February 20, 2013

Music Technology Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset

If you're like me then more and more you listen to music through headphones. So, the old adage that your stereo system is only as good as your speakers should now be amended to your sound system is only as good as your headphones. It seems like audio companies are finally starting to catch up and make this connection. Seven years ago when I first started reviewing music you could either buy a pair of really cheap things to stick in your ears or wrap around your head, or pay a fortune and buy the equivalent of what was being used in recording studios. Aside from the price the drawbacks with the latter were their lack of portability and the fact you usually had to buy an adaptor so they could patch into a headphone jack.

Fast forward to present day and your faced with the dilemma of being spoiled for choices. You go into any electronics outlet store and you'll find row upon row of headphones, ear pieces, ear buds and whatever other names manufactures have come up with for them. The bells and whistles alone are confusing enough. Is your device bluetooth or wireless? Do you need a microphone? Do you want something to fit inside your ear, around your ear or over your head and over your ear? Does colour matter, ease of carrying when your not using them? It almost seems like sound quality is less a consideration then the extras.

Maybe the truth of the matter is within a certain price range there's not much difference from one set of headphones to another when it comes to sound quality. Oh sure some might offer ways of boosting either the bass or the treble singles, but that doesn't really have anything to do with its ability to transmit sound. For under a $100.00 the only differences you're going to find from one company's set to another are the extras, right? Well, that's what I thought, of course I haven't listened to all the sets on the market, but after sampling a fair range and not noticing any difference I had started to come to that conclusion. However, at the high end of that price range, listing at $99.99, the A161P In-Ear Headset from MEElectronics, showed me something different.
MEElectronics A161P In Ear Headset.jpg
My requirements from a set of headphones are probably a lot simpler than most people's. I don't care if its bluetooth or wireless, I couldn't care less about the built in microphone or any of the other hands free technology employed for smart phones. I'm looking for two things, ease of use and sound quality. I hate having to fiddle around with fancy ear pieces that have to be slotted into my ear in a certain way or, even worse, have to be constantly adjusting the ear buds because they're either hurting my ears or falling out. One of the first things you'll notice about the A161P is that they don't assume everyone's ear canal is the same size. Each pair comes with six sets of differently shaped and sized easily interchangeable cones. It takes only a matter of seconds to find a pair to fit your ears.

You also have the option of slipping wire guides onto the cable that will allow you to hook the buds over your ears to help hold them in place. I'm not a big fan of the over the ear hooks - no matter what anybody says when you wear glasses they feel awkward - so being able to choose whether I wanted to use them or not was a plus. I decided to give them a try, and discovered not only did they help secure the buds in my ear, they were far easier to use than any I had employed in the past and they didn't interfere with my glasses. At least they didn't make it feel like my glasses were about to be fall off my head all the time.

When it comes to performance I want my ear phones to provide crisp and clean sound which allows me to hear each instrument and the vocals as distinct elements. I don't want my eardrums ruptured with mega bass or my eyes popping out of my head because the treble is too shrill. I want to hear the music as close to how it was recorded as possible. The first thing that happened when I started using the A161P headset was I had to turn the volume on my music player down. I was thrilled. Too many times in the past I've been forced to crank up the volume of whatever player I've been using simply to hear the music. The A161P have so little interference I was able to turn the volume down by at least half and still hear the music clearly while wearing them while walking beside a busy street. I wasn't even listening to loud music either.

After recovering from that pleasant surprise I began to notice what I was listening to. The sound was perfectly balanced. No matter what I listened to, jazz, folk, rock or classical there was a depth of field which allowed me to hear all the instruments in their proper proportions. In the past I've had headphones which may have had no trouble handling pop music, but the complexities of jazz and classical would defeat them. It was like they couldn't handle the number of instruments employed and the sound around the edges would turn to mud. That wasn't the case with A161P.
MEElectronics A161P Package.jpg
No matter where an instrument was in the mix you could hear it. Even better was the fact each instrument was properly balanced so you heard them in the right proportions. I can't begin to tell you the number of headphones and speakers I've had which grab every sound they hear and then flatten them all onto the same wavelength. Phil Spector would have loved the wall of sound they made. Thankfully that wasn't the case with the A161P. Whatever technology they employ has the ability to recognize and differentiate between a sufficient variety of sound waves and recording levels it sounds like you're listening to a song straight out of a mixing board.

