Over the years we’ve been testing earphones and speakers, it’s become obvious that we have a little more respect for the value of treble than some people, and commensurately less of a need for ear-flooding levels of bass. It probably takes a little bit more to get us to the point where we think a new earphone is too “bright” — audiophile lingo for “treble-heavy” — and less to feel that the low-end is encroaching too much on the midrange or highs. Balance, with a small boost to the mid-bass and/or bass, works best in our view.
We point out this out up front because it might help you understand just how serious we are when we point to brightness as the major flaw in NOCS’s NS800 ($199), a new and beautiful-looking little earphone that we began testing earlier this week. Designed in Sweden, NS800 ships with four sets of silicone rubber ear tips, a shirt clip, and a simple zippered carrying case, and it’s being offered in two versions: one black, the other white, both with stainless steel canalphone housings. Unique to NS800 by comparison with NOCS’ earlier NS200 and NS600 are the presence of two micro armature speakers per earphone, one a high-range tweeter and the other a lower-frequency woofer. The size, pricing, and design put NS800 directly into competition with Ultimate Ears’ UE700s and JAYS’ q-JAYS, similarly tiny dual-driver earphones that debuted years ago at similar prices, really pushing the category forwards in sound quality for the dollar and size.
In the plus column, NS800’s stainless steel earbuds look great—unlike any other canalphones we’ve seen, they match the iPhone 4’s metal center frame, and the material is obviously durable in a way that the plastic housings of its rivals aren’t. Additionally, NS800 is the only model to come with an integrated three-button remote control and microphone box that works with the latest iPods, iPhones, and iPads, minimalistically designed to dangle from the right earbud cable. NOCS clearly spent time and good energy coming up with a product that was modern in functionality, looks, and feel, and in all three of those categories, NS800 really merits quite a bit of praise.
Unfortunately, sound is a critical issue for any earphone, and it’s here that NS800 really just didn’t do it for us. Though the mids and lows were both respectable, and microphone performance was on par with the lower-end NS200 model we previously reviewed, tracks we tested with the NS800 repeatedly sounded too harsh in the treble department, such that high notes and high-pitched instruments such as cymbals became distractions from the mids and lows in songs in a way that they didn’t with the UE700s or the q-JAYS.
We could cite many specific examples, but as just a couple, the rain in Cry Me a River’s introduction and virtually every high-frequency sound in Joe Budden’s #1 popped out in a way that took away from these songs rather than having the desired effect of making them sound more detailed—the treble was a distraction rather than an addition to the music. So while NS800 sounds like a double-driver earphone thanks to its dedicated tweeter atop the otherwise capable full-range woofer, it just doesn’t seem to have been tuned properly.
Our impression is that this might change; NOCS contacted us just last month to say that it was re-tuning the NS600, which we haven’t yet reviewed, so it wouldn’t be a huge shock to learn that the NS800 was going back for some post-release sonic adjustments as well. For the time being, however, NS800 doesn’t rate the sort of recommendation from us that it would otherwise merit on the strength of its components. Recently discounted to as little as $150, UE700 currently provides a superior listening experience with its own nice style, a cooler carrying case, and more eartips—minus the remote and microphone—while q-JAYS has regrettably climbed in price as a result of the weak U.S. dollar, and doesn’t represent the same impressive value it did upon its release in 2007. Thus, there’s surely an opening here for NOCS to exploit with a right-priced, better-sounding version of the NS800; it remains to be seen whether it will do what’s necessary to make that happen.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPad (2010), iPhones, iPods