Gadling Gear Review: Headphones For All Budgets

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 headphones
Polk Audio

A good pair of headphones seems to have become mandatory equipment when traveling these days. Smartphones, tablets and MP3 players have put a host of entertainment options at our fingertips and the headphones we carry with us have an impact on the overall experience. But choosing which models to spend your money on can be a challenge as there are now more options available than ever before. Here are three excellent choices, each in a different price category, that you’ll appreciate having in your carry-on the next time you hit the road.

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 ($299.95)
The UltraFocus 8000 headphones from Polk Audio sit squarely at the high end of the portable audio market. They carry a price tag of $300 but deliver numerous features and an incredibly high level of performance that will leave budding audiophiles very happy. These headphones feature active noise cancellation, built-in controls and a microphone for Apple devices, numerous audio adapters and much more.
While the price tag of the UltraFocus 8000’s are likely to give many buyers pause, those who are in the market for high-end headphones will likely be very pleased. Everything about these cans screams quality, starting with the packaging, which conveys the sense that you are buying a luxury item. Lightweight and very comfortable, Polk Audio has spent a lot of time getting the design of these headphones just right and once adjusted to fit, it is easy to forget you even have them on. The plush earpads do an excellent job of sealing out environmental noise and continue to feel good even during extended wear.

Audio performance from these headphones is beyond impressive. They deliver extremely clean, undistorted sound even at very high volume levels. In fact, your ears are likely to beg for mercy long before these headphones begin to show any signs of struggle. In the low-range, bass comes through with impressively solid thumps while the mid- and high-ranges blend nicely, providing an audio experience that is sure to delight music lovers, particularly when looking for respite from a busy airport.

I was also impressed with the active noise-canceling functionality that Polk Audio integrated into these headphones. Powered by two AAA batteries, when switched on this feature blocks out an exceptional amount of ambient background noise, making it easier to hear music, movies or anything else you want to listen to. Active noise canceling is great on an airplane for instance, as it will block out much of the sound generated from the jet engines, which can interfere with your enjoyment of audio. I would have preferred if these headphones were powered by a rechargeable power source rather than replaceable batteries, however, and I was disappointed to learn that they won’t function at all if those batteries go dead. That means if you run out of juice while on a long flight, you won’t be able to listen to anything until the batteries can be replaced. Other active noise-canceling headphones from competitors will allow you to listen even when not powered on and it’s a shame that this high-end model can’t do the same.

The UltraFocus 8000 headphones cleverly integrate audio controls into the outside of the right ear cup giving you the ability to adjust volume, and pause and advance tracks with the quick touch of a button. If you’re listening on an iPhone, you can even answer calls with the built-in microphone, which does an excellent job of picking up the wearer’s voice. After adjusting to the placement of these controls I found I preferred them to an inline remote and mic that most other headphones use.

Polk Audio ships these headphones with an excellent soft case and more adapters than you’ll ever know what to do with. All of those extras help to extend the feeling of purchasing a high-end product, which you would expect out of something in this price range. Make no mistake, the UltraFocus 8000 headphones are expensive but they deliver excellent audio performance, a comfortable fit and good active noise canceling in an attractive and high-quality package. For the audiophile on the go, these are an excellent choice.

Munitio SV earphones
Munitio

Munitio SV Earphones ($129.99)
If the high-end, luxury headphones are out of your price range there are plenty of other options available in the mid-range as well. Take for example the Munitio SV earbuds, which deliver very good performance at a price point that is much more friendly to the wallet. They also have the advantage of slipping into a carry-on bag without adding any extra weight or bulk.

Munitio put a lot of thought into the design of this product even though you wouldn’t necessarily think so at first glance. The flat, tangle-free cord is a nice touch for instance, particularly for travelers who may not always be so careful with storing their earphones when they are in a hurry. An in-line mic and remote allow owners of Apple devices to control their gadgets and make phone calls, while the buds themselves are made from aircraft-grade aluminum that adds durability without weight. They feeling of quality in a compact package is undeniable.

In terms of audio performance the Munitio SV earphones are quite good. They offer a surprising amount of bass for such a small product and mid-range sounds are solid as well. At the high end, however, I noticed that things weren’t quite as pure, although there was no noticeable distortion across the entire spectrum. Overall, most listeners will find these earbuds to offer very clean sound even at high volumes. This isn’t a product designed with the audiophile in mind but they do deliver excellent performance that will exceed the expectations of most consumers.