What I even appreciated more was they just didn't simply boost the mid ranges and turn down the highs and lows in an attempt to bring you a balanced sound field. It didn't seem to matter what range the lead instrument or lead vocalist played or sang in for them to be placed front and centre in the mix. So even if a vocalist was singing in the same pitch as the bass guitar their voice would still stand out and the bass would still stay firmly in the background laying down the rhythm track. Now that may not sound like much to some of you, but when the same technology is applied across the entire sound spectrum it makes for some the finest quality sound you've heard in a long time.

The MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset also comes with some very intelligent accessories which I've not seen included in other sets before. Aside from the variety of ear buds and the optional wire guides, they also come with an adaptor cable for smart phones. Some smart phones have different frequency out puts and this jack helps compensate for any sound distortion this might cause. The second adaptor is a splitter which allows you to plug the headset into both the headphone and microphone jacks on your equipment. It's always driven me crazy that so many of these new headsets come with a "built in microphone" but you're not given any way of utilizing it. Finally someone has had the brains to include the means for you to plug into your computer, or other device with both inputs. They've also included a nice hard shell clam case for storing the headset in, although to be honest, once you've attached them to your player I don't see you wanting to disconnect them any time soon.

Anyone whose gone shopping for headphones recently knows just how crowded the field is these days. For a non wireless set under a hundred dollars I don't think you're going to find much to match the A161P in terms of sound quality, options and ease of use. To say I was pleasantly surprised by how good the sound was would be putting it mildly. They may not have as many bells and whistles as some but if you care about what your music sounds like, what they deliver in terms of quality of sound reproduction more than makes up for anything else.

(Article first published as Product Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset on Blogcritics)

April 15, 2012

Product Review: eers PCS-150 Sculpted Ear Buds

What are the two most aggravating things about the ear bud style of earphones? For me it's the fact they never seem to fit comfortably in the ear and even those with the little loops for draping don't seem to ever want to stay in place. The second thing is directly related to the first as I'm sure the lousy fit is a major cause of how poor a job they do of blocking out background noise. The idea of earphones is so you can listen to a portable music device when you're out and about. But what good are they if they're either falling out of your ear or the only way you can hear your music is if you crank the volume so high you risk deafness.

I'm amazed I made it to my fifties without any discernible hearing loss after spending so much time in clubs standing right up front next to the stacks of speakers listen to noisy punk bands. The last thing I want to be doing is blowing an eardrum while listening to my I-pod - the irony in itself would be mortifying. Ever since I started reviewing music I've been looking for a decent set of earphones. I want something I can use in a variety of circumstances ranging from walking down the street next to traffic to the middle of the night when I don't want to disturb anyone else. While there have been a couple that have been fine for when I'm stationary and in a quiet atmosphere, no matter how good their sound quality is once I'm moving around amidst the noise and bustle of the world nothing has really proved to be reliable.
eers PCS-150 Box.jpg
So when I first heard about the idea of earphones which could be sized to fit an individual's ear canal I was intrigued. Developed by a company, Sonomax, which has been making industrial ear plugs for workers for over a decade, each set of sculpted eers ear buds is supposedly tailored to fit the shape of your ear canal. Not only would this keep the earbud comfortably in place it would also provide a seal to drastically reduce the amount of extraneous noise leaking in. The idea sounds great, but how in the heck were they going to accomplish that? It's not like buying shoes or clothes where you can send a company your measurements so they know what size to send you.

What they've done is developed the means for you to literally create your own earbuds at home. I was sent the kit for a set of PCS-150 custom fitted sculpted eers to test. At a list price of $199.00 Canadian a pop (the company is Canadian) the price might seem rather steep. However if they can deliver on what they advertise the price isn't that out of line when compared to the cost of high end speakers for a stereo system. Remember, no matter how much money you spend on the other components it's the speakers which will determine the quality of the sound you listen too. A bad set of speakers will ruin a good system, while great speakers will make K-Mart quality components sound like an audiophiles dream. So if you have a $300.00 portable music player do you really want to listen to what they produce through a set of headphones that cost $19.95?

The first thing you'll notice is the quality of the packaging the materials come in. Everything is contained inside a durable, hard cardboard box, which when opened reveals the carefully sealed contents. The kit includes what looks to be a set of headphones but is actually the SonoFit Custom Fitting System. The system fits over your head just like a set of headphones, but instead of containing wires and speakers its guts contain a pair of inflation pumps and medical grade silicone. At the receiving end of silicone and pumps are two modular ear pieces which can fit into even the smallest of ear canals. The ear pieces look like your typical ear buds down to the loops to fit over your ear, but that's where the similarities end.
eers box contents.jpg
Looking at everything was a little intimidating, especially with the notice warning you not to play with any of the buttons before beginning the customization process. However it comes with easy to follow trilingual (English, French and Spanish) and comprehensive instruction manual and a very efficient quick start guide as well. The latter contains all you need to know for creating your earbuds while the former has detailed instructions for how to care for your product and other helpful information. In an nutshell what happens is you use the head band and over the ear loops to position the ear pieces in your ear's canal. Once you have pushed them in as far as comfortable and done any fine tuning adjustments you require for comfort and fit, you activate the pumps which shoot the silicone into the pieces. The hardest part is sitting still with your head level and not talking for the five minutes required for the process to take place. When the time is up you simply snap the pieces off the frame and put the included face plates in place and, voila, you have your very own custom fitted ear buds.

