Wearing a pair of headphones with your MP3 player seems retro in today's age of iPod earbuds and triple-driver sound-isolating earphones, but German manufacturer Ultrasone is setting out to change that perception. Known in the hi-fi market for creating big, beautiful headphones with spacious sound, Ultrasone now turns its attention to the portable audio market with the $99 Zino headphones.
In truth, Ultrasone tried its hand at making the ultimate iPod headphone once before in 2005 with the iCans, a collapsible headphone with a gorgeous sound but a rather gaudy mirrored-finish design. The Zinos borrow heavily from the iCans' design, but do well to steer clear of the cheeky name and conspicuous looks. Their sound, however, is still unmistakably Ultrasone--which is a very good thing.
Like any device that clamps on your skull, comfort is a big consideration when it comes to headphones. In spite of their relatively large size, the Zino are far and away one of the most lightweight and comfortable headphone designs we've tested. Part of that comfort can be attributed to the headphone band's slightly squared-off shape (a change from the original iCans design), but what seals the deal are the quarter-inch thick soft foam pads on each earpiece, covered in a silky-smooth nylon mesh. The end result is one of the most invisible-feeling pair of headphones money can buy--perfectly suited for extended listening. That said, the Zino's feather-light headband pressure and spongy ear cushions are probably not a great match for any fitness types looking for stay-put, sweat-proof headphones.
Making a comfortable pair of headphones is no easy feat, but making them portable takes real skill. It's hard to compete against a pair of earbuds that fit inside your fist, but the Zino's collapsible design will at least fit in your pocket. In fact, they're nearly as portable as our favorite '80s wonder-headphones, the $30 Koss PortaPro. The Zino's sides are each hinged at the headband so that the earpieces fold inward like a pair of sunglasses. The original iCans design took a similar approach, but also allowed the earpieces to swivel flat at 90 degrees. All that hinging and swiveling, however, made the iCans design a bit unwieldy without a case to keep it all together. The simplified Zino design, by comparison, allows you to fearlessly shove the headphones into any bag that's handy and spend less time unraveling the headphones like a puzzle.