Since these earbuds are designed to fit snugly into your ear canal, Munitio ships them with three sizes of silicon tips. This helps to dial in a personal fit, although most competitors offer a wider array of choices. As a result, I had a hard time getting one of these earbuds to stay in my ear. If I had a few other size options I’m sure this wouldn’t have been an issue, but since one of my ears fell between sizes, it was tough to keep it securely in place. Without a proper seal, outside noise can trickle in as well, which interferes with audio performance. As a result, the Munitio SV’s didn’t do as good of a job as I would have liked isolating me from background noises. Your mileage will probably vary, however, depending on personal fit.

If you want a quality set of earphones with very good audio performance that won’t break the bank, the Munitio SV are a solid choice. They ship with a nice soft case that makes them easy to take with you wherever you go and the tangle-free cord and in-line remote are welcome touches.

RHA MA150 earphones
RHA

RHA MA150 Earphones ($19.95)
At the low-end of the earphone market, at least in terms of price, are the RHA MA150 earbuds. With a price tag of just $20 you wouldn’t expect much in terms of audio performance but we’ve reviewed several RHA products in the past and have been continually impressed with the quality of the sound they deliver while remaining very affordable. In terms of overall bargains, it is tough to beat their products and the new MA150’s are no exception to that legacy, delivering good sound in a no-frills product that is easy on the wallet.

For a set of inexpensive earphones the MA150’s still feel very solid in your hand. In fact, if someone didn’t tell you how much they cost it would be easy to estimate that their price is twice what it actually is. The cables, silicon tips and earbuds themselves are all very good for this price range and they feel like they’ll have a level of durability beyond what you would expect for $20.

In terms of audio output, these earphones are certainly over achievers. I was impressed with the low-end bass that came through very nicely for such a small and lightweight product. Mid- and high-ranges were also handled well, particularly for a product that is this affordable. Again, the MA150’s perform like a product that is two or three times the price, which is certainly hard to complain about. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.

As mentioned, these are no-frills earbuds that don’t include a remote, a mic or any other features. They do come with three different sizes of silicon tips, however, and unlike the Munitio SV’s I was able to find a comfortable and solid fit for both ears. If there is one upgrade I’d like to see, it would be the addition of a tangle-free cord like the one found on the offering from Munitio. The cord on the MA150 seems prone to tangling for some reason, which can be frustrating at times.

Designed for the consumer who just wants an inexpensive, yet quality pair of headphones the RHA MA150 earbuds deliver on their promise of good audio performance at a rock-bottom price. You’ll have a difficult time finding earphones that perform at this level in this price range. Sure, they will be overpowered by competitors that cost more, but that’s not the point. For a cheap, dependable and surprisingly good performance you can’t go wrong here.

Gadling Gear Review: RHA SA950i Headphones

RHA SA950i HeadphonesThis past holiday season we reviewed two pairs of earphones from a U.K. company called RHA, giving them high marks for excellent sound quality at an affordable price. We were quite impressed with how well both products performed as they presented listeners with clear, crisp audio that was on par with earbuds from the competition that cost considerably more. After testing their in-ear options I couldn’t help but wonder what the company could do with an on-ear product, which typically provides even deeper and richer sound. I recently got my answer in the form of their newest product, the SA950i headphones, which deliver outstanding audio performance for just $59.95.

The first thing that struck me upon taking these headphones out of the box is just how incredibly lightweight they are. The SA950i’s tip the scales at a mere 3.7 ounces, which means they don’t have much heft to them either in your hands or on your ears. But despite their lack of weight, they still feel sturdy enough to survive day-to-day use at home or on the road. A detachable, tangle-free cable, complete with an Apple-compatible, in-line remote and mic, helps to maintain the overall feeling of quality.

RHA went with a nice, subtle, understated design with this product and while they are attractive, they won’t scream, “look at me” when you’re wearing them through the airport. Some of the other headphones on the market today have taken to using flashy colors and unique designs as a way of garnering attention, but the SA950i’s have a simple, classic look about them that I personally appreciate greatly. To say they are understated would certainly be an apt description.It is a simple affair to adjust these headphones to fit and when placed over the ears they are quite comfortable. The lightweight construction coupled with the soft material that lines the speakers makes it easy to wear them for an extended period of time. Noise isolation is good, although it isn’t outstanding by any means. The on-ear design doesn’t provide as much coverage as say an over-the-ear headphone, which can seal out background noise to a much higher degree. The SA950i’s don’t have any kind of active noise-canceling either, which you wouldn’t expect at this price point.

