Industrial designers can look to the past, present, or future when trying to come up with new product concepts, so it’s interesting to see that both iHome and Incipio chose to go retro with their latest budget headphones: iHome’s Soundesign SD63 ($50) offers “classic retro style” in an on-ear headphone, while Incipio’s new over-ear Forte f38 ($50) promises “classic styling [that] pays homage to a simpler time.” While the designs are substantially different from one another in the specifics, they have a lot in common conceptually, so we’re reviewing them together today.
Start with what SD63 and f38 have in common: despite a plasticy feel that runs almost from top to bottom of each headphone, each one has a perforated, foam-filled headband with color-matched padded earcups, a long headphone cable, and chrome metal extension arms—standouts because they’re the primary metal pieces on the otherwise synthetic designs. The more compact SD63 has one 40mm speaker inside each of its earcups, while the larger f38 instead uses slightly smaller 38mm drivers. Both pairs amusingly toss in 1/8” headphone plug adapters, which would be needed to connect the headphones to classic audio amplifiers, receivers, and other high-end audio devices.
Then the two models diverge. Despite iHome’s deliberately 1960s-styled packaging, the black and silver SD63 headphones are as much of a visual match for current-generation iPhones and iPod touches as any contemporary earphones we’ve tested, apart from the slightly throwback coiled cable and dial-shaped accents on the outsides of the ear cups. As it turns out, the right side dial actually can be turned; it attenuates the volume upwards and downwards, notably operating independently of the connected device’s volume controls. This is a positive in that SD63 has a convenient feature that f38 does not, but a negative in that any SD63 volume setting below 100% actually reduces the sound quality of the signal from the connected device. The further you turn down the volume, the less treble and midrange you’ll hear, so you’ll be better off keeping the headset at 100% and making volume tweaks on your iPod or iPhone.
Sonic performance is one of two issues with SD63: even on their best volume setting, the headphones, much like iHome’s lowest-end speakers, are fairly flat and skewed to the lower midrange and bass side. We’d call the sound cloudy, with too little treble sparkle, and not particularly detailed. Additionally, the bass begins to clip and distort a little in songs with significant low end. While that doesn’t sound particularly complimentary, it’s par for the course with inexpensive (read: $50) earphones, and the fact that your listening experience won’t likely be better than with Apple’s free Earphones won’t shock anyone. On the other hand, SD63’s comfort isn’t particularly great, either. The good news is that these headphones are highly unlikely to just fall off of your ears, but since the earcups are small, on-ear versions with an inexpensive headband, they were fatiguing after only a short period of time, creating pressure on our heads and moisture on our ears.
Incipio’s f38 is significantly different. The earcups are large enough to fit around your ears rather than on top of them, which provides superior passive noise isolation, and does a better job of channeling their sound to your ears. By contrast with SD63, pressure on the head is lessened somewhat, though moisture on the ears can still be expected. While there aren’t any frills such as a coiled cable or in-line volume knob on f38, neither was particularly necessary to the SD63, and they’re not missed here. And while f38 and SD63 do sound somewhat similar to one another, f38’s smaller drivers, tuning, and bigger cups together deliver slightly better treble performance—higher highs—and less clipping in the low bass. Neither model is going to thrill retro-obsessed audiophiles, but most users would prefer f38’s sound and fit.
On the other hand, whereas SD63 manages to fuse retro design elements with the modern to futuristic looks of Apple’s devices, f38 is a very different beast cosmetically—and not so much retro as inexpensive. The matte-finished plastic earcups and headband elements look less like elements from another decade than parts of certain Incipio case designs with throwback color schemes. Our review unit arrived in tan with gray, darker brown, black, and maroon accents; another version we’ve seen is all black. iHome made a smart choice to integrate more metallic elements into SD63, as they help class up undeniably inexpensive earphones in a way that f38 doesn’t quite match cosmetically.
Of the two models, SD63 looks better to our eyes and is smaller, too, but f38 sounds better, feels more comfortable, and has additional color options. As sound quality and comfort are always paramount concerns in our headphone reviews—people still buy headphones primarily to listen to and wear comfortably, with fashion an important but less critical consideration—factors that might otherwise balance out these two models weigh modestly in f38’s favor. For their $50 asking prices, which is relatively low by headphone standards, f38 merits a B- and SD63 rates a C+. They’re both better picks for people who care more about looks than audio quality, but f38 would be the one to pick if you want a better listening experience.
Company and Price
Model: Forte f38
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPods Except iPod shuffle 3G