Sugg. Retail: $149.95 US
(An AIG Online Exclusive)
Eighteen or twenty four months ago a comment to the effect that the Ipod accessory market was significantly larger than the market for the Ipod itself might elicit a laugh. Even a casual survey of the internet these days (just google “Ipod case” to see what I’m talking about) will demonstrate just how massive a product wave Apple has touched off, and just how much larger the accessory market is now. Cases, docks, skins, sleeves, cables, batteries, powered speakers, straps, chargers, car kits, FM tuners, FM transmitters, and on and on it goes. Oh, and then there’s something that might actually make an Ipod sound far better than many might ever think it could: decent headphones.
If you’re one of the optimistic souls who think of the Ipod as something of an audiophile Trojan horse, as the kind of product which could demonstrate to many in the mass market what good sound is and encourage them to be more discriminating about what they listen to, the little white headphones that come with the things are probably a source of great frustration. Even by the standards of traditional earbuds, they pretty much suck, leaving most of the Ipod’s sonic potential unrealized.
For those willing to spend a little money, however, this situation can be remedied with an array of headphones which grows more dizzyingly vast every day. The Ipod is the best thing to happen to the headphone market in a very long time and makers of cans large and small have jumped the bandwagon with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for raccoons in the proximity of garbage.
Perhaps the fastest growing style of headphone to be mated to the Ipod, the in-ear monitor, is a style which seems to have risen to popularity right along with the little white music player itself. Similar to the traditional earbud, these phones are designed to fit snugly inside the ear canal, rather than perched outside in the outer ear. The principle advantage is attenuation of outside noise, the earphone acting just like an earplug.
As is the case with several other brands of in-ear monitors, the technology in the FS1 comes originally from headphones designed to let concert musicians onstage both hear themselves clearly and protect their ears from high SPLs. While marketed and sold to the Ipod crowd by Xtreme Mac, the FS in FS1 stands for Future Sonics, a company which has been making in-ear monitors for musicians for over twenty years and claims to be the originators of the concept. The company’s professional Ear Monitors� start at around US $800 and can even be blinged out with platinum, gold and diamonds (depending, they quip on their website, on how many records you’ve sold).
If bling’s your thing I suppose the FS1 probably won’t cut it, being stylish but quite small, simple and austere looking. They are, however, available in black or white and employ what Xtreme Mac calls “proprietary drivers and technologies recently developed by Future Sonics.” The driver in question is described as a 10mm “Future Sonics MG5 Proprietary Miniature Dynamic” transducer with a sensitivity of 112 dB. They also come with a wide assortment of both foam and silicon sleeves, which, if you’ve used headphones like these before, you’ll know can be a godsend when it comes to getting them to fit well.
It’s all in the Seal
As I learned with the Shure E5C, fit is everything with this type of headphone. If the little buggers aren’t firmly sealed in your ear canal frequency response goes out the window, and bass becomes largely impossible. In-ear monitors are designed to energize a tiny amount of air right in your ear canal, which makes this type of design capable of excellent bottom end reach and control. Without the seal, however, their balance becomes profoundly thin and anemic.
The FS1s get off to a very good start by coming equipped with some very good sleeves, the package containing one pair of flanged sleeves, two sizes of foam and three “bullet” style sleeves. The wider variety of sleeves, the better the chance you’ll get a good seal and a comfortable fit. I tried the silicone bullets first, having had good success with similar ones on the Shures. Once I settled on the appropriate size these worked well enough, but made my ears sore after 15 minutes or so. Switching to the foam style of plug made things far more comfortable, and, once the foam had fully expanded (just like a normal earplug) made for a tight seal.
And the sound? Pretty darn good. My first impressions were of a very neutral and natural sounding headphone which performed particularly well on piano recordings, with compelling attack and convincing tonal colour. Resolution was excellent and I could certainly hear the difference between 128 Kb MP3 files and those ripped at 256 with the LAME encoder (my default ripping scheme). With AIFs or WAVs the sound was that much better again.
I’ve been listening to a lot of dub reggae of late, and the FS1s brought home the big bass in my Linton Kwesi Johnson and King Tubby tracks with aplomb and authority. They couldn’t quite match the weight and control of the Shure E5Cs on this count, but they clearly demonstrate the advantages in the bottom end department with this type of headphone. Compared to a normal earbud headphone, the bottom end performance is orders of magnitude better. In fact, the whole sonic package was a damn sight better than that offered by the (admittedly much cheaper, but very good for an earbud) Sennheiser MX 500 earbuds I bought to replace the little white monsters that came with my Ipod Mini.
Female vocals were very naturally conveyed and there was even a convincing rendering of ambient space. Those looking for an airy presentation, however, had best look elsewhere, ideally to an open backed headphone like the fabulous Sennheiser HD-650s I’ve been enjoying of late. With a transducer sealed in your ear canal millimeters from your eardrum, the sound is very much in your head, rather than outside it. With the attendant outside noise reduction the effect can be a little eerie, since you can hear almost nothing else. This is great on public transportation of all kinds, or even just walking down the street, but the sound is decidedly drier and more spatially compressed than what you’ll hear through good, open-backed cans like the 650s, much less what you’d hear through loudspeakers.
My sonic complaints were relatively mild and minor, and partly, like the lack of airiness, endemic to this type of headphone. With the driver so close to your eardrum there’s really nowhere for harsh sounding or badly produced music to hide and I sometimes found the loud stuff a little too aggressive and a little hot on top. When the going got busy and loud I also found that the FS1s suffered from some dynamic compression, the sound flattening and hardening a little. Such a tiny little driver can only do so much, after all, and a good reason why the much more expensive Shures use two drivers rather than one.
While not cheap relative to the cost of the Ipod itself, the FS1s are capable of transforming the sound of everyone’s favourite music player from mass-market mediocrity to something much more compelling and involving, and as such, I think they represent good value for the money. Although I wasn’t able to compare them directly, I think they’re certainly in the same league as the similarly priced Etymotic ER-6s, which I listened to briefly when reviewing the Shure E5Cs. The Shures are a smoother sounding headphone with outrageously good bass and better dynamics, but they also cost more than twice as much at US $500. For listening at home I’d still chose a pair of full size, open back headphones like my big Sennheisers, but the long term comfort and impressive sound of the FS1s might make them your best friend for a dailiy commute or on your next long-haul flight.