Okay, I didn't go into the full details of how it works. However, the instructions are easy to follow, and if for some reason you have any problems they give you a link to a video to watch showing how its done and supply a 1-800 number to call for help as well. What's more important is whether they deliver on their promise of sound quality and ambiance? Well the apartment I live in right now is on my city's main street. Traffic at almost anytime of day or night includes 18 wheelers, Harley Davidsons, diesel passenger buses and cars equipped with sub-woofers big enough to knock over buildings. Normally if I want to listen to anything, including talking on the phone, I have to close the windows. With the windows open not only was I able to hear the music from my I-Pod with no problem, I could barely hear the sound of the passing traffic, and this was at four in the afternoon smack in the middle of rush hour.
SonoFit System To Fit Earbuds.jpg
I was so shocked and surprised that it took me a couple of moments before I even paid attention to the quality of the sound I was listening to. Just being able to hear without having to crank the volume was pleasure enough in itself for the first little while. Once I started to pay attention to what was going on inside my ears I was even happier. I had been a little leery of the PCS-150s advertised bass enhancement as I'm not a fan of bass heavy music. However all it means in this case is they've found a way to create a full, rich and balanced sound. There's none of the tinniness I've long come to associate with ear phones and neither have they resorted to most people's answer to that problem by simply amplifying the bottom end.

One of the tracks I use for testing headphones and speakers features a band that uses a lot of hand percussion alongside the standard rock and roll set up of guitars, bass and drum kit. Not only could you make out instruments the percussionist was playing normally lost on most speakers and ear buds, but you could also hear each instrument and the vocal harmonies clearly, distinctly and proportionate to their place in the mix. It was like the audio equivalent of 3-D as the sound had a depth of field you very rarely have the privilege of being able to appreciate. You could even hear the individual notes being played on the acoustic bass and the pitter patter of the congas drums, instruments which are normally lost when played in a rock and roll band.
To say I was impressed with the custom moulded eers PCS-150 ear buds isn't overstating it. Not only do they live up to their hype of providing a product that eliminates a high percentage of atmospheric noise common to the urban landscape which fits comfortably and securely into your ear, the quality of the sound they produce is as good as any high end speaker system if not better. While the PCS-150 comes complete with a built in microphone, for $30.00 less you can purchase the PCS-100 and get the same quality sound without the microphone. For the real audiophiles out there they also have the 200 series with even more enhancements to the sound quality for $299.00 with and $269.00 without the microphone. I doubt my ear is good enough to notice any difference, but if they are of the same quality as the 100 series, I'd bet they're worth the extra $100.00.

Currently the sculpted eers are only available at a limited number of retail outlets in the US, but you can purchase them through the company's on line store. As an added inducement they are not only covering shipping costs, but paying the duty on all cross border orders. In Canada they are currently available at The Source, a nation wide electronics chain, and through the online store. The price might seem a little steep, but for those who want to experience the same quality of sound on their portable device as they do in the comfort of their living room, they are worth every penny.

(Article first published as Product Review: eers PCS-150 Sculpted Fitted Ear Buds on Blogcritics.)

November 17, 2011

Product Review: Timbre Pro Earbuds & CS40s Headphones From iFrogz

I could never understand how people could pay thousands of dollars on fancy sub-woofers, amplifiers, turntables and other audio equipment and then skimp on speakers. The first, and most sage bit of advice, I ever received when it came to buying audio equipment was, it doesn't matter what else you buy, but make damn sure your speakers are what you spend your money on. The sound a system creates is only as good as what your speakers can handle. What difference does it make if your amplifier can generate 500 watts per channel if your speakers are only rated for 100 each? You'll either end up with distorted sound or blowing your speakers the first time you turn the volume up.

When they started making portable stereo systems manufacturers tried compensating for inadequate speakers using technological advances. While things like Dolby might boost signals and make the music louder, or give the illusion of rich sound by what basically amounted to turning the bass up higher, it came with a cost. The slight differences in frequencies generated by different instruments were gradually lost and music became more a wash of sound than collection of individual notes coming together in harmony to create magic. However, those comprises are nothing compared to what's happened with the advent of micro personal players and listening to music through headphones rather than speakers.

