Premium headphone developers have two major hurdles these days: the audio performance they offer for their price tags, and — thanks to increased concern over their wearability in public — the styling of the earpieces. It is comparatively easy, as Ultimate Ears has found, to create large plastic housings to hold sophisticated audio drivers, but more difficult to create small, sleek earphones that offer comparable sound quality. With Image ($349, renamed June 4, 2008 to “Image X10”), speaker maker Klipsch has entered the shark-infested waters of in-canal earphone design, using a design which it bills as “the world’s smallest, lightest and most comfortable” to differentiate its offering from the pack. However, Image’s real selling point is a little more complex: it may not be the smallest or lightest earphone we’ve tested, but it is the smallest and lightest with this quantity and quality of bass performance.
Though Klipsch picked a copper accent tone for Image—a love-it-or-hate-it color that the company has associated for some time with its products—the rest of the earpieces’ design is unquestionably appealing. This isn’t a Shure earphone that nestles partially into a nook in your outer ear, or an Ultimate Ears piece that fills the entirety of your ear and canal. Instead, Image is all curves, rounded, soft, and tiny, not coming close to filling an adult ear canal without the aid of larger, clear rubber ear tips. You get five sets in the package, split between single and double flanges, and varying in size from small to large. Apart from the tips’ tendency to show earwax, the look is sleek, modern, and consistent from earphones to cabling, which ends with a matching curved plug that works with iPods and iPhones alike. Klipsch also includes two different faux leather carrying cases—one only for the earphones, the other also capable of holding the spare tips, as well as a packed-in cleaning tool, and adapters for airline and stereo receiver use. It’s a nice set, though differentiated only modestly from other offerings at this price level; Klipsch notably does not segment its 50-inch cable into two pieces, like some other premium earphones.
Two additional things are especially noteworthy about Image. First, there’s the question of whether they live up to their “smallest, lightest, and most comfortable” claim, which we’d answer with the phrase “sort of.” Strictly speaking, Image matches up pretty closely to a pair of Etymotic ER-4Ps, with differences that are more cosmetic and tactile than volumetric. The ER-4P, designed years ago for audiophile-grade high-accuracy audio, isn’t as soft or smoothly curved as Image, but it’s about the same physical size. Similarly, JAYS of Sweden’s Q-JAYS, also billed as the world’s “smallest earphones,” are thicker but shorter. Klipsch says Image weighs 10 grams; Q-JAYS weigh only 8 grams.
In practical use, however, these small physical differences aren’t important. Whether it weighs 10, 8, or 12 grams, Image is an extremely comfortable, light pair of earphones, and also comparable to these other pairs in passive noise isolation. Though Q-JAYS will have an edge for some users in that it includes seven different sets of eartips, including ones for super-tiny ear canals, Image will feel great in most ears, and the included double flanges are especially good at blocking out ambient noise while you’re listening. Just as with our favorite in-canal earphones, it’s hard not to get engrossed when you’re listening to songs through Image—you just don’t hear what’s going on outside of the music you’re listening to.
The second and more important point is how Image measures up to top-rated competitors such as these in sound quality. In sum, the answer is this: Image is a very nice single-driver, “musical” earphone, though it is more of a compromise sonically than one might expect today for the $349 price. Over the past two years, competition in the premium earphone market has driven both the prices and sizes of double-driver earphones down, to the point where the aforementioned Q-JAYS actually packs two miniature speaker drivers into each earpiece, versus the one driver per earpiece found in both Image and Etymotic’s considerably older ER-4P. It goes without saying that more drivers doesn’t necessarily equal better sound, however, in the right hands, dual or triple drivers can be used to give a pair of in-canal earphones the ability to perform more of the audio spectrum at once, as well as increasing the detail you hear at given points in the spectrum.
With Image, Klipsch has opted for a familiar sound signature: warm, with strong but mostly controlled bass. Listening to familiar songs through Image, we heard the type of rich, smooth presentation that considerably less expensive bass-heavy earphones such as V-Moda’s Vibes should be delivering, but often overshoot in the name of attempting to satisfy the most headstrong bass fanatics; Image’s type of warmth only slightly encroaches on midrange detail, while emphasizing low notes that treble-focused earphones mightn’t perform at all. Having said that, the difference between Image and the $299 ER-4P, which Etymotic bills as delivering a highly accurate rendition of sound with relatively elevated bass compared to its other ER-4-series earpieces, is profound.
So long as Image is properly sealed in your ears, it will fill your ear canals with the type of powerful low-end sound that Klipsch has aimed for in its speakers; listening to tracks through the ER-4P and Image is nearly like two different types of audio experiences. Image makes you feel like you’re listening to a speaker system with a good subwoofer, while the ER-4P’s like a wooferless system with good tweeters and full-range drivers, letting you focus more on high- and midrange details that you’ve not heard before. Conversely, whereas ER-4P feels comparatively deficient on the low end, Image has this issue with the high end; Klipsch has focused its single driver mostly on the mids and lows. Thus drums and guitars sound full but cymbals and other high-frequency sounds aren’t as sharp, so while it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the warmth of Image’s presentation, comparative listening reveals that you’re still missing part of the music. Such is invariably the case with single-driver earphones; it’s just a matter of what you’re missing.
Q-JAYS, however, aren’t limited by single-driver technology. Though the Q-JAYS earpiece uses one speaker that delivers comparable midrange and bass performance to Image, it also includes a dedicated tweeter to fill in the high-frequency details that Image misses. The result is a sound signature that isn’t as flat and neutral as the ER-4P, or as skewed towards the low-end as Image, but rather delivers clearer highs while preserving most of the lows and everything inbetween. That said, while we’d pick either Q-JAYS or ER-4P for critical listening, and would lean towards Q-JAYS overall, Image is still the strongest of this bunch in the bass department: Q-JAYS does a good job with tight, accurate-sounding bass, but Image’s extension and warmth will appeal more to people who require a more profound low-end experience.
From our perspective, the only sticking point is Image’s price to performance ratio. Q-JAYS, which we reviewed at a $179 suggested retail price back when exchange rates were far better than today, is still available for street prices of $175 and up, while the $299 ER-4P has continued to enjoy aggressive discounting for years, selling currently for $170 and up. With a $349 suggested price tag, Image is street priced at $270 and up, which is quite high by single driver standards—in the same general range as double-driver earphones from Shure, and higher than Ultimate Ears’ double-driver super.fi 5 Pro, or the less expensive, similarly bass-focused super.fi 5 EB.
Klipsch would likely argue that the differences between these earphones and Image are fairly obvious. The Shure and Ultimate Ears designs are physically larger, while regardless of the superior high-frequency performance or pricing of the Etymotics or the Q-JAYS, they’re still not Image’s rivals in the bass department. Though there are many bass-heavy earphones out there, some of them equivalent in performance to Image and sold for lower prices, there’s no doubt that Klipsch has delivered a design that is smaller and more comfortable without compromising on power. If you’re willing to pay a premium for that package, Image is worthy of a test drive.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone