I don't do a lot of earbud reviews. In the past, the buds I've reviewed have always been Bluetooth. Thus, reviewing a set of wired 'buds was a little different for me. When it comes to headsets like the Moderna MS 200s from Phiaton ($120), it's all about the sound quality and comfort - things that matter for Bluetooth 'buds, like practicality, battery life, and ease of use are all thrown out the window. Wired earbuds are easily one of the more "analog" pieces of tech that we review, which also makes them one of the most difficult. Essentially, what "sounds good" is a very subjective assessment, because, simply put, what qualifies as "good" to me may be "meh" to you.
So, for this review, I picked out a handful of songs that I feel like provide not only a wide range of sounds, but hit several different genres of music. Here's a look at the tracklist - along with a brief reason as to why I chose each particular song - if you'd like to give it a listen to get a feel for the dynamics:
- Buckethead - Swomee Song: Instrumental, raw, powerful, simply amazing song
- Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah (From Live at Sin-e): Great vocals, live setting, melodic guitar
- Jimi Hendrix - All Along the Watchtower: Layers of intricate sounds
- Foreigner - Juke Box Hero: Classic rock, good dynamics
- Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody: A Capella vocals, wide variety of sounds and harmonies
- The Devil Wears Prada - Escape: Very heavy guitars and vocals, ambient background sounds
- Bassnectar - Basshead: Um... bass.
- Becoming the Archetype - O Holy Night: Choir vocals, dramatic transitions, and I love Christmas
- Emmure - Solar Flare Homicide: Contrasting vocals/guitar, heavy, all around awesome
- Rush - The Spirit of the Radio: Because Rush is the greatest band of all time. No further reason needed.
I feel like this playlist gave me a good idea of what these headphones are capable of, making it possible to provide a solid, unbiased opinion of how well they perform in real listening scenarios.
However, before we start talking about how the Moderna MS 200s sound, I want to talk about how they look. The buds themselves are black and red, giving them a very Beats-like look, and leading me to believe that may be who they're trying to compete with. I really hope that's not the case, because they just don't produce the low-end someone who's considering Beats would want. I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
Inside the box you'll find the Modernas (of course), a red/black carrying case, and four sets of tips: one pair of "traditional" tips, two RightFit tips, which are made to more securely hold the 'buds in place during activities like working out; and one set of Comply memory foam tips, which cancel out more outside noise by form-fitting to your ear. The entire listening experience changes with each set of tips, both in comfort and sound quality.
The stock tips are the type that basically every earbud in existence ships with: the typical soft silicone that can be worn for long periods of time without becoming uncomfortable. The experience on the Modernas is no different - I can wear these for hours at a time. The "half in-ear" design has a lot to do with that, too - it's just an extremely comfortable form factor. They are equally as comfortable (though they do feel different) with the other tips. The RightFit tips live up to their name, as they fit... right; however, there's a definitely a reduction in sound quality with these tips, as they just don't create a good enough seal (more on that later). The Comply tips feel very similar to the silicone tips, and are extremely soft and comfortable since they're made from memory foam. This also helps them create a very nice seal, which leads to some of the best audio these buds can produce.
Speaking of - let's talk about overall audio quality now, shall we? As I've said in previous reviews, I'm not a audiophile. However, as a guitarist, I'd like to think that I understand what good, balanced tone is. Even then, however, audio quality isn't something that can easily be quantified. As I said in the opening paragraph - what sounds good to me, may not be so hot to you. For example, when setting up an EQ (especially on a guitar amp), I generally scoop the mids. Why? Because I enjoy the dark, rich tones that result when mids are removed from the equation. I find that I can normally get the tone I want purely from tweaking the bass and treble.
But I digress. When I tested these buds, I went for a pure stock approach - no EQs were used. I didn't tweak the audio in any way. I did, however, use a few different devices during my testing, just to see how different audio cards affect the sound. I found that the buds largely performed the same regardless of whether I was using the Nexus 4, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, or even my laptop.
So far as overall audio quality is concerned, I found the MS 200s to be quite pleasing for the most part. They produce just enough low-end to provide some oomph to your tunes, but it's not an overbearing assault on your eardrums that results in an abundance of mud flowing through your ear canal (*cough* Beats *cough*). There's enough treble to really make the highs a standout feature - but again, it's not overbearing, and creates a nice contrast with the bass. The one issue I had with these buds is - you guessed it - too much mid, even if only slightly. It was definitely a tolerable amount in my opinion, so I wouldn't call it a dealbreaker by any means. In fact, I did cheat a little - I fired up the EQ a couple of times and was able to produce some really, really nice sound out of these buds. Keeping in mind that I'm no audiophile and I haven't used hundreds of different sets of earphones, I'd be willing to say that these qualify as the best I've ever personally heard, especially in this price range and compared to all the Bluetooth buds I've reviewed.
One area where these buds take a pretty massive hit in the low-end and overall shape (sound-wise, of course) is when the RightFit tips are equipped. There are two sets of tips - one large, one small - and, while extremely comfortable, I just couldn't get a good seal regardless of which set I was using. Since a good seal goes hand-in-hand with the amount of depth and fullness you hear, the sound becomes very small and, quite frankly, crappy with these tips. Really, though, I see no reason to use those tips over the stock or Comply, so it's a moot point in my opinion.
At $120, I think the Modernas are a good set of earbuds, and worth the money. Are they going to please the audiophiles or compete with $400 buds? Probably not. But if you just want to plug up and get good sound out without breaking the bank, I definitely think they're up to the challenge. They're still listed as "coming soon" on Phiaton's site, but you can snag a set for yourself right now from Amazon. As always, if you have any questions, drop 'em in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.