Some earphones make complete sense to us from moment one: they may have really flashy looks, crazy heavy bass, a great price, or even some novel feature — even if we don’t necessarily like or love the finished product, we understand exactly why it was built and who it’s targeting. NOCS’ new NS200 ($70) is a decidedly more nuanced and “middle of the road” option, one that would be incredibly easy to ignore if it wasn’t for the traditional Apple demographic: fans of clean, minimalist design. This is seemingly an earphone made for users who aren’t looking for anything flashy, but want to upgrade to something that isn’t going to make waves.
A little background: though it shares its name with a since-discontinued earlier product, the 2010 version of NS200 is the first officially-badged “Made for iPod, iPhone, and iPad” headphone we’ve seen—a label that will become plenty common as companies continue to incorporate the three-button remote control and microphone parts Apple introduced in late 2008, made available to developers in 2009, and branded with that new badge after the iPad’s introduction this year. Officially, all the badge means is that the little box that hangs from NS200’s right earpiece is capable of controlling volume, audio tracks, and calls when connected to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, but the reality is that most of the developers with these remotes are getting their parts directly from Apple. Therefore, the microphone and remote functionality should be nearly identical between NS200 and Apple’s own $29-$79 earphones “with Remote + Mic,” and they are: callers couldn’t tell the difference between the way we sounded when using Apple’s earphones and these.
What that leaves NOCS with, then, is the task of designing interesting enclosures for the remote and mic assembly and the earphones, then connecting them together with good cables. Based in Sweden, NOCS did the design for NS200 in Stockholm, and it’s suitably Nordic in sensibility: the remote enclosure has three unmarked, like-sized buttons, simple plastic cables with Kevlar inside for durability, and a slim headphone plug at the end that’s highly case-compatible. The earpieces are made from aluminum with four total sets of rubber tips in small, medium, and large sizes, with an optional shirt clip and a small zippered carrying case that’s plain but easy to like. NOCS offers the set in all-black and silver/white versions.
We’ve seen so many metal earphones over the years that it’s hard to get excited by the way the NS200 earpieces look: they’re just plain, particularly in the black versions we received. And initially, we felt like their sound was similarly plain: there’s no exaggeration on the high end to make music sparkle, or on the low end to make songs growl or roar. Every test song we tried struck us as sort of flat, a balance that drew our ears to the midrange of tracks except on the rare occasions when something from the treble really stood out. Bass didn’t strike us as anemic, nor did it sound particularly pronounced. It was there but not striking. Clarity was on par with other single-driver earphones we’ve tested in the same price range: acceptable for the dollar, but not capable of revealing hidden layers of sonic detail.
But when we did a direct comparison between NS200 and Apple’s In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, we were a little surprised to hear that NOCS’s drivers sounded better than Apple’s—even if they were similarly flat, NS200 had a little more bass and treble, which made its renditions of tracks more lively than Apple’s, at a slightly lower price, besides. We strongly preferred the look of Apple’s earphones, but your tastes may be different from ours, and the audio improvements bring NS200 up to a comparable overall level.
In sum, if you’re looking for a pair of good but not particularly distinctive canalphones, NOCS’ NS200 is a solid offering—more affordable than Apple’s, with simpler-looking housings and slightly better sound. It wouldn’t be at the very top of our list at this price range, but the metal shells are a legitimate selling point, as are the highly Apple-like remote and mic performance. If you’re looking for a clean, Swedish design at a reasonable price, NS200 delivers.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPad (2010), iPhones, iPods