Earbuds Review for Frequent Travelers – Zagg, Klipsch and Etymotic
Posted Nov 01 2010 12:00am
When it comes to portable music and travel, I’m a big earbuds fan. Earbuds are lightweight (easy to carry and put away) and create some sound (and other) isolation when in crowded airports, planes and trains. The downside is the cables are fragile, and inevitably, no matter how careful I am, the sound goes out in one side, or the cable tears when caught on a seatbelt or bike handle. And because earbuds generally cost almost as much as the music player, I’ve spent hours over the years doing research before making each purchase, learning about sound quality, durability and comfort. This week, I’m writing about the ZaggSmartBuds, with a nod to the tried and true Etymotics.
I”ve been a big fan of Etymotics, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve been my earbuds of choice for about 5 years. Their two year warranty, which I’ve tested and they’ve honored on several occasions, is just about right, because it seems that my buds tend to break about a year and a half after I buy them. But the cost, unless I bought them at Macworld, made them an expensive choice. When I got my new iPhone 4, I decided it was time to get some new earbuds, and THIS time, I was sorting by price.
A few weeks ago, my new ZAGG Smart Buds arrived. I was familiar with the company Zagg because of their screen protectors and skins (I have their anti-glare Invisi-shield products on both my iPad and my iPhone, and love the anti-glare protection), but their entry into the earbuds arena was a bit of a surprise.
Let’s start with the package. Like a pyramid, with the buds showing at the top, make them appear as an object of desire, even adulation. Getting the buds out of the package took some time, I had to pick a fight with the packaging to get it open without damaging the buds, but at last, I had them out. Inside the box, the earbuds, a circular carrying case (whose compactness and rubbery feel makes them appear to be designed to fit in with Batman’s outfit, three sets of replacement ear tips (including a smaller foam than the ones already attached, plus large, medium and small silicone tips.
The cord is the most impressive feature. I got the red cord rather than black, and its color is actually more orange, or burnt red, than it appeared on ZAGG’s web site, a pity as I really wanted red. It’s 54” long, wrapped in ZAGG’s patented invisible shield material, so it’s very shiny, and seems remarkably sturdy and resistant to getting tied in knots, which is a not uncommon occurrence with every other kind of buds I’ve tried. I’m delighted with the strength of the cord if not the color. The cord has multiple sliders, in the form of beads, which allows for a very novel way of wearing the buds, one that increases the chances that these buds will outlast previous bud systems I’ve tried.
As you go along the cord, you find a couple of these beads before the split of right and left. Father up the cord is a thin long oval remote, containing a slider for volume control, and a single but multifunctional button that allows for going forward (two clicks) and backwards (3 clicks) or interrupting a song to take a call and end it, which returns you to your music. Above the remote, another bead. Altogether, this creates what Zagg calls the ‘Hangin’ Tight’ cord system, and it’s ingenuius. Here’s how it works.
Using the beads, you create a lasso or loop which you can bring over your head and adjust, thus allowing the right and left cable to hang across your shoulders and along side your neck when you’re not using them, and stay securely around your neck when you are using them. I did a number of chores and exercise using this, and I love it, I’m sure you will too.
Watch this video to see the “Hangin’ Tight” cord system in action. Please note: While the cord configuration is the same, you’re looking at an older remote than the one I’m reviewing.
The remote takes some getting used to, and the slider is problematic in at least two ways. First, it moves quite easily, so you could accidentally crank up the volume and hurt your ears; second, you may find it a challenge to find the perfect balance between adjusting volume on the cord AND on the iPhone. I still haven’t quite figured out the best way to use this, and have even contemplated adding some tape or a rubber band to the remote to keep the slider fixed in place. I would then use the phone for all volume adjustments (old school, as that’s how we used to do it, but hey, it works!) But I am getting used to it, and having volume control in two places can be a plus when I’m on a bike ride, or a flight attendant is trying to get my attention.
The noise canceling microphone is, unfortunately, the weak link in the chain of features. If you don’t mind some clipping of your voice as you speak to others, then I suppose it’s barely passable. Unfortunately, when put to the test, racing through the airport under loudspeakers broadcasting at painful volume levels, the microphone cut too much out and it became almost impossible to have a conversation. As a result, I contacted ZAGG and asked if that was normal. They said no and shipped me a new set of earbuds. I tested them, and the problem is identical on the second set. That makes the earbuds only useful for listening to music, not as a general purpose set for traveling.
Another challenge I ran into with the ZAGG Smartbuds (after wrestling with the packaging and dealing with the too fluid slider on the remote) was changing the bud tips. Out of the package, the foam tips are attached. But I dislike foam tips, as they are hard and inflexible, very uncomfortable after long periods of use. But getting the silicone tips on was quite the challenge. I even fired off an email to the company asking for suggestions, as there is nothing about this anywhere on ZAGG’s web site. Finally, I realized that if I inverted the tips, I could force them onto the buds more easily. I also prefer triple flange tips, and the ZAGG Smartbuds come with single flange only. Oh well. I found some older triple flange buds in a drawer, and while they don’t fit perfectly due to the size of the speakers, I was able to get them on with some effort.
Something I love about the buds is that they are angled in such a way as to go where they shiould go in your ear canals. Indeed, the combination of the angle of the buds and the Hangin’ Tight cord system makes for the most impressive result in terms of comfort and sound, although sound isolation on the plane left much to be desired on the inaugural flights. I suspect that using different buds on the ends would have gotten a better result. I’ll be testing this today, actually, as I fly. The hangtight system is so great that I keep working at making these my earbuds of choice in spite of the shortcomings. I’d love to see this feature catch on with other companies.
The sound is rich and full in a quiet environment, bass is deep and powerful, and the quality of sound it the high end is bright and clear. The sound is so good that it actually surprised me! I tried several kinds of music, with the EQ settings off on my iPhone 4, and found that the Smartbuds performed beautifully, whether I had the sound turned up or turned down. This is likely due to the speaker diameter, which is larger than most. But when flying, the competing noise of crowds and aircraft engines altered the sound and made it seem somehow more muffled.
Here are the technical specs:
Speaker diameter: 10mm
Frequency response: 20hz to 20khz
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Max input power: 10mW
Cable length 1.37 meters/ 54 inches
Plug type: 3.5mm
Sensitivity: 94dB +/-3dB SPL/mW
For the price, I give the ZAGG SMARTBUDS three stars out of five. The cord system is brilliant, the sound is great to muffled, and the microphone problematic . I may raise my rating after I’ve received yet another set of replacement buds (even though I’m paying for the added shipping of returning the defective product each time, something that tempts me to lower my rating further) because I’d really like to be able to use these for my main headset when traveling. The hangtight system is THAT GOOD!
While I still prefer the more expensive Etymotic hf3 buds, I’d rather not shell out $179 every couple of years when they inevitably break. Good news though: Etymotic has come out with the MC3 buds for only $99. I ordered them, and they’re awesome. Great sound, great isolation, and the microphone really cancels out a lot of the surrounding sound so people listening to me can hear me effortlessly and clearly. (I’ll review them here another time. I wish they had the HangTight system of ZAGG, because then they’d be absolutely perfect.)
One last note. The people I’ve talked to at ZAGG are fans of their company and product, and you can pick up the enthusiasm through tweets and emails.
Do you use buds? Which? What do you think of em? Have you tried the ZAGG’s? Your comments are always welcome.