Earphone fashion has changed a lot over the past few years, and generally for the better: at some point after the iPod became popular, even the most audiophile-focused major companies began to take the aesthetics of their earphones more seriously, shifting from large casings to smaller ones, rough edges to smooth curves, and cheap- or common-looking materials to more deluxe or interesting ones. Most notable was the shift at dedicated earphone companies such as Ultimate Ears, which as noted in our review earlier today of Ultimate Ears 700 began an aggressive redesign strategy that marked a fundamental rethinking of approach to earphone making: unlike its older technique of adding fashionable logos or colors to its custom, whole ear-filling earphones, the goal with newer models was to shrink them until they nearly disappeared, and make them look as nice as possible in the process.
Nixon’s The Wire iPhone ($90) is an example of the older approach at play, in essence, a fashion company doing its best to make a big pair of earphones more visually appealing, here, with metallic logo-branded discs as the theme. Actually, Nixon has taken its $40 Wire 8mm earphones—normally offered in six colors—and added a combination microphone and single-button remote control to the cord for a somewhat staggering $50 premium. Unlike the company’s $60 model Wire 10mm, which it describes as either “great” or “insane” for every genre of music save classical, with “insane” rap, rock, and metal genre performance, the $40 Wire 8mm is said to be “great or insane” for everything except metal, and billed as strongest with acoustic music, jazz, and pop. We didn’t have a sample of the 10mm model to test, but frequency response curves on Nixon’s site suggests that it has somewhat more treble emphasis, more elevated mid-bass, and slightly less pronounced low bass, while the Wire 8mm and iPhone version emphasizes the midrange and lower bass.
Practically, what all of this really meant in our testing was that the iPhone version of The Wire was like many of the $50 and under earphones we’ve heard: you hear every low-end bass beat sounding heavy and pronounced, voices poke out from on top of the background music, and higher-pitched sounds—cymbals and the like—don’t sparkle much. The clarity’s nothing special, nor is the overall sound signature, but music comes across as a little bassy without sounding especially bloated, so few users are going to complain about the audio. We need to note, however, that the specific tapered tube shapes of these earphones caused us to experience fit issues in one ear; in order to achieve a proper seal, we needed to hold the earphone in place some of the time. Smaller, sub-$50 earphones we’ve tested virtually never have this sort of problem.
Nixon’s microphone is about par for the course with mics we’ve tested in other iPhone-ready headsets. Apple’s included iPhone Stereo Headset has a natural-sounding mic that is more or less identical in audio signature to the ones integrated into the iPhone and iPhone 3G, while the company’s newer Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic use decidedly more treble-heavy, intelligible mics that don’t sound as natural. The Wire iPhone’s mic is almost identical to the iPhones’ pack-ins, with only a hint of extra treble, which puts it way more towards the natural side of the spectrum than the newer Apple earphones. While that’s not totally surprising given what we’ve heard from most of the mics in iPhone headsets, it doesn’t exactly explain the steep premium being charged for this particular mic and remote set; many companies are offering comparable features for only $10 more than their mic-less headsets.
Realistically, the draw of The Wire iPhone is cosmetic rather than performance-related. Unlike the standard Wire 8mm, which comes in black, brown, gray, pink, red, or white, each with swirled metal discs covering the earphones and a color-coordinated, white-dotted fabric cord, The Wire iPhone comes in only white or black, each with matte metallic disc-topped earpieces, and the matching microphone-slash-remote. Nixon’s cords are symmetrically designed so that the right earpiece can be connected behind your head, leaving the microphone as a dangling metal circle right around neck level, and occasionally requiring you to tilt the microphone towards your mouth. A metal shirt clip, branded of course, is included to reduce the cord’s movement. Between the discs, the clip, and the dotted cord, this is the opposite of fashion-neutral, but frankly sort of cool—so long as you’re not looking for your earphones and microphone to disappear into your clothing. Of course, Apple’s own earphones are similarly conspicuous; the black cabling and far tinier mic and remote boxes found on Ultimate Ears’ latest iPhone-ready earphones offer a contrast.
Overall, The Wire iPhone strikes us as an interesting-looking pair of earphones that may appeal to fans of Nixon’s designs, but given the fit, price and performance, we’re not hugely enthusiastic about this particular offering. While we are entirely supportive of the concept of fashionable earphones, and applaud Nixon for trying something that doesn’t just blend in visually with the pack, the disc-shaped earphone and microphone designs create their own issues, and we’d ultimately feel more comfortable using Apple’s earphones than these. If you like how they look, are willing to pay a sharp premium relative to their performance, and think they’ll fit your ears better than ours, we wouldn’t dissuade you from giving them a shot.
Company and Price
Model: The Wire
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones except iPod shuffle 3G