There’s magic in the $100 bill — not the paper itself, but rather in how this particular unit of measurement serves as a benchmark for different types of products. Today, we’re reviewing two new $100 headphones for iPod, iPhone, and iPad users, and they’re very different from one another: House of Marley’s Zion Earphones ($100) are a fairly conventional pair of in-ear, wired headphones with design influences from the late Bob Marley’s family, and BBP Industries’ Mobiband ($100) is a completely wireless Bluetooth 2.0 headset that’s being advertised as a spiritual sequel to Jaybird’s Sportsband, only with design improvements.
Core functionality is what these two headsets have in common. Both include stereo speakers—one per ear—and a microphone so that you can make phone calls with an iPhone, and use voice input-ready apps with any iOS device. They’re also both designed to be portable: the corded Zion earpieces can be wrapped up and stuck inside an included canvas carrying pouch, while Mobiband goes beyond the aforementioned Sportsband by folding up for fairly easy storage inside any bag you provide yourself.
But at that point, the similarities end. Of these two products, Zion looks more intriguingly designed: fabric cables with Jamaican stripe colors are attached to earpieces made from wood, handsomely pinched and swirled recycled aluminum, and silicone rubber tips; a nice black plastic and silver metal capsule at the Y-juncture below the earphones provides three-button remote controls and a microphone at just the right distance from your face. The L-shaped headphone plug is compatible with virtually every iPod, iPhone, and iPad case we’ve seen, and respectably designed to relieve some cable strain. Three total sets of silicone tips are included so that you can get a snug fit inside different sizes of ear canals. Every element of Zion looks and feels well-made; the only question is whether you like their style.
From a distance, Mobiband could be confused with a bunch of other headphones we’ve tested over the years—the design isn’t so much original as it is inevitable. Covered completely in soft touch rubber except for its glossy black sides and foam, rounded square earpads, the headband has top curves that are practically but unsexily skull-like in contour, consequently resting unusually well on the top of our heads. It’s only when you consider some of the smaller touches—the cocked-angle earpads, capacitive touch controls built into the edges of the right earphone, and the hidden microphone hole on a front edge—that Mobiband’s thoughtful, subtle approach begins to shine on its own merits. BBP bundles the headset with a USB charging cable for the very nice 10-11-hour rechargeable battery, missing out only on the opportunity to include a carrying case for the price. Pairing was quick and easy, without any need to enter a code or fidget with confusing controls.
Sonically, Zion is an easy sell for in-ear headphone fans. Between the bass-focused audio drivers and the entirely unobjectionable performance of its built-in microphone, Zion delivers almost the exact type of sound experience that most people would be expecting as an upgrade from Apple’s free pack-ins and similarly inexpensive earphones. While the audio definitely skews towards the low end of the spectrum, with less obvious treble than we’d prefer to hear from a $100 canalphone—and no major advantages in the detail department over $50-$80 alternatives we’ve tested—the bass performance delivered by House of Marley is surprisingly strong. Regardless of the tracks we threw at Zion, low-end notes, baritone voices, and beats were distortion-free, smooth, and rich in a way that we wish was more common in rival products.
Mobiband is another story. At first, it seemed like virtually every $100 wireless headset we’ve tested, apparently making sonic compromises that aren’t going to appeal to everyone: by default, the speakers sound midrange-focused with initially anemic treble and bass. But depending on how you play with both Mobiband’s and your Apple device’s integrated volume controls, you’ll find that the sound takes on different characteristics, and can actually become better: with your iOS device at peak volume, Mobiband’s presentation of both bass and treble becomes more dynamic, with enough treble, midrange, and bass to sound balanced and pretty nice—particularly by wireless headphone standards. As it turns out, BBP isn’t mirroring the iOS device’s volume level, a problem that could have been solved with additional engineering, and would have led to better out-of-box audio experiences for many users.
There are only a couple of other hiccups Mobiband users need to take into consideration. While the headset does support both Siri and Voice Control functions in iOS devices, the microphone isn’t as clear as many we’ve tested, suffering from moderate muddiness and sometimes mild static that callers noted and Siri dictation sometimes stumbled upon. Additionally, the side-mounted capacitive controls are a little twitchy in a way that pressure-sensitive buttons aren’t, though they consume less space and are somewhat unique to this model. Neither of these issues is a dealbreaker, but they’re worth knowing going into the purchase.
Judged as $100 headphones, Mobiband and Zion each have enough to offer to merit our recommendations. Zion is slightly easier to recommend because of its superior speaker and microphone performance—given the huge number of wired earphones out there today, it’s just a little too expensive for the overall package it offers, but thanks to its design elements, it’s close enough to right-priced to merit a B+ rating and strong general recommendation. Mobiband’s volume adjustments, mic performance, and capacitive controls all have non-trivial issues, but on the other hand, this is a completely wireless and comfortable headset with pretty solid performance at a reasonable price. It’s good enough to merit a flat B rating and our general recommendation—a nice start for BBP, which has done a great job with bags in the past and is a welcome entry into the electronics side of the accessory market.
Company and Price
Company: BBP Bags
Compatible: iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S, iPads