Company: Thinksound/Timbre Sound
Compatible: iPods, iPhones, iPads
As a general rule, inexpensive earphones aren't anything to write home about -- we've tested plenty of $50 models that are equal to or worse than Apple's packed-in iPod and iPhone freebies, and with the release of remote control and microphone-equipped headsets that sell for $20-$30 premiums, it's possible to spend $70 or $80 these days on earphones that are really nothing special sonically. Feature variations have also made it possible to spend $80 or $100 on a headset without really knowing what it can do: does it include a microphone? A one-button remote? A three-button remote? Do the earphones sound special, or are they just generic?
The new TS02+Mic ($100) from Thinksound is a somewhat interesting story—a brand-new option from a relatively small earphone maker with an interesting backstory. Thinksound was founded by former employees of Tivoli Audio and V-Moda, companies famous for distinctive designs and bassy audio products. Yet TS02+Mic isn’t in any way what might naturally be expected from either of those companies: available in two color combinations (“silver cherry” or “black chocolate”), it is a pair of wooden canalphones with metal and rubber components outside and 8mm audio drivers inside. Unlike most of its rivals, this company wears eco-consciousness on its sleeve, claiming that it designed TS02+Mic to have “the smallest eco-footprint possible,” a point that’s evident in the packaging and pack-ins. The headset is packaged in a fully recyclable box that uses rope rather than plastic twist-ties and hooks, and comes with a cloth rather than plastic carrying case, four sizes of rubber ear inserts, and an optional shirt clip. The wood’s there to create natural-sounding resonance, the metal’s there for stability, and the rubber’s there for proper fit with your ears. Everything else is as minimalist as possible.
One area in which TS02+Mic falls a little behind some of its iPod/iPhone/iPad peers in its approach to remote control functionality. At a time when an increasing number of manufacturers are supporting Apple’s three-button remote and mic standard, Thinksound uses only a one-button remote with a mic built in, capable of working to control play/pause/calls on Apple’s devices, but not volume. Microphone performance was basically identical between TS02+Mic and a pair of Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic we tested alongside it, which is to say clear and easy to understand from its position in a capsule dangling from the right earbud cable. The remote button worked properly and was easy enough to press thanks to its bulging position within the microphone capsule; that said, we’re bigger fans of remote buttons that are further from face level.
Earphone performance was a different story. Thinksound’s audio engineer was one of the key sound people at V-Moda, as well as an audio equipment tester for Consumer Reports, a background that might lead some to assume that TS02+Mic was going to be either an ultra-bassy earphone like peer-priced V-Moda designs, or perhaps something neutral and uncolored to satisfy audiophiles with reference monitor ambitions. As it turns out, TS02+Mic isn’t really either of those things—it leans more towards V-Moda’s direction, but isn’t as extreme, and doesn’t have the eye-catching looks of V-Moda’s numerous fashionable designs. We’d wish Thinksound had pushed a little further in the aesthetic department, given its pedigrees.
Sonically, TS02+Mic offers significant, somewhat accentuated bass without the dark Darth Vader tendencies that so many of V-Moda’s earphones have had, making bass-deficient earphones like Apple’s In-Ears sound outright flat, yet not going completely overboard. Songs that are supposed to fill your ears with bass do so, while others that use low-end sounds more intermittently still have the silent gaps the musicians and their producers intended. By the same token, TS02+Mic preserves enough treble and midrange detail to let you hear most of your music as intended, albeit without the crisp definition that more expensive multi-driver speakers normally include; this is clearly a one-driver-per-ear solution, but with good drivers. Music sounds natural, nicely balanced, and reasonably detailed without being clinical—we’d call the sound signature “nice,” and we liked hearing tracks from the first moment we put TS02’s comfortable rubber tips into our ears. We found the bass emphasis a little fatiguing after extended listening, but our view is that most users will like TS02’s sonic presentation quite well.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the “nice” sound, one button remote, and Apple-quality microphone are worthy of the $100 price; our inclination is to say that TS02+Mic is on the edge of a yes but will be more of a niche product for a number of reasons. Those who appreciate the eco-packaging and design model, the use of wood in the earphones, and “bassy but not too bassy” sound will be satisfied with the purchase, while others may find the pricing a little too high given that these aren’t the most stylish, functional, or impressive-sounding earphones around. Apart from the packaging and the wood on the earphones, TS02+Mic would be hard to tell apart from many of the earphones we were testing two or three years ago, but it does offer enough sound and apparent build quality for the dollar to merit our general recommendation.