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Monthly Archives: March 1988

The Klipsch X4i Review

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Bass-boosted earphones are so much the norm at this point that to release a pair with merely moderate bass response almost seems like a gamble. So, credit is due to Klipsch—the X4i, at $149.99 (direct) represents the mix with clarity and brightness, and not gobs of booming bass. It can still reproduce sub-bass lows that you’ll find on electronic and hip hop tracks, but it does so without allowing them to overtake the mids and highs of the mix. The non-flashy, all-business Klipsch X4i makes a strong case for the attention of those seeking a near-flat response earphone pair. An inline remote control and microphone for mobile devices, as well as a healthy portion of included accessories, adds to the X4i’s value.

Design
You could call it a victory of substance over style—visually, the X4i is fairly barebones and nondescript, but in no way unattractive. A black linguini-esque cable and the bronze Klipsch logo emblazoned on the outer earpieces are the only real design elements to speak of. The miniature metallic rimmed earpieces don’t tug down on the ears with much weight at all, which makes the fit secure and comfortable over long listening periods.

An inline three-button remote control and microphone for iOS devices allows for answering calls, playback and track navigation control, as well as volume adjustments. Klipsch X4i inline

A total of five eartip pairs ship with the X4i, in a variety of sizes and shapes—most are standard rounded clear silicone eartips, but there also flange-shaped options. The X4i also ships with a tiny black zip-up protective pouch and a shirt clip.

Performance
On tracks with serious sub-bass content, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the X4i delivers the deep bass without distortion, even at top, unsafe listening levels. However, any bass fiends seeking super-boosted low-end will likely be disappointed with the X4i, which can handle subwoofer style bass, but delivers it in a subtle, dialed-back manner. There’s plenty of low-end here compared to a clinical-sounding, strictly flat-response pair, but the X4i’s sound signature favors the mids and highs, and an overall crispness, over booming lows.

This means on a track like Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” the vocals, guitar strumming, and percussion attacks are front and center, with a brightness and clarity that is striking. Equally noteworthy is the lack of over-the-top bass boosting—the drumming on this track can often receive a ridiculous amount of low-end from an overly bass-boosted pair, sounding unnatural and overtaking the balance of the mix. Through the X4i, however, the drums hardly sound as if they’ve received any low-end boosting at all—bass fans might even find them a tad thin, but this is not a track with a serious level of deep bass to begin with.

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” on the other hand, has both intense sub-bass presence and an all-important percussive high-mid presence. The attack of the kick drum bass loop gets all of the treble edge it needs (and is often denied on bass-heavy earphones) to slice through the mix and stand in the forefront of the mix, along with the vocals. However, the sub-bass synth hits sound a bit weak here—we can hear their treble attack, as well, but we don’t get any of the thunderous sustain like you would on a PA system or an earphone or headphone [www.technologytimeline.net] pair with heavy sub-bass response. The end result is that while the track sounds crisp and clear, it’s not exactly like you’re at the club.

Classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” can sound a tad edgy and bright, and lacking in the lows. We get a great sense of the higher register strings and percussion, and the growl of brass instruments, but there’s not much in the way of bass presence here. The lower register strings don’t sound dead or devoid of low-end altogether, but they definitely take a backseat in the mix.

Basically, this is a pair for those who prefer near-flat-response sound signatures that favor mids and highs, crispness and clarity, without foregoing bass completely. The X4i has a certain level of richness in the lows, but by today’s standards, it is subtle. A breath of fresh air for me, but if you prefer mega-bass, you’ll want to steer your attention to the SOL Republic Amps HD In-Ear Headphones or the substantially more expensive Denon Urban Raver AH-C300 In-Ear Headphones, both solid in-ear options with more low-end power, if less overall balance in the mix. And if all of these are out of the your price range, consider the slightly less expensive Moshi Keramo, which offers a similar sound signature to the X4i, as does the TDK EB950 which sells online for a serious markdown from its list price. At $150, the Klipsch X4i delivers quality audio performance in a simple design, equipped with an inline remote and a fair amount of accessories. Bass lovers need not apply, but lovers of crisp or flat audio are encouraged to check the distortion-free, comfortable X4i out.