RHA SA950i headphonesOf course, when purchasing a pair of headphones the most important thing to consider is how they sound. After all, they can be as comfortable as wearing a pillow on your ears but if they sound horrible, you won’t enjoy using them. Fortunately, just like the earbuds we tested back in December, RHA’s trademark sound quality shines through once again with this product. Music reproduction is crisp and clear across the entire spectrum with the mid- and high-ranges both sounding exceptional. If you’re someone who really loves deep bass, you probably won’t come away quite so impressed, but I found the low-end audio to still be very good and delivered without distortion. Vocal tracks also sounded great, as did several podcasts that I listened to as well. This prompted me to wonder how RHA could manage to sell such great sounding product at such a low price.

From a traveler’s perspective, the SA950i’s are a nice addition to your carry-on bag based on weight alone. Their solid construction means they should be able to stand up well to the rigors of travel, although a protective case would be a welcome addition to the package. I’m sure RHA made the conscious choice not to include one in order to keep costs down, but the option to purchase a case would be nice. These headphones also don’t collapse down to a smaller size the way some competitors do, which can help limit the amount of space they take up in our bag. But unless space is already at a premium, I don’t think most of us will notice.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the SA950i headphones carry a price tag of just $59.95. That puts them squarely into the mid-range category in terms of pricing and competition, but they certainly don’t perform like they are in that category. Considering how clear and crisp music from these headphones sounds, these just might be the best bargain in portable audio at the moment. I would venture to guess that most listeners would not be able to tell the difference between the SA950i’s and a pair of headphones from a competitor that cost twice as much. If you’re in the market for great sounding on-ear headphones but don’t want to break the bank, then I think you’ll be completely blown away with what RHA has to offer here.

In the U.S., the RHA SA950i headphones are available exclusively at Amazon.

[Photo Credit: RHA]

Gadling Gear Review: V-MODA Crossfade M-100 Headphones

V-Moda Crossfade M-100 headphonesAudiophiles are a tough group to please and traveling audiophiles even more so. They demand the absolute best sound out of their equipment and they seem to always be on a quest for better music quality. That’s a challenging enough prospect when they’re at home with a full-fledged stereo system at their disposal, but when on the road it can be nearly impossible. A good pair of headphones and a high-quality, portable music player can help, but unfortunately most headphones don’t provide the level of quality that an audiophile is looking for.

V-MODA, a company that specializes in high-end audio products, set out to rectify this situation with their Crossfade M-100 headphones. This is a product that was built from the ground up not just for audiophiles but by audiophiles. The engineers at V-MODA consulted with some of the most knowledgeable, not to mention picky, audiophiles they could find and it shows through in the final product. To call the sound quality from the M-100s amazing doesn’t fully convey just how fantastic these headphones sound. Music is clear and distinct in the low-, mid- and high-ranges, and vocals sounded stunningly pure, creating an experience that simply needs to be heard to be believed.

Personally, I’m no audiophile, but listening to my favorite tracks with a set of M-100s was a bit of revelation. Prior to testing the over-the-ear Crossfades, I’d never heard such pure sound from a set of headphones before. Every element of the music comes through in a very distinct and clean fashion, including the low-end bass, which can often sound distorted or muffled. It was an incredibly immersive and rich experience that gave me a glimpse of what an audiophile must hear all the time.But V-MODA designed the M-100s to provide more than just best-in-class sound. These headphones are also built to be incredibly tough, allowing them to survive the rigors of the road. Their sturdy construction means that you can take the Crossfades with you where ever you go without fear of them breaking. The same can’t be said for most other headphones on the market, many of which are highly susceptible to accidental breakage. Two metal shields on the outside of each ear cup add to the level of ruggedness, while giving these headphones a distinct look all their own. Those shields are also user replaceable and V-MODA offers a number of custom designs on their website allowing M-100 owners to further set their headphones apart from the crowd.

Military grade durability is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the level of detail that V-MODA has put into the design of this product. For example, the M-100s are also capable of folding in on themselves, reducing their footprint nicely. This allows them to take up much less room in a carry-on bag or nicely slip into the included hard case. That case provides yet another level of protection while traveling and also securely stows the headphones and cables as well.

