Review: Headbanger Audio Ear Subs Earphones
Pros: Bass-enhanced headphones with an included small amplifier provide superior across-the-board low-end response to competing options available in the same price range. Versions available for iPod and other devices.
Cons: Amplifier adds base level of noise to all iPod output that’s audible indoors at low to slightly below-normal listening levels. Buds aren’t as comfortable as top-rated efforts in this category; benefits of design will be lost on all but bassheads.
Audiophile debates over accuracy of sound aside, if you ask the average guy what he wants to hear from headphones, the word “bass” is most likely to be part of that answer. To that end, Headbanger Audio is now offering Ear Subs ($29.99), several pairs of inexpensive silicone rubber-tipped, in-canal earphones that promise “studio quality sound with rich bass levels that are well beyond the sound performance of other name brand earphones.” The company’s goal is to approximate the bass response of a subwoofer - the large third speaker that accompanies 2.1-channel audio systems and sits on the floor, creating rumbles and deeper tones. While the Ear Subs fall short of the “studio quality” promise by a substantial margin, they do offer dramatic low-end enhancement that will be appreciated by bass lovers with less than hi-fi aspirations.
Each of the Ear Sub phones is a somewhat complex design. It begins with a plastic and rubber stick that connects via rubber to a chrome ear bud that sits in your outer ear canal. A thin plastic tip covered with an isolating piece of silicone rubber then extends into your middle ear canal. The phones are attached with symmetrical lengths of cabling to your left and right ears and an in-line amplifier box. There’s no cord management or other fancy add-on for the cord.
Each package of Ear Subs includes the earphones, amplifier, and a second set of silicone tips for smaller ear canals. It’s worth a brief mention that Headbanger Audio produces at least three versions of the Ear Subs - one that’s white and specific to Dock Connecting iPods, requiring the extended headphone port for battery power, and two that are black, one that’s made specifically for use with Sony’s PlayStation Portable, and the other designed for use with any audio device, including 1G/2G iPods and the iPod shuffle. The last one includes its own dual AAA battery-powered amplifier box, belt clip, lanyard necklace, and inexpensive caribineer; all of the accessories are sufficient, not special.
The different versions operate in a virtually identical way: once plugged in, there’s no knob or other way to adjust the bass impact: the iPod and PSP versions just activate, while the AAA-battery version includes an on-off switch with red power light. If the switch is off, you won’t hear anything through the headphones.
But when the Ear Subs are on, they provide both bass enhancement and general amplification of the iPod’s audio signal, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, both subtle bass lines and intentional thumps become considerably more pronounced, and do so in a way that’s considerably clearer and better than Griffin’s muddy, uncomfortable bass-enhancing EarJams (iLounge rating: B-).
At least as far as bass is concerned, we found the Ear Subs to be markedly better than Apple’s stock earbuds, Sony’s MDR-EX70 series (iLounge rating: A-), and MDR-EX81s (iLounge rating: A), which are amongst the more popular low-end earbuds we’ve tested. Unlike Apple’s buds, they don’t strip off most of the bass, and unlike the EX70s and EarJams, they don’t turn all bass into a flat wall of thump: the Ear Subs provide enough definition between different bass notes as to let you hear a bit of extra detail and distinction. They’re not as comfortable as these Sony offerings, but they’re a little bit better than Apple’s pack-ins, and not as odd as the pictures might make them seem.
On the negative side, as with most inexpensive amplifiers, the Ear Subs automatically add a low level of noise to the iPod’s generally clean headphone port - regardless of whether any music is playing. Because there’s no knob to adjust the Subs’ amplification relative to the iPod’s own output, the noise is always there at any volume level. Those with average ears will likely hear it indoors if they’re listening to music at low to just-under-normal volumes, but it’s not highly audible outdoors or offensive when listening at music at or above typical levels. Audio nuts won’t like the noise, but most listeners probably won’t be put off - especially given the low price of the ear subs. Each of the cheap options we’ve mentioned above - Apple, Sony, and Griffin - will have a lower base level of amplifier noise, which will be appreciated by people seeking “balanced”, “clear” sound, but the Sony MDR-EX70s and Griffin EarJams much more noticeably distort bass, a trade-off that will push bassheads to the Ear Subs instead. Regardless, the Ear Subs are not the “studio quality” offering they are represented to be, but for the dollar, it’s hard to expect that from them.
Headbanger Audio’s low price is probably the biggest factor weighing in favor of our recommendation of the Ear Subs. At $29.99, they represent a pretty good value for people who demand earbuds with great bass response and don’t mind a little extra amplification noise in the process. We actually enjoyed listening to them, despite the fact that we have substantially better pairs of headphones in our collections, because the extra bass does add a nice punch to certain genres of music. The iPod-specific version of the Ear Subs is a bit easier to carry and use than the black AAA battery version, but the latter option insures compatibility with a greater array of devices. Lo-fi bass lovers won’t go wrong with either version, though discerning listeners will likely prefer the balanced response, greater comfort, and superior clarity of Sony’s MDR-EX81s in this price category.