Review: XtremeMac FS1 High Definition Earphones
Pros: Attractively designed headphones which, when paired with proper included (foam) earpieces, perform music with rich, detailed bass - a noticeable step up from bass-heavy phones at lower price levels. The right foams will provide good isolation from outside noise, as well.
Cons: Many included rubber earpieces are uncomfortable by standards of competing products, and/or produce far less impressive sound than the foams. Bass-heavy sound will be better for some listeners than others. Price is closer to Future Sonics’ original pricing for EM3 than later/current $99 price, which will deliver a similar type of listening experience, albeit in a less attractive package.
Many moons ago, we looked at a pair of sub-$200 earphones called EM3s (iLounge rating: B+) from a company called Future Sonics, which we praised at the time for sound quality, particularly their bass response. Other than their price, which our reviewer noted at the time was on the high side, the one thing they lacked for was sex appeal: their dark fleshtone bodies were offset by light fleshtone foam inserts, and neither photographs nor the real thing inspired iPod-matching excitement. Later discounting by Future Sonics brought the price down to a more affordable sub-$100 price, making the phones more attractive in one major way.
XtremeMac - recently on an industrial design upswing - has largely remedied the other big issue. Its new FS1 earphones ($149.95) were developed in collaboration with Future Sonics, which brought EM3-caliber sound quality to the table. XtremeMac contributed sleek new glossy white housings, each emblazoned with a gray version of the company’s new logo, and several gray rubber parts: dark rubber ear moldings, lighter cords, a darker Y-splitter, and a matching adjustable cord length manager. The end of the cord has a slick, small white and gray headphone plug that’s small enough to work with basically any iPod case you can imagine, a touch we liked.
Unlike the EM3s, FS1 gives the listener a wide variety of different ear pieces to choose from. There are three “bullet-style” rubber sleeves in small, medium and large sizes, one set of quadruple flanges - that’s a lot of flanges - and two sets of foam sleeves in two sizes, small and large. The foam sleeves are the same flesh-colored ones that Future Sonics included with the EM3s, and they’re almost as visually odd here as they were with the earlier phones, thugh the white FS1 bodies offset them better. A zippered carrying case also comes in each package, as does a wax cleaning tool.
Our first experiences with FS1 were with the foam sleeves attached, and even in a noisy convention hall, it was apparent that they were standouts on bass response. We had our own iPod and tracks to test, and could hear wonderful richness - clean sound, with good detail throughout, but most notably in the bass. Though we always note that we prefer the balanced, strongly detailed sound of Etymotic’s earphones, the strong bass of the FS1s offered a really good alternative for dance, rap, and certain string music. And when we say “really good,” we mean markedly superior to what you’d hear in a pair of $50 or cheaper earbuds, even ones with strong bass. The FS1s’ detail is its major advantage, and as with other earphones in the same price range (like Etymotic’s ER-6i, iLounge rating: A), you’ll hear layers and elements in music that you’d never noticed or forgotten with cheaper earbuds.
There’s only one problem. Not only did we find the fashionable “bullet-style” sleeves seriously uncomfortable, no matter what size we tried, or how much we fooled around with them, but music did not sound good through them, either. They struck us as the sort of earbuds an artist would design to make earphones look great in a picture, without actually testing them to see whether they felt or sounded as good as they looked. They don’t. Sonys, Ultimate Ears, and other brands of silicone-tipped earbuds haven’t provoked this sort of reaction from us, and for good reason: they feel, sound, and isolate a lot better.
FS1’s quadruple flanges fared better in comfort, but not much in audio quality. Listening to our music through Etymotic’s ER-6is and triple flanges, then the FS1s with the quadruple flanges, was almost like night and day. As usual, the ER-6is exhibited great balance and detail, with good but not overpowering bass. Impressively, the FS1s had comparable detail in the highs and mids - not an easy feat versus outstanding earphones like the ER-6is - but the balance was all off, and the bass was actually weaker. Once we’d heard both side-by-side, we’d never go back to the FS1s with the quadruple flanges.
However, as we found when we repeated our convention center tests in home and outdoor environments, XtremeMac’s foams were a completely different story. Despite all the pictures you’ll see of them with the rubber sleeves, it’s obvious that the FS1s were built - just like the EM3s - to shine with foam. You squeeze the foam to temporarily compact it down, then place the earpieces in your ears. The foam then expands to fill your ear canal, providing superior isolation from outside noise and greater, nearly customized comfort. With the right-sized foams on the FS1s, the audio is as pleasant as we described above. With the wrong-sized (too small) foams, the extended bass response (and much of the other sound) is lost, as with the silicones, but a bit more comfortable, in any case leaving the resulting sound tinny and unsatisfying.
In other words, the experience that you’ll get out of the FS1s with foams is a lot like what sold so many people on the EM3s: rich, detailed bass slant with an emphasis on comfort and smooth curves - both in the audio and in the aesthetics. Thanks to XtremeMac’s industrial design acumen, you’ll feel less geeky with the FS1s in your ears than the EM3s, but at today’s prices, you’ll now pay a $50 premium for the difference. Like their predecessors, we think of the FS1s as a very good pair of headphones that will strongly appeal to certain people - bass lovers - and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to you if bass is what you’re looking for.