Review: v-moda Vibe Earphones
Pros: iPod-matching, metal-bodied in-canal earphones with eight sets of silicone eartips, a carrying case, a cable manager, and your choice of four color schemes. Sound signature of most recently tested units is bass-heavy, yet capable of impressively revealing low-end detail, and has just enough treble not to sound flat. Metal components have sturdy look and feel.
Cons: Midrange detail tended to be overwhelmed by bass in our testing, obscuring some vocals and making speech difficult to hear; not the rival of more clinically-balanced, similarly-priced earphones on high-end detail. Differences in the silicone tips found in different production runs will make some units sound even more bass-heavy than others; no easy way to tell earlier (Flashback or Gunmetal) units and newer ones apart.
Several days ago, we posted a controversial review of v-moda’s Vibe earphones ($101) - one that briefly ignited an uproar amongst headphone enthusiasts, and led to an urgent request from v-moda’s CEO. We had expressed concerns that Vibe - a much-hyped earphone, with its three colors now amongst the Apple Store’s most popular new pairs - appeared to sound different from pair to pair, amongst other issues. Certain that Vibe was fundamentally the same from unit to unit, v-moda requested an opportunity to talk through the issues we’d raised, and asked that we reconsider the review in the interim. To be fair to the company, we pressed pause on our review, with the intention of revisiting it soon thereafter. [Editor’s Note: On January 21, 2008, we added photos of two new versions of Vibe to the bottom of this review.]
After many hours of open, honest conversations with v-moda, three additional test pairs of Vibes, and yet more comparative listening tests, we have this: our updated review. The good news is that both iLounge and v-moda turned out to be “right” about what initially seemed to be divergent views on Vibe, but the bad news is that consumers will have a little more information to sort through as a consequence, and ultimately are going to have different experiences based on different Vibes in the marketplace. Though we have opted not to assign Vibe a rating at this time, we present our findings below for your consideration, and hope that you find them useful.
Some Background: Earphones and iLounge
Premium earphones - particularly those designed to match iPods or appeal to their owners - have become a huge business. In fact, iLounge’s editors frequently recommend a good pair of headphones as one of the first two or three accessory purchases a new iPod buyer should consider. Thanks to the rapidly growing iPod user base, companies all over the world have been testing iPod-inspired earpiece designs, and trying hard to make iPod users aware of their products. As the most widely-read iPod publication around, it’s no surprise that iLounge has been the place where many of these new earphones have debuted, and that these companies have tried especially hard to market their new designs to you and our other readers.
Our philosophy about earphones is simple: we don’t care about the marketing hype or the oft-repeated promise that every new product offers “incredible, rich lows with clean mids and sparkling highs;” we’ve heard this claim about audio products over a thousand times. Similarly, we’re aware that some people are willing to believe whatever claims or specifications they read on a box or are told are important. We’re not. We listen. We compare. And we report back to you on what we’ve heard.
If something sounds great relative to its many peers we keep on hand, we’ll say it. If it doesn’t, or breaks easily, we’ll say that too. Our objectivity and honesty have earned us a lot of praise, including from many audio manufacturers, who have repeatedly deemed us “the real deal” and a valuable, no-nonsense resource for consumers. Good companies see our reviews as providing both valuable feedback to improve their weaker products and an effective way to champion their great ones. While some companies would prefer that we didn’t have such an open user commenting system - one that lets other users render their positive or negative opinions, and call for fixes when their purchases go bad - we continue to think that it, and our Forums, are important parts of our mission to help users make better decisions, and companies make better products for iPods.
Some Background: v-moda and iLounge
Even before it started to sell earphones, we’ve been in communication with v-moda, a young but interesting developer of fashionable listening devices based out of Hollywood, California. We were one of the earliest supporters of its first design, the colorful metal Remix M-Class (iLounge rating: A-), and also had generally positive impressions of its colored plastic Bass Freq (iLounge rating: B+). Both were created as alternatives to Apple’s free iPod pack-ins - one an obvious duplicate, but with better sound and a metal housing, the other more like Sony’s MDR-EX71 series but in many more colors - and each sold for $50.
During the time we’ve been in contact with v-moda, we’ve learned several things about the company’s earphones: first, they may change in subtle cosmetic ways after initial release, second, they may change in subtle audio ways after release, though they always sound pretty good, and third, these things happen because the company is very concerned about getting things “right” - at least, from its perspective. Unlike companies such as Etymotic, which proudly tout the neutrality and accuracy of their earpieces, v-moda’s attitude is different: it is unashamedly interested in satisfying the masses. Since the masses love bass, v-moda earpieces tend to be more than amply equipped in that department, as the name Bass Freq suggests. And if the company decides mid-production that it can do something to improve an earphone, it might.
This process, called “revving,” and described further in this article, has been a concern of iLounge’s editors for some time. As we’ve said to v-moda on several occasions, it’s one thing to improve the cable or headphone plug quality on a pair of earphones, another thing to change the physical size of the earphones, and still another to make tweaks to the way they sound. While virtually every company out there “revs” its products, some are more open about it than others, and some more likely to tweak core functionality - in earphones, this would be “sound” and “fit.” By comparison with its peers, v-moda has been relatively open, and slightly more willing to make post-release changes to get things “right.” But then, it’s a younger company, and we get the sense that it’s learned quickly from its past products, and will be making fewer such changes going forward.
