While we’re always open to the idea that relatively new earphone vendors can make a splash with great-sounding products, we’ve heard a lot of mediocrity from new vendors, and such companies are more frequently the subject of reader complaints that the earphones they’ve received have differed from unit to unit, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Today, we’re looking at $100 in-canal offerings from two such relatively new earphone vendors – iSkin and Jays – and would have looked at a third from similarly new v-moda, except that our only review sample arrived defective and was never replaced.
As it turns out, iSkin’s been selling Cerulean-branded earphones for around a year now: its Cerulean XLRs (iLounge rating: B+) offered colorful, inexpensive alternatives to Apple’s earlier iPod pack-ins. And Jays is a new arm of Jens of Sweden, which has been selling media players and earphones for some time. Both companies have the necessary customer support and experience to take care of you if something goes wrong – a reasonable expectation when you’re spending $100 on a pair of earphones. Our separate review of JAYS’ new d-JAYS (iLounge rating: A-) is here.
iSkin’s latest offering is the Cerulean X1 ($100), a set of dark black plastic and substantially metal earphones tipped with your choice of three clear white silicone rubber single flanges. In all regards save weight and temperature, the Cerulean X1 feels like a pair of Sony’s popular MDR-EX70/71 earphones – a good thing, given how comfortable Sony’s are. And we generally liked the cold feel of X1’s metal rims on our ears – they naturally will come to match your body temperature while inserted – as well as the slight added weight the metal provides. These feel substantial and difficult to break; we’ve had no issues with them since starting testing a couple of weeks ago. As a contrast with the brightly colored XLRs, iSkin’s also added some clean, mature outer styling to the X1 – a design that looks better than Sony’s earlier in-canal metal Qualias.
There are a couple of flip sides to iSkin’s design, however, that need to be noted. While we’re fans of the way that metal earphones can feel weighty and initially cool to the touch, users in certain climates – extremely cold or hot ones – and those with larger or smaller ears may find the X1s to be a step down in overall comfort from Etymotic’s comparable ER-6i earphones (iLounge rating: A), which are in many ways this price range’s gold standard, and frequently available for around $80. Thanks to rubber triple flanges and thinner plastic bodies, the ER-6i is easier to insert deep into the ear and less likely to fall out. We didn’t think that X1 tugged its way out of our medium-sized ear canals at all, but its passive noise isolation wasn’t quite as strong as the ER-6i’s; different ear shapes will accommodate this model in different ways.
We were initially concerned by iSkin’s claim that X1 would offer “dance club like sound,” a description that typically means two things: overexaggerated bass and treble, with occasionally unpleasant distortion when used with other types of music. The good news is that X1 doesn’t suffer from such a problem: it’s surprisingly similar in virtually all regards to the clean, neutral ER-6i, which has been an iLounge favorite on sound quality at this price point for a long time. That’s only bad news in that competing options – including JAYS’ d-JAYS – are now beginning to push the bang-for-buck envelope beyond the older ER-6i’s level, and finding ways to create judiciously, rather than aggressively enhanced bass and treble. Heard next to the more ear-compatible ER-6i, our X1 review unit doesn’t sound much different, but against d-JAYS, it sounded flatter and less exciting.
As a standalone $100 earphone, iSkin’s Cerulean X1 is a pretty good but not outstanding new offering – it matches the performance of older top earphones in its price range, and has a nice new clean design, but doesn’t raise the bar on sound for the dollar, and will feel better in some ears than others. While it was on the edge of our A- and B+ ratings, we typically reserve our high recommendations for products that are breakthroughs and/or truly exciting to us in their categories. X1 is a solid, well-made offering, and a great earphone for people upgrading from low-end Sonys or Apple earbuds, but it’s unlikely to blow serious listeners’ minds.
Company and Price
Company: iSkin, Inc.
Model: Cerulean X1
Compatible: All iPods