Great design often appears inevitable. It’s not. Virtually every great product is the result of dozens of half-formed ideas, intentional choices, and plenty of prototypes. What better illustrations of this than the iPod and iPhone, products that had been done before by other companies, but were polished by Apple’s designers into museum-class works of art?
Today, we’re launching iDesign, a series of feature articles that will begin by spotlighting the key design features of a strikingly unique product or family of products. This edition of iDesign focuses on V-Moda’s family of metal bodied, in-canal Vibe earphones. We’ve known for a long time that the Vibes were impressive designs, and picked them for this inaugural edition after watching them continue to increase in both variety and popularity, hitting the market’s sweet spot with a wide array of great colors, a reasonable $100 price tag, and a targeted, not neutral, sound signature.
Prelude: From A Familar Remix to a New Vibe
Vibe wasn’t V-Moda’s first earphone—it was actually the third. By 2005, Apple’s white earbuds had become ubiquitous, and though the company was experimenting with different colors and shades for its iPod minis, it was unwilling to colorize its accessories. White and gray were always the add-on colors of choice, regardless of the iPod model, even when the company unveiled black iPods and iPod nanos. So a number of entrepreneurial companies saw a missed opportunity: colorize the iPod’s earbuds, and sell them as fashion accessories.
Some companies were content to just clone Apple’s earbuds and recolor them, typically without any regard for sound quality. V-Moda’s Remix M-Class went a couple of steps further. It used a close—not identical—shape, then changed the body from plastic to polished metal, the cords from opaque to translucent plastic, tweaked the diameters of the earbuds, and replaced the headphone port plug with something more stylish. It went with iPod mini-friendly colors, and speakers that actually sounded better than Apple’s. The $50 price was higher than Apple’s, but the product was undeniably cooler.
Reports at the time suggested that Apple wasn’t entirely happy with V-Moda’s work. The company had “remixed” an Apple product—yes, with cooler materials and new colors, but still, M-Class was based upon someone else’s idea. At the same time, another V-Moda design, Bass Freq, was testing demand for a huge number of colors and a more bass-heavy design. And the company was thinking of producing a high-end, golden earphone to appeal to buyers at higher price points.
After quiet prototyping, the company decided to try again. The result was Vibe.
The Basics: From Earbuds to the Headphone Port Plug
Vibe was a little different from all the other earphones that had previously been marketed towards iPod owners. Like Remix, it was made almost entirely from metal, but this time, it fit inside your ear canal rather than sitting outside of it like an earbud. Silicone rubber tips were used to seal the buds inside of your ear canals, producing an extremely bass-heavy sound. And V-Moda spent a lot of time thinking about how to make Vibe look like it was worth twice the price of Remix, and most other low-end earphones.
The company focused on details. Each color of Vibe had its own characteristics: some versions used rubbery, opaque black plastic cords, others had glossy, transparent cords without a rubber texture. One part of the barrel was machine-cut, the other part polished. Some versions had radial polished backs, others were glossy. Every one looked cool, but for slightly different reasons.
Each Vibe earpiece used a laser-cut speaker driver that the company was extremely proud of, and though we noted in our review that manufacturing variations in the company’s silicone tips seriously changed the audio, rendering its bass-skewed audio almost overbearing, users have generally been satisfied with Vibe anyway. Buyers of lower-end headphones tend to prefer ones with lots of bass, and there was no question that Vibe delivered on that count.
Though the ear tips were a little underwhelming, the company otherwise obsessed over each of Vibe’s materials. Plastic and fabric cords were tested for looks, resilience, and impact on the sound; most of the first slate of Vibes shipped with plastic cords. Comfort and stability of the earpieces and their tips was a major concern. Company representatives said at the time that they were trying to guarantee that the unique design would survive athletic workouts, and though users had a tendency to subject their earphones to almost stupid levels of abuse, V-Moda wanted the $100 Vibe to do better than most.
Later, after Apple announced the iPhone, V-Moda went to work on Vibe Duo, a version that would let you take phone calls and listen to music with the same headset. Vibe Duo saw the introduction of fabric cords, and an in-line microphone in a stylish metal enclosure; the company later updated Vibe Duo to include a control button that could stop or start calls and audio playback, shown here, and discussed in this review.
The iPhone also forced V-Moda to change its headphone port plug, which in this case wasn’t as easy as just shaving off plastic. Vibe Duo’s remolded plug retained its glossy metal looks, but became thinner to accommodate the iPhone’s recessed port, a change that was later carried over to standard versions of Vibe as well. Like Vibe for the iPod, Vibe Duo proved extremely popular with iPhone users.
Pack-Ins: The Carrying Case and Modawrap
Though it wasn’t an integral part of the package, Vibe’s carrying case is also a standout. The first version was made from gold-colored leather, and featured a simple, spring-styled top closing mechanism that was easy to pop open for earphone removal and insertion. V-Moda included a neutral-colored Modawrap cord manager to help keep Vibe’s wires from dangling too much.
