot by plane or by train or like to listen to your music in other loud environments, than this might be a good pick. I haven't listen to these cans myself, so i'm basing this purely on reviews I read on the internet from audiophile websites.

 

Within the same post bashing someone about posting an opinion, you give your own. How thoughtful. 

post #15 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by scopie View Post

Technically a good review but to not compare these headphones to the gold standard in noise cancellation: BOSE is a critical omission.

 

how does side by side comparison become a mandatory part of someone's review? This wasn't "The Top 5 Noise Canceling Headphones Under $400" 

post #16 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Getz View Post

how does side by side comparison become a mandatory part of someone's review? This wasn't "The Top 5 Noise Canceling Headphones Under $400" 

I wouldn't say it's mandatory, but it would be helpful. If I were in the market for a set of noise canceling headphones, it would help to have some comparison.

However, this wasn't really a review, (it was more of a press release), so that's not really necessary.
"I'm way over my head when it comes to technical issues like this"
Gatorguy 5/31/13
Reply
"I'm way over my head when it comes to technical issues like this"
Gatorguy 5/31/13
Reply
post #17 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by jragosta View Post


I wouldn't say it's mandatory, but it would be helpful. If I were in the market for a set of noise canceling headphones, it would help to have some comparison.

However, this wasn't really a review, (it was more of a press release), so that's not really necessary.

 

I think it was more a 'First Thoughts' or opinion piece. I tend to find reviews with comparisons to sometimes be too heavy on the comparison side and not enough on the features and usage side of the product. I prefer comparisons to be at the bottom of the review. And that may just be me : )

New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: General Discussion
AppleInsider › Forums › General › General Discussion › Review: Polk Audio's UltraFocus 8000 Active Noise Canceling Headphones