As numerous and popular as they are, inexpensive earphones are challenging to review for a couple of reasons: first, cheaper earphones tend to receive less attention in the quality control department, so they’re often easy to damage and sometimes don’t even sound the same from unit to unit, and second, their sound quality tends to be unremarkable — the major differences between them are in looks, features, and frills. With these caveats in mind, we’re briefly reviewing a collection of four recently-released and relatively inexpensive earphones today: Altec Lansing’s Bliss Platinum ($70), Audio-Technica’s ATH-CK400i ($60), Incase’s Capsule ($50), and Ultimate Ears’ 350vi ($60). They’re all from major manufacturers who we’d trust to produce at least reasonably consistent earphones from unit to unit, and though none is a blockbuster, each has a couple of features that set it apart from Apple’s free iPod and iPhone pack-ins.
When you consider everything it has launched over the past 5 years, Ultimate Ears has produced a dizzying array of earphone models, though it’s now consolidating its universal fit lineup around two types of models: standard, numbered versions, and “vi” versions with integrated Apple three-button remote controls and microphones. So it’s no surprise that 350vi adds the remote and mic to an standard Ultimate Ears 350 model, but impressive that UE has done so at a reasonable $10 price premium without compromising on other frills. In addition to the canalphones, which nicely mix matte black plastic with blue-hinted chrome bodies, you get five sets of differently-sized white silicone ear tips, a shirt clip, and a hard plastic carrying case that’s black on the outside, pink on the inside—the only vaguely feminine touch in an otherwise unisex design. This case is a little challenging to close when it’s fully stuffed, so you’re best off not carrying the extra silicone tips around when you’ve chosen a set that fits your ears.
Although its looks are distinctive, it’s fair to say that 350vi is the most conventional of the earphones we’re reviewing today. The three-button remote and microphone capsule dangles from the right earphone at mouth level, a location that’s more convenient for the mic than easy or aesthetically appealing remote use, though Ultimate Ears has neutralized its capsule design in black as much as Apple has for its own white earphones; there are only very small texture differences to hint at the separate buttons when you’re feeling rather than looking at them. Mic performance is otherwise basically the same as with Apple’s and other Apple-sourced mic and remote units—unobjectionably good—while a curved J-shaped headphone plug is small enough to be compatible with most of the cases we’ve tested for iPods, iPhones, and iPads over the years.
Sonically, 350vi is best understood as a strong bass performer, leaning more heavily in this direction than the other inexpensive earphones reviewed today. Low-end beats and sounds are the first and most dominant things that you’ll hear when listening to songs through 350vi, with a somewhat recessed midrange and only little sparkles of treble to peer through the warm, heavy sound.
While we tend to find low-end focused sound somewhat fatiguing, listeners who constantly feel as if they’re not hearing enough thump or power in their favorite tracks—hip hop in particular—will find what they’re looking for here, albeit without the sort of detail or dynamic range offered in higher-end UE earphones. Performance here is optimized for between 40-50% of Apple’s portable device peak volume levels, squeezing out additional treble and midrange as the level increases from 40-50%, with bass becoming a little too loud in the process.
When considered in totality, Ultimate Ears’ 350vi is a good canalphone overall: a nice unisex design with some classy elements taken from higher-end UE models, plus a reasonably priced remote and mic upgrade to what we’d otherwise describe as a fairly common $50 speaker and sound signature package. If you’re looking for bassy, sharp-looking earphones that will work as well for mic features on an iPhone as to control a rare third-generation iPod shuffle, this is a worthwhile option; those seeking more balanced sonics will be better off looking at other alternatives.
Company and Price
Company: Ultimate Ears/Logitech
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads