The Icons are the priciest earphones OnePlus has made, at £40. From a company that makes phones rather than audio gear, you may think: so what?
However, not only does OnePlus produce some of the best-value phones in the world, it also made a ‘blind listening’ test promo video suggesting the Icons sound better than (what look like) the Sennheiser IE80. They are £250-plus earphones. That’s bold talk for earphones that cost £40.
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If the claim was true the earphones would be some of the best available, but sadly the standard-setting performance the OnePlus 2, has not replicated on the Icons. Overambitious tuning makes them quite harsh-sounding with a lot of material. They are not quite the ‘flagship killers’ I had secretly hoped for.
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In design terms, though, the OnePlus Icons manage to look and feel far more expensive than they are. Most sub-£50 earphones from the big names are made of plastic, and while plenty of smaller brands use metal these days at the price, few offer as much style as the Icons.
Asymmetrical pillars of textured metal make up the ‘stem’ of each earpiece, giving them almost a jewellery-like look. But it’s one that also avoids the bling factor.
The bits that stick in your ear are plastic, but it’s the outer metal that makes the initial, strong impression. It’s one that tells you “cor, these probably cost a bit.” The cable is braided too, common among cheaper earphones trying to make a good impression.
I also quite like how hefty a handhold the stems offer to help take the Icons in and out of your ears. They’re a little heavier than some, but the only fit and comfort issues I had were with the tips.
You get three sets in the box, in the usual small-medium-large sizes, and the large ones are smaller than the average. I found using a larger set from another pair gave better results. The OnePlus ones simply weren't quite big enough for me. However, I should note I have gigantic ear holes. 95% of you should have no issues.
These are also probably the best-packaged Chinese earphones I’ve ever opened. Like the OnePlus phones, you get a nice presentation box, and a neat little faux leather pouch with a magnetised clasp.
For earphones intended to be paired with a OnePlus 2 phone, it’s no surprise they have a handsfree housing too. It’s a fairly standard plastic junction box with a set of three buttons that will work with Android phones. There’s ultimately nothing limiting these to OnePlus phone owners.
Despite a tech-heavy approach on the phone side, the Icons are ‘normal’ earphones. They don’t offer wireless or active noise cancelling, and their isolation is limited. This is likely because they have ports on the back of each earpiece. These are used to improve bass performance. As you can see in the pics, there are little black grilles that put a bit of open air between the drivers and the outside world.
The use of these grilles is no surprise given the drivers used. The OnePlus Icons use 11mm drivers, the largest you’ll see commonly among in-ear headphones. They are dynamic drivers. That’s the ‘normal’ kind.
There’s a lot to like about the OnePlus Icons sound. You get a wide stereo field, good bass and sub-bass response and a good impression of clarity. The mids are up-front and energetic, giving sound a lively, rather than laid-back feel.
In most respects, the Icons offer a good emulation of a higher-end earphone. Perhaps the best part is the stereo width. While the bass response is only reasonably well-managed, the 11mm drivers are used to pretty good effect, offering good low-bass power without overpowering the rest of the sound.
There’s also a good sense of detail, both in the mid-range and treble.
There’s a serious issue, though. The OnePlus Icons push the upper-mids and lower treble in order to increase the sense of detail way beyond what the drivers seem to be capable of.
This only becomes obvious with certain content, but when it does, it can ruin the sound. The result is sibilance, significant harshness with higher-register male voices in particular and a pretty poor representation of higher-register guitar lines.
As our reviews editor Alastair notes, the OnePlus Icons ruin a lot of punk guitar tracks, which lean on precisely these frequencies. From another perspective, they make a lot of higher-register male voices like Curtis Mayfield’s sound borderline caustic.
Why? It seems as though OnePlus has tried to maximise the detail reproduction of a fairly low-end driver through tuning, and it just doesn’t work as well as hoped. The upper-mids and lower-end treble end up sounding a little synthetic, forced and hard on the ears.
To put it into a visual context, the OnePlus Icons can sound a little like how an oversharpened picture looks. From a distance it looks punchy and detailed, but a closer listen reveals some of the extra detail is a little ugly and unnatural-sounding.
It’s a shame, because with certain music the OnePlus Icons sound excellent. It’s not great wonder they managed to get such a great response from the ‘blind listening’ test group. However, it seems OnePlus must have chosen its test tracks carefully. Can you blame them?
The OnePlus Icons’s tuning is as ambitious as the specs of its phones. With certain music it’s a great success.
However, play upper-mid heavy music and it becomes clear how the OnePlus Icons are really asking a lot of fairly basic 11mm drivers. I think a lot of you will be much happier with easier-going earphones like the Sennheiser CX5.00, SoundMagic E50 or the Fidue X53 (review incoming). These earphones are a bit less ambitious in terms of mid-range detail, but ultimately offer something I'm much happier to listen to, especially for longer sessions.
Of the three, I’l recommend the SoundMagic E50 if you’re after a more balanced sound. The Sennheisers are the best pick if you’re into a rich, ‘big’ style.
Classy design and some great sound properties are let down by harsh, unnatural-sounding upper-mids.