Today’s smartphones are quickly absorbing the functions of other portable devices - PDAs, portable GPS units, and standalone MIDs are a thing of the past - and conventional MP3 players may be next on the cutting block.
The audio quality of the latest-gen Android devices nowadays leaves little to be desired in comparison to the majority of mp3 players but the headsets included with most phones are a different story.
As with most entry-level earphones, using a stock headset is akin to watching a Blu-ray film on the black-and-white Pioneer in your grandparents’ attic – not immediately disappointing but not indicative of the medium’s potential performance, either. With more and more microphone-enabled headsets hitting the market every day, the smartphone arena is becoming a competitive – and potentially confusing – outlet for hi-fi firms.
Today we take a look at six of our favourite reasonably-priced headsets in an attempt at a short overview of the segment. Remember: every one of these contains a microphone built into the cord and is specifically aimed at mobile users. See this helpful chart from Meelectronics themselves for information about compatibility with your favourite Android music player.
Meelectronics M9P ($35)
Meelectronics is an up-and-coming star of the audio world, having only recently begun to expand from bang-for-your-buck budget headsets to higher realms of portable audio. The M9P, however, is a classic – the earphone that made the company a budget favourite among audiophiles. Having undergone a number of revisions over the past two years, the current-gen M9P offers aluminum shells and a lightweight tangle-free cable. The earphone comes with plenty of pack-ins and isolates from external noise reasonably well. The included silicone ear cushions should make finding the right fit easy for everyone though some experimentation may be necessary to achieve optimal sound quality.
The sound signature of the Meelectronics M9P is what is commonly called ‘V-Shaped’, meaning that it carries an emphasis on the upper (treble) and lower (bass) frequency bands. Those who hate strong bass and/or treble will probably hate the M9 but for a low-end product it performs very well on the whole. There’s plenty of rumble and kick to the low end, lots of clarity and detail to be had in the (somewhat de-emphasized) midrange, and plenty of treble sparkle. The M9P also gives a good sense of air and space with properly-recorded audio tracks – a rare trait for an earphone costing less than the average dinner for two. Of course the M9P is still limited by the low-end drivers in top-end extension, running out of steam around 14kHz, and output range, losing clarity and control quickly at higher volumes, but many will agree that it is the <$40 headset to buy.
Buy it: Meelec.com (use special coupon ANDROID_POLICE for 30% off any P model - M11P+, M6P, M9P, M2P, or SX-31P; this coupon is only valid for the duration of the contest).
Klipsch Image S2m/X1m ($40)
Klipsch is a very well-known audio name that has nevertheless only recently ventured into in-ear earphones. The Klipsch Image S2m, also known as the X1m in Europe, is an entry-level dynamic-driver model borrowing heavily in design from the flagship Image X10 and X5 earphones. The housings of the S2m are long and slim, facilitating deep insertion. The excellent Klipsch Oval Gel eartips make deep insertion fairly painless but those new to in-ear earphones might need a week or two to get used to the feeling. Isolation is impressive – easily the second best of the bunch behind the Etymotic MC3. Build quality is solid but the cable can be a bit unwieldy and carries plenty of cord contact noise (microphonics) to the earpieces when jostled.
The sound of the Klipsch S2 is decidedly bottom-heavy, with plenty of bass power available on demand and thicker, softer notes compared to the Meelectronics M9 or the higher-end Klipsch Image S4. The midrange is warm and smooth but doesn’t quite share the clarity of the other models in the lineup. The treble is far less emphasized than with the Meelectronics earphones and will appeal to those who find themselves easily fatigued by bright-sounding earphones. The Achilles heel of the S2, in comparison to higher-end sets, would be the relatively congested soundscape. The earphones don’t separate individual instruments out particularly well and lack the airy feel of the Meelec M9. For those in search of a more mainstream sound in a compact package, however, the S2 is the one to buy.
Buy it: Amazon.com
Nuforce NE-7M ($50)
Before venturing into in-ear earphones, Nuforce specialized in desktop amps and higher-end digital-to-analog converters. Released nearly two years ago, the NE-7M was their first portable audio endeavor and quickly became a budget favourite among casual listeners and audiophiles alike. In functionality and convenience the Nuforces are solid performers, offering a conventional straight-barrel form factor, good isolation from outside noise, and relatively low cord contact noise.
