Earcup-style active noise-canceling headphones? Yes, they work. In-canal active noise-canceling headphones? They’re not so necessary. Thus, while fans of large over-the-ear headphones have good reason to be enthusiastic about products such as Phitek’s previously reviewed Blackbox M10, there’s not as much justification for Blackbox C18 ($120), an in-ear model that adds bulk but little benefit over a good pair of passive noise-canceling canalphones. Thus, while C18 sounds good and does what it says it will do, screening out some of the ambient noise in your surroundings, there are less expensive, lighter pairs that offer the same benefits, as well as comparably priced and slightly more expensive pairs with more to offer.
The C18 earbuds might not be the smallest we’ve seen, but they’re also not bad-looking, either: made entirely from black plastic, they have microphone vents on their backs alongside L and R markings, the only non-rubbery parts of their bodies. Soft touch rubber coats everything save for those vents and the semi-glossy silicone eartips, which Phitek includes in almost crazy abundance: you get nine total small, medium, and large sets including the ones that are pre-installed on the earphones. The company also packs in a nice though relatively large zippered hard carrying case, two headphone port adapters, and a mini lanyard.
You might actually want to use the lanyard. Though C18 can be worn as a traditional pair of earbuds, they’re connected to a dangling in-line AAA-powered battery pack that’s mostly glossy black on the front, save for green edging that covers most of the sides and the entire back. You can let the pack hang from the cord, but attaching the fabric lanyard piece as a bridge to two mounting points on the rubber earphone cables creates a chest-level pendant, offering easier access to the pack’s power switch and in-line volume control. A blue light on the top of the pack tells you whether C18 is powered on; the light and C18 will both go out after 40 hours of use.
That’s noteworthy because of one major factor: unlike M10 and the better noise-canceling earphones we’ve tested, when C18’s battery runs out, your music stops, so you’ll either need to carry a spare or very aggressively monitor the power switch. Most noise-cancellers we’ve tested suffer diminished quality when their batteries run down, but few of them—notably including Bose’s—turn off entirely.
The real pity of C18’s design is that the actual impact of the active noise-canceling hardware isn’t impressive by comparison with many of the well-designed passive noise isolating canalphones we’ve tested. For kicks, we tested C18 against a pair of Hearing Components Comply NR-10i earphones that use nothing but canal-hugging foam to block out ambient noise, and the noise-muffling effects were roughly the same between them: both blocked low-frequency sounds and let in some higher-frequency sounds, relying more on your music than anything else to distract your brain from the sounds that would otherwise surround you. Again, yes, both worked. But C18 requires you to feed and carry around a battery pack, while the Comply option—and many other earphones with foam or decent silicone tips—doesn’t.
On the other hand, C18 is a very good sounding pair of earphones for the price, and it’s the sound that justifies their better than average overall rating. In addition to using relatively clear, low-distortion drivers, Phitek has picked a sound signature that accentuates both lows and highs, making both appear to be at the fore of a stage; C18 also unquestionably packs superior low-end to recent alternatives such as Apple’s recent $79 In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, Etymotic’s $179 hf2 and $149 hf5, and even Ultimate Ears’ $150 Super.fi 4vi. But options such as V-Moda’s $120 Vibe II are in roughly the same league bass-wise, more mid- and less treble-focused than C18, for users who prefer that balance; all of these options provide similar noise isolation. Additionally, with Vibe II, as well as with Apple’s less expensive In-Ears, you get an iPhone-ready microphone and remote; in C18, you don’t get either of those features, and also get a headphone port plug that’s unusually large and incompatible with the original iPhone, but tapered.
In summary, though there are certain parts of C18’s design that make it less than highly recommendable—the battery pack, the resulting footprint of the earphones, and the lack of any special iPhone functionality—we enjoyed how music sounded through the earbuds, and felt that the price was reasonable given the audio quality on offer. At a time when miniaturization, microphones and remotes are becoming increasingly important to iPod and iPhone users, C18 is a bit in the opposite direction, but we’re comfortable enough with the sonic performance to offer our basic general-level recommendation; if you like the styling, and don’t mind the size, you’ll like the sound.