Review: V-Moda Vibe II With Microphone
When V-Moda released the original $101 version of Vibe roughly two years ago, we were faced with a quandary: despite the innovative and attractive metal canalphone design, and the company's avowed interest in appealing to bass fanatics, we noticed that there were some issues with the earbuds that were worth noting -- variations in the sound from unit to unit, and questions regarding their build quality. Subsequent releases called Vibe Duo and Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality preserved the earbuds while making cabling, plug, microphone and remote control button changes, each designed to improve the earphones' appeal, particularly to iPhone users. Editor's Note: This review was modified after publication to reflect three updates: a subsequent control-related firmware upgrade to the iPod nano, additional information on the headphones' coloration, and a post-release change to the Vibe II's microphone. Notes on the new microphone can be found at the end of this review.
This week, V-Moda sent out packaged and apparently final samples of Vibe II with Microphone ($128), the first complete rethinking of Vibe since the original product’s release. Functionally, Vibe II is virtually identical to the latest Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality, with in-canal earbuds that have the same physical size, fabric cables, in-line microphone, and play/pause/call control button, but each of the elements has been reconsidered in ways that are designed to make the overall product better than its predecessors. In some ways, V-Moda has succeeded, but in others, it has not, and the result is an iPhone- and iPod-ready headset that we’d call good but not great overall.
Start with the earbuds. Regardless of what you thought of the sound, V-Moda clearly succeeded in creating a memorably cool physical design for the original Vibe’s metal canalphone casings, then extended that design through multiple and increasingly attractive Vibe and Vibe Duo colors. Acknowledging V-Moda’s achievement, we celebrated all of the Vibe earphones in the inaugural edition of our iDesign series of feature articles, and have continued to watch with bona fide excitement as the Vibe family has evolved and grown. Vibe II takes a similar, but different design approach: its predecessor’s machined aluminum has given way to polished stainless steel, a process that V-Moda says requires considerably more expensive manufacturing, but yields far more jewelry-like results. There’s no doubt when you see and feel Vibe II in person that it is more jewelry-like than before, but like most jewelry, it may or may not hit your visual sweet spot.
What used to be two-tone metal has changed into a single-colored metal body with three pieces of glossy plastic in the back, forming what looks like either a gemstone in a metal crown or the head of a Transformer toy robot, depending on your aesthetic leanings—people we’ve asked have been equally inclined to describe it in either way. After a lot of internal and external discussion of the design, we’ve come to the conclusion that Vibe II is a more polarizing earpiece cosmetically than its predecessor, but the color of our review sample may have had something to do with that: we received a silver and red version called Chrome Rouge, but there’s a more neutral black-bodied, chrome gem model due out called Nero; additional versions, including gunmetal gray and tones complementing certain iPod nanos, are also in the cards for future release. As with the earlier Vibes, Vibe II will likely continue to grow in popularity as better color combinations become available.
There’s some good news to report on the sonic front: Vibe II sounds at least a little better than the prior Vibes. Readers will recall that we struggled with the Vibe and Vibe Duo sound signatures for two reasons: first, we noticed substantial differences between different units we tested, initially tracing these issues to subtle differences in their included black and clear silicone rubber tips, and later to changes V-Moda made to compensate for changing sound curves in iPods and iPhones. Second, we noted that the Vibes possessed almost overpowering bass; they were designed to have an ear-filling, club-like sound, and tended to obscure midrange detail with an almost Darth Vader-like approach to booming low-end. When used with fully isolating included silicone eartips, we found that Vibe II still has a bass-heavy sound signature, but it’s not quite as overbearing as before, and switching to a slightly smaller silicone tip lowers the bass to a more balanced level. Listening to songs with the most comfortable eartips generally resulted in bass that was a bit on the boomy side, but not unpleasantly so.
Though the metal earbuds are roughly the same size as before, it’s worth noting that V-Moda has made two interesting changes to their included accessories. The company now includes four sizes of silicone tips—extra small joining small, medium, and large—to fit virtually any user’s ear canal, Additionally, it offers detachable rubber stem pieces called Sport Earhooks that improve the stability of the earbuds for over-ear mounting. You run the fabric cable through three points on the stems, wrap the stems around the backs of your ears, and insert the earbuds upside-down in your ear canals. We found that these new pieces were comfortable and did in fact increase the earbuds’ stability, using the rubber as a smart softener and positioner for what would otherwise be loose, scratchy fabric cabling. They’re wearable even with glasses, and don’t look goofy, a common issue with typical over-ear canalphone mounts.
V-Moda also includes a new carrying case with the Vibe II, which replaces a previous leather carrying bag with auto-sealing flexible top lips. On the plus side, the new case is even more stylish than before, featuring red-stitched black leather with a V-Moda V curve, and dual snaps that are roughly as secure as the prior flexible closure. Inside, there are two sides to the case, divided by a strip of mesh. Less positively, the number of rubber bits in the package consume most of the pouch’s space, and though you can fit everything inside, you probably won’t want to because of the tendency you’ll have to scatter the silicone eartips everywhere whenever you pull the earphones out.
