Review: Design Annex iBeat Illuminating Headphones
Pros: Affordable, eye-catching glowing earbuds available in your choice of six colors, with sound quality equivalent to Apple’s iPod pack-ins. Cord can be set to glow all the time or respond to the beat of your music. Doesn’t impact iPod’s battery.
Cons: Requires unwieldy strap-on power pack and clear plastic holder. No cradle for iPod nano.* Practicality a question mark.
For every fifty iPod add-ons we see, there’s one that we like a lot more than we thought we would. First-time iPod accessory maker Design Annex’s new iBeat ($29.95) Illuminating Headphones are a prime example. We can take only vague stabs at explaining how they’re actually useful for anything, but they’re almost entrancing in person - the sort of inexpensive, Lava Lamp-like gimmick that’s worth having just to look at.
Six colors of iBeat are available: white, aqua blue, dark blue, green, orange, and pink. We’ve tested white and aqua blue versions, and they both work the same: a long cable runs from your ears to your iPod, glowing bright enough to be seen in daylight, and functioning in one of two modes. The first mode responds to the beat of your music, while the second stays on all the time.
If you liked Apple’s iPod silhouette commercials, and perhaps even if you didn’t, you’ll probably appreciate the idea, even if you’d laugh at the premise of wearing iBeat on a New York City or London subway. For obvious reasons, these aren’t full-time earbuds, and as the price indicates, they’re not meant to be premium earphones. They’re a fun toy.
Each iBeat set includes a pair of mostly clear-cabled, white plastic earbuds that look a lot like Apple’s iPod pack-ins from a distance, plus foam covers, two AAA batteries, and three soft plastic cradles. One cradle is designed to fit full-sized iPods, another iPod minis, and the last iPod shuffles. (There’s no iPod nano version yet.) You need the cradles and batteries for one reason: there’s a white plastic power box at the end of the iBeat cable, and it’s a bit larger than the iPod shuffle.
This box is the unit’s single design problem, and the part that will likely reduce iBeat’s appeal: it is attached to the back of your iPod with one of the cradles, and connects to the iPod’s headphone jack via a short cable. In other words, in order to have glowing headphones, you need to bulk up your iPod.
A single power button toggles between off, on and beat-responsive, and on full-time. Design Annex also includes a volume-like knob which adjusts the sensitivity of the beat response: turn it all the way up and the light is always on, down and the light is always off, with positions on the middle triggering the light more or less. In any setting, iBeat works. The headphone cables look really good when they’re glowing, and the earphones are essentially equivalent to Apple’s in sound quality and frequency response.
But are they practical? We struggled to find “the right” use for them outside of at-home listening. If not at a typical nightclub, where you’re going to want to be social, do you wear them to an iPod party? Even that sort of misses the point. If you’re living in a safe city, you could wear them out in public - which, incidentally, you can do when the light’s turned off, or on.
In the final analysis, some things don’t need to be practical in order to be worthwhile. The iPod is, first and foremost, an entertainment device, and iBeat is a fun visual extension of that, in much the same way as Speck’s iGuy (iLounge rating: B+) is - hence, it receives the same small rating bump for innovation. If you like the idea and don’t mind the power pack, you’ll probably want to have one. We think a lot of people will, thanks to the unique look, good implementation, and reasonable pricing.
Update Sept. 14, 2005: Design Annex has announced that iPod nano-compatible iBeat clips will be provided for free upon request by customers who have already purchased the accessory. These nano clips will be available at the beginning of October.