Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.
Just call this IRL: the headphone edition. This week, it's all about audio -- everything from a gaming headset to in-ears to a pair of leather-cushioned cans. Read on to find out what we're using, and how it's working out for us
Klipsch Image X7i in-ear headphones
Let's go ahead and get one thing out of the way: I might just be Klipsch's biggest fan when it comes to earbuds. In fact, I've long adored Klipsch's unique aural qualities across all of its speakers. Long before I covered technology for a living, I outfitted my home with as many Klipsch speakers as I could reasonably afford, and despite being sold to Audiovox last year, I've been duly pleased to see that the company hasn't slid downhill.
The earbuds that never leave my side are Klipsch's own Image X10i. Yes, they're pricey, but they sound amazing. To wit, the company's unique oval ear tips fit my ears better than anything else I've tried. When testing out the X7i -- a logical step-down from the X10i -- I found the new flat cabling to be a bit jarring. It's supposed to reduce tangles, and it does an admirable job of that, but I still prefer rounded cords. Perhaps that's just because I've grown so used to the shape. The inline microphone and button stick worked well with my iPhone 4S, and I'm a huge fan of that stick being at the "V" of the left / right earbud cords. Some headphones place it up near the chin on the right earbud cord, which I've always found annoying.
The oval ear tips are included (I prefer the medium-sized flange ones, if you're curious), and they fit like a glove -- in fact, they fit exactly like the tips on my X10i. But there's a design decision here that I'm not entirely fond of. The speaker driver housing itself is angled. Instead of sliding straight in, as with the X10i, it sits slightly back in your ear. Furthermore, the flat cabling is more rigid than I'm used to, so it constantly felt as if something unnecessarily long was sticking out of my ear. While I'm on the topic, the straight-angled 3.5mm jack should be a right-angle jack -- at the very least, an adapter should be thrown in.
Nitpicks aside (and really, they're only nitpicks), the sound is truly outstanding. It's typical Klipsch -- soothing bass, punchy mids and a lighter range of highs that most folks either love or hate when listening to anything made by the company. In A/B testing, the bass output of the X10i is still superior, and at $270 on Amazon, I'd suggest ponying up the extra $70 for the X10i over the X7i (currently priced at $200). If that's asking a bit much, just nab the X7i and don't look back. You'll never know what you're missing out on if you don't hear the X10i, and every other in-ear headphone just won't fit as nicely. (Thanks, ovals!)
-- Darren Murph
Razer BlackShark gaming headset
I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the first Battlefield 3-branded Razer BlackShark headset back at E3 and I'll admit, I was immediately smitten. I didn't even get a chance to go ears-on with one on the show floor but it didn't matter. It looked striking and that was enough to grab my attention. The only downside -- besides not being able to testdrive a pair -- was that I wasn't too keen on having that game franchise written across the headband.
Luckily for me, the company would release a regular option, done up with all the classic Razer trappings. The same retro aviator stylings were in play -- the ones that initially piqued my interest at the start of the summer, complete with boom microphone. In addition to some stellar aesthetics, these cans are well-built, too. Sure, the outer shells of the earcups are made plastic, but the use of faux leather, bright green stitching and exposed metal makes up for any shortcomings. Of course, the plastic keeps the weight down, which is another welcome trait. In fact, these bad boys are fairly lightweight -- lighter than you'd think, given their industrial looks.
As for sound quality, the BlackShark does an admirable job. Bass plays a prominent role, but the low-end never seems overpowering when I listen to Big K.R.I.T. alongside my Galaxy Nexus thanks to the detachable mic. Whether I'm playing games or using these as regular ol' headphones, the overall sound quality is clear and doesn't get distorted -- not even when I jack the volume up to a nearly deafening level.
-- Billy Steele
BlueAnt Embrace headphones
Let me start by saying that I am not a headphones connoisseur by any means -- heck, I'm somewhat known (and made fun of) for being the editor using Apple EarPods as daily drivers. Still, as with so many other folks, something eventually hit the market that persuaded me to step it up. Enter the BlueAnt Embrace.
For starters, the Embrace does an amazing job at blocking out the street noise around New York City, which is a huge plus given that I mostly use these during my daily commutes. What's more, they're extremely comfortable to wear, thanks to the supple leather cushioning those 40mm drivers. Add in some metal and minimalist BlueAnt branding,and you've got an eye-catching, but still subtle design.
How about the sound, you ask? Well, as I said, I'm not exactly an audiophile, but to put things in perspective, I can hear refined guitar riffs and delicate melodies that I wouldn't be able to hear on my $29 EarPods, which, is fair, since the Embrace carries a pricier $99 tag. And while BlueAnt touts the headphones as being friendlier with iOS devices, I've had no problem pairing these with any of my Android devices (granted, the in-line remote / mic does face some hiccups every now and then). Suffice to say, the Embrace managed to find a place inside my daily gadget arsenal, but keep in mind that when it comes to headphones, my standards are not quite as high as, say, my colleague Joe Pollicino's.
-- Edgar Alvarez