Review: V-Moda Vibrato
It's hard to believe that nearly two years have passed since fashion headphone maker V-Moda released Vibe II, the more jewelry-like sequel to its intriguingly colorful metal forerunner Vibe. But as we prepare to end 2010, the company has appeared with a product that we didn't know was on its roadmap: Vibrato ($130), essentially a new version of Vibe II with subtle changes to several of its components. Most notable is the addition of a three-button remote control and microphone unit that replaces the separate mic and one-button remote found on Vibe II; the other changes all fall into the "modest" category. We discuss them below in this abbreviated review.
The Package. Very little has changed from the Vibe II bundle to Vibrato. You still get one pair of metal in-canal earphones with fabric cabling, a shirt clip, and a raygun-shaped headphone plug at the end, all designed to make the headset stable and easy to connect to any of Apple’s devices. Eight silicone ear tips are again included, each now internally colored to differentiate them more easily between S/M/L/XL sizes, and you still get optional sport-stabilization earhooks, and a leatherette carrying case. V-Moda’s new plastic box for Vibrato is an improvement on the cardboard predecessor, easier to open and to reseal to hold everything when you’re done while doing a nice job of showing off the parts inside.
The Materials. Vibrato swaps the prior stainless steel earphone housings for a new zinc alloy, though the impact on their looks is so minimal that you’d never be able to tell the difference between them. (The photo immediately above this paragraph shows the old and new models side by side.) Our review sample arrived in Nero, primarily glossy black with silver accents, and was all but indistinguishable from the prior version until we did a side-by-side comparison. As it turns out, the new version’s cabling is just a little thicker—strengthened with Kevlar due to the fragility of three-button remote cables—and the headphone plug is similarly only a little larger.
The Remote. Two in-line changes to Vibrato are the ones that will be most obvious. First, what used to be a one-button remote control at the Y-split junction of the cabling has been transformed into a more angular and functionless ornament that initially looks like it does something, but doesn’t. Rubber on one side with metal on the rest, it made us wish for the old one-button control back, as we really prefer not to reach up to neck level to pause music and take or end calls.
Similarly, what used to be a metal microphone enclosure on the right earphone cable has been transformed on Vibrato into an entirely plastic and soft touch rubber three-button controller and microphone box—to our eyes, a modest aesthetic cheapening of the prior design that somewhat improves its functionality. (You can see the old two-piece microphone and remote boxes alongside the new plastic three-button remote in the photo above.) While the plastic box blends in with the dark cabling enough that we didn’t care much about its shift away from metal, we initially liked the fact that the new model gains in-line volume controls without jacking up the price by the traditional $20 Apple’s three-button remote adds to headphones. That turned out to be only semi-true, though: Vibe II has dropped to a $120 MSRP, but is now being closed out online for a mere $50 relative to its original $128 asking price. If you can give up the 3-button remote, you can save a bundle of cash on what is in most ways a very similar product.
The Sound. Not much has changed between Vibe II and Vibrato. There’s still an 8mm driver inside, which V-Moda has again tuned for a “club” sound that uses bass as a dominant influence. Putting Vibrato into your ears with properly canal-sealing tips on will create an ear-filling but not overwhelming sense of sonic warmth, with treble playing a minor role and the midrange competing with low-frequency sounds for your attention. Songs with strong beats become powerful through Vibrato, while tracks with nuance tend—as in a club—to be less defined. You can change the silicone tips to ones that are too small to seal in your canals if you want to reduce the bass. Microphone performance is virtually indistinguishable from Apple’s three-button remote and mic-equipped headsets, most likely because they’re using the same Apple-sourced components. Voices sound natural and clear through Vibrato, and highly similar to how they did in the revised second version of Vibe II, with less static in the signal than the first units off the line. While the change in microphone location is sub-optimal visually, it doesn’t significantly impact sound quality.
In summary, Vibrato offers one key selling point over Vibe II—volume buttons—at a cost differential that may be small or huge depending on where and when you shop for them. The build quality and looks of Vibe II would be a significant bargain at the $50 price it’s currently floating at online, though that appears to be a close-out deal as Vibrato arrives to take its place in the V-Moda lineup. As with all of the three-button remote headphones out there, you’ll need to decide whether paying a price premium of any sort is worthwhile to gain remote volume control over your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, as well as whether the movement of the remote back up to neck level is something that would bother you for fashion reasons. We think V-Moda came closer to the right aesthetic and functional balance with Vibe II’s separate mic and control boxes, but otherwise, this is nearly as good of a pick now as the earlier version was two years ago.