For prospective buyers of v-moda’s earphones, all of the above details boil down to two things. First, it’s possible that the first production units off the line might sound or fit a little different than those from the second or third production run. Second, the company is rather obsessed with quality, so as a general rule - v-moda swears it’s a solid rule - whatever’s changed will make the earphones better overall. In Remix M-Class, for instance, there could be a modest reduction in the diameter of the original earbud to make it smaller and potentially more comfortable - users with small ears will like this, users with big ears may not. As noted in our “revving” policy, we don’t have the bandwidth to track all of the changes, so we encourage our readers and company representatives to fill in the gaps in the comments section below.
One final point: in our original Vibe review, we noted that we were concerned about astroturfing - a marketing trick in which a company’s representatives pose as satisfied customers on discussion forums. We are entirely satisfied with newly detailed assurances from v-moda that it will not engage in such practices - on iLounge or elsewhere - and that its representatives are committed to above-the-board marketing of its products. While iLounge always advises readers to take largely anonymous comments - positive or negative - with a grain of salt, we welcome honest contributions from identified industry representatives, and are glad to have v-moda as a part of our community.
Vibe: Looks and Components
All of that preface brings us to the $101 Vibe, v-moda’s latest and most deluxe earphone. With four currently announced colors - the chrome and black Flashblack Chrome, the matte light olive and black Gunmetal Gray, the red and black Red Roxx, and the gold, red, and brown La Mocha - Vibe’s shiny, mostly metal housing is its biggest mainstream selling point, with each model designed to either match an iPod or stand on its own as a fashion accessory. Flashblack Chrome and Red Roxx go hand-in-hand with black and red iPods, while the Gunmetal Gray version works with black and even green iPods, and La Mocha could take the place of gold earrings.
The value is designed to be more than skin deep, however: v-moda has spent considerable time working on a crowd-pleasing sound signature for Vibe, one that’s relatively flat, with a small dip in the midrange, and a boost in the bass. It’s aided by miniature speakers that are designed to be the best in their one-driver-per-side class, and cables that the company claims are strong enough to resist the typical abuse of active users. Gunmetal’s black cable feels thick and rubbery, while the ones on Flashblack and Red Roxx feel a little thinner and smoother - a hint less sensitive to microphonics. All of the models have color-matched metal Y-splitters and headphone plugs, the latter piece relatively thin for compatibility with most iPod cases.
We’ve now had our hands on a total of five pairs of Vibe earphones: three guaranteed final pairs, one an early prototype, and one a unit that was built to sound the exact same as the final units, but wasn’t an actual production unit. The latter unit - the subject of some controversy in our prior review, and possibly a point of confusion in some other reviews of Vibe as well - arrived at iLounge defective, with one of its earbuds not working at all. We shipped back the unit to v-moda, mistakenly thinking that it was defective final hardware - our confusion - and noted that experience in the prior review. Since then, we’ve purchased one pair of Vibes ourselves, and v-moda has provided two additional, different-colored pairs so that we could compare them and listen for differences. Here’s what we’ve discovered.
Each Vibe package includes a gold leather carrying bag, which uses a spring-loaded mechanism to remain shut unless you press firmly on its top sides to open it. There’s also a rubber cord manager, and seven or eight sets of silicone eartips sized from small to medium to large. But from Vibe to Vibe, these rubber parts can differ - importantly. Our storebought Flashblack Chrome unit - part of v-moda’s first production run - came with almost seven entirely clear silicone tips, plus one set of small black tips, and a clear cord manager. The Red Roxx and Gunmetal units, from v-moda’s second production run, came with three sets of clear tips and four sets of black tips; Roxx had a red cord manager, and Gunmetal a clear one.
Colors aside, discussions with v-moda revealed that the eartips have actually changed from the first to the second production run: the newer tips are thicker, though neither photographs nor their packages can reveal that particular difference. And as we’ve discovered and confirmed with v-moda, the thickness of those tips will significantly impact the way that a given Vibe unit will sound. With the newer, thicker tips, Vibe floods your ears with bass - enough to satisfy the most demanding fans of low-end sound, and overwhelm those who prefer neutrality. The earlier, thinner tips thin out the bass, leaving Vibe more balanced, but still stronger in the low-end department than some of its competitors.
Comparative Sound Tests
Though Vibe’s $101 price point was somewhat novel at the time of its introduction, falling between the $50 and $150 prices that most in-canal earphones were selling for at that point, several competing models have appeared at or dropped to the same price since then. For that reason, we compared Vibe directly against a variety of similar options: d-JAYS (iLounge rating: A-) from Sweden’s JAYS, Sony’s latest MDR-EX90s (iLounge rating: B), Etymotic’s ER-6is (iLounge rating: A), and iSkin’s Cerulean X1s (iLounge rating: B+), each tested with medium single-flange rubber fittings save the ER-6is, which we used with triple flanges. As a caveat - now of particular importance given the preceding paragraph - your results may well vary based on the thickness of the silicone tips in Vibe’s package, and possibly the shape of your ears, as well.
