If you need more confirmation that things are getting better and better at the budget end of the earphone market, here it is. Back in September 2008 we looked at Sleek’s debut IEM, the clever, customisable SA6. Audiophile-grade, single driver earphones, their modular design enabled them to be taken apart and refitted with a selection of treble tips and bass ports, giving you the opportunity to tinker and tweak until you achieved the perfect sound for each ear. Our own Edward Chester had his reservations about the overall audio quality and price point, but liked the sound, and the Sleeks have since won a sizeable following with headphone enthusiasts around the world. What’s more, when partnered with Sleek’s W1 wireless adaptor, the SA6 is arguably the best wireless headphone product we’ve seen yet.
Now, however, Sleek has thrown us a bit of a curve-ball. The SA1 is the company’s new entry-level model, designed to bring some of the SA6’s audio quality and customisability to a wider audience. Furthermore, the SA1 is compatible with the W1 adaptor, making Sleek’s wireless setup that bit more affordable. The surprise? The price point. These look and feel like reasonably expensive earphones, but Sleek has brought them in at an aggressive £70, putting the SA1s in the same sort of space as Klipsch’s Image S4s, Etymotic’s HF5s and Shure’s SE115s (and even undercutting them by a vital tenner).
Let’s make it clear: these do not look or feel like budget headphones. There are give-aways – the cable feels a bit thin and plasticky and the surprised tough zip case isn’t particularly luxurious – but the SA1s share more than you might think with their more expensive siblings. As highlighted earlier, one thing we liked about the SA6s was their modular design. Rather than being hard-wired, the cable plugged into the earpieces, meaning a disastrous yank didn’t necessarily mean a breakage, and that if something did damage the cable, you could always replace it. The SA1s have exactly the same thing, meaning you can replace or change the cables should you need to (and Sleek are promising alternative cable colours later on this year).
What’s more, the earpieces themselves are manufactured, not from plastic, but from a combination of brushed metal and Rosewood, giving them a solid feel and a classy, retro vibe. I’m not usually one to wax lyrical about IEMs – while full-sized cans can be a thing of beauty, I just want an IEM to sit unobtrusively in my ear. However, I have to admit that I really like the style of these ones.