As numerous and popular as they are, inexpensive earphones are challenging to review for a couple of reasons: first, cheaper earphones tend to receive less attention in the quality control department, so they’re often easy to damage and sometimes don’t even sound the same from unit to unit, and second, their sound quality tends to be unremarkable — the major differences between them are in looks, features, and frills. With these caveats in mind, we’re briefly reviewing a collection of four recently-released and relatively inexpensive earphones today: Altec Lansing’s Bliss Platinum ($70), Audio-Technica’s ATH-CK400i ($60), Incase’s Capsule ($50), and Ultimate Ears’ 350vi ($60). They’re all from major manufacturers who we’d trust to produce at least reasonably consistent earphones from unit to unit, and though none is a blockbuster, each has a couple of features that set it apart from Apple’s free iPod and iPhone pack-ins.
Depending on your frame of reference, Capsule will either strike you as really unusual and distinctive, or as a very familiar concept with some interesting little tweaks. Sold in four color combinations—black with green accents, white with pink, brown with orange, or gray with blue—Capsule is effectively the same general sort of plug-shaped canalphone we’ve been seeing for years now, but refined with the sort of soft curves and sharp color contrasts we’ve come to expect from Incase’s design labs. A really neat drawstring carrying pouch is included, with a wrinkled matte vinyl on the outside and soft fur-like lining on the inside. It more closely resembles a nice coat than a typical earphone carrying case.
Subtle L and R markings let you know which earphone is which, while the deliberately rubbery, anti-tangle cabling diverges from the Apple norm by housing its three-button remote control and microphone unit in the center of the earphones at neck level, a much-preferred location that wound up making very little difference in microphone sound during our testing. Volume up, play/pause, and volume down buttons are clearly marked and extruded in the design, and the curved, J-shaped headphone plug both looks good and fits into virtually every iDevice case imaginable. While none of these features is remarkable in and of itself, they all come together to create a very appealing $50 earphone package—one that is well-conceived on every level and convenient for the user’s every need, regardless of whether Capsule’s being paired with an iPod, iPhone, or iPad.
There are no surprises here in terms of comfort or performance: Capsule’s just good across the board. We found the earphones’ oval-shaped silicone tips comfortable from the get-go, though the earphones are medium-sized rather than small by today’s standards, and sit as much outside your ear canals as in them, reasonably isolating you from ambient sounds. Audio is presented with a midrange and bass emphasis that’s common for earphones at this price level, with optimal volume at around the 40-45% mark on current Apple portable devices; treble isn’t so much deficient as it is less obvious relative to warmer sounds. Microphone performance is basically indistinguishable from what we’ve heard from Apple’s own earphones, and most likely uses identical parts, though the superior convenience of the neck-mounted mic and remote is truly appreciated here.
Overall, Capsule effectively sets the bar for what we’d consider to be a “very good” $50 earphone these days—solid sound with above-par mic and remote performance, wrapped in a comfortable and attractive design with a nice carrying case. Incase has come up with a nice starter pair of canalphones that we’d definitely recommend to upgraders from Apple’s iPod/iPhone freebies; you’ll obviously do better if you’re willing to spend more money, but other earphones with such a nice combination of features and quality at this price level are rare.
Company and Price
Model: Capsule In Ear Headphones
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPods