There seems to be an almost universal assumption by iPod owners that the earphones bundled with their MP3 player of choice must be the best ones to use with the device. If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen someone waltzing down a road, on a bus or tube with a pair of white buds sitting in their ears, I would be a rich fellow indeed. It’s a sad state of affairs, because as any of the team here can, and repeatedly do, tell you: Apple’s bundled earphones are rubbish.
The same is true of the iPhone. Okay, so the in-line remote is a great addition allowing you not only to answer (and hang up on) callers, but also serving as a control for your music, but the part that really matters for an MP3 player, the sound quality, is as poor as ever.
Basically then, you’re left with two solutions. One: you purchase, or already own, a decent set of earphones and a Shure Mobile Phone Adapter. Two: you purchase a third-party replacement for the bundled Apple earphone-adapter combo. The Maximo iMetal Isolation Headset for iPhone is one such offering in the latter category and co-incidentally happen to be nestled into my ear canal just this minute.
Realistically a pair of headphones costing around £35-odd will never compete in terms of sound quality with a decent dedicated set, such as the Shure SE420s that I normally use or the E500PTHs that are Riyad’s weapon of choice. However, consider for a moment that Shure’s MPA costs about £40 by itself and you’ll start to view the iMetal Isolation Headset in a much better light.
For that money you’re looking at something closer in quality to the Sennheiser CX400 canalphones, although of course there you’ll be omitting the microphone and in-line remote. Speaking of which, the placement of these two items on the iMetals is far better, to my mind, than Apple’s own headset.
The earbuds themselves are of a surprisingly good build quality for the money too, with a solid-feeling metal construction. Maybe it’s just me, but nothing says “quality product” like the colder than cold feel of aluminium. The iMetal Isolations have a decent fit in the ear with the pre-fitted silicon buds, with a larger and smaller pair also bundled. Even compared to a pair of Shure foam tips the noise isolation was impressive.
Also in the box are a carrying case and a two foot long extension cable. The addition of the latter is slightly odd as the headset’s cable is long enough anyway, although as it fits into the iPhone’s recessed socket without modification it does make a nice replacement for my rather butchered Shure equivalent.
The headset’s microphone is a tiny blob about half way down the left earbud’s cable, which leaves it hanging at pretty much mouth level if you have a normal sized head. Apple chose to place the multi-function button in this position as well (albeit on the opposite side of the head) whereas Maximo has placed it at the fork of the cabling, which is a far more intuitive placement. As previously mentioned this functions exactly the way one would expect, allowing calls to be answered and music to be controlled.
On the undeniably important subject of how the iMetal Isolation Headset actually fairs in terms of its performance, there is a mixed report to deliver. Taking a quick walk into the car park (iPhone reception is pretty poor inside the TR office) and making a few phone calls there were no complaints about sound quality on either end. Even walking around Piccadilly Circus there was no problem either for myself hearing what the person on the other end of the call was saying or vice versa. Despite its diminutive size, the microphone doesn’t seem too prone to picking up unwanted background noise.
Moving onto some music and firing the Lostprophets track, Rooftops, from the album Liberation Transmission, did a good job of highlighting the difference between a decent pair of dual-driver earphones and a budget set such as these.. Vocals suffered particularly badly, and no amount of playing with equaliser settings could improve the situation.
Firing up Muse’s Space Dementia led to a similar conclusion, the power and clarity usually delivered by the beautiful piano arrangement being lost and Matt Bellamy’s voice sounding very muted. The far more acoustic Machines by Biffy Clyro proved a more pleasant experience, by dint of being a less complicated track – not to imply that’s a necessarily bad thing. There is also a fair amount of distortion at what I usually consider a decent listening volume, which just amplifies these problems.
Of course compared to the standard Apple earphones the experience was better, and a casual listener, who probably uses 128-bit MP3 encodes, probably wouldn’t notice the lack of clarity. On the flip side of that, the improvement isn’t that much better that you’d want to actually put your hand in your pocket.
The iMetal Isolation Headset has a further problem in that Maximo is a US-based company and has no re-distributer in the UK. That means that should you wish to get your hands on one you’ll need to import it. On the plus side, retailers on the other side of the pond seem to be cutting the $70 (£35) MSRP to nearer $55 (£28).
All considered it’s a good idea, but a disappointing implementation. If you aren’t willing to stick to the bundled headset then swallow the £70-odd it will take and buy a Shure MPA and a pair of SE110s – that really is as budget an upgrade as we would ever recommend.
Unfortunately the hassle and cost of importing from America means that even if we were going to recommend the iMetal Isolation Headset in terms of sound quality and practicality, we wouldn’t suggest anyone in the UK actually go to the effort of buying one. More fundamentally there isn’t really enough of an improvement over the bundled Apple earphones to spur a purchase anyway. Close, Maximo, but no cigar.
Score in detail
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