The sound signature of the NE-7M is best described as safe but capable. The bass is weighty and resolved but not overwhelming. There is a noticeable boost on mid-bass frequencies and the notes have slower decay than a tight-and-fast earphone such as the SuperFi5 or Etymotic MC3. The result is a thicker, smoother sound that is bound to appeal. Smoothness across the range is exemplary and the clarity impresses for such a warm earphone. The overall tone is far from neutral but those who just want a laid-back and yet enjoyable listening experience without spending $100 will undoubtedly fall in love with the NE-7M.
Buy it: Amazon.com
Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5vi ($65)
Since being acquired by Logitech in March of 2009, Ultimate Ears has been systematically redesigning their in-ear earphone line to appeal to a more mainstream audience. The sleek, chromed Super.Fi 5vi is far more comfortable and user-friendly than the Super.Fi 5 Pro model it replaced, but it is also a fair bit cheaper and utilizes only one balanced armature transducer per earpiece (in contrast to the dual-driver configuration of the Super.Fi 5 Pro). The construction is less impressive than that of the outgoing model, with non-replaceable cables and cheaper-looking plastics used throughout. Fit and comfort are right up there with the best of the bunch, however, and isolation is quite decent for an ergonomically-styled set.
The sound of the Super.Fi 5vi is mid-centric, with the vocals taking center stage on nearly every track. The middle registers are boosted over the bass and treble but the earphones still exhibit good overall balance. The bass is tight and controlled – second only to the Etymotic MC3 in overall accuracy. The forward midrange is warm and intimate but doesn’t cause the earphones to sound congested – there’s still plenty of space to go around. The Super.Fi 5vi does have some flaws compared to higher-end sets – the single armature runs out of steam at the extremes of the frequency spectrum and it doesn’t have the low bass reverb or rumble of the dynamic-driver Thinksounds. Still, the Super.Fi 5 is an extremely comfortable and rather unique-sounding headset in its price class. Those who listen to a lot of vocal-based music should keep these especially high on the list.
It is worth noting that the Super.Fi 5 has recently been renamed the Ultimate Ears 600 to better fit into Logitech’s naming scheme. However, the 600vi comes with an Apple-friendly 3-button remote while the one on the Super.Fi 5vi is the standard one-button deal.
Buy it: Amazon.com
Thinksound TS02+mic ($90)
Thinksound is a New Hampshire, USA – based earphone manufacturer founded around the concept of environmental responsibility. All of their earphones are constructed using wood from renewable forests, fully recyclable packaging materials, and PVC-free cabling. Their latest creation, the TS02+mic, combines the best traits of the company’s previous models and adds smartphone functionality with an in-line mic and one-button remote. The straight-barrel housings are slim and comfortable and the earphones score high marks for aesthetics and attention to detail in addition to the ‘green’ factor.
The sound of the TS02+mic is a stark contrast to the neutral and accurate signature of the similarly-priced Ety MC3. The Thinksounds are warm and lush, with deep, rumbling bass and crisp, sparkly treble. They don’t quite have the clarity of the MC3, nor do they provide the texture of the Etymotics at the extremes of the frequency range, but for pure musical enjoyment the TS02+mic is the set to buy. Like the Nuforce NE-7M, the TS02+mic is a bit thick-sounding but very smooth and relaxing overall. The tone, the timbre, and the 3-dimensional presentation all sound very natural and realistic with the TS02, making them an excellent all-rounder and an earphone that is more likable than its technical proficiency indicates. Die-hard audiophiles may be put off by the colored and easy-going sound but for pure audio enjoyment the TS02+mic is difficult to beat.
Buy it: Amazon.com
Etymotic Research MC3 ($100)
Etymotic Research proudly claims the title of “world leader of In-The-Ear Technology”, and with good reason. Nearly twenty years ago, the Etymotic Research ER4 became the first consumer-oriented universal-fit in-ear earphone. The market has grown explosively since the early 90s and earlier this year the Etymotic introduced the MC line of dynamic-driver earphones – a first for the audio pioneer. There is much to like about the MC3 – it is handsome, well-built, and offers noise isolation that can compete with the best earphones on the market. The aluminum shells and Kevlar-reinforced cables mean that the MC3 is the earphone to beat for construction quality in this roundup – a claim backed by Etymotic’s 2-year warranty. The earphones are designed for a very deep fit but the variety of included tips and Ety’s excellent documentation should help ease those new to in-ear earphones through the fitting process. The MC3 is the only earphone in this line-up with a three-button remote but devices incompatible with remote volume controls should still be able to utilize the mic/mute button.
