- Review Price: £69.99
One of the big advantages of being an iPod owner over the years has been sheer volume of accessories you can get to go with them. From jackets with iPod speakers built into the hood and remote controls in the sleeve to esoteric, high-end valve amplifiers, there’s a little something for everyone.
One thing every iPod owner ought to do, however, before investing in any of these wacky extras, is a decent pair of headphones – the white plastic pair bundled with every iPod are nothing short of appalling. The trouble is, it’s often difficult to know where to start. There are hundreds of products on the market, and all of them touting audiophile sound quality, incredible bass, crystal-clear sound and various forms of noise cancelling or isolation.
The best rule of thumb I’ve discovered is that, invariably, the best earphones are made by companies with a track record in the professional audio industry. We’re big fans of Shure headphones, Etymotic Research and Ultimate Ears here at TrustedReviews, who all have a history in making noise isolating headphones for stage performers who want to be able to hear what they’re doing on stage without going deaf.
So I was a more than a little sceptical when I was handed the Cerulean X1’s to review. The company that makes them – iSkin – has a creditable background, but it’s in producing stylish iPod cases and ‘skins’, not the audio products themselves. It’s undoubtedly very good at what it does, but could it translate this decorative expertise to the hard, cold, intensely competitive world of portable audio?
On the outside, the X1s are every bit the iPod accessory. They’re available in white (as well as black for those who just can’t bear to follow the crowd), and new iPhone owners will be pleased to find that they come supplied with an adaptor for that device’s recessed headphone socket. They’re also beautifully engineered, just like the digital music players they’re designed to complement. Every other pair of earphones I’ve picked up – even the expensive ones – feels plasticky and lightweight next to these. Hold them in the palm of your hand and they feel heavy, like pieces of expensive jewellery.
They look pretty too: each smoothly-sculpted earpiece has its ear chamber adorned with a small, darkly silver dome surrounded with a cord-like decoration, and the channel you push into your ear is made from similarly glimmering metal. It seems almost a shame to clip the silicon inserts on the end of these.
With the tips in place, the X1s lock out a decent amount of sound – as long as your ear shape permits you to get a decent seal. Travelling on the tube, I found them comparable to my trusty old Shure E2Cs in this respect, and yet they’re more comfortable to wear. They’re not quite as luxurious in the ear as the foam tips you get with Shure’s more recent ear canal phones, but the three pairs of translucent silicone inserts supplied are very soft and very comfortable. Despite the weight of the X1s I found it straightforward to get a good, comfortable fit plus, because the phones don’t go a long way into your ear canal as phones from the likes of Shure, Etymotic and Ultimate Ears do, they’re also a lot easier to get used to wearing.
So they’re ultra-stylish and pretty comfortable to wear. But it’s sound quality we should be most interested in with headphones. That’s what you ought to be paying your money for, and clearly iSkin is pretty confident here: the X1s will set you back £69.99, and though this isn’t the most money in the world you can pay for headphones – Riyad reviewed a pair of Shure’s E500PTH headphones that cost a whopping £420 last year – they are firmly in mid-range headphone territory alongside Koss’s good value KEB79s and Shure’s SE110 and SE210s.
Loading up a few tracks from the little-known, but superb Return to Cookie Mountain by TV On The Radio, and you can really explore the X1’s strengths. The bass beat on I Was A lover and the drums on Method have punch and weight to them that stop you in your tracks. I turned up the volume up a little, and then a little more to see how loud they’d go and never got close to reaching the upper limits of these headphones. At really loud levels, these phones make it sound a bit like you’re standing next to one of those massive PA cabs in a live gig; they have a similar kind of visceral, brutal wallop to them, but a wallop that seems to have a measure of control.
Next I turned to Nitin Sawhney’s Broken Skin, an album whose tracks are littered with very low, difficult to reproduce bass notes, and I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer power that the X1’s have on offer is astonishing for the money with deep bass that grips and drives the music on with unnerving force.
But the X1’s strength is, ultimately, also it’s biggest weakness. Although the thumping bass isn’t quite as head-throbbingly over the top as V-Moda’s Bass Freqs – headphones I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago – it’s still not exactly realistic. There’s control (as I pointed out above) and but not much balance, and this doesn’t help the X1s on quieter, more acoustic pop, where bass tends to dominate and drown out other elements of the music. This really shows on more traditional pop, rather than electronic music.
Shawn Colvin’s unassuming yet accomplished country-style soft pop sounds bottom-heavy, Georgie Fame’s big band sound isn’t quite as sharp and clean-sounding as it is with other headphones – even my relatively old Shure E2Cs – and listening to acoustic stuff on the X1s you miss out on all those live atmospherics.
I turned to Wynton Marsalis’ Popular songs to see if the X1s could reproduce the piercing trumpet and jazz band sound any better, but I was disappointed. If anything, the X1’s sound just a little too warm and laid back in the mids and the highs, where to counter the stonkingly good bass they need much more attack and edge.
Overall, the X1’s are pleasing to listen to. They will most certainly make a beautiful complement to your expensive new iPod Touch or iPhone, especially in their smart black livery. And they’re pretty comfortable to wear too, though your mileage may vary here.
But their sound quality isn’t quite balanced or good enough in the mid-range and top end to cut the audiophile mustard, despite the claims put forward by their marketing department. If your music collection consists of a wide range of styles Shure’s SE210’s at a similar price are still the better choice.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7
Unlike other sites, we thoroughly test every product we review. We use industry standard tests in order to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever accept money to review a product. Tell us what you think - send your emails to the Editor.