A secondary option, storing the various parts inside Vibe II’s packaging, isn’t as easy as it might sound due to the way the box has been designed. V-Moda has created a very cool new cardboard, plastic, and magnetic box that actually splits in half, showing off the headphones on its top layer, and its accessories on a middle layer, with flaps on the bottom to remove plastic inserts that hold all of these parts in two separate compartments. You’ll need scissors to cut open the plastic containers, and by the time you’re done, you’ll want to just throw them away; holes in the cardboard means that storing all the extra parts will require a plastic bag.
There are three other changes to Vibe II that are worth noting. First is an updated microphone, which remains in the same physical location as on Vibe Duo, but now sits in a smaller, more angular pendant that matches the curves of the earbuds. While this new microphone looks better than its predecessor, featuring diamond-shaped holes, its performance was noticeably less impressive than both the Vibe Duo’s and Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headset’s in our tests with both Macs and iPods, as listeners complained of static hiss and vibration sounds that we subsequently recorded for a comparison audio sample, which we’ve posted here for your reference. We sent the sample to V-Moda, which acknowledged the differences, but noted that the microphone and its filters had been optimized for use with the iPhone rather than other devices, and then for noisy in-car use over other usage scenarios, a balance that it may change based on user comments.
In subsequent blind testing with an iPhone 3G in telephone calling mode, callers told us that the Vibe II’s microphone sounded lower in volume than the others, but with slight treble boosts to aid intelligibility, which they said resulted in no net improvement over the Vibe Duo and Apple Headset’s sound. This design may improve Vibe II’s mic performance in certain situations—again, V-Moda claims it’s better in noisy vehicles—but in our in-car testing, we saw the same results as indoor testing, which is to say that the new microphone does no better than the prior version’s, and in some cases sounds worse. Your results may vary based on your particular application, and on any changes V-Moda may make after its initial production run. [Updated Note: Following our review, V-Moda confirmed that a tweak will be made to the microphone to improve its performance; we’ll add more details on this as they become available.]
Another change, and one that we liked, was the relocation of Vibe Duo’s control button from the lower part of the microphone pendant to a separate metal pendant at the center of the Y-split between the earphone cables. Vibe II’s button has been increased in size and looks great in the metal bulb; the mic and controls are together definitely the most fashionable implementations of these features we’ve yet seen in a stereo headset. Though we initially found that the button only worked to pause playback and change tracks on the iPhone, iPhone 3G and 120GB iPod classic, not the fourth-generation iPod nano or second-generation iPod touch, a firmware update to the iPod nano enabled the button to work on this model as well, and we suspect that the same will happen on the iPod touch after version 2.2 of its software is released. Notably, Vibe II’s button behavior is no different from the Vibe Duo and other third-party headsets; Apple’s soon-to-be-released $29 and $79 earphones, however, will offer expanded remote control features, including in-line volume buttons, with third-party versions most likely following in 2009.
Finally, there’s the headphone plug, which now looks like a miniature ray gun, using a new form of connecting joint that manages to fit original iPhones, iPhone 3Gs, and iPods with less cable strain than before. While past V-Moda headphone plugs have been susceptible to coming apart even without misuse—an issue generally resolved by the company’s customer service department—the new ones appear to be less likely to have problems, and we’re glad to see them changed, even if they’re not as cool-looking as in prior Vibes. We’ll update this review if the Vibe II exhibits any sort of long-term problems in this regard.
In summary, Vibe II With Microphone is a good but not great sequel to the original Vibe and its Vibe Duo successors. While we appreciate the concept and some of the execution behind V-Moda’s “fashion-forward” cosmetic changes to the previously impressive body design, there’s no question that they’ve had mixed results, resulting in earpieces that some users will like and others will not—an issue that may well be remedied as additional colors become available. On the flip side, the prior Vibe’s bass-rich, club-like sound and in-ear stability have both taken small but noticeable steps up in Vibe II, and the cosmetics of the microphone and remote button have both improved, even if their functionality has decreased or stayed the same. All of these changes are offset by a higher price tag that in our view is more a function of the cosmetic manufacturing changes than performance benefits. While we prefer the overall look, microphone performance, and pricing of the earlier Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality, Vibe II offers a solid alternative; if you prefer the way it looks—and don’t mind the potential microphone issues—we certainly wouldn’t dissuade you from giving the new model a try.
Editor’s Note: Following publication of our original review, V-Moda improved Vibe II’s microphone and released the Nero black version of the headset, shown in the photos above. While differences between Vibe II’s original and new microphones are only modest during telephone calls—the new microphone is a little more natural-sounding—there’s a stark change in performance during use with higher-quality audio and voice recording applications. The static has basically disappeared in the newer model, and the result is cleaner, better sound—comparable to the microphones used in Apple’s headphones. Our rating for the newer Vibe IIs, which will be all units manufactured on and after November 25, 2008, is therefore higher than that of the original release. A comparison audio sample is posted here for your reference.