After taking a back seat to tiny white earbuds for the better part of the last decade, full-sized headphones have really made a comeback over the last two years thanks to Monster Cable, which successfully popularized the fashion-forward Beats by Dre family of headphones. Today, we’re reviewing two new pairs of headphones from bag and case maker Incase: the recently-released Reflex ($80) and Sonic ($200). Both offer minimalist designs with surprisingly impressive sound.
Though Incase has been making Apple accessories for a long time, we really weren’t sure what to expect when we first received Reflex and Sonic for review—dozens of otherwise successful companies have tried to create worthwhile headphones, and far more have failed than succeeded. On the other hand, Incase has been making some smart moves recently with its new Soundesign lineup of earphones, and we really liked the $50 canalphone Capsule. Consequently, we were intrigued to see what it would do with on-ear and over-ear models.
The initial signs were somewhat mixed, due as much to their on-paper similarities as the $120 price gap that separates them. Reflex is the smaller on-ear model, and Sonic is the larger over-ear model.
Both feature in-line three-button remote and mic units and are offered in three different color schemes; they also both use 40mm audio drivers, have somewhat sparing designs featuring soft touch plastic lined with suede, and come with fur-lined nylon carrying cases. A cynical soul might inaccurately conclude that Sonic was designed merely to justify a higher price tag for similar components, as it comes in a fancier, old iPod-style compartmentalized box, includes two differently colored but otherwise identical cables and a 1/8” headphone plug adapter, and has a zippered carrying case rather than one with drawstrings. But Reflex, packaged in a simpler box with a non-detachable cable and otherwise similar carrying case, looks plenty good the way it is, and seems like a more aggressive value at its lower price.
Once you get past the similarities, however, Reflex and Sonic don’t feel, look, or sound the same—they’re related, but not twins. Reflex’s ear cups are circular, sitting atop your ears using foam padding, while Sonic’s pear-shaped ear cups surround your ears with memory foam. In both cases, your ears will feel surprisingly comfortable: Reflex is lighter and softer than most rivals, thanks in part to the plastic body and suede pads, reducing the moisture build-up that’s common when leather or faux leather sit on ears; Sonic’s cups are generously sized to avoid touching your ears, resting instead on your face with the same soft suede. Both use adjustable, pivoting pegs on the earcup sides to adjust their positions relative to their headbands—Reflex’s band is rounded and covered in only lightly padded coated canvas, while Sonic’s hard plastic band is sculpted to the shape of a skull, with a thick padded band at the top to keep your head comfortable. Both designs work well, and although the smaller Reflex is decidedly more minimalist, we preferred the comfort and overall feel of Sonic.
Audio differences were the real surprise here, and Incase’s major advantage over rivals such as the Beats family.
Even though Reflex is sold at a major discount relative to the on-ear Beats Solo HD, it sounds considerably better—Incase modestly boosts the bass and midrange so that songs don’t sound neutral, but doesn’t completely fill your ears with the sort of generally flat sound that Solo HD presents. There’s actual treble and depth here, so songs actually have the sort of sparkle we like to hear, in addition to enough low-end presence that bass notes and beats aren’t completely omitted. Reflex offers a very nice sonic balance, falling short only of better-engineered fashion headphones such as V-Moda’s Crossfade M-80/V-80, which sell for considerably higher prices due in part to their more elaborate metal enclosures.
Similarly, though the specs on paper might suggest that Sonic was little more than a pricier repackaging of Reflex’s drivers, that turns out not to be the case. Sonic uses titanium drivers that are noticeably clearer and more dynamic than Reflex’s, producing louder and richer sound at similar volume levels. Combined with the superior ambient noise isolation offered by the larger earcups, Sonic makes the same songs sound bigger, with the same sort of midrange/bass focus heard in Reflex, plus deeper, more engrossing lows. While users could reasonably ask whether Sonic is worthy of such a major price premium, the reality is that the pricier headphones definitely sound and feel better; you can decide for yourself whether the extra in-box frills or fancier packaging actually help or not. We could have done without the headphone plug adapter and the second audio cable, and wouldn’t have minded a lower price in the process.
Not surprisingly, microphone and remote control performance on the Reflex and Sonic were virtually identical to one another, and very similar to Apple’s own three-button remotes and microphones; Apple supplies the parts, leaving developers to create the enclosures, which here are very tactile, labelled tubes that dangle from the left side of each headphone.