Pros: Comfortable, sleek, and inexpensive iPod earbuds in your choice of black or white colors, each with a carrying case and three different silicone rubber molds for your ear canals. Good cable and headphone plug design.
Cons: Heavy bass slant to the audio that’s not as controlled as in better options we’ve tested, flattening sound and lacking for treble.
Obvious defects aside, it’s hard to create a really bad $20 earphone, and because of the price, it’s rare that a company will create a truly excellent one. With EarThumps ($20), Griffin has taken a decent first shot at the ultra-low end in-canal earphone category, creating a set of earbuds that are comfortable, sleek, and inexpensive. They’re also available in two colors – black and white – to match the two current iPod colors. But on audio, they’re pretty average; heavily bass-weighted, a factor which will endear them more to some users than others.
To provide a little perspective on audio quality in headphones: over time, iLounge has come to prefer listening devices that are “neutral,” which is to say that they do not change the original treble, bass, and midrange balances of music, and ones that are “clear,” revealing detail in songs that is frequently lost with less expensive phones. With $20 earphones, we do not expect – or generally get – clarity. But we do hope for a neutral balance, the rough baseline for which can be heard through Apple’s packed-in iPod earbuds, themselves valued at around $20. In part because Apple’s packed-in buds don’t do a good job of isolating your ear canals from outside noise, they’re criticized for lacking a bit in the bass department, but they’re otherwise generally agreed to be well-balanced and appropriately detailed for the low price.
EarThumps aim squarely at the isolation issue by including three sets of silicone rubber sleeves that resize the earpieces for different sized ears: these sleeves compare in size to the ones found in Sony’s MDR-EX70/71/81 series of earphones, and make EarThumps very comfortable for extended listening. The company has also taken other smart design steps, such as using a small, thin, highly compatible headphone plug and a medium-thickness cable that breaks evenly with a Y-splitter in the center rather than off to one side. Griffin also includes a good gray zipper-closed carrying case with the EarThumps that holds the extra sleeves and the earphones when you’re on the go; it’s the same case previously included with the company’s earlier EarJams, and though it could stand to be updated, it’s totally fine.
One consequence of the added isolation is that the EarThumps ramp up the bass, adding extra “thump” to any song you pick. It’s similar to choosing the “Bass Booster” equalizer setting on your iPod, but now applied across the board to all songs. There’s good and bad in this: people who love bass may like the enhancement, but the boost also lessens the apparent detail in songs, and creates a sense of “flatness” in songs that can’t be turned off. It’s also not the best such bass enhancement we’ve heard: Sony’s older MDR-EX70s (iLounge rating: A-), which are also bass-weighted, have a smoother, more pleasing curve, and are at least equally comfortable; the more current EX71s are a bit muddier and less controlled, like the EarThumps.
Most users of low-end headphones will find the differences between the above phones mild, and only a matter of degree. But once you get out of the bass-heavy category of earbuds, the differences are very noticeable. We pulled out Apple’s pack-ins and its similarly isolating In-Ear Headphones (iLounge rating: B), and heard dramatically better treble response and overall balance, with a more than a bit of addtional detail, too. It’s worth noting at this point that a certain segment of our readership, specifically certain buyers of low end headphones, views treble detail in headphones as a flaw, and gravitates towards headphones with heavier bass response. For that reason, our preferred option in this low-end category remain Sony’s MDR-EX81s (iLounge rating: A), which manage to deliver roughly equivalent bass to the EarThumps where it belongs, without artificially reducing treble or flattening the midrange.
Rating the EarThumps is a challenge in that they’re physically nicely designed, comfortable, and inexpensive, but from an audio standpoint represent a second-class implementation of a feature (bass boosting) that not everyone will like. If that’s your thing, there’s a possibility that you’ll like them, but we weren’t impressed by the sound. We consider EarThumps a slightly better than okay offering that will be better suited to some tastes than others, and deserving of our limited recommendation more on their high level of comfort and overall acceptability than anything else.
Company and Price
Company: Griffin Technology
Compatible: All iPods