V-MODA Crossfade M-100 HeadphonesSpeaking of cables, the Crossfades ship with two audio cables that can plug into either the left or right ear cups. One of those cables features a microphone and an inline remote for pausing playback or picking up incoming phone calls on a smartphone or other mobile device. The second cable features a built-in audio jack that allows users to share their sound with a companion. This comes in handy when you want to watch a movie or television show with someone on a long flight. Both cables are thick, resist tangling and are very high in quality. In another nod to the audiophile crowd, V-MODA also includes a 1/4″ 24k gold pro adapter for use with home stereo systems as well.

In terms of comfort, I found the M-100s to be easy to wear, even over extended periods of time. While testing them, I often wore the Crossfades for several hours without much of an issue at all, sometimes even forgetting that I had them on. It did take a bit for the tension in the headband to loosen up, however, and until that happened, I occasionally had some discomfort due to the ear cups pressing against the arms of my glasses.

The M-100s do a great job of isolating outside noise, even though they don’t include an active noise-canceling system of any kind. While listening to great music with these headphones it is easy to become cutoff from the outside world, getting caught up in the rich sound that they deliver. It is nearly impossible to crank that music to a level that is too loud for the Crossfades to handle, but it can easily be loud enough that no outside sound can be heard at all. That is actually an excellent feature when you truly want to escape for a while.

All of this amazing sound and build quality comes at a price, however, and it is likely to be beyond what most consumers will want to pay. The Crossfade M-100s carry a price tag of $310, which is actually quite reasonable for a pair of headphones that offer audiophile levels of sound. That puts them in the same price range as the Bose QuietComfort series of headphones, which are also quite popular amongst travelers. While the Bose QC’s do offer active noise cancelation, however, they don’t perform nearly as well in terms of overall sound quality. Even to my non-audiophile ears, the M-100s simply sound much better. The build quality between the two headphones isn’t nearly the same either with V-MODA’s offering outclassing the Bose in every way. That is an important factor to consider when you’re shelling out $300+ for a pair of headphones for travel.

If you appreciate great sound and need a pair of headphones that can survive just about anything short of a nuclear blast, then the V-MODA Crossfade M-100 should be your top choice for music and audio on the go. Quite simply, these are the best headphones I’ve ever heard and well worth every penny.

[Photo Credit: V-MODA]

Gadling Gear Review: Phiaton Noise-Canceling Earphones

Phiaton noise cancelling earphonesTraveling with our smartphones, mp3 players and tablets has made life so much more enjoyable. Those devices bring a host of entertainment options in compact packages, allowing us to listen to music, watch movies and television shows, play games, chat with friends and a whole lot more. But to truly enjoy all of those features you really need a good pair of headphones or earbuds. The problem is, headphones can be large and bulky, taking up excess room in your pack and earbuds generally don’t provide enough noise isolation to allow us to listen comfortably while on a plane or in a busy airport.

Enter the PS 20 NC earphones from Phiaton. These earbuds promise audiophile levels of sound quality in a comfortable and compact package that also happens to include noise-canceling technology that is more commonly associated with larger and more expensive headphones. In theory, this combination of features should make for a great audio experience, as you get the ability to tune-out unwanted noises, such as a jet engine, while still having your music or movies presented with crystal clear sound. The earphones are also lightweight, compact and easy to carry with you no matter where you go, making them a terrific choice for travelers in particular.

For those who have never used noise canceling headphones before, the first time you activate them can be quite eye opening. These types of devices are powered by a battery and when they are switched on, they create low-level white noise that is designed to block out background sounds and allow the listener to hear music or other audio sources more cleanly. I’ve used a variety of noise-canceling headphones over the years and the good ones function remarkably well. In fact, they can often be a revelation when you first experience them. The downside is that if the battery dies you lose the noise-canceling functionality, and in some cases the headphones won’t work at all.That isn’t the case with Phiaton’s earbuds. The PS 20 NC’s continue to function quite well, with or without the noise-canceling system powered on. I found the sound quality to be impressive across the full range, especially compared to other earbuds, and when the noise-canceling system was activated, that level of quality didn’t change in any way. But what did change was that background noises simply melted away, leaving me isolated with the music or movie that I was listening to at the time. Phiaton claims that these earphones are capable of blocking out 95% of background noise, which seems a little optimistic to me. While they do a very nice job of preventing most unwanted noises from creeping in, some outside sounds still manged to break through. That said, the noise-canceling system in these headphones is impressive nonetheless and I think most people will appreciate how well it does its job.

