Ever since V-Moda took metal mainstream as a body material for iPod and iPhone earphones, competitors have been testing their own variants on the $100 Vibes’ theme, generally at lower prices. The latest such option, Skullcandy’s iPhone FMJ ($80), is an iPhone-specific redux of the company’s device-agnostic Full Metal Jacket, now featuring integrated microphone and control button functionality that enables the in-canal earphones to serve as a telephone call-ready headset for both the iPhone and Blackberry Curve. While the new FMJ won’t be right for everyone, it’s a strong option for users who prefer their music bass-heavy, and want a better than average microphone for their calls.
Like V-Moda’s Vibe Duo and Maximo’s iMetal iP-HS2, Skullcandy’s package starts with metal-bodied earbuds that have a matching iPhone-ready plug at the other end, silicone eartips, and a carrying case. Here, you can choose from chrome, black, or matte silver versions, each a nice match for some part of the iPhone’s body, but unusually, Skullcandy doesn’t include multiple types of silicone eartips—there’s just one size, equating to medium on other companies’ scales, plus two sets of smaller Comply foam tips. Similarly, the carrying case is a little different from the others, as it’s the only one with a zipper to keep all the parts inside, and a mesh inner pocket to separate the loose tips from the earbuds. We’d call the case better than the norm, with the eartips worse; these are the first Complys that haven’t fit our ears, as they’re only made for people with smaller canals, and FMJ’s lack of oversized silicone tips will preclude people with larger canals from getting a good seal. V-Moda and Maximo both do more for users with different ear sizes.
On a more positive note, the FMJ’s medium sized silicone tips fit our ears just fine, and with a proper seal, it’s obvious from moment one that Skullcandy’s not looking to present audio in a neutral way. Like Vibe, the emphasis here is on deep bass, and iPhone FMJ’s bass is even more aggressive and thumpy than V-Moda’s, bringing the low end of songs into the foreground and masking some midrange and treble detail in the process. It’s a clubby sound signature that makes for “fun” rather than critical listening, though the bass boost does actually let you hear low notes that you might have missed in other earphones. Clarity is par for good $50 earphones, and nothing special at the $80 price point.
The star of the FMJ show is the integrated microphone, which callers told us they preferred to the ones in Apple’s and V-Moda’s headsets, praising its crispness and intelligibility. While our callers disagreed as to how much better the microphone was—one said it added a strong boost that made us easier to understand, and another described the difference as slight but noticeable—iPhone FMJ’s mic is definitely amongst the better ones we’ve seen for the iPhone to date, and makes a positive first impression. Like the Vibe Duo, but unlike Maximo’s iMetal, the microphone and control button are found in the same neck-level chassis dangling near your mouth—here, on the left side.
We were surprised that we liked the feel of iPhone FMJ in our ears as much as we did. Rather than slim the entire enclosure down in Vibe Duo style, or go with a larger but flat shape like iP-HS2, Skullcandy’s chassis bulges in the middle such that it’s not likely to fit entirely within your ear canal—only the top goes in, a la some of Sony’s recent semi-canalphones. Yet the earphones aren’t especially heavy, and the location and shape of the junction with their cabling isn’t uncomfortable as in the iP-HS2; assuming you have the right tips on, they fit well, and feel pretty good, providing isolation that’s superior to Apple’s earbuds but not quite to the level of V-Moda’s plug-like designs.
Overall, iPhone FMJ is, like its key competitors in the metal canalphone category, a headset that isn’t made for every type of user—on the scale of sonic presentation, Maximo’s sound balance is the most neutral and its $70 pricing most attractive, while V-Moda’s is bassier and much pricier, while iPhone FMJ is the most bass-heavy and priced in-between. Its size, shape, and color options also fall in-between these other metal options, while its microphone is better than each of these competitors, and Apple’s. If you’re an iPhone user who really likes your music thumpy, and your ear canals typically fit small- to medium-sized tips, you’ll love what Skullcandy has to offer here; otherwise, other options offer more balanced sound with similar looks and additional silicone tip options.
Company and Price
Model: iPhone FMJ
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone