Earbuds: love 'em or hate 'em it's hard to argue with their eminent practicality if you're the sort who finds him or herself going from point A to point B on a regular basis. They fit comfortably in a pocket, don't screw up your 'do and, if you get a decent pair, offer some surprisingly good sound. The $80 Scout headset from NOX Audio promises to do all that and act as a hands-free microphone for your phone. Plus it has a cable that looks so much like an al dente piece of linguini we couldn't resist trying it. How does it taste in a white clam sauce and, more importantly, how does it act as a headset? Read on to find out.
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NOX Audio Scout headset

NOX Audio

Scout headset

Pros

  • Compact, comfortable, lightweight design
  • Inline microphone works well enough
  • Send/end button is hugely useful

Cons

  • Noisy cable
  • Middling audio quality
  • Poor sound isolation
Summary


Hardware

nox audioThe Scout headset is of the small sort of earbud, ignoring the other, bigger models that fill the entirety of your ear cavity with plastic in an attempt to deliver bombing bass. The buds themselves look fairly typical, only a hint of brushed metal and a tiny hex key screw on the back distinguishing them from the cheap pair that came with your phone. You know, the ones you promptly tossed in the junk drawer.

If there's a big differentiating factor in the look of the buds themselves it's the little rubber tab that hangs off the side. This can be rotated around, the idea being that you can position it wherever it makes contact with your ear to better hold the things in place. These can be removed if they rub you the wrong way (and they may), as can the rubber inserts, easily replaced by one of the variety of different shapes and sizes included, all of which you can store in the little carrying case that's also part of the deal.

Follow the cord on the right earbud a bit and you'll find the microphone, a microscopic thing that tends to hang somewhere around your jaw or cheek when wearing the buds -- naturally depending on such variables as the size, depth, and positioning of your ears relative to said facial structures. It's a tiny little bit of plastic and easy to miss, which is a good thing, making these look less like a tacky wired hands-free kit and more like a standard set of buds.

nox audioKeep following that cord and you come to where left and right meet. Here there is what NOX calls the "world's smallest" send/end button. (Their quotes, not ours.) Though we do have Guinness on speed dial, we couldn't be bothered to verify that claim, but regardless it is a pretty tiny button. In fact you can barely feel it depress, but give this little junction point a squeeze and it works.

Continue another 36-inches down the cable (the total length is 50-inches tip to bud) and you get to the standard 3.5mm plug, which both accepts stereo sounds while providing the mono signal from the microphone. This separation is gauged by the aforementioned pasta-like cable, which is advertised as being tangle-free. That it certainly is, never kinking or tangling for us, but it is unfortunately not entirely problem-free.

Testing

We started by plugging these into our ears and not into anything else to get a feel for their comfort, and we were immediately surprised by how loud they are. Yes, you read that right: they weren't actually plugged into any device yet. That fat fettuccini cable dragging against clothes or zippers or pretty much anything transmitted a surprising amount of noise right into our ears. We're not sure if it's the shape of the cable, the weight of it, or just the somewhat sticky matte exterior, but it's an immediately noticeable effect. Much more so than any other earbud we've tested.

That effect is naturally lessened somewhat when you're listening to some music. But, the sound produced by them is not particularly welcoming either. The sound feels somewhat shallow and somewhat harsh compared to the Shure E2c earbuds we compared them against, a now discontinued (and mic-free) model that used to retail for a bit more than the Scout does now.

The Shures sound warm and welcoming compared to the somewhat harsh Scout -- the violin on Vivaldi's L'Estate, for example, sounding piercing and inspiring on the E2c, sharp and almost painful on the Scout. However, that's probably taking a step outside the playlist of your average earbud listener. Stepping down to some 128kbps indie rock MP3s the difference is less noticeable, but that MP3 hiss the kids can't get enough of was noticeably more tiring on the Scout vs. the Shure.


So, not a set for an audiophile, but of course the Shure's don't have the built-in microphone, which actually works reasonably well here in large part thanks to its close proximity to your mouth. Yes, people will notice you're using a microphone and yes you may have to speak up a bit, but it's more than adequate for taking a quick phone call while you're on your way home from work. And, to be able to do so by just squeezing the button and then go right back to your tunes without having to fumble with a Bluetooth headset or even touch your phone sure is nice.

Indeed we kinda fell in love with that little send/end button during our testing. Obviously you can hang up with the thing but you can also pause and resume music with it, which means no more digging into tight pockets to mute your Muse when you need to talk to the face of an actual person. But, given how small that button is, we wonder if two more volume buttons couldn't have been added too, if only to make these more appealing for the iDevice crowd.

In terms of comfort we didn't have any real complaints here. The little rubber tabs work as advertised for most, though one editor simply could not keep these in his ears no matter which way they were twisted. After a few hours the tab sticking against your skin does start to become a little uncomfortable, but no more than any other buds after that period of time. Also, their rubbery matte coating certainly does make them dust magnets, going from clean to filthy before we could even take a single picture of them out of the box.

We were a little surprised, however, at how little noise isolation these provide compared to other earbuds with rubber cups. Background sound was hardly dampened, though maybe it's that semolina cable acting as a resonator.

Wrap-up

As a high-end set of buds for audiophiles the Scout headset simply doesn't have the chops to hang with your dedicated, microphone-free Shure and your Klipsch models that cost a bit more. Indeed the $20 more Klipsch S4/S4i does much the same stuff, with volume rockers for iDevices and slightly better audio quality -- offset by poorer microphone performance and buttons that will never appear in any record book. Which is for you? That depends on your budget and priorities.

Oh, and how do they taste? Terrible. Just terrible.