I've covered a lot of great sounding budget gear this year, but the very best audio is far from cheap. That's hardly unique to high-end audio; the best cars, cameras, and clothes are always pricey, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that cutting-edge audio can be crazy expensive. What follows is a list of most astonishing gear I listened to this year. I love my job!
I think we're entering the golden age of headphone design. Over the last few years the competition's heated up and at nearly every price level, headphone performance standards are improving at a fast and furious rate. For example, the TDK EB900 in-ear headphone I heard at the CNET office a few weeks ago were pretty amazing for around $100, but the all-new NOX Audio Scout is better, a lot better. Headquartered in City of Industry, CA, NOX Audio was founded in 2009.
The superlightweight design is extremely comfortable, and while my ears are sometimes very fussy about getting a tight seal for best bass response, I had no trouble with the Scout's silicone eartips.
The design features "balanced armature technology," which is rarely seen in headphones in the Scout's price class (I don't know of any others). The Scout's cable has an inline omnidirectional microphone, and according to the Scout press release, "the world's smallest send/end button, making it an ideal device for cell phones, portable media players and gaming handhelds." Best of all, the Scout's flat cable was the least tangle-prone headphone wire I've ever used. Jumble it up any which way, shove it into your pocket, and it'll never tie itself into knots. That's a first! … Read more
Etymotic invented the in-ear earphone in 1984 for use in diagnostic testing and auditory research. The first consumer model, the ER-4, debuted in 1991. I remember that when I heard it the resolution of fine detail was far ahead of any dynamic headphone I'd heard at that time. The ER-4 earphones are still in the line. I still use my ER-4P and love it.
The MC5 is a new model, and priced at $79, it is the most affordable in-ear design ever offered by Etymotic. The company claims its headphones produce superior isolation from external noise, and I agree. The MC5 did a better-than-average job blocking out the sounds of the NYC subway. Etymotic headphones tend to sound more accurate (or less hyped) than most under-$100 in-ear headphones. I didn't have any budget in-ears on hand to compare them against, but the MC5's sound was more naturally balanced than Monster's standard Turbine in-ear ($150). That was especially obvious with acoustic music like the Avett Brothers "Emotionalism" album. The brothers' soaring harmonies and chiming guitars really shined over the MC5; the Turbine sounded more immediate and brighter, but lacked the MC5's warmth.
Gil Scott-Heron's "I'm New Here" album's sound mix, with its buzzy keyboards and rumbling basslines sounded fabulous over the MC5, though the Turbines had deeper bass that made more of an impact, but its more upfront balance added an edge that detracted from the music. They are very different-sounding headphones, and, as always, selecting a winner is very much a matter of personal taste. Etymotic's MC3 ($99) headset model offers the same sound as the MC5, but adds a microphone and volume controls for iPods. … Read more