The sound of the MC3 stays faithful to the Etymotic doctrine of ‘accuracy and fidelity above all else’. It is impossibly balanced, with no part of the spectrum overshadowing another, and almost devoid of artificial coloration. The sound is always tight and controlled – not quite as detailed and textured as that of higher-end Etymotic models but not significantly poorer, either. Naturally, an airtight seal with the wearer’s ear is absolutely essential to experience optimal sound quality– with a poor fit the MC3 lacks seriously in bass and can get a bit strident towards the upper midrange. Another caveat of the Etymotics stems directly from the accuracy – the earphones are extremely unforgiving of poor source material. Those looking for an earphone capable of glossing over the imperfections in 128k mp3s will definitely want to give these a pass. For everyone else, the MC3 represents the absolute best fidelity to be found in a sub-$100 headset.
The MC3, being the least-efficient headset in this lineup, might be of particular interest to those whose phones have hiss-prone audio outputs (i.e. a high noise floor). The MC3 does a good job of toning down hiss but isn’t difficult enough to drive to noticeably affect volume overhead or battery life.
Buy it: Amazon.com
It’s clear that no one headset out there will be all things to all people - personal audio is an extremely subjective thing and with so many options on the market, individual preferences play a larger role than any objective measurement. Among the high-performance competitors outlined above, there clearly is no bad option but you still get what you pay for – even the high bang-for-your-buck Meelectronics M9P won’t quite compete with the majority of pricier headsets.
Still, for those on a budget, we cannot recommend the Meelectronics M9P highly enough.
Klipsch's X1m/S2m is a good option for European readers, as it is commonly found in music stores or well discounted online.
The minimal upgrade from there would be to the Nuforce NE-7M, which follows a smooth-and-colored approach to audio.
The Thinksound TS02+mic takes the Nuforce sound a step further, offering significantly more refinement and a more convincing presentation.
The final two headsets, the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5vi and Etymotic Research MC3, offer specific sound signatures that may or may not appeal depending on the listener.
Additional considerations, such as durability and isolation, may or may not make up an important part of the purchasing decision. Whatever the case, with the audio quality of modern smartphones approaching that of standalone mp3 players and so many fully-functional mic’d headsets out there, there really is no excuse left for those who enjoy music to continue using stock earbuds with a modern smartphone. Just keep in mind that bass quantity is not a measurement of sound quality and that ‘better’ sound can take some time to become appreciable for a hi-fi newcomer.
- 2x M2P ($19.99 value each)
- 1x M9P ($34.99 value each) - this is the pair recommended in this review roundup
- 1x M6P ($54.99 value each)
- 1x M11P+ ($69.99 value each)
For those of you who don't win, Meelec is providing a special coupon ANDROID_POLICE for 30% off any P model purchased from the Meelec store (M11P+, M6P, M9P, M2P, or SX-31P). The coupon is good for the duration of the contest only and will expire November 15th, 11:59PM PST.
And the winners are:
- Sean Riley
- Samuel Setegne
- Jamie Ryan
- Kurt Gangluff
- Brian Edwards
Emails have been dispatched notifying them of how to collect their winnings.
Thanks for playing!
Android Police contacted Meelectronics after the reviews were written and finalized, and in no way did any kind of preferential treatment take place during the review process. Meelectronics was selected as #1 and then contacted for a giveaway, to which they happily agreed.
How To Win
Entering the contest is really simple - just make sure you complete the steps below.
There are 2 parts in this step: complete either one of them to be eligible or both to double your chances of winning.
- Follow @AndroidPolice on Twitter, then tweet the following message exactly as below:
Entered to win 1 of 5 Meelec headsets from @AndroidPolice after reading the sub-$100 mobile headset review round-up http://bit.ly/ap-meelec
- Like/fan the AndroidPolice fan page on Facebook, then Like the entry for this article and one other article of your choice (2 Likes total).
Fill out this form, so that we know how to contact the winners.
In the comments below, post a link to a video of your currently favorite song that you would rock out to in your new earbuds (I recommend giving YouTube a go). Include the artist and song names as well. For example, here is mine:
Ellie Goulding - This Love (Will Be Your Downfall) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl9fGqCuINc
Again, steps 1, 2, and 3 are required to enter.
The contest starts immediately and runs until November 15th, 11:59PM PST. It is open to people and Androids anywhere in the world (space is not included, as we can't currently ship past the atmosphere limits). Again, this giveaway is not limited to US only.
Winners will be selected at random and announced here and notified via twitter, Facebook, or email. Prizes will be shipped by Meelec directly to your address.
Good luck, everyone!