As a music critic I've struggled over the years to find the best ways possible to listen to the music people send me. It's become even more difficult in recent years with so many record companies only making review copies available as downloads and forcing critics to use digital players. In order to appreciate the music you have to be able to hear it - and that doesn't just mean have your brains turned to mush by mega bass and the other bells and whistles some audio companies seem to think are what's needed to make music sound better. Almost as important has been trying to find headphones that don't distract from listening to the music. There's nothing more annoying than listening to music with something which causes physical discomfort.
CS40s Headphones from iFrogz.jpg
So in setting out to gauge the performance of two of the many headphones offered by iFrogz, the Timbre PRO Earbuds with built in Microphone and the CS40s Headphones I've judged them on both audio fidelity and comfort. For those of you who are interested in the technical specifics of both pieces of equipment you can check their individual web pages at the links above as I've looked at them in terms of personal listening experience only.

The CS40s Headphones are an over the ear set modelled along the lines of traditional headphones, but with some subtle differences to accommodate portability and ease of usage. The first thing I noticed about them was not only were they easy to adjust in terms of fitting around your head, you could also adjust each ear piece independently. The CS40s allow you to place each ear piece for maximum comfort and sound quality. They even fit comfortably around the arms of glasses, which far too many manufacturers don't seem to take into account with their designs. Not only are the ear pieces so well cushioned you don't feel like you're wearing tin cans on your ears, they exert even less pressure than a pair of ear muffs. The only drawback when it came to comfort was the headband could have been softer. The addition of a little extra padding for across the top of the head would make the world of difference.

The sound quality was equally as impressive. First of all whether listening to music through my iPod Classic or watching video on my computer there was a richness to the sound I'd not experienced with headphones before. While some of that might have been accomplished by boosting the lower registers slightly, it wasn't at the expense of the over all quality. Both the mid and high end were still distinctive and it was easy to distinguish individual notes. From background sound effects on a television show to being able to distinguish each instrument as a distinct entity within a song, the CS40s offered a far wider range of sound than I would have anticipated from headphones made of metal. At a manufacturers suggested retail (MSR) price of $39.99 these are more than worth the price. With their ability to collapse in on themselves for easy storage and their light weight, they are perfect for both home and travel.
Timbre Earbuds With Mic by iFrogz.jpg
However, while headphones have always been known to have superior quality sound over earbuds and other more portable types of headsets, most of us prefer the latter for listening to music while walking or jogging. No matter how collapsable they are you still can't stick a set of headphones in your pocket like you can ear buds. Until now though, you've always had to sacrifice at least sound quality, if not comfort as well, for convenience. If that's been your experience in the past the Timbre Pro earbuds are going to change your world. Somebody at iFrogz seems to have remembered that materials matter when it comes to sound quality. These are the first headphone of any type I know of where the speaker, or whatever you want to call it, has been wrapped in wood.

The sound is the best quality I've heard from any set of headphones I've ever used. It has the warmth and range of tonal quality I've only ever associated with top of the line speakers before. You aren't normally able to distinguish between the individual voices singing five part harmony when listening to music through speakers let alone ear buds, but the Timbre Pro not only delivers rich sound the separation of the different ranges and frequencies is so clear you hear each voice as clearly as the lead vocals. The same goes for individual instruments, including some percussion you almost never hear because they are usually lost in the wash of sound. You could listen to everything from classical to hip hop on these with equal enjoyment

Like most earbuds they come with three different sizes and shapes of replacement buds for inserting into your ear. In this case however, they not only fit snugly into your ears without hurting they also successfully block out a great deal of surrounding background noise. This means you don't have to risk deafness by cranking the volume to listen to your favourite tunes while walking down a busy street. I tested them on a major street walking on the sidewalk right beside two lanes of traffic and didn't have to adjust the volume on my player once and was able to set it at half the level I had with other headphones.

While the Timbre PRO earbuds with microphone might seem pricey at $49.99 ($39.99 without microphone) as far as I'm concerned they are worth every penny. After years of having to listen to barely adequate sound through less than comfortable equipment, it's a joy to be able to enjoy the same quality of fidelity that I used to only ever associate with high quality speakers. As was the case with home audio equipment in the past there's no point in spending a lot of money on a music player if your headphones suck. If you care about the music you listen to the Timbre PRO earbuds are worth every penny.

(Article first published as Product Review: Timbre Pro Earbuds & CS40s Headphones From iFrogz on Blogcritics.)