With the release of Vibe Duo, the carrying case stayed the same in material and functionality, but went all black—a positive change that has now been carried over to the standard Vibe, as well. As simple as the idea of a black leather carrying case may seem, V-Moda’s version looks good, feels convenient, and sets itself apart from many others we’ve tested.
The Colors: Matching the iPods, iPhone, and More
One of the biggest surprises about the Vibe lineup has been the variety of colors V-Moda has chosen to release: over the past year, the company has designed versions to complement iPods, the iPhone, and even Microsoft’s brown Zune. Most use two colors—one for the etched barrel and part of the back, another for the rest of the body—but one version of Vibe Duo for the iPhone is entirely glossy chrome.
The single biggest challenge: keeping up with Apple’s color changes. V-Moda’s Red Roxx version looked perfect with the second-generation red iPod nano, but became a little bright next to the more muted red of Apple’s third-generation nano and shuffle. Still, it’s hard to complain about such nice-looking earbuds, even if the color’s not a perfect match.
One odd color, Gunmetal Black, originally shipped in a slightly green tint that has wound up closer to Apple’s green nanos and shuffles than any other model. It’s unclear as to whether this was the result of a manufacturing glitch, or an intentional decision.
Unexpectedly, the company recently revised the Gunmetal color—now it’s the flat gray that we’d originally expected, as shown in back.
The result is a high-class black and gray combination that looks fantastic with the charcoal black third-generation iPod nano. V-Moda has also experimented with other colors, including the Zune-ready La Mocha, a combination of gold and brown, and an odd gray and red version of Vibe Duo called Gunmetal Rouge.
A brand new color, Midnight Blue, is a somewhat unusual pick. Just released, it comes closer to the old tones of Apple’s second-generation iPod nano and iPod shuffle than the newer blues and purples of late 2007 models. Like Red Roxx, though, Midnight Blue still looks beautiful, and pairs just as well with black iPods as with blue ones.
Ultimately, what V-Moda has achieved with the Vibe and Vibe Duo designs is enviable: it has created earphones that serve as truly complementary fashion accessories to iPods without knocking off Apple or the work of other companies. And it has designed a product that, thanks to its colors and materials, looks and feels like it’s worthy of a premium over $50 alternatives.
Vibe, as Accessory to Accessories
Another impressive thing about the Vibe design is its ability to accentuate the best traits of other high-end accessories. Because of its use of glossy metal, it can draw your eyes to the silver appliques in Vaja’s high-end leather case iVolution Silver; V-Moda’s standard Vibe is shown here, but the reversed black and silver Nero version of Vibe Duo also looks spectacular. Other cases also look great with the Vibes, which isn’t necessarily true of more generic earphones.
Vibe’s only limitation in cross-accessory appeal is the fact that there aren’t many other add-ons you need on the road; apart from your iPod and its case, the only other thing it might match or accent is whatever you’re wearing. But it can easily become part of a reasonably priced “on-the-go and at home” gift set, matching a speaker like the Vestalife Ladybug even if it doesn’t align perfectly with the color of your iPod.
Do people really buy accessories to work with other accessories? Maybe, maybe not. But V-Moda’s decision to manufacture and market Vibe as a fashion item, rather than just a plain earbud, radically increases the chances that it will be appreciated for more than just its sound.
Cloning: The Dark Side of High Design
Creative people know that cloning is a clear sign that you’ve done something right: when other people would sooner copy what you’ve done than create something new on their own, you have a hit on your hands. V-Moda’s been dealing with Vibe cloners since before the product even launched: Chinese companies copied the idea and immediately tried to market knock-offs, so V-Moda was forced to take legal action, in the form of a design patent that it’s enforced against thieves.
Unfortunately, the battle against cloners is never ending. As recently as last week’s Macworld Expo, when Lenntek introduced its “Sonix” earphones—billed by its representative as an in-canal earphone “in the style of V-Moda’s Vibe”—V-Moda has been forced to chase and shut down knock-off artists, even in public, at trade shows. Confronted with legal papers, Lenntek shuttered Sonix, but there are many other Vibe copies out there. Whether this design becomes generic or remains a standout will depend as much on V-Moda’s vigilance as on customer willingness to shun clones rather than buying them.
In fairness, V-Moda didn’t get everything right with the Vibe or Vibe Duo: as we noted in our reviews, there are ways that both its earphone and microphone technologies could be improved, and of course, more and better color options would help their appeal as Apple continues to roll out new iPods, nanos, and shuffles. But the same things could be said about many earphones, most of which bring absolutely no new industrial design to the table, and few of which appeal to their target audience like the Vibe and Vibe Duo.
What V-Moda importantly got right here is the big picture: it delivered on the promise of a fashionable earphone that breaks new aesthetic ground, offering acceptable sound quality, and delivering enough perceived value for the $100 asking price to satisfy most customers. For these reasons and many others, we look forward to seeing what the company does next—will it be new earphones, more versions of Vibe, or something else entirely? We look forward to letting you know when we know, and continuing this series of iDesign feature articles in the very near future.