Phiaton PS 20 NC earphonesAs mentioned above, the audio quality of these earphones is much better than I expected. The mid- and high-ranges came through crystal clear and I heard elements to some of my music that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s tough to get any solid bass out of a pair of earbuds, but even the low-end sounds solid and substantial. That high quality shines through even as you increase the volume to higher levels, where similar earphones begin to get muddled and break-up.

I was also impressed with the comfort level of the PS 20 NC’s. Phiaton ships them with four different sizes of silicon tips, allowing owners to dial in just the right fit. And when they are placed inside the ear they feel like they are naturally meant to be there. This makes it extremely easy to wear them for extended periods of time, which hasn’t always been the case with most earbuds I’ve used in the past. In fact, I tend to prefer over-the-ear headphones to these types of audio devices, but Phiaton has me strongly rethinking that preference.

Phiaton obviously had travelers in mind when it designed the PS 20 NC. Not only does the noise canceling come in handy while on the road, but the earphones also ship with a soft carrying case and an airplane adapter. The latter of those is increasingly not needed in this day and age, but it is still a nice touch nonetheless.

Despite the fact that I obviously love these earphones, there are a few things that I would change about them. First, the battery compartment, which is just large enough to hold the single AAA battery that powers the noise-canceling circuitry, is located along the audio cable. This is a bit awkward at times and even the built-in clip doesn’t help all that much. Also, my other favorite earbuds feature an inline remote and microphone, which especially comes in handy when using them with my iPhone. The PS 20 NC doesn’t include that option and it was missed on occasion.

At $130 these earphones are also a relative bargain. That price tag puts them squarely in the same range as other high-end earbuds, but none of them include the noise-canceling technology and few offer comparable sound quality either. If you’re a frequent traveler looking for an new way to enjoy your favorite audio while on the go, I think you’ll find the Phiaton PS 20 NC headphones a more than worthy investment.

[Photo Credit: Phiaton]

Gadling Gear Review: Phiaton Noise Canceling Earbuds

I had a moment of anxiety when I boarded a recent flight from Amsterdam to Seattle. The middle cabin, where I was seated, was full of very small children. Now, before you hit send on that hate mail, let me tell you that I am always sympathetic with the yowling little ones; they’re expressing exactly how I feel when I park myself in coach for a ten hour flight. But the noise, oh, lord, the noise, does not make the flight any easier. You know this as well as I do.

When I first started testing noise canceling gear, I had hoped these miracle devices would make everything go away, that I would be in a bubble of beautiful silence, serenaded only by the voices of Ira Glass (“This American Life”) or Jad Abumrad (“RadioLab”) from podcasts I’d downloaded to while away the tedium of flight. Not so, not so. I’ve tried several different brands and configurations; they do not make the noise of the plane go away.

They do, however, make for less noise, and that’s a good thing. But headphones are bulky and take up space in your bag. Phiaton makes active noise canceling earbuds that do a good job of eliminating airplane noise – as good as the other over-the-ear headphones I’ve tested. They take up a fraction of the space; I can stuff them in my pocket and they’re feature packed.The buds have Bluetooth so you can use them while your phone is stuffed in your pocket or in your bag on the back seat in your car. Bluetooth doesn’t work when your phone is in airplane mode (that was news to me) but there’s a connector cable so you can wire the headset to your device. The controller – the earbuds are wired to this – clips on to your shirt (or whatever) so it’s easy to find and easy to use once you get the hang of it. The device charges via a mini-USB cable and the battery life is impressive; it easily lasts the life of a ten hour flight with juice to spare. They’re comfortable, too.

With regard to that noise reduction feature, the marketing language ensures, “background noise is virtually eliminated.” I’m not going to go that far. There is a significant reduction in that grinding engine noise; frequent fliers know exactly what I’m talking about. You will notice the difference; I absolutely did, but “virtually eliminated” is a bit of stretch.

Noise canceling headphones or earbuds do make a big difference in the quality of a flight experience. I pack mine whenever I fly and I am very pleased that now, they’re small enough to pack with barely a nod towards consideration of space. The Phiaton noise canceling earbuds are easily as good as my traditional, low- mid-range noise canceling headphones. That’s a terrific improvement. And anything that eases long haul travel – oh, I’m for it.

Phiaton’s earbuds are listed for $159 MSRP, shop around, though. I’ve seen them listed for $129 on the big online shopping sites.