Review: iSkin Cerulean XLR Earphones
Pros: An affordable replacement for Apple’s packed-in iPod earbuds, combining their general style and audio performance with a wide array of color options. Cables, included ear foams, and accents on earbuds are all the same color.
Cons: Comfort is equivalent to Apple’s pack-ins, which won’t satisfy some users, and headphone cable is unevenly split, with a greater length for the right side.
We are skeptical whenever a company new to headphones or speakers decides to release its first product, because we’ve seen that audio quality typically isn’t up to snuff with offerings by established makers of listening devices. Intended as replacements for Apple’s iPod pack-ins, the new Cerulean XLR earbuds from iSkin ($30 separately, $15 with purchase of an iSkin case) are thankfully not plagued by this problem: they sound at least as good as Apple’s originals, offer a far greater spectrum of color choices, and sell for an acceptably low price.
Once Apple succeeded in popularizing its “iconic white headphones,” the company shied away from any opportunity to offer replacements in different colors - say, iPod mini-matching blue, pink, green, gold, or silver, or U2 IPod-matching black and red. Unlike its competitors - excepting Audio Technica, which developed colored phones called ATH-CM3 (iLounge rating: B+) for Japanese iPod mini owners - iSkin has aggressively taken up that challenge. Seven of the eight available color combinations use predominantly white plastic earbuds, but their cables, earbud accents, and included ear foams come in your choice of green, blue, pink, gray, purple, orange, or red. The eighth pair uses mostly gray plastic earbuds with black cables, foams, and accents. We were impressed with the colors of each of the four samples we received for review: with the exception of white and gray, which we gravitated to as an obvious replacement for Apple’s buds, the colored cords and foams were vibrant and interesting; a nice riff on Apple’s muted theme.
They also match iSkin’s most recent Duo cases, an intentional move by the company to leverage the sales of its existing products to gain access to new markets. Purchase an iSkin case, and you’ll get the earphones for only $15 - a very reasonable price given their audio quality and style - but if not, you’ll need to buy them separately for between $25 and $30. Are they worthwhile as a standalone purchase? On looks alone, the answer is very close to being a yes.
The only hangup is comfort. Apple’s hard plastic pack-ins are covered by foam caps, but even so have never been praised for their comfort. In the under-$50 price range, we’ve had the greatest success with Sony’s MDR-EX81 and -EX70 series earphones, as well as competitors such as Griffin’s EarThumps, which use ultra-comfortable silicone rubber inserts that let a wide variety of people enjoy extended in-canal listening. Unfortunately, iSkin hasn’t followed their lead, and instead has come up with earphones that are only as comfortable as Apple’s pack-ins - not right for all ears. This was an immediate concern of one iLounge editor who tested them, and less so for another, who was fairly comfortable with Apple’s pack-ins. Both agreed on three points: that Sony’s and Griffin’s solutions were more comfortable, that Griffin’s didn’t sound as good as iSkin’s, and the Sonys, particularly the EX81s, sounded better. All in all, the XLRs and Apple’s pack-ins are highly similar in balance and detail.
As a brief side-note on the comfort issue, iSkin also opted to go with cabling that splits unevenly, with a short left cord and longer right cord leading to the Y-splitter. Some users find this to be objectionable and less comfortable than the evenly split cable used in Apple’s buds, but we tend not to mind much; it’s noted only for those with concerns. The XLRs’ headphone plug is less controversial; small and very compatible with the various iPod cases on the market.
If you’re comfortable with the physical shape and sound of Apple’s earbuds, but want something that looks a bit different, iSkin’s Cerulean XLRs are a very good choice. Though they could be more comfortable for some users, they couldn’t be much better looking for those who want to add more color to their iPod accessories without entirely losing their distinctive white plastic earpieces. We’d sooner buy a pair of these than spend $39 on either of Apple’s current earbud replacement packages.