We’ll give Klipsch credit for understanding a trend that’s increasingly important in earphone design: aesthetics. Though some people continue to enjoy wearing funky, oversized earcups, Apple’s white earbuds have led many iPod and iPhone fans to look for replacements that are similarly small and stylish. Originally, Klipsch tackled this challenge with Image X10, a beautifully sleek but extremely expensive $350 in-canal earphone. With the new Image S4 ($80), Klipsch has expanded its lineup to include a model that’s affordable, cool-looking, and bass-slanted in the same way as its prior audio offerings.
Made from chrome and glossy black plastic, Image S4 has a lot in common visually with Sony’s most recent MDR-EX75 and MDR-EX85 models, which employed the same color and texture scheme to great visual effect. Klipsch’s design, however, is longer, less bulbous, and even more aggressive in its use of diagonal lines that form black and silver rings around the inner audio drivers—these are actually some of the nicest-looking earphones we’ve yet seen, and thankfully not saddled with the copper coloration of the X10s.
Symmetrical black rubber cords run from the edges of the earphones down to an L-shaped, gold-tipped headphone plug; Klipsch includes three sets of silicone rubber eartips, a cleaning tool, and a metal carrying box in the package. While we’re not fans of the metal box due to its size and shape—it’s roughly an Altoids tin for a pair of earphones that could fit in half the space—we do like that Klipsch includes a compartment inside to hold the spare silicone tips and the cleaning tool. Unfortunately, if you wrap the S4 cables the wrong way, the tin will pop open, and out come the eartips. A zippered case would have worked better.
It should be noted at this point that while the Image X10s were so thin that the silicone tips were the only things capable of keeping them in most ears, Image S4 is considerably larger and not really a breakthrough in size, sound quality for the size, or even sound quality for the dollar. These earphones are actually bigger—longer, particularly—than peer-priced offerings, such as the all-metal V-Moda Vibe series, Apple’s recent In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, and any number of other competitors released in the last year or so. They’re also comparatively deficient in features: Image S4 arrives without a microphone or remote control feature at a time when both Vibe Duos and Apple’s In-Ears have both, and sell for $80.
If Image S4 were to offer comparatively fantastic sound, that might be a reason to prefer it over the other options, but try as we did over the course of two weeks of testing against other $50-80 earphones we’ve liked, we never really warmed to its sound. Each time we’d put it in our ears, we concluded that it sounded good enough to keep listening to, but not as detailed or dynamic as we’d have preferred. In short, the sound signature comes across as relatively flat, weak in the treble department, and above average but not exceptionally deep in bass. When heard through S4, familiar songs almost invariably sounded as if they were very midrange-focused, with low-end beats popping, but nothing on the high end doing the same. In sum, S4 sounded like a $50 earphone with a nice casing and a higher price tag.
To quantify this a bit, we popped in Apple’s $40 prior-generation In-Ear Headphones, which offered similar warmth and detail, though its new $80 In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic are as noted in its separate review comparatively bass-deficient, offering the extended control and voice functionality to partially justify their price. V-Moda’s Vibe Duo is a comparable earphone to the S4, only with added bass depth that some users will really like, and the aforementioned mic and control features that S4 doesn’t include. The Apple and V-Moda designs are polar examples of how developers have recently targeted the $80 sweet spot for in-canal earphones: some have used it as a natural discounting price for prior-generation $100 offerings, which we generally like, and others have tried to find ways to make earlier $40-$50 earpieces seem worthy of a premium, which we don’t.
Image S4 felt to us like an example of the latter approach, minus some of the most obvious feature additions that might have enhanced their appeal: with a remote and mic incorporated into these earphones, iPhone and recent model iPod users would have had a lot more reason to get excited about this design. That said, if you’re truly image-conscious and want a pair of canalphones that will inspire visual envy, Image S4 offers great looks and fine sound; at a discount, or in a subsequent version with more features for the same price, it would be worthy of a stronger recommendation.
Company and Price
Model: Image S4
Compatible: iPhone/3G, All iPods Except iPod shuffle 3G