On a scale from “neutral” to “colored,” there’s no doubt that v-moda has aimed for colored sound with vibes - a boon for those who want their music to sound exaggerated in the bass department, like the company’s prior Bass Freq, but a problem for those who prefer to have balanced, detailed sound across most or all of the spectrum. Whereas Etymotic’s ER-6i design aims for neutrality, and delivers impressive detail and accuracy, particularly in the mids and highs - a signature very similar to the Cerulean X1s - our Vibe focused heavily on the low end of the spectrum, impressing us only in its ability to render bass detail. If you’re listening to tracks with lots of mid-bass or bass sound, Vibe will bring out facets you might well have missed before, rather than overwhelming you with a wave of muddy throbbing. That said, we found its sound coloration hard to describe in traditional terms: while it is “warm” in the clinical sense, disproportionately accenting mid-bass and bass, it isn’t “warm” in the most pleasant sense of the best audio equipment we’ve tested, lulling us into relaxation with silkiness. Every time the earpieces went into our ears, we felt that they sounded a little too bassy, and our ears needed a little time to adjust; used with airplane headphone ports against the growl of an engine, we found voices difficult to make out over the low-end.
Our impression is that the Vibe design provides just enough staging via treble and midrange detail to avoid sounding compressed, delivering highs that neither rival the ER-6is nor the nicely tuned d-JAYS, but don’t offend the ears, either. Because they weren’t as bass-heavy, we thought that the d-JAYS, ER-6is, and X1s did a better job of revealing high and mid details, and felt the d-JAYS were the best overall for those who prefer a good balance between clinical high-end detail and sound-colored earphones, but we preferred v-moda’s sound to that of the bass- and mid-boosted Sony MDR-EX90s. Some users - particularly those who like folk music and other tracks that haven’t been mastered for clarity - will find the EX90s to be better-sounding. Vibe’s mids can come across as nearly absent thanks to the exaggerated bass; while dance beats and guitar music sounded good through Vibe, vocals in some songs can become indistinct and difficult to understand.
Having tested three pairs of Vibes, including storebought and v-moda provided pairs from different production runs, we feel relatively confident that the drivers and earphone housings are nearly identical from unit to unit, at least as looks and sound quality are concerned. But having read numerous user comments, it’s obvious to us that there’s no single consensus on how Vibe sounds: some users hear weak mids, others hear harsh highs, and we hear overwhelming bass, particularly with the newer, thicker eartips in the latest Vibes. Having spoken with v-moda about this topic at length, and tested with the newer and older tips, it’s our impression that the variations are attributable to three factors: primarily differences in the eartips, but also the ears of listeners, and finally the recordings that are being listened to. Having exposed our Vibe pairs now to a number of independent listeners, we can safely say this: if you’re looking for high-end detail, you’ll do better with the d-JAYS or Etymotics, but if you love bass - as many people do - there’s no doubt that you’ll prefer Vibe.
Our feelings on Vibe’s comfort level were mixed. We’ve tested the earphones in multiple environments, including quiet listening, in-car listening, and a six-hour long plane flight, and found that the included silicone eartips made the metal earpieces relatively secure in our ears, but not quite as comfortable as the similarly small d-JAYS and ER-6is. After a few hours, the Vibes left our ears seriously fatigued in a way that the d-JAYS and Etymotics didn’t; the d-JAYS, however, were a bit less secure. We also generally liked the feel and look of Vibe’s metal bodies, and were impressed by the length and feel of their cabling, particularly in the Flashblack and Red Roxx versions.
Based on our discovery of the significant audio differences between the silicone tips variously included with different Vibe earphones, it’s hard to reach a single definitive conclusion about v-moda’s overall package. On one hand, we think the company’s fashion focus has created some of the most eye-catching earphones we’ve yet seen. Similarly, since we know that bass emphasis appeals to some readers, there’s little doubt in our minds that many people will like Vibe’s sound no matter which eartips they get. The drivers chosen by v-moda are comparable in detail to the best we’ve heard at this price point, though unlike their competitors, they focus more on revealing in the low end than the high end. In our view, however, the thicker silicone tips tended to flood our ears with too much bass, and since the thicker tips are in newer Vibe boxes, that’s what the next round of buyers should expect to hear.
More than anything else, Vibe has revealed that even a hair’s worth of added silicone rubber can have a surprising amount of sound-sculpting ability, rebalancing the sound from even a completely neutral driver. While this isn’t only v-moda’s issue to deal with, it’s our hope that the knowledge of these differences, and subsequent research, will lead to more consistent in-canal earbud experiences from user to user.
[Editor’s Note: On January 21, 2008, we added photos of two new versions of Vibe—one is a revised, currently shipping version of the Gunmetal Vibe, which now has a nicer, standard gray rather than a green tint, and the other is a Midnight Blue version with a blue and black body. Gunmetal uses plastic cables, while Midnight Blue has fabric cables. Both now feature iPhone-compatible headphone port plugs, as well.]