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Audiofly AF160

Audiofly AF160
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Design
The bulky maroon/brown-and-black earpieces let you know immediately that the AF160 means business. Its easily detachable, black-and-gray braided cable descends from each earpiece, then joins into a single cord with a cloth casing. Semi-rigid wiring near the earpieces offers a moldable, extremely secure, over-the-ear fit. There’s no in-line remote control or microphone—your next clue that the AF160 is not for the casual listener.

Armed with a handsome brown leather hard case, the AF160 feels like a luxury item. It comes with six pairs of eartips: three of the standard silicone round variety, and three flange-shaped pairs. Also included: An earwax-cleaning tool, a 1/4-inch headphone jack adapter, and an airplane jack adapter. No one can accuse Audiofly of skimping on accessories or design details.

Performance
Calling the AF160 light on bass response would be doing the earphones a bit of a disservice. In an era of overly bass-boosted earphones and headphones that shift the balance way too far toward the lows, the AF160’s sound signature is a breath of fresh air. On tracks with tremendous low frequency content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the AF160 delivers the closest thing to a clinical, flat response sound I have heard in earphones in quite some time. However, at top (and unsafe) listening levels, it also distorts quite a bit on this track. That should never happen in this price range. At more moderate levels, the AF160 sounds defiantly light on low frequencies, with a focus on the high-mids and highs.

Audiofly AF160 inlineI was curious to see if the AF160 was capable of producing big bass sound when forced to, so I connected the earphones to my Marantz stereo receiver and pumped the bass level to maximum. Interestingly, at moderate-to-loud volumes, the AF160 suddenly delivered some beautifully rich, vibrant bass. It’s a bit odd that it needed the Marantz receiver’s bass levels to be maxed out in order to deliver any real semblance of low-end, but the point is that the AF160 is capable of bringing out the lows in a mix you if use an equalizer, either on your mobile device, or on your stereo at home. It just doesn’t do very much of this on its own.

Back to regular listening on my iPhone 5s, Bill Callahan’s “Drover” sounds crisp and beautiful on the AF160. Yes, it’s again light on the low frequencies, but its focus on the treble edge of his baritone vocals and the guitar strumming deliver this mix cleanly and powerfully. This approach can’t work too well for all genres, however.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild”, the kick drum loop gets a nice boost to its attack, so that the hits slice through the mix. It sounds sharp and clean, but the loop lacks much in the way of bass presence, and the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat have very little low frequency power. For electronic tracks like The Knife’s and modern pop and hip hop mixes like this one, the AF160’s approach to bass seems a bit too gentle and hands-off. These types of tracks can end up sounding weak.

Classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” manage to sound a bit fuller than I would have guessed based on the sounds of the previous tracks. The higher register strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion take center stage here, with focused sound that is never too bright. The lower register strings, however, somehow seem to have a little extra life at times. It’s nothing like what some bass boost might bring out in them, but it is more presence than the sub-bass frequencies have on the aforementioned tracks. Basically, this is the epitome of a flat-response style sound signature—a sound that is less popular now than ever, as the ubiquity of mega-bass changes the balance of mixes, and perhaps even the way some engineers approach mixing.

If your budget is sky-high and you want an even more pro-level-style in-ear pair, the Shure SE846$999.00 at Amazon and Sennheiser IE 800$999.99 at Crutchfield both sound amazing. You can also find the clinical sound minus the AF160’s pricing in earphone pairs like the Etymotic ER-4PT$264.99 at Amazon, the go-to flat response in-ear pair for years now, and the Westone W10$199.99 at Amazon with its slightly more low-end-focused balance. I was turned off by the AF160’s distortion considering its price, but at normal levels it’s not an issue. I tend to like a bit more bass response than what the AF160 offers, so I’d probably augment the low-end a bit with a subtle EQ, Plenty of listeners who a flat, mids-and-highs-focused won’t be disappointed, though. From the secure fit to the classy design and accessories, the Audiofly AF160 is every bit a high-end, audiophile-grade earphone pair—if you can get past the distortion at top volumes.