Sleek Audio SA1 (and Kleer W-1) earbud impressonsSee all photos
We'll start off by talking specifically about the SA1 earbuds. For $80, you'll honestly be hard-pressed to find a set that is built with this level of quality. The wooden enclosures, the array of earbud tips and the bundled 3.5mm extension cable (great for working around bulky iPhone cases and the like) all act as proof that Sleek really took its time here in hammering out the details. It's downright shocking that the SA1 is priced below $100, and should you not be aware of that fact, you could probably be fooled into thinking that these would set you back a fair bit more.
The overall design is exceedingly pleasing to us, though we can understand that some may not be too fond of the wooden canisters. The tunable acoustics technology is in full effect here, and we received a set of treble and bass tuners in case the stock sound wasn't our cup of tea. We personally found the treble tuners to make the highs too bright, and predictably, we greatly preferred the bass tuners instead. Once those were twisted on, we found ourselves completely immersed in the sound, and what's most amazing is that these minuscule (and easy to lose!) tuning caps actually make a noticeable difference in the audio. Sure, you could just use an equalizer to accomplish the same thing, but these caps are certainly nice for devices that lack a decent EQ (or for moving from source to source while maintaining your preferred sound).
Another interesting design aspect is the removable cable pegs; these are there in case you decide to spring for the $169.99 SA1 Wireless Bundle, which includes the W-1 accessory kit. Said kit provides you with a wireless earbud cable and a wireless transmitter -- you simply detach the earbuds from the factory cable, plug them onto the wireless tether and plug the transmitter into the 3.5mm jack of your music source. The W-1 earbud cable includes a rather bulky receiver module that houses a battery, a play / pause button and the necessary electronics to receive music (sans cabling ) from the aforementioned dongle. Essentially, this is designed to be worn around the back of one's neck, but we can't say we were in love with the approach.
You see, you'll end up paying $90 for the W-1 wireless kit. That's more than the earbuds that you'll be using it with! Put simply, the sizable receiver module that rests on the back of your neck is too large to be used while engaging in fitness exercises, and runners will likely find their earbuds gradually pulled out from the weight of it. These are clearly designed to be used at the office and other sedentary positions, though -- at least in theory -- they'd be far more useful during runs, workout sessions and other outdoor activities. Hopefully Kleer can cut down on the bulk for the next iteration, but as it stands, we've got a feeling that most active individuals would be disappointed by the weight of this (particularly given the lofty price tag).
So, enough about design, how's about the sound? In short, we were floored by the audio quality of the SA1, but only after we spent some quality time customizing things to our liking. The earbuds shipped with a medium-sized set of dual-flanged ear tips and the treble tuning caps. When we fired 'em up for the first time, we couldn't have been more underwhelmed. Mids and lows were almost nonexistent, and we could hear a great deal of outside noise seeping in. Turns out all that was needed to right the ship was to swap in the bass tuning caps and insert a smaller-sized set of single-flange ear tips. Once we did that, the earbuds had a beautiful seal and delivered the crisp, deep sound that we were initially expecting.
The good news here is that these are obviously well suited for just about anyone. You'll not only get a trifecta of single-flange ear tips, but also a trio of dual-flanged variants. In other words, nearly anyone -- regardless of ear shape / size and musical preference -- can find some combination of ear tip and tuner tip to garner a satisfying aural result. Compared to Klipsch's similarly priced Image S4, we'd say these could be equally (if not more) satisfying in terms of audio quality. We know it's hard to hear this, but both of these 'buds are equally excellent in our opinion, but you'll get "different" sounds out of each. Klipsch earbuds have an unmistakable "Klipsch sound," where the highs are pronounced and the lows are uniquely bellowing. The SA1 offers up a much more traditional sound (as you'd expect a studio engineer to hear it), but the flexibility offered in the tuning tips definitely adds an extra bonus that you won't find elsewhere. Once we tuned the headphones to our liking, we had little to gripe about. Generally speaking, we found the highs a bit too bright without tips or equalizer intervention, and the lows -- while remarkably accurate -- weren't as booming as some bass-heads will certainly desire. Clarity was exceptional and separation was equally impressive, and we couldn't help but think that these were delivering sound deserving of a higher MSRP.
If you're curious about the performance of the W-1 module, we'll simply say this: we could discern no noticeable difference when listening to a song via a direct wired connection or over the friendly airwaves. That's impressive. There was no noticeable lag, no noticeable loss in quality and no difference in volume. Granted, we weren't hip on the rather large wireless dongle sticking awkwardly out of our iPhone 3G, but for some, nixing the cable may be worth the unsightliness.
Sleek Audio has a real winner on its hands with the SA1, at least in our estimations. At $79.99, it has few contemporaries that offer as much flexibility, and the build quality and audio performance were certainly laudable. We can't share the same enthusiasm with the Kleer W-1 wireless kit, which just feels too expensive and too bulky to be considered a worthwhile purchase. If your specific needs mandate the use of wireless technology, it does indeed work as advertised -- and frankly, better than we expected. We adore the technology, but the size, weight and price need to shrink a bit before we can wholeheartedly recommend it to casual listeners.